Category Archives: Teaching

Yoking up

by Learning2 (Flickr) CC-NC-SA
by Learning2 (Flickr) CC-NC-SA

I’ve been teased recently about how frequently I’m wearing my new Learning 2.014 safari vest. I’ve been wearing it nearly daily and people laugh at me and ask if I sleep in it. (Ha ha ha.)

There’s a few reasons why I’m wearing it. Firstly, it’s because it’s comfortable: it keeps me warm in Addis’ chilly weather, but it’s not as bulky or confining as a jacket or sweater. Secondly, it’s useful: it has deep pockets that hold my glasses case, phone, duct tape, tablet, stapler, loose change, scissors, hard drive… you get the idea.

But more importantly, it serves as a reminder to me of some of the ideals that I strive to live and work by. Let me explain.

In his book, Principle-Centered Leadership, Stephen Covey talks about the idea of “yoking up” for your work. He says that when you get dressed to go to work, you should envision yourself as being yoked up to the people you work with and work for – visualize yourself getting strapped in to a harness that you pull with others to accomplish a shared task. It’s a mindset that the work you do is not for your own sake, but as a service to others.

I yoke up with a few different items:

My necktie

Which one shall I wear today?
Which one shall I wear today?

I’ve worn neckties nearly every day of school almost since the first day I started teaching. Initially, it was an effort by a young teacher to separate himself visually from the high school students who were nearly as old (and some bigger!). But as I progressed, it became a kind of signature style, with a significance that few really perceive but which I do think about periodically.

By wearing  a necktie to work, I adopt the social convention of professional work. To me, teaching is a highly professional work, one that should be done with great effort and purpose. I see myself and my colleagues as serious workers in a vitally important field, and I wish that western society (OK, mostly American society) placed greater value on our/their efforts. Teachers are incredibly important people and the work they do is incredibly important. Nearly all teachers take extraordinary effort to help young people learn, grow and succeed.

I wear a necktie to signify the professionalism of my occupation. When I put it on, I do it as a visual cue that teachers’ work matters. I see myself as “yoking up” to the profession of education.

(OK. I wear silly cartoon ties. I do work with children!)

My ID badge

Badges? We don't need no steenkin' badges!
Badges? We don’t need no steenkin’ badges!

Our school has required us to wear an ID badge for years. It’s a security requirement and an expectation for all employees. I have been known to critique the process: high school students look like adults but aren’t required to wear them, parents aren’t required to display them all the time, enforcement is idiosyncratic, I and my colleagues are known to all our students, etc. Yet, I put on the badge.

For me, it’s a yoking up to my school. When I put it on, I think about the commitment I make to my school’s mission and ideals. I know that our school’s success depends on all of its employees working together in common purpose and in support of our philosophy, our vision, our mission, our school goals. I’ve intentionally joined our school, as have others, and by wearing the badge I signify that decision, my commitment, and our commonality.

My vest

Learning IS a safari!
Learning IS a safari!

The safari vests were commissioned for our recently held conference, Learning 2.014. ICS hosted the first Learning2 conference in Africa, joining a seven-year tradition of Learning2 conferences held in Asia. This conference is different than others.

If you read about the history and the founding principles of the Learning2 conference, you get an idea of how it is different. Its intention is to socialize the participants, getting them to interact throughout. It aims to get people to connect with each other, and with others. It asks participants to “be a connector” – not just to connect, but to enable connections. Learning2 conferences aim to put the participants first: replacing flashy big-name keynote presenters with actual teachers, and encouraging participants to take the lead in unconferences and workshops. Finally, the conference aims to be different: renewing itself every year, adapting after each conference is held …and while each conference is held, making modifications as the conference unfolds.

When I put on the safari vest, I remember these ideals and yoke up to the community of educators – both in the Learning2 conference circle and like-minded educators outside of it – who are committed to growing and changing and making a difference. I remember how excited our teachers and our visitors were to be together, learning and sharing on our campus. I think about the importance of sharing, of being social, of connecting and facilitating connections. It helps me to make daily efforts to be different, to help other educators, to be part of a dynamic world of education.

