School Killed My Creativity

Picking up my three year old from school is my favorite task of the day.  Not only am I still a super hero in his little world, but I also bear witness to genuine excitement about learning and, in his little hand, some sort of creative project.  This varies from scribble on half sheets of paper, which recently produced “Mr. Tomato”, to construction paper cut outs of guitars with flowers or cats with wings.  He eagerly explains what he produced and how he did it, and we proudly display these authentic works throughout the house.

Shifting to my day job, I listen to the gripes and groans from students in grades nine through eleven as they prepare for June exams.  These voices come from all along the bell curve–top students to average students to struggling students.  As I assemble this chorus in my mind, I notice a common theme:  student creativity and authenticity has been lost in formative evaluations across all academic subject matter lines (with the exception of the art and music program).  And this has been a common chorus in the many schools spanning my career:  elite boarding schools, parochial schools, public schools, international/bi-lingual schools.

What is being tested primarily is memory.  While memory and teaching students how to memorize has its own cognitive benefits, it is not what students should be mastering in every course across the curriculum.  Looking at some of their review packets, it is clear that while this is not the only element of their exam, it is certainly a large portion of it.  Harold Bloom suggests that evaluation and creativity are the highest orders of thinking.  It would follow, then, that if the academic year focused on ensuring that students have fundamental skills in respective disciplines, shouldn’t these skills be put to “the test” by demanding them to be used in an evaluative and/or creative capacity?  For example, in a European studies course, an exam question could read:  will the European Union exist as it is now in ten years from now?  Why?  Why not?  Base your analysis on the geopolitical and cultural aspects of Europe that we examined this year.  Or for a Biology class, what, specifically, are the challenges of making new anti-biotics to counter “super-bugs”?  What do you see as the greatest threat to the human race in the future, super-bugs or super-viruses?  Why?  How can we combat this?  Base your reply on the cellular nature of these life forms.

As educators, we need to demand more from ourselves by stepping away from what we have always done and have on our computer drives to what is happening here and now in the world, regardless of our respective disciplines.  By planting ourselves in the present, we develop relevance within the student learner, and we embolden them when we demand from them evaluations and creative solutions to problems now and in the future.  Maybe then, when I pick my thirteen year old up from school in the future, I may see that same spark of learning excitement that I saw today.


Service Learning–year two

Quite proud of the year long service learning project between the Stanstead College students of Quebec, Canada, and the Olympia Schools students of Hanoi, Vietnam. This is year two of the collaboration. Helen from SC made the following video: This is the second year of the project. The first year was at the same location, video produced by TOS students:

Bringing PBL and Internship Together

The Capstone Project Internship
Real world work with the guiding principles of STEM applications

Credit: 1.0 credit, STEM, awarded by Stanstead College, Quebec, Canada

Grades: Students entering grade 11 and 12 in the Fall, 2017 (some exceptions made for advanced grade 10)

Dates: June 5 to July 21 (2-3 weeks remote, digital work; 2 weeks of project execution in country; 1 week remote, digital follow-up)

Location: Pleiku, Vietnam (SOS Children’s Village and local businesses)

Overview: The Capstone Project Internship (CPI) is an innovative project-based program that provides students with an opportunity to engage in rigorous scholarly practice of the core academic skills necessary for the successful completion of a real world internship. Built on the foundation of two principles — project-based learning and internship — it is designed to complement and enhance the in-depth, interdisciplinary study provided through research, trial-and-error, and reflective post-project analysis. It cultivates curious, independent, and collaborative scholars and prepares them to make logical, evidence-based decisions, and real-time adaptions: project management. It will also serve as a springboard for college application essay writing, which is an added component and requirement for those entering grade 12.

