Category Archives: Education

The world is a complex place. Discuss.

“So, what exactly is ToK?”

ToK, or Theory of Knowledge, is the IB Diploma Programme’s core class, the class that is grounded in the real world and supposed to help students make connections across their six subjects and to their everyday experiences. I love what this course aims to do and the way the newest curriculum has been designed. (And no, I am not being paid to say that.) I’ve been teaching ToK for four years now and the most common question I get from students and families is the question above: “So, what exactly is ToK?”

I generally explain that ToK is the class that allows us to say, ‘The world is a complex place. Discuss.’ It is a course that emphasizes critical thinking about the world around us.

The adults are generally intrigued by this and express regret at not having had such a course, or excitement that their students will have this opportunity. The students typically look at me with bemused or skeptical expressions and I hedge: “It’ll make sense after about a year.”

Generally, it does. It takes time to learn to think critically (and it also takes brain development, which is often neglected in popular conversation). It further takes maturity, and therefore time, to develop the academic confidence to do so. The expectations for critical thinking are remarkably high in many aspects of the IB Diploma, although unfortunately not so high in the media cycles our students are bombarded with as they try to navigate the world.

As a humanities/social studies/individuals and societies teacher, critical thinking is an area of learning that I am required to teach and assess, and provide feedback on student progress. This is hard to do, especially when students are young, and far too often, the emphasis on test scores robs students and teachers of the classroom time for discussions and activities that might actually build critical thinking skills. And yet, there is clearly a desire in society for students to leave school knowing how to think critically. (My somewhat lengthy reflection on that idea from years ago, which remains valid today, is here.)

Recently I had a moment with a grade 10 student in which he walked away having learned something and I walked away feeling like we’d done something right. I’ve been an educator for over ten years now and sometimes it’s still hard to know. We went over the instructions for a task in which students were to consider an essential system in daily life, break it down into parts and rank the parts by importance, and then construct a visual representation. (I take no credit for the task; there are some real gems in teacher resource books and I hadn’t even been the one to find it.)

The young man looked at me and I clarified the instructions further. He looked down at the text in front of him, paused, and then said, “It’s not so easy, actually.”

I nodded. “Exactly. That’s exactly the point.”

“Mhm. Okay,” he said and got straight to work.

Discussing the task after visuals were created and presented, students commented on how the activity had made them think about what we generally don’t think about, areas that seem obvious but are not so obvious when we take the time to look. Precisely. This is critical thinking, and this is what I pointed out to students. I urged them to be careful when looking at something that seems complicated and someone exclaims, ‘It’s so obvious.’ That’s how you immediately know it’s not so obvious. We talked about conspiracy theorists and how they look for simple answers to complex questions. If the answers were simple and straightforward, we wouldn’t have the questions.

Another activity that I use with many age groups is considering the significance of events in the news. We read the news for 7-10 minutes and students are asked to share not only what they read, but also why it is important. It’s always to watch critical thinking develop here, and to look at the connections students are or are not able to make. This also gives me information about which students to push and in which directions.

A final recent example is from one of my favourite teaching techniques that I learned as an undergrad. (Yes, we do learn techniques! There are methods!) Students were provided with a debatable question, positions assigned (for the most part, not the positions the students themselves would have chosen), and background reading provided. Students developed arguments in favour of the assigned side, presented them to an opposing group, took notes as the other group spoke, and then were able to provide an informed answer to the debatable question.

Significant value in this lesson comes in the debrief, by which point the bigger purpose is clear to most students. It’s a challenging skill to look at a perspective you don’t agree with because it forces you to consider arguments in its favour. This then means that you have a better understanding of your own perspective because you actually know what the other side is saying, which means you have evidence to counter what they are saying. I always appreciate when students say that they were actually persuaded by the other side because they realized ideas that they hadn’t thought of before. This is why we take the time to look at the other side. (I also like to bridge into psychology – cognition, confirmation bias, active listening.)

A critical part of my role as an educator is to prepare students for their assessments. As much as I might wish otherwise, it would be irresponsible and unethical to ignore this. But an equally critical part of my role as an educator is to raise young people who are able to contribute to the world and help it become better and more peaceful. This requires them to learn, to think, to reflect, and to learn some more.

The world is a complex place. Discuss.

Trieste, Italy – January 2020

Language in Schools

I find myself with time to write, which either means I haven’t been doing enough physical activity or I have settled into some sort of routine. I suspect a bit of both, and likely the role of additional confounding variables. Time to write is also time to think, and I’ve been thinking a lot about language.

As I try to learn German, which first became a project back in January, I have found that my other languages are disappearing. I can understand most of what I read in French (my phone is in French and it’s still easier for me to read food labels and assembly instructions in French rather than German when the option presents itself) but I can’t think in French at all. I can’t find words, construct ideas, form sentences. I can read or listen and understand, but I can’t communicate.

The situation with Hebrew is worse. I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten and kept it up through high school, but never had an intuitive grasp on the language. Unfortunately, we were taught Hebrew in English. (I’ve been learning German in German and that has made a huge difference.) Very recently, for example, I met an Israeli man on a tour of Munich. He tried speaking to me in Hebrew and again, I couldn’t respond. I knew what I wanted to say in German, but that was the best I could do. Instead, we spoke English.

It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.

This has me thinking about how we use language in international schools, and I have made different observations here than in both Malaysia and Singapore.

In Malaysia, English was the lingua franca for my students, all of whom spoke some degree of English and learned Mandarin and Malay in school. With few exceptions, they spoke Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil at home, and/or previously attended schools that functioned in any of the four languages. English is the default for mixed groups in Malaysia, certainly by educated people, and so it was at school. No questions asked.

