「杭州漢基」邀請14-15歲的十年級（Year 10）／美制九年級（Grade 9）學生在中國文化和語言環境中學習一年，在此期間，學生們將繼續修讀國際認可的國際文憑中學項目（IBMYP）。
- 2016年5月12日： 香港朋友們
- 2016年4月7日： 羅密歐，朱麗葉，績效和收效
- 2016年3月4日：「Beyond|超越 」項目
Letter from Hangzhou, June 2nd 2016
Hangzhou’s traffic once again provides a reliably undisturbed hour or so to write this letter: this time off to an event hosted by the provincial government in relation to the ‘internationalisation of Hangzhou’. It is only fair to take a moment in passing to note the support we have always enjoyed from the city and provincial authorities. In my experience at least, for what it is worth, Hangzhou has proven to be a very easy city in which to establish an unusual enterprise and to work successfully. It is an interesting place to be at present with the build up for the G20 conference in September and will no doubt continue to be interesting as we then move into gear preparing for the Asian Games which aren’t until 2022 but one hears about it all the time already. It’ll be nicer still from our point of view when the metro reaches us next year.
I would ordinarily use a letter at this point in the year to report on the full student feedback exercise that was conducted on Monday afternoon. As on each previous occasion, students are given the opportunity, through a Google Form, to comment freely, anonymously and without restriction on their experience of each of the eight MYP disciplines. I guarantee to students that this is confidential, that only I read all the feedback and otherwise only the teachers in each discipline area read the comments in relation to their subject. I am convinced that this guarantee is a factor in the high quality of the responses. Students have been through a lot of feedback exercises by the age of fifteen: the first question they will ask, after “Is this anonymous?” is “who gets to read this?” and the next question is “what do you do with the answers?” I make the guarantees I do because I want honesty, candour and freedom of expression (naturally within the bounds of civilised discourse).
In a sense, because of these guarantees, I’ve denied myself the opportunity now of using the seventy pages of small font, close-typed text as evidence for anyone who needs it of the quality of the work my colleagues do and the maturity and insight of our students here. But this was not a PR exercise. It is a functional part of the process of performance management and improvement. PR has never, in operation, driven us and for that reason, I think, we now have a meaningful dialogue with the students about their experience and we are able to use that in the process of constant improvement. There are criticisms of course and some of them are fair and, indeed, they often relate to areas that we have already identified as needing changes for next year. We never have been and can’t afford to be complacent. But I would be lying if I pretended that reading through the warm, sincere and appreciative comments made about my colleagues and their work didn’t bring me a lot of pleasure and pride on Monday evening. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
We ought perhaps to trumpet some things a little more loudly than we do. Ultimate Frisbee is a fabulous sport, perfect for schools and while our cousins from Hong Kong secured a win in the Shanghai Youth Open Senior Schools section this last weekend they were matched in the Middle Schools section by Hangzhou CIS who won all their games by large margins. A CIS double-header and as most of the students playing in the Hong Kong team had been introduced to the game while in Hangzhou it represents a pleasing example of a positive feedback loop between the two campuses. Congratulations to the seniors and to the good work of Tuan Phan and Colin Wong in training them on but a quiet nod in the direction of Wang Lu for his work in inspiring that first generation and then starting again each year with a fresh crop of novices and, once again, turning them into champions before sending them back down south.
We are well into the season of ‘good-byes’. Next week this third cohort of HZCIS students will wrap up the year with the retreat to Tongzhou and then the whirlwind of the final weekend. The cycle completes one more time. They have been a lovely group of students and quite as different from the last two year-groups as they were in turn completely different from each other. They haven’t quite gone yet though and I don’t propose to write any ‘last words’ when there is so much still to do. The same might be said for the individuals who are the soul of HZCIS and who, designedly, mostly leave us after this one year: the CMs. However, I do want to offer a word of appreciation to those teaching colleagues who are to move on.
Two of our colleagues from the Chinese teaching team leave us this time. Ding Ting joined us for a single year to fill a timetabling gap and she has been a popular and diligent colleague. She has worked hard to adapt her skills to the character of students whose charm and articulacy can sometimes belie their still developing maturity. We are grateful for her work and wish her well in a teaching career in which she will certainly go on to flourish.
Leaving us after two years is Huang Feiyan who has looked after our Language A students. It is perhaps misleading to say she is ‘leaving us’ as of course she is only returning to Greentown to resume her senior role there are after two years on secondment with us. Feiyan has had a marvellous rapport with the Language A students who have taken her to their collective heart and she has been a model professional and a diligent and respected colleague. Her role as a bridge between ourselves and GYS has been hugely important and she has been responsible for many many good things happening. We hope she will continue to be a familiar face in the CIS buildings and welcome her replacement from GYS, Duan Tie.
Four colleagues leave us this year having been with us from the very start. One of them in two different roles. Eric Vallone was one of the first Coach-Mentors, stayed on a second year to help consolidate the learning of that first year in defining the role and then stayed on for a third year to look after Digital Design. I cannot do justice in a single paragraph to the contribution that Eric has made. Only if I note that as I collected my computer from my office this morning I saw him out on the football field, running around barefoot in the mud with a group of students throwing a frisbee before, as I know he has to, making his way up to the office for a mammoth grading session while simultaneously planning and coordinating a key professional development activity this weekend can I thereby give a snapshot of the work ethic and value system of a highly valued colleague. I shall miss him.
I shall also miss Tama Karena. There is certainly not space here for the essay I should write about this brilliant but highly individual music professional. From speculating on the challenge to the philosophy of science that is the phenomenon of ‘Tamatime’ to the extreme seriousness of applied sandwich making and a wide range of curiosities in-between, life with Mr Karena has been a charming trip. So many good things have happened under his leadership but our solid tradition of a whole-school choir is his single most powerful legacy. He remains with CIS, transferring only as far as Braemar Hill so we hope to see him often as he finds important business that demands his attention here.
And how to do justice to the contribution made here by Dan and Erin Kinzer or to express how we will miss Alaia and Koa? No school has ever had the security of a better professional on the team than we have enjoyed knowing that Erin Kinzer is looking after PE. No teacher could ever have received student feedback as whole-hearted and appreciative. Efficient, organised, reliable yes but also so good because she really believes, with a quiet but intense passion in the importance and value of what she does. Wherever she works in the future, children will flourish and colleagues will be grateful.
And that belief that this business of what we do in the name of education really really matters is also true of Dan. One can’t begin to speculate on how we would have evolved without his contribution. Sometimes provocative, often challenging, always passionate he has been deeply significant to all of us as we have tried to meet expectations for innovation and creativity while operating within the context of our developing school culture. The importance of Dan, Erin, Alaia and Koa in the establishment and success of this oddity of an educational institution is beyond my ability to summarise in a few words here. They will find cleaner air and easier banking in Hawaii but hopefully, one day not too long away, swaying gently with a mai tai cocktail, to the sound of a swaying ukulele and beneath a swaying palm tree they will look back on Hangzhou and remember the affection and inspiration they have generated here. We will be thinking of them.
And so the year builds up to the climax. The magic of Tongzhou and then the emotion of the parent celebration weekend. Hangzhou CIS, as I mentioned above, is a place of good-byes. They all come too soon and while we look forward to our new students arriving in August, we do share a joke with the current lot that Y11 has been cancelled and they have to retake Y10 in Hangzhou next year. It gets a nice reaction. It is time also for one further ending. As we will be in Tongzhou next week, there will be no letter from Hangzhou meaning that this is the last this year and, I now feel is right, the last of all. The period in our evolution when there was a case for writing essays explaining what we are doing here and why is surely past. Next year, with a hundred students, we move into a new phase. Communication from HZCIS to our wider community now takes many forms and can develop further in richer and more varied ways. An individual letter in this manner has become redundant. After three years and around 100,000 words it is time to step down from this particular pulpit. I am keen to continue telling the world what we do and hope to find ways to raise the global profile of this unique and amazing little school within a school within a school but that is different work. From this space, and in this format, here endeth the letters. Thank you for reading and for the many kind comments over the past three years.
June 2nd, 2016
Letter from Hangzhou, May 26th, 2016
It is rather a damp morning in Hangzhou but pleasantly cool: the spring seems reluctant to warm up this year and we have lingered in the low twenties for some time with that forecast to continue into June. At lunch the other day, a group of us old men – Tama Karena, Dan Kinzer, Mark Tang and myself - were recalling our first summer in Hangzhou and moving into the still unfinished buildings in August in temperatures rising through the forties Celsius. It was a fun conversation reminding each other of some of the adventures of those opening days. The snorting and chortling was of course accompanied by the kind of head shaking and “Well, who’d ‘ve thought it, eh?” comments that were made famous by Monty Python in the classic ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (but fellow nerds will know of course that it pre-dates Monty Python and was originally from the legendary At Last the 1948 Showhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?
There have been a number of those moments this week. After our last trip of the year to Chang’An village school with the China Grassroots Football group, Trevor James Lamb and I reflected in the same “Well, who’d’ve thought it?” vein that that was the end of a third year of working together, accompanying students to engage in football related activities with rural schoolchildren. Next Friday will be the last trip of the year for the same activity to Tiancheng Migrant school over on the east side of Hangzhou. It must be approaching a total of something like a hundred and fifty trips and we look ahead to the fourth year, new CIS kids and maybe a slightly expanded programme.
As part of the routine process of performance management, this week was the start of a round of ‘professional review’ conversations with colleagues. The ‘management’ aspect of this seems redundant when speaking in the collegial way we do with people who are simultaneously friends and neighbours but it can be easy to forget to have a good chat about yourself from time to time, especially in the case of individuals like Mark Tang, Sally Zhang, Lisa Wang and Teck Wee all of whom instinctively start to talk about the students in their care. One of my objectives in these conversations is to try and get through to a sense of the personal and emotional relationship they have with their professional lives but they keep bringing things back to business: new ideas for activities or improvements to systems; things we need to remember for next year’s training of the new Coach-Mentors; happiness at progress of student x; thoughts about the needs of student y and much more. My recurring: “But let’s talk about you” only ever bringing us back to the agenda for a minute or two at a time.
It is a remarkable fact that this core team remains intact going into our fourth year of operation. Stability like that is immensely valuable and the way that these four supreme professionals have grown into and defined their roles as Heads of Houses is the rock upon which everything here is built. Joined this year by Julia Hsieh and from next by Mitch Grace, this structure of house teams, with their Coach-Mentors, is the skeletal structure of our organisation as well as the heart and soul of our community. That risk of mixing physiological metaphors is only an indication of the value of these individuals and the framework they represent.
