Service Learning: Nepal (Part 1)

IMG_7031Looking back at my posts on this site, I realise I’ve neglected a big part of my life as an expat educator: Service Learning.

I am currently in Kathmandu, Nepal with a wonderful group of teachers. Our tour was organised by the Australia Lutheran World Service (ALWS). We’re not building houses or teaching English or provide medical services. Our objective is to learn more about and later help build support for the development of rural villages in Nepal.

I have come to understand that service learning can take many different forms. Marty Schmidt from Hong Kong International School helped me understand that service learning can be Service learning (heavy on the service), service Learning (heavy on the learning), and Service Learning (a focus on both).

This trip is more service Learning. In preparation for the trip, we read about the current issues in Nepal, better understanding the economic, cultural, political, and religious complexities surrounding current realities.


The readings are sobering, but also give some insight into the few choices available to those in rural villages worldwide and ways those in poverty are exploited.

Little Princes documents the story of children exploited during the Nepal Civil War. Parents, wanting the best for their children, trusted men who told them that their children could be kept safe and receive an education in Kathmandu. The parents paid a sum of money, the men took the children and proceeded to sell them into various forms of slavery. More than a few Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) have taken up the cause to help children separated from their parents.

Ishwori tells the story of a girl with impaired vision who is marginalised due to the superstitions surrounding physical disabilities. Her husband goes off to work overseas and, while there, marries another woman. When he returns to Nepal, he disowns his wife, the village rejects her, and she moves to Kathmandu to find work. Her young daughter finds work in a cafe that is a front for prostitution.

Trip Objectives

ALWS endeavors to help develop rural villages and empower people in those rural areas. We will visit villages in the West that have received support for infrastructure and education. Then, we will visit places in the East where development has only begun. We will talk to people whose lives have been affected by the infusion of and/or promise of infrastructure.

We do not give money directly to the people. We have brought some gifts that will be dispersed by the local aid workers at their discretion. Our objective is to share the stories with you, with churches, and with schools.

My hope is that telling the stories will inspire you to get involved in some form of service learning either locally or overseas.

First Days

As with most service trips, there is some sightseeing involved. We arrived yesterday and were familiarised with some of the rules and expectations of the trip. We also had some time to wander locally.

Our group is diverse. A few have traveled but most have not ventured into developing countries. I enjoy listening to their first impressions, remembering the assault on the senses and the fear of the unknown.

So far, Nepal is more similar to India than China. The vast majority of the people of Kathmandu are Hindu. Many Tibetans have found refuge in Nepal. Our tour guide said that many Muslims are now fleeing their homes and finding safety in Nepal.

The online connection is dodgy, even in the Kathmandu hotel. I’ll check in when I can. I’d be interested to hear your experiences with service learning.

Public Service reminder painted on a wall at the side of the road in Kathmandu.

Public Service reminder painted on a wall at the side of the road in Kathmandu.

What does ‘Mastery’ Mean? Gumby vs. Weeble Learning in Mathematics

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If you’re a Gen-X teacher, perhaps you remember a childhood where you played with Weebles and Gumby.

Weebles had a weighted bottom so that, no matter how long you held their heads to the ground, they always popped back up to their original positions. Gumby, on the other hand, was flexible, adapting to any imaginary setting in which he was placed.

I’ve been thinking about ‘Mastery Learning’ as I read The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way  and comb through back issues of Educational Leadership. I realise that I was a compliant student who learned to perform tasks but not master material. I engaged in Weeble Learning rather than Gumby Learning.

Weeble Learning

I grew up as a Weeble learner of mathematics. I memorised the multiplication tables. Having some strange, innate desire to please my teachers and parents, I practiced pages of arithmetic facts, pushing myself for better speed and mastery of tables and algorithms. If we played “Around the World” games whereby I could compete against others in speed and accuracy of maths facts, I rocked.

When I got to worded problems, I hunted for the numbers and for little word clues that helped me decide whether to add, subtract, multiply or divide. Geometry involved memorising a formula into which numbers would go that I would again add, subtract, multiply, or divide. In High School, I looked for every formula in the chapter and figured out which one would best fit the numerals in the paragraph.

