Chatting With: Michael Picken, Head Of Primary For Beaconhouse Inai School

Hi Michael Picken, thank you for doing this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me on this interview and can I just say how wonderful it is to be here in Malaysia!

I’ve always had a love of learning and teaching and have been in the education industry with over 20 years of experience. I graduate with a Bachelor of Sciences and later a postgraduate qualification in Education, Psychology and Personnel Management that led to the start of my teaching career in Oakham, Rutland as a primary school teacher.

Living the best of both worlds, my passion for travelling led me to partake in the international education sector providing me global experience at international schools in the United Kingdom, Africa, South America, China, Brunei and now, Malaysia.

In this role, I have established and implemented policies; procedures and practices that have materialised overall school improvements for children across the Foundation Stage, Key Stage One, Key Stage Two and Key Stage 3.

In this, the first step was ‘Implementing & leading on digital portfolios’. I believe the story your learning journey tells is special to you and your parents. I wanted to create portfolios that crafted a narrative of learning, growth and achievement over time with which the student had ownership.

I also wanted our teachers to embrace technology and regardless of the platform, empower and authenticate student learning with digital portfolios. By providing our children with a web-based space to collect their own work, it helped them practice digital citizenship while simultaneously helping them learn important technology skills and enriched their language, communication and visual presenting skills.

The second stage was ‘Leading on student-led conferences’. Here my idea was to transform teacher-led parent-teacher conferences in favour of student-led meeting formats that engaged students in the process. We scheduled conferences as a ‘Books & Biscuits’ afternoon and the conferences provided powerful opportunities for students to advocate and showcase their own learning.

For the school this encouraged students to take responsibility and ownership for their learning by involving them in the goal-settings and assessment process and engaged families in richer, more transparent conversations about student progress. The biscuits helped too!

The third stage was ‘Use of assessment data’. For me, it’s imperative that children feel that each lesson has been designed specifically to meet their needs.  If you think of the way the Mona Lisa’s eyes appear to look at you and only you as you walk past – that’s how I wanted our students to feel about our curriculum.

In order to do this, we started by doing everything we could to fully understand our students, to see life and learning through their eyes. Surveying attitudes has been one of the most exciting educational discoveries I have made. I am now looking more closely at how students perceive both their school and themselves, and making sure the path is clear for each child to achieve their learning goals.

The last and final stage was implementing the ‘Philosophy for children’ programme. This is yet another project I am particularly proud of leading. A programme aimed at development of children’s critical thinking abilities and other non-cognitive skills such as communication skills, self-confidence, sense of fairness and empathy. These skills are deemed to have a strong association with success in later life.

Currently, I serve as the Head of Primary for Beaconhouse Inai School, one of the leading international pre-schools in Malaysia. In my role here at Beaconhouse, I hope to support and lead the dedicated staff team to push the boundaries on an innovative educational journey to create the most enriching opportunities for each and every student, allowing them to be the very best of themselves

Everyone’s life can be transformed by an inspirational teacher. Ask any pupil when you visit what makes a school special and one of the first things they will say is ‘our amazing teachers’. Their passion, commitment and kindness explain why Beaconhouse is so successful and among a group of schools with the highest performing students in the world.

As the Head of the Primary School at BSIIS, I can tell you that boys and girls in our school love to learn and socialise, and our inspiring, innovative teachers foster in them a lifelong love of learning. We provide opportunities for every child to excel, both in academic subjects and co-curricular activities. Our stimulating co-educational environment develops pupils to be enthusiastic, energetic and kind; contagious qualities which enable a vibrant and warm atmosphere.

Almost all the world’s schools shut their doors due to Covid-19. Many are struggling to continue education during the pandemic with most of them are now shifting to distance learning approaches. Share with us your best practices on how to overcome the challenges involved in online teaching and learning.

Implementing online teaching is still a work in progress approach to education, not just for Beaconhouse or schools in Malaysia but for schools around the globe. There is certainly room for the process to improve and be more efficient. However, I think given the drastic changes and short notice, students and teachers have done well to acclimatise quickly.