On the other hand, we aren’t all such a bunch of old fossils. A different lunch this week found me with Mathematical young guns Chen Yuan and He Guannan as well as our fantastic Film teacher Zhu Gesha (look forward to evidence of her inspirational influence when the students’ work from their latest unit on Documentaries is uploaded to CISHZTV on Moongate) and our sensational new Music specialist, Zhang Yuan, currently Principal Cellist with the Hangzhou Philharmonic and previously an instructor at Stanford University (yes, that one); Kent State University; the Longy School of Music and the Shanghai Conservatory as well as soloist and ensemble performer with a list of groups and orchestras that would take me well past my weekly word count. I’m still not sure how I will abbreviate all his qualifications when we post details on Moongate.
My point here is not merely to boast about Maestro Zhang but also to illustrate the kind of talent that we are able to find and bring to work here. There is a rising generation in this country with people of exceptional intellectual calibre and the desire to look for something more than the immediate material rewards, while of course being properly looked after by a responsible employer, that were the understandable incentives for an earlier generation in China’s economic revolution. It is a genuine thrill to be in a position to tap into that talent pool and to find individuals with such very high order intellect and skills who are willing and able to develop with training as they adapt to the work that we need them to do. The potential they represent is humbling. The names given here are only representative based on the coincidence of a lunch this week. I could have written in similar terms about others.
There are a lot of good-byes in the Hangzhou CIS year. We are about to embark on a round of many more. Every year, every student leaves. The Coach-Mentor position is designedly for a single year and most necessarily have to move on although if there jobs for all of them that meant I could keep them then I would have contracts ready this afternoon. For colleagues whose homes are outside China, this is only ever going to be a short-term proposition: seven-day a week boarding makes considerable demands and living as a foreigner in China has some challenges and layered on top of each other, these combine to mean that time comes for many people, especially if they have children (ironically, as international school licence holders, we can't of course support international schooling for staff!), they are developing careers or are looking at the last years before retirement, to move on from their Hangzhou adventures. We will note some of these departures next week.
But there is also permanence. We have been around for a while now. In a rapidly changing environment, both in China and back in Hong Kong, it doesn’t take long before one looks around and sees that one isn’t ‘new’ any more. In a way, we also age faster in that, as I have noted before, with the life-cycle of the institution being only ten months, we have run that full life-cycle almost three times now. That represents maturity by any measure. I had a good laugh recently when I heard quoted a view that “Hangzhou is still controversial amongst some CIS parents”. Really? No, seriously. Really? Stop joking around. We’re established, mature, secure and confident with a growing reputation beyond CIS for excellence, innovation and unparalleled care for students. Who’d’ve thought it, eh?
May 26th, 2016
Letter from Hangzhou, May 12th, 2016
The letter may be a little rushed this week as I am writing in the back of a car on my way to Hangzhou East station to meet our good friend from Harvard-Westlake School, Los Angeles, Mr Jim Patterson. Hangzhou traffic though can usually be relied upon to guarantee a lengthy and uninterrupted period of time to catch up with tasks that do not require internet so hopefully there will still be time to draft something worth posting later. Jim is paying a return visit following my trip to his school back in October. There is still considerable interest in the prospect of a partnership whereby each year a small number of Harvard-Westlake students spend some time with us in Hangzhou-West Lake and Jim is coming to see for himself what we do so he can better advise families back in California.
It is a moment to reflect on the process of visitors and but this week that has mainly meant our Hong Kong cousins rather than the growing number of people from schools in China and other countries who come here interested to learn about who we are and what we do. We were glad to enjoy a visit from one of our governors earlier this week and appreciate the intelligent insight and interest in our work that he brought. We have also had visits from Kellie Alexander, representing sports and activities, Dr Ann Mok, school counsellor, the personal Project workshop team of Jenny Chadwick, Brandy Sterns and Phoebe Wong, swim coach Henry Wright, English teaching colleague Cathy Haines and this weekend, we look forward to seeing the ambassador for Hangzhou at the court of Braemar Hill, Mr Graham Topp and perhaps not really a visitor as he is definitely ‘Hangzhou’, but Dr Faunce will be here for a couple of days.
Hopefully this will reassure those who like to be comforted that although we are 700 miles away, we are still part of CIS and woven into the fabric of CIS life. These aren’t just casual visitors; they come to provide valuable input into the students’ experience. Kellie supports important partnership at both ends of the Hangzhou year as she brings us information about co-curricular interests and sporting enthusiasms among the new students and also helps those who are here think ahead to their athletic lives in Hong Kong on return. Her enthusiasm for our work, her relentlessly positive messages and her leaving behind the graffito “I love Hangzhou staff!” on the wall of our faculty common room naturally endear her to all of us. She works hard and cares a great deal for all the students.
Another figure who is here often enough for us to see her more as part of the home team than as a guest is Dr Mok. Dr Mok has been an important member of the Hangzhou gang since the year before opening. She has walked with us every step of the way these past three years and she has a deep insight into the experience of students and families as they digest Hangzhou. She works closely with colleagues and delivers key elements of our Coach-mentor training. She maintains a counselling presence where needed for students and staff and is a source of sound advice to us all. On this visit she led, with sensitivity, wisdom and profound good sense, the sex education component of the well-being programme assisted by a courgette-wielding Mr Grace. She always brings chocolate, which doesn’t survive for long after her departure. The fate of the courgette is not known at the time of writing.
The Personal Project team only come but once a year but when they come they work damned hard for three days. Jenny, Brandy and Phoebe look after the entire student community and take them through the process exactly as they do with those who are back in Hong Kong. They are an efficient and expert team but they deliver their workshop with warmth and calm authority. The students are clearly reassured by being in such secure hands and it is obviously a major benefit to ourselves to have this complex and important matter managed by such competent colleagues.
Henry has been a few times to work with the swimmers here and it is useful to have his expert input on the quality of the swimming facilities on campus. Like other regular visitors, he slots into routines without any fuss. Cathy Haines is making her first trip but her visit is representative of the regular contact we enjoy with teaching colleagues across all departments. There is no particular fanfare about this and perhaps that can lead people who worry a bit to wonder whether the two campuses are in contact at all but the very ordinariness of the dialogue is the best evidence that this is so. One manages things better through maintaining an ecology rather than regulating a system. With trust, good human relations and shared interest in the students and their learning, things seem to look after themselves in a positive way.
Finally, as Hangzhou East station is not far now and we seem to have moved more quickly than I would normally have anticipated, a word of thanks to Graham Topp for being the face and voice of Hangzhou CIS in Hong Kong. Since taking on that role two years ago, he has helped ensure that the quality and fluency of communications has become better and better. The particular combination of his understanding as a parent of a student in our first cohort (the wonderful Jazz) his years as a senior CIS teacher as well as his experience of leadership in an innovative project here on the mainland mean he is perhaps uniquely well qualified to speak with authority. It is a substantial support to us to have him fulfilling that function so effectively and I’m sorry that it has taken me to now to express that gratitude other than privately.
Dr Faunce isn’t really a visitor. He spends more time in Hong Kong than in Hangzhou but maybe Hong Kong requires a little more headmastering than we do? As far as we are concerned, he isn’t visiting when he is here. He is coming home. On which note, the traffic is moving again and Mr Patterson’s train will be arriving shortly and I will be a poor host if he does not have my full attention for the ride back to campus.
May 12th, 2016
As I have to attend a professional development event in Shanghai next Thursday the next letter from Hangzhou will be on 26th May.
Letter from Hangzhou, May 5th, 2016
I write from an expanded community this week as we have 29 students from our partner school, Greentown Yuhua, with us shadowing their ‘buddy’ students from CIS. As well as deepening those connections it has been an opportunity to get a taste of how things will be next year with a student population in excess of a hundred. Pleasingly, one doesn’t really notice the expansion and if anything, a slightly fuller assembly room in a morning makes for more of a sense of purpose to the event. The low maintenance, non-event of the fact of these Yuhua kids being part of our lives this week is a sign of just how very ordinary this all is. The administration has all been by Teck Wee and Simon Tam but they are insistent that it has been no work on their part and just the everyday, but real relationship we enjoy with our neighbours.
The GYS students are with us on the equivalent of their ‘Project Week/ Service and Action Week’ which links nicely to my first duty in this letter which is to apologise for completely failing to report on the Taiwan trip last week during my round up of those activities. I have no excuse for having overlooked the very successful expedition to Kinmen and Taipei led by Julia Hsieh with the support of Simon Tam, Pierre Biret and Zhang Yue. Happily, they were centre-stage with an assembly on Tuesday reporting on their experience. From unicycling to very extensive and diverse feeding and a focus on Design it was evidently a happy and joyful week. Thank you to colleagues for their work to support this being another positive story for me to report. Albeit a week late.
The hangover of Project Week is still with us. Peter did share with me at breakfast that he wishes he were still on Wudangshan. And not only because there were no Maths tests there. Indeed, it is a little bit of a hazard that in a year with some very significant highlights, a return to the more familiar business of the formal curriculum, the assessment process and a conventional timetable can feel a little bit “after the Lord Mayor’s show”. Even more so when the highs of participation in the China Open frisbee championships and a highly creditable showing in an otherwise all-adult event over two days of sport and sunshine, means Monday morning really does feel like Monday morning. We are maybe a little spoilt. I attach a picture of a Tuesday afternoon in the park that does invite the question: ‘what has anyone in Hangzhou ever got to complain about?’ Well, we have our moments but the honest answer to that is really, yes, not much. It isn’t bad here at all. (Picture may not show in emails: check Moongate)
What makes it good? This was the question that formed the basis of my address to the G20 heads when they were here. Referring back to Dr Faunce’s letter of last week, if the fabulous Andrea Passinetti felt he was the warm-up act to Jack Ma then the previous evening, I got to be the warm-up act for dinner. The G20 group appeared to include some dedicated gastronauts so I can’t be sure that Andrea didn’t have the easier slot. It was, though, my pleasure and pride to take the opportunity kindly provided by Dr Faunce to share some reflections on our work here and it was uplifting to participate in the thoughtful and passionate discussions that followed, reflecting the deep intellectual interest that such a distinguished and thoughtful group of education professionals found in our project here.
