Roll call: Antiracist School

Dear Faculty and Staff:

When your personal passion project suddenly becomes the work to be done, you take notice. After a decade of teaching antiracism (from an ally perspective) to high school students, where examining the police brutality problem was a notable part of the curriculum, I as much as any like-minded activist cheered on the Black Lives Matter movement this past spring. While I mourn and rage against each senseless death, I nevertheless carry hope that this moment proves to be an inflection point in the drive for just society.

With antiracism in the public’s consciousness, the summer of 2020, spent in self-induced quarantine at our home in central Massachusetts, provided the opportunity to go back to school, to take a beginner’s mindset on what has been a steady diet of multicultural genre reading over the years. While I’ve pushed myself to read more fiction, and as such, consumed anything written by Coates and Whitehead, I knew I must deepen my education through reading more non-fiction. I was humbled by the endeavor upon realizing how little progress I have made.

I started with Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, a must read for anyone trying to make the world a better place for all humans. I realized right away that this book would serve as The Roadmap, and would force me to move away from the “suasians” of education and moral pleading, and focus instead on influencing policy. 

DiAngelo’s White Fragility was an even more provocative read, and each chapter felt like a punch in the jaw. While I think her treatise on white privilege and white paralysis is overdone in some areas, I nevertheless chose to commit to address a few of my own practices: to stop unsolicited talk about what I am doing to combat prejudice and racism; to admit to my own racism (and stop acting like I’ve evolved past it); and to expand my friendships. 

At the suggestion of my wife, I watched Ava DuVernay’s Thirteenth, about the U.S. prison system. I can’t remember ever being so angered after watching a film.

As the new school year approached, and I looked for something to think about other than Covid-19, I kept returning to two questions: 1. Where do we go from here? and 2. What is my sphere of influence?

I cherish the privilege of leading a nonprofit international school committed to equality and justice, though we have a lot of work still to do here. Being a diverse organization does not make it a safe place for everyone, nor does it make it an antiracist institution. I’m ready to answer the roll call, and commit to the following:

  • To use my positional authority to enact meaningful and lasting change,
  • To focus on policy (e.g. hiring and retention) over all other endeavors,
  • To fully understand the support our community’s people of color need and deserve, and
  • To diversify the K-12 curriculum.

Most of all, I commit to joining you in charting the course to create an actively antiracist school. This is not a formal call to arms, but rather an invitation to come together to exact change, to improve the experience of all community members, and to grow as people.

Are you in?

7 Things International Schools Can Do Now to be Antiracist

It is time for international schools to not simply mean well, but to do well. Here is a good place to start to promote equality and antiracism*:

Adopt an institutional stance against racism. Create an unequivocal statement denouncing all forms of racism and other forms of discrimination. The school should be clear about its drive to achieve equality, and equally direct in its opposition of racist policies, practices, and behaviors. Align all foundational documents to this statement.

Listen. Those perceived to have power and credibility within a school community rarely see the invisible system of over-privilege from which they routinely benefit. Those same people must admit this privilege, and rather than feel guilty about or apologize for it, they should instead cultivate their own awareness by truly listening to the lived experiences of those in the community without this privilege: women, people of color, those on financial assistance, etc. Empathy is a powerful driver for anyone with a conscience.

Educate your community. In order to discuss issues of race, we must first educate ourselves, and undo the steady stream of brainwashing provided by the media, past education, and the opinions of some friends and family. Plan out a reading list that includes books, articles, websites, blogs, and social media. Routinely send out communications to your community, encouraging parents to talk to their children about what they’ve learned. Facilitate book groups and discussions. We are schools, after all.

Audit the school’s curriculum. Typically, students who do not make up the ethnic majority in a school see little of their own culture represented in what they study. This can even happen in schools where the host-country ethnicity is not White. Fix this omission by infusing the K-12 curriculum with new content and experiences that will reflect the diversity of cultures within your own community.

Train teachers to be culturally-responsive. Cultures possess distinct characteristics of communication, beliefs, histories, and value systems. We can respect and honor each of the representative cultures in our classrooms by adapting our instruction to activate prior knowledge and experiences, and to leverage students’ cultural capital, in order to maximize the achievement and growth of each student. These instructional strategies require specific skill development, and thus professional training.

Hunt for opportunity gaps, and remedy them. All schools will have gaps in student achievement within and between certain populations. The problem is not in the students, but rather in an unequal playing field of opportunities. Take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), for example. Created in 1926 by a eugenicist, the SAT is a tool that perpetuates racial hierarchy and inequality, through stereotype threat and other means. While it may be too much to expect all universities to categorically reject a racist instrument like the SAT in its admissions algorithm (though some have), international schools can ensure all its students have access to affordable test prep.

Hire to reflect the diversity in your community. Students of color need to see their ethnicity represented in those who teach them. It goes beyond role modeling, and to the core of identity and culturally-responsive teaching. Hiring teams need to remove biases inherent in the hiring process, such as gravitating toward those candidates who have similar backgrounds and experiences as that of the hiring team.