Essential Tasks: Design, execute, and de-brief programs for local businesses and the Children’s village to maximize resource allocations, maintain sustainability, enhance quality of programs and/or products. Students will begin by analyzing the current needs assessment of the either a local business or the children in the SOS village. Working remotely at their home locations on shared virtual space and within specified budget parameters, students will propose schedules, programs, data-collecting processes, and quality metrics. Upon approval, these programs will go into place upon arrival in Pleiku, Vietnam, where all constituents will meet in person and make final preparations. Plans will be executed on site(s), and upon completion of tasks, post-project analysis will occur with publication and strategies for modifications presented. Students will return to their respective homes and work remotely, and final products will be shared on common platforms and social media sites. College essay writing, if applicable, will occur simultaneously as students will be keeping a detailed journal of their field observations, data collection, and activities.

Methodology: DOASAPP™
Discover, Organize, Analyze, Synthesize, Authenticate, Predict, Publish

Skill Development:

Reading Comprehension and Metacognitive Awareness – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE
· Grasp of increasingly complex nonfiction (informational) texts with added depth of understanding through the acquisition of developmentally appropriate reading strategies.

Level 2 – (10) Develop an understanding of scientific and/or mathematical concepts by accessing information from multiple sources.
Learn to self-teach: access multiple sources to aid oneself in problem solving.
Evaluate the scientific accuracy and significance of information.
Understand the sequence of a text (ability to recall/re-access earlier material).
Redefine key terms and phrases authentically.
Take notes for meaning.
Use notes as a source for review.
Level 3 – (11) Skim a text and/or scholarly writing (e.g. scientific article) with pre-determined purpose for relevant information.
Navigate and decipher between valid and invalid Internet information.
Level 4 – (12) Refine the ability to retrieve relevant information from a problem and filter non-relevant information.
Be able to see the broader historical context of discovery and future implications and applications of different areas of study.
Justify the validity of interpretations of data.
Advanced Identify the strengths/weaknesses of informational texts.
Evaluate the quality of informational sources.

Multimedia, Art, Oral Comprehension – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE
· Evaluation of web-sites; interpretation of non-verbal and oral information
· Savvy choice of reliable and varied references, ability to glean information from charts, graphs, tables, visual and artistic pieces

Level 2 – (10) Develop and use spreadsheets.
Access relevant sources for a project.
Use virtual simulators to develop/demonstrate understanding of material.
Level 3 – (11) Select an appropriate graphical representation for a set of data and use appropriate statistics to communicate information about the data.
Use basic Excel formatting and graphical representation.
Evaluate graphical (visual) information for what it shows and does not show; make extrapolations and mathematical computations.
Draw connections between different mediums of information conveying similar concepts.
Level 4 – (12) Create the guidelines/rubric for an effective multi-media presentation.
Assess the quality of visual presentations based upon content and style.
Interpret graphs with mathematical models.
Advanced Evaluate presentations and reports in terms of content and style; offer specific feedback for enhancement and further study.

Critical Thinking – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE
· Demonstration of increasingly complex critical thinking skills (Bloom’s taxonomy)
· Discernment of relationships between increasingly complex abstract ideas and information, primarily evaluation.

Level 2 – (10) Analyze the findings of a given experiment.
Differentiate between laws, theories, postulates, hypotheses.
Identify patterns in data, what it suggests and does not suggest.
Prove theories/find exceptions to a rule (if any).
Extrapolate charts and graphs.
Make connections between classroom content (theory) and environment (real world).
Understand when an answer/conclusion is reached and why.
Recognize continuity/progression of math and science.
Critical thinking–Knowledge, Comprehension, Application–Bloom’s first three levels of higher order thinking.
Level 3 – (11) Analyze the findings of scientific research.
Determine laws and theories from observations and data.
Understanding bias in experiments and samples.
Use, manipulate, and understand how controls work in an experiment.
Understand how variables may affect data.
Evaluate statistical significance.
Infer implications of seemingly disconnected examples to learned concepts.
Level 4 – (12) Bloom’s highest orders of thinking–Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation–students to respond to and generate questions in this realm.
Advanced Create authentic experiments and problems for discovery, predicting outcomes and defending results.
Postulate problems for further study.

