Professional Learning Community (PLC)


From the Director of the International School of Prague, Dr. Arnie Bieber

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

On behalf of the International School of Prague community, it is a pleasure to invite you to attend and participate in the 28th annual CEESA Conference this March in the beautiful city of Prague.

Described in ancient texts as “The City of 100 spires” and “The Golden City”, Prague is a true jewel in the heart of Europe. Here, in this wondrous city, you can walk through 1000 years of architecture in an afternoon. Overlooked by the magnificent Prague Castle complex, an ancient and colorful network of streets and alleyways crisscross downtown Prague. Bisected by the Vlatava River, but linked by many bridges, the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Towns (two distinct yet vibrant areas) are home to many restaurants and bars, galleries, museums and boutiques.

We are excited that this year’s conference will take place in the center of this beautiful and historic city at the Intercontinental Hotel. This is important because we want participants to experience Prague as an integral part of the conference.

This year’s theme, Empowered Learners, is epitomized by our keynote speaker, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father and mentor of Malala Yousafzai. Most of us are aware of Malala’s harrowing and horrifying experience when she was brutally attacked in an attempt to stop her and other girls in Pakistan from attending school. Certainly, Ziauddin Yousafzai played a crucial role in raising and empowering this brave activist who has become a role model to so many girls and people around the world.

The message of this year’s conference is that if schools are to be truly relevant to our students, we must offer them an education in which they can take the reins of their own learning with our guidance and support. This year’s CEESA Conference in Prague will offer a wide range of engaging and thought-provoking workshops and pre-conference opportunities designed to further shift our school cultures from compliance to empowerment.

I’m looking forward to welcoming you to beautiful Prague!

Arnie Bieber, Director

International School of Prague

My Visit to China

Summer Palace, Beijing

While headquartered in London, ECIS is a global organization with over 400 member schools in over 90 countries on six continents. Last week in my capacity as Chair of ECIS Board of Trustees, I had the honor to help launch our new ECIS China office, in Beijing. It was an exciting time of visiting schools, meeting with ECIS China colleagues, Chinese educators and international school representatives from throughout the country and making new friends. It was my first visit to Beijing and I was struck with the pace of the city (even as a New Yorker!), the warmth, grace and generosity of the people I encountered, not to mention the fascinating city of Beijing. The launch included a television interview with China TV and a launch conference with participants representing about 100 institutions. During the launch, speakers had the opportunity to discuss the implications of this important milestone for the Chinese international schools market and ECIS’s mission and philosophy. It was a visit I will never forget!

Below is a transcript of my remarks at the ECIS China launch:

As chair of the ECIS Board of trustees it is my pleasure and honor to welcome everyone to this important occasion. ECIS, the Educational Collaborative for International Schools, is excited to be partnering with our colleagues here in China, because as international educators we believe that we have so much to learn from and with each other. This endeavor underscores our commitment to collaboration among educators on a global scale.  Working collaboratively across borders is crucial if we are to remain relevant to our young learners

In addition to my role as Chair of the ECIS Board of Trustees, I am also the Director of a long standing ECIS member school, The International School of Prague. Like ECIS, the International school of Prague has a long and distinguished history, in fact, having been established in 1948, it is the oldest international school within the European Union. With 900 students from over 60 nationalities, the International School of Prague reflects the diversity of the world of international education.

As an international school leader I believe that schools exist in challenging and exciting times. Challenging because our students will enter a world filled with uncertainty, an unpredictable world. Exciting because of the exponential technological advances that take place constantly providing educators with the potential to reshape how students learn and develop. Now more than ever, as the world continues to flatten and as change occurs so rapidly, our role as educators is to prepare students with more than the foundational literacies of reading, writing and arithmetic.

While educational systems in the past stressed learning as a one size fits all proposition, where all students had to progress in unison, learning the same thing at the same time, we believe the objective of twenty-first century education is to prepare agile, creative, collaborative and responsible global citizens. This can only oc

cur if we educators innovate and take calculated risks in order to devise new approaches to the system we call school.

In the 1970’s Alvin Toffler, the futurist thinkers said, that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot Learn, Unlearn and Relearn. This is the exciting challenge educators face today, how to prepare learners for 21st century literacy, learners who can learn, unlearn and relearn.

