Ecosystems for Innovation

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

I just stopped in our school garden, built on a hill as everything is when you live in a ski village, and climbed up to a newly installed bench to test it out.


It’s a simple pleasure sitting on a bench, in a garden, taking in the view. Disconnected for a while, just lots of green growth and a pond with fish, clay pots of seedlings everywhere, a few shovels and a pitchfork leaning against the fence, white and brown chickens a couple levels down, two picnic areas and a swing set further down still. Behind and above me is a new fenced-off section of grass left to grow as it might, for the next few years, and nestled among the wildflowers are three wooden beehives literally humming with literally busy bees. Higher still are tomatoes, fruit trees, rock paths, compost, and more flower beds.


It’s wonderful.


And a lot of work.


But there’s a human ecosystem supporting this biological ecosystem that is perhaps an interesting example of how we might like to work across the school, on many of our short and long term projects, not just this one.


The ecosystem I’m thinking about is composed of the faculty that have made and continue to maintain this garden. When I arrived here, a number of years ago now, this expanse was a hill of grass, weed-whacked a few times a year for some inexplicable reason. Old cracked stairs led nowhere in particular, and if you kicked the dirt around on the one flat strip (where the pond is now), you could tell that there used to be a bit of a walk and a terrace, or maybe a place to play boules, back in the days when the student dormitory at the garden’s edge was a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis.


One long term employee, Tony, took care of the grass and planted a few flowers at the bottom of the stairs. Alone he couldn’t do too much. (But now as one of many he has been a gardening force to be reckoned with.) Once during the summer program, we tried to sit on the hill for a presentation, but it was too steep. Sometimes the students used to cut through this space to cross the train tracks and disappear beyond the school limits.


Then along came Hugh. Hugh taught Spanish, comparative government, and economics. He was passionate about the environment. And he decided to turn a corner of the former terrace into a garden. Soon he had some student volunteers with pickaxes breaking out the cracked cement. Some other teachers helped convert scrap wood from old double beds into raised garden beds. First one, then two, then three.


Hugh learned about permaculture and gardens that sustained themselves through clever planting. He told anyone who would listen about building hugels, big bumps of logs and earth, on top of which you could plant whatever you liked. Over the years the logs break down and keep the dirt fresh.


Others joined Hugh. Gardening was offered as an after school activity, and then as an exploratory class with the middle school. A carpenter on staff and a science teacher turned a playhouse into a chicken coop the year before they left for other positions, and another science teacher, a biologist, bought our first five chickens.


Some teachers and faculty members, maybe less green-thumbed than they would like to be, constructed paths between the flower beds and the hugel, and then to the second hugel, and then to the first hobby flower beds started by families living on campus. Our first member from the local town, not an employee of the school, claimed a patch and planted lettuce, strawberries, and plants I never identified.


A scrap woodpile was used for a campfire, and soon there was a ring of stones. A new place for friends to meet. Some Italian staff members installed a pizza oven, and not long after, a bigger pizza oven. (Their pizza is very good and word got around.) Someone organized two hammocks, someone else some tents for shade, with picnic tables underneath. Another picnic area sprang up, with Tony’s help, complete with repurposed furniture from the school to store dishes and matches and cups and knives.


There has been no director of the garden. There have been some deeply committed faculty members who served, for a while, as the principal advocates and go-getters, no doubt. There were plenty of us who spent considerable time and energy in the garden. And there has been some money available through the research department’s citizen science efforts, which saw value early on in learning about sustainable agriculture and getting children who may never have been in a garden before to get their hands a little dirty – also literally.


So how did we go in five years from no garden to a massive community garden? And couldn’t we do the same for some other school projects which seem so infernally hard to change?


Here are some factors that I think contributed to the garden’s success, and that, in translation, might be usefully applied at school.