Inquiry & Meaning Making – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE
· Ability not only to tackle questions posed by others but also to identify and articulate the questions that require solutions (Bloom’s questions)
· Application of purposeful inquiry to stated problems in order to evaluate a situation and articulate how solutions may be found
-Application of technology to measure, investigate, and calculate.
· Make observations, raise questions, and formulate hypotheses.

Level 2 – (10) Hypothesize and give reasons behind hypothesis.
Predict based upon prior knowledge.
Formulate questions that can be investigated in the lab/understand whether or not questions can be investigated in the lab.
Recreate a previously completed lab exercise.
Make connections between various theories and laws in nature.
Evaluate the accuracy of scientific findings and their limitations.
Recognize sources of error in an experiment/derive ways of decreasing said error.
Verify previous discoveries.
Evaluate and summarize the results of experiments.
Level 3 – (11) Select required materials, equipment, and conditions for conducting an experiment.
Write procedures that are clear and replicable.
Investigate and discern the integrity of others’ experiments.
Critique and question biases of research (e.g., scientist, investigative journalist).
Formulate questions that can be addressed with data and collect, organize, and display relevant data to answer them.
Develop and evaluate inferences and predictions that are based on data.
Design further experiments based upon data results.
Infer and draw conclusions by statistically manipulating raw data.
Level 4 – (12) Create a lab given only a question and/or concept.
Express the knowns and unknowns when approaching a new problem.
Recognize themes that identify skill sets that may be useful in problems.
Understand and articulate relevancy of problems and analogous situations in which the methods used to solve may apply.
Advanced Evaluate the technology used–its limitations and liabilities–in measurements and investigations; propose alternate uses of technology, research techniques, and problem-solving strategies if need be.

Writing, Speaking and Digital Expression – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE
· Ability to produce fluid, well-organized, and clearly articulated written expression of ideas; facility with technological tools for appropriate and effective communication
· Effective and varied use of sentences, vocabulary, punctuation; structured and logical progression of communication in all forms
Level 3 – (11) Present relationships between and among variables in appropriate forms.
Represent data and relationships between and among variables in charts and graphs.
Use appropriate technology (e.g., graphing software) and other tools.
Level 4 – (12) Work with digital tools used at the university and professional level, recognizing what the strengths and limitations are. (Calculators, Applications, etc.)
Show solutions with clear and well-organized structure.
Advanced Publish scientific and mathematical reports, labs, discoveries, etc..

Character and Citizenship Development – APPLIED MATH & SCIENCE
· Understanding that learning shapes ethical and empathetic traits; ability to work collaboratively with others; intellectual risk-taking; accountability for one’s actions
· Empathy – Compassion – Integrity – Courage – Teamwork – Humility – Intellectual curiosity – Ownership – Responsibility
Level 2 – (10) Work as part of a group (fill a given role).
Own and report errors in an experiment.
Understand the importance of presenting correct information.
Recognize the consequences of error (or hiding error/intentional miscalculations).
Recognize ethics in findings.
Understand the responsibility of human beings in the world (natural environment).
Identify and critique arguments about personal or societal issues based on scientific evidence.
Evaluate scientific explanations in a peer review process or discussion format.
Recognize motivation in science.
Level 3 – (11) Lead a group or groups towards a single goal.
Delegate tasks.
Accept and work effectively in a variety of roles in a group.
Understanding equality of roles in a group (no role is lesser than another — without all working together, the group will fail).
Level 4 – (12) Publish or present ethical positions to the school or general community, either as a group or individually.
Advanced Evaluate the global implications of scientific, mathematical, and technological issues and innovations in terms of ethics and legal statutes in terms of International laws.

Why Doesn’t Every Class Start with Current Events?

6th-Current-Events-Word-cloud.pngI ponder why every teacher in every discipline does not seize on the opportunity to begin each and every class with current events. Regardless of the discipline, news web sites are now designed with tabs that identify geographical regions, areas of interest, such as Finance or Science and Technology, and even categories of leisure, such as Travel. So why take the time to do this?

