How the coronavirus is propelling us into the future of education

This is a guest blog written by Dr. Lijuan Du, Vice-Principal and Co-Principal Elect of Dalton School Hong Kong – which, in common with all Hong Kong Schools, is currently closed – with a call to us all to use the current crisis to focus deeply on what education actually means.

An outbreak of pneumonia caused by a new coronavirus came quietly and silently without any notice. When we were still immersed in the joy of welcoming the Year of the Rat, the school’s new semester start date has been pushed back again and again (and will not now be until 16 March at the earliest). What about student learning? How should schools respond to this sudden change? School education is facing an unprecedented dilemma and challenge!

However, there are always huge opportunities in challenges! When real difficulties and problems are in front of us, the spirit of cooperation and innovation of educators is maximized. Dalton School Hong Kong quickly started distance learning and moved our traditional classrooms to the Internet. Principals and teachers meet via WeChat or Zoom to discuss teaching plans; teachers and parents maintain daily communication through email or Seesaw platforms; teachers and students share learning experiences through Seesaw and Zoom classrooms … People’s communication styles have been changed hugely.

Dalton School, Hong Kong

This unexpected storm not only challenged educators, but also showed everyone the advantages of distance teaching. First, distance learning helps maximize the sharing of teaching resources. For example, after the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a notice of “Suspending schools without stopping learning”, our partner school in Beijing – Tsinghua Affiliated Primary School – opened its online learning resources to the society for free use during the postponed period for primary school students across the country. The Tsinghua Internet School curriculum is created by many subject leaders, teachers of core subjects and outstanding educators. Such high-quality teaching resource sharing is achieved because of the needs of online teaching, and these are not the resources that can be easily acquired in traditional classrooms. Our students in Hong Kong also benefited from it.

Second, distance learning maximizes the potential and creativity of teachers. In order to make their classes lively and interesting, our teachers have been doing everything they can: some have been online to find fun games and videos; some have dressed up as characters in picture books and told stories to students in a dreamy way; some have made professional art videos and have taught students how to draw online … Teachers have experimented and innovated in areas they were not familiar with. It seemed that overnight, teachers’ potential and creativity have become unprecedented.

Third, distance learning makes learning personalized, to the maximum extent possible. Small group learning and one-on-one learning, which are not easily implemented by teachers in traditional classrooms, can be performed perfectly through online learning. For example, one of our teachers, Ms. Cecile, arranged several small grouped math workshops, writing workshops and one-on-one reading support in one day, so each student obtained learning that was suitable for his/her level and ability.

In addition, after students uploaded their work online, teachers can provide targeted feedback as soon as possible. For example, after receiving a Chinese writing assignment uploaded by a second grader, another of our teachers, Ms. Nina, provided such feedback in time: “Thank you for completing the writing task quickly and well! I also like your word choice, e.g., “Sudden Enlightenment” and “Sullen”. Your storyline is also particularly reasonable. I wonder if you can add a little bit, such as if the tiger has learned a lesson afterwards, has he been deceived again? “In this example, Ms. Nina pointed out the strength of the student’s work in text form, and puts forward constructive suggestions to help the student make continuous progress from the first time.

Another example, after receiving a math assignment uploaded by a first grader, yet another teacher, Ms. Zoe, provided following voice feedback first: “Congratulations, you completed all of this correctly! And you also wrote the fractions in simplified form. I would like to know how you learned to simplify fractions. Can you share this with me?” Through this feedback, the student has the opportunity to think further, and he has been encouraged to shift his focus from learning results to learning process. This type of feedback can deepen student learning anytime, anywhere, without being limited by time and region.

One more example, our teacher, Ms. Mimi, provided timely feedback after receiving an assignment uploaded by a first grader, Jessy. Jessy’s mom also participated in the online communication. Here are their online conversations:         

Ms Mimi: “You have done such a good job, Jessy! I really appreciate it that you tried to make as many words as possible. I especially like the word “lavender”. I haven’t thought of the word “lavender” for a long time, and I seemed to have smelled the pleasant scent of lavender already.”                          

Jessy’s mom: “I was also surprised when she wrote the word ‘lavender’. I asked her how she learned this word. She said a few days ago, her helper had helped her apply lavender oil to her doll.”         

Ms Mimi: “Oh yes, we can learn from everywhere in real life. Jessy learned the word from her life and also used what she learned into learning. Very good!”

