Covid 19: Why the Arts?: Now more than ever

Christine Barling
Leader of Learning Arts, MYP Drama/DP Theatre teacher, DP Advisor
Sotogrande International School


Covid 19: Why the Arts? Now more than ever


Featured image by Banksy: Game Changer


I would like to share with you my thoughts about the place of the Arts within this current pandemic and why I believe that to be an Artist &/or part of an audience is more important than ever.


To understand

The Arts are life. Drama, Music, Film, Visual Arts, Dance; they all help us understand the world around us. Through these captured moments we learn more about ourselves and each other. They put life under the lens for us to explore and interpret. The world is FULL of drama right now and to stop and distil the whirl of news and social feeds for a moment allows us to reflect and consider. Through better understanding we can think about how we can best respond. Maybe we want to help bring about change, maybe we want to help support someone struggling or maybe we just need to find a way to get by and through this ourselves. These are challenging times and if we get lost in the stream of facts and stats then we will completely lose a sense of what is really happening and who we really are.


“Science helps us solve problems but the Arts is how we cope with them.” -Street artist David Zinn


Through the study of Verbatim Theatre M4 Drama students created monologues recreating a range of experiences of being in Covid 19 Lockdown.


The Lockdown Monologues performed by M4 Drama students (June 2020)

To be together

We all know how hard it has been being forced away from the people we love or care about. Many have found it very hard being in isolation with restrictions both on our movement and interactions with those around us. The Arts connect us together in a way like no other. Whether it is talking about a new series on Netflix, sitting together in the pre- show buzz of the auditorium or thrashing out power chords jamming as the guitarist in a band we take both solace and delight in having these experiences together. Best of all is when we can actually work together in creative collaboration. Creating a piece of artwork that can be shared with our own community or an even wider audience. This is a challenge with social distancing measures in place but with creative vision and a strong collaborative goal in mind we can break out of this restrictive confinement in a way that is still reaffirming, celebratory and still safe.


A great example is when the M3 Music students worked together to create this dynamic rhythm ensemble – Creating, collaboration, designing, performing, working to a schedule, and of course learning how musical notation works.


Drumming and beats performed & edited by M3 Music students (Oct 2020)


A highly impactful and pertinent exploration of what it can feel like to feel isolated and alone was developed through an M4 piece of film work. Many of us, during this difficult, time have felt strongly about not being allowed to be together. The Arts create an empathetic connection between the Artist and audience that makes us feel that in fact we are not alone and there are many life experiences that, in truth, we go through together.


I am not Alone: Music video by M4 Film student (April 2020)


“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Pablo Picasso


2000 years ago the Greek playwright and philosopher explained how an audience could experience catharsis or a kind of emotional purification through a performance experience. This is basically that feeling you get after you have had a tough day and then watch a movie that makes you cry or laugh and you feel a whole lot better afterwards. Stand up comedians are brilliant at doing this for us. They can turn the most horrific narrative on its head and have us in tears of laughter. Humans also have the ability to laugh at themselves and through this self mockery find not only emotional release but a fresh perspective through which to critically analyse a reality which at times is too intense and intent.


Our M2 students have been writing their own scripts inspired by “10 Ways to Escape a Zombie Apocalypse” by Don Zolidis. Creating satirical and ridiculously exaggerated scenes that mock the apocalyptic and dystopian narrative that they are currently having to live through during this pandemic.

With schooling on site shutting down and students in complete confinement they used their fully scripted scenes to write and perform satirical monologues focusing on one of the highly hyperbolic ´stories´ of a protagonist. This was also a great opportunity for some home spun creative explorations of  dramatic production elements.


Monologue by M2 Drama student (March 2020)

Monologue by M2 Drama student (March 2020)


The ability to laugh at ourselves is a unique and very human quality. This hilarious and touching parody of a dinner date is a gentle mockery of the vulnerability and need of us all.


The Dinner Date by M4 Film student (May 2020)


Amidst the stress of exam uncertainty, revising online, submitting final EA coursework the D2 Theatre ensemble took time out to create this gentle mockery of teachers and students learning virtually to share at their D2 graduation event.


Trailer for D2 Theatre Online Learning skit (June 2020)


“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Thomas Merton , No Man Is an Island


Time out. Time out on the pandemic, time out on the positive Covid counts, time out of the ´new norm´.  Enough already! Just a couple of hours in front of a movie, just half an hour to listen to a few tracks on Spotify, just an afternoon alone with a sketch pad and 2B pencil. The Arts transport us to an alternative reality where we can disconnect, realign and recharge.


In DP1 Music students discussed, If you could only take 3 tracks with you into Lockdown, which ones would they be and why? This was very thought-provoking as it raised all sorts of ideas about escapism and connecting with other moments in your life. One D1 Music student chose tracks by Ludovico Einaudi, Drake and Hang Massive. All tracks are very different in terms of genre and instrumentation.


Warmth of the Sun’s Rays by Hang Massive


During lockdown where students were not even allowed to step out of their front gate for nearly 3 months we invited students, parents and staff to submit their best 10 photos of the week to be shared and enjoyed with the community on social media platforms. In total over 1,000 photos were submitted where each and every one was beautifully evocative  in encapsulating a moment within this surreal very personal experience. Through these photos we gained an insight into how this artistic initiative encouraged the individual to step out of their more repressive mental and physical confinement. Escape was through a lens that focused the mind elsewhere and captured an alternative perspective of the reduced world around them, often celebrating the miniature of what they now had time to note: A view from a window, a flower in the garden, a family pet.


These are a selection of the winning photos, judged by our online visiting international professional photographers.


Through the Arts we can choose to transform from passive spectators to the unravelling events to active participants on the stage of life. Knowing how to effectively voice an opinion and present an impactful message is increasingly vital in a society where the authentic voice is drowned out or even manipulated by the barrage of news and social feeds we get on a minute by minute basis. Never was truer a word said than “Don´t believe all you read in the (pandemic) papers.” It may all be ´good and true´ but we should be a questioning audience who can voice an opinion response to what we have been told. Through the Arts we ourselves gain a sense of audience and develop the ability to take ownership of how we ourselves want our own voices to be heard. Often this voice is not a personal one as we step into someone else’s shows to explore, interpret and present alternative perspectives and ethical viewpoints


“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

Edgar Degas


In M3 Drama SIS students explored the work of Brazilain theatrical practitioner Augosto Boal and Forum Theatre to analyse their own assumptions and investigate the perspectives of those around them. These were then voiced in performance work that asked the audience to consider the impact of messages conveyed through social media.

