Category Archives: Education

Learning in the Time of COVID-19

Title inspired by Love in the Time of Cholera, which I’m thinking about reading when I’m done with the two books I’m in the middle of right now.

Where We Are Now

We’re in a different situation in Singapore than in much of the world. People are still going to work and we have not closed school. This is a neat graphic from UNESCO showing the spread of school closures globally and the number of students in different levels who are affected. Interestingly, Singapore is not on this map and I don’t know whether that’s because we’re still in school or because they forgot about us. As informative as it is, it also serves as a reminder that even reputable sources are not flawless.

We have not closed school in Singapore because the government has been down this road before. The requirements for travel declarations and the restrictions on movement, behaviour, and gathering began much earlier here than in Europe and much, much earlier than in North America. The first email from our deputy superintendent referring to “novel coronavirus pneumonia” was sent January 23. That was when the government first required travel declaration forms from everyone involved in an educational institution. On January 28, the day we returned from the Chinese New Year holiday, schools started taking everyone’s temperature on the way into the building. This has since been implemented at the community centre that houses my climbing gym (and I’m sure this isn’t the only one) and is part of the regimen in hospitals, movie theatres, malls, and recently some restaurants. On February 11, the WHO gave coronavirus a name – COVID-19. It wasn’t until March 6 that I finally received a message from a friend in the US asking how we’re doing here in Singapore.

We’re in a bit of a different situation at the moment in that we’ve been living with this for a long time.

And that’s the point – we’ve been going about our lives and living with this thing because Singapore has a disease outbreak response system that makes sense. We’ve been at DORSCON Orange since February 7. When it came out two years ago, I read The End of Epidemics by global health security expert Dr. Jonathan Quick. He cites Singapore’s response to SARS as a shining example of disease response done well and living through another round of that, I understand why.

Considering where we are and how Singapore has responded, it came as a huge blow to our students when the IBO cancelled May examinations on Sunday night. The IB has given itself until Friday to figure out next steps. The College Board AP, which my school also offers, is running 45-minute online exams. What is important to understand here is that AP and IB exams have a different purpose and carry very different weight and meaning for students. Unless our students are going to school in the US, they are accepted into universities on the basis of earning a certain overall IB score. Now that there are no exams, how will this affect graduation and university acceptances? We don’t know the answer to these questions right now.

Conversations with Young People

Understandably, my students were full of confused emotions in class yesterday. We spent some time just talking before getting down to business and I want to summarise our conversation. Hopefully it helps some of you figure out what to say (or not say!) to the young people in your life. They need guidance right now and we are there for them, even if we don’t have answers. The threads of our conversation went like this:

This is an emotional time.

My students told me that they’re feeling confused, upset, disappointed, and relieved. One or two were glad they didn’t have to study but the majority were crushed at losing everything they look forward to at the end of high school: prom, graduation, senior trip, and proving themselves on exams. We agreed that yes, it sucks.

What’s the point now?

Final exams have been the driver for much of what we’ve done for nearly two years and students, appropriately, wanted to know what the point is now. There are no exams . . . so what? What is there? We talked about learning for the sake of learning and about how far they’d come. We talked about showing themselves that they’ve come a long way.

We also talked about going on with life as normal. There will likely be some kind of end-of-course assessment. After all, we have already submitted required coursework to the IB and they will use it for something. We might very well run an assessment here in school, too. Additionally, there will still be grades on transcripts. These grades will come from somewhere, and they will indicate what students know.

Who are we supposed to turn to?

Multiple students expressed not knowing what to do and one put it very succinctly: “We’re confused,” he said, “and the people we’re supposed to ask for help don’t know anything either.” He’s right and it was important to acknowledge that. A student asked me to give my best educated guess about what might happen next and all I could say was that my previous educated guesses had been wrong so my best educated guess was to keep my mouth shut. “But what can you tell us as a friend?” he asked.