This dialogue demonstrates the importance of timely communication between parents and teachers. It not only makes parents and teachers have closer relationships, but also allows both parent and teacher to better understand the multiple pathways of children’s access to learning resources; perhaps from teachers, from helpers, and more importantly, children learn from real life!

Of course, distance learning also brings some technical or operational challenges, such as the stability of the network, the selectivity of technology platforms, the differences in the participation of students of different ages in online learning, and the capacity of parents to support children’s learning at home. However, the impact of this pneumonia epidemic on education is not limited to the field of distance learning only. It has also caused us to think deeply about a series of education and life topics, such as: how can we be creative and humane when the crisis suddenly comes? How should we solve problems in difficult situations? How can we re-examine the importance of advocating nature from the height of the community of human destiny, and rethink how to deal with the relationship between man and nature and man-to-man? How can we redefine success and happiness from a new lens? How can we cultivate outstanding students with “native cultural rooted” and “global” perspectives? … all in all, we need to rethink: what is the purpose of education?

I hope that everyone is healthy and safe in this special period of time, and also takes the time to think deeply about the education and future of children, because this is related to the well-being of all humankind, as well as the happiness of each child and each family!

The wonderful Dr Du can be contacted at Dr Helen Wright is a Director of the Dalton School Hong Kong and the author of The Globally Competent School: a manual

The challenge of GESS BITES in Dubai…

Preparing all my notes to speak next week in Dubai about how schools can enable students to become globally competent, based on my latest book, ‘The Globally Competent School: a manual’, I am flexing my presentation muscles to take on the challenge of GESS BITES. This is a stream of talks at the GESS Dubai conference, which runs from Tuesday to Thursday next week (25 to 27 February) at the Sheik Saeed Halls in the World Trade Centre, Dubai, and it is a fast paced, ’10 slides in 10 minutes’, presentation … a challenge, when there is so much to say!

So … what will I say? Well, I will explain quickly that global competence is fundamental to our young people’s futures, giving them an array of choice in a connected world which is essential if they are to have social mobility. I will explain the process that I outline in my book that moves from inspiring staff and the wider school community (to which I give one of my favourite words – “Catalysing”) right through to constructing practical actions for schools. I will look at the 3 levels of school in the model I have created, and set out what it will take to achieve Level 3. I will offer some top tips. And I will speak very, very fast!

I do love a challenge … and I am looking forward to this one. What drives me when I speak in public is the thought that if I can plant a seed of possibility in the minds of those listening, or if I can inspire even just one educator to head back to school and do something just a little (or a lot) differently, so that young people benefit, then I will have had the impact that I seek. I know – really, really know! – how vital it is for our next generation of young adults to be globally aware, globally mobile and globally competent, and anything I can do to help their leaders and schools, those great engines of change, I will.

If you are in the area, do pop by – and I look forward to sharing with you!  

Dr Helen Wright is also the author of Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility.

Poo in the playground …

Visiting one of my favourite state schools in Edinburgh on Thursday, I came into the school reception to find the Headteacher rushing out past me. ‘With you in a minute!’, she gasped energetically, with only a hint of a sigh in her voice, ‘I’ve been told there is a poo in the playground …’. I didn’t dare ask what kind of faecal matter she was talking about, and it didn’t really seem appropriate to enquire afterwards how exactly she had resolved the situation, but it did make me think one important thought …

And that is … here we have a highly qualified, highly experienced professional, charged with arguably one of the most important tasks that society requires of its citizens. She was not, however, spending time, for example, challenging her teachers to draw on the latest research into effective learning and knowledge transfer, or planning evidence-based interventions to support the development of individual students, to ‘get it right for every child’, or feeding into national and international policy through active action research – all of which would have a powerful impact on the future of the young proto-citizens within her sphere of influence.

No – she was dealing with an issue which any other CEO of a similar sized organisation – particularly one with such a clear, strong, vision for success and the public good – would find fairly unimaginable to have to manage, not because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or because they would find it beneath them (because every great CEO will always roll up their sleeves when the need arises), but because they would have resources and a team on hand to support them in using their time for what they only are best at, for the better functioning of the organisation … and in case, the young people who will actually, literally, be the future of the world.

When are we going to get this right? When are we, as a society, going to realise that we have to invest in schools and their leaders, and that we will get out of them much, much more when we liberate them from tasks and expectations which hold them back from making the real difference in children’s lives, and in the strategic direction of schools, of which they are more, more than capable.

I encounter impressive, engaged, inquisitive, driven, determined, focused and ambitious school leaders almost every single day in my work, and my engagement with them motivates me to want to support them in their work. So …  my question for today is this – how can we celebrate, encourage and support them better?

