Instant Gratification?

I read a blog post recently, written by Victoria Prooday, an occupational therapist working in Toronto, Canada. She outlines her beliefs about why some children today find school boring, have little patience and no friends.

The part that really hit home for me was the following, as a possible reason why some children find school such a challenge.

    “I am Hungry!!” “In a sec I will stop at the drive thru” “I am Thirsty!” “Here is a vending machine.” “I am bored!” “Use my phone!”  The ability to delay gratification is one of the key factors for future success. We have the best intentions — to make our children happy — but unfortunately, we make them happy at the moment but miserable in the long term.  To be able to delay gratification means to be able to function under stress. Our children are gradually becoming less equipped to deal with even minor stressors, which eventually become huge obstacles to their success in life.
    The inability to delay gratification is often seen in classrooms, malls, restaurants, and toy stores the moment the child hears “No” because parents have taught their child’s brain to get what it wants right away.

Her blog post reminded me of another book that I have read that referred to “The Marshmallow Affect”. The Stanford marshmallow affect experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index and other life measures.

It is very interesting to me, as this research concludes that there is a link between very young children who can manage themselves into delaying an activity while waiting for a better reward and success later in life. I have to agree with Victoria in that we are seeing more and more young people who do not know how to manage themselves in this way.Instant gratification is becoming more and more the norm in our young people’s lives.  In classrooms, some children who are told “please wait and take your turn” find this extremely difficult. As educators we need to support everyone in providing boundaries for children. “You will get that ice-cream after you have eaten your vegetables” would have been something our grandparents would have stuck to. In the classroom this translates to “You will need to show me evidence that you have done this learning, before we move on” and most importantly when an adult says “no”, we mean no, not just “no, but then I’ll find another way to get what I want”.

Working with small children is hard work whether you are a parent or a teacher, but the effort put in now has such long term effects. Our future citizens deserve nothing less.


We before me!

We Before Me! Our theme for 2017-18

Every year before school starts, our teaching staff (teachers and teachers assistants) meet for three days of professional development and learning. This year was no exception and out of our work this year, we adopted a theme for the year; “We before Me!” Our aim is to focus on being a strong team of educationalists whose focus is the welfare and progress of all of our students and ourselves, from Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12. We are all collectively responsible for “Opening Doors, Hearts and Minds” in our students and ensuring that they understand their role in supporting each other to do the same.

“We before me” focuses our attention and therefore behaviors on people working together with one common mission and vision. Here at ACST this is an important part of how we function as a school. We try to put aside our own needs, in favor of what is good for the collective whole. “Team work really does make the dream work”. We are team orientated and  supportive of each other.  We have over time developed agreed group norms or ways of behaving as we go about our daily work.  This is of course, not a new idea! Businesses all around the world are looking for team players and re-structuring so that their employees can work best as a collective group.

Schools are just the same! We have moved a long way from the days when a teacher went into a box-shaped classroom at the beginning of the year with his or her students and worked away all year in complete isolation from the rest of the school. We are developing systems here at ACST where teachers “coach” other teachers by providing feedback and where teachers meet to discuss student progress and overall needs. The idea that “it takes a whole village to raise a child” is very much evident at ACST. A child’s welfare, behavior and academic progress is all of our responsibility not just the person standing at the front (or side) of the classroom. However, teams work best if there is a strong common culture of vision and expectations and this is the work we pursued during our professional development time this year.

This theme is equally as important for our students. While it is perfectly normal for very young children to be focused completely on themselves, as children mature through elementary school and on to secondary we want them to learn to think of what is good for the group, as well as what is good for themselves. This is why we emphasize group projects, collaborative seating and have organizations such as the Youth Club, National Honors Society and School Government functioning so well in our school. One of the ACST core values is respect and this plays out in many ways–respect for oneself, respect for the environment and respect for each other. Students are learning how to behave respectfully with each other, how to listen first rather than always speak, how to cooperate and also how to disagree with each other while maintaining a sense of respect for another point of view. It is our mission to teach and model these skills to all of our students. As Michael Jordan quite rightly said “ talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence win championships”.

Turning the page! It’s a new school year!

