Quality education – What is it?

The question of what constitutes a quality education is one that fascinates me.  It is dependent on context, culture, and perspective and is a contentious subject whether being discussed in the field of development or in western education systems.  I recently wrote on the subject in the context of Ghana – a country I spent some time in as a teacher in a poorer, rural setting.

My experience of education in Ghana was very different from how I was trained in Australia and how I practice in the international school system.  Instruction was exclusively teacher-centred and students did find it difficult at first to adjust to my style of teaching.  Resources were scarce.  Students had a textbook and the school had a library but there was no internet access.  Teachers had use of chalk and a blackboard but that was really the extent of it.  Lack of resources though was not the biggest problem.  There was a very closed off culture in the school which seemed typical in that the staff weren’t comfortable with opening their classrooms to others or sharing teaching and learning strategies.  Creativity was not valued.  This meant that the teachers saw no alternatives to the status quo.

Students in my science class at Nandom Senior High School

Having said all that, the students did very well in the WASSCE (West African Secondary School Certificate Examinations) which is the university entrance examinations.  Clearly, the system worked for these students in this context. The system worked for the teachers too as they excelled within it and hence saw no need for change.

The question of the large proportion of students that don’t make it to the end of secondary education, however, is not addressed.  There are many contributing factors such as poverty and gender but to what extent the institutionalised pedagogical practices are to blame is not understood.  Students who do complete secondary school are not trained in critical thinking and creativity is stifled.  These skills are not important for success in a knowledge based examination system and are therefore not valued.  But what type of student does an emphasis on rote learning within an authoritative system produce and are these students prepared for life outside that system?

Some argue that imposing a student-centred, inquiry-based model of teaching and learning on African countries like Ghana is another example of Western hegemony.  Others argue that a progressive education is the best way to prepare students for the challenges they face as adults in any context.

I wonder how much of learning is independent of culture.  I wonder if there is just one way that is the best, universally.  I also wonder if it even really matters when such a range of different outcomes to education are expected in different contexts.




A Pilot Program for Teaching Global Issues in Middle School

This year we tried a new program that is in development in partnership with UCL for teaching global issues to middle school students.  The program is called Nodebook.

There is nothing more dangerous than the right answer to the wrong question – Peter Drucker

View a video introducing the program, its goals and mission HERE.

My school participated in the Freedom of Expression unit with the entire 7th grade of approximately 45 students.

What is Nodebook?

This is an online program where students from a number of schools collaborate in teams over a digital platform to discuss aspects of a particular global issue.  They then work together to research and create a web report on a topic connected with the issue.  It is being developed by

Each week is on a different theme to do with the issue.  There is always a video to view and discuss that introduces the week’s theme followed by two case studies which students also read and discuss both in their classes and online.  The remainder of the activities are to do with the selection of a topic, research and preparation of the final web report.

Initial student responses to the question “What values do you think are important for a global citizen?

To understand in different perspective, so to be able to object or agree to things.

It is important to be able to watch what you say as a global citizen, especially about assuming things about races, when there are so many kids and friends around that are from different countries, that you might offend.

To be kind, and polite. To be able to freely share ideas, to know when the limit is when it comes to not being polite

I believe that human rights is the most important value that all citizens should have although some don\’t. I think that freedom of speech is the next most important value.

To think about other peoples perspective/human rights.

Making connections to service

Types of service at YIS

After completing the project, students were asked to plan and carry out an action based on what they had learned.  They spent a session on the service cycle and what types of actions they could consider.

The students ended up coming up with a range of different actions depending on their specific topic to do with Freedom of Expression.  These included promoting positive messages, using different forms of communication, using social media to highlight the issue, and advocacy through promoting ideas both within the school and to the wider community.

The results

FOE action
Promoting positive messages

The program encountered some logistical and methodological challenges.  We incorporated the program into our normal weekly tutor sessions whilst borrowing a period from one other subject that was connected to the theme for that week.