(* Antiracism is defined by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi as “supporting antiracist policy through actions or expressions of an antiracist idea.”  A broader definition of the term can be used to include promoting equality, sustaining equity, and rejecting all forms of discrimination based on sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical appearance, etc.)

Dr. Paul Richards, June, 2020

Teaching “race” in our schools is more important than ever

Originally published in Intersections (American School of Bombay)

July, 2014

International schools are ideal laboratories to explore the myriad differences within our humanity. Our populations are diverse, our mindsets are global, and we are able to educate our motivated youth away from their ethnic comfort zones. This is a recipe for growth. Skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking are getting appropriate attention as relevant for the 21st century. However, we cannot take full advantage of our privileged position if we cultivate these 21st century skills without also confronting the real-world context of applying these skills in an environment bursting with tension—stress caused by our difficulty in coming to terms with our racial and cultural differences. Unfortunately, most schools across the world are not delving deep enough into topics of race, culture, and active anti-racism. In avoiding the uncomfortable, or the difficult, we are doing our youth a disservice.

We have a moral imperative to prepare our youth for an interconnected world, where cultures intersperse (and sometimes collide) more easily than ever. Today’s young people think about race more often than we might believe. They turn to each other about what they see and think, and they would surely benefit from an adult interpretation of these issues. Through the media, they find numerous examples of injustice: racism in professional sports, mass evictions of Roma from settlements in Europe, and advertisements reinforcing negative stereotypes. They see public officials mistaking ethnic origins for national identities [1]. They see our communities getting more segregated. They see the wealth gap widening. Often treated as simply newsworthy items, each issue or incident is a teachable moment, an opportunity to expose and come to grips with underlying issues of race, culture, and human rights.

How we understand, appreciate, and act on the differences inherent in humanity continues to be of paramount importance to society—as evidenced by blurring racial lines, a flat world [2], and entrenched institutional bias—and it has become more difficult to do so because it is not politically correct to be completely honest about one’s own racial views. In fact, there are countless examples of people (well-meaning or not) losing their jobs or reputations when mishandling a racial issue [3]. As a result of this hypersensitive climate, a frank discussion on race has been forced out of the public sphere. Racism, once “in your face”, now operates under the surface, re-emerging at inopportune times. When an incident does occur, racism is quickly denounced, and perpetrators condemned. But this knee-jerk response rarely moves society closer to peace and harmony. Racism has been exposed, but not addressed. No learning has taken place. So, where better to unpack race issues than in the relative safety of the school setting?

Teaching young people about race must begin with an important distinction: one can do race without being a racist. Markus and Moya[4] (2010) remind us that “We do race and ethnicity—all of us, every day.” To be more blunt, they offer, “Anyone who thinks race is not a factor in his or her life is either dishonest or clueless.” Doing race is defined by Markus and Moya [5] as:

a [negative] doing—a dynamic set of historically derived and institutionalized ideas and practices that (1) sorts people into ethnic groups according to perceived characteristics, (2) associates differential value, power, and privilege with these characteristics, and (3) emerges when groups are perceived as a threat to each other’s worldview or way of life, which then justifies the denigration and exploitation of a group(s)…

Whether one is doing race depends on what is noted, how it is noted, why it is noted, and what one does with the information gathered as a result of that noting.

Although “doing race” is a nascent concept, most schools do include units or lessons on racism across the grade levels. With the focus on the worst of behaviors, students (and adults) find it easy to take an exalted viewpoint on the topic by simply proclaiming their abhorrence to racism (and who doesn’t feel this way?). However, if pressed on issues of our own privilege, our subconscious biases [6], or whether we believe that race is biological, tension, defensiveness, and unease enter the mix. It is these topics that beg the teacher’s attention, and where in lie opportunities for student learning and growth.

Take the popular concept of colorblindness. Today’s society beats this mantra until it is firmly in our subconscious. But colorblindness renders the world monochromatic, and makes the richness of humanity’s diversity invisible. What can be more disrespectful, or inhuman, than that outcome? In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action Bakke case [7], Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently [8].”

Once we adequately recognize the negative aspects of race, thus coming to grips with our differences, we can move past race, and embrace the positive nature of culture. Wade Davis, author and Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, proclaims, “Culture is humanity’s greatest legacy [9].” Culture defines us as humans, and it is what we hope to leave behind when we are gone. Culture is rooted in identity and belonging. When claimed, culture confirms a sense of belonging, pride, and motivation [10].

Empathy is a critical disposition to possess in today’s context. Developing cultural empathy can come from exploring the practice of arranged marriages, or the central importance of family hierarchy in certain cultures, or what it is like to have dark skin in a white environment [11]. There are countless examples that are appropriate for classroom use. The exploration should culminate in the student developing a strong sense of his or her own ethnic identity, and how this identity is interdependent with how other people and society view it. It is with this cultural toolkit that our youth will be ready to thrive in the global world.