  1. Administration didn’t really care too much if there was a garden or not. Meaning, administration let it develop as it might. Translated for consideration in other areas of the school: Give your faculty space to develop new initiatives. See if there is enough commitment to build and sustain a new program. Allow the space for innovation to happen. It just might.
  2. There was enough money to buy some equipment from time to time. If there had been no money at all, the project may still have worked. But the project benefited from having enough tools to distribute to students, enough money to buy some fruit trees and chicken feed and pizza ovens and so on. Translated: Giving space for innovation is critical, but it might not be enough. Give a little cash, too, and trust the innovators to use it wisely. They know most about the project they are working on.
  3. There was space for innovation in more than one program. While the space for this specific project, the garden, was allowed, it would not have been as successful if there hadn’t been space in other programs, at the same time, too. Notably, the activities office, the middle school, and the research center took advantage of the development of a garden by offering activities and a class that brought students face to face with the plants, weeds, and bugs. I’m sure there’s a term for this phenomenon (tell me in the comment section below). It is some sort of co-creative factor where multiple initiatives can use each other to be more than the sum of their parts. “Bootstrapping” comes to mind as a term, but there must be something better. Translated: allow space not just for one pilot program, but for several, each with at least some funding. Don’t get overly involved, but see where the synergies take you. Perhaps that’s the term, as worn out as it seems – synergy.
  4. And aesthetics. The garden is a nice place to be. It’s beautiful. It draws people to it. Translated: the learning spaces you create matter. The entrance to the building, the teacher lounge, the cafeteria, it all matters. Make your school a place where people want to be and they’ll stick around and apply their creative energies on campus.


There was space for innovation in more than one program. While the space for this specific project, the garden, was allowed, it would not have been as successful if there hadn’t been space in other programs, at the same time, too. Notably, the activities office, the middle school, and the research center took advantage of the development of a garden by offering activities and a class that brought students face to face with the plants, weeds, and bugs. I’m sure there’s a term for this phenomenon (tell me in the comment section below). It is some sort of co-creative factor where multiple initiatives can use each other to be more than the sum of their parts. “Bootstrapping” comes to mind as a term, but there must be something better. Translated: allow space not just for one pilot program, but for several, each with at least some funding. Don’t get overly involved, but see where the synergies take you. Perhaps that’s the term, as worn out as it seems – synergy.


And aesthetics. The garden is a nice place to be. It’s beautiful. It draws people to it. Translated: the learning spaces you create matter. The entrance to the building, the teacher lounge, the cafeteria, it all matters. Make your school a place where people want to be and they’ll stick around and apply their creative energies on campus.


I’m sure there were other factors. And I’m sure you might interpret differently how to leverage those factors for innovative curriculum development, new approaches to teaching and learning, personalized assessment that deemphasizes tests and quizzes, expansion of what we think of as after school activities into the daily curriculum, freedom to emphasize skills over content, and much more. But starting with a good-looking space for multiple innovations to develop in parallel, with just enough funding to keep the projects going with minimal administrative intervention, seems like a very good start.


The bees will buzz and the harvest will be impressive, to say nothing of that Sicilian pizza.


Thoughts to share about this article? Let us know below.


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.

Reimagining School Together

John Burns, ISS Chief Innovation Officer 

Reimagining School Together with ISS CHALLENGES: 

What practices should carry forward from online learning? 

COVID-19 has forced schools to rethink how they operate, educators to re-imagine their practice, and students to adapt and learn in new ways. Although this pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for schools, it is also an opportunity that enables us to reimagine and reinvent schools in ways never seen before. 

To scale these great practices, we recently opened our innovation management platform, ISS CHALLENGES, to educators around the globe.  At its core, ISS CHALLENGES allows us to pose questions and then crowdsource ideas from the wider community. Our first external challenge asked educators around the globe to reflect on the question, “What new practices should schools keep or implement as a result of our experience with online learning?” 

Image: International School of Aruba virtual field trip to the International Space Station.

