John Nicholls, Co-Director, The Bilingual European School, Milan

Having led coaching skills, facilitation training, and wellbeing workshops in over 30 countries, John has a Masters degree in Coaching and Mentoring Practice and is a published author focusing on resilience and creating positive working environments. He ran the award-winning Norfolk Wellbeing Programme, which not only worked to improve the subjective wellbeing of 28,000 staff but also offered professional & personal support to over 400 school principals. In this role, he was also a consultant for the national Worklife Support organization. After five years in this role, John moved to the International Baccalaureate in Geneva and then The Hague. John also carried out PYP authorization and verification visits in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, evaluated schools for BSO and Nord Anglia and is a Lead Improvement Partner for COBIS (the Council of British International Schools).

One of the joys of showing people around our school is how our students are so excited to share their learning and enthusiasm with our visitors. Whether it is our youngest children or our teenagers, the joy of learning is evident.

It struck me that I have taken this for granted. Like all great things in schools, they don’t happen by accident. Conscious and unconscious decisions help create or undermine any cultural feature. I have spent time reflecting on the many aspects within our school that have helped create the strong intrinsic motivation that our students possess.

It starts with the teachers

To create a fabulous environment for learning, you need fabulous teachers. That is the fundamental truth of all educations systems around the world, yet one that is usually forgotten through politically driven agendas, national targets and decision-makers that often forget the humanity of the teaching profession.

With this in mind, we recruit teachers that show the same qualities that we want to see in our students. Our interview questions focus less on pedagogy and more on finding out how curious they are, their openness to trying new things, as well as determining how much they love learning and learners.

We are all learners

In our bilingual school, half of our teachers are international teachers, who mainly come with little Italian language fluency. They publicly model their language learning journey with our students. Our Italian native speaking teachers all carry out passion projects where they trial new pedagogical approaches with our children.

It adds up to a sense of learning altogether. Often, my Italian Co-Director and I visit classes and ask the students to show us what they are learning, and often, we come away learning something new. We ensure that the students are aware that they have given us new insights.

Genuine Inquiry

As well as following the Italian National Curriculum, we are an International Baccalaureate PYP school. This puts Inquiry at the core of what we do in the school which is carried on into our middle school in the form of extended projects about the world.

As well as ensuring skills and knowledge are sufficiently embedded to support more in-depth learning, we plan very carefully to support genuine Inquiry in the classroom. Students are encouraged to explore aspects of the subjects covered according to their interests. Teachers plan engaging learning experiences that grab the students’ attention and provoke their interest. According to age and experience, our teachers first provide a structured model of Inquiry, gradually letting go of more control as students become more competent and confident.

Intrinsic motivation thrives on following your interests or exploring areas of curiosity, so genuine Inquiry is key to supporting this.

Effort and attainment are celebrated

There has been a lot of discussion in the past few years on celebrating effort rather than attainment. We strive to value both. Trying hard to improve is promoted and encouraged by teachers and peers, and forms part of our everyday conversations. The process of learning is seen as crucial in the classroom.

However, we should also celebrate great work. We don’t visit an art gallery to admire an artist’s process or a sports match to understand the athlete’s preparation. Celebrating quality work is essential for inspiring others to achieve too.

Challenge and support

We strive to ensure that our classrooms are supportive environments where children feel secure enough to take risks and make mistakes to further their learning. For intrinsic motivation to flourish, work should be challenging, but not so much that it demotivates. We have high expectations for every student but seek to be there to support them when needed too.

It is the art of the teacher to balance support and challenge equally for each student. This is a very demanding expectation, so the school strives to support and challenge our teachers respectfully and professionally.

No superficial rewards

Many schools have systems of external prizes to reward success. At the Bilingual European School, we have no house groups, no merit points or certificates for good work. Our students and parents don’t expect them, and we find that our students are motivated enough without using such systems.

I have previously worked in schools with these systems. There are issues with fairness and consistency in the way that tasks are rewarded and how teachers reward them. I have often seen students frustrated when some receive several merits for tidying a classroom and others just one for creating a strong piece of written work. It is difficult to ensure that developmental feedback is heard or seen when all those students look for is how many merit points they receive.

Student agency and responsibility

As teachers plan to learn, they create a climate for students to learn together, ensuring that the children will be able to explore their areas of interest. Students are expected to carry out the action as a result of their learning. As a school, we are very supportive of student-led initiatives.

With agency comes responsibility. Students are held responsible for their learning. This is demonstrated at our student-led parent conferences and learning celebrations. They not only show their work but are responsible for it. This is a strong motivator for our students to strive for excellence.

Playfulness and genuine care

Finally, to engage our students in their learning, their experiences should be exciting, enjoyable, challenging and provoking. Learning should not be carried out in a sterile, serious manner. It should be playful, engaging and full of wonder, not only because it is effective, but because childhood should be joyous and playful. It should not be taken away prematurely.

Coupled with love and care from the school community, children can’t help wanting to learn and grow. That is what they deserve, and what we should all strive to give them.

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