Top Tips for Middle Leaders

Steve Garnett, Senior Education Consultant, Dragonfly Training.

As a newly appointed or existing middle leader starting this new academic year, there is no question you will be entering unchartered waters in terms of knowing what to expect as the world attempts to navigate its way through the Covid19 pandemic.


These ‘Top Five Tips’ for middle leaders are designed not just for this period but hopefully will serve you well at any time too.


Some of them may have a slightly irreverent feel to them (and intentionally so!) but nonetheless will still support you in being entirely effective in the role. So here they are:


1. Top Tip: Always ask the same question: ‘Will it make the bike go faster?’


This seems an odd question for middle leaders of course but it relates to the notion of marginal gains. Briefly, David Brailsford revolutionised the success of the British Cycling Team with an approach known as the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’.  Essentially improvements were driven by continually asking how any small adjustment or innovation made would ultimately result in faster cyclists. We can take this principle to middle leadership too. For every new initiative, process, resource, and strategy that is suggested or promoted, then the middle leader needs to know and also show how it will ultimately improve outcomes for pupils from where they currently are. Otherwise, why do it?


2. Top Tip: Remember the 3 Ps of: Personalities, Politics, and Performance


Try to always remember it is the last one you and your department are judged on and not the first two! What I try to promote is the idea is that way too much of your emotional energy and time can be taken up with dealing with the politics and personalities within your department. This can then lead to a reduction in energy and motivation on you to focus on things that are related to improving processes and outcomes. Keep asking yourself whether you are getting side-tracked by the first two Ps and not focussing enough on the last one! So remember the 3 Ps!


3. Top Tip: ‘Keep Sharpening the saw’


I’ve adapted this phrase a little from the best-selling book by Steven Covey ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ which has sold in excess of 25 million copies worldwide. His seven habits allude to behaviours very effective people adopt and many of them can be applied to middle leadership. The habit described as ‘sharpen the saw’ relates to a continuous search for new knowledge that will enrich, improve, and build on existing knowledge. The effective middle leader sees the importance of professional growth. This could be anything from keeping up to date with educational reading to seeking guidance from an ‘expert’ within a school in order to learn something new such as for example ‘timetabling’.


4, Top Tip: Model what you want


The effective middle leader realises that their team is always watching them! This means that they have to ‘walk the walk’ and ‘talk the talk’! Whether it’s meeting deadlines, approaches to teaching, and learning to the use of professional language with colleagues, you have to be the type of teacher you wish your team to be. We must of course recognise the differences we all have and indeed these should be celebrated. However, the effective middle leader recognises that for anything they expect from others they should be able to produce themselves. So always model what it is you want from others.


5. Top Tip: Smile for no good reason


This doesn’t mean appearing to have lost your marbles by having a continuous and unbroken smile on your face whatever the circumstances or situation! Instead, this tip alludes to the importance of managing your own emotional self. There are many psychological, physiological, and biological benefits to a smile! It’s a great stress buster for you but also potentially a great way to disarm a slightly stressed colleague or pupil! This tip really relates to the importance of you maintaining some kind of emotional sanity. Ask yourself: What strategies do you have for managing the emotional side of the role? Naturally, we would want those with zero negative health effects. So different people might draw on different approaches for example anything from mindfulness techniques to bouts of strenuous exercise or something in between. I would say however that the smile is one of the easiest ones and one that everyone can do!. So what technique do you have?



So, whilst this ‘Top Tips’ list may have a slightly irreverent feel, I do offer a more rigorous and detailed analysis of what is involved in becoming a highly effective middle leader when delivering my CPD courses.


I am delighted to be teaming up with ECIS to deliver the following 6 module course across this autumn term. It will lead to an accredited certificate in Middle Leadership called: ECIS/Dragonfly Middle Leader Award in Teacher Quality Improvement. Learn more and register here.


Module 1: The culture of leadership


Module 2: Designing learning


Module 3: Assessment and leadership


Module 4: Building and leading teams


Module 5: Developing your leadership style


Module 6: Leadership of learning


I will also be delivering a free webinar outlining what’s involved in being a highly effective middle leader and it will follow this 6 module outline. Joining details can be found here.



