Written by Dr Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
There is an old joke about the French Baccalaureate that might resonate with many of our own school experiences. The teacher marks your essay on a 1 – 20 grading scale. 15/20 is your best ever grade, 16/20 is for the best student in the class, no one ever gets 17, 18/20 is for the best student the teacher has ever taught, 19/20 is the grade the teacher gives themselves, and 20/20 is for God.
“The teacher is the expert” remains a concept with significant currency in education. After all, it feels intuitively true. As parents, of course we would want our children to be taught by individuals who are experts. Who is the parent pining for their child to be taught by an incompetent husk of an ill-educated clown? In fact, schools can be organised according to the principle of expertise. There are schools that want all their teachers to be chief examiners or textbook writers or workshop leaders and will promote the school on this basis. And once more, this feels an intuitively correct approach. If we borrow and adapt a little from Kegan and Lahey’s book Evolving Mind, we can describe schools that focus on importing expertise as Self-Authoring institutions. In a Self-Authoring environment, teaching combines good and best practices as well as some emergent ideas. Self-Authoring schools understand that learning is certainly complex and they will strive to shift ambiguity to clarity where possible. Self-Authoring schools are generally excellent by most objective measures. Exam results will likely be consistently high and school policies and procedures will likely be rigorous and thorough.
But does Self-Authoring represent the summit of what a school can be? And in a values-based environment, is the classical model of bourgeois-speciality the sort of expertise that best helps students learn? Kurt Hahn, the founder of our UWC movement, once wrote, “I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion”. It might prove tricky to find a chief examiner in tenacity, and the idea of a textbook in curiosity feels somehow oxymoronic.
Fortunately, there is an operational tier above Self-Authoring called Self-Transforming. This stage of school development is more challenging to achieve but far greater aligned with our mission. In Self-Transforming schools, we understand the need to provide stability for others whilst seeking complexity for ourselves. In Self-Transforming schools, practice is always emergent. Self-Transforming schools see the world as a dance floor that we can’t control but we can influence. We learn to be agile enough to adapt to predictable change, but we’re also prepared to deal with the unpredictable.
So what might be the difference between a Self-Authoring teacher and a Self-Transforming teacher? A Self-Authoring teacher might say, “I know what works best, I have twenty years of experience. Here’s the plan.” whereas a Self-Transforming teacher might say, “I want to know what might work better.” In other words, Self-Transforming teachers are committed to improving their craftpersonship. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule (that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert) may have been debunked but its spirit remains true. Self-Transforming teachers put in endless hours of practice and rehearsal. But more than that, as Costa and Garmison write, Self-Transforming teachers “test, revise and constantly [hone] their strategies to reach their goals. In short, they persist in the service of their craft.”
So if we put this all together, what have we got? It would seem that if we want to live by our UWC values, we need our school to become Self-Transforming, or at least we must constantly strive towards that goal. To become Self-Transforming we need our teachers to be craftspeople: experimenting to seek mastery and refinement of their craft. In other words, we have to create a culture of ongoing professional learning. At UWC ISAK Japan, one powerful tool we use to create that very culture is a Professional Learning Carousel. Throughout the school year, we regularly host Carousels during our scheduled faculty meeting time. Six teachers will volunteer to deliver a 15-minute mini-workshop where they share a single great idea from their own emergent practice. One session could be about technology in the classroom, another session could be on methods for writing references, a third might be about techniques to support introverts. The topic are purposefully diverse. After 15 minutes, we reset and the teacher delivers their mini-workshop for a second time. This allows our faculty to sign up for two mini-workshops. The result is that faculty emerge with two new ideas or tools that they can introduce into their own practice tomorrow. Instant enhancement, yes, but the Carousels also create a culture of sharing and growth. In fact, our support staff can present and attend too, meaning that all the adults at UWC ISAK Japan are learning, growing and collaborating together.
In fact, we held a Carousel this week. It was energising to see teachers learning from each other. And it is always a powerful reminder for any of us that teach to be students once more, even if for just 30 minutes. Brendan McGibbon discussed Design Thinking essentials, providing teachers with practical ways to implement possible solutions for complex problems. Jason Underwood spoke about literacy and strategies to support ESL students with whole text comprehension. Laura Earwood introduced us to the concept of Self-Compassion, a way of behaving that can help students be kinder to themselves. Ryan Murphy discussed formative assessment strategies that enable teachers to provide students with better opportunities to show their understanding. Rod Jemison spoke about the concept of Autobiography as a tool to enhance student metacognition. And Michelle Fitzgerald introduced a selection of apps that can better allow teachers to do more with less stress. One thing that struck me about this round of Carousels was that each teacher was speaking from a position of subject expertise but their ideas were transferable to each of our own diverse spheres.
We cannot become Self-Transforming overnight. But after each Carousel we find ourselves a little more intellectually agile and our instinct for adventure a little more heightened. And as Kurt Hahn once wrote, “without the instinct for adventure, any civilisation, however enlightened; any state, however well-ordered, will wilt and wither.”