I told my students that they couldn’t turn to me for answers because I didn’t have any, but I did know that the world had been through a lot before and would not end with them. We don’t know what is coming next but we do know that these young people will complete high school and go off into the world to do something. We don’t know the path they will take to get there and we don’t know where “there” is, but we do know that life isn’t over. Look at what’s happened in China – students are going back to school!

I’m worried about what might happen next.

I reminded my students that when this all started two months ago, we were worried about schools in Asia closing and being disadvantaged for exams since everything in Europe was fine. We could not have predicted life returning to somewhat normal in China with the rest of the world closing its borders. Likewise, we cannot predict what is ahead.

We also talked a little bit about our families. With flights cancelled and travel restrictions across borders, we are “here” and our families, for many of us living overseas, are “there”. And we cannot get to them. With legal status determined by employment passes, student passes, and dependent passes, we don’t know if or when we’re going to be asked to leave. We don’t know whether our home countries will take us or if we’ll physically be able to get there. We do know that flights aren’t free and all of us have cancelled travel plans or had plans cancelled. What happens if our legal status changes?

I didn’t have answers but we had a conversation.

I gave up a lot for this.

After class, one student stayed back to talk. He said he’d sacrificed a lot to spend two years in the IB Diploma Programme and he would have chosen differently had he known it would come down to nothing. Ah, now this is something I can speak about with some confidence. Knowing the answer, I asked this student whether, knowing the options that existed at the beginning of grade 11, he could have chosen differently. Knowing who he was, could he have done anything differently over the past two years?

No, he told me. That’s true. That’s what made the most sense at the time.

And that, I said, is a way to approach being in the world, no matter the situation.

A Focus on Learning

We had to talk before my students were ready to get down to learning. I understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and I know that students who are hungry need to eat before I can expect them to do anything else. This felt similarly. My students needed to be heard and they needed my honesty in order to trust that I had their best interests at heart, and then we went on with our intended tasks for the day.

If necessary, as so many are doing, I could run my classes remotely. A colleague and I have been piloting online learning tools in a shared class and we could make it work. There are a lot of resources out there and many of them are free. The best practices of online learning have been sharpened and honed through the work, effort, and time of many of my colleagues, known and unknown, and I am grateful for them.

One thing that we do know is that human connection is really, really important. Last week, we ran our parent-teacher conferences through Google Hangouts and it was a real gift to be invited into my students’ homes like that. Everyone was calmer and more relaxed than usual. What would it take to have a quick video chat with my students, or set them up with a platform that allowed them to do the same? (I’m told Zoom has “breakout rooms” and this is worth exploring.) It was really important to talk with my students yesterday about what was on their minds before we were able to do what we were meant to do.

There has been a lot of focus in education over the last several weeks about how to put teaching and learning online and I understand this focus. I agree that it is important. But it was also important to acknowledge that my students, for whom life has remained comparatively normal, have questions, too.

In this sense, we all have a wonderful opportunity to learn a little more about who we are as individuals and as a collective group of humans. I spoke with my students about recognising their own responses to stress and anxiety and how to manage unknowns. No matter what happens next, they were heading towards a huge unknown anyway because they were planning to go out in the world and start their lives. They will still do that, just not following a path that someone else had walked before them. We talked about ways to accept what we cannot change or control, and we talked about what it means to live according to who we are and what is important to us.

Additionally, we talked about the resilience of humanity. While we have individually fragile moments, humanity has also overcome great adversity. Some of my students have lived this in their own lives and some are experiencing it now for the first time. It is important for them to know that this is not the first life-altering, world-spinning-out-of-control moment that they will experience, and it is important for them to know that they will get through this one and the next one and the next one. We can make all the plans we want, but we learn a great deal about ourselves when look at how we respond when our plans go awry.

And it is important for students to know that this, too, shall pass and we will all be stronger and wiser when it does.

Conclusions

Learning through COVID-19 does not only mean learning in school. It also means learning about ourselves and about who we are. It means learning to let go and wait patiently when we would much rather be in control, and learning to pause and breathe when we’ve spent too long with our noses buried in the news.