This was during the week prior to our ‘Service and Action Week’ expeditions where, as I wrote last week, I was part of the group that stayed at the Wudangshan Traditional Kung-fu Academy, on the edge of Wudangshan town and at the base of the foothills leading up to Wudang mountain itself. This web-site gives some indication but tells only part of the story http://www.wudanggongfu.com/ Had that meeting not taken place before this trip, the G20 heads would have heard much about what I saw there. On the web-site one reads, naturally, of the opportunities for students from around the world to study at the academy. However this is not the main focus of Master Yuan Xiugang as his school, in addition to courses for visiting students from all over the world, has as its core operation what he calls the ‘Traditional Class’ (传统班): a small, private school for children who have left the national education system and enrolled as boarders in this very different institution with a distinctive curriculum.
Anyone involved in any way with education these days is aware of a worldwide debate about what we are doing and why. The general sense that schooling as it is presently practised is at best inefficient, at worst, of adverse and damaging impact is so widespread as to be approaching a consensus. The most watched TED talk of all time is, of course, the legendary 2006 presentation by Sir Ken Robinson, now viewed approaching 40,000,000 times and not all of those are Mrs Grace (like her hero Sir Ken, also formerly of the legendary education institute at Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire, now part of the University of Leeds). As was pointed out recently, that is now ten years ago and really, nothing has actually changed in the meantime. If one watches it now, it might as well have been released this morning.
So we’re all casting around for the ‘future of learning’. Or at least, we are doing so in thinking schools like CIS but this is far from outlier behaviour. Except, I admit I wasn’t really dwelling on this stuff too much up in Wudangshan until I gradually started to notice that Master Yuan is way ahead of all of us and actually some of the understanding about what works, and my reflections on it in discussions with the G20 heads was right in front of me. Master Yuan has devised a curriculum that draws on traditional practices and cultures to deliver a very modern process.
Every student studies wushu of course and they develop real mastery. Self-discipline, character and pride are outcomes that follow the rigorous and unapologetically strict training. By comparison with teenagers generally, the kids at Master Yuan’s school do carry themselves with that air of self-actualisation that comes from being really good at something. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what. I have seen the same amongst musicians and dancers. The skill is not the end; it is the means to the end. The end is that elusive educational goal: character.
Every student is also required to learn a musical instrument: mostly the 箫 or the 笛子, and study calligraphy. All very traditional. But the point is not only that is this a process of drawing deeply on the unmatched resource that is traditional Chinese culture, it is doing so in a process that develops collaboration, confidence, character and community and the methodology is entirely through high quality and meaningful relations between adults, themselves still learning and practising their skills every day, and students. Teachers as ‘Advanced Learners’ indeed. It is all very 21st Century in a way that the 21st century, now nearly one sixth past, has mostly failed to be.
I’m not suggesting that we transfer Master Yuan’s curriculum and methods to CIS. It isn’t the content that is the thing. It is the process. But perhaps in our thinking about the future, keeping our focus on how we have all the technology we need and noting that the answers are only rarely in digital communications devices but are instead in the quality of relations between adults and young people, reflecting that the most valuable thing one can acquire in school is the desire to go on learning and that nothing builds personal autonomy and security in self better than mastery of something, might inform our thinking.
For anyone looking for an excellent week or more, Master Yuan funds his school for local children through the fees of paying visitors and I recommend the experience very very highly. No experience necessary and as I can attest, great generosity of spirit to absolute beginners who aren’t very good at kung-fu and have more in common with the panda at the start of the film than at the end so long as you don’t mind giving it a go and joining in with a sincere effort. An inspirational experience and it is with an effort that I stop myself writing pages more and overstaying my welcome in your emails inbox.
May 5th, 2016
Letter from Hangzhou April 28th, 2016
The only subject for a letter this week is of course reporting and reflecting on the various expeditions and activities that took place last week under the guise of what used to be called ‘Project Week’ and is now properly referred to as ‘Service and Action Week’. This of course corresponds to the same exercise that our colleagues in Hong Kong undertake in October. In our case, that timing would be a little disruptive at the start of a new school year and in a new environment so we shifted the event round to a week or two after the Easter vacation, breaking up the long summer period in residence and working in groups of students and staff who have all come to know each other over the year: something that in a regular school one can take for granted but we of course have to start from scratch with every new year.
There were seven projects: three new ventures and four familiar Hangzhou CIS traditions. The visit to Yunnan, building on our relationship with Teach for China and under the leadership of Teck Wee is one of the established success stories. Once again, there was a healthy mix of leisure and tourism in magical Dali old town with hard work and insight into the challenging world of up country, rural schools. CIS students took classes and participated in a school fair. The relative hardship faced by children in this environment was as sobering and poignant as it has been each year as is the increased respect for our Teach for China alumni Coach-Mentors.
Also on the third iteration was the celebrated Planetwalk phenomenon led by Dan and Erin Kinzer. Building on the proposition that the best adventures start on your own doorstep, this is the week of walking through Zhejiang countryside in the company of the original ‘Planetwalker’ himself, Dr John Francis (https://www.ted.com/talks/
“One aspect about Planet Walk is to take the time and stay with locals: After passing a renovated Ming Dynasty bridge, we (Harry, Hal, Alex, John) came across two men chatting with each other under the shade of a three-storey building. We asked if there is any restaurant nearby 'No, but there is a seniors’ cafeteria 100 meters away. I can check if they can make some fried rice for you,' the younger one said, then he introduced us to the elder man: 'This is our village chief'.
"Somehow we ended up having a FREE lunch there. The village chief left for business, but his assistant and cooking shifu sat with us for the lunch. We learnt about how that the village prospered because of pen and textile manufacturing.”
The final day of Planetwalk involved a genuine marathon: a 26 mile walk home from the town of Fuyang. You don’t know what you can do until you just go ahead and do it.
The Shanghai Music Week is another project enjoying the advantage of building on the experience of previous years. Tama Karena has built up a rich mixture of pastry and percussion, baking and busking, cakes and concerts. There was a strong theme this year around exploration of polyphony and this thanks in large part to the connections of our own African Drum guru, Wang Lu. The patisserie element was again through partnership with the social enterprise wing of the Chi Heng foundation for AIDS orphans. Amidst many good things reported, perhaps the most entertaining anecdote involved a collaboration with the Kliptown Gumboot Dancers (http://shanghaiist.com/2011/
A particularly inspirational element of the Shanghai Music Week is preparation of a percussion routine using no more than plastic cups and one’s own body. This was performed for us at an assembly on return and can be viewed here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Three group leaders, Jianping Pratt, Mark Tang and Eric Vallone, accepted the additional effort and risk involved in trying a new venture. Mark took a group to visit Huangshan to experience a week of walking, calm and appreciation of the beauty of that justly celebrated region. Eric accompanied a group to Beijing for a mixture of rock-climbing, hiking unrestored sections of the Great Wall and seeing the capital. Picking up a key theme that we have celebrated since the opening of this centre, Eric reports that a strong feature that he, along with partner organisations in Beijing, identified in our students was their instinct to support and serve each other in pushing for individual accomplishments.
We used to have posted on the wall, on the ground floor here, a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti that read: “Real learning starts when the competitive spirit ceases.” It has long since disappeared as our noticeboards have been variously overhauled, celebrating that very learning by students themselves, but speaking with Eric about what he saw and valued in our students, as they coached and supported each other to higher levels of achievement is a heartening indication that this spirit, that one’s success is best measured by how you can improve performance in others rather than in yourself, is intrinsic to the character strength we are proud to see in our students.
Much the same was on display in Wudangshan in the group led by Jianping Pratt. As I plan to write a little more about that next week I will not dwell too long here, as would be easily done given how I personally found it to be an exceptionally meaningful week. We lived and worked at the Wudangshan Traditional Kungfu Academy and there was much in that experience that I think relates to our work here and that I will save for another letter. However, in line with Eric’s observation from the rock-climbers, one of the most uplifting things about our week was the supportive and collaborative character of the group as we learnt the
基本拳, the fundamental 40 move routine of Wudang Kung-fu. This quality was identified and celebrated by the Master of the school, Master Yuan, a genuinely inspirational figure from whom we have much to learn.
By contrast to these expeditions to exotic and interesting places, the fourth of the well-established activities under the leadership of Sally Zhang and Lisa Wang, a week of work experience in Hangzhou may sound like not much of a story to tell. However, I am increasingly of the view that this is actually the most meaningful learning experience of all. ‘CIS students spend week at Sheraton Hotel’ might sound like a news story to invite satire and yet as the short film here shows, the real learning about the real world which they inhabit is possibly more significant than anything else they could experience at this point in their lives. https://youtu.be/dbePrSH6VEA Understanding that it is someone’s job to take the used, complimentary slippers that are found in every Sheraton hotel room, to “remove the gross stuff”, as it was described to me, and then pack them back up in new bags for the next guests, and to do that all day, every day, is an insight into the reality of 21st Century society that really matters.
We are back to business now with a timetable of classes, MYP assessments to organise, homework and marking to manage and so it goes. The trick will be keeping some of the spirit and insight that has been gained in these weeks either side of the Easter vacation. In case anyone is already forgetting, here is a reminder in the form of a short movie about our ‘Beyond’ experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
28th April, 2016
Letter from Hangzhou, April 7th, 2016
A short week given that the students have not been back forty-eight hours by the time I sit down to write this but already my days have been filled with illicit teenage romance, street-fighting, murder, knives and daggers, poisons, corrupt clergymen, fanciful boys climbing up and down the sides of buildings, arranged marriages, autocratic and arbitrary city government, family feuds and a string of dirty jokes, most of them about male anatomy.
Aware, as I have become, that those who labour in Hong Kong’s dark, satanic rumour mills don’t always get my sense of humour, I should stress that these issues also occupy the thoughts of colleagues on Braemar Hill as we are studying William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in English class. As MYP is a concept based curriculum, without specified content, there is great freedom over choice of texts, meaning that even within Hangzhou, we might choose different works to explore the various themes, genres and techniques of the curriculum but we all, Hong Kong and Hangzhou combined, commit to spending some time with the star-cross’d lovers of Verona. It was the choice of our excellent colleagues in Hong Kong but in Hangzhou, it serves as a useful reminder to students about the ‘Red Rule’ and how things can only turn out badly if they are inclined to get amorous.