And I cannot really believe that this is through providing them with guidance on how to deal with poo in a playground …

An ethical evening

For a number of reasons, I’ve been reading an unusually high number of ‘codes of conduct’ recently – for executive coaches, for school staff, for Trustees and for other non-executive directors, and it was therefore fortuitous that last week’s Changing the Chemistry Graduate Group Meeting (for members who have one or more board roles), was focused on the ethical standards which Directors and Trustees in public bodies in Scotland are expected to uphold. The invited speaker was the Convenor of the Ethical Standards Commission for Scotland, Kevin Dunnion, and in a measured presentation, and a subsequent, thoughtful, guided conversation, he took us through the Ethical Standards themselves, the processes that exist to support these and manage breaches, and examples of what can go wrong, and how.

Planning how to avoid breaches of ethical standards was probably uppermost in my own, solutions-focused, mind; far better, it seems to me, to work out how to steer people in whichever field is under scrutiny (in my case, educational leadership, governance or coaching) to adhere to the straight and narrow path, rather than have to devote energy to manage painful forays off into the surrounding thorny thickets. Prevention, surely, is far more desirable than cure in this respect. With this in mind, reflecting on my learnings of the past couple of weeks, I thought it might be useful to draw up a little checklist to support ethical behaviours in practice:

  • Make an ethical standards framework visible to all Board members; use the Nolan Principles as a foundation guide, and spend time seeking out what others have put together – this framework does not have to be written from scratch, and if you are in a regulated industry, it will exist already.
  • Lead Board members through regular training on ethical behaviours; this is not a task just for induction or onboarding, and it certainly isn’t just a form to be signed and filed away.
  • Conduct a regular governance review; do you have in place all the possible processes you could employ to support ethical behaviours, and to provide checks and balances for the Board?
  • Engage in regular Board appraisal; think about using a Board coach to gain an external perspective.
  • Put ‘ethical behaviours’ on your Board meeting review form, so you reflect on them.

I like checklists, but I never accept them in their totality; invariably, I think of additional perspectives and other practical bullet points to add to them. This checklist, then, is an invitation to you – to reflect and work out what you would add. Do share, so I can add to my own list!

‘A greater panorama of choice’ … global competence starts at home…

Travelling from Perth railway station to a Boarding Schools’ Association meeting at Strathallan School just outside the city of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fair Maid’, I struck up a conversation with the taxi driver. Born in the 1950’s, and a denizen of these parts, he had inevitably seen much change over the past few decades, and our discussion ranged over politics past and present, the evolution of Scottish cities, and (you will not be surprised to hear) what young people in the region think and feel about their lives.

His take on young people was that they can now see, and want to be part of, a ‘greater panorama of choice’, and this phrase stuck with me. Exposed to the wider world through the digital medium, schools and travel, young people’s curiosity and interest is being stimulated, and they are looking up and beyond. Their choices are multiplying, although arguably a choice is only a choice if they have other alternatives, which puts an onus on their home city to provide attractive opportunities for them too – not to persuade or force them to remain, but to enable them genuinely to choose … a choice to stay is as much of a choice as a choice to move, as long as it is made with genuine and informed consideration for the alternatives. It was fascinating listening to this man’s considered, measured, informed take on the world, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this hitherto stranger.

Strathallan School

And this, of course, is worth reflecting on … he was indeed a stranger when I met him, and would have remained a stranger, had I not taken the step of asking him, quite simply, as we were underway, about whether he had had a busy day so far. It is one of the questions I have learned to ask over the years of taxi drivers – sufficiently neutral so as not to probe, but sufficiently personal as to build a connection. If I didn’t talk to people I met on my travels, my life would be so much less rich. I could easily have enjoyed 20 minutes in peace as we drove through the beautiful countryside, and on another occasion I might have done exactly that, but by not being afraid to reach out and connect, I gained insights and heard perspectives that I found genuinely interesting, and that helped me to walk in his shoes.

Learning how to connect with people is a skill. In schools and at home, we rightly instil a note of caution in our children in their dealings with strangers, but we also need to teach them how to engage with them, and how to listen to and value their understandings, because this will enrich their own. Global competence does not have to start in some exotic location; it can start just round the corner from home. And yet through it, our worlds expand.