If the role of our schools and teachers is to be responsive and relevant to our students, ECIS’s role as a global membership organization is to be responsive and relevant to our members, through dialogue, professional development and collaboration. As a dynamic and growing global organization, ECIS looks forward to learning from and with our many colleagues from around the world and here in the People’s Republic of China

Together we will achieve our mission, to transform lives through international education.

ECIS China Launch at the British Embassy, Beijing


“The Shadow Knows”… a day in the life of a student

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 11.24.13

As Director of the International School of Prague (ISP), I like to believe that I work hard every day, but yesterday I gained a new perspective on hard work, having “shadowed” Grace, a grade 9 student at ISP, for a day.

While I often visit classrooms and observe kids learning and teachers teaching, spending a full day shadowing one student, from class to class, as well as lunch, is a very different experience and one I highly recommend, especially to other school decision makers.

I decided to shadow Grace as part of an initiative called Shadow a Student Challenge sponsored by SchoolRetool. Here’s how they describe what shadowing is: “Just like it sounds, shadowing a student is the process of following a student to gain empathy and insight into their experience. ” And that’s just what the day of shadowing gave me, some unique insights into the life of one of our students, as well as some real empathy for their experience.

Our day started at 8 am for an 80 minute block of Mathematics. The focus of this class was on factoring and I was impressed with the focused yet caring tone set by their teacher, Mr. Rops, and how physically active the class was. For the first 20 minutes, enthusiastic students worked on a variety of warm-ups and problems, standing throughout the room and writing on the various white walls, desks and even windows. There was a lot of cross discussion and kids checking and helping each other out throughout the class.

Maths in action!

Maths in action

Grace and friends problem solving

Grace and friends problem solving

After Math, things really got physical, as I participated in a PE class in the school fitness center. While I didn’t come dressed or prepared for a work-out, I decided to join in at the invitation of PE teacher, Ms. Shaw. I think I got more than I bargained for! After some strenuous warm-ups, the students were given the task of creating their own workout regimen based on exercises they have been using over the past few weeks. I buddied up with another student,  Alisa, who really took us through our paces with a regimen of plank walks, crunches, side squats, bicep curls and something I think was called the Bulgarian squat! Suffice it to say, I learned a lot through the pain, but felt kind of virtuous, if exhausted by the end of class. Again I was struck by hands on learning taking place and the willingness of our students to help each other throughout our time together.

PE Fitness class

PE Fitness class

Feeling tired and virtuous with Ms. Shaw

After fitness workout with Ms. Shaw’s PE class

After PE it was off to lunch with Grace and her friends. This was a chance to unwind, chat and laugh while enjoying some great food. I appreciated how Grace and her peers included me in the lunchtime conversation and banter.

After lunch and some welcome down time, it was back to it with social studies. This is a class in which lots of different things were happening at the same time. Students were working on their presentations, others went off to prepare for a theater production while others were involved in leading an activity with grade 3 students. Grace worked on her presentation whose topic focused on the impact of  oil on WWII.  During the class, students conferred with each other and social studies teacher, Ms. Fleming, about their individual presentations.

Grace working on her presentation

Grace working on her presentation in Social Studies

The final class of the day was grade 9 science with Mr. Morrison. We started off with an active warm-up, followed by a short lab experiment in which we explored the “specific heat capacity” of various metals. “The specific heat is the amount of heat per unit mass required to raise the temperature by one degree Celsius.” By placing a metal in boiling water, measuring the temperature with a probe and then placing the hot metal in room temperature water and recording the water temperature increase we used the data to apply the appropriate formula and compare our results for various metals.

Understanding heat capacity

Understanding heat capacity

As you can imagine, my retelling of my day of shadowing and the classes I attended only skim the surface, but I truly did come away from the experience with a deeper appreciation of what a school day is like for a grade 9 student. The life of a high school student is chock full every day and the range of learning activities required from students as they move from class to class is considerable. It’s also important to bear in mind, that while the school day schedule goes from 8 am to 3 pm, most students have after school activities and homework to contend with before their day is truly over.

What impressed me the most about our school was the overall welcoming and nurturing learning environment, how supportive our students are of each other and the way our teachers are able to develop an ethos, where students feel highly supported and safe to take risks, can work independently or collaboratively and truly have the opportunity to learn by doing.

I want to thank Grace for her willingness to share her day of learning with me, and I certainly plan on making shadowing a regular feature of my work in the future. I may have ended the school day a bit sore, but I learned a lot, and it was fun too!