And I think about the conference’s theme: Learning Safari. I want my work to be a journey of adventure, exploring new areas and seeing and trying new things. I want that for me. I want that for my colleagues. I want that for my students. Wearing my safari vest puts me in that mindset.

That’s why I wear the vest.

All yoked up!
All yoked up!

Learning – not in a classroom

photo by Learning2 CC-BY-NC-SA
photo by Learning2CC-BY-NC-SA

I had some delusions before the conference started that I might actually attend some of the learning sessions. I was looking forward to sitting in on workshops and extended sessions, getting hands-on with robots and trying out Genius Hour, trying out augmented reality games…

Boy, was I dumb. Since I was organizing Learning 2.014 – the first in Africa – I wound up spending all my time running around building schedules, printing room signs, adjusting the website, organizing prizes, unlocking & locking doors, checking up on visitors, helping vendors… and when I did have some down time I wanted nothing more than to sit down for a few minutes and just breathe. (Thanks, Maggie!)

So I didn’t attend any sessions …but I found the process of running Learning 2.014 an incredibly powerful and valuable learning experience. Even now, days after the event finished, I’m still learning and reflecting (as well as organizing and doing!).

Here are a few of my takeaways about the learning experience in organizing a conference (or other such event):


I definitely learned about the power of connections. I met people in the flesh who I’d been following on Twitter or connected by email… those virtual connections made the meetings more valuable & more memorable, and no doubt the physical meetings will add to later virtual connections. It was also brought home to me how fostering those connections can add value to one’s personal and professional life. I’d never met Trevor, or even connected with him, until he showed up at the conference. Yet he’s built things for the conference that I intended to do and added value in many other ways. I fully intend to keep that connection going!


The Devil may be in the details, but so is salvation. I got frustrated by the niggling little details – how many minutes of transition time? which key opens that blasted door? – but by paying attention to the details, a fuller understanding of and appreciation for teachers’ work emerges. That locked door means delay of preparation, which can throw off the lesson. Insufficient transition time leads to confusion and frustration. Paying attention to the details, anticipating issues and preventing problems leads to a smoother experience for all and therefore a better learning experience.


Possibly the most important lesson I learned was the power of time. Having enough of it for important activities. Having transition time. Allowing time for important tasks.

And taking some time out. Maggie Powers taught us about the power of mindfulness. I took her information to heart and took a few minutes every now and then to just breathe and self-monitor. That really helped to de-stress and to re-focus myself.

As teachers, we often worry about or complain about our own lack of time. Do we consider this from our students’ perspectives? Classes, assignments, studying, sports, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Do we give them time to be mindful, to just breathe and self-monitor?


Finally, organizing Learning 2.014 brought home to me the importance of taking risks. (Calculated ones, mind you! Not foolhardy ones.) Just running the conference was a big risk. Would we get enough participants for it to be worthwhile? Could our school’s infrastructure (and our country’s ISP) handle it? Would the learning experience be worthwhile? It was all a risky proposition.

In the end, things went smoothly and the conference was a huge success. The risk was definitely worth it. It was a bold and daring move by ICS, and it paid off for our school and the continent.

But smaller risks also paid off. Margaret Powers was an “unknown” in international schools… and she made a very valuable contribution. I signed up Nick Kwan (working in Poland) to our organizing committee, and he proved to be an incredibly hard worker and contributed much to the conference. Taking a risk with people is often a great thing to do. Most people will, if you show that you trust and believe in them, rise to a challenge and make sure your risk-taking pays off.

…so in the end, I learned much from the conference. Now I just have to go back and review the Learning2 Talks and the resources from the L2Leaders’ sessions so I know what actual participants learned!

Best. Conference. Ever.

The first Learning 2.0 conference in Africa, Learning 2.014 Africa, has just finished. It was an absolutely amazing experience – for all participants as well as for those of us hosting it.

Don’t take my word for it. Here are a few comments by participants:

As the conference chair, I’m particularly proud of how well everything went …but I really am not one to toot my own horn. It was most definitely a team effort!

Kudos to all the committee members, student ambassadors, Learning2 Advisors, Learning2 Leaders, workshop & poster session presenters, tech team… and all the support staff who made it happen!