Dr Helen Wright is the author of The Globally Competent School: a manual

Knowing yourself … and stretching the breadth and depth of your capacities

I had a lightbulb moment on Friday at approximately 08:45 HKST, ie 00:45 GMT, as I sat with a good friend and fellow executive coach in the ground floor cafe of the Grand Hyatt at the Convention Centre in Hong Kong. I was sipping English breakfast tea and she had an Americano; limited cultural diversity in our choice of beverages, perhaps, but between us we have accumulated a (more than) reasonable wealth of different professional and cultural experiences in the wider field of education, and it was therefore, as ever, an uplifting – and thoroughly enjoyable! – conversation.

At 08:45 (give or take a few minutes), my companion – in response to my musings about balancing a portfolio career, introduced me succinctly and effectively to the concept of an ‘ambivert’ … and the light switch went on, with an almost audible click, accompanied by that little spark that sometimes happens when the wiring has been a bit faulty, and the act of reaching out to the switch has a little heightened risk associated with it. An ambivert! Of course! That is me! I have always had to explain to people why my Myers-Briggs tests sometimes show me as an E, and sometimes as an I, and usually end up taking far too long over the explanation – too long, that is, given the usual attention span that lay people (non-coaches) have while listening to other people talk about their personal characteristics. No longer will this be the case, though! I have the language … I can name that particular part of me; and, even more importantly, this language and knowledge bring into clearer focus another part of the jigsaw in my personal journey of self-discovery. I understand myself better as a result.

Why is this important? Well, when we have a better idea of who we are, we can work out more clearly what we choose to do next in order to capitalise on or enhance our strengths, and/or develop in our capacities in which we have invested less time and/or interest. Life is not long enough to do absolutely everything, but it is too short not to be self-aware enough to help shape the direction of our life through the choices we make, including how we choose to grow and evolve. Some of life may happen ‘to’ us; a remarkable amount of life, though, is open to being moulded, stretched and sometimes flipped on its head. And as any good coach will remind you – because actually, you already know this – the more you know about yourself, the easier this becomes. Psychometric assessments really help in this process.

I am a huge advocate of coaching, which is why I trained and practise as an executive coach, supporting senior leaders in education and other fields across the world. A good coach will keep being coached, too, and will keep learning, so that through keeping alive to the opportunities for their own personal growth, they will be even more attuned to the opportunity for others (their coaches) to grow too. It makes sense that the more we all know about ourselves – and each other – the deeper the appreciation we will have not only for our own capacities, but also for the capacities of others. A win-win, surely.

I am off to flex my ambivert muscles and stretch my ambivert energies. Have a great week!

A new decade: a renewed hope

Stratford-upon-Avon has 4 million visitors a year, according to the taxi driver who took me (and my daughter) back to the railway station after a short post-Christmas break indulging in culture in the town of Shakespeare’s birth. It was, I must say, a fabulous trip; we had a great time visiting various sites associated with the great Bard, and we indulged ourselves in two amazing productions. The RSC / David Walliams / Robbie Williams collaboration, ‘The Boy in the Dress’, is a joyous and glorious ode to diversity, while ‘The Life and Death of King John’, in Director Eleanor Rhode’s energetic and bold 60’s themed interpretation, was utterly, utterly captivating … and completed by an absolutely brilliant female King John.

Back to those 4 million visitors, though, who clearly come from all corners of the world, given the plethora of languages we heard. Whether it is 4 million visitors, or 2.5 million (according to Wikipedia), or 10 million (according to the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, 8 Jan 2017), this is a lot of visitors … all drawn to a hub of creative endeavour and excellence inspired by one of the world’s greatest literary inventors and fashioners of words. The fascination of Stratford is not hard to understand; Shakespeare is legendary throughout the world, the town is easily accessible, and the theatre is just phenomenal. (If I were on TripAdvisor now, I would advise you to take a behind-the-scenes tour – fascinating!)

I can’t help feeling, though, that there is something even deeper that attracts us – something that we might not even recognise before we arrive, or may pass our conscious understanding by, if we are not careful to grasp and illuminate the idea as it flits across our mind. There is a sense – which pervades the creative ingenuity that we glimpsed behind the productions – that as human beings, we are limited only by our imaginations … and our imaginations are, indeed, boundless. Technology, the human body … even, it seemed at times, the laws of Physics … all were stretched before our eyes, underpinned (so it must be) by a resolute commitment that anything and everything is possible, if only we set our mind to it.

I venture to suggest that the fascination and popularity of Stratford speaks to the inner core of our human spirit, which – if we release it – transcends artificial national boundaries and reminds us that there is always a solution to the issues and challenges that face us. What better way to start a new decade than to remind ourselves of this?

Happy New Year!