Thanks Grace!

Thanks Grace!

Guiding Light Lost – Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins

I was saddened to learn that a great leading light in the world of progressive education had passed away, Grant Wiggins. Although I had the opportunity to meet Grant on a few occasions, I did not know him well. Nonetheless, his work had a profound impact on me and my work and the work of thousands of educators from around the world. Grant was an educational leader who was willing to “tell it like it is.” Among many other important contributions, Grant was a highly respected expert on learning assessment and with his colleague Jay McTighe originated the concept of backward design in teaching and learning — Understanding by Design, as they called it, an approach to learning design used by thousands of schools around the world.

My major impressions of Grant came primarily from his writings. Grant and Jay’s Schooling By Design had a profound impact on my thinking especially around the concept of the mission-driven school. When our school, the International School of Prague, embarked on creating a new mission, I recalled Grant’s words about most school missions being as a collection of “vapid platitudes.” This simple phrase steered us away from a generic mission towards one which we could truly use as a standard by which we would measure our school. It motivated us to create a mission which would hold us accountable and compel us to “walk the talk.”

Moving Toward Mission: How to Design Schooling to Make It More Coherent, Engaging, and Effective

Moving Toward Mission: How to Design Schooling to Make It More Coherent, Engaging, and Effective

I was also greatly influenced by Grant’s article A Diploma Worth Having, in which he challenged us to transform our concept of the high school curriculum and the purpose of the high school diploma. The article begins with the following provocative statement:

“I have a proposal to make: It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it.”


March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn Pages 28-33

Grant Wiggins

There’s only one valid measure of the high school curriculum: How well does it prepare students for their adult lives?

I have a proposal to make: It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it. In a modern, unpredictable, and pluralistic world, it makes no sense to demand that every 18-year-old pass the same collection of traditional courses to graduate.

Instead, we should do away with most course requirements, make all courses rigorous, and simply report what students have accomplished from year to year. Students should prepare for adult life by studying subjects that suit their talents, passions, and aspirations as well as needs. They should leave when they are judged to be ready for whatever next challenge they take on—whether it be college, trade school, the military, or playing in a band. Let’s therefore abolish the diploma, if by diploma we mean that all students must graduate as though they were heading for the same 20th-century future.

This plan would enable us to finally deal with the key weakness of high school, summarized in that term virtually all students and adults use to describe it: bor-ing. High school is boring in part because diploma requirements crowd out personalized and engaged learning. It is also boring because our graduation requirements have been produced the way our worst laws are; they are crude compromises, based on inadequate debate. Because of arbitrary policies that define preparation in terms of content instead of useful abilities, schools focus on “coverage,” not meaningful learning.

A Historical Perspective

Our belief in lockstep adherence to rigid curriculum requirements appears especially myopic and misguided if we look through the lens of the fundamental question, How well does the high school curriculum prepare all students for their adult lives? The Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education thought that asking this question was not only sensible but sorely needed—in 1918! Its report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, yielded a sound set of criteria by which to rationally judge the high school curriculum. The commission underscored that these criteria must flow from the mission of schooling:

Education in a democracy, both within and without the school, should develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler ends. (p. 9)

The Cardinal Principles were a deliberate counterbalance to the policies that had arisen from the work of the Committee of Ten in 1892. That group had famously argued that a college-prep education, including multiple years of Latin and Greek, was appropriate for all students—even though fewer than 10 percent of high school students went to college. Chaired by the president of Harvard, the Committee of Ten was organized into subject-area groups and staffed by professors and teachers of those subjects. (Our current system, with its attention to a narrow collection of “traditional” academic subjects, still embodies the worst consequences of the work of this group.)

The Cardinal Principles, in contrast, were intentionally external to the traditional subjects and were based on an understanding of the broad mission of schooling as enabling individuals to better themselves and society. They proposed the following “main objectives of education”: (1) health; (2) command of fundamental processes (reading, writing, arithmetical computations, and the elements of oral and written expression); (3) worthy home membership; (4) vocation; (5) citizenship; (6) worthy use of leisure; and (7) ethical character.

It’s a bit startling to see health first in the list, ahead of “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic,” isn’t it? But that shock is also a helpful reminder of how much schools have lost their way. What could be more important in moving into adulthood than learning how to lead a healthy life, in the broadest sense?