It also means learning to recognise what we are feeling and manage it in a way that allows us to live as fully as we can. We can only live what is now and it does not help to ruminate over what might have been otherwise. Instead, as my students are learning, we live with what is and sometimes all we can do is take it one moment at a time.

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. – Anonymous

Gyeongju, South Korea – October 2019

Building Peace: Compassion is for the Community

Beginning in late spring 2016, I started a post series called “Building Peace”. Two years later, I collected my thoughts into a book with the same title and have kept up the series periodically since. It has been over a year since I have specifically titled a post in this way but peacebuilding is never far from my mind.

If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I have been interested in compassion for a long time and that my views about what compassion is (and isn’t) have grown, evolved, and shifted. The word compassion has become increasingly popular and as a result, it has also lost much of its intended meaning. The consequence of diluted meaning is that we think we’re all doing just fine behaving just the way we are . . . when in fact we are not.

Let’s start with some definitions.

With a little help from my favourite dictionary

According to Merriam-Webster, my dictionary of choice since reading Kory Stamper’s truly hilarious account Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the meaning of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. In my personal experience, compassion is often linked with both care and empathy but these also have very different meanings. Empathy is the more nuanced of the two and Merriam-Webster provides two definitions:

1the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
also: the capacity for this
2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

So, compassion means understanding someone’s distress and desiring to alleviate it. Empathy means, in colloquial terms, putting yourself in the shoes of another person to understand their place and perspective. Empathy means that you need to understand. Compassion means that you need to act.

Who is compassion for?

Not too long ago I wrote about why people choose not to act. I have also written that compassion is a practice and that it takes work and time and, significantly, the desire to do good or do what is right. I have tended to focus on compassion between individuals and through this focus, I think I’ve missed some fundamental points. This post attempts to take a more nuanced view of compassion than I have taken in the past.

A few conversations with several people, some reflections on religious texts, and a Theory of Knowledge lesson on consequentialist ethics (among others) has led me to an idea that differs from what I have written previously. Rather than being between and for individuals, compassion is for the community.

A scenario

Jane is an experienced teacher new to my school. She spends most of her time putting together colourful documents and showing them off to others. She misses planning meetings with some colleagues (although attends others), comes to work over the weekend to mark papers (although takes weeks to return anything to her students), and repeats herself frequently in conversation. Jane operates on a highly rigid structure that she is proud of and claims works for her, but she seems constantly overwhelmed. Despite this, she volunteers for additional tasks and amends work that others have created, leading to yet more colourful documents. It is not uncommon for Jane to ask how a colleague approached a particular lesson only to launch into a detailed explanation of how she, Jane, redesigned each of the resources that had been previously created for collective use.

What should a compassionate colleague do with Jane?

You may answer that the colleague should mentor her, talk with her, share their own resources, or offer suggestions about different ways of working. Maybe they should partner with Jane on her projects and split up the work, or take on some of her tasks.

Maybe our compassionate colleague should do all of these things, but they will soon learn that Jane will just continue along the way Jane always has. So they could choose to invest time in Jane but they already have evidence that Jane is unlikely to take any advice. Nevertheless, she might need someone to talk to. Okay, let’s provide a listening ear here and there, perhaps over lunch.

But what if the right thing to do with Jane at this point is to recognise that Jane has made a choice to resist help? Doing this allows the reallocation of time to those in my community who might actually benefit.

This is where we run into problems: It’s relatively easy for us to identify a specific and obviously suffering person and do something for them that will make us feel good. However, doing so misses the fundamental point that there is much more that we don’t see. By devoting our time and energy to a single individual, we miss a far greater responsibility, which is that to our community.