Three step collaborative, visual exploration of Boal´s alternative narrative structure. Individuals drew on ubiquitous experiences – social distancing and mask wearing – to asynchronously formulate the story of a dog that is adopted and confused by a family voluntarily wearing muzzles. This led to a practical exploration and analysis of the different perspectives considered during the creative process (May 2020)


….or even rediscover. Through the Arts we learn more about ourselves and the people around us. Through creative exploration we can develop and present shared experiences and narratives. Recognising or recalling moments that we have in common. Being taken on a journey of another person or travelling down a path of personal self discovery is life affirming and provides us with comfort in troubled times.

Our M1 Visual Arts students were asked to recall a moment of feeling loved. These moments were recreated using the soft and warm focus of Impressionist artistic technique. With some young (and older) people feeling unsafe and insecure, how validating to remember that we are loved and cared for.

Moments of Feeling Loved by M1 Visual Arts students (Oct 2020)

The artwork below is a by SIS DP2 Visual Arts student (March 2020) exploring the concept of how the artist can symbolise the constant liminality of identity and therefore symbolise how herself as a young girl is drifting into the unknown. The self discovery of your identity as you come of age and grow up. Representing this in a body of water helped convey fluidity of how identity is always changing and the path to self discovery is constantly in flow.


Floating into Abyss By Leonie Withoeft 


You may have seen the latest viral trend. Doctors, students, firemen, famous pop artists…all recreating a South African Wedding choreography to the song Jerusalma. Someone asked me “ Why do you love this so much? What is the point of it?” That is EXACTLY why I love it so much. There is no point as such. In a world so meaningfully serious and ridden with viral anxiety, how wonderful to celebrate life in a way that is essentially meaningLESS and so joyful. The Arts remind us that there is light in the darkness of all this madness and reason. Reason enough is just reason for being. The joy of being here, now and in the moment.


All our M3 students joined together to recreate Jerusalema in a moment of pure, uncomplicated enjoyment.

Jerusalema Dance by M3 students (Sept 2020)


Arts is all about expression. Self-expression, group expression, expression of the other. Artists take risks in exposing a truth that cannot or would not otherwise be seen or heard. A truth that often needs to be shared. The Arts are a highly impactful platform through which to communicate something essential about ourselves and/or the world around us. Through this expression, we can learn and grow and often bring about change for the better.


During Lockdown DP1 Music students were looking at atonal music and serialism. This music was developed by Arnold Schoenberg following a difficult period in his own life but it also gained popularity following WW1 as it was felt that it reflected the emotions of people at that time.


DP2 Music student composition using serialism and the twelve tone scale to express anxieties caused by Lockdown (Sept 2020)



´Leap of Faith´

Photograph by D2 SIS Visual Arts student (March 2020)


Good Art brings about change, even if only in the most infinitesimal amount. Good art changes the way we see the world and/or the ways in which we see ourselves. Good Art makes us want to bring about change. It prompts us to action for the better of ourselves or others. Arts can also be personally transformational and even more so if you are involved in the creative process itself. Making Art can make you more confident, more expressive, more knowing and more empathetic. Whilst many of us are coping with a loss of identity and a confusion of emotions as we wonder what kind of person we want to be throughout this time of crisis, Art can help us become the best versions of ourselves.


Afternoon written and performed by M3 Film student exploring the concept of relationships and making personal connections.


One Minute Movie by DP1 Film Student exploring how even the smallest of gestures can make a big difference for those struggling during this pandemic.


I would like to ask all those data-driven, stern and apocalyptic voices out there “How can being an Artist NOT be vitally important given the way of the world at the moment?” “Who else is going to fill the huge void left if we slice out the soul of our society?”  As a teacher and parent, I believe more than ever before that we need to help our children find a way to source, access and become involved in some form of artistic outlet. I would like to ask YOU as an adult in this struggling world to do everything you can to help the next generation find their creative voice and encourage them to shout, dance, act, rap or blaze in a bold array of colours across this grasping world of ours.


When things seem to be falling apart around us we look to each other and we look to the Arts. It is now that we need to see, hear and feel the Arts more than ever.


The examples of linked work above have been created since the outbreak of Covid 19 by MYP1-DP2 Arts students at Sotogrande International School. Some of these were experiences created whilst all of our students were confined within their homes for 3 months and some are from when most were able to return to school, with some still joining the creative explorations as online students working virtually.

What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to have your thoughts below.



Christine Barling teaches MYP Drama and DP Theatre and is Leader of Learning for the Arts at Sotogrande International School, Spain.  Even in a non ´new-norm´ world, Christine is a staunch supporter of how the key skills taught through the Arts are absolutely essential in helping students become fully effective people and learners. Christine also is a strong believer in using the Arts as a platform for change and for better understanding the world around us. When returning to site after lockdown she started the term thinking we should just temporarily  ´move to bin´ Drama…considering all the restrictions of masks, distancing and limited movement.  Better to give the drama studio over to put out desks 1.5 metres apart for other subjects so desperately searching for more space? How wrong she now knows she was! As the term has unravelled it has become more apparent than ever how important the Arts are for the well being of our students. Every Arts teacher out there will testify that delivering an Arts lesson in Drama, Dance, Film, Visual Arts or Music is far from easy at the moment but even on the most difficult of days we all know deep down that does not mean it does not need to be done.

