EmPOWering Learning – Superhero Style


I’ve just returned from a week long trip to Hong Kong to work with teachers and Grade 6 pupils at the Canadian International School on South Island. It struck me that when politicians argue about the quality of our education system in comparison to that of other countries, they rarely refer to the Primary Years, Middle Years or Diploma programmes of the International Baccalaureate. Yet this qualification and curriculum model produces some of the most highly successful learners in the world. Look at global companies, diplomatic services, high level international law and you’ll find that many people working in these areas came through the IB system. The IB is not a two year alternative to A Level for private schools. It is a life long educational philosophy:-

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end, the organisation works with schools, governments and international organisations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and life long learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

I keep returning to that mission statement in moments of despair, buoyed that elsewhere in the world, there is a curriculum with a stated intention to promote world peace, compassion and care. But how does that intention translate into action? Throughout the IB, from primary to diploma, the children are encouraged to consider how they are developing in line with their learner profile – this consists of qualities and aptitudes such as ‘open-mindedness’ or ‘principled’ and they are encouraged to reflect on how these qualities are developed in their interactions with knowledge, curriculum content and each other.


The curriculum is also underpinned by conceptual thinking and inquiry. For if in your school, you have 70 nations represented – many of whom will move between continents in the course of their school days, whose history do you teach? While there are many common areas of knowledge, the IB encourages teachers to select content that they feel is most relevant to their setting, their location and their children but to apply this knowledge to a conceptual framework. So for example, the children we were working with last week were working with the concept of Power. They were exploring how power worked in terms of political influence and interactions (looking at the current pro-democracy protests taking place in their city) but also in terms of their relationships, historical events and ethics. The exploration of these concepts was framed through concept keys – a set of questions which shape the collation of ideas and information:- fb52e163f32463abba677221e6ff59bf

They explored the responsibilities that power might bring, the consequences of power and actions that might need to be taken placing these within an inquiry cycle.

And then they produced works IMG_4291of art and writing that explored the outcomes of their thinking. They identify the importance of the right to free speech; to equality; to education and then they explore the idea of heroism, moving from political to social and fictional realms. Who are our personal heroes? Who are our world heroes? What would make the difference between a hero and a superhero? If you were a superhero, what would your power be?

I would give people the power to speak freely without fear.”

My mask gives me the power to know everything, but if it falls into the wrong hands it could be very dangerous.”

My mask has a part on it that allows you to access a wormhole and travel through time.”

At this point the children are beginning to move out of the realm of knowledge and analysis and into that of the imagination. And it was this realm that the teachers felt the children needed some help with. One of the teachers explained:-

“They soak up knowledge and they are confident at articulating their ideas, but they are sometimes fearful of letting go, of taking chances and their thinking can be very literal. We really hope that working with the ISTA team, they’ll become more playful and imaginative.”

The IB recognises that children are more than sponges for knowledge. It recognises that personal skills and aptitudes are essential, but often these children come from families with such high aspirations and expectations, that they become fearful of letting go – of being wrong; of taking risks. And one of the key learner profile skills is taking risks. So we had a brief – to let them experience play and to learn how to recognise its importance in building skills of collaboration, trust, imagination and confidence. They had three days of working intensively with teacher-artists in creating a sharing of all they had learned. Not a performance – this was not about polished performative outcome, but an exploration of the value of the arts in learning processes. We became a Superhero Academy. Our motto – “with great power, comes great responsibility”. We were off.
This is too babyish,” said one child at the beginning, refusing to join in a game, crossing her arms in protest. Highly academic, she was struggling to let go.

“Thank you” her mother said at the end ” She found it really hard at first – was making excuses not to get involved, but we could see as she came home every day that she was starting to build more confidence – she was talking more and she couldn’t wait to go back.”

She left a secret note in her teacher’s bag at the end of the week. A simple thank you. She was not feeling babyish any more – she was feeling empowered.

I’ve learned that Drama means you have to put yourself out there,” wrote another, “and that the worst thing you can do is to do nothing.”

I’ve seen how much we’ve learned to trust each other and to take chances – we’re working better as a team and we keep on trying even when we feel stupid or we worry that we might fail.”

I feel more positive about myself.”

These were just some of the learner comments as the work progressed. They learned theatre skills along the way, but the IB learner profiles were foremost in all our minds as we worked through the week. At the end of the week they shared their favourite moments from their sessions. And their parents were set some homework too, bringing it to the finale. They were asked to explore what the word hero meant to them and who they felt was heroic to them. The results were really moving. IMG_4305 IMG_4306

And at the end, they were given large sheets of paper and asked, in addition to applause, to write one word and hold it up so that their children could see the impact that their learning had on them, their parents. “emPOWering” wrote one. And others added theirs. All over the hall, children looked up and saw what their parents thought of their work – Warm, Inspiring, Proud, Love, Thoughtful, Wow… the list went on and on. All kudos to Louise Clark, the Artistic Director for that brilliant idea – the children were delighted and the relationships between them and their families strengthened in that one moment. And their ability to come together, focus, play and be brave did not go unnoticed either:-

“Look at them. Just look at them!” gasped one parent during the sharing “Now that’s what you call harmony!”

5 thoughts on “EmPOWering Learning – Superhero Style

  1. The fear of getting things wrong is heightened when pupils are judged solely on test results. They can’t pass an exam if the answer is ‘wrong’.

    So education becomes less about exploring ideas and taking risks but more about memorizing knowledge that will push pupils through high-stakes tests. Children aren’t encouraged to go off-piste but to stick to the laid-down route to achieve a certain SAT level or a GCSE C.

    League tables have distorted education in England. The more enlightened schools might consider IB but it’s expensive and teachers have to be trained. And I’m not sure IB counts in those all-important league tables.

    However, the philosophy could be embraced if schools had the courage to do it.

  2. Both informative and enlightening, Debra.Thanks. Your joy at having shared in this experience comes through clearly.

    Your piece underlines what, more than anything, I believe is still missing from education in our country – a philosophy that takes serious account of how and why we learn. The vacuum created has been filled by politically motivated dogma about pedagogy and a blind acceptance that the end (league tables and test results) justifies the means.

    Janet is right to cite a lack of courage to insist as professionals that we do things differently. This, Debra, is part of the reason why schools are not adopting the IB philosophy or something equally relevant to the future needs of learners. Despite knowing that in encouraging “teachers to select content that they feel is most relevant to their setting, their location and their children” and applying “this knowledge to a conceptual framework”, they often restrict their charges to an education that they know is not even second best.

    I sense that you understand as well as any, how powerfully governments of all complexions have controlled the pace and scope of change, thus almost ensuring that professionals have to make enormous personal sacrifices if they are to be guided by values and practices they know to be appropriate in the face of relentless prescription and pressure to ‘toe the line.’

    There is a need for teacher unions, employers, academics, governors, parents and teachers themselves to insist that things have to change for the sake of ALL our young people. We must find a way to convince our elected representatives that lifelong learning is a journey towards growth that is worth investing in rather than a destination to be arrived at for the sake of our international competitiveness.

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