The response was tremendous. Not only did educators submit a plethora of fantastic ideas, but they also supported others in further developing their thinking. Many ideas were moved through the innovation pipeline to become scalable initiatives. In the end, seven winners were announced. 

Perhaps even more interestingly, across the many entries, six broad themes emerged. Here are the six action items that all schools should continue to engage with going forward. 

Parental engagement 

Many schools reported a significant increase in parent engagement during this period due to accessible technology and efforts to create learning partnerships. Suggestions included: 

  • Giving parents the option of online or in-person student-led conferences 
  • Regularly inviting parents to virtually join the classroom as subject matter experts or learning support staff 

Learner agency 

Learning at home has shown the importance of making time for students to asynchronously work on projects of interest to them and for all members of the community to share their passions. Ideas included: 

  • Dedicating a significant block of time every week to a student passion project 
  • Providing an a-la-carte list of STEAM, SDG, or other focused challenges for students to pick and choose from 

 Authentic learning 

Online learning demonstrated the ease and power of using technology to bring the world into classes and open classes up to the world. Suggestions included: 

  • Participating in virtual field trips which are abundant and free online 
  • Using learning portfolios to showcase what students know and do and encourage discourse with the wider community 

Low-tech, sustainable solutions 

Not everything needs to be online. Educators discovered that some of the most meaningful learning happens off-line and beyond the formal curriculum and schools need to make room for that. Ideas included: 

  • Creating urban farms. These can spring up even in apartments and high rise living 
  • Introducing no-tech days to encourage physical activity and exploration of other learning opportunities 

Student-centric design 

There is a clear need for schools to be redesigned to reflect students’ needs, rather than have students accommodate the standard design of schools. Suggestions included: 

  • Providing more asynchronous opportunities; for example, shift school timetables to reflect the needs of different groups of learners 
  • Use social media more as a mechanism for both student engagement and also learning showcase and reflection 

Faculty support 

School closures have catalyzed incredible collaboration among faculty in schools and around the world. Ideas to keep up this positive momentum included: 

  • Snapshot professional learning experiences co-created by staff and shared with other schools worldwide 
  • Transfer faculty onboarding and orientation to an online mode. This can be a great pre-emptive strike before staff even join the team. 

ISS will continue to launch new challenges for educators and students through 2020-21. Keep an eye on and #ISSedu on social media to get involved! 

What are your thoughts? Share them below for the world to see!


John focuses on sparking creativity and innovation across ISS learning communities. He has worked on founding and designing both LEVEL 5 China and LEVEL 5 Bahrain, agile spaces for design thinking in education. John has developed apps featured worldwide and has also previously worked for Apple in assisting schools with organizational change. 
Connect with John on LinkedIn.



ISS a leading nonprofit with more than 60 years of experience in international education. Whether it’s developing and managing world-class international schools, staffing schools, ordering equipment and supplies, performing accounting functions, or supporting best-in-class teaching and learning approaches, ISS provides the full range of services necessary for your school to thrive and deliver an outstanding global education to your students.  

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.

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.

Teacher Agency

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

In the most recent issue of Teachers and Teaching, Tebeja Molla and Andrea Nolan (2020) report their findings on teacher agency and professional practice. They consider five different facets of professional practice that are associated with strong teacher agency.


I think school administrators could spend a productive hour or two discussing their school climate in relation to Molla and Nolan’s professional practices for two main reasons. (1) School climate is critical for good teaching, and therefore good learning, and (2) increasing teacher agency as a school seems like a very promising way through which to increase student agency, which for me is among the more neglected aspects of how we do school.


Here are their facets of teacher professional agency.


Inquisitive agency (specialist knowledge and skills). The more knowledgeable we are in our area of expertise, the more confident we are, and the more willing we are to explore what we don’t know. As Molla and Nolan put it, “…teacher confidence is closely aligned with having the necessary professional capital” (2020, p. 72). But don’t stop there. Subject matter knowledge and training are necessary, but not sufficient.