Museums and Teachers

Joe Nutt
Author and Educational Consultant


Museums and Teachers


The recent appointment of Dr Douglas Gurr as Director of the Natural History Museum in London caught the attention of some news channels because of his unusual background. A senior executive at Amazon UK (he was President of Amazon China from 2014 to 2016) he worked as a partner at consultancy firm McKinsey, was Board Director at Asda-Walmart and the founder and CEO of internet start-up Blueheath. However stick-in-the-mud or rigid his colleagues may have been, I can’t imagine he had many dealings with fossils or stuffed Dodos in any of those jobs. His previous roles include teaching mathematics and computing at the University of Aarhus in Denmark and he has two degrees in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD in Computing from the University of Edinburgh. None of which seems to point to him being the kind of person any museum would regard as a key leader. In all fairness, he was Chair of the Board of the Science Museum from 2010 to 2014 too, but his appointment made me sit up and pay attention because of something I’ve written about before.

In my most recent book, I argued that English teaching is now dramatically out of synch with the real world of English usage, a world dominated by technology. As one of Eton’s own English teachers recently discovered, when one of his online lectures resulted in his dismissal; almost everything you do with English these days is mediated by the technology you use to do it. So I can completely see why The Natural History Museum might want someone with a strong technology background at the helm. But I wonder if anyone there, or indeed in the wider cultural heritage sector, has really thought through the umbilical link between the astonishing wealth of material they own and maintain on behalf of the nation, and education.

Over decades, my work has involved partnering on several projects with a number of leading museums, galleries and archives. I discovered that if you are tasked with implementing a new educational project reliant on technology, one thing you can guarantee is an interest from museums, galleries and other collections. Many of these organisations have annual targets to meet that involve schools and visits. They are all incentivised to get teachers and children through their doors. One major museum I worked with had a laboratory teaching space, sponsored by a famous global brand, which most schools would die for. It was empty most of the time. In fact, so concerned were they about how difficult it was to get schools through their doors, they had funded a white van and a man whose job was to go out to schools. A wise investment because most of his trips resulted in a return visit by the school, to the museum.

A member of the British Museum staff told me she found it exasperating that school visits were so tightly determined by the curriculum that their Egyptian galleries were crowded for example, while the rest of that vast museum, remained largely untrodden by tiny feet. It’s a depressing truth, but schools do not benefit as much from the immense treasures and resources owned by the cultural and heritage sector, as they should.

The Victorians who actually built the Natural History Museum and most of our great galleries and archives knew something of immense educational significance we’re at risk of forgetting. They grasped the educational value of a physical artefact. They knew that contemplating a fossil, an illuminated manuscript or even a stuffed Dodo was fundamentally an educational experience because, at the very least, it added to one’s knowledge. Their desire to collect and catalogue was extraordinary and, as any curator will tell you, what’s on display today is a minute fraction of what we possess. The material stored up in the sector is educationally priceless.

If you’re a teacher, think for a moment about the way you might put a lesson together. I know from my own experience that many of the best lessons I taught were so often simply a matter of choice. Innumerable lessons were constructed around a single or series of educational assets, which, because I was an English teacher, often meant texts or extracts from larger texts. Choose something dull and you only have yourself to blame. But English teaching also offers you enormous scope to use assets that enhance the texts and, to resort to what I hope is a forgivable cliché; bring them to life. Images of authors, places, scenes and facsimiles of original documents, all have tremendous power in the English classroom. Imagine you are teaching a tiny little poem like Tennyson’s The Eagle, for example, six of the most compact lines of verse in the English language.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt, he falls.

Now imagine how much educational value is added by looking at an image of an Eagle, viewing a video clip, or simply an ornithological illustration; especially in an urban school. These asset choices are so often the key to good lessons because what matters, is the relationship you have with them. You choose them because they captivate or appeal to you. That’s what it means to own the lesson. Any teacher who has ever tried teaching someone else’s lesson will understand this immediately. I’ve no doubt the same basic principle about choice of asset is just as true of music, science or history, as it is of English teachers.

If I’m right, then there is indeed an umbilical connection between teaching and the entire cultural and heritage sector. Archives, galleries, museums are in essence, repositories of knowledge. If you think about conventional textbooks in a whole range of subjects, isn’t this partly what they do? The best textbooks are full of reproductions of these assets, often objects held in our most famous collections. Even science textbooks find invaluable material in these knowledge repositories. A slight sketch or illustration by Darwin is just as valuable as a Shakespeare Folio.

Many institutions have already digitised their collections and made them far more accessible and I’m sure the appointment of Dr Gurr by the Natural History Museum was partly in the hope that he might advance the technology cause even further. But I have a much more radical suggestion.

Why do we not actually educate our secondary school teachers in our great cultural institutions? Why not relocate the secondary teacher training industry, which is already under considerable scrutiny by government (in England at least) to the places where knowledge is stored?

Consider the message that would convey about the teaching profession to the wider population. Instead of being taught generic pedagogy and remote theory at a university, and then finding you have to completely relearn the job in real schools, as so many NQTs in recent years have claimed was their experience; teachers could be linked from the outset to prestigious institutions and organisations that own the educational assets which will form the centre of so many of their lessons to come.

We have become used to complaints from the museum and galleries sector about the shortage of funds. Would it really be impossible to transfer money and responsibility for teacher training to them, especially given that so much digitisation has already taken place and their assets are more easily located and shared than ever? The university sector is already bloated and being criticised widely for developing a wide range of courses the real world simply doesn’t value.

For far too long, schools have been unwitting victims of technology change, not beneficiaries. The history of technology in education has largely been one big con, repurposing tools designed entirely for business and pretending they have education value. It would be easy to compile a long list of tools and applications here that begins with Powerpoint. If appointing a technologist to lead The Natural History Museum is going to replay the same old con trick yet again, I’m definitely not interested. But if it’s going to make the treasures it holds in trust for all of us, more available and powerful, I’m all for it. Maybe the best way is for them all – to start training teachers.

What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to have your thoughts below.



Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare and a collection of essays, The Point of Poetry. His most recent book, Teaching English for the Real World was published in May by John Catt.

He is an international educational consultant who spent almost 20 years teaching, unusually in schools ranging from the highly selective, private sector to challenging, inner-city state schools. The second half of his career has been in business and he has implemented a number of major educational projects including the national intranet for Scotland, Glow, which won the Global Learning Impact Award in 2009.