I didn’t realise that maths involved more than the four basic operations. Like a Weeble that can only tip and then return upright to the same position, maths problems could only be tackled with the four basic operations.

If my teachers had asked me about my strategies, I would have said ‘Guess and Check’. I guessed which operation was the correct one and checked to see whether or not the teacher marked it wrong.

Gumby Learning

Had I been less of a Weeble and more of a Gumby, I would have realised that there were multiple ways to tackle a mathematical problem and prove (to myself!) that answers were correct.

Had I been a Gumby mathematician, I would have been able to think of addition flexibly. I’d have realised that addition sometimes involved putting a whole bunch of things into one pile and sometimes related to jumping distances, comparing bars on a graph, or measuring perimeter. Multiplication might have been columns and rows or groups of items. I would connect factors and multiples in order to determine divisibility.

In the December/January issue of Educational LeadershipGrant Wiggins proposed the following definition of Mastery:

[The] effective transfer of learning in authentic and worthy performance. Students have mastered a subject when they are fluent, even creative, in using their knowledge, skills, and understanding in key performance challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject.

Wiggins’ definition aligned with Amanda Ripley’s use of the word ‘mastery’ in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Ripley’s description of schools both in Finland and Poland was that “Schools existed to help students master complex academic material” [emphasis mine].

I have come to believe that rigour is the insistence that students be able to use both knowledge and skilils fluently, flexibly and creatively in the context of complex academic material.

Gumby mathematicians can solve ‘standardised test-type’ maths problems and open-ended maths problems because they have the flexibility to think beyond the basic four operations and beyond formulas. They mentally recognise that the difference between 1000 and 995 is 5 without having to write the numbers down and ‘borrow’. They are not flustered when faced with problems such as this one (from Math Olympiads, December 2005):

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They are motivated by authentic tasks such as those listed in Victoria Teacher Resources for Assessing Multiplicative Thinking.

So how is your maths teaching? Do your choices of instruction materials, methods and assessments develop Weeble mathematicians or Gumby mathematicians? What is your evidence?


What Worked and What Fizzled in 2013 #SAVMP

Public domain: No copyright

Public domain: No copyright

I’m doing a big of catch-up. I signed up for a Virtual Admin Mentor Program (#SAVMP)  – one challenge per week that began in August.

The Week 3 challenge asks me to address important thoughts I had starting at a new school in my new role. Seems like a good end-of-year-reflection – especially since the end of each school year is also the end of the calendar year.

What has been successful?

Documentation. I was better at keeping student behavioural notes as an administrator than I was as a classroom teacher.

One of my first welcome gifts was a small prayer diary. I used the diary to note down every important outgoing and incoming phone call, especially those from parents. I made notes about significant conversations I had with teachers. The notes were brief and messy – I’m pretty sure no one else would be able to make sense of them. But I remembered the instances. And I prayed about many of the instances.

When I started having multiple entries on the same student, I would start a Word document. The document included only facts – who said what, places where incidents happened, interventions and results.

The diary notes and documents helped me better identify patterns, frequencies, and levels of success with interventions. What have we tried? What have we not tried? What has worked? What are possible next steps?

I also have data that I will use as a baseline for 2014 and beyond. This next year, the school is focusing on creating a culture based on the philosophies of Positive Education and Restorative Justice. As I continue to document in 2014, I can see whether or not the cultural shift is affecting the frequency and intensity of particular student behaviours.

What didn’t work?

I know some teachers at my school read this blog. It would probably be best to ask them (feel free to leave a comment – I can take it).

In Term 2, I introduced professional readings into the Junior School meetings. Teachers could choose to read from a selection of professional articles or books. Some were related to teaching students with autism. Others focused on reading books on second language acquisition. Still others read the Daily 5, The (Second Edition): Fostering Literacy in the Elementary Grades
or Launch an Intermediate Writing Workshop: Getting Started with Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3-5.