Deliberative agency (critical reflection on one’s practices, theories, and assumptions). As reflective practitioners we consider our teaching through multiple lenses and collaborate with our colleagues while balancing trust and doubt in oneself. That is, as professionals we know what we are doing and we doubt it at the same time. Our teaching lives are full of iterative action research cycles – even many in a single lesson, perhaps – in which we plan-act-reflect in order to constantly grow. Sharing these experiences with others, in a climate of trust and confidence, promotes agency.


Recognitive agency – teachers are valued and respected. It’s obvious to anyone who has ever been recognized with a metaphorical pat on the head that recognition is complex. Molla and Nolan highlight that to be recognized as a professional we have to have the freedom to form personal opinions and to make professional judgments. Cookie cutter curricula and overly defined instructional methodology can hamper a sense of recognitive agency and therefore teacher agency overall.


Responsive agency – sense of service, appropriately meeting the needs of children. As teachers, we like to think and act in ways that allow us to meet the needs of all children, or put more pragmatically, the greatest number of needs for the greatest number of children. Teacher professional agency therefore includes the ability and freedom to challenge practices that prevent us from that goal.


Moral agency – doing the right thing for the right reason. “Teachers should be able to make responsible choices” (Molla and Nolan, 2020, p. 77). Being a professional includes reacting to a range of situations – social, physical, psychological – as they arise, based on one’s best judgment in the moment, informed by one’s history of practice and reflection. Included here is the imperative to continue learning, which encompasses the previous four facets of professional agency.


So it’s all about … what? Culture, I think. A culture of trust, for one. Also a culture of high expectations, but only if we understand high expectations in a far more nuanced way than compliance with a mandate for, say, high test scores. High expectations are what we have for our own teaching, our own professionalism. Trust and high expectations are summarized by Molla and Nolan in two subsections: creating an empowering learning environment (for me, a culture of trust) and problematising professional practice (again for me, the freedom to take risks).


Now what about those administrators who have perhaps taken an hour or two to discuss the article. What concretely might they do next? Here’s my suggestion:


Make a scale for each of these five facets of teacher professional agency, starting with “not at all” and running to “very.” Predict how your faculty would rate your current school climate. Hand over the question of “where do we fall on these continua?” to the faculty. Let them create a measurement, a survey, whatever it takes to show their perceptions on the same five scales. Compare administrative and teaching faculty opinions. And then, together, identify the first small steps – little bets – to start shifting school culture where the culture needs to shift most.


Teachers stand to develop more professional agency. Students stand to follow their example.



Molla, T. & Nolan, A. (2020). Teacher agency and professional practice, Teachers and Teaching, 26(1), 67-87.



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.

What does a modern mathematics classroom look like?

Hannah Starbuck, Mathematics Teacher, Leysin American School.


The Mathematics department goal this year was communication. This was perfect because it tied into a large part of my vision of a modern classroom. The areas I mainly focused on this year were Problems of the Week, Socratic Seminars, and reading articles.


A Problem of the Week (POW), is a large, fairly open-ended maths problem, with an elegant solution or solutions. These questions encourage multiple pathways of thinking and provide students ample opportunity to look for and identify patterns and trends, a useful habit for mathematicians. I’ve given POWs the last three years I’ve been teaching. Students tend to enjoy them and enjoy collaborating with one another. The biggest pushback I get is my expectation that students produce a formal write-up of the problem.


Students are asked to explain in detail the problem and their process of solving the problem, convincing readers of their methods and solution(s) and reflecting on their learning and the task. The question I get: “Why do we have to write in maths class?”.


From the student’s perspective, the purpose of maths class is to “solve problems and get right answers.” But now I tell my students that we write in maths class because it is good for our communication skills, that mathematical writing is just as important as writing an essay on a novel or a lab report AND that it helps to articulate mathematical thinking that might be difficult to express orally.


