Derek W. Nicoll Ph.D. – Director of Curriculum and Acedemic Research




Derek holds a Ph.D. in Psychology and Science and Technology Studies from the prestigious University of Edinburgh (world rank 32). He has held posts at the University of East London, Edinburgh and Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of London (world rank no. 8).

His international experience has included his role as Deputy- pro-vice Chancellor of Limkokwing University of Creative Technology. Where he served stints in their Phnom Pehn, Malaysian, Botswanan and Lesotho based campuses. He has also worked with a number of Cambodian Universities and International operations such as the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation. As such he is poignantly aware of the relevancy, difficulties, role and place of education within developing economies. He is the author of the Design Future Archaeology blog and a contributor to many online forums on the subject of education, futures and technology. Dr Nicoll’s current post is as Idea Source’s director of Academic Research and Curriculum.

Before coming to Cambodia to live he worked on several European Research Initiatives at Edinburgh and Imperial, looking mostly at innovation, experience research, business models and new media. He also headed up a two and half year research programme working in collaboration with the Design Council of the UK investigating the area of smart and intelligent product design.

Elementary school at Mokhotlong, Lesotho

Can we open with a statement regarding your general philosophy of education?

“While I refuse to recognise boundaries in education and learning, I still see a distinctive role for teacher and classroom as a formal or forming influence in learning processes. The classroom, even with the challenge of nomadic digital learning, remains a ritual space where particular experiences and views of the world and its goings on come to be shared. This is true if its the modest shade of a tree and a blackboard on a mountain side in Lesotho, or the hallowed halls of Eton in England. The teacher meanwhile maintains their place as guide to the meditations, they are also master/mistress of ceremonies, and also, if they are very good, remain agent provocateur. Together, teacher and classroom provide a suitable excuse for learning in a way that unschooling or iPADs cannot.”

The pioneering educationalist A.S. Neil advocated that: “Attention means the applying of the conscious mind to a thing; interest means the application of both the conscious and the unconscious mind.” We believe learning is a paper chase. Parts becomes wholes, characters shape and form, skills and mastery and gestalts are developed from practice. Making sense, or sense making is an important habit of mind which forms part of the repertoire of what today is increasingly recognised as part of the repertoire of ’21st century skills’.

  • “In mystery and spy novels, the reader can expect to be offered a series of written clues – fragmentary descriptions of earlier events. When these fragments are fitted together, they provide enough of a representation for the careful reader to reconstruct the earlier events, even to the point of understanding the specific actions and motivations of the people involved – or at least to reach the understanding that the author will offer at the conclusion of the novel. The more casual reader is simply entertained and arrives at a more personal understanding, of which s/ he may or may not be conscious. The writer of such a novel has the obligation to provide enough fragments to make a reconstruction possible, but not obvious.” Bandler and Grinder. Frogs into Princes (1979)

Craftily, teacher in this vein intervenes at just the right moments to create surprise, she serendipitously incites enlightenment, or he delights as a student muses or struggles with concepts and ideas and he provides the link or the process step. As A.S. Neil had it: “Why in all the earth should I ask a question when I know the answer? The whole thing is an absurdity. The only questions asked in a school
should be asked by the pupils.” But I think we all have questions…

I myself have now worked with learners of all ages from mature master degree Students and Ph.D.s, through young adults doing bachelor degrees or participating in entrepreneurial business workshops, and here I am now working with very young children, in the realm of formative education with the same principles. Having taught entirely online and entirely off-line, and all mixes in-between, I can see where the technology can play a role in the paper chase. What I have learnt on this journey is that knowledge is only relevant to those who actively pursue it, structure it and use it.You take the horse to the water, how do you entice it to drink knowing that it is ‘good’ for them? How do you provide for that eureka moment, the light bulb in the mind? Typically through dialogue and sharing.