This promoted the idea that Freedom of Expression was an issue that crossed different subject areas.  It also gave a chance for more teachers to be part of the project.  The problem was that through timetabling issues, often didn’t have the opportunity to introduce the subject related theme for that week so were more often than not just supervising students working independently on the Nodebook platform.

The participation from outside schools was also extremely limited which meant that the teams were essentially their classmates.  Greater participation from the outside schools would have lead to some far more interesting and challenging discussions within the groups.

Some students got more out of the program than others.  Below are some of the reflections students completed at the end of the project.

After working on nodebook I think that I do look differently at people and their perspectives and the way I talk to them. Because I now know that the people I am talking to have different rights and freedoms then I do.

If I see cyberbullying on social media to be honest I think I won’t step in just because I don’t want to be involved. If I see a friend of mine or a person I know then I think I am going to take action.

I know I will think about the news more, and how it might be limited to what they can shine light on. Especially in countries that limit what it’s people can view. With my group, we have made a video connected to gender inequality. My goal for that video is to reach about 100 views on social media.

The experience has encouraged me to take actions in the future even if they are small and insignificant.

Where to now

The key to the success of the program is full participation of the schools involved.  Without this, the discussions are less challenging with the same perspective being voiced.  One of the advantages of the program is that there is no formal assessment attached to it.  Although I would be loathed to lose this aspect, in practical terms, if you are asking a school to devote enough time for the students to discuss and participate in the different activities, the program needs to be embedded in one main curriculum area.  This means attaching MYP criteria assessment or at least the opportunity to assess some of the criteria to the program.

Too often students jump straight to the action phase or spend a cursory amount of time investigating the issue when participating in service learning.  This program provides an opportunity for students to dive deeply into the issue and thus makes any actions that do eventuate more likely to be meaningful.  The program certainly has a lot of potential and it will be very interesting to see how it develops to overcome the challenges I’ve set out, in the future.


Assessment – Two Great PD’s and One New Old Thing!

It has been a great spring break but it is fast approaching an end and I’m starting to think about school again since I’ll be back to work on Monday.  My musings have included reflecting on the positives from the previous ten weeks or so and how I can continue to move forward in the last ten weeks of this academic year.  So here, in no particular order, are my top three take-aways from last term!


In February we had a whole school PD event with Bonnie Singer.  She introduced us to a way of visually organising information as an alternative to using webs that are often confusing and illogically organised.  We looked at six alternative structures for organising information for different purposes:

  1. sequencing
  2. compare and contrasting
  3. showing relationships
  4. causes and effects
  5. telling
  6. categorising

Each of these BrainFrames™ have some common rules.

  • boxes – for big ideas or thoughts that anchor the frame
  • circles – for the ideas you are generating
  • arrows – to show direction in terms of time
  • lines – to connect circles to boxes when there is no time relation involved

The frames can be used for a quick assessment to check understanding, as a tool for planning larger assignments, a classwork activity, a structured alternative way of brainstorming and the list goes on…

I began by trying out a sequencing frame with my grade 7 science class.  This frame is designed for planning stories or essays.  In my science class though, I flipped it.  I demonstrated it by giving them a recipe for chocolate cake and we constructed the frame from the instructions.

Sequencing BrainFrame™ for my famous chocolate cake recipe!

The next lesson we were making hydrogen and carbon dioxide gas so to prepare for the lab, I asked them to read the instructions and make a sequencing frame to be their cheat sheet for lab day.  It worked a treat in terms of their understanding of the lab and I had far less ‘what do I do now’ type questions than normal when they did the experiments.

Grade 7 having a go at their sequencing frames.
The finished product – simple and logical.







This was a great PD because it gave us a tool that we could all use with our students regardless of year level, subject and ability.  I’ve since used all six BrainFrames™ in different classes and this strategy is now firmly entrenched in my teacher toolkit.

Collaboration for Growth – MYP

Team YIS on our way to Bangkok

This was the second great PD I did last term.  Two for two isn’t bad at all!