This idea actually has much older roots. Herbert Spencer arguably wrote the first modern critique of out-of-touch college-prep education in his famous essay, “What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?” Spencer (1861) asserts that school exists to help us answer the essential question of how to live. Under this vision of education, health as an area of study rises to the top. Spencer writes that

as vigorous health and its accompanying high spirits are larger elements of happiness than any other things whatever, then teaching how to maintain them is a teaching that yields in moment to no other whatever. (p. 13)

Spencer anticipates the protests with rapier wit:

Strange that the assertion should need making! Stranger still that it should need defending! Yet are there not a few by whom such a proposition will be received with something approaching to derision. Men who would blush if caught saying Iphigénia instead of Iphigenía … show not the slightest shame in confessing that they do not know where the Eustachian tubes are, what are the actions of the spinal cord, what is the normal rate of pulsation, or how the lungs are inflated. … So overwhelming is the influence of established routine! So terribly in our education does the ornamental over-ride the useful! (p. 14)

But Spencer saves his greatest scorn for the failure to make child-rearing a core subject:

If by some strange chance not a vestige of us descended to the remote future save a pile of our school-books or some college examination papers, we may imagine how puzzled an antiquary of the period would be on finding in them no sign that the learners were ever likely to be parents. “This must have been the curriculum for their celibates,” we may fancy him concluding. (p. 20)

Spencer wisely notes that every subject will, of course, make a plea for its importance. Therefore, a curriculum can only be fairly justified using criteria about the purpose of schooling that are outside all “content.”

In other words, we need to decide to include or exclude, emphasize or deemphasize any subject based on criteria related to school mission— a mission centered on improving the behavior and lives of students. Otherwise, our curricular decisions are arbitrary and school is aimless. Indeed, when we fail to seriously question the inclusion of algebra or the exclusion of ethics from graduation requirements, we can only fall back on custom: “We’ve always done it this way.” But if that were the only real argument, we would still be requiring Greek of all graduates, as the Committee of Ten recommended.

The Unwitting Harm of the Standards Movement

Our current situation is no better than when the Committee of Ten did its work. Think about it: We are on the verge of requiring every student in the United States to learn two years of algebra that they will likely never use, but no one is required to learn wellness or parenting.

The current standards movement, for all its good intentions, is perilously narrowing our definition of education, to the great harm of not only students but also entire fields of study: the arts, the technical arts and trades, and the social sciences. Gone are excellent vocational programs—as powerfully described by Matthew Crawford in Shop Class as Soul Craft (Penguin, 2010), arguably the best book on education in the last five years. (See the review on page 92 of this issue of Educational Leadership.) Threatened are visual arts, theater, music, and dance programs despite their obvious value. Indeed, there are more musicians in this country than mathematicians, but you would never know it from the work of standards committees.

Not Which Standards, but Whose Standards

At a meeting many years ago, I heard Ted Sizer respond to a proponent of national standards, “It’s notwhich standards, it’s whose standards!” In other words, don’t make this sound so objective. It’s a political determination, made by whoever has a seat at the table.

And who sits at the table? Representatives of all the traditional academic subjects. When have standards committees included working artists, journalists, web designers, or doctors who could critique the usefulness or uselessness of traditional content standards? When have professors of bioethics, anthropology, or law been invited to critique content standards? Rather, the people who care most about their little corner of the traditional content world dictate that it is required.

True story: When I did a workshop as part of a standards-writing project in a large eastern state, I mentioned the problem of arcane elements in the history standards, in particular a mention of an obscure Chinese dynasty. A gentleman cried out, “But that was my dissertation topic, and it is important for students to know!” Worse: The speaker was the social studies coordinator for the state and had made sure to put this topic in the previous version of the standards.

Having worked with three different states on their standards writing and revision process, I can say with confidence that the way we organize standards-based work at the state and national levels dooms it from the start. The committees reflect typical people with typical backgrounds in education, charged to tinker with, but not radically overhaul, typical schooling; no criteria for choices are ever put forward to weed the document of pet topics. In short, these committees merely rearrange the furniture of the traditional core content areas; they replicate the past that they feel comfortable with rather than face the future that is on its annoying but inexorable way.