Otherwise, I have to confess, it has been rather peaceful. By this time in the year the students settle back into their lives here like putting on an old coat. Everything fits and one is comforted to find that things are largely as one left them only, by some sort of magic, a little bit cleaner. Peaceful in the sense of uncomplicated: not quiet. The noise from the gym yesterday afternoon carried across the path between the buildings and Haipeng’s dorm was particularly lively in the evening although properly silent from 9.30pm (they tend to get noticed as they live directly above myself and Mrs Pratt).
The gym was packed for the sports afternoon although it was missing the increasingly portly Director who perhaps ought to be doing more than just peering through the glass doors to see what is going on. Fresh from boxing training my wife reported this conversation with a student: “Do you go to the gym in Hong Kong?”; “No, it’s too much trouble”; “Will you be going when you go back”; “Probably not”. Regardless of the questions over the place of exercise and sport in a balanced lifestyle, and even I feel quietly smug on that front having done my best to keep up during Yoonjin’s ‘Latin Fat Sizzle Workout’ in assembly this morning, this reminds us to think ahead and to ask “What has been gained here, if anything?” and so to think about how, if there is any good in all this, it can be made sustainable.
Perhaps it is a little premature to be asking such things: we still have nine and a half weeks and as we know, a lot can happen in that time. But still, a sensible reflection on what this experience can help with might make it more likely for those gains to be valued and for the journey ahead to build on them, rather than perhaps leave them behind and remember nostalgically whatever good it is that comes of being here.
It is a harder question to answer than it might appear and it is often the case that people look for ‘outputs’ in education rather than looking at, in a distinction made by Professor Brent Davies of the University of Hull, the ‘outcome’. It is a subtle distinction in the language but a huge distinction in operation. If we focus on outputs we look at measurable indices: performance in standardized tests, medals and honours won, grade certificates secured, selection for competitive positions even, as we did a little during ‘Beyond’, headline-grabbing personal achievements. All of which is rather like the old joke about economists for whom things only count if you can count them.
An outcome, as opposed to an output, is what is left, and what persists, after school has finished. I was entertained to see a bit of film the other day from the infamous, but highly successful, ‘Maotanchang’ Gao Kao factory-town in Anhui. After the exam, joyful students celebrated by throwing all their files and folders, textbooks and notes from the highest balcony of the school as so much refuse. I can remember the feeling. It is symbolic of an underlying reality: once you’ve learnt whatever it was for the exam, you don’t need it any more. Throw it away. “Build a bonfire” as we used to sing at school. And fair enough because that is probably what it is all worth.
But something is kept. What Guy Claxton, the English writer on education has called “the residue”. Some kind of deep learning that stays with you long after you have forgotten about the square on the hypotenuse or that Mr Huskisson was killed by a train. It could be that one is left with a deep sense of inadequacy, a fear of being judged, a belief that success is only for some and a perpetual anxiety about how others seem to be happier, more successful, better looking and more popular than you. It could also be a belief that life is a perpetual competition over scarce resources and that you have to do what it takes to keep your head above the others including, if necessary, cutting their legs from under them. I suspect that some combination of some of those qualities is what many of us (who did not go to CIS) did in fact learn in school.
On the other hand, it could be that one takes away from school a positive feeling about learning, the belief that one can learn anything if one puts one’s mind to it, the willingness and ability to engage in problem-solving with others, the personal qualities to be a good friend, neighbour and citizen and a sense of ease and comfort within one’s own skin. Those are outcomes worth working for. And they are qualities that surely lead to more success in life? Economic as well as spiritual and emotional.
I don’t know if we succeed here and although I’m fairly confident we do, really, it is far too early to know. But we do have a clear belief in this distinction between outputs (which are of course unignorable and we do our duty and celebrate the measurable achievements which are at least as good here as they are anywhere) and outcomes and we need, in combination with our parent body, to keep a conversation alive with our students about what those outcomes are, why we think they matter and to help our students see them, value them and if they feel they are present, to cherish them and build on them. Something for us to keep in mind as we settle in for the final Act in our own drama.
(We are privileged to be hosting Dr Faunce and the G20 group of Headteachers here next Thursday and then it is our Service and Action Week so this is the last letter from Hangzhou until Thursday 28th April).
April 7th, 2016
A rather quiet day on campus as I write since our students are all away working on other campuses: a third at Zhejiang University; a third at Entel Foreign Langauge School and a third with our Greentown colleagues. They are giving presentations to groups of students at each of those institutions on a range of topics as part of our ‘Changemaker’ week, our MYP Individuals and Societies advanced programme. I feel a little bit to be missing out on this occasion but administration demands are only usually avoidable and for once, I’m not where I most like to be, working alongside the students. Given the calibre of the people who are doing the real work, the average is probably raised by my withdrawing. I have been given cause to be reminded of the quote by Jack Welch, the famous CEO of General Electric: “If you’re a leader and you’re the smartest person in the room, you’ve got serious problems”. We don’t have serious problems.
Dan Kinzer has done a remarkable job in orchestrating a full week of meaningful endeavour with the seemingly simple assignment: “Change the world!”. This has meant students working in groups and clusters, formed for different functions, to explore ideas of realisable action in promotion of the United Nations sustainable development goals. The process is built around the concept of ‘Human Centred Design’ and we have been fortunate to partner with the graduate Design school of Zhejiang University as well as Kai Wu, a social enterprise that has grown out of that department. The process of the week follows the “Sensing, Crafting, Experiencing, Savouring” model familiar from ‘Beyond’ and in that spirit, I will attempt to communicate some of what has been happening around that structure.
In ‘Sensing’ the objective has been for students to grow in awareness and insight with relation to social and economic issues and to develop their understanding of the context of people for whom they might seek to design solutions. This included Historical and Geographical research and encouraged students to explore the personal, community and global contexts for the issue in question. Perhaps the most interesting and meaningful element of this was the exercise in exploring our own community: the Greentown students and teachers, a-yis, drivers, catering staff, security guards and others with the objective of understanding the impact of social, political, economic and environmental forces in their lives. Amidst the many learning goals of such activity, there are often unexpected, perhaps humorous, bonuses such as: if you want to interview the staff at our local junk-food joint, Kalesi, and thereby learn more about food waste, don’t try to talk to them at lunchtime!
Sensing and looking for inspiration has also been supported by liaison with local NGOs. Green Zhejiang is one of the more advanced environmental groups in China and they have been part of our story before, through Planetwalk and other good things. WABC work with people with disabilities, both physical and learning needs such as autism and some of the stories coming back from the meetings students held on Tuesday afternoon have been particularly interesting. The third organisation, Charity Store, seeks to promote self-sufficiency by providing outlets for the sale of products produced by marginalised groups. The objective throughout has been to recognise the role of empathy in design. It has been instructive to students, accustomed, in the classroom, to being invited to consider serious problems and proposing solutions, to realise that it is a common feature of our political and charitable establishments to decide for others what they need. Learning to see the world from the perspective of other people can be powerful. Ideas about homeless people need the designers (what we used to call students) to visit the homeless shelter and to speak with the people there. One learns that turning up once a week with a meal is a bit of a limited idea. As it was reported to me, one learns to ask: what about the other 20 meals each week? The visit to the Xixi orphanage provided a similarly meaningful opportunity.
Sensing moves into crafting with the process of devising practical solutions to change the world for the better. This is hard. Students have rich minds and ideas are abundant. The journey from big ideas to implementable solutions is a challenge and on occasion, dispiriting. Anna and Andrea, motivated to address clean water and sanitation issues, were inspired by ideas that on research, they discovered were not only long-standing proposals but that in practice, had run up against a range of different problems. Knowing those two, it is a necessary step towards something excellent. Solutions addressing the rights of the LGBTQA+ community have been complicated by the very diversity of the population. But still, the objective is to develop ‘prototypes’: a product, service, system or environment that can, perhaps, be realised and so achieve positive change.
Part of today’s work, the presentations to GYS, Entel and the Zhejiang University Graduate Design School is about this process of pitching an idea. Naturally, all in Chinese: this is an inter-disciplinary week and all faculty are involved: the Maths teachers, for example, rotating to support students on data-handling questions. The direct learning though is naturally connected to the Humanities subjects the students will go on to study for Diploma and perhaps in higher education and, as a long-serving A-level Economics teacher I am proud to confirm that the work our students are doing here is giving them deeper insight into textbook Economics than any classroom experience can manage and what they learn will feed through into essays and interviews back at Braemar Hill and undoubtedly better quality results in the long run. We still think grades are important. A bit. Just not as important as making a difference.
The week goes forward through the experience of working directly on the solution proposal and then the ‘savouring’: the storytelling and final presentation. Students are restricted in those presentations by the requirement to use the PechaKucha format (http://www.pechakucha.org/): a useful discipline and also, hopefully, a means by which parents can witness some of what has been done when students return to Hong Kong. However, you have to be here I’m afraid to see the energy, the display boards, and the cheerful, productive mess and you have to walk through our library or tea house to hear the buzz of talk, mature and focused, mostly, addressing heavy duty social science topics.
We come to the end of four weeks, three of ‘Beyond’ and one of ‘Changemaker’ when we have worked in ways that are usually only talked about in seminars and conferences. We have learnt a lot about a lot. To take an example: I have been asked a number of times, what is the role of the ‘teacher’ in all this? It turns out to be the same as always. Guide, coach, friend, facilitator, companion, partner, disciplinarian, motivator…as it has ever been when done properly, there is no such thing as a ‘teacher’. Or, rather, the term is an umbrella for all the jobs that good teachers actually do. There are two poles, intervening and organizing too much for students such that they learn helplessness and dependency and standing-off from students in the spirit of ‘independent learning’ such that they end up drifting aimlessly and losing heart. In the middle somewhere there is a sweet spot of the right relationship at the right moment: but that point is different for every student and different for any individual student at different times. That is the art or craft in the work of my fellow professionals: it isn’t a science or a technical or mechanical, measurable activity. Proud as I am of our students and much as I want to take every opportunity to draw attention to their achievement, I’d like to conclude this week’s letter with a word of acknowledgment to the craftsmanship and skill with which our teachers and coach-mentors have engaged with students over the past four weeks. This is one hell of a faculty.