The CFG is a collaboration between three like-minded schools – NIST in Bangkok, Western Academy in Beijing and YIS in Japan.  We got together in Bangkok to discuss assessment in the middle years.

Exciting ideas generated at the CFG

The goal of the PD was to strip away the constraints put on us by the curriculum guidelines, our school’s policies, parent and student expectations and our own limitations and explore what ideally good practice in terms of assessment would look like.  We then brought it back to reality and began talking about how we could apply some of those big ideas into our daily practice in some form or another.

This is an ongoing discussion and at YIS, we decided to focus this term on the rubrics we use.  It seems these are confusing and at times not at all helpful to our students, our parents and even ourselves!  And we wrote them!  To this end we have decided to rework an existing rubric we use for a grade 7 class and make it more useful.

I’ve decided to work on the task specific clarification we have developed for our science fair project in grade 7.  One of the take-aways we got from the student panel at the CFG was that students really find exemplars useful.  My idea is to try and combine the exemplar within the rubric, make it clear how to progress from one level to the next and strip away all the ‘teacher speak’ as much as possible.  The document below has my idea and the original it came from.  My worry now is that by combining the exemplar with the rubric, it has become too complicated.

Have any suggestions?  Feel free to comment on the google doc directly or below to this post.

This is still very much a work in progress and I can’t wait to see what the others come up with and what we end up producing together.

VoiceThread – Old for many, new for me!

This has been around for a while but I had never used it before.  I wanted something that I could use get a basic idea of students understanding of a topic in IB Chemistry that didn’t involve me marking yet another piece of written work.

VoiceThread allows users to make voice comments around some kind of visual stimulus.  So to make sure they were thinking and exploring the topic of benzene and its structure, I had the class construct a VoiceThread for me around some visual stimuli I provided.

On each slide, my comment is the instructions and then you can hear what the students produced.  It was an easy exercise for them to complete, we then played it and discussed it in class and it is posted on our Google+ Community (IB Chemistry @YIS) for preservation purposes!

This is another tool I think I will begin to use more of for assessment as well as for working on collaboration skills.

In the end, I learnt a lot last term.  I hope my students benefited from my learning too!  I’ll probably get them to produce a VoiceThread based around a couple of BrainFrames™ with a new and improved rubric attached, to assess whether they did or not!

On the path to enabling critical global citizenship

So far this year, I’ve been working on a module for my masters in Development Education and Global Learning.  The module is looking at different concepts of development and how they have changed over the last 100 years and how development education has evolved alongside these changing concepts.

At the beginning of the module we were asked to describe our own ideas of what development means and I drew a picture!  You can see my explanation of this weird doodle on my blog.

My Weird Doodle

I have been thinking a lot in this module about ideas from post-colonialism theory. This theory recognises that the unequal power relationships that were established during the colonial era and continue to persist today have helped caused the issues facing us as a global society.  The imbalance of power between the global north and the global south is often not recognised by development programs in schools to the point that stereotypes of the global south are unintentionally reinforced as is the message of it is “up to the west to save the rest”.

At YIS we are heavily involved in service and I want students to start looking more critically at their choices of action.  Service should not be an end goal but rather an action taken as result of becoming more aware of our own involvement in the issues facing the world.  I think that this can only be achieved by embedding development education within curriculum areas.

Recently in grade 7 Science with a unit about elements and compounds, we raised the issue of conflict minerals.  Technology companies including Apple and Microsoft both use minerals sources from mines in the Congo and other regions which are committing gross human rights violations.  We wanted students to realise that in using technology, they play a role in continuing the human rights abuses going on there by providing the market for these minerals.

By understanding our own involvement in development issues, we can make better choices and even be motivated to get involved in action which helps to address the root cause of the issue.  This is a very difficult understanding to impart to grade 7!  In the past their responses have been black and white and not really realistic.  Giving up technology totally was often given as a response which isn’t an option for most people.

This year we tried to address the issue in a way that made the students think about more feasible actions.  This was successful to a point.