And many of the Learning 2.014 participants have written, tweeted, blogged, about what a great experience it was and how they missed the networking, learning and camaraderie when they left.

…and as a sign of success, it’s impressive how many people quickly put things into practice in their classrooms and professional work:

If you missed the conference, you missed something great. If you want to get a bit of a taste of it, check out the Learning2 Talks …some amazing sessions!

Learning from the students

Note: this is a cross-post from my school blog, intended for parents & students.

JpegWhen you attend an educational conference, you expect to learn new things from your colleagues. They give talks, they present workshops, you network with them. They tell you about projects they’re working on, they show you tools that they use, they share information about their own schools.

What you usually do not expect is to learn from students. At the recent Learning 2.014 conference we just held on campus, however, we did!

At Learning 2.014, hundreds of teachers from around the world (Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia, America) came to ICS for a conference about learning and educating using modern methods and tools. (“Learning 2.0” means new ways of learning – version 2.0! This generally means with technology, but not necessarily.) Presenters included invited experts, ICS faculty, and conference participants. All of them are currently (or very recently) teaching in schools – generally international schools.

To help with logistics and provide extra tech support, we enlisted the help of a number of students in the Middle and High Schools. Keith Liebetreu and Ken Gunther were the main teachers in charge, and they set up some training sessions for both Tech Support and Student Ambassadors in advance of the conference. They showed the students how to help with wifi connectivity, projecting computer screens, etc. Ambassadors were told about protocols and how to help people. Some students were shown pictures of past conference and discussed ways to get interesting and appealing photographs.

“Special shout-out to all the student ambassadors, they were great!!”  – a conference participant

IMG_20140920_113355Throughout the conference, our Student Ambassadors, Photographers and Tech Support were enthusiastic and eager. They not only agreed to take on any jobs they were asked to do, they also offered to do additional jobs. At one point, I was working with another conference organizer (Nick, from Poland) on a task. Two Middle School girls, Faru and Jadesola, had finished with the jobs they had been given and asked us if they could do anything to help us. I thanked them, but said we were doing fine and didn’t need any help. The girls asked if we would like any coffee. Both Nick and I laughed and said yes, and the girls went and got us macchiatos!

It was delightful seeing students eager to help, eager to take on jobs. While students at ICS often show independence and initiative, it’s particularly impressive and rewarding when they do this with visitors on campus!

“Highlights: the ICS students were incredibly helpful, kind, patient, knowledgeable, friendly and welcoming” – a conference participant

More than just being helpful, often our students were actually able to teach us adults some things. Here are two experiences I had that made me think and learn from our students:


During the conference, several “unconference” sessions were held in which any participant could put forward a topic of interest to them and, if there were enough people who shared that interest, a place was set aside for discussion, sharing, planning. I proposed that we hold a show of solidarity with Neil Bantleman and Ferdi Tjiong, two teachers from Jakarta International School who have been falsely imprisoned without charge for more than two months in Indonesia. Many people agreed and as I was setting up the space for a group photo, two students came up and asked what it was all about. I started to tell them, and Kate said, “Oh, yes. Free Neil and Ferdi.” I was surprised she knew about them. Aysha then said, “Can we join in?”

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own circle that we forget about and ignore others outside of it. I was so focused on international school teachers that I didn’t even consider students. Kate and Aysha (and the many other students who joined us for the photograph) taught me that I should never assume that people outside my immediate circle are either unaware or unconcerned. (Thank you for the lesson, all of you!)


I met Bamlak and asked him how things were going. (You can see his reaction above!) He told me he was learning a lot from Jeff Utecht, one of our presenters (“Learning 2 Leaders”) from the US. Jeff later told me about his interaction with Bamlak during his session.

Jeff was teaching teachers about building their (and their schools’) PLN (Professional Learning Network) through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. By building connections, we expand our knowledge and the sources of our knowledge – we also expand our ability to gather information, answer our questions and solve our problems. During part of the session, Bamlak asked Jeff if he would give him (Bamlak) a shout-out to Jeff’s over 17,000 followers on Twitter. Jeff, being kind to this young student, agreed to do so. Bamlak then offered to give Jeff a shout-out on Instagram. Jeff figured this was nice but wasn’t terribly impressed by the offer …until Bamlak showed him that he had over 26,000 followers on Instagram! (Jeff doesn’t have quite that many.)