March 17th, 2016
When is a school not a school? When it is a mechanics’ workshop, a restaurant, a musical instrument makers’, a small business incubator, a publishing house, a film studio, a software developer's, a dance company; when it is a cartographer’s or a photographer’s workplace or a jeweller’s; when it is an inventor’s garden shed or when it is a campaigning NGO, a screenwriter’s guild, a disability rights campaigning organisation or the site for an escape room adventure? What about when it is a place where cookbooks are researched, novels are written, profound questions of psychology and philosophy are explored, children’s picture books are created and original music written? What about if the students are working as teachers in other schools? Or what else? Or perhaps it is no longer a school if there are no classes? Or at least, no classes as anyone would understand the term and as it is usually taken to mean? Perhaps, then, we are no longer a school.
Returning from Anji yesterday evening after a day that had promised much: working on our creative projects in the silent beauty of a remarkable zen Buddhist monastery, but which ended up instead being rather frustrating as the weather plunged twenty degrees from Monday and the wonderful plan was frozen out, I was experiencing a bit of a low moment when I walked back into our little campus and was just knocked out by the sense of purpose and energy that was filling the place. The most prominent of all projects has undeniably been the go-kart team of Nick, Adrian, Tavis, Hal and Alex. They have faced some difficulties that can be summed up by saying that they have discovered just how hard it is to make an automobile from scratch. But they recklessly allowed me to have a little test drive, showed me the motorcycle type throttle and explained that it worked just the same way. I don’t have huge experience of riding motorbikes but what little experience I have, from very many years ago, required a fairly robust initial movement on the throttle to rev the engine. So based on these instructions that is what I did. I am glad I was able to show the boys that their vehicle works at rather higher speeds than they had hitherto attempted. I am equally glad that even though the brakes had not yet been installed, we were able to find a way of stopping before hitting the fire exit at the end of the corridor. The only health and safety under threat in this exercise was that of myself and my co-pilot, Chen Yuan, and no one need worry about us.
What have these guys learnt, or any of our Beyond students? Who knows. The question is a kind of category error. It suggests we knew when we started this process what the students would learn as a result of three weeks of schoolwork and that is a redundant way of thinking. A model of schooling with a prescribed curriculum in which a committee has listed out the pieces of information that students should be made to remember for tests, and then forget, or the various performance acts that they have to practise until the big day in order to receive some kind of number or letter that makes it all worthwhile, is broken and across the education world there is growing consensus that we need instead to find creative contexts for young people to acquire mental flexibility, confidence and self-regulation. CIS has every cause for pride to be a school that not only talks about these things but, as we have lived it these past three weeks, matches the talking with some doing.
Will these go-kart guys go on to do more advanced go-kart making in Y11? Well, they could, perhaps, through the personal project but I hope they won’t. I hope they go on to do something totally different. Does it matter that they didn’t do elementary go-kart making in Year 9? The opposite is true: it is better that they had never done this before. The point is not to do progressively more advanced go-kart making with each year of school. The point is that as a result of this experience, there is the knowledge of what it takes to learn how to do something that you have never done before, there is experience of engagement and absorption in the process of learning and the growth in character that comes from having to work with partners, of working under pressure and accepting the lessons in humility and resilience that come from repeated failure on the road to a kind of triumph. That’s not a bad bit of schooling. It will lead on to higher diploma scores than would otherwise have been achieved as these skills will support better working in Years 12 and 13 and it will be valuable material for personal essays and statements in university applications, especially for Engineering based courses, but we don’t measure our success in only those ways.
Of course size and noise are rarely a useful guide to meaning. I could hardly not feature the go-kart given the lift, nearly literal, that it gave me yesterday. But how to compare the go-kart to Ellen’s precise and beautiful jewellery, with its intricate and sophisticated symbolic connection to the cycle of traditional Chinese festivals? Or more abstract creativity such as Charlotte Lang’s thought provoking art-work inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat but very much her own and rooted in the concerns and perspectives of her time and place? Or creativity that exists for now only as digital files? How does 30,000 words towards one’s first novel sound for three weeks work? It doesn’t need an electric drill, doesn’t take up a lot of exhibition space and working on it, tapping away at one’s laptop, doesn’t make for the most memorable tweet but just try being tasked with reading through it and offering feedback. That is when you know, as I have good cause to testify, that something amazing has been happening.
I can no longer remember who said it first to me but I suspect it is now in my memory as a composite of many such comments but it has become a commonplace now to say that in schools we are usually too busy to do anything. Perhaps it is just as well if we have stopped being a school for a little while. Fundamental to the ‘Beyond’ concept has been taking away barriers to student achievement and the belief that in the process of expressing oneself through meaningful endeavour, each student will grow as a learner and will be equipped for far higher levels of achievement in the future. I am confident we have achieved that thanks in no small part to an amazing and dedicated team of teachers and coach-mentors but primarily thanks to a community of students who continue to give me cause to feel grateful and proud.
I’d like to conclude this week’s letter with a notice for an event organised this week in the UK by my friends at Slow Education. It feels very relevant to what we are doing.
“Super Slow Way and Slow Education share the belief that curiosity and creativity are at the heart of learning and art, and that both can help us lead a more fulfilling life. 'Slow' is about taking the time to do things well: to put quality over quantity. Slowing things down allows us to have a more meaningful interaction with each other and our environment, allowing us to think more deeply about how the world works and how we can contribute to it.
"Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections- with people, culture, work, food, everything" (Carl Honoré; In Praise of Slow).”
March 10th, 2016
I honestly don’t know where to begin. The last nine days has just been an incredible experience and it has been genuinely inspiring. I feel comfortable starting with a qualifier: not everything has worked smoothly; not everybody has succeeded to an equal degree in producing work of meaning and purpose; not every item of logistics has been totally smooth and not every relationship has been challenge free and cordial. We are embracing a new way of working and of course that means a bit of a bumpy road at times. As the wise father of one of our students wrote to me yesterday, commenting with pride on what his daughter has achieved: “There is no growth without change, and no change that takes place without dislocation and extending beyond one's comfort zone.” Those words are as true for a community or an institution as they are for an individual and Hangzhou CIS has been on three years of change, dislocation and extension beyond a comfort zone that in truth has probably never really existed for us. So what I am about to write, which if it is authentic to how I feel this morning will be a passionate celebration of our students, my colleagues and the ideas and values to which we have committed, will not be blind to some imperfections. But in terms of the bigger picture, they hardly seem to exist or matter.
To recap, ‘Beyond’ is a period of concentrated endeavour in which we try to create the circumstances in which students have opportunity to reach elevated levels of achievement in relation to work that they have identified as being of meaning to themselves, to be in some way related to place and to have potential value ‘beyond’ the school setting. It consists of two periods of nine days, separated by a rest day, during which students work on one project, continued through the eighteen days, or two separate projects; there is an interim exhibition in the mid-point and a final exhibition at the end. All students work alongside a faculty member and can either stay with that mentor or switch at the mid-point. Both operations are built around a period of fieldwork in a town away from Hangzhou. The guiding values, which are not unique or original to Hangzhou CIS, are that the learning should be (i) dual language; (ii) authentic, relevant and real world; (iii) personalised; (iv) explore multiple pathways to learning and (v) construct and be constructed through meaningful relationships. It works. Really.
Any listing of examples of student achievement over the past week and a half will have to be selective and will therefore end up unfairly excluding much that is fantastic. I have personally been very excited by many students’ work but will select as an illustration the collaborative project that Isaac U., Roger and Arnold have been doing with Mr Vallone. They started the process by visiting old peoples’ homes here in Hangzhou as they sought to identify a real problem faced by seniors in this community. Learning that the seemingly simple but very trying matter of carrying shopping bags up the stairs in apartment blocks without elevators was a genuine problem, they set about designing a solution. The fieldwork in Fuyang included more visits to seniors and their residences, sourcing of materials and advice from local mechanics and a retired electrical engineer, collaborating on design, testing and construction of prototypes and all, to my observation, speaking with them the night before the interim exhibition, with a kind of quiet focus, maturity and sense of purpose that contradicts all stereotypes of boys of this age. Hats off to this team. A genuine combination of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. It isn’t just talk: Eric and the boys are doing it.
I had to start with a team with whom I wasn’t directly connected because the temptation just to race ahead excitedly writing about the group with whom I spent operation 1 myself would have overtaken me. Our group formed around shared interests in stories, writing and creative arts. Yvette has set herself the challenge of making a substantial start to a novel-length story in a fantasy genre; Tiffany Chan wanted to learn more about the real-life concerns of local people in rural areas and represent them in fiction; Celine C. was motivated to write stories targeted at upper Primary age children that explored life-lessons for that age group and she has collaborated with CIS Primary Counsellor Sue Fenwick on identifying the issues that come up in that work; Lauren had a brain overflowing with ideas that she has now got under control and she has sketched out and made a substantial start to a complex and original novel; Irene has approached questions of identity and the self and is constructing a series of prose-poems and original artworks around these themes; Tess and Natasha CWL took the story of a lady they met in the village of Shangshugan, and translated and recorded it as a spoken word soundtrack to which they are choreographing a modern dance retelling of the story which they will film and take back to the village. If some of these projects sound presumptuous, in school students, then it is time to rethink your stereotype of Year 10s. For sure, the larger pieces of work will have to be kept for completion in life that will happen, as we have jokingly started to describe it, 'Beyond-Beyond', but we are happy to be considered ambitious.
Elsewhere, there has been, just to take another example, the high profile fund-raising for breast cancer by Jemima and Imogen that has been so inspirational. The run and the t-shirts have been prominent; less visible has been the time spent with local health officials and professionals, interviewing, exploring and trying to understand how perceptions of the condition and treatment operates in small town China. It hasn’t ‘just’ been a charitable fundraiser, fabulous though that type of thing is, it has been about a deep insight into a sensitive topic in a new place and culture; it has been about those meaningful relationships, with each other and with Zhang Laoshi but also with the community they have visited; it has pushed their Chinese language skills hard, been highly personal, authentic, relevant and real-world and has brought learning in a range of different ways.
These are samples. There are seventy-seven stories to tell, not to mention the projects that many faculty undertook alongside the students. Some are more impressive than others for sure but often the real meaning has not been in the achievement in the project but in the self-knowledge gained in the process. In some cases, the output might seem to compare a little less splendidly with some of the examples I have given. In presentation and feedback, we heard students speak in mature and reflective fashion. One said, for example, “I wasted the first three or four days because I thought it wasn’t really school so I didn’t get started and found it easy to do nothing useful…”; for the record, but careful not to identify in this case, the work that this student then went on to do was not only impressive, it was done with self-imposed drive and determination. The project did involve learning within more than one of our academic disciplines and that is of value, but how much more significant is the learning of what it takes to self-regulate, to motivate and be self-aware? What the experts call ‘metacognition’ but we can just think of as ‘getting it’.
