Category Archives: Teaching

Taking the leap

It’s funny how easy it is to fall into a routine, even when doing interesting things. You do something adventurous, enjoy it and then want to do something adventurous again. What you did before worked, so you do something similar. That works again, so you do the same sort of thing the next time. You’re having an adventurous, exciting time of things …but you’re still getting into a bit of a rut.

That’s what I’ve done with my career in international teaching. I got a job teaching at an international school in Kenya. It was an exciting time, a wonderful experience. It was full of adventures and new opportunities, and I wanted to do more. So I went and got another job, this time in Indonesia. That was another terrific experience, so my wife and I got jobs in Zambia. Then the USA, which was a different type of adventure. Then Tanzania. Then Ethiopia.

Recently, we’d decided that it was time to move on from Ethiopia. We were enjoying the school and the country, made good friends and had good opportunities for our daughter, but we wanted more. We wanted a change. In some ways, Ethiopia had become routine and we wanted another adventure.

cliff-2213614_640But something different happened. This time, the routine didn’t work.

We weren’t ready to just take a job anywhere. We had something specific in mind. We wanted to live in Portugal. And there were no jobs available for us at the time. And the school we wanted to enroll our daughter in was full.

Suddenly, we were jolted out of our routine. What we’d planned for didn’t work out. It wasn’t going to be like our previous adventures. We were dismayed and upset. We were sad for our daughter and worried for ourselves. What could we do?

We decided to take the leap.

base-jump-1600668_640We are going anyway. We are moving to the place we want to live in, without jobs for the moment. We’re going to take our daughter, and find an alternative to the school we wanted. We’re going to make it work.

It’s funny what happens when you take a leap like that.

All of a sudden, we started thinking of fresh ideas and new ways of planning. We didn’t have new opportunities presented to us, but we started thinking up new opportunities that we could make happen for ourselves.

No teaching jobs? We could start a business. Or do part-time tutoring instead of teaching. Maybe teach online. We’ll have time to do all sorts of things – even do creative things like photography or painting or…

Rather than settle for a school routine for our child, we could homeschool her. Instead of being tied to a school calendar, we could plan trips to see family whenever we like (or whenever there are discount airfares). Our daughter can do as much sport as she likes, and travel for tournaments around the country and around the continent.

Once we made the leap out of the routine, suddenly there were a myriad of possibilities for us to explore and our minds were open to completely new ideas.
It’s an exciting time for us – scary and uncertain, to be sure. But the possibilities and potential opportunities are also exhilarating!

Life is like the monkey bars: you have to let go to move forward.
Leah Busque

Sheer Joy

There is no greater reward for a teacher than when a class of students is enthusiastically engaged in learning and expresses delight in what they are doing. When it comes in the last class on Friday, it’s even sweeter!

This is awesome!

It’s so cool!

I want to do this all day long!

These were the comments from my students at the end of the day and week as they reluctantly packed up their laptops and headed out of the door towards home. They had been thoroughly engaged, both mentally and emotionally, and the energy in the room was amazing.

The Computer Programming class at ICS has grown over the years from around 6 students to now 23 students learning the basics of programming. We’ve used various tools and techniques to teach programming, but we’ve settled on using Processing as an introduction to Java and object-oriented programming (and hence a good introduction to the IB Diploma Computer Science course) …but it is also engaging and appealing to a broad range of students.

In Friday’s class, students were building their first program. They had explored Processing and seen what kinds of things could be built. They’d looked at the code – a mess of {s and ;s and weird words like void and println. Now it was time to dig in and get started.

It was a wild ride. I wish I’d had the time or presence of mind to take photos and videos, but I was too busy bouncing between presenting programming basics to the whole class (what on Earth are those { } for??), helping individuals trouble-shoot, high-fiving kids who were eager to show what they’d done, etc. Every single student had a huge smile on their face and were eagerly sharing with their tablemates what they were doing & asking what the others were doing.

It is that kind of experience which teachers live for.

processingI’m lucky that I teach a practical, engaging course like computer programming. Students are creating new things and actively engaged in learning. They get to immediately practice and implement what they are taught and get immediate feedback when it works (or doesn’t). Sure, there’s a fun element to it (and Processing makes programming fun from the start), but the main thing is the success. They write some code, click “run” and immediately the computer does what they tell it. Their code creates an image on the screen as they imagined. Or it doesn’t, and they have to figure out what they need to do to make it work they way they want. Click “run” again – instant feedback.