Finally, knowledge and skills have limited value unless they are put to use. Returning to ethical grounds, our school-age generation must have a bias toward action on issues of race. Despite the increased visibility of ethnic minorities in powerful political and economic positions, institutional bias continues to exert a debilitating influence on those not in positions of privilege. Its invisible force fuels inertia on social justice progress. Markus and Moya [12] speak to all of us, “We cannot let ourselves off the hook. We have a responsibility to act.”

To make the most impact, schools can empower its students to become actively anti-racist. This mindset entails students to challenge prejudice and bigotry, to protest injustice, and to influence peers on various hot-button issues [13]. At the very least, today’s schools must produce an army of allies [14], ready to exert a positive influence in the world. These allies will be self-aware of “doing race”, will be fully informed citizens on divisive race-based issues such as affirmative action, and will avoid playing a complicit role in reinforcing bias and racism in society.

The time is ripe for international schools to seize the opportunity to shape young minds on issues of race. In confronting the important, albeit difficult topics, and by not playing it safe or politically correct, schools will impart a more meaningful school experience on its students, and allow them to leave the safety of the campus possessing the relevant tools and attitudes to make the world a better place.

[1] http://www.newsweek.com/freshman-congressman-florida-mistook-senior-govt-appointees-indian-officials-261432

[2] Friedman, Thomas L. (2005) The World is Flat. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York.

[3] See http://bit.ly/1AlOMIk for results from a simple Google search of “loses job because of racial comments”

[4] Markus, H. & P. Moya (2010). Doing Race. New York: Norton.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a personal shock, take Harvard’s Implicit Attitude Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/)

[7] Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978)

[8] Markus, H. & P. Moya (2010). Doing Race. New York: Norton.

[9] Davis, W. (2009). The Wayfinders. Toronto: Anansi Press.

[10] Markus, H. & P. Moya (2010). Doing Race. New York: Norton.

[11] Staples, B. “Black Men and Public Space.” Harpers. December 1986. Electronic

[12] Ibid.

[13] “198 Methods of Nonviolent Resistance” offers many options for action, based on personal comfort level (Sharp, Gene (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Resistance. Boston: Porter Sargent.)

[14] Ayvazian, Rev. A. “Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression”. Fellowship, January-February 1995. Electronic.

 

A statement from the leadership of ASD

 

The senior leadership team of ASD, with the support of the Board of Trustees and countless ASD faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni, will take this moment to denounce all forms of discrimination and inequality. This stance is consistent with the school’s mission to prepare our students to adapt and contribute in a rapidly changing world, is consistent with the school’s core values of respect, responsibility, integrity, excellence, and compassion, and is consistent with the school’s strategic initiatives of inclusion, contribution, and global citizenship.

The recent deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed African Americans are graphic reminders of social injustice and racism plaguing the United States and other nations around the world. Race, gender, and other forms of discrimination are a global problem, and should receive the same attention and cooperation as the coronavirus is now getting. We thus stand up to eradicate this scourge.

This week, as a faculty and staff, we started a discussion on how we could best respond to these developments. While we recognize that individuals retain the right to respond in any way they see fit, or not at all, we as the leadership of ASD will honor the platform we have in our classrooms, hallways, and other forums: to teach about privilege, prejudice, and racism; to augment social justice topics throughout the curriculum; to foster authentic conversations during the school day; and to help our students make sense of the questions and emotions they may have.

Most importantly, we stand in solidarity and as allies with those in our own community who are suffering pain and stress from past or current discrimination, based solely on their ethnicity, gender, or other aspects of their identity. In doing so, we build community, and we stay true to ASD’s mission and core values. Now is not the time to simply mean well, but rather, to do well.

Thoughts on Distance Learning – Vol. 2

“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” 

Mr. Rogers, the education pioneer, had this quote hanging in his Pittsburg studio. He spent his life searching for what was most essential. In his time, it was a radical concept to truly listen to and empathize with a child. Today, it’s commonplace, and deemed critical to include their voice and feelings in their development.

We are living in the most unusual period we have ever experienced, where feelings and emotions often feel more important than academics. The social isolation, the loss of the familiar and routine, the sudden illness of friends and loved ones, and the distressing economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have taxed every single one of us. We are seeing the best and sometimes the worst versions of ourselves, and there is no surfeit of advice coming our way. Each day is an exercise in coping, finding balance, and searching for meaning.

In finding strength and purpose, we draw from a variety of sources: faith, psychology, science, experience, intuition, and other frameworks. In the last decade, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has deeply influenced me personally and professionally. MBSR is an eight-week evidence-based program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain. Mindfulness has influenced all professional sectors, and has resonated across all age groups.