We are trying to document this process. Zhu Laoshi has been busy filming and interviewing; we will try to ensure there is an appropriate exercise in review and reflection afterwards. This letter is a wholly inadequate snapshot of a very significant exercise that to those of us close to it feels so far, with all modesty and caution, to be an absolute triumph for the staff and students of Hangzhou CIS. Thank you to those parents who have written to me with their kind enthusiasm and endorsement of this experience: I know it can be a bit difficult to be detached from one’s children during exciting periods of growth. As I have written before, the confidence and support of our parent group continues to be a source of energy for all of us. With that wind in our sails, we have what it takes here to create the circumstances in which these students can do amazing things. It really, really works.
March 3rd, 2016
What seemed like a mixed bag of thoughts this week until, as so often happens, one took a step back and realised there was a theme after all. I was torn, approaching this week’s letter, between reporting on how our general assembly process has led to implementation of a positive policy abut lifestyle, some uplifting performances by groups formed out of Tama Karena’s music class, great whole school sessions on Monday led by Dan Kinzer and Mitch Grace and what was intended as a simple discussion point in a staff training exercise revealing something very profound and potentially meaningful. Seemingly unrelated but looking again, all connected in a way that makes me feel rather proud of our Hangzhou CIS community.
To take matters in chronological order, two Sundays ago our General Assembly debated a motion to adopt ‘Meat-free Mondays’ in our canteen. The General Assembly is a forum for the student committees to report back on their work but it does also provide a space for students and staff to bring proposals that can be debated and which are taken to be binding on all the community. This opportunity hasn’t been taken as often as I’d once envisaged it might be but I’m hoping that after the experience of active citizenship that led to the passing of this motion by 61 votes to 19 and our first ‘Meat-free Monday’, students will feel empowered to come up with other ideas. On this occasion, persuaded by the arguments in relation to the adverse environmental impact of factory farming and the meat industry and the relative modesty of the proposal itself, a mature and civilized debate resulted in a clear change of practice. And, incidentally, a day when we enjoyed some outstanding, wholesome and nutritious food prepared to traditional Hangzhou home-style recipes. A few refuseniks still chose to stop by the junk food take-away outlet on Greentown campus and to vote with their wallets but I guess that is freedom.
Monday was also the launch of the Individuals and Societies ‘Learning Journey 3’ during a two hour session, led by Dan Kinzer and involving all students and faculty. In the first place, it was pretty inspiring to be in a ‘lesson’ that involved all students, teachers and coach-mentors together. It is a good way of working and makes a nice change compared with having everyone atomized into little groups called classes, departments or disciplines. The MYP Statement of Inquiry, in other words the statement to be tested through study of this unit is: “One person can make a positive and sustainable difference in the world.”The MYP concepts are ‘Change’ and ‘Sustainability’ and the context ‘Fairness and Development’. If that sounds a little jargonistic it should I hope indicate how this is making great use of the MYP framework for meaningful experiential learning. Presented with the UN’s sustainable development goals,
(https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics/susta...) students formed up into small groups around the idea that appealed most and began the process of drilling down into questions and issues that interest them and looking ahead to action-oriented thinking that might test whether they can have positive impact through the choices they make. The team I joined grouped around interests in international law, human rights and democracy and the relationship between political institutions and economic development. Pretty cool stuff for Year 10s.
If that wasn’t enough for a Monday, the ‘Yoda Project’, the latest phase of the well-being programme designed by Mitch Grace and delivered through ‘Home Time’, concluded with a memorable and substantial hour. An extended meditative practice around the theme of awareness of others was followed by a significant written exercise on which I must remain silent just yet (students can explain why when you see them). I try to remain informed on developments in Positive Education around the world and I have heard speakers and read reports from highly celebrated schools. Quite frankly, none of them have as successfully integrated and developed a programme as Mitch has produced, pretty much by himself, and delivered here. I hesitate to broadcast just how good this is given the risk that if anyone really did know quite how far ahead he is in this increasingly ‘must-have’ area, there’d be representatives from big schools circling with briefcases full of banknotes to tempt him away. So: passing on…
Mr Karena’s music evenings are always a pleasure for me. I may be biased by my personal enthusiasms but I don’t think anything matches playing in a band for being worthwhile and meaningful activity. On Wednesday evening, four small ensembles drawn from the Music students shared their approaches to the ‘Songs of Unity’ unit. Special though this is, it would be sort of everyday magic as well but for the remarkable coincidence in theme between the songs and the kind of conversation that was taking place on Monday. I enjoyed all of them (and who knew Sandra has such a great voice? She herself still seems to need convincing but that was fabulous) but I think the theme song for I&S Learning Journey 3 clearly needs to be Michael Jackson’s ‘The Man in the Mirror’ () performed by Hannah, Celine L., Angelline and Hangzhou CIS’s very own Prince of Pop: Arnold.
On Saturday morning I tried out a little training exercise on ‘moral and political aims of education’ in one of my weekly sessions with the CMs. This is a list of ten statements taken from a publication produced by the UCL Institute of Education (the world’s number 1 ranked university department of education!) that give different declared aims for education. One invites participants to endorse five and rank them, giving five points to the highest ranked, four for the second and so on. Summing all the results was intended to provide the start point for discussion. In the event, there was such incredible unanimity about the chosen ‘Number One’ value statement, there wasn’t a lot to talk about! Interested, I repeated the exercise on Monday morning with all teaching staff. The result was similarly compelling. By a very, very large margin, CMs and teachers here, collectively, endorsed the statement “The aim is that young people should develop the capacity of care and concern for others.”
None of this should come as a surprise. After all, our school mission statement concludes with the most important sentence of all: “The school prepares its students to be compassionate, ethical and responsible individuals, contributing to local and global communities, respectful of other views, beliefs and cultures, and concerned to make a difference in the world.” It has been a good week. It is good to work in a school that puts positive moral and political values at the heart of its mission and it is fantastic to work with colleagues who are so expert in finding new and ever richer ways of delivering on that. I hope all our community have a wonderful New Year and wish all readers:
P.S. Don’t forget to look out for Prospects! The new HZCIS magazine. Thanks to Peter, Angelline and Ben L. in particular for leading on this but also to the twenty or so other contributors.
January 28th, 2016
It has been a week where remaining upbeat has been a challenge and positive emotion has been at a premium. Temperatures have dropped, and are forecast to drop further and the consolation of snow has so far been only the mushy, sleety type that hardly settles and is no fun at all. Night-time temperatures are forecast to drop to double-digits below zero at the weekend. If the snow can upgrade to happy, fluffy white matter that settles and lets us play properly then the mood might lift but to be honest, there’s not much joy in the damp and drab stuff we’re getting at the moment.
We also started the week with a bad air day. These come around periodically in the winter-time when some combination of wind and temperature or air pressure or something means that the grot descends on our city. It has been worse this year than last but not as bad as two years ago and happily for CIS students, the worst fell during the vacation. Still, we have had two bad days since returning to school when even those of us who always look for the best in Hangzhou have had to admit, it has been disappointing. Happily, we are back to more familiar, if still admittedly unsatisfactory AQI figures (82 at Xixi this morning; for comparison Causeway Bay reads 89. Even my beloved, and largely now deindustrialised home city of York is reading 114 at Fishergate this morning: what is going on? – relying here on aqicn.org).
This backdrop of gloom and grime is naturally the perfect opportunity to invite students to offer feedback on their MYP experience of Semester 1. Given the grey skies on Monday afternoon and the inevitable feeling of anti-climax for some students that accompanies learning that one’s grades aren’t quite perfect and that that must be someone else’s fault, it is a good sign when the exercise was once again heartening and informative with some interesting points for reflection. And as always with feedback exercises, there is the reverse effect of how in some ways one learns more about the group feeding back than one does about the group being fed back to.
Our feedback process here is as full and unrestricted as I can make it. Students have the opportunity to write in total anonymity on each of the eight MYP disciplines. There is no word count and the only rule is that of keeping language within the bounds of courtesy. The online form asks students to Please comment in your own words on your experience as a student of (x) at Hangzhou CIS. Consider the following: aspects of the course that went well, areas that on reflection you feel did not go well and any ideas you may have for an enhanced experience for future students. The question is asked eight times with (x) being the title of each respective MYP discipline. Student anonymity is guaranteed and the commitment I make is that only I read all the feedback but that subject teachers will read all the feedback on each discipline (ie all Maths teachers read all the Maths feedback). Students are free to name individual teachers if they wish but are encouraged to focus on the process rather than personalities.
On balance, the exercise confirms once again how fortunate we are to have such supportive and positive students. The overwhelming majority of responses are enthusiastic, appreciative and heartwarming. It would be a fun Thursday letter to simply quote a long list of the upbeat comments along the lines of a poster for a West End Show (“Perfect Chen Yuan!!”; “Personally I absolutely love the English programme”; “we have two lovely science teachers”; “I think HZx is a wonderful experience” and so on). It would also be fun to share some of the light hearted and comic contributions that are inevitable when working with teenagers but all of this could come across as a bit self-indulgent. Positive feedback is heartily appreciated and of real value in that it reinforces good practice but quoting it can seem a little self-congratulatory and we should enjoy it modestly and in private.
What can we learn from the anxieties and concerns that are also very properly expressed? There is still a residual stress from some students who are worried that where our programme diverges from that in Hong Kong, Hangzhou students will be disadvantaged on return to Braemar Hill. It is difficult to know how else we can communicate that this is not a concern other than to keep repeating the message. The main area where this is felt is perhaps unsurprisingly in the Individuals and Societies course, branded as HZx, as this represents the greatest divergence from practice in Hong Kong. Despite the reassurance given to the students by Micah Cook, Head of Humanities at Hong Kong CIS on his visit here, and the enthusiastic endorsement of this programme by the department there, as well as their participation in its design, along with all the rationalization and explanation we can offer, the residual belief that learning in schools is sequential, and along pre-determined tracks, lies deep.