It’s worth considering that everyone around us has strengths and excels in various ways. We may not think so, but each person we meet has areas in which they can surpass our own achievements …no matter how young (or old!).

(Thanks, Bamlak, for following me on Instagram!)

Beginning the new school year

Out with the old, in with the new
Out with the old, in with the new

This year, ICS is celebrating its Golden Jubilee – 50 years of education since being founded in 1964. There’s a new school logo, and plans for commemorative events both big and small.

We’re also hosting an international conference on modern education, Learning 2.014. It’s the first time this annual conference has been held outside Asia. It’s not a “tech” conference, but the ICS Tech Team is heavily involved …as is appropriate. Contemporary education, like everything else in this day and age, has technology infused throughout.

And we have new initiatives in technology within the school this year. We’re moving the 1:1 program into the Elementary School, with Grade 5 students using laptops and younger grades using tablets. All elementary students will create electronic portfolios documenting their growth this year, and teachers are doing the same.

Courses available to students continue to expand with programming, web design, robotics and more being offered at all levels. After-school activities expand on these options, letting students explore a variety of interests.

It’s a busy year, an exciting time for technology education at ICS. This blog will chronicle many of the events this year, as well as explore topics of relevance to ICS teachers, parents and students. I hope you enjoy reading it!

Data driven? Who’s driving?

balance-sheet-241711_640An article on BBC News about the Ebola outbreak got me thinking about data. In all the media reports, the virus is described as having a shockingly high 90% fatality rate. This article says that the key words in reports is “up to” and that the fatality rate is often lower. I looked up the actual figures from the WHO, and sure enough the statistics show a less than 90% rate.

In actuality, the fatality rates for the current outbreak vary quite widely, from 15% to 100%(!!), depending on what figures you choose to include. Do you look at confirmed cases? Probable? Suspected? Or do you include them all? And do you look at individual countries or average them all together?

If you look at the data broken down beyond the headline statistics, what emerges is a much more complicated picture of the Ebola outbreak. It is worse in certain areas and better in others. Depending on the response to the disease, its deadliness may be reduced and – presumably – its virulence diminished. Community practices, health care facilities, etc. all change how the disease affects people.

Unfortunately, most people don’t look that deeply at the statistics. They hear about a horrible disease, see the “90% fatal” figure and start getting hysterical. While the Ebola outbreak is a horrible and tragic event – and does look like it’s going to get much worse – such overreaction may cause individuals and nations to make costly missteps. There are deadlier diseases, and certain nations’ efforts may be more productively directed at other health issues.

For me as a teacher, this makes me think of our students’ test scores and similar data that we use to assess, group and rate them. Too often, teachers and administrators latch on to one figure and use it to determine a course of action regarding an individual student, a class or a school. A student scores at the 20th percentile on her MAP test? She needs remedial reading lessons. A class earns 90% success rate on their IB diploma scores? We should celebrate!

The truth may be far more nuanced. A closer look at the disaggregated data (if such data is available) may reveal different areas of strength and weaknesses, and might help direct intervention into more productive areas. It may also reveal that any need for intervention might be exaggerated.

Unfortunately, we often fail to get beyond the overall statistic. The student (or school or class) gets labelled as “29%” or “a 4” or whatever, and that label becomes the perceived reality.

As schools dive into “data-driven decisions,” it is well worth reflecting on what exactly the data shows us …if it shows us anything meaningful at all. It’s worth looking for more detailed, nuanced ways at looking at student performance. (Funnily enough, getting to that level of nuance might mean going back to the oldest “data-driven” performance evaluator: the classroom teacher, whose judgements are based on daily collection of various data points.)

The Student, Number 6

I am not a number, I am a free man.

I went in to school to ask about my daughter’s education. Out came a laptop and up popped a spreadsheet. There was my daughter: neatly bound in row 12. A tidy little string of numbers explaining just how she is performing as a student.

I’ve written before about the horror of grading by the numbers. Our school has moved away from that. No longer does a child get a 2 or a 1 scrawled across a paper or a report card. Teachers now use the standards-based scale of “approaching,” “proficient,” or “exemplary.” (Or, sadly, “Does not meet.”) It’s much more child-friendly and less off-putting …I guess.