This past school year, I offered the eight-week course at the American School of Dubai (ASD). Forty-five of us (parents and teachers) formed a community and engaged in the MBSR practices and curriculum.  Equal parts meditation, yoga, self-reflection, and group dialogue, MBSR is centered on nine Foundational Attitudes: Non-judging, Patience, Beginner’s mindset, Trust, Non-striving, Acceptance, Letting go, Generosity, and Gratitude.

As ASD finishes its third week of distance learning, and continues to make adjustments to achieve the right balance between self-paced learning and real-time connection, I have reflected on how these nine attributes can serve as both a lens for purpose and also a source of strength during this challenging time.

Non-judging: Every one of us is doing the very best we can in this unprecedented situation. There will be good days and bad days, times when learning flourishes and other times when learning sputters. Schools can be easy targets for the venting of frustrations. Judging can lock us into reactive patterns of thinking and behaviors that ultimately do not serve us well, and can lead to interpersonal conflict. Taking a compassionate and open-minded, nonjudgmental approach, can disarm our frustration and resentment, removing the caustic effects of that powerful emotion. 

Patience: We have never needed patience more than we need it now, as the school makes adjustments to the program, and tries new ideas. Distance learning is new to our teachers as well, who were trained in a very different context. Impatience is rooted in a conflict between what we would like to happen and what the reality actually is. In cultivating calm and self-control through patience, we draw from our beliefs (recognizing that all things have a life cycle and are constantly changing), and we send kindness and compassion back to ourselves. What a gift!

Beginner’s mindset:  “What is life but the angle of vision.” Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that the perspective we take on a situation can make all the difference. While schooling is familiar, distance learning is not. If we approach this period as if we are seeing and experiencing it for the first time, we become open to discovery, an invigorating experience. This is vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu, which enables us to gain new insights when we meet the familiar with a new perspective.

Trust: For my own high school – aged children, I am taking the long-view, reminding myself that they will be okay in the long run. True tragedy is death and ruin, and not inconvenience or altered learning. I am trusting myself and my feelings, and that I can see clearly and maintain proper perspective in this crisis.

Non-striving: Stanford educator Denise Pope coined the phrase “doing school”, describing how many youth endeavor for perfect grades and entrance to name-brand universities. School becomes a game to be won or lost. The problem with striving, which is very different from having aspirations or reachable goals, is two-fold: it can be very hard if not impossible to achieve, since so much of life is generally out of our direct sphere of control; and it can lead to a vicious cycle that does not end after acceptance to university. With more relaxed grading schemes, and diminished AP and IB exam rigor, it is our hope that this distance learning period forces our students who are “doing school” to take a step back, take their feet off the accelerator, and develop a healthier relationship with grades and achievement motivation.

Acceptance: It is important to validate feelings of anger, grief, or fear. A willingness to accept that this moment right now is our reality, and that we cannot get back what was lost, can lead to well-being and transformation. We may not be able do a traditional graduation at ASD, but we can still celebrate our graduates. We cannot perform in our beautiful theatre, but we can broadcast these performances widely to our communities.  We are better able to meet the myriad of emotions when we can see clearly and accept the reality in which we are living.

Letting Go: It is a uniquely human quality to cling strongly to ideas and beliefs, or to want our situation to be different. Clinging is driven by our likes, dislikes, and judgments. With so much out of our control in this moment, just letting things be can liberate us from a self-imposed, angst-ridden prison.

Generosity: Many think of generosity as the practical sharing of our resources, skills, and wisdom. But on a simple level, generosity is giving our time and attention to those we love, and doing so with a warm heart and kindness. The home isolation that we are all experiencing is the perfect excuse to be present, to find moments to disconnect from our virtual worlds, and give what our children want most from us: our attention.

Gratitude: One of my favorite proverbs is, “When you are angry at someone, give them a gift.” How counterintuitive! Practicing gratitude, whether through service, through reaching out to someone who is struggling, or simply through a kind smile, creates in our mind a kind of buffer to negativity or fussing. I am so grateful to be part of the ASD community during this crisis, and thankful for the health of those immediately around us. Positivity is the kryptonite to negativity, and can snuff out the smoldering fires of disappointment.

Finally, I would like to share a quote sent to me by a friend: “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” (David Hollis)

Additional source material from the MBSR curriculum, and from Adam Grant.

Thoughts on Distance Learning – Vol. 1

“We must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.”  – Gerald G. Jampolsky (American Psychiatrist, age 95)

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented stress on schools and their ability to deliver their programs. Educators around the world have responded admirably to the challenge, as have their students and communities. HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum told the nation this week, “Our education and learning drive will never stop, no matter the circumstances.” This is truth.

Distance learning has started in earnest at the American School of Dubai (ASD). Before it launched, significant thought and research went into developing a comprehensive Continuity of Learning (COL) plan. This included gathering valuable testimonials from sister schools in Asia, who have been living in this present reality for several weeks now.

Distance learning is not new to the education sector. Fully online schools have supported home-schooled students for decades, though maintaining quality of product has been a challenge for the online industry, as many providers simply replicate a passive, teacher-driven learning environment (think correspondence courses of a past era). 