One of the aspects that I love about working in a school is the sense of timing of the school years. The school year closes in June (or December if you are in the southern hemisphere) in a flurry of “end of the year” activities such as prize-givings, final assemblies, celebrations and farewells. There is always a sense of closure and celebration as we collectively head out the door into our summer vacations. The same goes for the beginning of the school year; it has its own unique feel:- excitement, nervousness and an eagerness to get back to routines and the rhythm of the school year. After all these years, I cannot now imagine working in an environment where this cycle is not present. Today was our first day “meeting and greeting” both our new and returning students and their families and that same sense of freshness was evident once again. It’s like “turning the page” to start again with time to let the new year begin.

Another aspect that I love about working in education is one that I have been reflecting upon a lot over the summer and that is “there are no absolutes in today’s educational world”. Gone are the days where schools were organized around only one way. In year’s gone by schools and indeed teachers, stood for one particular method or strategy.  For example, the mantra of “all children will learn to read through a phonics approach to the teaching of reading” or the opposite of “all children will learn to read via a whole language approach”.  Teachers and schools adopted programs and/or systems that supported one or the other. In today’s world these ideas have been replaced with “some children learn best via this type of instruction, others will learn a different way’ Schools are organizing themselves so much more into places that can truly respond to all needs. This concept spills over into the differences in schools–charter vs public vs private; open plan vs single cell. What I now firmly believe is that there is no one way, no either or, just lots of and….and…. And…

Here’s to a great start in 2017-18!

Why is change so hard?

Someone once told me that the only person who likes change is a wet baby! Yes, this might be true but I would also add to this that the person who is initiating the change also probably quite likes it, they happily join the line up of wet babies wawhy-is-change-so-hard-1-728iting for the change to occur and relishing the ongoing effects of whatever it is that they are moving forward, mainly because it is they who are in control. It is those who are affected by the change or have no power over the change who more than likely do not like it one bit.

After  25+ years of experience working in schools I feel qualified to say that “changing anything in a school is hard”. For some reason schools are institutions that love predictability, order and consistency. Maybe it is because we work with children who are far from any of these three adjectives. Maybe also it is because a school is not just bricks and mortar but people–teachers, staff members, students, leaders, board members and parents. With such a large group of stakeholders it is very challenging to find agreement about change, meaning that there is always going to be some who do not agree and are not happy. I do wonder sometimes though if the surgeons of the world have to discuss their proposed new surgical method at length with their patient, the patient’s parents, the board of the hospital and all of the staff members. I guess they do!

In our international private school setting I believe that change is even harder than it was within a state school in my home country. I am not sure whether this is because there is a constantly revolving door of international teachers, students and parents or maybe it’s because there is such a diverse range of previous experiences of schools and education systems.

We discuss the need for innovation often but very rarely actually do it, allowing much that could be good to sit in the ‘too hard” basket. This is such a dichotomy as innovation is what we are looking for in our global-minded students.

However lessons learned along the way! To effect positive change in any institution we need to enlist the hearts and minds of all of the stakeholders, not just some. While this work is challenging it is hopefully worth it in the end.

Our Elementary School-Mission and Vision in action.

ACST Core Values and Learner Qualities Blue Door (1)Our Elementary School–”Mission and Vision in action”

Here at ACST, our mission and vision are more than mere statements on our website and letterhead. Our aim is to constantly bring these aspirational statements to life in our classrooms, corridors and play areas. Our mission “Opening doors, hearts and minds” can be explained in three parts. Firstly it is our intention to provide your child/ren with all of the opportunities that an American-based education can provide–literally to open doors by way of the learning experiences we provide. This is particularly true in the Elementary School where our aim is for every student to experience a whole range of learning experiences, in academics, art, physical education, music and world languages. Secondly we want to “open our students’ hearts”; we want them to grow and develop into great people who are compassionate, kind and respectful. Lastly we see it as our mission to ‘open their minds”. We want each student to be a thinker and a learner, capable of problem solving and in-depth understandings. Similarly the school’s vision which states that “The American Cooperative School of Tunis will inspire a passion for learning, while endowing students with the expertise and confidence necessary to pursue dreams in and for a global society,” is the cornerstone of all that we aim to achieve. It is vitally important that our actual daily practice aligns with these statements.