My favourite times were when students would ask me, “what would happen if I did ______ instead?” I got to smile broadly and say, “Don’t wait for me to tell you. Try it out!” The students were experimenting and trying things out – a real inquiry activity. I had to give them enough information to make sure they got working programs, but they could alter the data and order of commands to make different programs. As I said to them, “The worst thing that will happen is you’ll get an error message and you’ll need to either fix it or change it to something else.”

If only teaching was like this every day. The reality is that this kind of energetic and energizing lesson is a rare treat. Teaching is one of the most demanding, emotionally draining and stressful jobs around. It’s seriously hard work. (And deadly serious work!)

But when a lesson goes like this, a teacher is on top of the world.

Just a teacher

After nearly 3 decades working in schools, with over half of that time as Technology Director or Principal, I’m starting out the new school year with a full-time teaching load and no administrative role. The reactions I’ve had from people are illuminating and have given me much fodder for reflection.

“Why do you want to be just a teacher?” This is the most common reaction I’ve had from people: disbelief that I would want to “step down” from administration and return to the lowly role of teacher. As in all other industries, the further one “rises” into the levels of administration the greater the pay and prestige.

However, if you look at education from the point of view of our most important stakeholders – the students – the teacher has the greatest impact, good or bad. Sure, counselors help them get into the best universities. Principals make the rules and shape their school culture. Superintendents or Heads lead the whole school into new directions and constructions. But for the typical student in any school, it is his/her teachers who make their school experience successful, enjoyable and worthwhile.

“What about your career?” Many are shocked at this “backwards” step away from the traditional career trajectory towards bigger and more prestigious roles. The expectation is that you keep on striving until you reach the pinnacle before you retire.

At this point in my career, I’m less interested in more and bigger ambitions and want much more to spend my time on the most important things. I entered into education to make a difference in the lives of children, and I continue to do so. Instead of shaping policy and directing curriculum, however, I’m now focusing on specific students and their development. It’s less broad an impact, but deeper and more meaningful.

“Are you enjoying the lack of stress?” This reaction amuses me the most! Having worked as both principal and teacher, I know that there is no stress greater than that faced by a teacher who wants his or her students to learn, grow and succeed. Every day, every class I’m struggling with issues such as “Am I reaching all the students?” or “Can I do better?” and “If I don’t succeed, neither will my students!”

I am absolutely delighted to be “just” a teacher this year. My students impress me every day and I feel renewed in my commitment to education. My career arc has bent in different directions than that of most teacher/administrators, but I am proud of the direction it is going. As I’ve told my students, “I’ve been promoted to full-time teacher!”

Happy New (School) Year!

Technology for all

It’s not news that technology is making a big impact on education. Schools are spending lots of money on computers, robots, tablets, 3D printers, etc. Curriculum is being rewritten to embed technology skills within every subject at all grade levels. Students are being required to learn computer programming and being encouraged to become makers.

roboticsBut it’s not enough.

In our world 50% of the population are female. But only 8-20% of engineers are women. Less than half the schools in UK have girls taking A-level physics (and only one in five of the students taking that exam are girls). 19% of students taking AP computer science  are women.

The various technology industries, businesses and communities are predominately male. And schools are not doing enough to fix that. Schools and teachers can’t solve the problem (there’s plenty of indication that it’s societal and influenced by parents), but we need to constantly work at it.

teamworkIn our school, we just hosted a special all-girls technology event. It was a lot of fun and the girls loved it. But we only had 13 girls. It’s a start, but it needs to happen again and again. And we have to bring in the younger ones to combat societal and peer pressure.

I’m in. I owe it to my daughter. I owe it to all the girls.

Full STEAM ahead with Grade 10 students

img_3747“A chance to work on an activity required one to use their hands to build physical objects as opposed to writing or typing.”

There certainly was a buzz of excitement and energy around the SEC on Monday and Tuesday as the entire Grade 10 class worked in small groups on a variety of projects embodying STEAM concepts.

What’s STEAM? There’s been a push in many schools to focus on STEM subjects: that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Those are all important areas of study, particularly for our technology-infused world. But it just doesn’t show off human creativity and ingenuity, so if you add in Art you get STEAM.

Sometimes these areas are addressed by schools as separate subjects, with specific courses. Other times they’re worked into special projects or activities. At ICS, we’ve built in some days off-timetable where the regular class rotation doesn’t happen but students can work on other important projects that don’t quite fit into the class structure. Grade 10 students were given the chance to work on different projects integrating different areas of the STEAM subjects, focusing on group work and hands-on learning, while also following the Engineering Design Process.

img_3660“It was a nice break from the regular schedule, and I enjoyed being able to work on the same thing for more than an hour or so in groups but mostly independently from the teachers. I like how we weren’t doing a project for a grade but just to learn and have fun.”