Making global competence a reality

It has been great to engage with colleagues across the world over the past week in particular, since my latest book, The Globally Competent School: a manual, was published. Thank you so much for your energising words, and – as ever – for your commitment to the education, development and growth of young people in what is undeniably a world that is globally connected as never before. In such a world, of course, we need to support our young people to develop the skills they will need to navigate (and shape) their futures. This is what global competence is all about.

Available on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle version

So … how do we make this happen? In my book, I have sketched out a process that begins with lighting the spark that will fuel the fire of action. This process of catalysing lays the foundation for the fervour and determination which will embed the development of global competence in the heart of school activity, wherever in the world they are, at whatever stage of development they find themselves, and whichever community they serve. The beauty of the skills needed for global competence – including digital and intercultural social skills – is that they are great equalisers and levellers. Equality of access to excellent education is a driving force for the vast majority of educators, and a focus on global competence in schools responds to this need. I would love to hear what you are doing, and am keen to help and support others by sharing your case studies on my new website, Feel the energy, and do get in touch! And enjoy the book …

My new book! The Globally Competent School: a manual

My new book has been published! Hot off the press, it is now on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle version – and my fervent hope is that it will inspire teachers and school leaders to place global competence at the heart of their schools.

Available on Amazon as both a paperback and a Kindle version

I wrote the book as a follow on to my 2016 book, Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility, and it builds on my deep-held conviction that global competence (global mobility, in other words) holds the key to social mobility for our young people. I wanted to draw together all I have learned, and what I have seen starting to work in practice, and to make it as easy as possible for teachers and school leaders to make this difference really happen in their schools. It is not a blueprint – I am far too respectful of the unique circumstances of each school (and far too experienced!) to imagine that what works in one school can be directly imposed into another; this book will hopefully strike the balance between inspiring ideas and giving shape to operational reality, hence its designation as a manual.

I have also set up a dedicated website – to be found at – which lists a number of additional resources, and which will be regularly updated. I’ll be adding more elements to this soon, and am particularly keen to feature case studies of global competence learning and teaching in practice. I already have a few in my sights … watch this space!

Above all, I am passionate about helping to make a difference for our young people, and by enabling them to develop their global competence, we will all be doing this. So please do check in with the website and read the book (and if you are interested in a review copy, please contact me directly).

Onwards and upwards – and thank you so much for engaging!!

Learning to connect with those around us: a Macedonian learning adventure in the Scottish Borders

Courtesy of some poor systems and staffing planning by Trans-Pennine Express trains last week, I found myself on a rail replacement bus meandering across the Scottish Borders towards Carlisle, in order to get on another train that would finally take me to my destination. I can now report that there is a distinct limit to how much work one can do on a laptop on a rail replacement bus that is crossing the Scottish Borders … it was, in fact, not long until I gave up hope and turned my attention to the world around me, and I discovered that my immediate companion was a student of Geology from Greece who seemed quite keen to practise his English, so off we embarked on a conversation.

And what a conversation it was! After I had answered (rather inadequately) his questions about the train network in the U.K., and he had (with slightly puzzlement) answered my questions about the Greek education system, a chance remark of his about the state of Northern Macedonia led me to ask for his insights into the political tensions around the choice of name, and away we went on a journey of historical, geographical and political exploration that took us from the Ancient Greeks to the Balkan Wars. Alexander the Great played a significant role in our (mostly my) learnings, as did various Kings and politicians en route who had made wise or less wise decisions about when and how to invade different parts of the surrounding islands and countries. I learned such a lot.

Thanks to his remembered knowledge from school history, and my (much feebler) contribution of Google maps (and the odd recourse to Wikipedia), I – and, to be fair, he too – have a MUCH more comprehensive understanding of, amongst other events, the Asia Minor Disaster (aka the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922). What a really satisfying way to spend 3 hours! We parted at Carlisle station, both much more knowledgeable, and with me wishing him all the very best for his career in energy (preceded by his military service).

Anyway, my point is this – learnings and connections are usually just within our grasp, often (literally) sitting right beside us, or a mere click, or turn of a book page, away. All we have to do is (a) know this, and (b) reach out for them. Opening our minds and hearts is the first step in learning about others, how they live, what has influenced them and what enriches their lives. And – I say this with absolute conviction, based on experience – reaching out to others, and learning how they think and why, is enormously interesting, satisfying, enlightening and incredibly useful in one’s future interactions.

Need I say more? Connect with someone or something different today – and revel in the increased depth of your learning and understanding.