When it’s Art and not Science


I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in.

–Neil Gaiman


I have been overwhelmed since arriving by the professional spirit at Daystar Academy. Faculty, Expat and Chinese alike have been requesting meetings, asking questions and rolling with the ever-fickle nature of the start of the school year like champs. –And they have been overwhelmingly gracious in dealing with a new MYP Coordinator who is just learning the ropes (and trying not to hang himself on them).

Among the many early contributions I have witnessed in the Secondary School, I would like to give special attention to Nick Grasso and Nicole Last who pushed through a messy transition process to co-develop a projects program for the MYP that spans all five years and provides a triple-tiered accountability and support process for students. It will make everyone’s job easier over the upcoming year (especially mine) and equip students with multiple faculty guides and a scaffolded process as they navigate the complex demands of the IB’s project requirements.

I can’t help but notice, however, that the vast majority of the questions I have been asked have to do with formatting unit plans…and objectives and criteria and Australia standards and Common Core Standards and priority vs. supporting standards and…formatting unit plans.

And that’s all well and good. But I hope we can turn our conversations over these last few days to conversations where we ask different questions, like:

  • How will we welcome our new students into our community?
  • How will we make our students feel safe on the first day?
  • How will we differentiate for introverts and extroverts in our icebreakers?
  • What do we hope to learn about our students by the end of the first week?
  • How can we from the very first week set up a reflective practice of the Daystar Core Values and the IB Learner Profile?
  • How will we make our students laugh in the first week?
  • How will we instill a sense of wonder in the first week?

I order to get us thinking about these and other questions, and to refresh our practice, I would like to introduce a couple of resources I will be using throughout the year:

  • The Modern Learning Lab Paper.li
    • This is a collection of resources from the web that I will update and share with you each week. This week’s collection includes several article on how to reflect on the first day of school, and the Neil Gaiman article the introductory quote comes from.
  • The Modern Learning Lab Google Site
    • This is the Google Site on which I curate past and future PD sessions and relevant media for Modern Learning. The page that I have linked here has more material for considering the well-being of students on the first day of school and suggests a process for refreshing our practice. It also recommends a bit of reflection before asking, “How was your summer?” on the first day back.

So keep on keeping on with the plans and the standards, but don’t forget to bring some magic and mess and marvel–some fairy fruit–to your first days with your new kids. I would love to talk to you about how you plan to accomplish this.

Good luck! And thank you for the generous welcome to Daystar.



Back to School Learning at ISE: Prep Week and Käsmu Retreat

Part 1: Teachers Back To School Prep

A week before the students returned, ISE faculty and staff were back at it, preparing for the school year through a series of collaborative activities led by our Principal Coordinators, our Learning Design Coach and our new Director, Mr. Don Payne.

Happy ISE teachers ignoring the presentation up front in order to take a selfie.

The week started with Mr. Payne asking us all what we wanted to “Stop, Start and Keep” as a school. During the activity, ISE teachers found out they clearly thought more alike than different and several issues were quickly decided upon for housekeeping.

As the week progressed, activities addressing key issues were highlighted each day, including:

  • Tuesday: Stop Start Keep, 6 Things Every Child Should Hear on their First Day of School
  • Wednesday: The Teacher as Self-Directed Learner
  • Thursday: Classroom Prep
  • Friday: Baby, Bathwater, Fresh Water (click the link for a review of our activities) 

Our final group activity was led by me as Learning Design Coach. When planning, Don and I realized that we had similar activities in mind for kicking off the year, so I bookended his “Stop, Start, Keep” with a similar individual activity, “Baby, Bathwater and Fresh Water”–a slightly more complicated way of expressing, “Stop, Start, Keep.” Teachers reflected on their personal practice and decided that they wanted to maintain, change and refresh in their own practice. My example can be found below.

Screenshot 2018-09-02 17.50.12
My 2018 edition of “Baby, Bathwater and Fresh Water”



Käsmu Retreat

The following week, the upper school was off for our annual opening retreat at Käsmu where the teachers turned over the reigns to the Student Council who did a phenomenal job of breaking the ice with the entire MYP and DP divisions through a number of bonding activities and sporting events.

The DP students couldn’t run the entire event, however, because they were occupied with the major part of their retreat which revolved around a DP CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) & TOK (Theory of Knowledge) introduction/refresher led by me, our new IBDP Principal Coordinator, Ritu Dubey and our new CAS Coordinator, Rae Hoff.