There are no guarantees in learning but the savvy teacher can push change by:

  1. Identifying the present state [i.e. what do the children know in either in Khmer or in English];
  2. Identifying the desired state [21st Century skill-sets, global citizens with international world-views, critical perspectives on how the world operates socially and culturally in ways that produce unequal opportunities and outcomes for different groups of people, understanding the place of finance, technology, ecology, and politics]
  3. Identifying the appropriate resources (internal states, physiology, information or skills) that you need to get from present state to desired state [i.e. everything from abilities to act confidently in making presentations and pitches to wise choices regarding health and investment]; and:
  4. Eliminating any interferences through using those resources. You’ve got to want to change, know how to change, and give yourself the chance to change [fostering a positive esprit de corps, a constructive attitude to failure and success, a love of learning etc.]

The school in the future, like work, will be increasingly about ‘mind over [new] media’ and at the same very material/skills based. Work, life, education and play will more closely intermingle.

So what does this entail for the actual job of teaching?

“Well what this means in practice is the ‘teacher’ or ‘facilitator’ must study carefully, and moreover, explore ways to encourage and promote curiosity and search in all the students. In a sense the teacher should be the prime example of intellectual curiosity and unending quest for knowledge. But its also OK that the teacher ‘goes with’ the student as they lead the exploration. Documentation helps the teacher understand when they are trailing into deep waters with regards to the learning outcomes expected in a given subject area. There job is to then advise on the navigation using rationales gleaned from thinking though the possibilities anchored to the outcomes of the excessive. They must go beyond simple informing, although they must do that also early in the beginning, lending children content, material, ways of seeing and doing, the palettes of choices (ABC, 123, Red, Blue, Yellow, Atoms, Cells, Capital, labour, organisation etc.).

Very young children and other kinds of novices must have the most socially and mechanically relevant, the most essential and most fundamental units – or the most universally held units – of knowledge first.

For instance all of us must be able to tell a ‘p’ from a ‘q’ then take on board the major combinational rules ‘dog’ ‘bog’ and ‘log’, but not necessarily ‘qog’ or ‘zog’ – unless they are a proper noun or meaningful in another language under study. Then they can begin to create with language –  letters, digraphs, three letter words, sight words, sight phrases then sentences and paragraphs, then genres. Teachers must present learners with options, prepared and planned options, the most relevant options, so that they, the students, by design, reformulate and recombine. They may do so directly and indirectly, by talking straight and sometimes by innuendo, sometimes by being silly, vague, sometimes by using unstructured and structured forms of play, group engagement, and also group and independent study, express themselves and their understanding of the world around them. Our view is that the faster learners are to a level where they can combine, synthesise, extrapolate,  tinker, reinvent the better.

This approach does not necessarily come easy, it requires craft on behalf of  the teacher as they must know of, and map the possibilities and limits before hand. This means knowing the subject, the possibilities, and knowing the individual student their attitudes, aptitudes and capacities. The subject could be guided by a Mind Map of the issue, topic or subject at hand. Teachers must also be willing to be surprised, be open to alternative formulations and have some idea of how to assess their value or potency. Will they know when the students break these limits down?

This is because knowledge is not a single thing to be found only in a single book or passage, nor in a single toy or device or letter. Nor is it to be found in a single head or within the language of a single authority. It is something very much social and distributed; it has to become subjective and ‘borrowed’, it is all around and yet must permeates our very existence, resounding in the substance of our private  inner voice and dialogues.This is the sense in which it becomes cultural and intellectual capital.

This why we  work backwards into the curriculum from learning outcomes. It can be found in appraising great art and a child’s painting, within hilarious comedy and daft tomfoolery as well as compelling convincing science and elegant equations. And it can be found in the forgotten, ignored, mundane, familiar, common and every day – if only we care to look.. As Edward Deci wrote in his book Why We Do What We Do : “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behaviour, and lasting change.” We need to impart how and where and why to look in our students.”

In an age where there is so much opportunities to learn on the internet what is the place of formal education in a physical school or university?

“Formal education, school, university or otherwise, is a time and space where we are allowed to identify and draw out patterns, regularities, expectancies and familiarities in what we see, touch, hear and feel.  It gives us an opportunity to ‘tag’ the things, the structures, the experiences that are relevant in a given place, culture and time, and draw attention to those enduring elements, aspects, and issues in the history of ideas.