To help teachers prepare for and handle this sudden and drastic switch we have fortified our lines of communication with them, ensuring that there are always opportunities for teachers, management and even parents to communicate. We constantly communicate with our students and their parents for feedback and exchange thoughts and ideas to be able to gauge the efficacy of classes and leverage on their pre-existing digital literacy.

There have been many speed bumps in the transition to digital learning and these lines of communication have helped us hurdle these challenges. This will help students and teachers stay connected even outside a classroom environment – ensuring a positive learning experience and healthy relationships between all parties

In all of this, we encourage parents to also be more involved with supporting in utilising digital education tools at home too. Here at Beaconhouse, we have always emphasised a holistic approach to education, actively encouraging our teachers to adopt new approaches to lessons whether it be through digital means or otherwise.

As such, beyond providing teacher with the necessary technical and academic support, we have also given some teachers’ relatively free reign in their teaching approach for online classes and the results have proven to be quite encouraging. The ever-evolving lessons also help keep the students engaged and looking forward to new classes.

How teachers and students at Beaconhouse are coping differently from the initial MCO? What such impact of policy changes from MCO to reopening to CMCO has and can have on students and teachers?

Many teachers, students as well as parents around the globe are struggling to adapt to the new normal in these unprecedented times.

Currently, as we move towards enhancing our education structure to better facilitate the transition back to fully online learning, we are aware that the process may be difficult for teachers, students and parents to adjust back to yet another phase of CMCO.

With prior experience from the previous MCO, we now have a better understanding of what is required to build a great online learning culture and environment. We are now more adept at making students feel that they are truly part of the process – aware of what is going on and in-control of their education.

Although the previous MCO may have paved the way to a better structured online learning approach this time round, we believe it is still important to ensure the teachers as well as students are still given real-time support services and guidance.

From previous learnings, we adopted a hybrid teaching approach which ensured the continuation of online learning even when students were allowed to come back to school for physical classes. This ensured the transition back and forth to be more seamless for both teachers and students.

Change is inevitable and learning is a constant process for all of us – as we strive to provide the best for our teachers and students, we are always finding ways to put our best foot forward.

What do you see as the biggest challenges involved in online teaching? And what technology or programs do you think would be most beneficial to teachers dealing with this situation?

It is still a learning process for everyone, teachers, parents and students. It most definitely was a challenge as there were a virtually limitless number of variables that we needed to take into account.

Amongst the more commonly raised issues are accessibility and connectivity. Ensuring all teachers and students have access to the necessary equipment needed is certainly a concern. Besides that, online learning with younger children in particular is still a learning curve that we have to continuously work at.

With shorter attention spans and being used to more hands-on lessons, we have found that our younger students in particular struggled to adapt to the online teaching approach. Students have also been conditioned to accept and process knowledge in a certain way and altering this very suddenly can have a substantially disruptive effect.

As such, the teachers at Beaconhouse have been continually innovating to develop more captivating lessons that can hold the children’s attention despite the numerous distractions that can arise in an online learning setting.

Thankfully, due to the rapid advancement of technology, online learning has been made easier. To help facilitate the online learning process, Beaconhouse utilises suitable teaching programmes and technologies including Adobe Spark Page, Google Sites, Book Creator and Wakelet.

Class Dojo and Edmodo have been used very effectively to send messages, share class materials, and make learning accessible anywhere. We use Online software programs like Powtoon and Moovly which make it possible for us to create engaging multimedia videos that fuse content with animation, still images, text, narration, music, and/or sound effects.

Screencastify and Camtasia are used regularly in tutorials, offer audio-visual feedback and integrate digital tools with instructions. We also provide live lessons with Zoom and Google Meet so that students feel a personal connection when they see us talking directly to them.

E-learning is the future of education and at Beaconhouse we are working hard with our teachers to fully leverage on the abundance of opportunities that online teaching offers.

What do you consider as benefits and drawbacks of distance learning? How do you think your students have adapted?

Distance education has gained popularity over the past few years as technology continues to develop. But in today’s climate, there is no getting around it.

Primarily, in this pandemic distance learning offers safety. Education is important but nothing comes before the safety and well being of our students at Beaconhouse.

It also allows us to leverage on three key factors to increase online learning efficacy through online learning – being visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic. This approach provides our students with the opportunity to receive a holistic education that stimulates the primary senses.