However, there are several exemplary providers of distance education, with the Global Online Academy (GOA) leading the pack (of which ASD is a member school). For nearly a decade, the GOA has leveraged a network of dozens of the finest American and international independent schools, enlisting teachers from these schools to offer a progressive, student-driven, networked learning experience. Hallmarks of GOA’s pedagogy, each of which can be seen in ASD’s COL plan, include:

  • Maintaining strong online learning communities that foster connection and relationships.
  • Reimagining learning, rather than replicating what would have been offered in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Doing the latter has proven unsustainable to teachers and students alike.
  • Finding a balance between asynchronous learning (which allows students to self-pace their work) and synchronous learning (which fosters connection). 
  • Using assessments that allow students to demonstrate their learning through application of the content, rather than regurgitation of facts.

An ASD student’s day (let’s use Yasmine, grade 8, as an example) starts in the morning with her logging in to an online learning platform–Google Classroom–and receiving her asynchronous assignments for the day. She records this in a planner provided to her by the middle school. Yasmine is able to access ASD’s teachers, counselors, and administrators during the daily “office hours”, which leads up to her lunchtime break. Yasmine can choose to consult with a teacher via Google Hangouts, join a synchronous activity with her math class, or start a video chat with her classmates. Yasmine has accessed her learning community to get what she needs, but has done so virtually. She is owning her learning and building agency.

After a healthy lunch and some fresh air, Yasmine’s afternoon is spent continuing to work on her assignments. This may involve further consultation with her teachers. Once finished with her schoolwork, her attention turns to a balance of healthy and fun activities, time with family, and additional home learning through accessing engaging web resources, such as this one from World of Humanities, which links Minecraft and History. Yasmine retires for the night at her normal bedtime hour with an increased sense of confidence (from her successful self-management of her learning). She misses her friends badly, and the fun of extra-curricular activities, but she is in a good and safe place.

ASD will need to be adaptive if its distance learning program becomes a long-term endeavor. It may need to adjust the balance between asynchronous and synchronous activities for some teachers. It may need to re-engage students who lag in their responsibilities. In some cases, teachers may be asked to draw back the amount of work assigned, and in other cases, they will be asked to increase their students’ workload. We will do so by both monitoring online activity, and by routinely gathering feedback from students and their parents. Adaptation is critical due to the inherent challenges of the sudden shift from campus learning to distance learning. 

ASD is confronting many challenges already, only a few days into distance learning: 

  • Managing some parents’ inclination to prefer excessive structure and traditional methodology (e.g. video lecturing). We are reminding parents of ASD’s student-centered approach to teaching and learning.
  • Finding a proper balance of screen time and being unplugged. We are asking parents to track and manage total screen time for their children.
  • Fostering simplicity by asking teachers to avoid introducing new, cumbersome tools to the learning environment (just hosting synchronous activities and creating video content have been overwhelming for many).
  • Connecting with at-risk students who will find distance learning especially challenging, or those who need mental health support.
  • Managing the countless WhatsApp groups in our community. It has been said that “anxiety loves company”, and this medium thrives on anxiety and conflict. These online forums do not seem to be serving people’s mental health well.

It is not just society that may fundamentally change after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Education and the future of schooling will change forever, and this should be seen as a good thing! In this new world, after experiencing a successful distance learning experience, students will have cultivated greater ownership and agency in their learning, and developed more self-awareness of themselves as learners. Teachers will have gained additional skills, incorporating asynchronous activities into their instruction, thus creating more of a hybrid learning experience for students (i.e. teachers will finally relinquish a substantial degree of control). Parents will realize the potential of home learning (beyond worksheets), develop greater empathy for teachers, and see the home-school partnership grow stronger. Families will flourish and bonds will grow deeper. Communities will thrive at a new level.

Finally, it behooves all of us in this distressing and scary time to find the beauty in the ugly or the difficult, for beauty is always around us, if we take the time to look for it. Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince wrote, “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Finding beauty is an essential endeavor, and it is best done through being present and noticing the little things, such as a child discovering something new and exciting, or watching creativity spring up from unexpected sources, or bonding with someone who you lost touch with. Have you noticed the abundance of flowers blooming and birds singing across Dubai? Finding beauty leads to happiness and contentment, and will get us through this crisis.

ASD greatly appreciates the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) for sharing these moments of beauty each day via Twitter, and its role in galvanizing and supporting Dubai’s private schools to meet this challenge head-on. ASD is also extremely thankful for the UAE’s proactive and decisive efforts to make our communities safe and to keep the learning going. #InThisTogetherDubai

Dr. Paul Richards

Superintendent, ASD

(Father of two distance learning students)

 

The future of schooling? A new school model.

The future of schooling is hotly debated.  Inspired by great thinking at organizations such as Knowledge Works and reports such as this one from the World Economic Forum, with a dose of my own experience and intuition thrown in, I offer this vision for education (my own 1.0 version).