A Case in Point: Mathematics

For proof of the lack of forward thinking, look at the Common Core math standards. The recommended high school mathematics is unchanged from when I was a kid in prep school 45 years ago: four years of conventional topics in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. The only improvement is greater emphasis on modeling and statistics. But the laying out of the standards in isolated lists of content (as opposed to summarizing the kinds of performance standards student work must meet) undercuts the likelihood of vital reform to make mathematics more engaging and useful to the majority of students.

Consider this dreary summary of a high school strand from the Common Core:

Trigonometric Functions

  • Extend the domain of trigonometric functions using the unit circle.
  • Model periodic phenomena with trigonometric functions.
  • Prove and apply trigonometric identities.

This is a standard? With what justification? It almost goes without saying (but in the current myopia, it needs to be said): Few people need to know this.

Today, algebra is the new Greek that “all educated persons” supposedly need. This is clear from the work of the American Diploma Project (2004), launched a few years ago by Achieve, a group created by governors and corporate leaders. Achieve deserves credit for taking the idea of “backward design” of high school requirements from college and workplace readiness seriously, buttressed by research and analysis. But we should be cautious about accepting its narrow view of the high school curriculum, especially its claim that advanced algebra should be a universal requirement (Achieve, 2008). The data Achieve cites to justify this claim include the following:

  • Completing advanced math courses in high school has a greater influence on whether students will graduate from college than any other factor—including family background. Students who take math beyond Algebra II double their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree.
  • Through 2016, professional occupations are expected to add more new jobs—at least 5 million—than any other sector; within that category, computer and mathematical occupations will grow the fastest.
  • Simply taking advanced math has a direct impact on future earnings, apart from any other factors. Students who take advanced math have higher incomes 10 years after graduating— regardless of family background, grades, and college degrees.

But hold on: All that this really says is that people who take advanced math courses are more likely to do well in college and be prepared for jobs that involve advanced math. But that doesn’t mean that broad success in life depends on those courses. I have no doubt, for example, that most students who study Greek or astrophysics also end up in satisfying careers. Algebra is not the cause of adult success any more than Greek is. It is most likely the reverse: Those who take advanced courses are smart, motivated students who will succeed in any career they choose. As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra II in their work (Handel, 2007).

Much the same criticism was made by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2010), whose critique of the draft Common Core math standards asserted that the standards should include more emphasis on practical mathematical application (for example, analyzing financial data); include statistics and probability in the elementary grades and emphasize these areas more in the secondary grades; and focus less on factual content mastery in favor of better integrating higher-order thinking skills throughout the curriculum.

Lerman and Packer (2010) remind us that employers tend to call for something far more general and useful than advanced algebra skills:

Every study of employer needs made over the past 20 years … has come up with the same answers. Successful workers communicate effectively, orally and in writing, and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savvy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simple math to real-world problems such as those concerning financial or health literacy. Employers never mention polynomial factoring. (p. 31)

For a more enlightened approach to mathematics instruction, there is a fine body of work developed over the past 15 years under the heading of Quantitative Literacy (or Quantitative Reasoning). The Quantitative Literacy Manifesto (National Council on Education and the Disciplines, 2001) shares the concern of organizations like Achieve that most U.S. students leave high school without the math skills they need to succeed in either college or employment. But this report proposes a different solution—one better suited to the goal of universal education in a modern society:

Common responses to this well-known problem are either to demand more years of high school mathematics or more rigorous standards for graduation. Yet even individuals who have studied trigonometry and calculus often remain largely ignorant of common abuses of data and all too often find themselves unable to comprehend (much less to articulate) the nuances of quantitative inferences. As it turns out, it is not calculus but numeracy that is the key to understanding our data-drenched society. (p. 2)

The Quantitative Literacy Manifesto calls for developing in students

a predisposition to look at the world through mathematical eyes, to see the benefits (and risks) of thinking quantitatively about commonplace issues, and to approach complex problems with confidence in the value of careful reasoning. (p. 22)

Alas, the Quantitative Literacy movement simply has less political clout than Achieve does. Again we see: It’s not which standards, but whose standards.