Steve Garnett is a Senior Educational Consultant at Dragonfly Training, an international speaker, and an award-nominated author and teacher. He has delivered INSET to over 8000 teachers in the last ten years across the British Isles as well as Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. His book ‘The Subject Leader’ was shortlisted for the prestigious Education Resources Award 2013 (Best Secondary Resource).

Collaboration and outdoor learning in Düsseldorf.

Kate Hookham, International Educational Consultant, Do Learn.

A long-term collaborative project with the International School of Düsseldorf to develop an Outdoor Learning Environment programme (2010-2020).


The key to any successful project for a consultant is a committed, collaborative staff team to work with who are willing to take a chance on new approaches, with backing and financial support of management and the wider community (parents and carers). I have been fortunate that ISD has been all of this and more.

The reason I promote outdoor learning is, for me, it can provide the best ‘classroom’. For visual learners, artificial lighting versus natural, ever-evolving light conditions wins outright. Auditory learners thrive as noise does not bounce back off surfaces given there are no walls, and natural materials disperse or absorb noise created. Finally, for our kinaesthetic learners, there is more space to move and learn in context.

Equally, children of today will see so much change and evolution in our technologies, cultural integration and indoor/urban design that the outdoor environment may be the only constant in their lives. There will always be a sky above their heads, vegetation, and animals around us (we hope). If we instill respect for nature and a connectedness, these children will be the guardians of the future. Learning outdoors promotes skills we will use our whole lives: emotional resilience, self-regulation, social skills, and higher-order thinking.

About the International School of Dusseldorf.

Founded in 1968, it is an International Baccalaureate World School with a current role of 1100 students. The campus sits on 19 acres in Kaiserswerth, Düsseldorf, in which the children and staff have built 6 outdoor learning centres/classrooms over the course of the ten-year project. The photo is an aerial view of 3 of these classrooms.

I first visited the International School of Düsseldorf in January 2010. During this initial visit we discussed how we could use the outdoors to support the Primary Years Programme and IB World School. I suggested we should start in Kindergarten (where outdoor learning already occurred) and build up from there. This would mean the children would carry their outdoor learning skills with them up through the school (self-awareness, regulation and care through Benefit-Risk Assessment, dressing correctly and identifying learning opportunities and developing higher-order thinking skills). From the start, children were involved in building the learning environment.

I returned every year, by September 2012 to move my focus to PYP unit delivery in the outdoors. Year 3 had a focus on matter. In the six month gap Year 1 had started to create and build their outdoor classroom in the central quadrant with the children. We used props and photographs to initiate a discussion about the unit. Children were fascinated by how matter changed form and they realised heat can affect matter. The children tested this by designing experiments heating with fire. This was the first time many staff had worked with children outdoors.. I modelled a Benefit-Risk Assessment and the children created a plan, which included health and safety considerations

The OLE programme progressed into year 1, I delivered a parents’ evening, which was written up as a blog by the director to explain the value of using an outdoor context and how parents can build on this at home, strengthening the home/school link. At the close of the session, a parent approached me and said, “You were lighting fires with my son yesterday”. “Yes”, I replied, a little concerned she may be about to raise a Health and Safety issue. She continued“I have never seen my child so excited about learning … he started telling me things about matter, what heat does, what we need to make a fire, how we have to be safe around a fire and how we cook on a fire. I asked him after each fact he shared with me, ‘and when did you learn that and he just kept saying ‘today’. Thank you, he has learnt so much.” I was moved by how emotional this parent clearly was about the power of outdoor learning.



During my February 2013 visit, Year 5 was undertaking an inquiry into traditional crafts. I supported staff  (who were anxious about participating in this new learning experience) and 80 children, to either use fixed blade knives to carve or use fire to create ember bowls.

This experience was extended by staff back in class. They finished completed the creation (sanding/varnishing and decorating). The children involved wrote up their experiences, reflecting on the time it takes and perseverance required. .