The Public Perception of Teachers

Joe Nutt
Author and Educational Consultant

The Public Perception of Teachers

Even while teachers continue to battle on as key workers, and some state schools buckle and close under the pressure of trying to operate effectively under politically imposed restrictions, curiously the profession remains in the public and press firing line. All kinds of voices have been raised against teachers, even in the midst of such remarkably difficult circumstances.

Which got me thinking hard about why teachers so often polarise opinion and provoke negative reactions amongst none teachers, because like it or not, they do.

A company I worked for some years ago set up a regular event to invite leading educational figures to talk to its senior managers about current educational issues. I invited an extremely high profile headteacher to one of these events and on this occasion, almost everyone in the business with a senior role was there. Nonetheless, my guest addressed a room full of experienced, professional businessmen and women, as though he was teaching an A level Economics class – bottom set.

I recognised immediately, as an ex-teacher myself, that his tone and demeanour were exactly the same he used in his own classroom. Yet throughout he appeared totally unaware of this, as well as the detrimental effect he was having. He simply could not abandon his role as the single voice of authority in any physical space. It was as though someone had secretly flicked a teacher switch, located somewhere on his spine, the moment he stood in front of the lectern.

His gaze wandered infuriatingly somewhere midway between the ceiling and the adults sitting politely in front of him but never engaged with them. Statements were delivered relentlessly, one after another, as though no one could possibly challenge them and I can vividly remember the parade of glowering faces that left the room. For around forty-five, deeply uncomfortable minutes, instead of helping them better understand the market they all worked in, he successfully confirmed every negative prejudice those professional adults already had about teachers. As one of a small number of ex-teachers working for that company, in less than an hour he had made my job exponentially more difficult.

I finally grasped what is really going on much more recently while watching a CPD event the pandemic had forced to go online, delivered by a teacher. The software application he was using allowed viewers to see the presenter in a tiny window, at the same time as he was writing on a larger whiteboard. The content was fine. It was informative, relevant and interesting but his tone, even online, really grated because it was exactly the one he would have used talking to twelve-year-olds. He didn’t shift register at all to match his adult audience, even whilst occasionally using a researcher’s vocabulary. Even though none of us were in the same room and everything was done digitally, the experience was no different from the one I’d unwittingly imposed on colleagues, at my previous employer.

I suppose you could argue this might not matter in the least if you’re a teacher addressing other teachers, but if you’re being interviewed on the BBC’s flagship news programme Today, because you’re the leader of the largest teachers’ organisation in the country, it might be wise to understand this. It might stop you from replying to every question from Nick Robinson with the barked imperative, “Listen” as though you are reprimanding a rude toddler. Because that is exactly what Mary Bousted, the CEO of the NEU did, in the middle of round two of her union’s bare-knuckle fight with the government over Covid policy. What Radio Four listeners made of it I can only imagine, because she did nothing to enhance the public perception of teachers.

If I needed any confirmation that I was right about this, then it came even more dramatically, when I was attending another online educational event. It wasn’t long before I was witnessing yet another teacher doing exactly the same and I was so frustrated I tweeted this: A general plea to all teachers ever put in the position of delivering a presentation to any adult audience. Please don’t use exactly the same tone and register you would use talking to twelve-year-olds. It is so off-putting.

It struck an immediate chord, judging by the reaction. But far more interestingly, it earned me immediate removal from the event by the organiser, who was clearly not prepared to tolerate even anonymised criticism, as I made sure not to put the link to the event in my tweet which the organisers had asked everyone to use.

If teachers really want the public perception of them to improve, they need to understand the real world much better. They need to appreciate that addressing adults requires they think extremely carefully about how they go about it.

There are undoubtedly aspects of their routine work that can transfer effectively to the real world. The confidence it takes to address an audience; the ability to structure information so that it’s easily assimilated; emphasis, repetition and even humour, are all tools good teachers routinely carry with them. But all of these count for nothing if you don’t grasp that grown-ups expect to be addressed as such.

What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to have your thoughts below.



Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare and a collection of essays, The Point of Poetry. His most recent book, Teaching English for the Real World was published in May by John Catt.

He is an international educational consultant who spent almost 20 years teaching, unusually in schools ranging from the highly selective, private sector to challenging, inner-city state schools. The second half of his career has been in business and he has implemented a number of major educational projects including the national intranet for Scotland, Glow, which won the Global Learning Impact Award in 2009.

Picking up after an unsuccessful college experience

Dan McManmon

President, College Internship Program (CIP)


“I have had nothing but negative experiences when it comes to school. I went to a university, flunked out because I was struggling with depression. I didn’t eat, sleep, shower, etc. So I went back to community college and failed the next semester. Went to another university, where I am at currently and I see the same pattern of me failing to attend class. I go at first, then I’ll miss once, and then I’m too ashamed to go back.”

Does this story sound familiar?

Failing in college as a teen or young adult with learning differences is a stressful time for the entire family. Parents have already invested countless hours obtaining a diagnose and related services, attending and advocating at IEP meetings, securing accommodations, creating transition plans, planning social time, dealing with legal matters, and much more.

The student may experience failure internally and become depressed or anxious about their future, making it more difficult to motivate them to pursue a productive path forward.

When things don’t go as planned at the college level, it’s a good time to…

Step Back & Look at the Alternatives

Because of the developmental delay that often coexists with a learning disability, many young people with special needs are simply not prepared to manage the transition to college, even after making great strides during high school or while living at home. To quantify this further, about 40% of students who enrol in CIP’s transition programs have come after having a failed college experience.

When young people with learning differences experience this type of failure, it’s important to pick up the pieces as soon as possible and not allow the situation to define the individuals self-worth or long term outlook.

At CIP we continually reinforce that those with learning differences are made for good purpose and inherently valuable — meaning that they have strengths and challenges just like everyone else and deserve opportunities to define their own lives in the way that works best for them.

