Author Archives: Nigel Winnard

The Earth is Flat and Kissing Makes You Pregnant

When Hamlet says that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” he isn’t too wide of the mark. We can think ourselves into all sorts of nonsense if we work hard enough. There are still Flat Earthers, people who think global warming is a myth, and that JFK was killed by the CIA (well, actually the jury may be out on that one…). Some people in my profession – teachers and parents – see the internet as a similarly polarising issue.  On the one hand we have the advocates who argue that the internet has democratised access to knowledge and information and has fundamentally revolutionised the role of the teacher. On the other hand we have the opponents who see the internet as an unregulated hotbed of disinformation that undermines the pivotal role of the teacher as guardian of learning. Just to be clear, and in a spirit of full disclosure, I fall into the first of these two positions, and I would like to say why.

Good schools (and good teachers) are in the futures business.

Schools do not produce stuff for the here and now. Our job is to help build the future, one learner at the time. What we do now should be as relevant as we can make it, but the gauge of what is relevant must be defined by what learners will need for the future, not what they used to need in the past.

Good schools (and good teachers) genuinely put learners first.

Today’s young people live in a world that is saturated with technology – and it is developing at an ever-increasing rate. We all have a duty to make sure that today’s learners grow up as adept, skilful, discriminating and ethical in their use of the tools available to us. That means each and every teacher has that self-same duty. It cannot be outsourced to Tech Support. It isn’t somebody else’s job. Simply put, if you do not help young people to develop their use of technology for learning in your classroom then you are not putting their needs ahead of your own. Likewise schools that do not find ways to invest in technology cannot be said to be genuinely meeting the needs of learners in the 21st century.

Good schools (and good teachers) are excited, entrepreneurial learners.

There is not a teacher preparation system in the world that has prepared teachers for the world in which we now live. Back in 1987 when I qualified as a teacher, nobody knew what was coming. Only the occasional wild-eyed futurist could have foreseen the revolution that Web 2.0 would bring. But now it is here and we need to deal with it. The way in which we do this says a lot about our preparedness to be part of the revolution. If we take the path of suspicion, mistrust and denial, deluding ourselves that we are “holding on to traditional best practice” (sic), then our profession has a problem. We each need to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset committed to taking personal responsibility for our own learning. We need to embrace our professional duty to be problem-solvers and inquirers. People who wait around to be “upskilled” will not only miss the boat but they will undermine the learning needs of each and every student they share time with

Good schools (and good teachers) identify and hold on to fundamental principles.

In a world where change is a constant it has never been more important to identify and hold on to the fundamental principles upon which we believe schools are based: schools put student learning first; effective teaching is a thoughtful, planned activity; intellectual rigour isn’t a passing fad; and skills and values trump content every single time (but it is a fallacy to think it is one or the other).

Finally, good schools (and good teachers) practice what they preach.

If we want our young people to grow up as creative, knowledgeable, skilful, ethical, technologically adept inquirers then we have to have those self-same expectations of ourselves and each other. And that is a big ask. In education we face probably one of the biggest challenges any profession has ever faced: reinvention.

If you are reading this as a teacher or an administrator in schools, which side of the divide do you fall on? And before you start to prevaricate, there really are only two sides: you can’t be a little bit pregnant. Then again, you can’t get pregnant by kissing either, but is doesn’t stop some people thinking you can, or that the earth is flat, or that global warming is a myth, or that JFK was killed by…

Interglobalmindednessnalism and the Power of Fizzy Drinks

When I was a kid one of the first colour TV ads I remember watching was about Coca-Cola. Remember the one? “I’d like to build the world a home… furnish it with love” etc. Lots of strategically arranged young people of various ethnicities, some in national outfits. All slim, good looking, blessed with decent haircuts and able to hold a tune. Nobody was in a wheelchair, or had a guide dog – and nobody seemed to be carrying a personal firearm. At least not that I could tell.

It was a vision of global harmony through the Nobel-Peace-Prize-Power of a sugary drink.

If only we could send the good folks in Gaza or Syria or Ukraine or Ferguson a few crates of fizzy drinks, maybe the world would be a far better place – or so that advert once led me to believe as a child.

My school-age education didn’t exactly teach me much about how to help achieve this ideal of global harmony. We learnt a heck of a lot about how messed up the world was, is and most likely was going to continue to be for generations to come. The 1970s and 1980s were not hopeful times in the UK. My undergraduate experience wasn’t much different except that the concept of taking action came much more to the fore in my understanding of how to respond when the world isn’t how you think it should be.

And nobody seemed to see a place for fizzy drinks any more.