I think if we in YIS informed each other about what it actually is that we are holding in our hands, we could jointly inform others, like Apple and other companies. We know that some companies are trying to actually do something about this, but still there is a lot to do. Maybe we could write some letters to Apple. I am not telling you not to buy from Apple but if they could stop buying minerals from countries such as Congo it would make a big difference. (Student response)

At this time, although most students expressed similar opinions to the one above, they haven’t been motivated to put their thoughts into action or pursue the matter further now that the unit is over.

They see issues like this as being too huge and too far removed from themselves despite ‘holding in [their] hands’ the tangible evidence of the problem.  So, I still have work to do!

IB Chemistry Teachers Unite!

We often hear that the best PD is when teachers can just get together and share their experiences.  Certainly some of the most useful PD I’ve done, has occurred separate from the scheduled agenda of the workshop.  Instead I’ve gained the most useful resources, tips and ideas during conversations I’ve had when I’ve been ‘off task’ or at lunch or both!

So when my partner teacher (@harrisonel) at YIS and I were discussing PD possibilities for ourselves in IB Chemistry, her suggestion of hosting a job-a-like struck me as a terrific idea.

Chemistry Job a like-2080
Discussing ideas in the Chem Lab @YIS

   There are a lot of schools in the Kanto Plains area here in Japan that are running the IB and with the new course now into its first year, this provided us with a great opportunity to touch base with other teachers also testing out the new curriculum.

The big discussion points of the day were managing the internal assessment, possibilities for group 4 projects, nutting out the nature of science component and investigating the new options.  A lot of useful ideas and resources were collected and we have begun a community on Google+ (IB Diploma Chemistry Teachers) to manage all these.

We hope the conversations we started will continue.  If you are an IB Chemistry teacher we want to hear from you!  Feel free to have a look at some of the resources we shared and add your own to the collection too.  It would be great to see our community grow so that we can all benefit from our shared understandings!

The PD session was such a success that the next one has already been decided upon.  It will be hosted by Seisen International School in November 2016!   Details to follow!

Thank You!

We would like to thank the leadership team at YIS for giving us their full support in running and hosting the event.  Another big thank you to Zest Catering for their delicious meals.  No one went home hungry from our job-a-like!  Finally, I would like to thank Ed for taking the photo!

Digging Sources for Minerals in Grade 7

VCEE strategy
Ms Vance with 7c students talking VCEE

Grade 7 have begun their first research assignment for Science this year. They are studying a topic on elements and compounds and are looking in to the types of materials that go into making the technology they are using at home and in school. Through this, they are exploring the issue of conflict minerals.  

There is a lot of confusing information out there on this issue and science articles in general can prove challenging for a middle schooler to decipher! Thanks to our terrific new librarian Ms Katy Vance (@katyvance), grade 7s have been introduced to a great strategy for understanding science articles. 

In a nutshell, students are required to: Untitled document Google Docs    You can read more about the VCEE strategy developed specifically for middle school students here.  Our students are now busily preparing blog posts and videos that will explain the different elements and compounds that make up their technology, what they are used for and where they come from.  They will also be looking to inform you about conflict minerals and give some thoughts and opinions on what should be done about this issue.  Stay tuned!  VCEE strategy


Development – What does it mean to me?

What a question!  My first writing task for my new module on Principles and Practices in Development Education.

My first thought for this was simple.  Development means choice and opportunity.  Having been born, raised and educated in a developed country, means that I have been spoilt for choice from day one.  I have had the opportunity to move forward in almost any direction I wish.

I can choose.

So I chose to doodle and here is the result of my unartistic efforts!

An Ugly Doodle
An Ugly Doodle

This is what development means to me.  It is when people have more choices and opportunities because they have access to robust and affordable health care and education. Development means working towards providing a politically stable environment where people are able to openly discuss and debate traditional and modern ideas to bring about change.

Development is about international cooperation and local empowerment.  It is about the ability to harness opportunities provided by scientific and technological innovation in a society striving for  peace, fairness and equality for all.

That is what development means to me.