There is something of a divide evident between students who have relished the opportunity to explore social science questions in greater depth and to have more participation in designing the inquiry process on the one hand and those who’d like traditional History and Geography classes with clear instructions about the tasks to be done to secure what grades on the other. The balance is firmly in favour of the former but there is clearly still work to do in how we articulate to students the value to them of this and other experiences. One articulate and reflective student wrote “Even at this point in time I believe I am still hardwired to my redundant, repetitive, test-filled learning style” and conceded that it had been a challenge for him or her in adapting to an approach that demanded more autonomy, creativity, self-regulation and independence. It is additionally rather disheartening to read a student write: “Although the motive is to train students to giving (sic) themselves more self-discipline, I think deep down everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen.” Not only is that a very dispiriting lack of ambition from one of our students (I genuinely will never know who) but it is flatly contradicted by the experience and the quality of academic work that has been done. It seems that in some cases, we have a higher opinion of our students than they have of themselves.
Enough of I&S: I could have filled this letter and several more simply quoting the enthusiastic endorsements of Mr Kinzer and his work but that would be indulgent and there is value also in exploring the hard lessons one learns about innovation. However, for the Mum and Dad who are referred to in this comment: “My parents also really appreciate it, whenever I talk to them on the phone, they always ask about it, not about math and science” a big ‘thank you!’ for modelling an open-minded, curious and intellectual mindset. I wrote once before about the school-home partnership and how it looks when it works best and this is a great example.
In comparison with our previous two years, we seem to be growing. The crippling anxiety about ‘what they are doing in Hong Kong’ seems to be diminishing and there is across the board respect and appreciation for the personalities, dedication and commitment of the teachers. There are inevitably contradictory comments about the volume of assessment or homework, the balance between independent learning and direct instruction, the respective merits of being seen as a ‘tough’ teacher or one who needs to do more to ‘control the class’ and so on. There is no pattern as these are eternal questions in schools and we are always trying to find ways to be better at what we do. The one thing we can say for sure here at Hangzhou CIS though is that we know what our students think when they are given freedom and anonymity to express themselves. Overall it reads like an old-fashioned school report: “Mostly good work, much promise, some areas for improvement”. Ah, yes…reports.
January 21st, 2016
We are approaching the mid-point of the Hangzhou experience for our current cohort of students. That day is actually this coming Monday. From hereon perhaps it is all down hill? Or if the story is to follow a conventional narrative arc, my students this week might place the climax of the tale a little further along the timeline to fall maybe two thirds of the way through, allowing time for ‘falling action’ and ‘resolution’. So perhaps not a major event in the storyline of Hangzhou 15-16 but halfway is still an administrative turning point as it is the end of Semester 1 and time to generate some grades and write some reports.
I do feel that any activity that consumes huge amounts of energy and emotion should be questioned from time to time just to ensure that the opportunity cost, the trade-off, of that cost is justified. This seems to be me to be no more than responsible management. Our resources include the time and energy and the spirit and inspiration of our teachers and these are depleted to a considerable degree by this process. Another major asset to us is the quite amazingly positive mindset of our students and the genuinely joyful way that they generally approach life here. Grading time can cause a bit of a battering on that front as well. In other words, the exercise is not cost free. Rather, it is a major item pushing down the account of positive spirit that is the currency of this place and indeed any other good school. It need hardly be added that the anxiety and self-imposed stress that the whole process brings to students is also significant and highly damaging to their feelings about school and to their affection for learning.
So, after my own process of putting together MYP grades for my twenty-eight students and dutifully entering the numbers into ‘ManageBac’ what have I either learned, or communicated? What is the pay-off of this process? I can’t say that I have learnt very much myself. The grades are broadly what I would have expected. I know my students quite well by now. Their written work to me has had extensive written feedback and the numbers at the bottom do rather less to inform the students themselves about their performance in the narrowly defined area of activity that contributes to this grading than my personalized observations on their writing. In terms of ‘assessment for learning’ I learn what I need from the written work they have done, and could proceed with considering the next activities and instruction, without putting a number at the bottom. For students and teachers, my feeling right now is that this process of measuring the children using a crude numerical scale is more of a barrier to learning than a contributor.
However, I usually get to these letters after a conversation with somebody and the response on this topic has been that we have to have grades because “parents wouldn’t accept any different”. Perhaps, but if my dialogue with CIS parents is any guide, you could, as in the old joke about economists, put twelve of them in a room and ask a question and you’d get thirteen answers. I don’t really buy that there is a monolithic ‘parent view’ on any question: I only ever meet thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate people who are interested in new ideas, well educated and well informed about many issues including education and characterized by healthy diversity of perspective. If this sounds sycophantic then I apologise but that is genuinely my experience.
“Parents want to know how their children are doing”. Fair enough. We do need to think about the process of dialogue between parents and teachers and it is a perpetual frustration that we cannot find a way of organizing this in any way that yet feels satisfactory. We have collected considerable feedback on the parent-teacher conferences, for example, and inevitably that feedback is conflicted and only consistent in that generally, it would be good if there were more individualised attention. We are reviewing again in light of the latest feedback and hope to improve that process for next time but as our numbers increase, the number of hours in an average day remains unchanged and Hangzhou continues to be not in Hong Kong there will be challenges in meeting all the hopes for those occasions. But reviewing that process of dialogue, helping the feedback to be meaningful to parents and sharing what we learn about their children through this Hangzhou journey needs to be something we continue to develop.
By contrast, what does it mean to the parents of student x if that student is awarded a 6, say, in English? It tells the parent that student x has done very well in terms of the criteria of the MYP. That there were a couple of areas where the teacher leant towards, say, “makes competent use of organizational structures that serve the context and intention” rather than “makes sophisticated use of organizational structures that serve the context and intention effectively” but that a particular performance event was done and done well. (Before anyone asks, we do of course meet and standardize over sample student scripts to try and reach consistency over the interpretation of these criteria). Is that useful information? Or is it, as it feels to me as I go through the process, rather limited and one-dimensional?
Other responses on this are firstly that US universities consider school transcripts from Year 10 so grades are needed for those purposes and secondly, a number of students move on to other schools and in order to serve the needs of those application processes, we should be able to present a school transcript with grades on. In the case of the former argument, I do not see this is really being an issue. Many students go to US universities from schools that do not grade in year 10, (US 9th Grade). School transcripts from my former employer, Eton College, do not list grades for Year 10. The applications still went ahead with generally well-regarded outcomes. In response to the second, I’m not sure why we should feel quite so bound to pursue an activity simply to facilitate applications to other schools. Simply responding that we do not grade and they will need to consider an application by other means may lead to better consideration of those applications.
It is, as an aside, an interesting reflection that a student in Year 10 facing a wall of straight 7s may, paradoxically, be setting him or herself up for a challenge with regard to the university application process. Any falling off from that level in the years to follow might cause an admissions tutor to wonder why and whether this student had peaked age fourteen while an upward trajectory invites optimistic evaluation. This is an inexact science but all insight into this question of which I am aware and the opinion of those experts in whom I have most confidence supports the idea that these reasons for grading are not in themselves worth giving too much weight. And in any case, they don’t tell us the need for grades in Years 7 to 9, which we might consider even if this is a letter to a Year 10 only Hangzhou population.
Anyway: the process is under-way at Hangzhou CIS and we engage in it with the full professionalism and commitment that parents and students have a right to expect. Reports will be out in February in line with the rest of CIS. It is simply that in the same spirit of professionalism and managerial responsibility I feel it only responsible to ask ‘why’? I’m not convinced by the answers I have been given and wonder if there might, one day, be a case for doing things differently but no-one reading this need be alarmed that there is any immediate danger of this being other than a thought experiment. However, if we agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, then what value the unexamined administrative procedure?
14th January 2016
Although we have been back for only half a week the range of topics on which to report is already a little overwhelming. Only yesterday we had a team of students performing at very short notice in the final rounds of the Hangzhou city student drama competition and thanks to Jen Grace for leading on that. We also had fifty-five students travel over to a school in the suburbs of Shanghai for an athletics meet and competitive matches in a wide range of sports. To take the latter as an example only, this meant that yesterday afternoon 70% of our students were representing CIS in meaningful inter-school sports competition. The only statistic that counts in school sport is participation rate and Erin Kinzer is delivering another winning season.
However, for the community at large here perhaps the greatest collective impact has come from the visit of Aaron Eden of the Bali Green School and the stepping up of preparatory activities towards our ‘Beyond’ programme. While there have been workshops and meetings about this since the beginning of the year, naturally, the knowledge that this ambitious process takes off for real only next month has brought it to life in a new way. Tess best summed up the mood for me in our small-group meeting this morning: I gave her an old-school type multiple-choice question to make it easy to say how she felt about the process. I offered her the choice of (A) I wish Mr Pratt would just shut up; (B) I’d actually rather be in a regular class labeling a diagram in a textbook; (C) It seems fairly painless and (D) Honestly: I’m actually excited. Okay, of course you can question the process that led to her giving D as her answer and she’s far too nice to have suggested A but I believe she was honest with me. I’m excited too.
What is ‘Beyond’? It has evolved in the planning and so any answer to that is to a degree provisional but put briefly, it is a period of concentrated endeavour in which we create the circumstances for our students to reach elevated levels of achievement that simply can’t be catered for in conventional school settings. Students will work for eight days on each of two learning operations with an exhibition on the ninth day as they pursue a project of meaning to themselves, tied in some way to a sense of place and with identifiable value to people beyond themselves or their school.
Specific examples may help to illustrate. Students and faculty have organised themselves into five groups centred round self-identified preferences for the kind of learning activity that they feel inclined to commit to at this time. We have called them ‘styles’ for no good reason other than that it sums up the sense that there are different dimensions to academia and grouping together, say, ‘story-telling, writing, interviewing, learning about the past, exploring identity through tales and traditions and researching how those traditions drive community cohesion and development’ is, yes, English, Chinese, History, Geography, Economics, Psychology, Art, Film, Music, Drama, Science and Maths, IT, Design, PE and so on but it is just easier to call it ‘A’. When the emphasis is on ‘measuring, calculating, speculating, estimating, planning’ and so on, it becomes ‘B’. We also have a ‘C’, a ‘D’ and an ‘E’. We used to call this work ‘inter-disciplinary experience’ and spread it through the year in what old-hands will remember as IDEs. They were good in themselves but too fractured and insufficiently ambitious or personalised. Now we’ve run those days together in a single burst, raised the bar and can go further. ‘Beyond’, even.
