Each time I open TBT, I am confronted with an oversized visual of my own face mocking me for not having written anything in this blog since December 2012 (yes, last year…) And now that the Mayan prediction has proved to be hogwash and 2013 is finally upon us, I must at least pretend to complete my series of vignettes about the School of Tomorrow conference in Kuala Lumpur before it’s no longer necessary and we have already reached that lofty destination.

Vignette:  The Garys of our Lives

Mrs Kasuri has just ended her welcome address (a minor miracle since she didn’t have a speech till the night before) and we are waiting for the keynote speaker.  ‘Will he or won’t he?’ is the question on everyone’s minds.  The ‘he’ is Richard Gerver and the question is whether he will be able to outdo his own keynote address to a mesmerized Beaconhouse audience in Lahore two years ago (at Beaconhouse, we get a bit emotional about our keynote speakers: in 2000 and 2005 it was Dr Roger Schank, and in 2010 and 2012 Richard Gerver).  As Richard walks to the gigantic stage, I note, with a twinge of envy, that he himself looks far less gigantic than he was in Lahore two years ago.  Richard tells us that his talk is going to be based on 3 stories.  He talks for 1 hour, infusing his magic into stories of everyday (yet exceptional) individuals whom he has encountered during the course of his career.  It is the story of Gary that I recall.

Richard’s first recollection of Gary was when he was a young schoolteacher and Gary was a 9-year-old in his class with severe disabilities including dyslexia and dyspraxia (the latter being a developmental disorder that leads to problems with movement and coordination).  However, Richard recalled that Gary’s problems did not affect his disposition – though the same could not be said of the adults around him – and narrated a story of when a popular children’s charity was doing a collection drive at the school.  Many children in Richard’s class donated a few pennies to the drive but, when it was Gary’s turn, Richard heard a loud ‘thud’ on his desk and, looking up, saw that Gary had donated his entire piggy bank (containing £70 – a veritable fortune 20 years ago – which he had been saving up to buy a bike).  Despite Richard’s protests, Gary would not take the money back.  Finally, when Richard called Gary’s mother at night, she told him in a resigned voice that she had been expecting his call and advised him not to try talking Gary out of donating the money – since she had failed.  She told him that Gary had told her that he would never enjoy riding the bike when he knew what else the money could have been used for.

Richard concluded this story by telling the audience about his last meeting with Gary, now an adult, in which he learnt about all the incredible work Gary had done since leaving school – including the empowerment of other people with disabilities.  I have of course not done justice to the many nuances of the story but, suffice it to say, many members of the audience were found dabbing their eyes with shared tissue paper.

For the general consensus on whether Richard Gerver outdid himself or not, see the final part of my SOT blogs which, given my track record, should hopefully appear around the time the Mayans are reincarnated and issue us a fresh date for Doomsday.

Vignette:  Setting Directions

I am nervous. Richard Gerver has just delivered his keynote address, leaving many members of the audience spellbound.  It’s most unfair because I cannot possibly expect to outdo him. (Note to self: do not go right after the keynote speaker next time.)  Thank heavens for the coffee break in between, I think; maybe Richard’s spell has been partially broken by the coma-inducing Malaysian snacks, both savory and sweet, that the audience has consumed in prodigious quantities.

Since we are still in the opening session of the conference, I am moderating a panel discussion called ‘Setting Directions’ that aims to look at the three key strands of the conference: early childhood education, progressive teaching and learning for primary school, and new models for teacher education & school leadership.  I hope that my panelists will lay the framework for the next 2 days and therefore help the audience understand these three key areas in the context of the ‘School of Tomorrow’.  On the panel are Alma Harris, world authority on professional learning communities, school transformation, and just about everything else; Pam (not Pamela!) Mundy, specialist on early childhood education; Diana Laufenberg, specialist on education technology & project-based learning; Zarina Mobarak, Regional Director for Beaconhouse Southeast Asia and, last but certainly not least, the indefatigable Richard Gerver (my secret agenda is to get him to talk as little as possible!).

I remind the panelists that the underlying theme of our 2012 Conference is ‘Empowering Lifelong Learners’ and request them to try to frame their inputs in this context.

As it is not possible to summarize the entire panel discussion in this vignette, I have taken one or two key messages from each panelist below in my own words.