Introduction to CAS

The result of DP1 and DP2 student brainstorming CAS ideas for the coming school year.


Ms. Hoff conducted a one hour session on CAS requirements where students focused on brainstorming not just ideas for CAS projects, but the best ideas they could imagine. Ms. Hoff keenly pressed the students to dig deeper and us their imaginations to devise the best project ideas possible.

Introduction to Theory of Knowledge (ToK)

If you know any of my DP1 students, please ask them about the “London School of Economics and watch them either smile or grimace before, if you press them, you should hear:

the London School of Economics Is Really Interesting For Me

Which is not a a new college path for the students (although it could be: the LSE’s a fine school), but stands for:

  • Language
  • Sense perception
  • Emotion
  • Imagination
  • Reason
  • Intuition
  • Faith &
  • Memory


And now that you know that, you can start asking your student how they know what they know–the question at the heart of their Theory of Knowledge course. These “Ways of Knowing” (WoKs) formed the basis of my introduction to ToK for the DP1 students–as well as the basis for the broader course.

Ms. Dubey, on the other hand, spent most of the retreat refreshing our DP2 scholars on the discipline of ToK as a whole. Our DP2s will soon start working on their ToK essays–a key assessment in their IBDP Program which comprises 50% of their ToK grade. Both Ms.  Dubey and I were extremely pleased by the students’ progress, and student feedback was positive as well.



All in all, it looks like teaching and learning are both off to a great start at ISE this year. Please let us know what other aspects of Learning Design at the International School of Estonia you would like to hear about in our next post. 

Why the Factory Model of Schools Persists, and How We Can Change It

Over a coffee at the recent Learning2Asia conference, gamifying guru Robert Appino and I shared stories of our careers as “early adopters” of innovative learning strategies and techniques. He harkened back to a time, not as long ago as you would think, when he was considered the young “lone nut” at his first school because he would make consistent use of the overhead projector. “What’d we call it? Do you remember?” “The OHP,” I responded. “Yeah, yeah … remember that?” he smiled. So I asked him, in a world of iPads and Smartboards, in a world of personal learning networks and innovative learning conferences—was he satisfied with the rate of progress? Had we transformed learning? “Oh God. We’re not there yet!” he scoffed.

And I had to agree.

Many of us will trace the recent cry for modern learning reform back to Sir Ken Robinson’s now ubiquitous, Changing Educational Paradigms talk. His first TED talk on creativity in schools is the most-viewed TED talk in the world. It was given in 2006, just under ten years ago. So, a decade later, what is the state of change in learning and teaching? What do some of the leading innovators in education think? What’s the state of the revolution just under a decade “post-Robinson?” Why are the lone nuts like Appino discontent?

These questions came back to me recently at the Learning2Asia conference where I met Rob. Much like the annual ISTE conference and the biannual Innovate held at the Graded School in São Paulo, this was a meeting of brilliant and innovative kindred spirits. At a Learning2 conference, everyone is a modern-learning enthusiast and many, if not most, are experts in their fields. Let me assure you, these people know all about Sir Ken: At such an event you would be more likely to come across someone who can recite his talks word for word than someone who had never seen them. Most of these enthusiasts—heads of school, administrators and teachers—are also lucky enough to work with carefully nurtured students at financially stable international schools that encourage and underwrite employee participation in such events; schools that provide teachers and students with the technological infrastructure to support innovative learning.

What’s Taking So Long?

Then why was the theme of the conference “Disrupt”? Why was one of the more popular extended sessions titled, “Hack Your School”? Why were the tone and the theme of most of the mini-keynotes (“L2Talks”) tinged with exasperation at the pace of change in learning? Organizer Jeff Utecht’s closing talk was particularly effective at hitting this note by reminding us that we were a few weeks away from Marty McFly’s arrival, and young Marty wouldn’t need to adapt much at all when stepping back into his high school.

After his sobering, but hopeful, L2 talk “Breaking Traditional Moulds,” I walked right up to Sam Sherratt (the leader of the “Disrupt Strand”) to ask him for use of a particularly disconcerting slide from his presentation. The sketch of creepy-looking students being pumped off an assembly line branded International School of Everywhere was eerily evocative of Sir Ken’s talk, which was Sam’s intention. It was no wonder then, when I pointed this out, that we both smiled at each other and said, “Yeah, what the hell is taking so long?” That our question was more than rhetorical becomes clear when you realize that my school had sponsored a team to attend Sam’s multi-day session aimed at “the ‘early adopters,’ the ‘lone nut,’ or the innovators at their school.” The institution is subsidizing lone nuts: They want the inmates running the asylum. The push for change isn’t being met with pushback from above; the revolution will not be televised, it’s being subsidized.