In the Elementary School, we believe that one way that we can achieve both the mission and vision of ACST is to ensure that each student is learning at just the right level for them. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotksy in the early nineteenth century developed a concept called the zone of proximal development, often now referred to as ZPD. His idea was that the best learning occurs for anyone when they are operating in a zone that is just a little ahead of where they are operating independently. An example of this would be a child who can read books at a certain level needs to be instructed at a level slightly ahead of this. They are being challenged but not stretched so far that it is impossible for them to function. With help and support from a coach or teacher, they will constantly be ‘in the learning pit’. What this means is that within a class of children who are around the same age as each other, there are many different levels of achievement. Twenty children can all be in Grade 2 but they can be operating at 5 different levels. It is the teacher’s role to work out how the teaching program can be organized so that each child is being “stretched” at just the right level for them.


This year, we are organizing our learners into groups or classes that are named by their room number and also communities of these classes. Three classes make up a community and each of the communities are to be named after a ‘migrating bird of Tunisia”. Our PK classes are to be called the flamingoes, our Kinder/Grade 1 class the tawny owls, the Grade 2 and 3s the cranes and lastly the Grade 4 and 5s the hummingbirds. All of a student’s learning will happen within the community that they are in, however they could very well be learning in three different classes across three different curriculums within one school day. For example they may be with their own teacher for reading and a different teacher for math. Our overall aim is to ensure that each child is grouped with others of the same level so that they are working within their ‘zone of proximal development”. We want all of our students to be stretched and/or supported according to their individual needs.


At ACST, your child’s growth both academically and as a potential global citizen of the world is our ‘core business”. We do not want school to be ‘too easy’ or “too hard”–it needs to be “just right” for each individual.


The Beginning of the School Year–What’s on top?


I love the beginning of the school year! Despite the craziness of meeting students and parents, settling everyone into class and ensuring that teachers have everything that they need, there is a wonderful sense of contagious“freshness” that pervades everything we do.  I like to remind myself how lucky we are to work in an environment where you start afresh every twelve months. Students move up a grade, teachers have new faces to greet on the first day back, new goals are set and there is a sense of positivity with everyone  looking forward to the year ahead.

At our place, the talk this year is a lot about “alignment and congruence” –setting goals together, working collaboratively, keeping things consistent, moving forward as a learning community. As a leadership team, one of our aims is for all of the stakeholders to be “rowing the boat in the same direction” and we are working hard to develop actions that will enable this to happen. Over the years, two sets of research have impacted my beliefs and consequently my actions, around this issue. The first  is the work of Prof John Hattie from my own home country of New Zealand. His meta-analysis of research

about what aspects make a difference to student learning, has become well known around the world. However one of the outcomes of his work is his conclusion that there are greater differences in effectiveness for student learning within a school than there are between schools. Although it seems amazingly simple, it is very hard to ensure that every single student in a school is receiving what they need to meet their needs. Learning and growth can be occurring in one class but not in all.

The second article that I took particular notice of recently was written by a veteran teacher who decided to shadow a student for a whole day, observing what they did and how they were taught. The veteran teacher’s “takeaways” were very thought-provoking but my wondering from such an exercise was how aligned were the expectations on that student as they moved from class to class and lesson to lesson, or were they expected to learn differently according to the adult in front of them.

Leading a school where learning is the focus, where students are the center of all that we do and where everyone is heading in the one direction seems to me to be the most effective way to go. Let’s get going!


I am a great admirer of the work of Andy Hargreaves, a re-known British educator who has had a huge impact on education across the world but most particularly in Ontario, Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand. He currently serves as the Chair in Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. So when I read his most recent blog post this past week, my interest was piqued. The event that he recalls is, of course, of great interest to me, as I remember it well.