The most common scenarios that cause an unsuccessful college experience for young adults with learning differences are:

  1. The inability to manage executive functions (such as time management, organization, and multi-step planning)
  2. Social isolation (often seen in the form of excessive video games or electronics usage)
  3. Difficulty managing ADLs (Activities of Daily Life) such as laundry, hygiene, and money management
  4. Not having the self-advocacy skills to ask for help such or the self-disclosure skills to share that they learn differently than others
  5. Mental health issues such as elevated anxiety and/or depression (often due to a combination of the above)

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

Often all these factors can occur in the first couple of months in college, and parents are surprised to find out that their academically bright student was not prepared for reality of what is required to self-manage in a new setting with completely new expectations.

Examining Expectations

The classic college experience is not for everyone. Many people with learning differences such as ADHD develop special interests and/or specialized skills and talents that can serve as productive pathways to a more independent and financially sustainable lifestyle (albeit sometimes these can serve as escape routes too). Tapping into these areas of interest often generates motivation, drive, and progress.

Individuals with neurodiverse learning issues can experience great success, but this often takes trial and error, and unfortunately, much of the research shows that generally, lifespan outcomes for those with learning differences are poor. Therefore, a holistic support system that works to meet the individual at their present level understands their underlying needs, focuses on self-determination as the end goal, and provides an abundance of opportunities to facilitate mentors and friends is considered “best-practice” by many in the field of transition services.

The primary features of a productive educational program or support system often includes:

  • A setting that overall reinforces adult behaviour and is flexible enough to recognize and reinforce positive behaviours and incremental gains over rules and regulations
  • An independent living setting that allows for increasingly more independence in ones living setting but has close oversight and proactively deals with common issues before they escalate
  • Access to a variety of higher education and employment pathways and encourages hands-on exploration through volunteering or internships
  • Specialized supports and programming that are individualized to the person’s needs
  • A diverse yet close-knit group of participants that maintain an overall focus on growth
  • Experienced staff members who receive a multitude of relevant training and work closely as a team

There are numerous examples of highly successful people with learning differences. (Check out this slideshow of famous people with learning differences created with the help of Judy Bass, founder of Bass Educational Services).

Conducting Your Needs Assessment

Researching and planning for your young adult’s next moves can be difficult as access to information is not generally available. Many families turn to their trusted friends and advisors or utilize the services of an educational consultant to help determine good fitting alternatives.

Many families begin to ask questions such as: Is college really the best pathway? Would vocational training be a better option? What strengths and challenges are unique to my young adult and how will they be addressed in an educational setting? Will my student be happy?

Identifying Programs or Services

Once you’ve identified and priority areas that are important to your family, it’s time to start to look at your options. But before you jump in, first take a look at the variety of alternatives that exist:

Types of Programs & Services

From support programs developed at colleges to residential or gap year programs, there exist many solutions depending on who you talk to. However, the most important piece of making a well-planned transition back into college, employment, and life are to base realistic goals on an individual’s dreams and aspirations.

  • Summer Programs: Shorter-term experiences in a more relaxed environment usually focusing on socialization and fun
  • Therapeutic Programs: May be especially helpful if underlying mental health issues such as anxiety or depression are larger factors
  • Vocationally-Based Programs: For families primarily looking for employment preparation or on-the-job support
  • Colleges with Support Programs: Provide support options alongside a typical college experience
  • Gap Year or PG Programs: Provide a development or enrichment year prior to moving on to a college or vocational program
  • Transition Programs: Specialized and individualized support programs that typically provide an array of social, academic, life skills, and counseling services individualized to ones needs with supported residential living setting

Conducting Your Search

Many families head to the internet, ask friends and family members, or get advice from their student’s therapist, psychiatrist, or doctor. There are a few things to consider when conducting your search:

Involve Your Student

You are probably saying “easier said than done”, however even the slightest involvement can go along way to involve your student in the search for a “good fitting” support option. Focusing on the specific interests of the student can be motivating for them and keep them within their comfort zone. Preplanning and going over expectations can lessen anxiety for all. Have your student come up with a few questions that they can ask in advance. Try to avoid early mornings, traffic, long periods without snacks or refreshments, and give plenty of downtime when touring or visiting

Enlist the Help of an Educational Consultant

A person or team of people who have highly specialized knowledge of programs and services for young adults with LDs and can guide a family through the process of identifying a great option based on the student’s unique needs. (IECA provides reputable options)

Dig Deeper

While many websites offer great content and overviews, typically families will begin by having an exploratory phone call with a program, then arranging a virtual or in-person visit as a next step. These calls and visits allow families to ask important questions. Many programs suggest that the prospective student attends to visit.

Tip: Download this Shopping for a Program Checklist to help identify the various features and benefits of different programs and services as you research your options.

Making the leap from adolescence into young adulthood is a critical step in one’s life and sets the course for future years to come. Failure and challenges will happen and are part of being an adult. Building the knowledge, tools, and resilience to continue one’s journey as a happy and productive person is the real goal for all of us and should be a priority in your journey ahead.




As President of the College Internship Program (CIP), Dan strives to achieve long-term vision and alignment with CIP’s core values and founding principles by ensuring operations, marketing, strategy, and programming are effectively implemented across the organization.

The College Internship Program (CIP) is a comprehensive transition program that has specialized in the educational needs of teens and young adults with autism and learning differences for over 35 years, offering year-round and summer transition programs across the US since 1984.

Building the pathway to inclusion

Patrick McGrath, Education Technology Strategist, Texthelp

Building the pathway to inclusion

If there’s one thing we can say with confidence this year, it’s that education has become increasingly dependent on technology for teaching and learning. As learning evolves, we are finding new ways to engage, motivate, assess and teach students. We’ve jumped headfirst into tools like Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. We’ve suddenly found ourselves in live video lessons and discovering the power of polls and analytics. We’ve struggled too – from the repetitive cry of ‘unmute’ through reducing distractions to figuring out how best to support differentiation when technology is an increasing portion of learning time. But, no matter how the ‘where’ of learning occurs in the coming months and years, we know that technology will continue to become increasingly central to all that we do. Why? Because with all the challenges we can see the upsides. We see new opportunities for engagement and for helping our students express their learning. It’s about the balance of putting teaching and learning first and skillfully using technology to underpin solid pedagogical strategies.