However, the school has joined the worldwide craze for being data-driven. It’s no longer enough for teachers to teach, they also have to justify their teaching by producing data showing their students are progressing. And the principal and head of school must justify themselves to the school board and parents by showing students and classes across the school are improving.

So how do we show that students are improving? Testing. My child will take the MAP test three times this year. (She needed a mid-year checkup to see if she’s making enough progress to reach the end-of-year targets.) She’s also being assessed on her reading ability by testing her on her comprehension of levelled readers. (Not real books, you understand: these are only slightly better than “See spot run.”) And there are math tests. And spelling tests. And…

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.

Where is the passion? Where is the exploring? Where is the joy?

Dare I say it – where is the 21st century learning? Where is the creativity? Where is the critical thinking? Where is the collaboration? Where is the communication?

Is it there in the numbers?

Can anyone show me in that spreadsheet where my child is? Can you show me her gleeful love of life? Can you show me her obsession with sports? Can you show me her inconsistent memory? Can you show me her sensitivity? Her caring nature?

When teachers find ourselves in this new data-driven world of school, we must each decide for ourselves how we react. Do we embrace the dictate and collect as much data as we can to track our students’ progress? Do we rebel and fight against it, resisting any effort to test or quantify our students? Or can we find some middle ground?

As educators, we need to serve our students. Their success and well-being is in our hands. It is imperative that we make intelligent decisions so that not only do they succeed and improve in their abilities, but they also see learning as a positive experience. If we are not building life-long learners, then we are not doing our job well. It is simply not enough that students grow while they are in our classes, but that they will continue to grow throughout their lives.

So in this brave new world of data-driven education, who do we serve? Who is Number One? And are you prepared to serve Number Two? Or will you try to escape?

We want information.

Note: for more on The Prisoner, see: Six of One, or the BBC

21st Century Learning

by Public Domain Photos - Pixabay - CC0
Public Domain PhotosPixabayCC0

Read enough about education, and you’ll quickly find a plethora of posts, posters, and more about “21st Century Education.” ICS is including this language in much of its guiding documents. The school’s mission statement includes the phrase. The Board of Governors includes a “statement of understanding” about 21st Century Learning. Our Head of School writes about it in his weekly news column. It’s a phrase often used in describing school programs.

What does “21st Century Education” really mean? Why is it being discussed and promoted so much? What does it mean for parents and students? I’ll be writing a series of blog posts about this concept and how it’s being put in place at ICS over the next few weeks. (Please post questions and comments!) In this post, I’d like to explore a bit of the background and explain what it’s all about.

What is 21st Century Education?

There are many ways people define 21st Century Education, and various groups and initiatives which promote it – all of whom describe and define it in different ways. In general, the phrase refers to the fact that education is changing and must change to meet the needs of today’s learners and today’s society. In order to produce individuals who can succeed in today’s world, schools need to teach and reinforce different skills. Students must be more adaptable, more independent, and more technologically savvy.

To accomplish this, schools and educators are shifting their emphasis away from content knowledge to more skills-based learning. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, knowing something is less important than knowing how to find things out or how to accomplish things.

An excellent and simple framework for this is the “4 C’s” – championed by the Partnership for 21st Century Education. The 4 C’s are skills, offered as counterpoints to the traditional “3 R’s” of Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. (Yes, I know.) The 4 C’s have been identified as skills that will help students be successful in today’s changing world. They are:

  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

Now, do understand that these do not replace content knowledge. But they are a different emphasis.

Why is it important for our students?

In the information age, it is not sufficient to only be knowledgeable. Traditional education emphasized mastery of subjects by gaining information. Students read textbooks, listened to teacher lectures, passed knowledge-based tests. Now, a smartphone in your pocket can give anyone immediate access to a vast wealth of information. When you can carry Wikipedia around in your pocket, how vitally important is it to know the dates and outcomes of the Battle of Hastings?