Organised into their ‘Style Teams’, students have chosen mentors from among the faculty and are in the process of developing substantial pieces of work. These range from artistic production, social science research, manufacturing and business enterprise, athletic endeavour in support of charitable causes, film-making, design and delivery of educational materials for local schools and much more besides. Each Style Team has adopted a Zhejiang town (Anji; Yiwu; Wenzhou; Fuyang and Tonglu) as we go ‘beyond’ Hangzhou and seek inspiration a little further afield, using China as our classroom. There will be the two exhibitions on 2nd and 12th March to share the process and we will try to find some sensible and manageable way of sharing this with our community away from Hangzhou.
The key architects so far have been the ‘Beyond’ Leadership Team: Eric Vallone; Jen Grace; Teck Huat Wee; Dan Kinzer; Sally Zhang; Lisa Wang; Mitch Grace and Wang Lu. We have drawn on the experience of our friends at the Bali Green School and their parallel journey with their GreenLEAP programme. Eric and Lu participated in that process in December while the rest of us were on vacation and have brought back considerable learning and insight. However, ‘Beyond’ necessarily has total participation of all faculty and is now a matter for every one of us.
That is some of the ‘what’ although the hundreds of teacher-hours spent and tens of thousands of words generated by colleagues here mocks my attempt to present it all in a simple letter. The key question is, of course, ‘why’? Why go to all this trouble to work in such a more demanding and challenging fashion when all we are really required to do is sit in classrooms and work through textbooks, remember stuff for tests and then forget it, calculate some grades and knock out reports at the end of each semester? Well, simply because we can’t afford not to.
The answer is on different levels. The most significant is that depth of learning, personal growth through the exercise of endeavour and exploration of personalized interest is fulfilling and developmental in its own right. Building one’s sense of self through active learning and creative production fits our mission statement ambition to “promote the growth of the whole person”. We are also ambitious that each project will be able to demonstrate that it has been valuable in some way to a community beyond our school: refer to the mission statement again: “ethical and responsible individuals, contributing to local and global communities, respectful of other views, beliefs and cultures, and concerned to make a difference in the world”. We are only doing what we said we would.
However, there are other gains and while I have never sought to use employment prospects and university admissions as reasons to justify anything in schools as I believe there are more important purposes for what we do, it is handy when these imperatives coincide. In addition to the Hangzhou Advantage that our students already enjoy as they make a case for themselves in terms of ambitious applications to colleges and in professional and business lives, ‘Beyond’ adds to the story that our students will be able to tell about themselves in ways that are of increasing relevance in that competitive environment. There is no secret about what elite colleges look for: they tell you themselves. Harvard is ‘looking for’ “individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond”*. What have you done, what can you do, that is cool, amazing and different, wasn’t something you had to do because it was graded for school as part of a formal curriculum or was part of a summer camp that your parents sent you on and how does what you do have impact on people around you? Can you go ‘beyond’?
I will take time again in the next couple of weeks to add to this letter with further reasons for our excitement about what is happening and why, speaking for faculty at least, we are in a growing state of nervous excitement and anticipation and of course a little bit of anxiety as we embark on something that represents an opportunity to build on delivering on some of the promise inherent in the Hangzhou CIS adventure. It is hard work and on occasion I wonder if maybe we are crazy to be so ambitious for our students and ourselves and then I see some of my colleagues in action and they leave me in no doubt. But as Steve Jobs famously put it: “Here’s to the crazy ones!”
January 7th 2016
I read recently* of the story of the founding of the world-famous Cirque de Soleil. Back in the 1980s the circus industry was in decline: the performances were stale and uninspiring, animal treatment was at last becoming an issue and people were finally beginning to realise that clowns just aren’t funny. Guy Laliberté, a street performer in Canada, started Cirque du Soleil by questioning every assumption about what a circus should be.
The process was to think of all the features of conventional circuses – the failing circuses – and to turn them upside-down. So instead of a big tent, cheap seats, performing animals, cheesy music, popcorn, clowns, multiple acts taking place simultaneously and so on there’d be a small tent, expensive seats, no animals, sophisticated music, no popcorn, no clowns, one act taking place at a time. The result is a global phenomenon.
We are long overdue this process taking place in schools. Plenty of conversation is taking place but why don’t we, as a little experiment, take the Cirque du Soleil thought exercise and apply it to schools. What are the features of schools (from a student perspective)? Grades, measurement and being ranked; homework; timetables; different subjects; avoiding failure; being told what to do and how to do it and then doing it the way you’ve been told or facing some uncomfortable consequence. Being grouped together by age, spending the first third of your life being told to think of your future, having no time to read and no opportunity to explore an interest that doesn’t happen to be on the official curriculum. One could continue but those are our clowns, trapeze artists and popcorn. Let’s turn them upside-down. We can’t do it all in a brief Letter from Hangzhou but let’s pick one for starters.
What about ‘measurement’? Our good friend, Aaron Eden of the Bali Green School, estimated the other day in a conversation with myself, Eric Vallone and Wang Lu that about 40% of time in schools is spent on measurement of students. The only surprise is that he sets it so low. We are fixated on measuring children. And they become fixated on being measured. Then the very fact of measuring distorts the phenomenon being measured. Aaron came up with an example from Physics: one can’t measure speed and location at the same time. I was reminded of Goodhart’s Law in Economics: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." In other words, the fact of setting a metric as your target renders that metric useless because the various stakeholders start to anticipate the effect of policies to measure the target and change their behaviour accordingly. If it applies to financial markets it certainly applies to testing in schools.
The effect of most testing in schools is to distort the very qualities we would say, in our more idealistic moments, that we see it as the purpose of schools to foster. We want creativity, imagination, joy, risk-taking and adventure. But these are the very qualities that you have to suppress in order to succeed in tests. You need to have practised model answers, to have memorised word-lists and to have drilled the same types of problems repeatedly so you can perform the act robotically under pressurised conditions. I know this to be the case because most of my career as a schoolteacher has been spent preparing students for these performance events we call exams. To an extent I’m still doing it because I know what kind of tasks will be demanded of our kids on their roads ahead and I know my duty.
We have a couple of students leaving us early this week in order to take SSAT exams. I don’t know much about the SSAT given that it is an American thing so, in addition to passing an hour looking through some sample papers recently with one of these students, I finally looked it up and learnt a bit about it. I’m afraid it only confirmed that the circus is still populated with clowns. The entire process is an exercise in limiting thought. Such a claim, in the face of such an industry, needs supporting evidence so how about this question:
8. Stream is to river as brook is to
This is not a particularly egregious example and comes from the SSAT organisation’s own web-site: (http://www.ssat.org/test-prep/whats-on-test/ul-sam...) and is therefore presumably an example of a ‘good’ question. Aside from the arguably racist assumption that English language usage is defined by white American culture, it is an exercise in suffocating and stifling thought. What about a rill, a rivulet, a spring, a burn? A race or a runnel? In Yorkshire we have becks. Are they big or small where you live? A slough is a stream in some parts of the English speaking world; it is a marsh in others. How big is your creek? Are you sure that it is bigger than my brook? And what about that relationship? Rivers have streams within them, as anyone who has navigated a riverboat will know. Forests may have brooks within them. (D) isn’t wrong. Stream and river are nouns; brook and puddle are verbs (to tolerate and to stir or knead). (E) is right. Although ‘stream’ has become a verb and so could ‘river’ be one if I wanted it to be.
‘Brook’ in this context isn’t a daily word for me, any more than creek is, and I was reminded instead, perhaps oddly to most people but it makes sense after years teaching British political History, of Stanley Baldwin’s wish to “damn the Beaverbrook and drain the Rothermere” (expressing his secret wish to shut down the Times and Daily Mail newspapers – Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere being their respective proprietors). Hm…a mere is a lake (think Windermere). If the relationship between brook and lake is rooted in the relationship between the government and media in 1920s Britain then…maybe stream and river have something to do with the politics and media? Oh, I give up.
I’m fairly confident that I could manage a good score on the SSAT but I’m not sure I’d want to. Don’t worry, I do know that the ‘right’ answer is (C), but I don’t want it to be. I just want to find all sorts of ways that (C) is not the answer. And why would we want a child to succeed in a system that required you to shut down your imagination and deliver the most boring answer possible to a question that is pretty dubious in any case? And why would one want admission to a school that took results in such tests at all seriously? I shall brook no further nonsense from the SSAT organisation.
Why do we measure at all? We are repeatedly told and we celebrate the idea that the journey to success is through multiple failures. But the one place you can’t be allowed to fail is in school. We have students who think a 6 is a fail. At GCSE, certainly in a school like the one I worked at previously, a B can look like a fail. If we matched actions to the rhetoric of corporate motivation-speak we’d give the places in elite universities to the kids who’d failed the most. Of course we don’t and we all learn at school that the best way to avoid failure is to play safe.
My late mother was the best-read individual in the English-speaking world. She failed her English O-level at Bromley County Grammar School for Girls. The story, told by my Uncle, goes that when invited to analyse Lady Macbeth’s villainy, she wrote an essay saying that actually Lady Macbeth should be seen as an admirable character. The examiner ran the red pen through the script. She chose to leave school and took a job in the Palace of Westminster rather than stay on to do A-levels. She made up for it later with a return to formal study but the qualifications she acquired were a trivial irrelevance set against her real scholarship. I’ve never yet met anyone who could match her for insight, learning and love of English literature. And she failed her O-level. Goodness knows what she’d have done to the now very much more limiting GCSE exam.
This letter was prompted this week by a brief insight into the frustrations being felt by some of our students as they negotiate Year 11. The brighter they are, it seems, the more dissatisfied they are and perhaps the brightest of all, to my observation last year, has speculated openly about leaving school and sorting out an education by herself. Well, if you read this, stick in there. And don’t blame CIS: look at the SSAT and see that the grass is not greener on the other side of the Pacific. Meanwhile, adults, can we look at ourselves and ask: how did we let this happen? And are we willing to turn the circus upside-down? No grades or reports, no measurement or rankings; no homework; no timetables; all learning integrated; frequent failure; being told you have to work out what to do and how to do it and then doing it the way you’ve worked out for yourself or facing whatever consequence. Being grouped together by aptitude, independence and disposition; spending the first third of your life living in the present, lots of time to read and opportunity to explore an interest that doesn’t happen to be on the official curriculum. We could do it if we wanted.
*In Tina Seelig “What I Wish I’d Known When I was 20”
This is the last Letter from Hangzhou for 2015. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers!
December 10th, 2015
532 Wenyi West Road
Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province
People's Republic of China
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