Creating Communities

Adventures at Learning2

Sharing my community at Learning2

Over the last three years, I have been using a Google+ community with my Chemistry IB students.  My students and I have found it to be the easiest way of sharing resources, work and questions.  It is a public space and there are people from outside our school who have joined as members and they too add resources and discussion from time to time.

At the recent Learning 2.0 conference in Manila, I shared my experience using this community in the classroom with some of the participants.  Below is the presentation I used with links to the community.  Feel free to have a look around!

Engaging Middle School Students in Global Issues

It was my first year of taking over the middle school Global Issues Network (GIN) club and only my second year at the school.  I still hadn’t worked out the librarians name or how to order new board markers but I did know where to find the unit planners for my subject and I’d learnt how to use a google doc.  Things were looking up.

The latest concert put on by middle schoolers for middle schoolers to raise money for the Green Gecko Project in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Then after the first few initial GIN meetings, a posse (that is the most apt word to describe this particular group of students) of 7th graders approached me with an idea.  They wanted to put on a large scale concert to raise awareness of the issues they were pursuing and raise funds for the NGO’s they were supporting.

“This is a big undertaking”, I told them.  “There are lots of things to think about here.”  And we proceeded to brainstorm all the things that they would need to be do to get such a project underway.  The meeting ended and I went to my next class, safe in the knowledge that I had totally put them off the idea by outlining how much work it would mean for them.

At the following week’s meeting, I was stunned to discover that these tenacious 7th graders had gone and spoken with the head of secondary to secure permission for the event, consulted with various staff members to arrange performances by different groups, picked and okayed a date and venue along with a host of other logistics that were needed to be put in place.

There was nothing I could do now, so I rolled with it and six weeks later, the students put on a concert for the middle school and raised a not insignificant amount of money.  There were a number of issues that needed to be worked out about the organisation but they were so happy with their success that they wanted to repeat it the following semester.  And so they did.

The students are now veterans of concert management after putting on four of these events entirely on their own with each one getting slicker and slicker as they progressed.  Myself and fellow MS GIN coordinator @AdamClark71 have been thoroughly impressed by them.  But while they have learnt a lot from the experience and grown as leaders, communicators, organisers and problem solvers, each successive event has been less about the global issues they wanted to highlight and more about the event itself.

So here is the problem.  How do we focus that amazing middle school drive, enthusiasm and tenaciousness and steer it in the right direction to produce more critical global citizens?

What do I mean by a critical global citizen?  Vanessa Andreotti has written a lot about this subject.  In the article “Soft Versus Critical Global Citizenship Education”, she gives an outline about the differences between the two.  To summarise, a lot of the time, students don’t critically engage with the issues they are exploring.  Instead, they may raise awareness of a particular issue through posters, blogging or organising events or raise money to give to various NGO’s that work in that particular field.  And there is certainly a place for this type of activity and it is important.

What I want my students to do though, is go to the next step.  I want them to look at the issue and understand how it is perpetuated today.  And here is the real kicker.  I want them to understand the role they themselves play in creating and even exasperating the issue.

Let me give an example.  One of the groups in the GIN club was looking at the ocean environment.  This group did some research on problems caused by pollution.  They put up posters around the school to raise awareness and organised a beach clean-up locally.  All of this was valuable activity from the middle school students involved.

However, they never reflected critically on their own contribution to the problem.  They were still blasé about their attitudes towards recycling their own plastic waste from lunch, with items often disposed in the wrong bins after GIN meetings.  There was no indication that they were making decisions to buy items with less packaging or encouraging others close to them to do so.   In short, their own behaviours on a day to day basis didn’t change indicating a lack of real engagement with the problem.

In August when school starts up again, we will have largely a new set of students to work with.  In addition, we will have a new set of goals to introduce as the Millennium Development Goals are concluded and the finalised Sustainable Development Goals are released in September.