By September 2014, OLE was operating well from Kindergarten through to year 5. I had a growing concern that repeated activity was taking place and we needed to spiral and progress learning. I, therefore, initiated the development of the OLE programme of overall expectations, scope, and sequence which are integrated with trans-disciplinary skills, learner profile, and the curriculum scopes and sequences. Following a discussion with the OLE team, we identified 3 key inquiry areas: participants, tools, and learning. In recent times, a skills Rubik has also been created.


By September 2015, OLE had become embedded and staff were skilled at linking indoor and outdoor learning.


Over the years ISD had been travelling to a range of conferences to celebrate how they use the outdoors as a learning tool. This culminated in the staff organising their own international conference at ISD in 2017. I was privileged to be invited as the keynote speaker, talking about the value of outdoors as a medium for learning. We had a wide range of visiting staff from the length and breadth of Europe.


In 2017 I commenced a focused project with the Senior school (middle programme). We used an interdisciplinary approach with volunteer staff from the geography, arts, English, and biology departments. During the year grade 6 identified species in their outdoor classroom, mapped the space, and started to explore how it could be used. This continued in 2018 with children creating path networks, a ‘green gym’ and mindfulness space, diversifying habitats and growing crops.


In 2019 we used the outdoors to ease transition from elementary to senior school, as year 5 used the senior schools outdoor learning classroom for some of their sessions. This allowed the children to become familiar with the new campus and some of the staff.  I hope this project and the use of the outdoors will continue with my input for many years to come.


In summary, key aspects that have run throughout the project are:

  • The children are involved in designing, creating, and building their outdoor classrooms, ensuring the key aspects of boundaries (that we can be on either side of), some gradients, different surfaces, organised signposted storage, and shelter are evident. These spaces are non-permanent so that each year the new influx of children can adapt and change the space. Children ensure use is sustainable, managing the erosion and habitats within the site.
  • An ever adjusting and evolving programme of delivery, in which over the years, we have tried varied timetabling, staffing arrangements, integration with various aspects of the PYP, and duration/time blocks.

The project has succeeded because:

  • Children have appropriate clothing, that is stored and dried (boots and waterproofs)
  • There is good peer support and co-operative working
  • Management, staff, and parents are supportive and motivated by OLE
  • We start with the youngest children and progress spiraling up through the years to senior school
  • And finally, Outdoors in is not treated as separate but integrated into units of inquiry, phonics, mathematics, and trans-disciplinary skills


The last word I will leave with Fernanda, an English as an Additional Language teacher:

“When I first started teaching in the outdoors, I was not sure what my expectations were. I did not see myself as an outdoor person.  Astonishingly my students taught me what I did not know. I learned from my students that their learning was not only a classroom lesson. I learned from them to love the outdoors.  They showed me that they could retrieve new concepts every time we went to the outdoor environment. My students learned routines quickly. They learned first-hand to describe the weather, their feelings, what to wear to stay warm and/or dry. I was surprised that my role was more of a guide than of a teacher. My students were eager to go outside every day. The outdoors turned out to be a friendly, non-threatening environment where children were not afraid to make mistakes, felt free to explore and make new discoveries. Their imagination and creativity was truly stimulated. Photo: Reflection a previous Outdoor Learning Environment experience and the order in which it occurred.’


For the past 15 years as an Education Consultant, Kate has taught in nature kindergartens, schools, and early years settings, through her coaching and project work. In tandem, she delivers and designs Continuous Professional Development training courses (face to face, online and webinars) and keynotes speeches. Her work takes her throughout the UK, into Europe and beyond (namely, USA, Canada, India, and Australia). Her passion is to cascade this learning and empower others to deliver fantastic outdoor learning programmes.

Kate mainly does this through coaching in context, continuous professional development training, and creating written materials. She delivers, assesses and internally verifies qualifications in Forest School and Learning Beyond the Classroom. Contact may be face to face or remote (online). These sessions last a half a day, evening, full-day, or an extended time block for a project. Common delivery themes include: Adult role & interaction, Benefit-Risk Assessment, curriculum coverage outside, and child interpersonal skills development. To read more about Kate, please click here.