A quarter of a century on I find myself leading an international school in a part of the world that has seen more than its fair share of challenges. My community is proud of its diversity of national representation as well as its strong Sudanese presence and identity. We are an IB World School accredited by the Council of International Schools, so we know that we buy into an international education aimed at … well, here is where we hit a problem.

What do we call it? International understanding? Intercultural awareness? International mindedness?? Are they interchangeable or somehow all different? Does the label even matter?

You may recall the famous case of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 in his ruling on an alleged obscenity case. He famously coined the phrase “I know it when I see it”. Judge Potter couldn’t define the concept of obscenity but he knew it when he saw it. I’m coming round to the idea that this whole “interglobalmindednessnalism” thing is a bit like that. I’ve just finished Leslie Stagg’s excellent book International Mindedness: Global Perspectives for Learners and Educators and, though I’m clearer about the kinds of things that characterize this internationalthingummijig, I’m still a long way from a definition that I can explain simply to a colleague. Wasn’t it Einstein who said if you cant explain something simply then you probably don’t understand it well enough?

There are two things I think I know:

  1. We have to start by admitting that we don’t really know what we mean by all these  interglobalmindednessnalism labels.
  2. Whatever interglobalmindednessnalism education looks like, it probably doesn’t involve Coca Cola.

My plan is to keep the conversation going, with teachers, students and parents. We can use the hints and hazy suggestions from the IB and accreditation standards to inform our thinking. But, when the dust settles, it is for us as a community to figure out what we mean and what we will do to make interglobalmindednessnalism a real, tangible and purposeful step in the evolution of our society.

After all, it’s the real thing…

Oranges are not the Only Fruit…

Orange BatteryLike a number of Heads of School that I know, my personal experience of school as a student scarred (and maybe even scared) me. We all draw on our personal histories: demonic Physics teachers, psychotic Woodwork teachers and – of course – vindictive, sadistic PE teachers. Whilst these histories get added to and increasingly fictionalised over time (come on, it can’t have been THAT bad?), some scars remain. For me, one major scar was Science. Well, not Science per se but how we were lead by the nose through the world of Science.

It was akin to what I imagine it is like becoming a Freemason, or a Rosicrucian, or maybe working for Google. A series of initiations into hallowed mysteries that, one by one, will be revealed to you if you are deemed worthy. Mix together the potions, write out the magical incantation (underline the title, Winnard!) and write down the conclusions. No, not your conclusions, these conclusions. do it again until you get the experiment right! Then we will reveal more unto you and ye shall be bathed in our scientific magnificence… Ok, maybe that’s getting a little carried away.

Yesterday we had our school Science Fair. an anarchic, messy and very enjoyable gathering of young people sharing ideas they’ve explored. Lots of gunk and goo and whizz bang pop. They all shared what they had done (method) and what they found out (conclusions). Some tried to extract power from the acid in oranges, some explored refraction and some explored the effects of sleep deprivation. So far so good. Where things got ‘brain sticky’ was when we got to “So what?” and “Why is this important?”. I asked a few of the students what they thought they could now do with what they’d learnt. What could they apply their new knowledge to?

Clearly I was off script. ‘Er’ and ‘Um’ became the stock response, along with “Because we had to do it for the Science Fair”. And  so (very much unlike me) I shut up, congratulated them all and moved on.

I then found myself going back to something I’d read recently in a book (big papery thing with writing). Ian Gilbert’s new(ish) volumeIndependent Thinking punched me in the brain around page 102:

“If all you do is concentrate on the learning… at the end all you will have is the learning. Nothing has changed. What was once learned elsewhere has been learned again here. Like a rapidly multiplying virus, you have simply infected more people with ‘stuff’ which, under the microscope, is a carbon-copy replica of the same stuff in the heads of thousands of children up and down the country and which will be extracted during a ‘routine examination’ and sent away to the exam board for analysis like sputum in a phial”.

How different – and how much more meaningful – would that Science Fair have been if it had encouraged innovation and making? I’m a big fan of making. I think making is a good thing and we do too little of it in schools. We learn about making, we watch people make stuff (field trips) and we sometimes write about what we would make if we could. But actually building, moulding, constructing andmaking stuff? Not so much. there was so much energy in those young people and clearly a lot of excitement about exploring the natural world. What was missing was change. Nothing had changed.

So what’s stopping us (apart from excuses)? What’s stopping us from developing young people as innovators, problem solvers and makers of solutions. Am I missing something? Yes there are extraneous forces at work and yes that sucks, but if change doesnt come from innovative teachers in classrooms where will it come from?

What is it that Buddha is supposed to have said? “To know but not to do is not to know”. Let’s make sure we inspire a generation of active do-ers and not just passive knowers.