Andy recounted to his readers how on 22 February 2011, at 12.51pm, a monumental earthquake shook the city of Christchurch in New Zealand to its foundations. One hundred and eighty-five people lost their lives. Others lost family members, friends, limbs and homes. Around 10,000 dwellings became uninhabitable. The city’s historic stone cathedral cracked apart and its tower collapsed in pieces. Three-quarters of the central business district was destroyed or damaged beyond repair. After the dust had settled, the rebuilding had to begin. Some of this would inevitably be long term, and the giant cranes that now sweep across the city are symbols of the ongoing reconstruction. Other answers had to be more immediate. Where would the city’s residents and future visitors shop, dine and do their banking when retail space had been all but eliminated? The response was a quickly constructed precinct called Re:START, where scores of old shipping containers have been refurbished, brightly repainted and stacked on top of one another to make a chic shopping district. Where would the cathedral’s displaced congregation worship? The solution, devised by prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is the magnificent transitional Cardboard Cathedral, erected on the edge of the most damaged part of the city. It has not all been easy, of course but the reconstruction of Christchurch is a compelling case of how and why creativity, critical thinking, collaborative actions and problem solving matter. In today’s world these are the ways we devise ingenious solutions to overwhelming social problems.

In reading Andy’s post, I was immediately reminded of the importance of educating our youth in such a way that they can be the collaborative, problem solvers, capable of creative and critical thinking, as these are the attributes that the world needs especially when responding to crises such as the one in Christchurch five years ago. This is why our ACST learner qualities are so important! This is vastly different from the style of education I received as a student myself. All those years ago, knowing and remembering were valued. You were deemed to be a good student if you could follow instructions and remember all that your teachers told you. This is so different to what we value and celebrate here at ACST. We want our students to “question, connect, innovate, take risks, persevere, collaborate, reflect and wonder”. These qualities were chosen in 2013 and over the past three schools years we have worked hard to ensure that they actually do mean something to every ACST student.

Three years ago, we conducted a mini-research project here at ACST. We asked 60 randomly chosen students from across all of the grades what they believe good learners do to become good learners. The results were very interesting: firstly, most of the students regardless of age struggled to talk about learning as they lacked the vocabulary to do so; secondly many of our students confused good earning with being a well-behaved student. While we want our students to be well behaved, we don’t want them to think that for example “walking in a straight line’ or “doing their homework” is what it takes to be a good learner. The interviews were all videoed and then shared with the faculty of the time. The actions taken following this action-research were the establishment of the ACST Learner Qualities and the eventual implementation of them into all aspects of our school programs.

This year, in 2016, it was time to re-do our mini-research again. This time 50 randomly chosen students were interviewed by a group of teachers, using the same questions as those asked in 2013. A sample of the interviews was shared with the faculty who then had time to reflect upon “what does this tell us about what we have been doing?” and “what does it tell us about the future?” The good news is that most of our sampled students actually used the ACST learner quality words to talk about what good learners do. Asking questions, taking risks, persevering and having grit were by far the most popular responses. Some even talked about the ability to collaborate and reflect upon what you know and where you are going next, as important parts of their learning processes. The ACST students of today are a lot more metacognitive than those that we interviewed in 2013 and this makes us really happy. They seem to understand that learning is a thinking process and that if you are not thinking, you are not really learning.

However, one of the interesting aspects of our action-research this time around was that only one student talked about learning as something that can happen outside of the school day. This implies that our students still see learning as very much a ‘school-orientated” activity. While this is fine, one of our aims would be for all of our students to view learning as something you do on the soccer field, in the playground, while travelling on a plane and while talking with their family. Learning as a life-long habit is what we are after. Parents can support this in the questions and conversations you have with your child/ren. Feel free to use our ACST language, for example: – great job persevering on that task, or what questions are you thinking about? In fact, there is a lot of research available today that says that when a parent reinforces the concept that all students can grow their own learning ability (i.e. their growth mindset) the child will flourish, rather than when just the grade or the achievement is rewarded.

I am so pleased to be working in a school where learning rather than merely passing through the system is valued and focused on. Here at ACST we will continue to make this our focus because “opening doors, minds and hearts” is all about the development of an adult that might one day go on to solve the problems of the world. As Andy Hargreaves states “Crises and social problems require many people to be creative, not just one or two. At this point in history, we need creativity, care and compassion on a scale that we have never witnessed before.” Let’s work together to ensure that ACST develops these types of people.

Reference: Blooming Teachers by Andy Hargreaves

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