The first week, teachers had 30 minutes to do the reading and 30 minutes to discuss. Discussions were focused around the following protocols:

  • What did the article/chapter say?
  • What were you thinking as you read?
  • What questions did it raise?
  • What does this mean for your classroom?

Two other weeks, teachers were expected to do the readings in advance of the meetings. I noticed the discussions weren’t as rich those weeks. On the one hand, I was disappointed. On the other hand, I remembered that we communicate the importance of things by the time we set aside for them. If I believed the reading was truly important, I had a responsibility to set time aside for the reading as much as the discussion.

Both reading and discussion time got lost in Term 3 due to the implementation of a school-wide assessment goal. I planned to resurrect the readings in Term 4. Then I broke my leg. Best laid plans…

The professional readings-as-part-of-meetings fizzled. But it wasn’t a total loss. Teachers began sharing other books that they were reading. One teacher became hugely passionate about Writing Workshop and gathered a host of new resources to share with me. Another teacher started asking for links to tech blogs. Still another team implemented the Daily 5, adapting it to fit the needs and constraints of their open classroom.

In 2014, I’ll get feedback from teachers on how the process worked and ask for suggestions on ways we can continue to grow a culture that regularly reads professional literature.

The Experts Got it Wrong

ImageI broke my leg. Having sprained both ankles on multiple occasions, I knew something was different when I tried ‘walking it off’.

“Can you wiggle your toes?” asked the nurses who happened to be at the same shopping venue. When the ambulance drivers arrived, they asked the same.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Looks like a sprain,” they said.

I knew they were wrong. I wanted to tell them they were wrong. But I didn’t. The only leg bone I could name was the femur – and the pain was south of my knees. Informing the experts of their error would only make me look stupid or wimpy or both.

I don’t respond to pain as most people do. I tend not to yell, scream, or cry. Instead, my mind spins, trying to assess the extent of the pain. I don’t like drawing attention to myself. For some reason, my body would rather black out than feel stabbing pain.

The experts assessed me: Swollen around the ankle, not screaming or crying, can wiggle the toes. Diagnosis: Sprain.

Treatment: Ask the patient to hold shoulders and stand up to sit on the ambulance gurney. Patient says she is in pain, so administer Methoxyflurane.

I remember the ambulance driver saying, “You should be able to get up on your own. It’s just a sprain.”

At the hospital, I was sent to a physiotherapist who asked me to wiggle my toes and reported that the ambulance had reported (and she concurred) that the ankle was probably sprained. No pain medication could be given prior to an x-ray analysis, which could take 30-60 minutes.

Then I cried. I thought, How much longer would I need to endure the pain? Can a sprain really feel this bad? Have I become a wimp in my old age?

After the x-ray, a very apologetic physiotherapist entered the room with enough pain meds to make life bearable. She informed me of the treatment process going forward.

What does this have to do with Education?

How often do we, as educators, get it wrong?

After 19 years in education, I can tell when a child is not learning and I have a battery of questions, assessments, and observations that help identify learning issues with relative certainty. I’ve seen most behaviour issues and have a range of possible interventions.

When parents come in to talk about the challenges, I speak as though I’m certain of the answers. Admittedly, I secretly scoff when parents tell me I’m wrong. After all, I’ve taught over 1000 children in five schools and three countries. I’ve seen [this challenge] before.

…and the nurses, ambulance drivers, and physiotherapists have seen equal numbers of sprained ankles.

The Hard Lesson

I get it wrong too.

Behaviours that look like oppositional defiance turn out to be symptoms on the autism spectrum.

Seeming learning delays are actually language acquisition challenges.

Students who have trouble learning often don’t act as if they have trouble learning. They may be trying to not draw attention to themselves. They may be trying to self-asses or discover for themselves all the reason others in their class seem to understand things they don’t.

The worst thing we can do is tell students the educational equivalent of ‘it’s just a sprain.’ But we sometimes do. We tell them that, if they just worked a little harder, stopped being distracted by their friends, listened more carefully, or stopped being so emotional, they would be fine.

What if they know we are wrong? Will they say something? Probably not. They don’t know how learning is suppose to happen and they worry their question make them appear stupid or wimpy or both.