This allows students to better interact with the lessons hosted online. Relying on digital content such as online quizzes or videos also makes classes more interactive and fun which ultimately is beneficial for the students. Distance learning also allows parents to get more involved with their children’s learning journey, helping them keep better track of lessons.

While the digital sphere can be a powerful tool in education, it is a double-edged sword and can prove to be equally detrimental or distracting. There needs to be continuous reviewing of safe practices within schools as new technologies become part of teaching and learning.

With such a hands-off approach, schools and teachers simply cannot exert the kind of control as they could before. Online learning also poses a limitation as to how you can reach the students – the follow-up outside of those online lessons with materials are especially important and it is harder when students don’t have tangible reaction to it.

Equally difficult is grabbing and maintaining student attention in such a distracting environment – whether it is something going on at home, or another tab open on their device with a video playing, there is an abundance of distractions and it adds an additional burden on the teachers to be even more vigilant in reigning in their students’ attention.

Then there is the matter of accessibility, not all students have a dedicated device for themselves that is suitable for the lessons and many too do not have stable Internet connections to facilitate the lessons.

Therefore, I believe that the distance learning approach is still not entirely practical. Everything is good in moderation, and technology is no exception – A strategic combination of face-to-face teaching complemented by distance learning lessons would be the best way forward.

In what way could you imagine distance learning as the successor of traditional education?

I would like to think that in time to come distance learning would be just as crucial as traditional learning but we are currently not at the stage where it could 100% surpass it. The infrastructure simply is not there yet.

Not every student and teacher has full access whether in terms of device or Internet connectivity to make a total distance learning approach work. Beyond this, there is also a concern about the limitations that distance learning puts on the actual teaching methodology.

Every student can learn, but not every student learns in the same way. The speed in which they learn something or express what they know is different and my concern with distance learning is that it forces us to adapt a one-size-fits-all approach with teaching students.

In my years in the education industry across many countries, I have had many kinds of experience with students and different learning capacities. With a complete distance learning approach, we can’t be assured that each student will be able to reach their maximum potential depending on their circumstances and home environment – leading to unequal learning.

Distance learning provides a less interactive atmosphere that could also hinder students from being proactive and could lead to lack in social skills. While distance learning has provided tools that help mimic the social aspect of a classroom, this can’t be compared with the class energy when in a traditional learning environment.

Having said that, we could instead look into a more blended learning approach between distance learning and traditional learning which is something Beaconhouse is looking into through the hybrid model system we are implementing.

Education is something we at are deeply passionate about. Could you name at least three must-read books on education every educator or anyone who works in the education sector should read and why. Feel free to suggest more than three.

The first book I would love to recommend is Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the most helpful book I’ve ever read, and also one of the best researched. Reading this book yielded insights into myself as a teacher, educator, and father. If you suspect you’re an introvert, strongly consider buying this book. If you love an introvert, definitely buy this book. And if you work in schools, you will also want to get this book right away.

The second book is In Elastic: Flexible Thinking in Times of Change (2018), Leonard Mlodinow. The book makes the case that our brains are actually entirely capable of keeping up with rapid change. Mlodinow includes concrete strategies for creative thinking—like finding quiet, low-pressure space to think—that are perfect for self-work or sharing with school colleagues.

If you’re ready to reimagine the traditional education paradigm, Learner-Centered Leadership (2020) makes a research-supported case for creating highly differentiated schools. Former superintendent Devin Vodicka delivers inspiring anecdotes and enlightening suggestions for shifting classrooms and school systems to learner-centred education models.

And finally, in these times of digital learning, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015). Like many educators and parents all over the country, Sherry Turkle is worried about the dominating role of smartphones and digital devices.

In Reclaiming Conversation, she deftly switches between narratives and research to build a case that kids are not developing enough empathy or face-to-face communication skills. Turkle takes a reasoned, pragmatic view that celebrates what the digital world can offer while urging adults to champion in-person, empathy-building connections. She offers readers a chance to slow down and examine how technology has impacted the way we live and interact. Pick up this book if you’re eager to re-evaluate how schools can help students communicate, empathize, and find respite from the digital world.

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