The world of work is dynamic, where machines have automated many tasks, and made countless jobs redundant. But perhaps surprisingly, this has not facilitated widespread unemployment. The type of job (i.e. what humans are now doing) has changed in many fields. Machines do what machines do best, and humans are doing what humans do best. This graphic offers a good overview of this dynamic interplay.

No Color Workforce

Artificial intelligence (AI), still not regulated, is a key wildcard in the system. And it offers opportunity for the the profession of education, even if the realization of this potential is years away.

Schools have an Achilles Heel: barriers or shortcomings that have proven difficult to overcome for decades.

  • It has been difficult to provide personalized or individual attention, and differentiated instruction, with class sizes what they are.
  • Distractions can interfere when a student requires sustained focus for a task.
  • We are still learning how to best support atypical learning profiles.
  • Overly rigid structures sometime prioritize order over learning.
  • Teachers are being asked to teach in ways different than when they were educated or trained to teach.
  • Leadership has been inconsistent.
  • The cost of schooling continues to increase, making a high-quality education unattainable for many.

However, schools are uniquely positioned to do many things particularly well.

  • It can promote the socialization of learning, identified as key in the learning process over a century ago by John Dewey and others.
  • Schools are communities, and healthy communities build healthy societies and active citizens.
  • Extra- and co-curricular activities develop skills and healthy habits that can’t be taught in a classroom or in isolation.
  • Feedback, a teacher’s greatest gift, can be timed and tailored to the individual.
  • Counseling and advisories can promote the vitally important mental health.

The new school model doubles-down on what a brick-and-mortar school is good at, and at the same time, moves away from its shortcomings through new technology, systems and structures. It is a hybrid model. This new school personalizes learning, matches feedback to the individual, and limits distractions. Atypical students can access the education they deserve. Structures are flexible. Teachers work toward their strengths. Leadership becomes a manageable endeavor. The model is markedly less expensive, and more sustainable. It results in a personalized and relevant education for all.

But this school model requires innovation, breakthroughs like an AI-driven handheld personal assistant (that knows what a particular student needs at any given time, whether in executive functioning tasks, or access to knowledge, simulations, or feedback; one that can track progress, and also promote connection. The new model requires leaders to be courageous but also show urgency (to reverse the tide toward irrelevancy). It requires society to value teachers the same way it values doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople.

New School Model - Plain.jpeg

 

Students: Welcome to the 2019-2020 School Year

August, 2019

Dear high school student,

Welcome to or welcome back to ASD! I hope your summer provided opportunities to rest and relax, to connect with family and friends, and to continue learning in ways that the summer uniquely provides us.

I write to you on the theme of courage. One definition of the noun is “the ability to do something that frightens one.” Other is “strength in the face of pain or grief”. The origin of the word can be traced to Middle English (heart), Old French (corage), and Latin (cor). (Apple Dictionary App)

If you are like me, you at times feel courageous, and at other times, feel far from this way. This means you are human (so don’t worry). The concept of courage goes far beyond simple definitions found in a dictionary. We must unpack the word, to where it becomes an idea, and to where it has practical applications.

Brené Brown, author and university professor, who has studied courage extensively, starts with the concept of vulnerability. She believes one cannot have courage without vulnerability. This is a profound statement, in fact! Vulnerability means jumping into the messiness of challenging situations with your whole self, and with an open heart and with curiosity. Not easy to do, for sure.

Brown also speaks to the importance of self-awareness and self-love: “… it is less about who people are, and more about how they behave and show up in difficult situations”. Feeling fear is normal, and responding to fear with patience, compassion, and also assertiveness can be empowering, serving as an antidote to fear.

In the spirit of Brené Brown’s message, I ask you to show the courage to be vulnerable, to take care of yourself, and most importantly, to bring YOU to ASD. This is true courage. We very much want the authentic you to be on display at ASD, even if it is not always pretty. Trumpet your voice on issues important to you. Don’t apologize for who you are. Make ASD part of your own personal mission of school achievement and personal growth. We believe in you.

I would like to share with you a document that you may not be all that familiar with, but will prove to have a big impact on your education: the Student Profile. A group of students, teachers and parents came together last spring to refresh this description of the skills and characteristics we believe will allow you to realize the school’s mission, and to thrive in the future world you will enter.

Revised Student Profile (2019).png

A big takeaway from this revision is that you’ll see descriptors in there such as resilient, and self-aware, and empathetic. Traditionally not a big part of high school education in the past, these skills and dispositions are now deemed critically important, as the world you will enter will require you to be a continuous learner, where your adaptability-quotient (AQ) will be much more important than your IQ. You will need to offer the workplace something uniquely human, as you work side-by-side with machines (which will do its part). Are you ready for this? Don’t fret. ASD has the courage to continue to change and evolve as a school, to make sure you are indeed ready for this environment.