The students formed themselves into groups of four and then chose a project to work on for the two days. There were six choices, covering topics from Biology to Mathematics to Sculpture to Geography. Each project was designed to be an open-ended challenge, requiring the students to investigate and plan, design and build a prototype and test it out. Some groups quickly came up with a solution while others had to go through a number of different versions until they got one that they thought fit their criteria.

“When we had to think as a group and come up with a solution to purify the water, it made us think and it was fun coming up with different ideas and trying to make them work.”

Integrated STEAM Projects:

img_3576Purification of water was one of the projects. Starting with the problem of polluted water which affects communities around the world, the challenge was issued to the students to develop a method for filtering that water to produce clean water which could be drunk. The students had to research water pollution and filtration and purification methods. They experimented with different filters, including sand and charcoal, and tested out the results. They worked on methods of distillation and condensation, learning about how to remove dissolved impurities. They worked with limited resources, being creative with how to accomplish their tasks with simple materials rather than complex manufactured supplies. In the end, the students spoke about their experiences with different prototypes and how they had to adjust their methods after getting unsatisfactory results. This is exactly how engineers work!

img_3730Another project with a water focus was the construction of a Tippy-Tap hand washing station. The students started with the problem of how poor hygiene can spread disease and how easy access to hand-washing stations can improve hygiene. Students investigated the problem and different designs of the tippy-tap station. They came up with different designs that would work locally (with the plan to install one example on the school campus), and found easily-available materials to work with. Each group built a station and tested out their work themselves and by teachers and other students who needed to wash their hands! Problems arose (muddy ground, difficulty in refilling, etc.) and solutions were worked out. In addition to materials and techniques, students found the group planning, building and testing process an interesting and valuable experience.

img_3755A few projects had Art as a key component, including a study of the cuttlefish’s adaptive abilities and a representation of those abilities in 3D artwork. Students learned about cephalopod adaptation through videos (such as this one about the octopus) and looked at the artwork of artist Ryuta Nakajima who uses the cuttlefish as a motif in his work. Students experimented with materials and designs to try to represent a cuttlefish or octopus in terms of its adaptation to its environment. Students discussed different concepts and ideas on how to easily display the fluid nature of cephalopod adaptation in a static artwork, and worked together to create something that was both representative and creative. Students came up with some pretty ingenious work considering their limited time and restricted access to materials!

img_3790Another project which included a clear Art focus was centered around the work of Alexander Calder, using Mathematics to create a balanced mobile artwork. Students discussed forces and balance, looked at Calder’s mobile and stationary work, tried different materials, and worked on ways to balance objects and represent the mathematical and physical concepts at work in the art. One group even developed a battery-powered magnet to test and demonstrate the effect of a consistent force on their mobile.

img_3741croppedStudents who were interested in Mathematics and Geography, chose a project in which they used the technique of an ancient Greek astronomer from Egypt, Eratosthenes, to measure the circumference of the Earth. Students had to research his technique and adapt it to our locale. They also had to get a measurement from another location other than Addis Ababa. Fortunately, we had a willing collaborator from Ghana, Andy Richardson, who got some of his 8th grade students at Lincoln Community School in Accra to take measurements. Using their measurements along with those we got in Addis, our students were able to make reasonably accurate (considering the tools we had available) measurement of the size of the Earth. In the process, our students learned not only concepts and skills related to math, astronomy, and geography, they also learned about accuracy in measurement and how small rounding errors can lead to big differences in real-life calculations.

img_3608Finally, for those students who wanted a more straightforward engineering task, they had a project to build a “robot” basketball player. With our limited time, they had to forego using our programmable mechanical robotics sets – but they were all invited to join in our robotics After-School Activity! Instead, they had limited mechanical equipment with which to build a machine to deliver a ball into a basket. They explored forces, levers, materials and tested out different designs, working towards a machine that was accurate and precise.


All in all, it was a busy and exciting few days. Students enjoyed the change of pace from regular classes and found the projects worthwhile application of academic skills and knowledge to real-life problems.

“I really loved the project and I wish we had a full week of STEAM.”

Cross-posted from my school blog.

Do as I do

Better late than never.