1) Relevance. Students and constantly asking “what does this have to do with anything? why do I need to know this?” One of my classes is currently studying “Macbeth”, and as we build a psychological profile on him and anticipate future outcomes, Donald Trump dominates the headlines on every news channel. Where do we see similarities between the two? differences? And what about Lady Macbeth–how does she manipulate and control his actions? Do we see anybody like this with Trump?  Associations and connections are made, and students begin to understand the importance of analyzing what leaders say, what others say of them, what they do, and how we might be able to anticipate their actions in the future.
2) Navigating Information. We never open one news source. Typically, we will look at three from different parts of the world. Usually, the three sources are American, British, and Korean or Japanese. Students look at the headlines that often time match, yet the content seems different in its presentation, tone, and analysis. What a better way to teach students about bias, facts, subtleties, and sources than to do informal side-by-side comparison on a daily basis.
3) Innovative Thinking. We recently came across an article on a discovery at Harvard University–solid hydrogen. As we investigated further, we looked at images of the crystal lattice structure, discussed why it would be a more powerful rocket fuel, why it will replace copper as an ideal conductor of electricity. And this is English class! I asked the students if they discussed this in their science class, and unfortunately, they said no. They have been focused on “other” topics. We then pulled out a Periodic Table of Elements to look at other possibilities with gases, and why or why not this can replicated.  Science is now, and science is happening all around us, changing at breakneck speed.  While fundamentals are important, so too is the connection between theory and practice, between the “book” and what is being worked on in laboratories across the world now.
4) Producers vs. Consumers of Information. One of the articles students wished to explore further (students choose as a group where and what we read) was the recent announcement of expanding the Keystone Pipeline and which companies serve to benefit from this. This led us to exploring stock prices, market reactions to news, and specific data headings on a typical Yahoo Finance stock report. Hands went in the air as students sought to define P/E ratios, EPS, Dividend and Yield, etc.. As a statistics or math teacher, these types of discussions, explanations, analysis of data, and then prediction of future trends is exactly the higher order thinking skills our students will need.

Finally, keeping up with current events makes a better teacher.  As professionals, we must be lifelong readers and help our students become engaged citizens of the world.  What is happening now matters.  We fail if we do not foster awareness and thinking about the here and now and how this may forecast events to come.


Service Learning–social media and web-based fund raising

As we enter our second year of service learning between The Olympia Schools and Stanstead College, the students at SC have devised two new ways to raise funds. The first is web-based, utilizing the school’s home page:

After learning about the project, donors can donate on this page:

The second, designed by one of the SC students, utilizes Facebook and social media:

This is yet another powerful aspect of project design and project management: students learn innovative ways to raise money for their project.

Conference Presentation–Abstract

To those readers in Hanoi, if you have a chance to attend this, please do so.


I will be presenting there. The abstract is as follows:

CHRISTOPHER M. MCDONALD, The Olympia Schools, Vietnam,

Integrated studies and blended learning creates innovative teachers and students. Integrated studies happen in three tiers of organizational structure with an essential experiential piece–the capstone of the programming. Not in order of importance, integration can occur a) within an individual classroom, b) between separate classrooms, and c) within columns of grades (primary, secondary, and high school). And it should be followed by extended learning labs where skills are put to use in a real-world, relevant situations followed by the publication of these applications to a wider audience. This requires a rethinking of traditional organizational structures within schools and effective use of faculty planning time. In addition, training must accompany these projects, particularly with faculty who have little exposure with social media and on-line publishing platform. Using a dynamic design methodology, interdisciplinary courses require three steps. Successful courses exist because they are relevant to the real world, are real time, and pertain to student lives and interest. Thus, classes should begin each day with an examination of current events and derive lessons based upon the here and now. This progression can be summarized in three simple essential questions: 1) Where are we now? 2) How did we get here? 3) Where are we going? The current events provide lively discussion for the first five minutes of class. These happenings typically provoke the question “why”. This is the segue needed to probe into the second question–how did we get here? Content should focus on the “why” questions, and after training the students in question formulating techniques, teachers will have plenty of why questions that can be prioritized and can serve as guidance for subsequent lessons. 3-2-1 exit cards and K-W-L charts should be employed as well to track interest and assess learning. The curriculum may also be enriched through blended learning. Besides expanding the breadth of course offerings and e-books through free on-line resources such as EdX, on-line blended learning offers dual diploma possibilities and global projects. Case studies in Vietnam can be provided for further discussion for all aforementioned topics.
Keywords: blended learning, interdisciplinary design, experiential learning, dual diplomas
Paper’s ID: VS3.001121