Revisiting High School Requirements

Mindful of the mission of schooling to prepare students to prosper in and contribute to a pluralistic and everchanging democracy, I humbly offer my own update of Spencer’s proposal and the work of the Cardinal Principles group. I think that if we consider future usefulness in a changing world as the key criterion, the following subjects represent more plausible candidates for key high school courses in the 21st century than those on the Achieve list:

  • Philosophy, including critical thinking and ethics.
  • Psychology, with special emphasis on mental health, child development, and family relations.
  • Economics and business, with an emphasis on market forces, entrepreneurship, saving, borrowing and investing, and business start-ups.
  • Woodworking or its equivalent; you should have to make something to graduate.
  • Mathematics, focusing primarily on probability and statistics and math modeling.
  • Language arts, with a major focus on oral proficiency (as well as the reading and writing of nonfiction).
  • Multimedia, including game and web design.
  • Science: human biology, anatomy, physiology (health-related content), and earth science (ecology).
  • Civics, with an emphasis on civic action and how a bill really becomes law; lobbying.
  • Modern U.S. and world history, taught backward chronologically from the most pressing current issues.

Instead of designing backward from the traditions of college admission or the technical demands of currently “hot” jobs, this list designs backward from the vital human capacities needed for a successful adulthood regardless of school or job. How odd, for example, that our current requirements do not include oral proficiency when all graduates will need this ability in their personal, civic, social, and professional lives. How unfortunate for us personally, professionally, and socially that all high school and college students are not required to study ethics.

The financial meltdown of recent years underscores a related point: Understanding our economic system is far more important than learning textbook chemistry. In science, how sad that physics is viewed as more important than psychology and human development, as parents struggle to raise children wisely and families work hard to understand one another. (The principle of inertia from physics may explain it!)

Do not misunderstand my complaints as somehow too utilitarian or opposed to the liberal arts and higher math. I was educated in the classic tradition at St. John’s College. I learned physics and calculus through Newton’s Principia and geometry through Euclid and Lobachevski—in a college program with no electives—all based on the Great Books. I had arguably the best undergraduate education in the United States, if the aim is intellectual power. But would I mandate that all colleges look like St. John’s? Absolutely not, any more than I would mandate that all schools adopt my proposed course list as graduation requirements. On the contrary, my advocacy for injecting philosophy, economics, and human development into the terribly narrow conventional curriculum is a call to bring a richer array of options to students.

Everyone agrees that high school needs to be more rigorous. No one wants to perpetuate inequity of opportunity. But can’t there be greater student choice that opens up rather than closes off opportunities? Can’t vocational courses and courses in the arts be as demanding as upper-level courses in math or chemistry?

Setting standards in the way we do—mandating requirements for all by looking at our own generation’s academic experience rather than forward to the developmental needs of all students— impedes progress rather than advancing it. Then, we add insult to injury: a one-size-fits-all diploma. In sum, it seems to me that we still do not have a clue about how to make education modern: forward-looking, client-centered, and flexible; adapted to an era where the future, not the past, determines the curriculum.

What Do Our Students Need from School?

I am not arguing for throwing out the Common Core Standards. At least they will impose reason on the current absurd patchwork of state standards and finally make it possible for authors, software designers, test makers, and textbook publishers to provide the most resources at the least expense. But let’s not treat these standards as anything more than a timid rearrangement of previous state standards, promulgated by people familiar only with traditional courses and requirements.

Instead, let us face the future by pausing to consider anew the wisdom of Herbert Spencer and the authors of the Cardinal Principles. Let us begin a serious national conversation (all of us, not just the policy wonks, selected employers, and college admissions officers) about the questions, What is the point of high school? What do our society and our students need from school, regardless of hidebound tradition or current policy fads?

Then we might finally have a diploma worth giving and receiving in the modern age.

Editor’s note: The print edition of this article contained an error in the following sentence on page 31: “As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra in their work (Handel, 2007).” This statistic has been amended in the online version as follows: “As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra II in their work (Handel, 2007).”


Achieve. (2008). Math works: All students need advanced math. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

American Diploma Project. (2004). Ready or not: Creating a high school diploma that counts. Washington, DC: Achieve.

Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education: A report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, appointed by the National Education Association. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior.

Handel, M. J. (2007, May 23). A new survey of workplace skills, technology, and management practices (STAMP): Background and descriptive statistics. Boston: Department of Sociology, Northeastern University.

Lerman, R. I., & Packer, A. (2010, April 21). Will we ever learn? What’s wrong with the common-standards project. Education Week, 29(29), 30–31.