This kind of learning is as much visceral as much as it is social. What it is not is simply reflecting on texts or websites or machines and objects, or using things unconsciously as if their were a given, or ‘the truth’. The classroom and world and the time spent in education is a safe place, a time to be skeptical. If you want, it is a place where we would and will engage on levels of thought that otherwise would hardly happen naturally, say, if you were a Robinson Crusoe, or a feral child raised by wolves in a forest. The space provides a disconnect from worldly matters, a context, much in the same way as the professional relationship with a therapist can help us objectify subjective thoughts and feelings which may cause us distress. It is a space which lends us value in looking at something for a longer time than we would have afforded given the pressures and distractions of commercial or even the imbroglios of family existence and social circles.

We form particular habits of mind in this space, and we learn together with people we may never have personally chosen or would have never even met otherwise. We subscribe to the same, or at least similar rules of behaviour in that space. We can establish rules, question rules, question arbitrary structures and the interests that create them. We learn to do or tolerate. We tackle things and even practices which may not concord with our interests or desires. We compromise and shape views.

Only then do we begin to understand something of the way of the world and others people, their boundaries and limitations, their predictability and spontaneity, operates and manifests. Only then do we have any chance of understanding the relation between the institution and the worlds that lie beyond its walls. Other students and our teachers are our audiences and critics. We traditionally have spaces out-with our homes which we visit for specific purposes – Cinemas, temples, hotels, malls, marketplaces – where certain forms of activity, communication and behaviour can be seen to dominate over others. Learning has become associated with a room called a class within a building called a school, a gathering place where ideas can be exchanged or imparted, recorded, tested, challenged and [re-]produced.

Where no patterns exist it always seems that humans will make them up anyway, that is, invent them, even to stave off boredom. This is what helps us sculpt and shape meanings and values in our lives, in our relationships – when we attend to other people and to other things.  For if we do not make sense, lend ideas shape and pattern, if we do not problematise what is around us and try and realise what is unfolding, if we do not stand in defence of misfit, we invariably fail to make the right or anything like a sympathetic decision. We will also fail to recognise ethical opportunities, threats and dilemmas as they develop, and we will inevitably fail in our efforts to plan and work effectively towards improving our own lot, or that of our family or community.”

Sir Michael Barber, architect of many of the UK education reforms of the last decade, recently spoke to teachers in Singapore.   He described what students should know and be able to do as E(K+T+L).

K is for knowledge.  Barber dismissed the ‘kids can just use a search engine’ argument against strong content standards, “Pupils need both theoretical and applied knowledge and the skills to go with it.”

T is for thinking “inductively and deductively, alone and in teams, logically and creatively, spontaneously and deeply.”

L is for leadership, “equipping students with the capacity to lead in their family, their workplace, their community, their world.”

E– ethical underpinnings, the ability to know, to process in context, to act with sound judgement; “to thrive in vast, diverse cities, share the planet with other living things, preserve the wildernesses, generate economic growth without waste, resolve conflicts peacefully and deploy wisdom and judgement at moments of crisis. It is not “all relative”; these are matters of right and wrong on which the quality of life, and perhaps life on Earth itself, ultimately depend. Every interaction between adults and students is an opportunity to teach and learn these fundamental values. Great schools seize these opportunities.”

“We would have little chance of taking into account the more long term implications… I think of much of the atrocities of the disastrous Khmer Rouge period as being evidence of this. It shows how short-sightedness and ignorance is a powerful blend which can lead to terrible outcomes. I come from a strong research-led teaching training and I would encourage this attitude in all our teachers, that is, that they act as researchers of their own experiences, and those of other people, particularly those of their students. And at the same time they must be able to encourage the kids to also do the same.”

So why are you involved in a school?