Reframing compassion

I argue here that the community needs to be highlighted and emphasised in our discourse on compassion. Far too often, we devote our time, energy, and resources to relatively few people at the detriment to and neglect of others around us. There are many reasons why we might do this: ego in feeling useful, the sunk cost fallacy in which we’ve already given one person so much of our time that we don’t want to give up, and fear of being wrong about our decision to help someone in the first place. The point remains the same: We have a responsibility to the communities we have chosen to be part of.

Let’s consider three items to consider:
1. What does this mean and how does this work?
2. Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community?
3. Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.

What does this mean and how does this work?

If we consider compassion as part of our responsibility to a community, this means that we need to look much more broadly than we are accustomed to. It means being aware of those around us, and not only when they’re upset in the ways that we are used to seeing people upset. This varies significantly by culture, which is another piece of this puzzle. Rather, we need to see one another to know each other, and through doing so, we need to cultivate connections with others even in the smallest ways.

Considering ourselves compassionate means that we are available for those around us before they reach the point of needing to be held. There is a great deal of research on the importance of social connection that I will not reiterate here, but do take a look. Here’s a link to start you off.

Compassion is, therefore, an attitude that we can take in our interactions and approaches to others at any time. I’ve written at length about adopting principles as attitudes and I think this is an appropriate lens. If I am a compassionate person, this is the way I see the world. Choosing times to act compassionately while neglecting that principle at other times does not equate.

Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community?

I will focus on education here because this is a chosen realm in which I can actually say a thing or two. Even if you are not part of an educational community, please read on. I hope you will be able to apply what I say to your own context – and I’d really like to hear about it!

Let’s consider the people who work in schools, specifically people responsible for teaching and learning. This means administrators, teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff. These are the people who have specifically chosen to be in a school context. Regardless of the reason for that choice, all of these adults are responsible in some way for the teaching and learning that will help shape young people. They carry a duty to raise these young people in certain ways.

If it is evident that some people do not behave in accordance with the purposes and practices of a community, they should be asked to modify their behaviours or be invited to leave. They have entered into a social contract with these young people and are responsible for their end of it.

In the context of education, the primary responsibility of all of these adults is first to the students in their care. My actions should be framed around how a certain decision, special event, or daily occurrence will impact students. This means that when we think about compassion, we need to consider the overall impact of our actions on the community that exists to support students, not only the impact of one individual’s choice on another.

The purpose of this post is not to provide guidance on how to make choices but to point out our tendency to fixate on individual relationships and forget that we are actually part of something much bigger. The purpose of this post is to argue that we need to ask very different questions than we are in the habit of asking. Our concern should not stop with the recognition that an individual colleague or student is overwhelmed. Rather, it should extend to consider who else might be feeling similarly, why that is, and what we can do to create a better environment for all. This is what it means to reframe our discourse on compassion.

Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.

I agree that this is sometimes the case. We choose our friends, not our families, and many of us are born into a culture, heritage, ethnic group, or religious tradition (or some combination thereof). Even without a choice, the outcome is the same. If we want parts of our lives to work in certain ways, we are responsible for building that. Kant’s categorical imperative states that our behaviour should reflect what we wish to be universal law. A really simple way of putting it: If you do X, imagine a world in which everyone else does X.

My guess is that most people would prefer a world in which we actively look out for each other rather than invest our time and energy into one squeaky wheel. And my other guess is that there’s far more of the latter going on than the former. This is why we need to start asking different questions and making different choices.

So even if you did not choose to be part of a community, you are. As stated above, I do not believe that anyone should be forced into a community that they do not want to be part of. In the case of voluntary communities, you can leave at any time. Even involuntary communities are, to some extent and barring extremes, voluntary. Making the choice not to leave does not privilege any individual over the collective community fabric.

Compassion as peacebuilding

A long time ago, I identified building peace as the purpose of education. The linked post explains how I arrived at this view. Compassion is part of peacebuilding because it is with compassion that we relate to others in ways that recognise all parts of their humanity. In doing so, we also recognise our own.