Students will sometimes go out of their way to complain about writing, but their reflections and mathematical writing always amaze me. For starters, their reflections are insightful and honest. They provide evidence and defend their claims as to why they deserve a certain mark, or what should be changed about the problem. Their thoughts are generally mature, well thought-out, and genuine. Students go into detail as they describe how hard they worked on this problem, and discuss the different maths concepts they applied. It’s important students embrace the idea of convincing a skeptic. Students are very thoughtful in defending their processes and answers and have detailed work and proof to support their thoughts. Even if the solution isn’t correct, I don’t penalize students for trying to defend their work.


Additionally rewarding for me is to watch students interact with one another as they solve these questions. My role is to provide clarity or define words that might be confusing. The problem solving is left to the students. Naturally they want to work together and bounce ideas off each other. The resulting mathematical discussions are truly rich and exciting to listen to. My role is to be the skeptic, asking a lot of how and why questions, encouraging students to be more convincing, and to make strong arguments.


The resulting discussions are impressive. That is the exciting part of POWs. You have opportunities to listen to students from all over the world discuss and debate maths to solve these problems, as well as watch their confidence grow when they are successful.


The second focus area for me was Socratic Seminars centered on math education. I chose to do this because I had 12th graders who were experienced with debate, had good English levels, and I had small enough classes to make sure everyone’s voice was heard. Some of the ideas we discussed were student visions of a modern maths classroom, the necessity of homework, how students are assessed, theoretical and application maths, and mental maths, and many more. Students were expected to prepare questions and opinions to contribute to the discussion, demonstrate respectful and polite body language during the discussion, and reflect on the seminar after it concluded. The majority of the time, students were prepared and contributed interesting questions and thoughts. Students also demonstrated a genuine interest in what others had to say. They maintained eye contact, sat up straight, and showed appropriate signs when they were ready to contribute to the discussion.


What these seminars taught me is that our students are a lot more able than we sometimes give them credit for. The 12th graders I taught had been in school for 13-14 years; they’ve seen just about everything. “As an IB student, I find homework to be very burdensome”, “I strongly dislike routine”, “It is an effective way for students to make projects based on the topic passed, or to make a quiz right after you finished the topic”. These are direct quotes from my students discussing the seminar themes. Their language is honest and shows they’ve played the game of school for a long time and KNOW how to play the game. I try to incorporate a lot of their ideas. To me, this is an obvious motion to listen to students more than we do. Teachers definitely possess the training AND the experience of being both a student and a teacher, but let’s not forget we also had ideas on how to make school more fun for us. When given the opportunity for students to use their voices, they clearly can make educated and insightful observations.


The third item I focused on was having students read various articles on global maths education. This seemed appropriate because my students were from all around the world and could provide insight and perspective on each topic we read about. Some of the topics we read about were: counting on fingers, math anxiety, mathematical geniuses, and teaching math as a language. Similar to Socratic Seminars, I asked students to write their initial opinions based on the headline of the article and give an explanation on why they felt this way. Then they read the article and shared their opinions, touching on whether their previous ideas had changed, why or why not, and tried to connect the article back to their home country. Again, their responses are incredible to read. Students provide so much detail and perspective, and what’s even more interesting is that a lot of them had never thought about some of the topics we read about.


For example, we discussed the benefits of counting on one’s fingers and encouraging teachers to allow it. “Many people, especially children, are using the fingers for counting. The brain structure is working by counting fingers, it is such an instinct. I think that using fingers before school is fine, but step by step you need to get rid of it. I think that taking notes is more efficient”, “Most people, myself included, are visual and tactile learners to some extent. So using our fingers to count quickly is a good way to do mental calculations”. These quotes from my students confirm many things for me. The primary one is each student comes from a unique background and maths has its own identity and culture in their homeland.


Maths takes many shapes and forms depending on location and culture. And once again, students have shown me their strong abilities to read, interpret, and form a thoughtful and relevant opinion on a concept that might be unfamiliar. This is the power of giving students the opportunity to use their voices: they provide insight, perspective, and ideas to those around them, including their teachers.