This is not to say that it’s not important to know things. Students must always have a good background knowledge of history, science, etc. However, with access to all that knowledge, it becomes more valuable to students to be able to process information instead of remembering it. How do you find that information? In what way do you phrase your research question? What key words do you use? And how do you identify valuable sources of information?

And with the fast pace of change in business, science and society, the flexibility that one gains from good critical thinking and creativity skills will help our students navigate their future world.

What technology is needed?

Despite the title of this blog, 21st century education really isn’t all about the technology: it’s about the learning. Sure, we use modern tools. Computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. all have a part to play in students creating things, communicating with others, collaborating with people near and far …but that’s not the heart of the matter. The key is the type of learning. Instead of listening to a lecture, or writing a research paper, etc. students are discussing things in online forums with students (and adults) around the world. They are writing blog posts and posting online videos that others can comment on and share. They’re remixing other people’s creations to build new ways of looking at things. Technology makes this possible, but it doesn’t force it.

So what’s going on at ICS?

In a word, plenty. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be profiling some of the great things happening at ICS …and looking at ways we’re changing to promote 21st century education even more.

Welcome to the 21st century!

Canadian Computing Competition

contestClick click click. Fingers tapping over the keyboard quickly, urgently. Papers rustling as words are looked up. The occasional exclamation of frustration or exultation as difficulties and successes are encountered.

For three hours, five high school students participated in the Canadian Computing Contest, sponsored by the University of Waterloo’s Center for Education in Mathematics and Computing. Although originally (and primarily) a Canadian contest, students from around the world participate in this contest every year. It give students a chance to try out their programming ability in a competitive environment and compare their skills with others.

Last year, ICS had one student participate in the contest. This year, we had five! We hope to have even more participate next year. It’s a good chance for our students to stretch the skills they learn in our programming classes and work in a pressurized situation.

For three hours on Wednesday, the students worked to produce working programs from scratch given a problem to solve and specifications to meet. Beimnet, Jan-Philipp, David, Feven and Yosias each had five programs to write. They were able to use printed materials for reference – no closed-book tests in programming! – but had to rely on their own creativity and computational thinking to frame the problems presented in a way that a computer could solve, and then code it in the language of their choice (all the students used Python this year) in a fully functioning program.

To give you the idea of what they had to do, here’s a sample question from a previous test:

Many communities now have "radar" signs that tell drivers what their speed is, in the hope that they will slow down. You will output a message for a "radar" sign. The message will display information to a driver based on his/her speed according to the following table:
km/h over the limit: fine
1 to 20: $100
21 to 30: $270
31 or above: $500
The user will be prompted to enter two integers. First the user will be prompted to enter the speed limit. Second, the user will be prompted to enter the recorded speed of the car.
If the driver is not speeding, the output should be: "Congratulations, you are within the speed limit!"
If the drive is speeding, the output should be: "You are speeding and your fine is $F" (where F is the amount of the fine as described in the table above.)

A reasonable challenge – realistic, but also simplistic for a contest environment. To deal with it, the student must break the problem down into logical statements, conditions, etc. They need to analyze all potential inputs and compare them. If the comparison is in one range, then a certain statement needs to be printed out. Depending on other comparisons, then different statements need to be printed out.

This type of analysis is called “computational thinking,” and it’s a good skill for all. It’s particularly useful for programming, but it’s also an excellent skill for scientific reasoning, mathematical analysis or almost all types of problem-solving.

Once the analysis has been done, the student must put it into formal computer code – something like this:

if speed <= limit then:
    print ("Congratulations, you are within the speed limit!")
else if speed - limit <= 20 then:
    print ("You are speeding and your fine is $100")
else if...

And so forth. It’s an exact process and can get quite complicated. This example is very simple – the challenges in the contest get more difficult! The students found some easy, others very difficult.

All of our contestants successfully completed the contest and earned respectable scores. More than that, all of them had the satisfaction of persevering at a difficult task, and the joy of building something from scratch to solve an assigned problem. It was a worthwhile experience …they’re already talking about taking the contest again next year!

Future-proofing my child

I look at my daughter and wonder about what her life will be like when she’s an adult. What kind of job will she have? Where will she live? What type of lifestyle will she have?