While my colleagues were getting disruptive, I attended John Burn’s “Hack Your School” workshop. As advertised, Burns’ session was for “any educator interested in challenging the status quo in their individual classroom, division, or school community.” The session literally introduced a step-by-step process to do exactly what it promised, an experiment successfully underway at Shekou International School, which has become a model for other schools—because it has been hacked. From within. With permission. John was not laying his school under siege, he was promoting an institution-sanctioned disruption process for other schools to implement.

The experience of educators at Learning2 is critical for gauging our “post-Robinson” progress because it dispels the myth that if you provide adequate funding and remove governmental oversight and bureaucracy, you’ll hit the ramp to the transformation freeway. Few of the schools represented at Learning2 face the obstacles normally associated with public education, and yet still fewer of them were represented by educators—at any level—satisfied by the pace of change. The common theme of these conversations, presentations, and positions demonstrated that once you have eliminated the social and institutional obstacles to shifting educational paradigms, rapid transformation is hardly guaranteed.

Endgame Needed

“The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. And aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak, when you’re present in the current moment, when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing, when you’re fully alive.” —Sir Ken Robinson, Changing Educational Paradigms.

The disconnect between Sir Ken’s vision and our reality is not that it is out of touch with educators and education leaders, but that it does not accommodate the educational endgame. Imagine if the mission given to educators was to “make your students feel fully alive.” Then the change hoped for by the attendees at innovative learning conferences might have a chance. But the reality is that no matter how well we learn how to hack and disrupt our schools, our best intentions for changing the factory model will fail as long as our efforts culminate in the calibration of our students to factory standards for the college admissions process or the workplace.

More than our schools, our social expectations need disrupting. Our definitions of success and happiness need a paradigm shift. To this end, the lone nuts who attend innovative learning conferences need to carry the conversation forward: Educators and education leaders guiding their learning constituencies toward a tipping point in public opinion. This is the natural way of bringing to reality the ideals of Sir Ken as articulated by Sam Sherratt—a reality wherein “schools … reclaim their power, the power to shape lives, the power to create cultures and to define societies, instead of the other way ‘round.”

Originally published at EdWeek Teacher on November 3, 2015.

Response: Use ‘Compassion’ When Planning for a Substitute Teacher

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is the best advice you can offer to a sub, and to the teacher for how he/she can prepare for the sub?

Substitute teachers are essential to our schools.  Yet, it’s not unusual for students or for regular teachers to take them very seriously.   I have to admit that I consider it a success if I come back after an absence and the room isn’t torn apart and no referrals were made for students to go to the office.

This post will explore the best advice we can offer to a sub, and the best advice to teachers for how they can prepare for one.  Should we have higher hopes than I presently do?

Today, Roxanna Elden, Rachael George, Rachel Trowbridge, Kevin Parr, Amy Sandvold, William J. Tolley share their thoughts.

Response From William J. Tolley

We best prepare our classes for substitute teachers when we train our students to be responsible individuals. Our preparation for the sub need not be distinct from our general enculturation of our classes, nor our daily management of the classroom, nor the trust that we place in our students every day.

The Roman philosopher and educator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus advised that a teacher should: “Let his discourse continually turn on what is good and honorable; the more he admonishes, the less he will have to punish.” Quintilian’s recommendation is as sound today as it was in the First Century–and perhaps more relevant as he didn’t have to compete with iPhones and Snapchat.

Modeling and routine and–I would argue–trust, are the approaches a teacher must embrace to make sure that her students are ready to be “set loose” on a substitute. When you establish norms of respect and emphasize individual and group accountability on a daily basis, those behaviors will carry over during your absence.

In my classroom, the modeling and routine take the form of three consistent and formative instructional strategies and philosophies that nurture positive behavior in students:

  1. Gradual release of responsibility: By gradually turning accountability for learning over to your students through modeling and guided practice, students develop autonomy that carries over in your absence.
  2. Peer to peer instruction and student leadership: My students hear the phrase “Talk to the person on your left or right about…” so often in my classes, I have seen many of them adopt the routine when running their own club meetings. Why? Because it works. Not only does it remove the “sage on the stage” effect in the classroom and involve every student in the learning at once, it makes students accountable to each other; a situation that creates a genuine social incentive for participating responsibly.
  3. Blended learning: If you establish a blended learning routine then:
    • Students are regularly engaging with traditional and tech-based tools and pre-planned modules of work at differentiated paces both at home and, more importantly, in the classroom. Sometimes they work individually, sometimes in small groups.
    • You are regularly engaging your students in small groups and individually, to assess their knowledge and to coach them where they need additional instruction and guided practice.