Where do I go from here? There are a few areas I’d like to experiment with. The first is using a portfolio as a way to assess students. Ideally the portfolio would contain projects, reflections, assignments, and other pieces of “evidence” that students would use to show their development throughout the year. The second is to buy a class set of books and incorporate literature into maths class. I have a few titles I’d be interested in using. The next step is to discuss best practices with an English Literature teacher. I’ll also change some of the topics for the Socratic Seminars to be more mathematical. Zero is a popular choice, prime numbers, calculus, etc, all have potential for an interesting discussion. And finally, I’d like to incorporate more projects into maths class. Maths is not a one size fits all subject, it has so much room for creativity, problem-solving, and growth. Projects give students more choice and authenticity in their learning and what students create is truly interesting! The best thing we can do for our students is to empower them by giving them opportunities to speak, write, listen, read, and create pieces of work that demonstrate learning and also have meaning and personality.



Fendel, D., Resek, D., Aler, L., Fraser, W. (1997). Integrated Mathematics Program (IMP) Curriculum. Integrated Mathematics Program (IMP) Curriculum, Key Curriculum Press: Emeryville, CA.



Hannah Starbuck is a maths teacher, volleyball coach and resident scholar at Leysin American School. She is originally from Colorado and is finishing her sixth year of teaching.


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




As I understand it, kaizen is Japanese for improvement, but the use of the word in agile contexts has come to mean the type of gradual improvement that comes about when everyone keeps their eyes open for each little opportunity to make things just a little bit better. Crowdsourced improvement, more or less.


A few years ago we converted a run of the mill classroom located in the center of campus into a flexible meeting space for our research center. Café size tables, comfortable chairs, rugs, plants, a great view of the Alps. There is no projector, and originally, no whiteboard (though we later decided the utility of a whiteboard outweighed our goal to keep the room looking unschoolish).


We named the room Kaizen to emphasize that anybody can use the space and that any small improvement that comes out of that space helps the overall quality of the school.


A few months after naming the room, I got into the elevator directly across the hall and was greeted with a pleasant surprise. A professional looking set of stickers had been affixed next to the buttons marking each floor of the building. Kaizen Research Lounge jumped out at me immediately. Floor 1. Someone had improved the name of our room. A perfect example of the spirit of the room, baked right into its name. The Kaizen Research Lounge.


We probably all have our own examples of kaizen, if you stop to think about it a bit. I’ve seen our Head of School stoop to pick up a candy wrapper or piece of paper as he walks between buildings. I’m sure others have learned from him to do the same. The combined effort of many faculty ensures a clean campus.


Similarly, several years ago a few of us began helping the dining services staff clear the tables after school-wide banquets, instead of leaving directly after the closing words. Every banquet since there have been a few more of us. No one was ever told they must stay to help, but the combined small efforts of a few have created a new culture. I can guarantee that after the next banquet a large number of faculty will help clear tables. The work will be quick, distributed, satisfying, and in collegial collaboration with the non-academic staff working the dining hall. Kaizen.


You can see how this same principle applies to one’s personal life. Don’t fret about having to make major changes. Just make one small change, and one small change again after that. It adds up. You can also see how this principle encourages an increasingly professional teaching corps. If there is something to try that might be just a bit better, try it. If there are enough teachers making small improvements to their teaching, the overall teaching quality rises, and with it student learning. If teachers start to talk to each other about small improvements, sharing their successes, the effect is accelerated.


Kaizen creates a culture of improvement. One starts with oneself and it rubs off on others. People start noticing and join in, in small ways. Still others experience the positive modeling and they, too, shift their actions and thinking just a little bit. Change comes about, and continues coming about, because the culture is one of continuous improvement.


Students may notice, but even if they don’t, they are likely to benefit. It may be worthwhile, however, to make them aware of kaizen, to let them know that improvement is a distributed process, created through distributed leadership to which everyone has access and for which everyone is responsible.