From writer Susan Sontag:

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”

This is precisely why it is not enough to talk about, think about, and bandy about compassion. Being compassionate cannot be reserved for the easy and obvious moments and we cannot wait for someone else to show us what to do. If we are human and those around us are human, if we are part of a community, and if we actually cast a wide look around rather than fixating on one visible point . . . this is action. These are our actions. And acting in this way opens the possibilities of deeper connection, and a more peaceful and more just world.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia – January 2020

How to Solve a Problem: Step One

The first step to solving a problem is identifying the problem. We cannot fix something or change something if we don’t see it.

But what happens if we can’t see it, won’t see it, or refuse to accept it? What happens when we refuse to take responsibility for problems that are brought to our attention, or brush them off as being someone else’s problem?

We can’t solve a problem if, for us, it isn’t there or it isn’t relevant. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t want to.

This might sound really obvious, but a certain attitude about problems is also pervasive in education. In my current context, there’s a deep reticence to addressing even the most visible problems, let alone the problems that lurk below the surface. This is troubling because refusal to see, admit to, and take ownership of problems harms both young people and the adults around them who are trying to do the right thing (because there are always people trying to do the right thing). Much contemporary education claims to be caring or compassionate and, in my experience, it often is not.

So, the first step to solving a problem: Admitting that it exists.

Problems in Schools

Every school I have worked in call itself a community. It’s common to hear, “In our community we believe X. We do Y. We are Z.” This means that we are all responsible for the development and action of X, Y, and Z, which also means that when there is a problem, we need to address it. Unfortunately, addressing the problem is often neglected and I think there are a number of reasons for that. These reasons will be explored below.

For context, my school uses the phrase “see it, own it” as a way of dealing with issues that are (arguably) detrimental to learning. I recently learned that “see it, own it” is an abstraction of The Oz’s Principle‘s “See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It”. Clearly, there are multiple parts here. If you see a problem, you need to do something about it. Claiming only “see it, own it” is an abstraction of this much larger idea, and it seems to have neglected a fundamental part.

My concern with an educational environment in which “see it, own it” is enough is the lack of collective responsibility. If we want a certain community, I say to my students all the time, we have to build it. We can’t just talk about it – we have to do something.

So why don’t we?

Fear: I can’t be wrong.

In evolutionary terms, fear is a primary human motivator. We are afraid of the dark, spiders, and heights because these things can harm us physically and limit our ability to reproduce. We are also afraid of losing face, losing a sense of self, and damaging our self-esteem. We are afraid of being wrong and looking like we don’t know the answers because we think we should. We are afraid of admitting failure because we put ourselves up on pedestals of expertise.

And when it’s very clear that something has gone wrong, we rationalise. We make excuses. We deflect. We remove ourselves from the situation and blame someone or something else. The fundamental attribution error, or FAE, applies here: If something goes well, it’s due to my disposition and I deserve credit, but if something goes poorly, it’s due to the situation and it’s not my fault. (Go figure.) We act like this because it is easier than accepting our part in what has gone wrong and doing something about it. It is easier to excuse than to solve or to do. I can’t be wrong so instead I push the problem away from myself.

As I explore with my students, psychology suggests that much of what we do is meant to protect us from what is mentally uncomfortable or difficult. This often comes in the form of cognitive dissonance. For example, I see myself as a person who cares for the environment and yet I fly many times a year. I recognise the contradiction and this makes me uncomfortable. Instead of giving up flying because that’s hard and frankly, I don’t want to do that (oh gosh, how environmentally conscious am I, really?) I tell myself that other people fly more often, or that the plane might as well be full, or that I don’t use plastic straws so at least I’m helping somehow.

I make excuses instead of solving the problem because I refuse to accept that I am part of the problem. After all, what would that do to my sense of self? What if I’m wrong? I am afraid of what I might find if I start to look. What if I’m not the person I claim to be? And what if everyone else sees that?

I am afraid and I choose to do nothing.

Indifference: This really isn’t my problem.