The key to attracting and retaining students

Esther Clark, Director of Marketing, Wey Education plc.

Attracting and retaining students and of course teachers, is the natural goal of all schools. However, for international schools the fluid nature of their audience means that achieving this can be a constant challenge. So, what are some schools doing to make their offering more attractive to new families and convert their student population from fluid to solid? Esther Clark, Director of Marketing at Wey Education, provider of the online school InterHigh, explains how Wey Education works in partnership with schools to help them achieve their goals.


Mobility, rather than stability, is often the norm for students in international schools. Generally linked to their parents’ careers, a proportion of the school population does not remain long enough to benefit from an uninterrupted educational experience. Naturally most schools believe this is beyond their control but for the schools we work with, this doesn’t have to be the case.


InterHigh is the UK’s leading online school. Since it opened in 2005, we have taught more than 10,000 pupils, currently with around 3,000 pupils in the school community. Between 40-60 per cent of pupils are ‘international’ whether that means they study outside of UK or are non-UK citizens resident in the UK.

Lessons are delivered in live, interactive classrooms by professionally qualified British teachers. We offer a full British curriculum; as pupils move through the school, they can study a full range of IGCSE and A Level courses. In 2018, our fully qualified, subject specialist teachers helped our learners achieve a 98 per cent pass rate at English GCSE and 73% achieving levels 9-4 across all subjects.



What makes us different from traditional schools is that our teaching is flexible, accessible and online. Some students are full time while others are only with us for a few months or join us just to study one specific subject – which brings me to the explanation of how working with us benefits international schools.


Attracting new students

By their very nature, families looking for the best school for their children come with certain criteria: a British curriculum delivered by British teachers, with the highest quality standards and pass marks in a broad range of subjects.


It is this last requirement, namely the broad range of subjects, that many international schools may struggle to support. Children coming from overseas to a new school often come with an expectation to continue to study subjects from their previous school. This could include IGCSE curriculum areas such as accounting or any number of languages from Arabic to Malay. The flexibility of InterHigh means that if an international school doesn’t have a teacher in place to offer any area of the curriculum, the students may be able to ‘attend’ InterHigh remotely, just for this subject. Offering this flexibility and breadth of subjects is a highly attractive option to many families. By working with us it enables the school to show that it can off a broader range of subjects. InterHigh, in essence, becomes a powerful extension to a school and their learning offer.


The other issue that international schools face is the natural flow of students arriving and leaving each year, but this doesn’t have to be the case.


Let’s take student and table tennis champion Anna Hursey as an example. As the youngest athlete in the history of any sport to compete in the Commonwealth Games, Anna’s training schedule makes her education increasingly complex. Anna used to study at Cardiff High School in Wales, a mixed comprehensive school in the UK. It was a brilliant school and she did well, but as the pressure of her training impacted on her schooling, this started to impact her academically. She therefore left her school to join InterHigh which allowed her to continue with her education whilst developing her table tennis career. Wherever she was in the world, she was able to progress with her education alongside her training. However, this didn’t have to be a permanent shift. An alternative option for Anna would have been to stay at Cardiff High School when she was in the UK and simply continue her GCSE studies with InterHigh when she was training overseas and needed that level of flexibility.


“I graduated InterHigh this past summer, getting A-levels in German, French, Literature and English. I am so amazed with how everything has turned out, but I am also very, very happy. My 14-year-old self would not recognise me today. I am incredibly grateful to my parents for home-schooling me and to InterHigh, for showing me what a gift education is and believing in me. Thank you InterHigh for changing my life.” Amy Lally, alumni, InterHigh


Another example is year 10 French student Adrien. Because of his father’s business, and his mother working between Australia and France, Adrien constantly moves between the two countries. Despite being happy with the education he could receive in Sydney the same couldn’t be said when he returned to spend time in France. Living right near the French Swiss border, the best teachers often get jobs in the Swiss schools which pay two to three times higher salaries. Therefore, the schools near Adrien didn’t offer the standard of education his family expected, and they also wanted Adrien to maintain his education in English.