Kaizen Research Lounge. Can you believe it? What a great name.



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.

What if?

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


A student wrote to me yesterday with a request that has really got me thinking.


For some context: in the final weeks of our sudden shift to school online, I convened a group of a dozen eleventh grade students, twice, with the goal of talking through their remote learning experience and what we can learn from it moving forward.


The students reflected on their ability to self-manage and self-motivate, their established study practices, and how they might like to reorganize school in the future, based on our collective redo of how school works.


We called the two sessions blue sky thinking. As we wound up the second session, a group consensus emerged that the students would like to have more blue sky time next academic year – time to come together and talk creatively about academics, alternatives to how we do things now, and how they might learn best.


I suspect any educator’s heart should beat a little faster when students express interest in rethinking pedagogy. But perhaps in reality that faster heart rate is the realization that talking what ifs is the equivalent of a crack in the dam or a loose thread in the sweater. Something could burst or unravel pretty quickly.


So a student wrote to me. One of the blue sky thinkers. A smart, reflective, serious student. She asked me this:


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 … Maybe I would go to class at least 2 times a week … I would also agree to turn in everything on time … I think this would help me keep the efficiency that I had when I was forced into learning by myself. Do you think the school will let me do this? 


Blue sky, definitely, and not unreasonable. But the questions this request raises! Say the student did only go to class twice a week (that’s half the scheduled classes in this case) but turned in all her work on time and did well in class – and perhaps in less time. Is that an acceptable outcome for the school? It seems to be acceptable – preferable even – for the individual student.


I can hear the collective, hypothetical voices of my colleagues and I as we discuss the request: You can’t just skip class! (Knee jerk reaction). Who would supervise? (Practical constraints.) Wouldn’t this open the doors to other students asking for the same thing? (Are we talking about building a whole new program here?) What about students who wanted to do this but weren’t able to handle it? (Further administrative complications.) If it’s only necessary to attend half our classes to succeed, what will parents think? (Public relations.) 


And so on. 


I’ve heard colleagues talk about school reform in terms of aspirational goals, which feels a bit like code language for blue sky thinking that we know will never happen. I’ve also heard plenty of pundits say education will never be the same, post-Covid. But as I open the mail to respond to this student, I can’t think of any response that doesn’t cloud that blue sky. She is onto something, but I do not know how to support her thinking best.



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.

The Ascending Cognition Principle

Kevin Jennings, M. Ed., World History Teacher, Leysin American School.

Designing Units Systematically and Gradually Through Mastering Skills.

In my 10 years in education I’ve had the good fortune of teaching on three different continents, with colleagues from all over the world, and students from over 30 countries. In that time, I have found a few challenges to be both universal and recurring.  

These problems include: 

  1. I) How do we create a classroom environment that promotes higher-level thinking without overwhelming students?
  2. II) How do we make sure one class period, one week of classes, a 5-week unit aligns meaningfully with the next?

III) How do we create a classroom environment that promotes student leadership and independence?

  1. IV) How do we make sure we practice the skills and develop the understandings that are necessary for success?


Through trial and error, and through conversations  with colleagues, I created a standardized unit outline that helps to address the problems mentioned above. I call it The Ascending Cognition Principle. 


 An Educational Principle 

Think of skill development in the classroom in terms of the proverbs “you must learn to crawl before you can walk” and “you don’t need shoes to run, but it helps.” While developing units, It’s important to target specific skills necessary for student development. The first few units may require students to focus on the mastery of lower level, less cognitively demanding skills that are necessary for success, e.g. Cornell Notes, extracting information from a text, comparing and contrasting resources, etc. These foundational skills are our proverbial “shoes”, preparing students for their next challenge.  


