Beneath the mask

Seeing what is really there

Matthew Savage, Principal at the International Community School in Amman, Jordan, talks about ‘the Mona Lisa Effect’  – a model for personalised learning, which enables us to see beneath the masks that children assume as part of their everyday lives.

Teacher groupies

In March 2019, I was privileged to join two thousand of the world’s most influential politicians and academics, school leaders and teachers, at the Palm Dubai, to watch the awards ceremony for the Global Teacher Prize 2019. It was a glitzy, glittering, glamorous event, akin to the Oscars and every bit as anticipated.

And I was struck, above all, by one thing: the 10 finalists, and the dozens of Varkey Teacher Ambassadors who sat around them, were celebrities – cheered, revered and adulated by the ‘groupies’ the rest of the audience, regardless of our background, had become.

Celebrity Status

Having spent the first 13 years of my career in the UK, where my profession was under the soul-sapping glare of an unforgiving media and the thumb of an autocratic government agenda, (while my own mother could barely contain her disappointment when I said I wanted to become a teacher!) I believe that this celebrity status for teachers is long overdue. The message throughout the ceremony, and the entire Global Education and Skills Forum that preceded it, was simple: teachers change lives. And we would do well to remember the special powers that we have.

False Gods

I believe these special powers are manifold and, used wisely and well, can, indeed, help us change lives. Sometimes we clutter our understanding of effective learning and teaching with, for example, the panacea of Edtech or the tyranny of curriculum, but, before and beyond either of these false gods, it is the quality of the relationship between teacher and student, and how well we know them as a unique individual, that define, perhaps more than anything else, what happens next.

Beneath the Mask

If I know my student I can help them more effectively. This means knowing what makes her want to get out of bed in the morning and come to school again the next day; what he likes and enjoys, and what switches him off or shuts him down; how they learn best and most easily, and what causes each cognitive stumble and fall; and what lies beneath the multiple masks our world has incentivised children and young people to wear, every single day…

If I truly know my student, then, and only then, can I begin to personalise their learning, and open the door to their happiness and success.

Mona Lisa Eyes and the Data Triangle

At the International Community School, Amman, and in an increasing number of COBIS schools around the world, we call this #themonalisaeffect®. seeing the child beneath the masks with ‘Mona Lisa’ eyes. We take all the available student-level data and use it to form a profile of each individual learner: a profile to which we can now teach, and for which we can now care. In addition to the raft of soft data at our fingertips (mobility, mother tongue etc), there is a triangle of hard data which, when used effectively, can transform the learning and wellbeing of each and every student: aptitude, attainment and attitude. Bringing that data triangle to life is vital.


Learning is looking at you: Matthew Savage explains what he means by ‘ The Mona Lisa Effect’

Digging for Treasure

But it is what we do with that data that matters. Armed with a deep and broad understanding of what makes each student remarkable in their own right, we, as teachers, can make a difference truly worthy of celebrity status. If we see our role as part treasure-hunter, digging for the riches within each and every child, and part mechanic, helping them to adjust their cognitive and attitudinal machinery, we can enable them to change their story, and, as a result, their life.

Growth Mindset

Evidence of the poor mental and emotional health and wellbeing of children and young people today often seems overwhelming.  Too often, they are anxious, scared of failure, and lacking confidence in their own potential. Too easily, if we don’t see their life and learning through ‘Mona Lisa’ eyes, we can become complicit in fixing their mindset for decades to come.

How many of us believe we know something about our own abilities because we developed that belief as a child? Isn’t it time, therefore, that we challenged those beliefs, whilst the young brain retains the plasticity to respond and change?

‘I Like You’

Each of the ten finalists in the Global Teacher Prize 2019, and, indeed, all the nominees since its inception 5 years ago, know this already. They know that you can’t teach without building the relationship first and that this demands a deep and authentic knowledge of the child behind the mask. In an ideal world, #themonalisaeffect would not be necessary, but education has become so complicated that, oftentimes, we need a little help.

Andrew Moffat, treasure-hunter, mechanic and UK finalist, explained to me what teaching should be: “I like you. I like being your teacher. Let’s have a great time together.” So grab your shovel and join me: let’s dig for treasure, and have a great time too!


Matthew Savage is Principal at the International Community School (, the only accredited member of COBIS in Jordan and the global home of #themonalisaeffect.

Matthew was a speaker at the 38th COBIS Annual Conference – Vision 2030: The Future of International Education, that took place in London in May 2019


Feature image: Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay

Other images: White77Free-Photos from Pixabay

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