I’ve been in education all my life. I generally loved school as a student and unlike many people, I have fond memories of middle and high school. University was a different matter. It took me a while to find my groove. I felt completely insignificant sitting in a lecture hall of 300 students and the tutorials left me baffled and feeling stupid. I found theoretical discussion and studies boring, much preferring practical experience and application.
While I was at university, I worked part time as a rowing coach. Coaching was something that I found myself enjoying, a little to my surprise. I liked writing training programmes, working with crews and de-briefing after regattas. Reflecting on my enjoyment of this job helped push me in the direction of doing a Masters of Teaching. This course, offered by the University of Sydney, also appealed to my love of a little theory followed by a lot of practical application.
A few years down the track and I found myself teaching at an IB school in Switzerland. As a new teacher, I immediately fell back to teaching what I’d been taught, which was not always relevant for my students. Using IB methods such as inquiry based learning and assessment criteria were quite familiar but the concept of selecting my own content for courses was both freeing and overwhelming. Where did I begin? The Australian curriculum that I was so familiar with was not really suited to the students of an international school in Switzerland.
Working with collaborative and much more experienced colleagues, I began to feel more comfortable planning, selecting and developing content for the MYP courses I was teaching. I found that I was now much more of a creator as a teacher, rather than someone who simply had to put a government-prescribed syllabus into action. The challenge of solving problems, finding unique resources and creating authentic and relevant assessments was professionally very satisfying. It certainly didn’t always go to plan but the reflective practice that is reinforced by the IB prompted me to review, reflect and move forward.
Solving problems is something that I am drawn to; whether it’s the problem of creating an engaging unit of learning or the problem of data collection, analysis and application. And solving problems goes hand in hand with reflection and personal growth. When I had the chance to return to university and complete my doctorate, my experiences as a teacher and curriculum consultant with the IB were invaluable when it came to managing course work, designing research and academic writing. The intense focus on data collection and analysis appealed to my problem-solving interest. I began to think about some of the data challenges that I faced as a teacher and how these challenges could be overcome.
As a teacher, the bottom line is that our students need to progress – academically, socially, emotionally. Through traditional methods such as tests, we can see a basic score of a student’s progress. But how do you measure and track something that is more intangible, such as the development of resilience? Or the ability to give and receive meaningful feedback? These skills, Approaches to Learning, are an essential part of a student’s development and yet in my years of working as a teacher, I had never come across a school that could confidently say “here is how we are tracking the ATL progress for each of our students and it’s a method that works for everyone.”
Approaches to Learning are at the heart of the IB programmes. They are critical for a student’s success in IB programmes but I was baffled as to why there was no recommended method or standard way for students, teachers and schools to plan and track ATLs. I thought to myself, ‘in this age of technology, surely there’s an app for that?’ Apparently not!
After spending some time surrounded by the start-up culture in San Francisco and then newly introduced to the emerging start up culture in Malaysia, I saw an opportunity to develop an ATL app that could help students, teachers and schools. I wanted to design something that was easy for students to use, provided them with feedback on their progress and also captured rich, informative data that was useful for teachers. It was very important to me that the teachers were not burdened with ‘something else’ to add to their workload. The app needed to provide them with information rather than a teacher having to be responsible for data collection.
Once I had met with an app development company, I realized I was at a crossroads; should I take the risk and develop the app? Or was it just another good idea to disappear into a daydream? As the saying goes; If not me, who? If not now, when? If I was such a believer in the IB, perhaps I should live up to the Learner Profile attributes and take a risk. I knew very little about starting a business other than that I needed a business plan to be able to formalize my ideas and strategies and as a planning document to show investors and register as a business. Doing all of this in a foreign country was particularly challenging and it would have been easy for me to again say ‘oh well, nice idea but it’s a bit too hard because of where I’m living.’ But I do believe that if you want to achieve something then you have to act a little like water against a rock wall; keep pushing and flowing and eventually you’ll find the chinks and cracks to get through. Persistence and continually asking questions and asking for help were key traits in being able to get the business established.
It also turned out that my doctoral dissertation process was a huge help in writing my business plan. I had to carry out detailed market research, propose ideas, test and revise them and continually explain my concept in many different formats to different audiences to make sure they understand what I was trying to create, and why there was a need for this product. The stress and frustrations and worries have been more than balanced out by the exhilaration of creating something unique.
One year later and Skill Tracker is ready to launch! It’s been a whirlwind 12 months and would not have been possible without the unconditional and on-going support and collaboration from CAO Malcolm Nicolson and COO James Gallagher. Our app development team have been creative, hard-working and willing to learn as much as they can about the IB programmes to ensure that this product is solely focussed on supporting students and teachers track Approaches to Learning. So now, when students and teachers wonder about how they meaningfully track ATL development, I can confidently say, ‘there is now an app for that!’