I’d required my students to write a plan for the semester and keep a reflective journal on what they’re learning. It’s an experiment, this class: a chance for the students to get credit for self-directed learning. So they’re each learning something different, something they’re interested in. One is learning business models, another programming in C++, another Art and Law… To keep track of it all and make sure they are keeping track of their own work, they have to keep a learning log and plan out what they want to learn and how they are going to learn it.

And then it struck me: I’m doing my own self-directed learning. Apart from my personal learning (a new language, investment strategies, etc), I’m also having to learn a new curriculum and teaching & assessment techniques for the IB Diploma Computer Science course I’ll be teaching next year. I’m presently taking an online course and have signed up for a face-to-face workshop, and I’m reading curriculum materials and brushing up on my Java programming. I am doing all the things that my students are doing.

So why am I not doing the tasks I set my students?

It seems to me that it’s only fair that a teacher not ask his/her students to do more than he/she is willing to do. If I am asking students to plan their learning, keep a journal, and show off their learning experience to me and each other, then I should do the same.

So I did. I’m doing the same tasks I set my students. I’m recording my work and reflecting on my learning and following a plan I’ve laid out for the semester. I explained my thinking and my work to my students and am showing them what I’m up to.

I’m not sure how important it is to them that I’m doing this, but it certainly has become so to me. It’s a good experience for me as a learner …and as a teacher. I understand better what my students are going through – not only the learning experience but also the tasks that I require them to do.

It only seems fair.

Interesting: I realize that I wrote a piece with the same name about teachers & administrators over a year ago.

Anuther kase four programing

Can you see the error in this code?
Can you spot the error in this code?

As I go from student to student, helping them debug their program, it strikes me that there’s a very simple reason why teaching programming is a help for all students. So many of them have simple typographic errors: three n’s in “running,” leaving out the n in “column,” etc. I give them some hints (often simply saying “spelling error!” suffices) and they stare at the screen intensely until, with a smile, they find the mistake. That’s when I tell them: they’re going to be so good at proofreading their work in all their classes!

There’s probably a good research question there: do students who learn to successfully program apply their proofreading and error checking skills in English and other classes? It’s something I’m going to track with my current students …meanwhile, I’ll just continue to help them develop careful spell-checking and proofreading skills.

Hands or Brains?

This House believes that Africa needs more vocational training than academic education.

It was a lively debate and an exciting end to the eLearning Africa 2015 conference in Addis Ababa. A panel of African and international dignitaries – most of them holding PhD’s – debated back and forth over whether or not the greatest need for the African continent was for formal academic education or for practical vocational training. The audience – teachers, government representatives, professors – followed the argument actively, with laughter, applause and a very lively Twitter stream.

As I listened and participated, I reflected on my own education and that of my daughter. What was most valuable for me? What will do her the most good? Sure, there are specific needs here in Africa, but in general what is the best aim of education? Perhaps this debate should be about what the world needs, not just Africa.

It’s not an either/or situation: nobody was seriously advocating that we should only have one or the other. The question at hand was which one would contribute the greatest value to African societies.

I’m an academic. I’ve got a couple of degrees (no PhD for me yet) & I’ve spent my whole career teaching and leading schools. Books are my friends and favorite purchases. Thinking comes more naturally to me than acting or doing.

And yet, my beliefs about this issue have changed over the years. I’ve come to realize that there is great value in practical, non-academic work and study. I definitely believe that what will benefit Africa & Africans (and people around the world) the most is vocational training and not pure academics. (While still believing we need both and that academics is more valuable and important for some people!)

boy-667804_640This ties in to the current educational trend of making and tinkering. Papert’s constructionist take on education resonates today with many teachers and many schools. Students learn through inquiry and practical tasks – designing, building, adjusting, adapting. There’s a whole new edge with modern tech: 3D printers, programmable fabrics, conductive threads and tapes, robotics, hackable Arduino boards, etc. But it’s still a valuable experience for kids to work with Legos, wooden blocks, etc. Children learn by doing. And practical, hands-on doing is often more valuable than reading or watching.

I’ve also learned that there is far more value in practical work than society often gives it credit for. My own experiences in fixing broken appliances, building things for my home, and repairing ailing computers have shown me that there is great value and joy in such practical tasks. When I finish a project, I have such satisfaction – it is greatly rewarding personally, and if I have done the task for someone else I feel like I have contributed to someone else’s life. Building computer programs have given me similar rewarding experiences, with more mental than physical work.

There is also great mental work in such tasks. Matthew Crawford earned a PhD but runs a motorcycle repair shop. In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, he states that “there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.” He argues that there is great value in manual craft work, and that such work (excluding factory assembly-line work) requires much analysis, thinking and serious decision making. I concur and know that when I’ve worked with tools on a project I have to seriously concentrate and think about what I’m doing.