So, during his time in France InterHigh became Adrien’s favoured option. “I love the freedom that InterHigh offers where you can balance lesson time with self-study. I have four, 40-minute lessons a day with plenty of homework that I can do at any time that suits me. With international flights likely to be limited for the foreseeable future, I feel lucky to have a constant stable education that I love.”


When asked if he finds learning at home lonely, Adrien explains, “No! It gives me the freedom to work around going out and seeing my friends, attending boxing classes and the theatre.”


Whether families need that flexibility because their child is a young actor, model, athlete or entrepreneur or if they want to study a subject not offered by their local school, InterHigh welcomes working with international schools to fill long or short-term requirements. We can support schools with a blended alternative or find the right resource to fill the needs of a future looking school especially as schools seek out and re-evaluate their online offering and teaching solution.



If we can find an upside amongst all the outcomes of Covid, it is the fact that there has been a huge swell of appreciation of the benefits of online learning and remote work. With Covid likely to disrupt schooling for some time to come, our teachers who are highly experienced at teaching virtually and delivering the highest quality, stable education, are an attractive option for schools, families, students and teachers.

To discuss a partnership with Wey Education in more detail, please visit:


Esther Clark is Marketing Director at Wey Education Plc. She is also an author and contributor to Forbes, America Economia and the World Economic Forum (WEF). Esther is a Peter Drucker Global Challenge winner and executive leader who promotes and practices human centered management and integrated thinking.

Creating Authentic Marketing Messages and a Value Proposition to Build School Enrolment.

Dr Stephen Holmes B Ed, MBA, M Ed Admin, PhD (School Marketing and Reputation)


Creating Authentic Marketing Messages and a Value Proposition to Build School Enrolment.


For so many international schools, the economic reverberations of the world health crisis have rapidly translated to a confronting enrolment and marketing challenge for Boards, owners and leadership teams.

In many ways, it has put centre stage something that was already a building problem for so many schools – weaknesses in the authenticity and impact of their marketing and marketing messages. While there has been increased recognition of the potential importance of marketing in schools, they still find it difficult to define and communicate points of difference in compelling and cogent ways to audiences. A precondition to build enrolment is an authentic, cogent and compelling identity driven by marketing messaging that impacts.

A quick search of international school websites continues to suggest that creating authentic, differentiated marketing messages is beyond most schools. Straplines and slogans on websites (i.e. integrated into brand schemes), have become commonplace to try and convey a distinctive school identity. In general, they are illusionary, and expensive. Despite improvements in the public ‘look and feel’ of schools, a systemic weakness in schools is the continued lack of influence and impact of marketing messages on parent choice and the authenticity (originality) of marketing messages. Hence so many schools have weak value propositions (USPs). We live in a world of fake news, rejection of logic, illusion and instantaneous sharing. Marketing messaging of reputable institutions like schools surely has to take all of that into account and do better!

And it’s not just problems with the actual marketing messages, schools typically have far too many messages – they tend to be too inclusive and say something about almost everything in the hope that something will connect.

A narrow and deep set of messages explained in terms of actual benefit to the student/parent, why they are valuable and matter both in the short and long term, and proof that they are a reality across the student/parent journey is a far more compelling narrative for school audiences. In this regard, we can learn one lesson from the corporate world – top brands are usually associated with a very small (not more than 2-3) set of attributes in achieving penetrative and attractive identities.

To impact on public perception and enrolment, school marketing must be more than ‘lots of activity’ pushing out similar messages that aim to connect with increasingly diverse audience preferences and expectations.

Marketing Messaging: Pitfalls to Avoid and the ‘To Do’ List

For the foreseeable future, we think that the quality of marketing messaging in schools will be a tipping point and catalyst for market success or failure.

How can schools effectively address the challenges they face in the search for the ‘right’ marketing messaging in a time of enrolment pressure?

Our work with schools on marketing over 3 decades manifests in 6 crucial guidelines for action to review and enhance marketing messaging.