In this scenario, your absence for a day will be nowhere as near dramatic as in a direct instruction classroom. There are often days where one-third to one-half of my students do not get facetime with me because I am working intensely with their peers as part of a small group or individual rotation. So, on the rare day that I am not there, it’s really just like every other day, but for everyone. Furthermore, the behavioral norms that we agree upon for “normal” days, tend to organically carry over in my absence.

That being said, you should still email a reminder when you are going to be out–and copy your superior or a colleague or two to make sure the students get the message one way or another. Here is an example from one of my absences last year that could easily be reworked into a form-letter:

Hello all, 

Sadly, I will be out today. Your sub and Mr. S have your work, but as on any day I am absent, I will be leaving you — with designated student facilitators — in charge. Please see below: 


IB History 2B: Alex and Emily

IB History 2D: Michael and Petra

Global Politics 2: Ivana and Sam 

  1. Facilitators, read the following directions to the class.
    1. Take 10 mins to organize yourselves, then have the relevant teams conduct their final presentations. 
    2. After each presentation, each team should lead a deliberation based on the discussion questions they developed. You know what to do. 
    3. Finally: Film approximately five minutes of each presentation and five minutes of each post-presentation discussion. 
    4. Have the videos uploaded to Youtube, and share the links with me, by 8AM Tuesday, 1 November. They may be uploaded as separate videos or one longer video. Make sure the technology is working today–no technological excuses will be entertained. 
    5. If you have time left over after the presentations and conversations:  
      1. History: continue on with your Vietnam reading.
      2. GloPo: work on your outlines for the required essay for Module 4.

Use this time to wisely get ahead!




Train them properly, put a little faith in them, and in most cases, your students will do just fine without you for a day or two, and the presence of the sub will become a matter of legal formality.

Blended learning: Step by step

Chances are that, by now, you have read something about the effectiveness of Blended-learning environments, about the teachers who employ such learning spaces to enhance student learning, and why they do it.

But that does not bring you, our everyday teacher on the street, much closer to understanding how to integrate blended learning strategies into your teaching, in your school’s context to benefit your students.

Luckily, the internet is loaded with resources relevant to blended learning provided by reliable providers (see below). However, lack of access to tools and tricks is rarely the obstacle stalling curious teachers who approach a new teaching strategy: establishing a new mindset is. Put simply: where does one begin?

The best way to jumpstart a blended-learning mindset is to remember that, just like educational technology, blended learning is a means and not an end. Think about what you want to accomplish in your classroom and then adopt and adapt blended learning tools and strategies that allow you to achieve your goals. For example:

Goal Blended Learning Solution

You want to better organize and share your curriculum.



Develop your expertise in Google Apps for Education. Learn how to save and share files so that students have permanent access to their materials so they can collaborate on their assignments, then complete and submit their individual and team work asynchronously as well as in class.


You want to adopt a mastery approach to learning and assessment.


Familiarize yourself with tools like EDpuzzle, Kahoot, JunoEd and Memrise that allow students to quiz themselves, review their work, and then re-test as necessary—often with little to no intervention from you.



You want more 1-1, personalized instructional time with your students.


Break your class up into pods, and rather than directly instructing from the front of the room, meet with each pod of 3-5 students individually. You will accomplish much more in 10-15 minutes of close instruction than you would in 45 minutes of kill and drill.

What are your other students doing? See goals #1 & #2 for ideas, or skip down to goals #4 & #5 for a preview of how to address another common issue.



You want to foster peer to peer and self-guided instruction and inquiry.



While you are coaching one pod of students, you could give the others time to work on tech-based mastery learning activities or their homework—or you could assign them small group discussion topics, prep work for their turn meeting with you, or other pod-level assignments.



You want to decrease or abolish homework.



See all of the above!

As you may have noticed, by adopting one or two of the strategies above, you open up room to add others, achieving more goals and enhancing learning further. You’ve heard it before: “A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” Take your first today.

Originally published at Smartbrief Education on November 21, 2016.

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