National Council on Education and the Disciplines. (2001). Mathematics and democracy: The case for quantitative literacy. Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from Mathematical Association of America at

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). P21 comments on Common Core state standards initiative—mathematics. Retrieved

Spencer, H. (1861). What knowledge is of most worth? In H. Spencer, Essays on education and kindred subjects (pp. 1–44). London: Author.

Grant Wiggins is the coauthor with Jay McTighe of Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005) and Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, and Achievement (ASCD, 2007). He is president of Authentic Education in Hopewell, New Jersey;

The “Edge” in Education

At the International School of Prague, we believe that a great school is one that is committed to bringing to life, an ambitious and forward thinking mission and vision. In order to continue to remain relevant to twenty-first century learners,
it is crucial that all members of the school community have the opportunity to provide perspective and ideas in furthering the mission.

With the goal of thinking out of the box and generating innovative ideas, ISP teachers have formed themselves into Faculty Focus Groups. These groups are an attempt to create a culture shift and facilitate open-ended conversations about school.

ISP Focus Groups

ISP Focus Groups

ISP parents too have been involved in this process and have dubbed their group, The Edge in Education. During our first parent meeting this year, we watched the Ken Robinson TED Talk: Bring on the Learning Revolution 

Ken RobinsonIn his talk, Robinson raises a number of thought-provoking issues, relevant not only to educators, but to parents. He discusses how schools do not adequately provide students with the opportunities they need to truly find out who they really are or what their natural talents are. He argues that it’s not reform, but a revolution in education that is needed, that schools need to be transformed, not just improved.

Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Robinson discusses the word, dis-enthrall:

We must dis-enthrall ourselves.

Robinson’s point is that we must dissuade ourselves from what we normally take for granted in how traditional schooling has functioned for hundreds of years.

Many of our ideas have been formed, not to meet the circumstances of this century, but to cope with the circumstances of previous centuries. But our minds are still hypnotized by them, and we have to disenthrall ourselves of some of them.

Robinson discusses the linearity of traditional schools as an example of what we take for granted in education. That students are on a conveyor belt moving from one subject to the next, and the illusion that if you follow on that track, you will be set for life. His point is that, there was a time when this was true, but that time has passed.

Robinson talks about our “obsession of getting kids to college,” and argues that there are many paths students can take to a successful life and that our development is more organic than linear.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t go to college, but not everybody needs to go and not everybody needs to go now. Maybe they go later, not right away.

Robinson tells the following thought-provoking story:

And I was up in San Francisco a while ago doing a book signing. There was this guy buying a book, he was in his 30s. And I said, “What do you do?” And he said, “I’m a fireman.” And I said, “How long have you been a fireman?” He said, “Always. I’ve always been a fireman.” And I said, “Well, when did you decide?” He said, “As a kid.” He said, “Actually, it was a problem for me at school, because at school, everybody wanted to be a fireman.” He said, “But I wanted to be a fireman.”

And he said, “When I got to the senior year of school, my teachers didn’t take it seriously. This one teacher didn’t take it seriously. He said I was throwing my life away if that’s all I chose to do with it; that I should go to college, I should become a professional person, that I had great potential and I was wasting my talent to do that.” And he said, “It was humiliating because he said it in front of the whole class and I really felt dreadful. But it’s what I wanted, and as soon as I left school, I applied to the fire service and I was accepted.”

And he said, “You know, I was thinking about that guy recently, just a few minutes ago when you were speaking, about this teacher,” he said, “because six months ago, I saved his life.” He said, “He was in a car wreck, and I pulled him out, gave him CPR, and I saved his wife’s life as well.” He said, “I think he thinks better of me now.”

The Ken Robinson TED Talk was great food for thought for the Edge in Education Group. After viewing the video, parents broke into small groups and developed pointed questions emanating from Robinson’s talk, such as:

  • How do you implement revolution when others have traditional expectations of school?
  • How do we personalize learning for kids?
  • What is the place of tradition in school?
  • How can the school develop the individual potential of each child?
  • How does personalization prepare students for standardized expectations?
  • How do we prepare for a future we don’t know?
  • How do we get our kids to connect to the world outside?
  • What is the school’s responsibility? Home’s responsibility?
  • How much time we dedicate to mind vs. body vs. spirit?
  • How do we learn to take risks?

Many of these excellent questions raised by parents are the same kinds of issues that educators are grappling with. In order for schools to truly respond to the needs of today’s learners, all constituents, teachers, as well as parents and students, must take part in the conversation. There is no, one right answer to these challenging questions, and each school must find a way forward that resonates with that school’s ethos and character.

