Appreciating what we don’t have

One question that naturally enters a person’s mind when moving to a place like Gabon is “What will no longer be available to me?”. Rightly or wrongly, this part of the world is often associated with lacking things, whether they be luxury items and comforts like a favourite cheese or high-speed internet, or basic amenities such as a reliable electricity supply or drinkable piped water.

Mmmm… Cheese… Image credit: Pixabay

Well, I’m pleased to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. The local supermarkets are well stocked (albeit expensive), we got the Internet connected to our new home within a day of arriving (a little slow at 512 kbps but we’ll manage), we’ve only had a couple of short power-cuts so far, and water hasn’t been a problem at all.

I did also wonder before I came about my new school. I was promised a place with access to extensive resources but what would that actually mean in practice? On that score, I have been more than surprised as there is a huge stationery inventory (backed up by a ‘green initiative’ to avoid waste), a well-stocked library (full of previously untouched books), and enough computers and other digital equipment to make an EdTech junkie overdose.

My very own classroom!

However, there are also many things here we don’t have (compared to my previous schools) and I would like to take a few moments to highlight those things:
    No grades
Oh, the hours I used to spend calculating grades, agonizing over them, trying to find a balance between what was deserved and what was expected, only to be told to change them because they didn’t match the grammar teacher’s mark… There was the pain of seeing a child on the verge of tears because they had one or two low grades and the frustration of seeing a student who had failed to complete any project work and/or had a disruptive effect in class getting a high grade because somebody somewhere had demanded it.

But no more! There are no grades here. There is feedback, there are reports, and there are teacher-student/teacher-parent conferences, but there are no percentages, no letters, and no numbers that distract from the progress the student has made and the comments the teacher has to make about their learning.
    No internal examinations
Tied closely into the above, there are no written exam papers here. The students do not have their learning interrupted every few weeks to make sure they can spell new vocabulary or that they can choose the correct verb form in a gap-fill. Instead, they are asked to engage in a process of on-going self-assessment and discussion with their teachers. In order to show what they have learned, they are asked to do project work and make presentations to the class. The only ‘traditional’ exams (and therefore grades) they will face are the international ones like IGCSE and IB. Even then, the school favours assessment options that include coursework when possible. This all helps them show what they have learned rather than what they were expected to learn.
    No homework (in primary at least)
I often saw students back in Turkey struggle under the strain of a lot of homework. It was sadly not uncommon to see instructions on the board at the end of a long school day telling students to complete 10 pages of maths problems or write a 500 word essay in English by the next morning. At home, we had far too many days when my son (only seven years old!) would come home, start his homework, have dinner, finish his homework, and then it would be time for bed. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Primary school students do not get homework. At the very most, they may be asked to read a couple of chapters of a book of their choice or speak to an older relative about life in the past but there are no worksheets or page after page of exercises to be done.

Even when homework is set in the secondary school, it is limited. Each teacher has an allotted day and length of time for homework. We are encouraged to set it a few days in advance to give students some time to organise their work. We are also discouraged from giving exercises, worksheets, or written tasks. In place of those things, we should encourage the students to do some research, and find a way to connect what they are learning in class to their own lives away from school. Much more concise and much more relevant.
    No bell
This may seem like a small thing but the lack of a bell has made a huge difference so far. Teachers are trusted to keep time and start/finish classes at the right hour. That means no more ‘countdowns’ to the bell or kids rushing to the door as soon as it rings while the teacher is still trying to round off the lesson. No bell puts the teacher in control of timing and ensures that the lesson concludes calmly.

Here I also don’t have to contend with one thing that always bugged me in Turkey – having break time very 40 minutes. I often felt that this was counterproductive as the kids were often distracted by the impending opportunity to run around and would often be tired or bursting with energy when called back to class a mere ten minutes later. This was then repeated 8 times a day… In this school, lessons are 60 minutes and there is no break until the end of lesson 2. That break is 20 minutes giving the kids time to unwind and relax and come back to class refreshed instead of being dragged back halfway through a game of football. 2 more lessons then lunch, and 2 more then home time. It all seems to run much more smoothly.
    No course books
This is a big one for my and my dogme-leanings. There are no set course books in use – not for English language lessons and not for the other sections of the school curriculum either. We have targets, we have topic areas that need to be incorporated, and we have a bank of resources that can be utilised as and when needed but exactly how we meet those targets and include those topic areas is up to us as teachers. A large part of the period before school opened was devoted to stressing the need to get to know our students and to tailor our teaching to suit their needs and interests. No more need to teach past  continuous or discuss life on the American frontier just because it is in Unit 5!
    No fixed syllabus
As a consequence, there is no fixed syllabus either. We have the flexibility and the freedom to add extra elements and explore different areas, just so long as we can link what we do back to the general curriculum for that particular section of the school. Again, this offers space and time to teachers and learners alike to make the most of our lessons together.
    No Nos
We were also told before school started that the Heads of the school sections and the Directors are open to all ideas – it doesn’t matter if it is off-the-wall or something experimental, all suggestions, requests and brainwaves will be considered. I put this to the test immediately by proposing an extra-curricular game-based learning club. They said ‘yes’. I requested that the school purchase licenses for MinecraftEdu, they said ‘yes’. I am hoping this pattern continues as we move towards opening the language school over the next few months!
    No limits
All of the above add up to no limits. I think there are great possibilities here for the students to learn and learn effectively and for the teachers to develop and teach effectively as well. Career-wise, this has been a good move so far and all signs point to this promising start continuing over the next academic year. I will be keeping you updated!


  1. Sounds like a fantastic place of experiment! Enjoy the limitlessness while it lasts. :)

    1. I intend to! This a place where people walk by your class, see that you are showing a YouTube video and give you a thumbs up instead of a glare of disapproval. Long may it continue :)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog. It sounds like the school trusts and values the teachers and allows the pupils to and enjoy their education and childhood


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