Schools struggle to distinguish or differentiate themselves, nor explain compelling and cogent reasons to choose them (enrol) over other alternate schools.


Clear points of difference in messages, and or messages that may be common but are known to be highly valued by parents/students (prospective, current and past).


A sameness (generic) in the way schools project themselves that does little to create a sustainable identity, or connect well with diverse audiences/expectations.


Marketing messages that are not generic (e.g. a current or possible future innovation or theme) to build a clear school identity and trajectory. Parents/students being able to consistently 1-2 words they would assign to the image of the school that is aligned with the actual espoused school identity.


A lack of messaging and understandable communication on differentiation at the classroom/pedagogy level, so essential for effective and persuasive marketing messages.


More said about staff quality, teaching and pedagogy in marketing messaging. Illustrating authentic school wide pedagogies, how it is of benefit, what is genuinely being done to genuinely enhance and monitor it.


Weak links between the School Vision (and or Mission) and the marketing messages..


An inspiring and ambitious School Vision sets the scene for messages that can be marketed successfully. That is in demand everywhere.


Lack of connectivity in marketing messaging to specific audiences.


Minimising disconnect between what schools are saying (messaging) and the realities and consistency of the holistic parent/student journey is core to building reputation.


Do not over-rely on corporate models to build school identity. Credible high value education messages are what the market most wants here.


Effective marketing messages must override slick mottos which often creates cynicism, not enhanced reputation in school communities.


Flowing from the above, schools need an organising framework to see where and how build a messaging narrative that is consistent and deep. From our experience, a market messaging development action framework should span the below working from left to right:

Such a framework will take schools on a better path toward:

  • More precise marketing messaging definition, and explanation.
  • A narrative for the future identity of the school to align internal strengths/capabilities with external audience preferences.
  • Credibility in marketing messages/value proposition.
  • Formation of Performance metrics to support whether or not market messaging truly impacts on perceptions of the School.


The process of reviewing marketing messaging has a wider benefit and implication.

Starting with the end goal in mind (a compelling and cogent set of reasons to choose your school), the process should inherently inform 3 big strategic issues:

Strategic Issue 1: How Should Your School Compete?

Agreement on what basis (which messages and value proposition) your school can primarily engage to appeal and be seen as attractive.

Strategic Issue 2: Where to Compete – Which Audiences/Which Messages?

In terms of where (what audiences or profiles), explicitly define the audiences the various messages are most likely to attract and the most appropriate marketing messages for each persona. This will assist in targeting and creating specific examples/proof points that would resonate with specific audiences.

Strategic Issue 3: How to Refine your Education Offer to Align to Marketing Messages?

Almost invariably, our diagnosis of schools is that with market challenges are partly a ‘product’ and alignment matter (what a school offers including services), and partly messaging (how a school externalises and communicates that offer). So, a messaging review is best when it is informative from this perspective also.

In conclusion, impactful and differentiated marketing messages continues to be an elusive problem for schools everywhere we look. In the times we now live in, the interrelated questions of what is ‘best’ to say and how ‘best’ to say it can no longer be considered merely prosaic for schools seeking to survive and thrive. Crafting impactful marketing messaging in schools requires a process that includes robust market analysis – it is not merely an act of creativity or imagination.

Please contact Dr Stephen Holmes at for further details.


Dr Stephen Holmes is the Founder and Principal of The 5Rs Partnership ( Based in Singapore, The 5Rs Partnership is a global consultancy specifically for schools in strategy planning, marketing and market research, reputation management, and governance, established in 2004.  Stephen is the only full-time practicing consultant in the world with a PhD in marketing schools. LEARN MORE

Finding Opportunity in Challenge: Differentiation

Paul Magnuson, Director of Educational Research, Leysin American School.

Earlier this summer I wrote about a student who proposed continuing some degree of remote learning even when we return to face to face learning (What If?, July 1). Her emailed request has been running through my mind all month:


I wanted to know … if I could have the option to not go to class and instead go to a supervised study place … where I could work alone like we did during the online schooling period … 


This student’s goal is not to avoid learning, but rather to maximize her time in order to focus on the learning she cares most deeply about. She may also be thinking that she could eliminate some of the distractions found in most classrooms. And she might be politely letting us know, if we read between the lines, that time spent in class, though perhaps as effective as possible for a group of students, can be quite inefficient when viewed from the perspective of an individual student.