Adding to the anxiety, specialist appointments and formal assessments can take months.

Relieving the Anxiety

When I broke my leg, I knew I was hurt and I knew the recovery time would be long. What I wanted most was for someone to say, “That looks painful. Let’s get you to the hospital, get an x-ray, and find out what is going on.”

My challenge to you is this: Consider students you know who are not achieving at a level you believe possible. Assume your informal assessments are wrong. Let the student know you see them struggling with a subject or assignment. Ask questions. Get specialists involved as necessary.

The student may feel better just knowing they’re not stupid, you don’t think they’re a wimp, and there is an end to their pain.


What Can Schools Learn from Reality Shows?


Since moving out of Asia, I’ve been shocked by the sheer number of home improvement reality shows both in Australia and in the US. I notice the confusion, the speculation, and the disagreements teams have when designing or redesigning a space.

Can’t the contestants just go to IKEA, assemble some items, and make the house work? Of course not. Along the way, teams discover leaky pipes, faulty wires, and shoddy insulation – things they never factored in to the original plan or budget. Builders could ignore these issues, assemble the trimmings, and make it all look nice. But the structures won’t last.

So why do educators think that learning can be built from assembling some items produced by textbook companies? If teachers follow the pre-assembled scripts, texts, and activities, are they fostering understanding or creating a facade?

Teachers can learn lessons about curriculum from reality shows, particularly home improvement reality shows.

This post expands on the house-building analogy, taking a slightly different spin on the house analogy used in Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, and Achievement
(although the foundational ideas are the same – pun intended).

In Terms of Building a House…

Outcomes or Standards are the specs. Curriculum is the blueprint. Textbooks or resources are the materials you use to build and furnish the house.

If you’re building a house, you know what you want. You’re pretty clear about the specs. If you’re following Common Core or Australian Curriculum, the specs (outcomes) are set for you.

Outcomes are not curriculumOutcomes comprise lists of what students should know and be able to do. Outcomes are often called standards because all students should know and be able to do these things when they leave school. By analysing the outcomes, you learn what a child leaving school should “look like” academically.

Architects use the specs to create a blueprint. Teachers use outcomes to design curriculum. Curriculum is a set of plans, or an ‘academic blueprint’, that show how a teacher will lead students to achieve the outcomes.

Textbooks, in contrast, are resources that may or may not be included in a set of curriculum documents. Admittedly, textbook companies try and write materials that align with outcomes. Relying on a textbook company to write your curriculum is like going to IKEA, picking out a bunch of furniture, assembling it all according to instructions, and hoping you come out with a house.

Teachers are both the architect and the builder. They must know what the final outcomes look like. They then design curriculum units and individual lesson plans. Finally, they assemble or create resources and use them to their full potential. Teachers notice which parts of the written curriculum are working or not working and re-design the curriculum blueprint as necessary. It’s likely curriculum will be designed differently according to the needs of a particular class or the resources available.

While standards are standardised, instruction should not be. Teachers should not be mandated to follow scripted programs. Doing so is like asking reality show contestants to build a facade over leaky pipes. No one program can fix student misconceptions and meet the needs of all students. Teachers cannot ignore foundational differences in student needs in order to finish programs. If you exclusively trust packaged materials, you build a hovel of learning that comprises a random clutter of facts and skils.

Get the plan right before building and purchasing materials.

I often hear teachers and other school leaders saying that they want to find a curriculum for Common Core or Australian Curriculum standards. What they’re really saying is this: We are looking for the “magic bullet” educational materials that will help students’ test scores improve.

Imagine builders who decide they want a fireplace, a pizza oven and a home theatre system – very cool items they’ve seen in other houses. To preserve money and time for such luxuries, they fire the architect.

Bricks for the fireplace arrive at the house. Leather reclining chairs are dropped off along with a gynormous television and state-of-the art surround sound equipment. Then come another stack of bricks and some metal items presumably for the oven.

Suddenly, the builders realise there is no room for the TV and no outdoor wall fit for a fireplace. Should the pizza oven go inside or outside of the house?