There’s a second thing though. The diversity of the students we teach stays the same – everyone with a differing approach to learning, and many requiring additional help and support to ensure that they continue to receive equity of access and stay included. For most students, as teachers, we only ever see the tip of the iceberg – the 10% of everything that contributes to our students being who they are. We don’t see the impact or challenges of home life, challenges around language or their mental health and wellbeing, and this is never more apparent than when students learn remotely.

Consider individual needs – statistics show that on average, around 5% of our class is identified and supported as being Dyslexic, yet the stark reality is that on average 17% of all students struggle with Dyslexia. The move to technology can not and must not forget this, and it behoves us as educators to ensure that the tools and supports that were in place inside our classrooms continue to be planned for and provided, wherever learning occurs. We need to rethink our notion of diversity and we need to start to redefine what it means to be inclusive, and how technology can reach and support every student.

Diversity stretches across language, culture, ethnicity and individual needs. It must, though, also include respect of the fact that research shows us that our students have an almost infinite path to learning. It’s their very differences that make them unique. Technology is inherently flexible, and when used well can and does support students in enabling a personalised, tailored approach to learning that can support this uniqueness. We all need to make a start, but how?

As, always, it starts with learning. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is based upon the simple tenet of universal design – it’s aim is to make learning accessible to all by recognising that each and every student is unique and the learning community they are in is truly diverse. It seeks to encourage the provision of pathways for educators to adopt basic, practical approaches to designing learning from the outset, by focusing on designing learning for the margins and not the centre-ground of the student experience. In doing so, it postulates that we can reach every learner in an almost endless variety of ways that are personal to them.

We can start to embrace UDL by rethinking how we approach learning. Instead of objectives, we can focus on goals. Why? Think of it like skiing. Head to the top of any slope and there is one simple goal – get to the bottom. Every slope has its map providing alternate routes to reach that goal – at various levels of challenge and difficulty. As a skier, you take the route that works best for you or choose to stretch and challenge yourself with the more difficult path to your goal than the last time you tried. If we move to goal-orientated strategies, we open up the paths to our diverse learners to reach their goal in a multitude of ways.

The key then is to create these paths, and this can be achieved in many ways – not least of which today is through the effective application and use of technology tools. Once integrated into learning design and technology platforms, these tools can be used by everyone to ensure content, knowledge, expression and understanding is available in countless, unique ways across digital platforms and devices. As an example, tools like text-to-speech provides students with specific needs a way to support comprehension and understanding but also support high achieving students to prepare for effective answering for exams. Simple forms provide a quick way to monitor progress and understanding or provide fast, effective feedback for every student. Providing the right range of technology tools delivers multiple paths to engagement and expression, and in turn, expands accessibility for all students.

To embrace the opportunity before us, we have to be more deliberate, more flexible, provide more opportunities and take more risks. We need to endeavour to remove more barriers by shifting our focus to providing the widest range of tools and paths to learning if we are to support every student.

The technology journey ahead will give us the ability to innovate, to engage with and to support students like never before. If we embrace it, the result is that every learning experience can be representative of, and tailored to, the individual.

The goal is inclusive education, wherever learning occurs. It’s time to build the pathways to achieve it.


What do you think about the points raised in this article? Please share your thoughts below.



Resident Education Technology Strategist at Texthelp, Patrick is a passionate educator, and an accomplished international speaker, panellist, blogger and contributor across a wide range of media. His content is engaging, inspiring and motivating – focused on how technology can make a real and meaningful impact on teaching and learning for all. An Apple Education Mentor and Google Certified Educator, Patrick received the UK Digital Leader 100 award and was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the University of Ulster (School of Education) in 2016. His specialisms include literacy, inclusion, assessment educational vision, leadership, and change management.

Is your school assessment approach effective and efficient in promoting learning?

Jamie Scott, Evidence Based Education

Is your school assessment approach effective and efficient in promoting learning?

How do you know?


There are, arguably, three key pillars of education management: pedagogy, curriculum and assessment. For too long, the third of these has been both under- and misused; the potential for assessment to be a powerful learning process, as well as an accurate barometer of learning itself, is often not realized. Assessment is inextricable from teaching, and the quality of the latter is – in many ways – dependent on the quality of information derived from the former. Great assessment, the type that helps improve teaching and learning, is not a single entity, but it leads to a single point: a meaningful decision which has positive consequences for students’ learning. It is purposeful, manageable, efficient and effective. Great assessment is lean and valuable. It is used thoughtfully to achieve specific aims, ones for which it is better suited than any other tool or strategy a teacher has at their disposal.


Every school has their assessment policy and framework, but is it fit for purpose? Schools use assessment daily, and it can be difficult to stop, step back and review our approach to ensure it is fit for the purpose intended. So, in the spirit of reflection and self-evaluation, here are five questions to ask of your school assessment framework to help determine its efficiency and effectiveness.


  1. Are we using assessment to measure important aspects of the curriculum?

Assessment, pedagogy and curriculum are inextricably linked and, when the best of these are brought together well, they form the backbone of effective teaching and learning. When assessment is sharply focused on the curriculum, and used as a tool of good pedagogy, teachers can maximise its value to improve the responsiveness of their teaching. After all, how can we know what to teach tomorrow, if we do not know what has been understood today? Effective assessment needs to relate to the curriculum ‘map’, strategically challenging pupils to recall and strengthen the right pieces of learning, understanding and skill.


  1. Do our assessments measure the things we intend them to measure? Are they fit for purpose?

Form should always follow function in assessment. We must know what we want to measure and why in order to select the right tool to achieve our purpose. An assessment that is ideal to measure progress might be a poor choice for identifying strengths and weaknesses to inform, plan or adapt your next lesson. To assess better, we need to be explicit about purpose:


  • The construct: What is the specific knowledge, skill or understanding that we intend to assess?
  • The end use: What do we want to do – the interpretation, the decision or action – with the information generated by the assessment process?
  • The best tool: What is the most appropriate, effective and efficient way to assess in this instance?