“My partner died suddenly a couple of years back. I had been working overseas with a view to moving the family out if things were settled. I had to return to Cambodia to care for our, then, 5 year old son. I came to Sihanoukville and understood he needed to learn. I enrolled him on an English speaking programme which was really inexpensive. He looked great in his cute uniform, and pride as he left in the van boasting the livery of the school would pick him up and drop him off for a fee. Prima-facie it was indistinguishable from what would happen at home in the U.K. or any so called ‘developed’ country. All was well until I noticed that the books we were advised to buy had no exercise completed – even after a month. I asked him regarding what he did that day and it seemed to revolve around then buying toys from one of the teachers who subsidised her megre income from this. He then spent the afternoon breaking these cheap plastic toys up with his friends.

I decided to have a look to see what was happening. The next day nobody stopped me as I wandered into the school [this would probably get me a jail sentence on its own in the UK!]. I saw only two classes – the first was chaos and so was the second. A teacher was sitting at a desk at the front her hands cupping her eyes her hair fringe drooping down hiding her face as a further barrier preventing her from witnessing the chaos that she must of been hearing if not seeing, meanwhile through a headset microphone she was monotonously reciting like a Buddhist monk “A – apple, B-Bear, ….” I watched this go on for three mind numbing and boring recitation before catching the eye of my son and beckoning on him to come out of the class.

There is nothing wrong with kids being unsupervised. Perhaps it was better than some harsh regime, but they were expected to sit in this space with very little stimulus expect their toys. And this remember was going to happen every day for as long as they were attendent.

Horrified, I tried desperately to find an alternative and was directed to a couple of faith-based schools or to a couple of English language schools – one of them did not provide English but promised harsh discipline, the other seemed to teach English entirely through the bible. Both of these had fees subsidised by the collection bowl in other more well to do countries.


It was clear that I had to build my own school or home-school in order to find what I was looking for. I drew up plans for the school, but was unsuccessful in finding funders for the project. So we spent the next couple of years on a diet of home-schooling in the home and the beach to let off steam. Learning the alphabet and spell by writing in the sand was fun. Doing simple science and engineering lessons by building sandcastles and making boats and empty bottle submarines also. Learning to count and add and subtract using shells as counters.

During this time I found and developed curriculum materials, and researched extensively the history of education in Cambodia and South East Asia, all in order to discover why the education was as bankrupt as it was. I gained significant insights, but perhaps the most fruitful aspects of this period was a extensive search and discovery of quality online teaching resources.

The World Wide Web since its inception has been criticised regarding the lack of consistent quality of its contents, and this is very true when it comes to sites purporting to be educational, I did manage to build a corpus of sites which seemed to be compete in terms of their relevancy and ease of use. It was clear that many free resources were marred by advertising, whilst others had clumsy operation or were poorly thought through in terms of how they taught. But there were sites such as and STMath which seemed to exemplify the kind of paired down simplicity of Google. Much of what I learned through this experience I have codified and incorporated into what we are doing at Idea Source, but we actively scan for other resources that we can use to replace or consolidate what we do.”

In the future will it be mainly robots doing the work?

What about your own educational development, did your own schooling inspire what you are doing now?