Another reason that people in schools fail to solve problems is indifference. They really don’t care about the problem because they don’t actually see themselves as part of a community that honours X, Y, or Z. These are the people who say, “I just work here” or “That’s not my job”.

While this might be valid in certain contexts and I accept that this may be the case in organisations, it is not an acceptable attitude when young people and adults are being harmed due to someone else’s indifference. If we do not all agree to be part of the community and build the community, there will never be a community. People who behave indifferently erode what could be and therefore actively harm everyone else and the very concept of community.

We have to recognise that the problem exists and this means caring enough about the environments that we are in to recognise that none of us exists in a vacuum. We have all chosen to be part of something and we have the option to choose differently if we realise we don’t want to be there. But we cannot simply opt out without having an adverse impact on others. Choosing not to participate is as much of an action as any other action.

Claiming that, “This isn’t my problem” is an action. It is an action of doing nothing.

Uncertainty: What am I supposed to do?

I think uncertainty is closely related to fear but I’m going to address it separately for the sake of clarity.

Many would argue that there are those who do care and do want to help but they just don’t know how, or there are obstacles at every turn. I agree that this is often the case. I have heard many, many teachers say, “Well what am I supposed to do? I don’t make the decisions around here.” Alright, yes. There are many decisions that teachers do not make, but there are also many decisions that teachers do make. One that has become increasingly obvious to me is the option to sit down with someone and point out a concern that they have clearly not considered, for whatever reason. There might not be a “fix” but at least there is now deliberate awareness of something that is not right.

Please understand, it is okay to be uncertain. But it is not okay to use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. There’s a slippery slope from uncertainty to something deeper and I think it’s important to be aware of this. The question of what to do often has a real answer and we need to recognise when we are asking that question genuinely and when we are using it as a way to shield ourselves from having to act.

What are we supposed to do? We’re supposed to recognise that the problem is there, consider our role in the community, and act in accordance with that role. What kind of community do we want to build? Behave in the ways that reflect this community.

Callousness: I just don’t care.

This one is really tricky for me because for a long time, I didn’t believe that callousness actually existed in education. It was a very painful lesson to find that, in fact, some people are involved in education just because that’s how life went and not because they have any sort of interest in young people or in making the world a better place. In nine years as an educator, I have learned that some people really are involved in this field because the holidays are good and because, in many systems, they’re largely left alone to do whatever they want.

I can say a lot about such systems but I will stick with the topic of this post right now. As much as it deeply hurts me to say it, there are people in education who just don’t care. I wish this were not the case. These people should not have a place in any environment where their actions affect others, and particularly young people. Such people are concerned for themselves with utter neglect of anyone or anything else. And they are unlikely to change.

I am disturbed by people who pretend to care because that’s how to get away with doing whatever they want to do, and I have learned not to trust them. It has been a difficult lesson. These people, in and of themselves, are problems that schools need to solve.

Conclusion

The first step to solving a problem is identifying the problem. We must admit that it is there. Members of a community are often very happy to be part of what’s going well and toss their hat into the ring of what’s popular, but they often fail to act the same way when something is not going well and is not popular. No one wants to be the person who says, “This isn’t working. I know we spent a lot of time on it but I dropped the ball here and miscalculated there. I’m sorry. This is how I will move forward and help us all recover.” No one wants to be the person who says, “I wish this weren’t the case but this is what happened and I’m not in a position to fix the system. What can I do right now instead?”

Schools have problems when those difficult conversations are avoided and when band-aids are put on problems so that things look better. In reality, problems are perpetuated because the retrofitted system continues. Schools have problems when there is no sustainability because there were no deliberate systems in the first place. The way to develop sustainability is to stop patching up the problems and actually get your hands dirty and fix them.

No one ever said this was easy. It’s not. But it’s essential if we want to live in a world that is more just than this one. And it’s required if we claim to be part of a community.

Step one: Look the problem in the face.
Step two: Take a deep breath.
Step three: Do something about it.