  1. Are we assessing learning or performance of short-term memory?

What is learning and does every teacher and school share the same understanding? Let’s define learning as both the long-term retention of knowledge, understanding and skill, as well as the ability to transfer these to novel contexts. As such, teaching needs to address and promote learning which is retained and transferable, and assessment needs to be designed to gauge students’ long-term retention and transfer to novel contexts. Does your schools’ assessment approach allow you to reliably demonstrate student knowledge and understanding at the point of initial assessment, and that they able to retrieve that knowledge and understanding 6 weeks later, 6 months later, or a year later?


  1. How can we be sure that progress is, in fact, real progress and not just measurement error?

Measuring progress reliably is difficult. All forms of educational measurement contain a degree of error and so assessment is less precise than often it is perceived to be – whether that be national tests, classroom quizzes or teacher observation. It is a complex and time-consuming exercise to create an assessment that is sufficiently sensitive to be able to reliably measure progress in a relatively short space of time, so teachers need to understand error in their assessment measurements to make accurate judgements about the needs and progress of pupils.


  1. Are you using assessment to create learning, not just record the residue of it?

Assessments or tests have traditionally been used to measure learning. However, a constantly growing body of research demonstrates that high-quality tests (think recaps, quizzes and termly tests rather than just past papers) are better learning opportunities than repeated study/revision.  One example of such research is Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological science, 17(3), 249-255. The research evidence indicates that the act of responding to questions thoughtfully strengthens a student’s learning; practice testing using well-crafted questions can actually promote learning, making assessment into more than simply a tool for recording data about learning.


Evidence Based Education are the creators of the Queen’s Award Winning Assessment Lead Programme, Assessment Essentials and the new Science of Learning Programme. Trusted by schools around the world, they provide engaging teacher professional development and school improvement services, to improve learner outcomes worldwide and for good.


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear what you have to say.




Jamie Scott, Director of Partnerships & External Relations
Evidence Based Education



VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity

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

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. We hear a lot about VUCA. About how we have to deal with it now and about how we as teachers need to prepare students for a world characterized by it.


Not everything is VUCA, of course, but I agree that we are better off preparing students to handle unpredictable change than to hope it’s not necessary. It is necessary. You might say our whole world is having a bit of a VUCA test right now. How well are school administrations handling the unpredictable shift and ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic? Maybe we, they, all of us could have used a bit more practice with VUCA as students?!


When we were in school – at least for the overwhelming majority of us – we probably got a lot of  practice with SCSC: Stability, Certainty, Simplicity, and Clarity. That is how the curriculum was set up for us. And the schedule. And the teaching. And the assessment. And and and. Is that what we should pass on to the next generation?


Let’s think a bit about SCSC. (Okay, I know this acronym will never catch on. It’s nothing compared to the power of VUCA with its dark vowel and the voiceless velar stop that thuds with such certainty. VUCA is serious. SCSC is, well, just an acronym to make a point here.)


In general, curriculum is a prescribed list of certain things to know, brought to students through simple and clear instruction, with stable assessments and reporting mechanisms to allow comparison of growth over time and across groups. There are many things about this mindset that work very well. What we might want to consider, however, is that this SCSC mindset not only teaches the published curriculum, it also teaches the SCSC mindset. The students learn the content to some extent, yes, AND they learn the underlying assumption of how the world works and what it means to learn.


I believe this is similar to Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message.” When the content of school is nicely delivered in SCSC mode, the underlying assumption of a simple and orderly world is the medium that we are communicating to students. We are teaching the medium as surely as we are teaching what the medium is intended to teach – the curriculum content.


I suppose this is also captured in the concept of a hidden curriculum. We always pass on cultural values that are not explicit in the curriculum, whether it be ways of knowing, sanitized histories, or prejudice. In this context, we can think of McLuhan’s medium, which I’m trying to say here is the mindset of SCSC upon which school is built, as a cultural value that is part of the hidden curriculum we unwittingly teach.


The outcome? School is not a great place to prepare students for VUCA. Our underlying assumptions about schooling hamstring us. To prepare students for a VUCA world in a SCSC culture (our schools) can only have limited success – unless we allow for some VUCA in our curriculum, our instruction, and our assessment.


The good news is that I think we can all make some progress here. There is room to shift within our current structures, at multiple levels, whether it be a single activity in a course or an alternative program in a school. To start shifting we do have to realize how un-VUCA we are, I suppose, and what it would mean to allow a bit more VUCA without slipping into chaos. Perhaps there is guidance for us in the Cynefin Framework, which plays with transitions between simple, complicated, complex and ultimately chaotic situations. Check it out.


I’ll start with one example of what we might usefully change from each of these areas: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. I encourage you to think of additional examples.


Curriculum. Let there be some space in the lists of content to cover. Introduce some air in the system. Tawan recently introduced two hours weekly to its curriculum, during which students work on independent projects. In other words, it’s possible for most if not all of us to create space in the curriculum that isn’t so heavily pre-programmed, if we want to – even at the governmental level.


Instruction. When you consider how you’ll teach concepts and units, build in team projects as you are able. Identify a simple framework to teach the students to manage the team themselves. Provide them the end goals but back off a bit – where you are able – on how they are going to get there. Let yourself believe that some of the off-task behavior is actually necessary. Those off-task minutes aren’t always lost instructional time – they might be necessary social positioning time, or creative idea-generating time, or otherwise valuable.


Assessment. When you have a choice not to assess a particular task, don’t. Or at least, look for a way that students can get feedback on what they are working on that doesn’t feel like the adult is passing judgment. Hiding behind a rubric isn’t enough here – set up structures for feedback that are teacher-free. Help students learn to give each other respectful feedback. We borrowed the “learning circus” from the highly innovative Tiimikatemia approach. Students not only get feedback on their work, they practice giving and receiving feedback without relying on the teacher.


The result of implementing these shifts – and those you think of – is a learning environment that is a little less SCSC and a little more likely to allow students room to practice thinking and acting in manners that our world will require of them. We learn, after all, what we practice, so allowing time to practice in a safe environment in a VUCA way is, for my money, the only way students can actually prepare for the VUCA world.



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.

Forget Rote-Learning, Kids Can and Will Change the World If Given a Chance!