“I grew up in the 1960s against a backdrop of science and technology and its – a profusion of fantastic science fact and science fiction that was incredulous at the beginning of the century – like putting man on the moon. People were actually landing on the moon, new medicines and surgical procedures were helping people live longer and better, industry was rapidly transforming or disintegrating around me, and new styles of clothes, housing, and travel were emerging. It was a rich material, conceptual and media environment, so much promise and challenge. I became interested in electronics and music probably because that was what was on TV, that’s what moved me. It was attractive as it ventured beyond the recurrent themes of love and romance, betrayal, dispute, war and strife, money, power and inequity, into a world mediated by technology and apparatus. the philosopher Martin Heidegger drew attention to technology’s place in bringing about our decline by constricting our experience of things as they are. His argument was that we now view nature, and increasingly human beings too, technologically — that is, we see nature and people only as raw material for technical operations. Because all things increasingly present themselves to us as technological: we see them and treat them as what Heidegger calls a “standing reserve,” supplies in a storeroom, as it were, pieces of inventory to be ordered and conscripted, assembled and disassembled, set up and set aside. Everything approaches us merely as a source of energy or as something we must organize. The essence of technology is, for Heidegger, not the best or most characteristic instance of technology, nor is it a nebulous generality, a form or idea. Rather, to consider technology essentially is to see it as an event to which we belong: the structuring, ordering, and “requisitioning” of everything around us, and of ourselves. We treat even human capabilities as though they were only means for technological procedures, as when a worker becomes nothing but an instrument for production. Leaders and planners, along with the rest of us, are mere human resources to be arranged, rearranged, and disposed of. Each and every thing that presents itself technologically thereby loses its distinctive independence and form. We push aside, obscure, or simply cannot see, other possibilities. This exposure to this view shaped a lifelong fascination regarding how science and technology, and the stories we tell of it, how we mythologise it – and through its purposeful use – prompts in us a sense of understanding and place in the world. But much of this was pretty much disrupted or devastated by school. They seemed to take what I was interested in and re-make it as pedestrian, mundane or a chore, or otherwise obfuscated any essence of science and or technology. School seemed to be all about behaviour control, and vague attempts at mind control, and much less about interest, curiosity, knowledge acquisition and application. My love of learning in formal settings only became sparked again when I began to study at degree level.”


What is your current role in the school?

“My role in Idea Source is as director of Academic Research and Curriculum. You may ask why it is this title rather than simply ‘director of studies’ or even ‘headmaster’ or ‘rector’. This is due to the influence, not of my previous roles as a university research fellow, but rather the more general approach that was put forward by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget when he referred to children’s learning as “investigations” regarding life and the world. His suggestion was the role of the child when they are learning or playing is that of a researcher. This had overtones of what John Dewey, who more plainly stated, “All thinking is research”. We would promote that it is not only our students who adopt this position, but the teachers as well. This is already practices in progressive education approaches such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia. Here there is an explicit stress upon the teacher as researcher and also, a co-learner. In Reggio teaching they have what they call an ‘atelierista‘  – which is a specialist arts teacher who works closely with teachers on all areas of learning, teaching and documentation – this kind of defines more my role, except it stretches beyond arts into science and technology. No part of the Reggio Emilia approach can simply be picked up and set down in a new context. The atelierista position has to be developed to serve our own unique school community.

Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Schools, described the atelier as a laboratory: “a place for researching motivations and theories of children from scribbles on up, a place for exploring variations in tools, techniques and materials with which to work.” In other words, the studio is a place for children to explore media and ideas and a place for teachers to try to understand children’s intentions, thinking and learning. For Malaguzzi, it was very important to respect the “plurality and connections” in all of the expressive media that children might use, an idea that he expressed more fully in his “Hundred Languages of Children.” My goal is to expand both children’s and grown-ups’ understanding of the media (which become languages) that children can use to communicate.

We have found that adopting this approach can be complex for those more used to authoritarian styles of learning experience, those which abound arbitrary rules and ‘chalk and talk’ and seem popular in more traditional Asian education settings. But in the more open ‘teaching’ role offers a much higher chance of accessing the child’s world in order to understand how universal knowledge can suit them as individual learners [rather than them simply being ‘taught’ as part of a class of similar units] and how this knowledge may be relevant, or redundant, to the local context and environment. This is the right way for learning in a society like Cambodia, where the onus is upon finding efficient and effective ways of sharing and imparting knowledge and finding the most relevant knowledge to suit individuals, location and culture.

Why did you come to Cambodia?               `

“I first came to Cambodia, at the behest of Mr Sun Sovanna, an advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the then Rector of ASEAN University in Phnom Pehn to organise and teach on their MBA programme. It was here I got my first taste of education Cambodian style – it took me a couple of weeks to fully realise that half the class couldn’t even speak English, even though the institution were clearly happy in taking the tuition fees. But then again, the students were apparently just as happy to pay them and turn up every weekend in order to unaccredited degrees useless to an international market. I was also asked to give some English lessons in the evenings. This experience was even more intriguing as it helped to create a bigger picture of the state of knowledge and learning in the Kingdom.