If she were able to run this experiment, attending some of her classes just occasionally while completing the work on her own time, what might we find out? Well, the null hypothesis is that there is no difference between what she learns while working on her own than when she is working in a classroom. As teachers, we’d probably like to think that this experiment would reject the null hypothesis because she would have learned more with us. But there is the possibility that we’d reject the null hypothesis because she learned more while working in her own suggested style, largely independently.


What she is suggesting, based on some follow up emails, is a bit more nuanced. She is suggesting that she be able to attend fewer classes, not simply be physically absent all the time. Further, she is suggesting that when the teacher feels her presence is necessary or helpful, she would attend the face to face class. She is also suggesting that a bit of a fail-safe be built into the arrangement, meaning she would have to regularly demonstrate that she is doing well in the class in order to continue her remote, independent learning.


While listening to the September 10, 2019 podcast with Howard Rheingold and Will Richardson (Modern Learners) this morning, it struck me why my thoughts this summer have continually returned to this request. This student is not asking for anything more than a bit of differentiation, albeit a bit more than we usually talk about. She is asking for differentiation that spans across classes (attending some more than others, meeting minimal requirements in some and diving deep in others) and modalities (face to face and online).


Until this morning, differentiated instruction, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, was for me something boxed in by the classroom, by the bell schedule, and by the individual teacher. But of course differentiation is much broader. Differentiation is allowing learning to happen in different ways and does not need to be defined by the classroom, the period, or the teacher.


In my previous post I lamented a bit about the discrepancy between the reasonableness of creating a hybrid of face to face and remote learning and the administrative quicksand I felt I had stepped into. There is, however, opportunity in challenge. The upcoming 2020-2021 school year should indeed be quite full of opportunity.


Expanding the notion of differentiation (at least of my previously limited definition of differentiation, the one that I wasn’t aware I was constrained by) is quite suddenly very easy to picture, due to this fall’s biggest challenge at my boarding school: beginning face to face instruction with some students in quarantine, some students in their home countries, and some unknown number of face to face students who get sick during the course of the year and find themselves temporarily quarantined as well.


Teachers are going to need to provide instruction which is both face to face and remote. The shift in perspective that the COVID challenge affords us is this: face to face instruction need not be our default teaching and learning mode, from which we deviate only when required to by the impact of the virus. A hybrid model, combining face to face and remote learning, should be the default instead, normalizing the needed transition for students and teachers between the two modes.


If we shift our thinking in this way, and then read this student’s request again, I think you’ll feel much more of the opportunity in her words, and much less of the challenge:


I wanted to know … if I could have the option to not go to class and instead go to a supervised study place … where I could work alone like we did during the online schooling period … 


Well, yes, actually, you can do that. Other students are doing the same thing, because of the strategy we’ve developed to contain COVID, so you might as well give it a try, too, if you feel it is best for your learning. The only thing that is different, really, is the reason for why you are opting for remote learning. While staying healthy is the reason the school needs to change, your reason – believing that you will learn more – is also valid.


We’ve turned a challenge into the opportunity to differentiate teaching and learning on a whole new level, affording the best possible and highly personalized learning experience for this student and others. Yes, we’ll have to change how we teach so that we can accommodate the students who have no choice but to learn remotely. That will take some serious time and effort, no doubt about it. However, our solution for the containment of the virus opens up a whole new world of differentiation, one in which this student’s request is not only reasonable, but doable, for her and for others.


I can picture us walking over the administrative quicksand I felt earlier. It’s hardened into a path to places we weren’t even thinking about as we headed into the start of the school year. Let’s not let the opportunity to cross it be lost.



Paul Magnuson is the director of Educational Research at Leysin American School and adjunct faculty for the International Education Program of Endicott College. His interests include student agency and self-regulated learning for students and teachers.