Parent Focus Group and Project Based Learning

ISP Parent Focus Group

Over the past year, teachers at the International School of Prague have formed Professional Focus Groups (PFG) based on their own professional interests. The purpose of these groups is for teachers to interact from elementary through high school and focus on their practice, as well as moving the school toward providing an “authentic global education.” These open ended groups empower teachers to think outside the box and to innovate without the usual limitations found in traditional school organizational structures.

The school has now also formed a Parent Focus Group to enable parents to join in the school wide conversations about learning and contribute to how we will develop and change our school over time. If our school is going to continue to be relevant to our student learners, the parental component is crucial!

Today the Parent Focus Group discussed the concepts of Project Based Learning (PBL). This is where students participate in a project usually over an extended period of time working in small groups toward a real world goal. To frame our discussion about PBLs, the parent group watched a video entitled: Applying Math Skills to a Real World Problem.

Project Based Learning in Action

This 6 week project involving grade 10 geometry students from Mountlake Terrace High School near Seattle,  is a compelling example of how schools can truly engage and empower students. In this project students working in groups of 3 or 4 were tasked with designing a 2,000-student high school for the year 2050. Here’s a description of the project:

In a period of six weeks, students must develop a site plan, a scale model, floor plans, a perspective drawing, a cost estimate, and a written proposal. They must then make an oral presentation to local school architects who judge the projects and “award” the contract — all making use of geometric and mathematical concepts. (Read this outline of the project, which includes several Edutopia videos that profile student-architect teams.)

The video shows highly engaged students, designing, collaborating, presenting and working with professional architects. Their enthusiasm and focus of the student learners was palpable to everyone in the group.

After viewing the video, Parent Focus Group members discussed various aspects of this project. They acknowledged the variety of real world skills that these students were required to employ beyond understanding geometric formulas. Some parents questioned the impact of such a process on the ability for teachers to “cover the curriculum,” but at the same time recognized that these students were truly learning how to learn and would remember and retain the learning from this experience for the rest of their lives. Group members also discussed our own experiences in school and how little, many of us retained from subjects like geometry or trigonometry.

The Parent Focus Group at the International School of Prague is one of many ways in which we are bringing the voices of all school members into the process of development and change. It is only through the participation and the sharing of ideas of all constituencies, that we can we truly re-envision our schools to meet the needs of Twenty First Century learners.

If you’d like to read more about the architectural project follow this link:

Growing the School Mission

A school mission statement that expresses the purpose, values and vision of a school in a few compelling words can have a powerful impact on the school change process. In order to remain relevant and meaningful to the school community, the mission should be developed through an inclusive process in which all constituencies have a voice. The mission process itself is as important as the final product in that it serves as a way for the community to crystallize the the school’s central purpose. But in order for the mission to become meaningful to a community, it must first be firmly rooted in the culture of the school. Therefor it must be nurtured and attended to as a living statement reflecting the purpose and aspirations of the school community. Over the past few years our school mission has taken root and is beginning to flourish in many areas, such as in curriculum (authentic global education), pedagogy (engaging diverse learners) and values (acting with compassion, respect, integrity and intercultural understanding).

As part of our strategic plan, we at the International School of Prague are developing a Professional Learning Community (PLC) environment in which teachers and other community members can advance real school change. To prepare for the opening faculty orientation workshop, teachers were asked to choose a resource associated with one of four strategic theme. The intention was to provide teachers with challenging and compelling ideas to consider, discuss and work with. Below are the four strategic themes and resources (with links) used in this workshop:

During the workshop, each faculty group identified “big ideas” based on guiding questions:

  • What are the implications to our practice?
  • What are potential implications to the school?
  • What are the barriers to innovation at ISP?
  • What are our next steps?

We view this as a first step in the process of forming “focus groups” or “action research” groups, who will eventually advance ways for the school to improve and innovate.

In order to escape the fate of becoming curious artifacts of 20th century education, schools around the world are addressing the sometimes daunting challenge of profound systemic change. While a revolution in how schools function in the twenty first century is inevitable, dare I use the tag line from the new movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, “Evolution becomes Revolution.” The challenge of school change is to create a path which honors the current structures while simultaneously and profoundly changing them. But I’ll leave that to another installment.