I’m determined to help her be ready for whatever kind of life she’ll have. It’s a daunting task. As both a parent and educator, I’ve done plenty of reading and thinking about how the world is changing and what schools can do about that. I’ve recently read (and am re-reading) the very excellent book by David Price,  Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future. Price reflects on the changes in society brought about by technology and how that impacts learning and working. It’s a great manifesto for any concerned modern educator and it puts into context some of my concerns as a parent.

In particular, I’m concerned that school – my school and any school – is failing to prepare my child for what she will have to face in the future. I feel guilty about that as a teacher, and I hope that my work helps to improve the situation in my school at least. However, it really does seem to me that the institution of school is not & can not change fast enough to make a difference to my child.

In particular, there are a few areas that seem to be lacking in what schools (or at least my school – and most schools I know) address and emphasize in the education they provide.

Financial Literacy

Sure, school gives children some money problems in math classes, and perhaps some attempts at financial education (my school has an elective Economics class in High School), but for the most part there is no real teaching of skills needed to succeed or excel in the world of money management. Some schools may have some Home Ec classes in which students learn to balance a checkbook or prepare a household budget, but even this isn’t enough. Children need to know about and understand the stock market, investments of various types, retirement funds, etc. Ideally, there should be some learning and practicing of skills that would help them become – or at least have the potential to become – entrepreneurs.

An interesting analysis of financial literacy and education was published in the New York Times by Economics professor Richard Thaler. While decrying the state of financial literacy in the American population and the lack of financial education in schools, he discusses a meta-analysis of financial education which indicates that financial education doesn’t necessarily make financially knowledgeable people. One of the main points he & the study makes is that doing more of the type of training (schooling) that’s currently being done will not be effective. This is exactly the same point David Price makes in looking at learning in Open.

Practical Skills

While the Maker movement is helping to resurrect and revitalize the development of  hands-on skills in children, the reality is that many schools have no venues for students to learn practical skills. Any reasonably capable person should be able to perform basic tasks such as changing the plug on an appliance, checking and maintaining a car engine, changing a bicycle or car tire, and similar such skills. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, schools really should be teaching soldering, calibrating and repairing. The excellent book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford, argues that such practical “trade” skills not only are intellectually stimulating and inherently valuable, they also guarantee permanent employment: while technology has and will continue to replace or outsource many jobs from call centers to offices, there will always be a local need for plumbers, electricians, and repairpeople of every kind. Besides, if we are truly interested in “teaching the whole child” and “creating life-long learners,” then schools must help children develop the skills that will help them to become competent and capable adults who are not only knowing but handy.

Mastering Technology

Schools have adopted technology full-tilt, and my school is no exception. The use of technology abounds in schools: 1:1 laptop programs, classroom tablets, student and class webpages, etc.  However, the typical use of technology in schools is just that: using it. Teachers and students build a website using a template or form, in which they fill in the boxes set by others. Students use laptops to blog or tweet or other forms of digital writing. Students create Prezis or edit videos to give reports. None of this is particularly technological: it’s the same old projects & activities merely carried out using computers. None of this requires any fundamental knowledge of or understanding about how computers (or networks, the world-wide web, etc.) work. Some schools are starting to bring back programming and computer science as subjects – I’m pushing hard for our school to do just that – and that is important for our students’ (my child’s) futures. Work will continue to be mechanized and computerized, and the people who can actually program the computers and make the machines work will be the victors. Derek Thompson from The Atlantic has written a brilliant article about the fastest growing jobs of the decade and the robots who will steal them. If robots are taking jobs, then the students who know how to build and program the robots will be the ones in demand.

 I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.  ~Mark Twain

As a teacher and as a parent, I know that I cannot rely on School to teach my child everything. I know that I have my responsibility to her to teach her a wide variety of skills. I welcome that. I’m happy to educate my child in these as well as other areas.

What concerns me is that School is not interested in putting these kinds of areas at the forefront of education. Despite numerous intelligent arguments put forth by respected individuals, School remains entrenched in a structure of learning that is centuries old. There’s no space for programming or tinkering or entrepreneurship in a curriculum locked into Mathematics, Science, History, Literature, etc.

So, like all parents, it’s up to me.

Come here, Nadia. Let me show you how you can earn more interest on your allowance…