Thursday, January 28, 2010

Learning from my students

I've been working in international schools in Europe and Asia for over 20 years now - all of them IB World Schools. The driving force behind these schools is a deeply held philosophy about the nature of international education along with a set of beliefs and values. A few days ago I was examining the mission statements of the various schools where I have worked. Today I read over again the IB mission statement:

The International Baccalaureate Organization aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

There are 3 IB programmes: the Primary Year Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP). The IB states:

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate andlifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

At the heart of all 3 IB programmes is the learner profile which aims to develop "internationally minded people who, recognising their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world". IB learners strive to be:
  • Inquirers
  • Knowledgeable
  • Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Principled
  • Open-minded
  • Caring
  • Risk-takers
  • Balanced
  • Reflective
The important things is that everyone in the school is a learner: students, teachers and (hopefully) parents too, and the attributes of the learner profile need to be interpreted and modelled for students.

The purpose of the modelling is not to encourage students to mimic but to provide support—a metacognitive framework—to help students reflect on and develop their own set of values, albeit in the context of that being demonstrated.

Now as well as thinking about the mission of our schools, I have also been thinking about the last attribute of the learner profile, that of being reflective, which means that as teachers we should be giving thoughtful consideration to our own learning and experience and that we should be able to assess and understand our strengths and limitations in order to support our learning and personal development. For me, development implies moving forward, growth and change. It's the change that seems to be so difficult for so many teachers.

As a school we are going though a self-study, forcing us to reflect on our teaching, looking at where we are now and where we need to be going. I've also been reading Focus on the Facts by Tom Whitby, who writes about teachers reflecting:
New information makes a big difference in what they teach. Research affects what they do and how they do it. If all that is true, there is only one factor that stops this from creating change. That would be the teacher’s unwillingness to reflect, consider, and implement change on a personal level. Teachers too often see no need to do so.
As someone who has changed direction several times in my own teaching career (having started as a high school geography teacher, spent several years teaching classes of remedial children, taught ESL, elementary school and now finally IT), I can only say that for me change has been an invigorating and rejuvenating process. I get itchy feet after teaching the same thing twice, and if I have to teach it a third time I am definitely restless. It's safe to stay in the same place and teach the same things over and over again, but I have to say that the times in my life that I've done that have not been times of any personal or professional growth at all. It's stepping out of my comfort zone that has led to me developing as a teacher.

For at least half of my teaching career, I would have laughed out loud if anyone would have suggested to me that I would end up as an IT teacher. My husband and children would have laughed too: I was not techie at all, not even into the latest gadgets. Like many teachers I used to take my class to the IT lab and someone else used to teach them. I used to switch off. Sometimes I didn't even stay around to see what the students were doing (since IT was taught as a stand-alone subject and wasn't connected at all to what I was doing in my classroom). I would trot off and get a cup of tea and then pick the students up again at the end of the lesson. And then one year I had an ESL teacher, Linda, supporting me who was very much into technology, and I had a student in that class, Tommy, who was very much into technology too. This was in 1996 and our school didn't even have an internet connection in those days, I certainly didn't have one at home. Yet Linda was encouraging my students to write and was publishing their work on an external site, and bringing in disks for us to look at offline, showing us that the rest of the world could see what we were writing, and Tommy was constantly bringing things in and putting them on my computer and saying "You just have to try this". As a class we got very excited by all this and we pushed for our own internet connection.

At the end of the year Linda moved to the USA and Tommy moved up to 7th Grade, yet both of them kept in touch, and Tommy came to my room almost daily with new ideas and new things to try. It was Tommy who taught me how to make web pages and how to upload them. It was Tommy who taught me how to use Photoshop. Suddenly out of the 4 teachers in my grade level, I had become the techie and like any convert I was zealous. I started going to the IT lessons with my class, then we stopped going because they weren't helping my students and instead I started taking my students to the middle school IT lab and teaching them myself. Two years later, when I was offered the chance to actually become an IT teacher myself I jumped at it. I've never really looked back.

Tom Whitby makes the same point:
Students may become the impetus for learning technology for the teacher. As the students take ownership of their learning, they should use the tech to accomplish their goals. If the teacher is driving the bus there is no need to be able to do an engine tune-up. Students will use tech more and more as the teacher guides them through their tasks. Learning will go both ways.
I think this post has jumped around a little but but I think what I am trying to say is this: we are all learners. We are all on this learning journey together. And if we are not learners ourselves, then we have no business being teachers.

Oh and Tommy ... last I heard he was working for Apple.

Photo Credit: Painting the Sun by MJIphotos


  1. I love it Maggie! I, too became a tech teacher by accident and have never looked back. We can do that because we have a love for learning. It really is at the core of the "we can do anything we put our mind to" attitude. And Tommy is at Apple...rather fitting!

  2. I really like your blog, Maggie! One of the best things about our PYP journey is the way it has got (most of)the teachers at our school fired up, enthusiastic about their own learning.