Sounds ridiculous. But educators do it. Without engineering a curriculum, we purchase levelled readers, iPad apps for 500+ devices, microscopes and bunsen burners – all of which are fantastic learning tools within a solid curriculum plan. We complete a school year realising we never touched half of the apps. Students couldn’t use the bunsen burners because there was no budget for safety goggles, and only one teacher knew how to use the levelled readers.

Reality show contestants have a very small budget – much like schools. They can’t afford to measure incorrectly or purchase unnecessary materials. As educators, we can’t afford to purchase items that we can’t use. If time is taken to design solid units of study we can make more informed choices about what materials are most useful. 

Make sure the curriculum blueprints are solid.

The decor should match the personality of homeowner.

I can’t allow students to be creative or learn what interests them. If I do, we won’t have time to cover everything they need for the standardised tests.

As stated earlier, you can teach to standards without standardising instruction. The wiggle room comes in knowing that standards include what students should be able to do.

Take, for example, a writing standard consistent with Common Core and Australian Curriculum: [Students will be able to] Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons.

Classroom A: A school purchases materials that guide the class through a step-by-step process of writing essays. Teachers follow the lessons as prescribed. All students write opinion essays about homework, the topic suggested by the publisher.

Classroom B: The teacher realises that opinion pieces are stronger with research, and research skills and nonfiction reading skills are also listed as outcomes. The teacher designs a unit around the question How can my writing change people’s minds? The teacher allows students to choose their topics but expects them to demonstrate research, nonfiction reading, and persuasive writing skills within their areas of interest. When teaching research skills, a boy interested in dinosaurs evaluates sources of information about dinosaurs. A girl evaluates sources writing about Justin Bieber. After finding reliable sources, the teacher creates mini-lessons that teach students to break articles into chunks, write margin notes, and use post-its to form follow-up questions and thesis statements. Finally, the boy chooses to write an opinion piece convincing people that volcanic eruptions led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The girl writes an opinion piece about how Justin’s Bieber’s early music is better than his current hits.

Both classes teach to standards, but the teacher in Classroom B is able to engage students by allowing them to demonstrate skills in the context of their interests. 

Using the analogy of a house, both Classroom A and B build a nonfiction opinion-writing ‘room’ in the house. Students in classroom B connect the persuasive ‘room’ with research skills and nonfiction reading ‘rooms’. They choose the rooms’ decor, creating a final project they are proud to share.

It is not necessary to standardise instruction in order to hit the same standards. Schools can maintain creativity and passion in a standards-based classroom.

Home improvement reality show contestants work in pairs.

Contestants do the design thinking together then separate and work on different aspects of the plan. They regularly pull back together to address an unexpected problem or assess completed work.

Curriculum design is hard work. Teachers should work together on the original design thinking. They can distribute the labour related to finding and creating resources to use within those units. Problems will arise that require creative solutions – and teachers can come back together to think through possible solutions.

In the end, people will judge your work.

Contestants in reality shows get judged and receive scores. The scores are subjective – sometimes we agree with the judges and sometimes we don’t. While it’s easy to focus on who is winning, it’s good to remember that each of the houses ends up looking heaps better than it did in the beginning.

Schools are judged by students’ performance on standardised tests. As unfair as it seems, the tests aren’t going away. If standardised tests are the only visible evidence of learning we give the community, that is the only evidence by which we will be judged.

By carefully designing curriculum, students demonstrate authentic learning in ways that elicit the “Wow!” factor from parents and members of the community. Parents beam when their son or daughter independently works on a project at home, Imagine the proud smile on a parents face when they read a persuasive letter from their child, outlining all the reasons the child should be able have ears pierced.

Let’s make authentic projects and assessments embedded in well-designed curriculum be the measure by which our schools are judged. In the process, students will learn information necessary for standardised tests. I promise.

We have work to do in education. But, we have innovative teachers who care about student passions and are capable of creating lessons that teach to standards. Accomplished teachers know their students and how they learn.

We’re not building houses, but we’re building learning environments. Let’s teach to the standards in ways that are individualized, differentiated, and personalized.

What curriculum units are you writing?

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