Kiran Bir Sethi, Founder: Riverside School, & Namrata Jajoo


Design for Change (DFC) was born in 2009 from the conviction that children are not helpless, the optimism that change is possible, and the belief that they can drive it. Here’s a look at what this initiative entails for empowering and equipping children! 

“I now know that I don’t need permission to change the world.” 

In a small village called Labana in the desert region of Rajasthan lives 10-year-old Bindi. While she comes across as a simple and shy student of Satya Bharti school, she and her friends showed extraordinary courage in taking on the centuries-old practice of untouchability (mandated by the caste system) through organising provocative rallies and hunger strikes. 

Students in Kolkata noticed that young children were starving on the streets while restaurants had a significant amount of food going to waste, so they designed and implemented a delivery system to collect unused food from hotels and restaurants, and bring it to undernourished children in the city’s slums. 

A team of 10-year-olds in Varanasi noticed that much of their community was illiterate and developed a series of solutions to “learn and develop the habit of reading” – from setting up libraries in elementary schools to teaching their peers about library management and setting up newspaper stands outside schools so that adults could develop the habit as well. 

These are just a few of the amazing 22,000+ stories crafted under the Design for Change (DFC) initiative by children from across the world! 

Source: Facebook 

My submission to you is that today’s ‘Superheroes’ are not from the Avengers or the Justice League, but rather they are these courageous children, who are unleashing their superpowers of imagination, creative problem solving, empathy, leadership, and collaboration. 

What could have inspired these children to become such amazing problem-solvers and change-makers? Let’s explore the origin of this ‘I CAN’ mindset. 

Consider this – In the first two years of our children’s lives, they tell us how amazing they are at exploration and finding solutions. They go about navigating the world from crawling to sitting to standing to running to speaking – aren’t they then, the masters of the art of problem–solving? 

Since these problem-solving capacities are innate to them, and they are engaged in such activity right from birth through adulthood, shouldn’t children simply become better problem solvers with age and experience? 

Now, take a moment to reconsider what happens when the child (with his/her innate problem-solving capacities) starts going to school. More often than not, highly enthusiastic parents and teachers aim to help children develop to the best of their abilities, but unfortunately also to feel, think, and behave in prescribed ways. 

The child is directed and advised about the many things ‘they can’t’ or ‘should not do’, thereby changing the child’s vocabulary from ‘I CAN’ to ‘CAN I?’ Across the world, so many children are told that they are too young to solve problems and should let adults take care of the issues they face. 

This narrative dis-empowers children, making them fearful of making mistakes and developing a lack of confidence in their own ability to make decisions and choices. 

Through this article, I seek to unravel the fabulous journeys of children who have developed creative confidence in their capabilities and capacities to take ownership of their world and also to take action towards building a more desirable and sustainable future. 

Here’s how it all began: 

It was the year 1996. After a long day at school, my six-year-old son Raag and I sat perplexed and confused, staring at the big red mark on his English notebook. Apparently, he had failed to memorise and write an essay verbatim as instructed by the teacher. 

He had used his own imagination and vocabulary to frame the essay and was clueless about the reason for the rejection of his work. I soon realized that something was clearly amiss and that it was actually the schooling system that I was up against. 

My conviction that prevalent education practices were failing to give my child an identity grew stronger by the day, so, I decided of taking my son out of school, and rolled up my sleeves to start ‘Riverside’ on the banks of the River Sabarmati, in the land of Gandhi. 

What inspires me most about the Mahatma is his amazing stamina, sense of humour, and shameless pursuit of his goals against all odds. 

These have also been the key ingredients in building Riverside over the last seventeen years. 

The Birth of Design for Change (DFC)

Design for Change (DFC) was born in 2009 from the conviction that children are not helpless, the optimism that change is possible, and the belief that they can drive it. 

I initiated the ‘Design for Giving’ School Contest in 2009, as a national challenge for school children to change some aspect of life in their communities. 

The challenge spurred young children to solve real-life problems in their immediate environment while building a sense of empathy, confidence and responsibility. 

Today DFC is a global movement with footprints in 65 countries and has helped to cultivate the ‘I Can’ mindset in more than 2.2 million children. 

With empathy at its core, this framework nurtures the problem-solving mindset via four steps of Feel, Imagine, Do and Share (FIDS). 

We call this FIDS for KIDS! 

This simple four-step framework helps schools foster a learning environment using the ‘both, and’ model, nurturing both Content and Character, both a Passion for work and the Compassion for the community. 

The DFC curriculum is accepted all over the world because of its flexibility and non-prescriptive nature. The most critical feature of Design for Change is that it is not only simple and practical but also open-source, accessible, adaptable, and replicable.

(see to know more and try out DFC in your setting). 


Time-tabling For Design for Change 



Today, student success requires skills for collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Many schools around the world still design and implement curricula with the premise of “one-size-fits-all”, with a disproportionate emphasis on subject excellence alone. 

The central tenet of this mindset is often that we are so hard-pressed for time to complete the subject content that we do not have the liberty to invest in any additional activities. 

This often leads to focusing on the transmission of theoretical knowledge but misses out on the development of vital capacities like empathy and creative confidence.
Change happens when design thinking is perceived as desirable and almost indispensable skill-set. 

By intentionally time-tabling on a weekly basis for DFC activities, our partner schools have been able to seamlessly integrate it into their mainstream curriculum. 


How DFC is Impacting Children 


  • FIDS helps to develop much-required skills and attitudes in children, builds their social and emotional competencies, and promotes employability skills.
  • DFC’s tool was evaluated by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and documents clear improvements in student empathy as well as in enhancing problem-solving abilities.
  • Research conducted by The GoodWork Project has reaffirmed the impact of the DFC curriculum on the development of skills like collaboration, creative thinking & empathy.

Our future will depend on how much we believe in the power of our children today. The only thing that we have realised is that sometimes we need a little help, a little magic formula to ensure that every child can! 


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



Kiran Bir Sethi is an Indian educationist, designer, and thinker. She founded the Riverside School in 2001 and since then has infected millions of students and educators with the ‘I CAN Mindset’ through her design thinking framework of ‘Feel-Imagine- Do- Share’ (FIDS). Learn more about the Riverside School.

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.


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.