In the beginning of the school year, a class may be asked to practice skills such as Cornell notes, summarize, and compare and contrast, in order to set a foundation of skills to build off in the lessons and units to come. As a student, a group, or a class is able to master these skills, they will then “graduate” to more cognitively demanding skills such as classify, predict, interpret, solve, analyze, cause and effect. Of course these skills are made easier by the use and implementation of earlier, foundational skills. 


As the year progresses, lower-level skills and activities will take less time to complete, allowing more time for higher-level, more cognitively demanding skills to be targeted. For example, while we may take 2 weeks to master Cornell notes in the beginning of the year, writing these notes will (hopefully) become second nature into the latter half of the school year, allowing more time for new exciting and challenging skills. In our case, the next two levels of thinking skills are Application and Analysis.  These two levels allow for students to solve problems, building prototypes, investigate, defend reasoning, develop a thesis with conclusion, etc.. The mixture of interesting and challenging material with constant practice and feedback will allow even these difficult skills to become natural as the school year progresses.  


As mentioned in the initial problems, the ultimate goal of my class is for students to be able to handle higher-level thinking tasks and skills, while becoming more independent and self-reliant. The ascent to the highest level thinking skills, Synthesize and Evaluate, encourage such behavior as they are meant to help students develop something new, or justify a position. Some students or classes may be ready to ascend quicker than their peers. In which case, it would be beneficial for educators to allow these students to embrace more cognitively demanding tasks and activities. Students, who are ready, will benefit from more challenging material as well as more opportunities for creative expression e.g.developing a song, creating a historical fiction, creating a political cartoon or meme, solving problems, etc. 


A unit lasts as long as time allows, or as you (or your school) see fit. The following unit will then build off the foundation of skills you have just developed in order to embrace more challenging material. The ascending complexity of tasks and activities over the course of the school year is represented by the gradual change from red to purple in the figure below.  


Preparing for a Successful Unit  

In order to figure out which activities are less or more cognitively demanding, you may want to use Bloom’s Taxonomy Teacher Planning Kit (Google it) as a guide, then use and/or add what makes sense for your classroom.[Text Wrapping Break] 

As you move from left to right on the Bloom’s scale, from “Knowledge” to “Evaluate” the keywords, actions, and skills will become ever more complex and cognitively demanding, as seen on the figure above. 

Download Bloom’s scale


Targeting Specific Skills 

As we prepare for a successful unit, one thing we should be cognizant of is the skills that you would like your students to practice and eventually master. If you are using The Bloom’s Taxonomy Planning Kit, these skills and command terms are located in the “keywords”, “actions” and “outcomes” section, and if they are not there, add your desired skills to the appropriate section of the unit. 


The location of the skills along the Bloom’s scale (e.g. under “Knowledge” or “Comprehension” etc.) determines when in the unit the skill will be practiced. For example, any desired skill that appears under “Knowledge” or “Comprehension”, which are the first two levels of Bloom’s, will likely be targeted earlier in the unit, while any skills that fall under “Synthesis” or “Evaluation”, the highest levels of the Bloom’s scale, will only be practiced once that individual, group, or class, is ready for the challenge, which may not be until the latter months into the school year. 


Once we know which skills we would like our students to master, and we know where in the unit the skill will fall, it’s now time to create activities allow students to master these skills. For example, if I want my students to learn how to take Cornell Notes, it’s up to the teacher to come up with an effective way for students to learn this process. This large task will be infinitely easier if the teacher has the ability to collaborate with other teachers of similar grades or subjects. 


Cycling Through the Units 

While the goal of a school year may be for students to master all of the skills necessary for their next year, teachers will also benefit from having a classroom which is (among other things) predictable, flows seamlessly from one lesson to the next, has a clear purpose, offers creative outlets for students, and guides students to higher-level thinking activities. The Ascending Cognition Principle was developed to allow teachers to produce units that do just that.  


Kevin Jennings is a social studies teacher and resident scholar at Leysin American School in Switzerland. He is a native of the Washington DC area and is currently in his 10th year of teaching.