The book I was given was plainly targeted for the welcoming of Latino immigrants to the United States. A familiar format, a feature article would be followed by questions and bullet points aimed to test or illustrate items of English comprehension. But the contents, themes and nature of the stories themselves came to dominate, even overshadow, the learning of English. For example, the young Cambodians struggled and failed, as I did, to correctly pronounce Alaskan Inuit place names, or to understand the motivations of the only female participant in a sledge-dog race managed to fend off a wild animal, nor did they get a later passage whose theme was the diversity musical styles and forms [perhaps it was the grainy photocopies of photocopied pictures which were at best vague, but even when they were visible the students really had no idea what the difference between a reggae and folk group was, nor why an orchestra exists, they did however, understand the rock group]. Then there was the invention of the laser beam. Citing science fiction such as Star Trek was no help, that only thickened the plot as well, and how can downtown parking lots open where buildings have been recently demolished, serving as temporary means of income for those wishing to push and pull unlocked cars with the handbrakes left off?

It was clear that there were vast lacunae in terms of what could be called ‘general knowledge’ in Cambodia. A kind of ‘glass wall’ arose as the very texts offered nothing in the way of compromise regarding cultural specificity. The feature articles jumped between the themes, artefacts and practices a technically complex culture, an alien existence, totally unaware of its own needless complexity. The teacher was some sort of tour guide to this bestiary of incomprehensible logics, things and practices.

The students favourite pass time was staring at the river zen-like eating snacks with their friends, and watching endless Karaoke TV depicting Cambodian rural idylls replete with the promise of a chaste love.

I thought all the time that I should return to whence I came, but then I began to wonder what I could offer if I stayed…

What is your thoughts regarding the future?

Education is always a political and development sector hot topic, not only in Cambodia, but around the entire globe. A plethora of institutions – including branches of the UN such as UNESCO, the OECD, and the Millennium Development Corporation – are focusing on the need to improve education quality. Foundations, scholars, and opinion columnists all continue to mount public arguments for reform. So why is it so hard to improve quality?

Today’s Cambodia is a very different proposition to the one I depicted above which was 10 years ago. With smartphones and iPads, the inevitable international burger chain and suave coffee shops, things are clearly on the move. I assume nineteen year olds now know what a lazer beam is, as well as the difficulty of parking in an ever more congested city.They didn’t before. In education, with free online courses and connectivity, we are all now bound only by our capacity to be curious and our ability to search and know what is is to look for and why – that is, know how and what to search for. This again places onus upon administrators, teachers and students alike must to become researchers, rather than imparting lectures and lessons on what can be found on Wikipedia on your smart phone in seconds. It’s simply not good enough to come saying; “Oh yeah, I have x amount of years’ experience in schools and universities and I dictate and define this is what is relevant and this is not…etc. etc.” This predicates certain knowledge over others, certain delivery mechanisms over others, and predetermines what is both ‘right’ and ‘relevant’ to know. In a sense what is relevant to know is completely relative – that is – it depends on who is looking, for what, why and for what purpose, and when they will look. Everything must have a context and so must the school and everything that happens therein.

Certainly people should be schooled in essentials such as language and the mathematics such that we use in describing things, but in order to be creative, a problem solver, you must be first able to criticise existing solutions and understand problems by unpacking them. This is what we must aim at when teaching Language through Maths, Science, Art and Design, Geography, History and Social Studies. Its not presenting a child with a set of building blocks, but ensuring that they have the wherewithal to build not just one tower, but build and document many styles and shapes. Multiple solutions to suit different contexts. In a couple of words flexibility and agility.”

If you were to ask one question what would it be?

I have a few questions: How can I ensure that our students have the same quality of learning opportunities and options that they would have in an enlightened learning facility  in a developed country? How best can we promote and foster the mental environment, the curriculum, the learning technology, and teaching approaches and attitudes required for our students to compete and participate internationally, now and in the future?

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  1. Pingback: Ideasource is hiring again…! | The Contextual Curriculum™

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