On behalf of the entire faculty and staff at ASD, we continue to be inspired by your generation’s passion and commitment to sustainability and service. Yours is so much more responsible than our generation, and we thank you for that. Whether it is continuing the ban of single-use plastic bottles, sourcing from the organic garden, caretaking the beehive, or many other opportunities to “go green” and support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or whether it is the inspirational service you have provided in Dubai or beyond, keep taking informed action to improve our current and future realities. And engage with the JUMP! Foundation Center for Global Citizenship at ASD in its new location next to the cafeteria. So much potential for good!

This year, across all of ASD, we welcome nearly 400 new students to campus. Please join me in making their transition to a new school as smooth as possible. Do you remember what it was like when you first arrived to ASD? Be kind (your compassionate self). Be available (earbuds out, please). Help our new students figure out how things work, and how we are expected to carry ourselves (hint: core values). For this, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Finally, we welcome back to ASD your highly-capable administrators, faculty, and support staff. We also welcome a fantastic group of new teachers, including five counselors, who are part of a “counseling reboot” at the high school, aiming to provide all high school students high levels of academic, college, and personal counseling.

I continue to be available to support your learning and development. Please do not hesitate to introduce yourself or say hello on campus (and you can always make an appointment with Ms. Gonsalves or drop me a note).

I look forward to meeting or seeing you again in the coming days and weeks. Here’s to a wonderful start to the school year and remember… Once a Falcon, Always a Falcon!

Dr. Richards
ASD Superintendent

Hacking Your Space – The “Unoffice”

According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external force. This perhaps explains why a leader so often gets stuck behind his or her desk. This missive challenges you to develop strategies to get you out from behind your desk, and preferably out of the office altogether, through the creation of an unoffice.

Start with something simple yet effective: get rid of your desk altogether. We’ve seen many teachers eschew their classroom desk for a stool and an easel—apply the same technique to your space. Consider replacing your clunky desk with a standing desk. (A recent study equates sitting for long periods of time with smoking cigarettes.) A trip to IKEA[1] and some quick assembly will produce an economical and functional standing workstation.

As some visitors will want to sit, add some comfy chairs to your space. This creates a more intimate setting, putting guests at ease for what often are tricky or sensitive conversations. Put your favorite books on the coffee table that divides the arrangement.

The rest of your unoffice can be tailored to your whims and fancies, much of which can serve as conversation starters. I’ve got my loose tea collection on display, as well as a framed “Map that changed the world”. I’ve got a clock with the phrase “Now” pasted on its face (a mindfulness hack). Other hacks include the Noguchi Yukio filing system, which organizes your paper files by frequency of use rather than by alphabet or subject. And while you’re at it, get rid of your desktop phone, computer, and printer; instead, visit the area printer, and take your laptop to the library and interact with students. Go mobile. Literally.

Good luck!

Unoffice.jpg

[1] Lack TV Bench + Idasen Table Top + 4 Olav Adjustable Table Legs

October 30, 2019 Update

In continuing to struggle to get out of my office, I was left with only one possible (and radical) solution. Abandonment.

This space has been deemed redundant. 

(you can find the superintendent “leading and learning while walking around”)

🙂

 

Homework: Much Ado About Nothing?

Dear Faculty and Staff:

Homework-free ASD? Who would say such a thing? In all seriousness, the reaction from students, faculty, and parents has been interesting to watch. I have always believed that homework gets too much credit for academic success, and at the same time, too much blame for what is wrong with schooling. The debate on homework goes back more than a century, and the quantity of homework has waxed and waned.

The voices of anti-homework advocates (I count myself as one) have grown louder in recent years as we learn more about the brain, how students learn, and the skills and dispositions they will need to thrive in today’s marketplace. In my opinion, viewing the homework debate as binary—homework or no-homework—is a mistake. There is surely learning best suited for the school setting, and learning best suited for the home environment.

“But homework worked for us!” goes a common retort from parents or teachers when the convention of homework is challenged. Did it really? If you think back on activities or assignments that were memorable, would they include completing worksheets, practicing long problem sets, reading textbooks, and responding to questions?  Perhaps endeavors such as reading novels, writing stories, creating art, or practicing music were more memorable. I would argue that the former has no place in today’s educational context, and the latter shouldn’t be labeled as “homework”.

Let us not forget that schooling as we know it was set up in 1892 by the “Committee of Ten” to sort students into university- or vocational-bound silos, and high schools in particular remain remarkably unchanged since that time. Because the current  generation of students is the most compliant on record, the excessive time spent on low-quality homework is leading this generation to also become the most maladjusted group of our age. (To learn more about what the homework research says, and specific suggestions for teachers, see this white paper by Stanford University’s “Challenge Success” consortium.)