Thematic Global Progression–Vietnam’s Progressive Education


My goal at The Olympia Schools has been to design a curriculum that begins the student experience with a focus on themselves, their families, their neighborhoods (grade 7 and 8).  As they mature and progress in this understanding, the horizons need to expand, and a school must provide this broader awareness.

Here is an example:  the manifestation of the grade 11 service-learning program last Spring, a year long project with students from Stanstead College, Quebec.  The main technology used to connect students was Edmodo, a free app and posting resource.  The video was created exclusively by the students.






The Olympia Schools Magazine–Opening Article

Dear Families and Students,

As mentioned at the opening meetings for all students, each year we pick a theme that helps to frame our overall curriculum and extracurricular activities. If you remember two years ago, we challenged students on a very personal level: do your best, do what is right, and care. Last year, we built upon this individual challenge to move students beyond self and to build the capacity to be leaders: global stewardship. Global stewardship can be defined as the commitment to the responsible management of world resources (natural, human, and economic) through informed leadership. As our students assumed leadership roles throughout all aspects of the school—class projects, athletic teams, clubs, musical performances, community service, and service learning activities—2016-17 offered us the opportunity to move this personal and leadership growth to the idea of sustainable development. How can one elicit change in one’s own homes, community, country, and world? How can we try to create the conditions for the planet to continue without destroying the social fabric and environmental conditions of the earth?

Utilizing the framework from UNESCO,, it is a natural progression in our yearly themes for students to apply what they have learned over the past two years to these “17 Goals to Transform our World”. Over the past two years, all students have been engaged in activities that resonate within these objectives. Many of our class trips involved spending time with and helping those communities lacking the financial resources for food, education, and basic necessities, such as electricity and clean water. Primary students learned about their own community in the Hanoi and Me program while cleaning up the environment. Our primary and middle school students have been involved in cultural exchanges with students from Korea, New Zealand, and the United States.
Last year, our SGO group engaged in year long service learning project with students from Canada that resulted in building a wall for a rural elementary school in addition to recreational training for children at an orphanage. Our grade nine students made a classroom-to-classroom with students from a Cambodian International school and met together to discuss issues ranging from politics, border misunderstandings, and prejudice. These are just a few examples of our commitment to sustainable development.

This year will be no different; in fact, it will be taking what we have accomplished in the past and enhancing those projects to be greater in depth and breadth while launching new ones. For example, students will be competing by grade level to broaden awareness both in their homes and at school regarding recycling: plastic, metal, paper, and food composting. Recycle bins will populate the school and will be used within the science curriculum to teach students about materials and the process of recycling and its importance. Grade 9 students will be embarking in an interdisciplinary project within their History, Literature, and Geography classes that sends them to various locations throughout Vietnam as they discover Vietnam now, where it has been, and where it may be in the future. Grade 10 students will continue their work with students in Cambodia with a particular focus on climate change and how it affects both countries. SGO will continue stage 2 of the service-learning project with Canada. And our high school chemistry students are working with students in La Porte, Texas, regarding issues of sustainable energy sources and development in the United States and Vietnam. And so much more!

While the world faces many challenges, the Olympia students at all levels are in training to be problem identifiers and problem solvers. It is an exciting year to be a part of this vibrant and global community. I look forward to seeing the results of this “discovery learning” and applaud in advance the efforts of families in their support of our initiatives, the teachers in their willingness to be mentors and learners themselves, and the students who eagerly and enthusiastically engage the encounters ahead of them.

What motivates students?