It surprises a lot of people to learn that Singapore functions first and foremost in English. English is the language of schools, business, and government. There are special programs that operate in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, but otherwise these are language and literature classes within English schools. Many Singaporeans, however, do not speak English at home. There is a generational difference in Singapore between Mandarin speakers and speakers of other Chinese languages, notably Hokkien, and everybody else. The majority of the population is of Chinese descent and one can get by in that community without using English. It also helps that anything provided by the government, including the public transportation system, is available in all four languages.

Since my students in Singapore came from around 75 countries, English was their common language, as well. Danau Tanu’s wonderful book on international schools addresses the ways in which students group themselves by facility with language, and this could not have been more obvious in the environment of my school. Without getting into the social politics here, there was a clear divide between those comfortable in English and those who were not. That Singapore itself lives in English meant that obviously school would, too, with obvious exceptions among specific groups.

It is different in a small town in Germany where life outside of school is only in German. With merely a handful of exceptions, my students are German and that is the language they speak among themselves. I’ve been told of only one teacher who insists upon the use of English during her literature classes. My students are kind enough to switch to English when they want me to understand their discussions, at which point I can provide feedback. It’s also a great way for me to get to know them. Otherwise, my eavesdropping is limited to the little German I can understand.

I have thought a lot about this: Do I require students to share, collaborate, and discuss amongst themselves in English so I can be part of this element of the learning process? Or do I provide an opportunity for them to clarify, explain, and understand in the language that is clearly more comfortable for many of them? (I should say here, all of them have excellent academic fluency in English, whether they believe it or not.)

By contrast, in Singapore there were always a group or two of students who did not speak English while working in small groups. And I never asked them to switch to English because I recognized how difficult, tiring, and intimidating it was to be in their position. One difference is that in Singapore, I was working with much larger classes and I couldn’t possibly be part of every small-group task. Here, the class sizes are such that I could be. So who would benefit from a shift in the social norms of the classroom?

It’s a confronting question because it means I need to think about my role as an educator. Who am I in a classroom, and what does it mean to support the young people that I work with? They know something significant that I cannot currently access, and that is not a place I have been in before. Making decisions in this environment requires different considerations, and I find myself taking both sides of the argument.

At the moment, my goal is to learn German. At this point, while I understand some of what my students say, I better understand body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and typical teenage behaviour. Importantly, though, learning German will give me entry to the culture that I am living in. I am lucky to have found a group of German friends through climbing and while all of them speak better English than I speak German, they are happy and patient when I try, and quick to point out simple errors. And so I do try, though I’m a lot quieter than I might otherwise be, and I get lost in loud places where people talk extremely quickly with grammatical constructions that don’t appear in textbooks. I’ve learned to ask for help, but someone usually translates into my ear before I need to. Body language. Facial expressions. Sometimes it’s just important to be there.

As for my students, I enjoy working with them regardless of language. I have a different appreciation for what it means to really live in another language than I did before moving here, and greater admiration for young people whose experiences put them at crossroads. After a lifetime of learning a language in school, it’s a joy to finally use it not because I want to, but because I need to.

Learn a language and you’ll avoid a war. – Arabic proverb

Before the First Day of School

I don’t know how other jobs work. When you start a new job, do you have time to ease in? Are there people around who can set aside their own tasks to walk you through things you don’t know? Are you joining a team with a defined role, or are you a new member of a group defining your own role?

I don’t know how other jobs work.

I just know that every time a new teaching job begins, it’s like starting from the first day all over again. “How are you doing?” people keep asking me. This will be my eleventh year teaching and the best I can say is, “I’m doing.” The sympathetic nods and kind smiles I receive in response indicate that my state of managed overwhelm is not unexpected.

Perhaps teaching is unique in the sense that you have a finite amount of time to prepare for everything, after which everything you do will have an impact on the life of a young person. I don’t mean to make myself sound more important than I am; after all, many, many things impact all of us every day and I possess no powers of divination with which to determine what is or is not ultimately relevant. Rather, it seems that the need to be good at your job has different stakes.

But again, I don’t know how other jobs work.

I do know that it always feels like this upon joining a new school. And to some degree, at the start of a new school year. In which other jobs does the entire staff use a week to prepare before beginning? It’s a bit like the performing arts, actually. Everything needs to be ready before day one and then, despite even years of rehearsal, so much seems to come down to improv – what do these particular young people need on this particular day? Making that series of decisions at the very moment they arise is both an art form and a science, one that is honed over time, and one that fades into the background when we prepare in the abstract.

Our students start on Wednesday and it feels a bit like I’m missing the forest for the trees. Much of what I’m preparing right now might be irrelevant once I meet them, yet I can’t meet them without having done this preparation. My agonizing about the loss of a piece of technology that has been at the centre of half my teaching career, while requiring me to rethink, reframe, and readjust, might very well have no impact on these students at all. I am spending my time trying to figure out new unit planners, new locations for resources, new policies, and new classroom arrangements, all of which are invisible when the students arrive but which lay the groundwork for the system to run.

And when the students arrive, I remember how it feels to educate, to learn, to inquire, to build community with young people. I remember that I’m not only competent at my job but good at it, and that every day with students brings me more joy than any school day without them.

I don’t know how other jobs work.

I don’t know if other people wake up in the middle of the night with visions of how to redo something they’ve already considered done. I don’t know the questions people in other jobs ask themselves.

In my 100 hours with these students this year, what kind of person do I want to help them become?

We need the prep work and time because we need a solid foundation. These are people we are shaping. Of course, we educators are just a small part of raising these young people; there are a plethora of other factors over which we have no control. But we have a wonderful opportunity to do some good and all young people deserve that.