When I think about my daughter’s educational future, I fear the long academic slog. I shudder at the thought of the heavy load of work the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program inflicts on teenagers …and don’t get me started at the ridiculously onerous and painful process of final exams! She might be suited for such a process (I was), but I have my doubts. And to what end? If she goes through that, succeeds, and proceeds to university, etc. what will be her lot in life and reward? Working in an office? Becoming a teacher? (It is a great job!) Lecturing at university?

construction-659898_640The alternative might be that she learns a trade. Perhaps she becomes a plumber or construction worker. Learned friends may sneer and boast of their children’s careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers or…

But I don’t think that those other careers are necessarily better. As computers get smarter and algorithms get more finely tweaked, there’s a good chance that lawyers, bankers, and other “brain workers” will be replaced by computer programs. And many of these high-profile careers (doctors, notoriously) require long hours and involve a great deal of stress.

People need choices. Some people are driven to be doctors. Some people are suited to academic research and study. Some people are not. Our educational systems need to value all types of students. Our societies need to recognize that a plumber is just as important and valuable as a doctor.

I was glad to hear that the conference attendees voted overwhelmingly in support of the proposal. Africa – and the world – needs to value vocational training more. Carpenters, plumbers (and entrepreneurs and computer programmers) make huge contributions to society.

I hope my daughter has choices. I’m happy for her to pursue whatever career gives her pleasure and satisfaction. As for me, I’m going to stop writing and go get my tools. I have a lamp that has a broken switch that is crying out for repair.

Do as I do

by geralt (Pixabay) CC0
by geralt (Pixabay) CC0

In my career I’ve worked as a Teacher, a Tech Director, a Principal, and various combinations of those positions. They each have their expectations and requirements, many of them unique to the job.

However, it’s more true than not that the various roles in schools can and should act in similar ways and have similar expectations. It’s the “scalability” of education: as we would hope our classrooms are run and managed, so should we run and manage our departments, our divisions, our schools.

As we expect teachers to behave and interact with students, so should we expect our principals to behave and interact with teachers. If we expect our teachers to differentiate, so should principals. If we expect our teachers to believe that all students can learn, so should principals believe about teachers. If we expect our teachers to treat students with respect and encouragement, so should principals treat teachers.

Play a game of Mad Libs in your school: take statements about teachers and students. Replace “teachers” with “principals” and “students” with “teachers.” Do the statements still hold true?

Note: MadLibs ©2014 Penguin Group



If they do, you’re doing well. If not…


Note: Mad Libs are ©2014 The Penguin Group

Afraid to Teach

by Geralt (Pixabay) - license CC0 (public domain)
by Geralt (Pixabay) – license CC0

Teachers and schools have an obligation to both their students and their community to behave in a professional manner and work to educate all. This holds true even when it means flying in the face of public opinion.

Recently, some schools in the US have been giving in to fear and ignorance regarding public and parental fears about the Ebola disease:

While there are some reports of schools that are actively fighting against fear-mongering, most of these schools are taking the path of least resistance and “taking extra precautions” in response to parental uproar. “We have to err on the side of caution,” is a phrase frequently invoked.

It is sad that fear and ignorance have taken root in these communities. It is even sadder that the schools are giving in to it. Taking the path of least resistance when angry parents threaten to take their children out of school does avoid interruptions to the children’s education, but a strong administrator who stands up to ignorant parents would be furthering the education of children and adults.

Think of the lessons that can be learned here:


Kai Krause - Public Domain
Kai Krause – Public Domain

Africa is big. Teach children (and parents) about how maps can distort sizes and distances. Use mathematics to calculate distances between countries and continents. Compare “straight line” distances with “great circle” distances. This is a terrific opportunity for people to learn more about their world.


Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons
Cynthia Goldsmith – Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

Diseases don’t happen by magic. Viruses, bacteria and other organisms transmit them. And they do so in specific ways. When there is fear of disease, it’s time to teach about exactly how  germs are spread and how we can prevent them from spreading.

Media Studies

mojzagrebinfo - Pixabay - CC0
mojzagrebinfo – Pixabay – CC0

How is the spread of Ebola being reported? What kind of messages are being sent out? How do different media outlets describe the pandemic? Compare local with international reporting.

 …or Psychology, Ethics, Law…

No doubt these types of lessons are being taught in many schools. It seems, however, that not enough is being done by some schools to really educate people.