Students remember teachers–not a curriculum, not a methodology, not a school per se. What they remember most is the teacher who was able to challenge them and the teacher who was able to help them accomplish what they never thought possible–even if this resulted in a bad grade. So how did the teacher do this? Is there a common “secret” that all great teachers possess? There is . . .

Unmotivated students share common attributes. They find little to no success in their schooling, and they feel socially isolated. Face-to-face peer interactions have been replaced largely by social media. And when these students attend school, their isolation gets exacerbated further without peer and technological interactions. Video game makers and athletic coaches are acutely aware of these characteristics. Thus, they have incorporated a “90% feedback loop” of success, and they have made social interactions a staple of their respective programs.

The positive feedback loop depends upon two ingredients: frequent assessment with success and achievable goals. Video game makers allow its participants to succeed and advance levels based upon competency. Level jumps are not easy to achieve, but they are attainable, and players get encouragement, hints, and rewards as they get better and better. Feedback is immediate, and players soon learn how to master a task in order to move towards their respective goals. Coaches do the same as their athletes set individual and team objectives. Coaches critique, praise, and move players along in practices and competitions, which are frequent and focus on skill development.  Players learn from mistakes and build towards winning games they may have lost.  The focus is a 90% success rate with a 10% “dangling fruit” to be attained with further practice.

Social success depends upon group dynamics and the team’s, or classroom’s, culture.  Video games now involve multiple players from across the world.  Players work together at tasks; they communicate regularly as they look to master problems and levels.  While many may think video gamers play in isolation, nothing could be further from the truth:  they develop and interact in a highly social network albeit this be an on-line community.  And coaches dedicate much of their time–regardless of the sport being individual or team–to “team bonding”, where athletes learn to trust each other and work towards a greater cause.  In high school, for example, teams will often have overnight travels even if this is not necessary in order to bring the group together.  Coaches will have team meetings to set objectives and when times are hard, to strategize ways to overcome challenges.  Both the gamers and the athletes become a part of an interdependent community.

So what motivates students in the classroom?  Can we create a classroom culture that mirrors what video game designers and coaches know?  We can, and we should.  If we provide students with opportunities for success, if we provide frequent and positive feedback with attainable goals, if we show them progress, if we create a classroom “team” and engage students in interactive group projects and use social media, if students feel safe and encouraged by their peers–students will be motivated, and students will learn.


Why we teaching is a calling, not a job–

As the school year ends and both exhausted teachers and students plan for summer holiday and reflect upon the year, I share with you a note I received from a student yesterday. Sometimes, when we think the days are too long and the pay not enough, a note like this makes it all worthwhile. As you read this, some background on the profile of this student: new to the school this year, quiet and reserved, and what most would consider a “wall flower” in that the student blended in to the class most un-noticeably. I taught her every day for one hour; however, what is most revealing about this note is that Van (my wife) taught her for only three days for one hour while I was in Cambodia. It speaks to how teachers can have an impact, even within a small window of time:

I just want to say that I’d like to thank you for everything you have done this year. It’s been a really new and great experience, being able to learn and study with you. I enjoyed your lessons a lot. Thank you.
It seems like I’m going to move to another school next year, so I’m quite sad that we won’t see each other at school. Still, I won’t forget what you’ve taught me and everything we have been through. Thank you for being such an amazing teacher. Thank you for guiding and helping me throughout this year. Thank you for helping me improve my English. Thank you for teaching such interesting lessons…
And I’d also like to say thank you to your wife, Ms. Vân, too. Even though I didn’t talk to her much, I really enjoyed the lessons which she covered for you when you were in Cambodia. She is such a cheerful and positive person, I really admire that about her. She somehow reminds me that life has both good and bad sides, not just sadness and misery. I’d like to thank her for that. In addition, she’s the first one to ever regard me as ‘beautiful’, and also my name, too. I was really touched when I heard those compliments for the first time in my life. Thank you very much !!
I just hope that you will live a happy life forever and will always have fortunate things coming to you. I also hope that we’ll meet again.
Yours sincerely,