Alma Harris:  We need to look at teacher education in a very different sense. Gone are the days when you could inject an occasional dose of ‘teacher training’ in a running school and expect results. We need to form professional learning communities in schools in which teachers and school leaders work together to solve everyday problems and discuss pedagogy.  To a question on the increasingly complex roles of school heads (and whether they should focus on being ‘instructional leaders’ or overall managers), Ms Harris concluded that today’s schools call for ‘distributed leadership’ wherein one person is not expected to have to deliver on all fronts.

Diana Laufenberg: An expert in education technology and project-based learning, Ms Laufenberg agreed that a key challenge in moving towards a project-based learning environment was not students but in fact teachers who had, for the most part, attended traditional schools themselves.  She added that, in her previous role as a social studies teacher at the Science Academy in Philadelphia, the ‘end result’ for her class was not a summative assessment (i.e, final test) but the Project because that helped teachers determine if students had in fact been able to internalize and apply the knowledge that they had learnt.  Later during the conference, Ms Laufenberg noted that project-based learning “doesn’t devalue information, but it [information] doesn’t stop there…”, suggesting that information/knowledge is only of real value if students can apply it in their everyday lives or to solve real problems.

Pam Mundy: A specialist on early years education, Pam spoke about the importance of the physical environment.  She said that children learn best in classrooms full of rich resources that have been carefully selected and strategically placed within the room, thus enabling exploration and on-the-spot learning.  Such creative, positive environments must be enhanced by competent adults – who also need to be just as carefully selected!  I had also hoped to ask Pam about ‘bilingual proficiency’ at a young age and was thinking, in particular, of our schools where the primary medium of education is generally English while the mother tongue may be Bahasa or Urdu or Arabic but, unfortunately, this question did not come up.  I did, however, get a chance to discuss this with our Early Years Head, Saira Mubashir Butt, who was of the view that “ideally”, children need a strong foundation in their mother tongue before the introduction of a second language.  Since we know that most 3-year olds do not yet have a strong foundation in their mother tongue, Saira feels that the best way of supporting them is to have one teacher in the classroom who speaks English and another, perhaps the assistant, who speaks in the mother tongue so that the child does not at any point feel inadequate on account of his or her inability to communicate in English.  But the main question remains – should Beaconhouse be moving away from its current model of ‘English immersion’ in the early years and, if so, how would this be received by parents and indeed the ‘market’?

Zarina Mobarak:  I finally had our Regional Director for Southeast Asia, Zarina Mobarak, on the spot – a position I seldom find her in!  I questioned Ms Mobarak on the Malaysian government’s politically-motivated and much-criticized flip-flopping between English and Bahasa as the primary medium of instruction and wondered, along with other speakers, if politics should have a role in education?  The general consensus, not surprisingly, was that politics and electioneering should not influence public policy if one is to effect long-term, sustainable change.  (This is a lesson that Pakistan also needs to learn – badly.) We all agreed that if the entire direction of Beaconhouse, for instance, had changed every 4-5 years, along with its entire management, it would most likely not have been a fraction of the scale that it is today.  However, this is exactly what happens with public sector education policy in many developing countries – a new government comes in and throws out the baby with the bathwater.

Ms Mubarak also stressed that the Malaysian Government’s latest Education Blueprint already encourages project-based learning and lifelong learning.  I was a little skeptical about the government’s ability to deliver on some of these ideals, though I kept my views to myself at the time – after all, we were addressing an almost exclusively Malaysian audience!

Richard Gerver:  Although Richard Gerver did not make an opening statement (since he had only just delivered his keynote address), he seemed happy to address any number of questions – both from myself and the audience. I wanted to know, for instance, how we would create classrooms that are student-centered and progressive when the bottom line for most teachers remains test scores?  I also asked what Key Skills, in his view, needed to be taught to students so that they would thrive in the 21st century… and finally, I may have asked him (my memory is far from perfect!) if creativity, an attribute he talks of a lot, can indeed be taught? For Richard’s responses (and indeed for my correct questions!), please see the video segment of ‘Setting Directions’ which is now online!

On this occasion, I decided to skip my ‘Rapid Fire Questions’ (wherein I ask all panelists a series of question that they must reply with a quick yes or no) which resulted in Mrs Haq, Director of Studies, reminding me how I was “so much better” in Lahore in 2010!

Needless to say, ‘Setting Directions’ ended with a number of new questions being posed and, while a few were briefly answered during the panel discussion, the majority continued to be addressed during the 2-day conference and indeed thereafter.


In my future blog posts: I will come back to my School of Tomorrow ‘vignettes’ quite frequently (my thoughts on ‘Curry Spice’, for instance, are way overdue!) but will now also move on to other matters. 

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