I often turn to New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman to synthesize my thoughts on our world today. His latest book, Thank You For Being Late, does a fantastic job at explaining to a lay person like me the monumental acceleration that’s taken place since 2007 due to advancements in technology. In the past, there were high-wage, high-skilled jobs; there were middle-wage, middle-skilled jobs; and there were high-wage, middle-skilled jobs. It’s the last one (high-wage, middle-skilled) that has disappeared in the marketplace. “Average is officially over”, writes Friedman. This helps explain the current pressure on the North American middle class.

Adaptability through self-motivated, on-demand learning (aka “re-skilling”) is widely deemed by futurists as the top attribute this current generation needs, even more so than social and emotional competencies (though those are very important), and much more so than most of the content knowledge we convey in traditional schooling (what Harvard’s Project Zero guru David Perkins calls “niche-learning”).

More from the book (p. 205):

Thriving in today’s workplace is all about what LinkedIn’s co-founder Reid Hoffman calls investing in “the start-up of you.” No politician in America will tell you this, but every boss will: You can’t just show up. You need a plan to succeed….

Today, argues Zach Sims, the founder of Codecademy, “you have to know more, you have to update what you know more often, and you have to do more creative things with it” than just routine tasks. “That recursive loop really defines work and learning today. And that is why self-motivation is now so much more important”….

“In today’s knowledge-human economy it will be human capital–talent, skills, tacit know-how, empathy, and creativity,” (Byron Auguste) added. “These are massive, undervalued human assets to unlock”–and our educational institutions and labor markets need to adapt to that. (p. 207)

We are hearing more and more from ASD’s graduates that these sentiments are true—that their lived experience in the workforce has required constant re-skilling in order to remain competitive.

So where does homework fit into this equation? To me, it makes the case for eradicating bad homework much more urgent. “Bad” is perhaps too strong a word, and it is not meant to be a criticism of you, our amazing teachers. On the contrary, I have been impressed by the good work the three divisions have done on this issue. We’ve made excellent progress, but there is a final push necessary to get us to where we need to be.

Let’s rebrand homework as home learning. We, the educators, drive the learning at school (as we should). Should we not, then, given what we know about today’s context, allow students to drive their learning at home? It’s a prime opportunity to promote “voice and choice”, an ASD initiative fundamental to our improvement agenda.

In the recent crowdsourcing endeavor with middle and high school students through allourideas.org, over 28,000 votes were collected in just a few days. Students voted on a variety of home learning choices (as either favorable or unfavorable), and they could submit their own ideas. Here is a list of responses that received more favorable than unfavorable ratings, in order of strength:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Spending time with my friends and my family
  • Following a passion which is outside the scope of the school curriculum
  • Being physically active, such as playing sports
  • Getting work experience in an area I am interested in
  • Enjoying a hobby of my own
  • A balance of school and freedom
  • Having time to explore my own interests and learn about the world
  • Learning and practicing skills
  • Practicing problems that I choose myself based on what I’m struggling with
  • Practicing important skills for class and personal enjoyment
  • Having free time to do whatever I want
  • Getting involved in school activities and different community service groups
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Visiting museums, art galleries, fashion shows, theatre performances, etc.
  • Doing service learning in the community
  • Building something with my hands
  • Having optional work to do if I want extra support in a class
  • Teaching back what I learned that day to another student or person to solidify my knowledge
  • Learning something new, when I become interested in it, until I move onto the next thing I am interested in
  • Doing art: drawing, painting, sculpture, etc.
  • College transition program (how to live alone, etc.)
  • Play (unstructured)
  • Having a discussion with someone at home about what I learned in class
  • Enjoy the city I live in
  • Revising something that I got feedback on in class that day
  • Doing some independent research
  • Practicing without having to be told what to do

Out of the mouths of babes! There is nothing in there that I would brand as “bad homework”. Instead, this is the home learning that aligns with future-readiness.  

It is the first and last items that particularly caught my attention. Sleep speaks to the fact that our current generation of students (and teachers) are exhausted on a regular basis. (As I write this on a Saturday afternoon, my daughter is fast-asleep.)

“Practicing without having to be told what to do” can be reworded as “Directing my learning without having to be told what to do.”  Here’s the crux of the argument: let’s give our students the space, guidance, and encouragement to direct their learning—to not only prepare for the next lesson, but to prepare them for life. Let’s take the homework-bull by the horns and release our control over it so we can focus our time and energy on more impactful facets of the learning experience, i.e. the curriculum, instruction, and assessments. We need only to look to our colleagues in the elementary school, who have already rebranded homework as home learning, and have achieved homework-free environments. Let’s finish the K-12 vertical alignment.

What’s next? Shift will not happen overnight, though you can take the sentiment in this blog as permission to continue revising your approach to homework—to not feel pressure from our parents to give homework that you know is not good home learning. In October, I will convene a task force to envision what Home Learning (a homework-free ASD) could look like, and suggest some sensible strategies and actions to put into place. Speak to your Principal if you are interested in this opportunity, to seek clarification on how far you can go with your homework disruptions, or simply to share your experience with this issue.

In stewardship,

Dr. Paul Richards
ASD Superintendent