The plan to get greater critical engagement with the issues amongst our middle school students in GIN next year is to try a few different strategies.  These include:

  • Making meetings more efficient
    Have greater structure to the meetings with a student run agenda so that meetings become more useful and productive.
  • Various activities to introduce the Sustainable Development Goals
    Familiarise students with the new goals before they choose the area they want to focus on.
    Insist that their problem must relate to one of the above goals.
  • Accountability
    Require evidence of learning and activity to be published through structured reflection tools.

At the recent Middle School Conference in Tokyo, a group of us got together to discuss this problem.  The following Google doc with ideas and strategies were produced but I would love to get more.  If anyone has other ideas that could be useful, please feel free to comment on this post.


Image Credit

2015 Red and White-18 by @AdamClark71 published on SmugMug

Recurring Tasks in Google Calendar

I have always used a calendar of some form to organise my life.  It started in high school where I used to buy the cheapest homework diary I could find in the local newsagent at the start of the school year in February.  I wrote lists of things to do each day so I could tick them off.  I put due dates for all my assignments in there.

Filofax week 47
The filofax. Oh how I loved this!

Then I moved on to university and the filofax (or if I’m honest, the cheapest knock-off version of the filofax I could find).  I loved all the different sections and compartments and bits and pieces.  I had everything in that thing.  But it was really clunky and a lot to carry around with me.

So this became impractical and I ended up carrying around with me the smallest pocket-sized diary I could find to keep track of my life.  And this is what I used for years.  At work, I would write separate lists of tasks I needed to complete with due dates attached.  If I lost any of these bits of paper, I was screwed.  Sometimes I would forget to put my diary in my bag and then would double book myself or forget things. My to-do list was separate from my diary which also complicated things.

And then I moved to Japan.

In Japan, I got my first smart phone and I was introduced to Google Calendar.  Now my to-do list and my diary are all in the same place.  I can access it on my iPhone, my iPad and my computer.  Everything is great.

Below is a shot of my calendar at the moment.  I’m on holidays so my diary part is pretty empty but I’ve set myself plenty of things to do each day and I love that I can tick them off as I’ve done them.  It gives me a real sense of accomplishment as those ticks add up and I only clear the completed tasks off at the end of the the week so I can track my progress visually.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 9.05.52 AM
My Google Calendar with my tasks for the day set up. Everything in one place.

The other day I was trying to prioritise my life and set some new goals for myself.  One such goal was to do 30 minutes of exercise a day.  To remind me and to chart my progress I wanted to add this to my tasks for each day.  I was surprised to discover that Google Calendar doesn’t support recurring tasks.  I would have to manually put this in each day.  I noticed that on the forums, this feature has been asked for by many people for years now and I’m sure it will come eventually but for now, this is how I solved the problem.

There is no Google Calendar app for iPhone and iPad, so to get around this I use Sunrise Calendar and Go Tasks – both apps sync perfectly with my Google Calendar and are both free.  When I’m out and about, I can add, modify, delete events and tasks on my iPhone or iPad and it all syncs perfectly back to my Google Calendar.

Sunrise Calendar iPad
Sunrise Calendar for iPad and iPhone
Go Tasks app iPad
Go Tasks app for iPad and iPhone









Go Tasks is more powerful than the tasks feature on Google Calendar.  On this app, you can set tasks to recur daily, weekly etc.  It will appear on the day you initially set and then once you have achieved that task and tick it off (either in your Google Calendar or in the GoTasks app itself) it will then reappear automatically in the list for the next day you wanted it.

So here’s how to do it.

Step 1

Create a new task in Go Tasks on the first day you want it to occur.

Step 2

Once you’ve created the task and pressed done, hold your finger on the task until the menu below appears.

Edit details of task

Step 3

Select View Details and then select tap to set repeat.  A new menu will appear with the options for how often you want the task to recur.  Select your preference and you’re done!

 Recurring TasksSet how often to recurr








I’m sure eventually Google will get around to adding this feature, but until then, this works just as well.


Image Credit

Filofax week 47 shared on Flickr by Cy-V cc BY-NC-SA 2.0
All other images by Merilyn Winslade