A 2020 Success Story & Four Important Changes for 2021

I’m excited to share four important announcements as we begin the new year. Before I do that, I’m compelled to offer a few paragraphs of reflection on 2020. If you want to skip right to the news, please feel free to scroll to the bottom and look for the four bold items.

2020 was quite the year, wasn’t it? If you are anything like me, I will likely be striving to make sense of last year for a very long time. There were some aspects of the year that we might identify as shared experiences, but even more of 2020 was a distinct journey for each of us. We experienced varied calls to adventure, each struggled with with those calls in different ways. We found ourselves in unfamiliar places, facing often deeply individual tests, encountered various allies and detractors. For most of us, the journey has not ended.

For me, much of 2020 was joining the Goddard College community in what might be described as a battle for our continued existence, and an ongoing challenge to ensure that what we are doing continues to provide something distinct, if not truly unique, in the higher education ecosystem; being a champion for the significance and relevance of learner-driven models of higher education, ones where the educational practices flow from a celebration and cultivation of learner voice, choice, ownership, and agency.

And as many of you know, Goddard College remains on the journey, but with many incredible and positive achievements in 2020. When I arrived at Goddard in 2018, we were on probation with the accreditors, on track for over a million dollar deficit, struggling from multiple semesters of declining enrollment, and then in 2020 a global pandemic was added to the mix. Today, Goddard is no longer on probation, with a ten year accreditation renewal. We are operating from a balanced budget with a growing cash reserve, and we just welcomed the largest fall class since 2016. It has been the most challenging professional adventure of my career, risks remain (as they do in all of higher education), and there is more work to be accomplished. Yet, I am humbled and grateful to have been trusted to serve as President of this community as we navigated such times, and I am so proud of how the community came together to achieve such favorable results so far. I’ve shared this news in may other places, but for those longtime and loyal readers of Etale, which has obviously not received much attention during the last two years, I offer you this background to share a bit of what occupied my time in 2020.

Yet, writing and exploring educational ideas with readers like you is an important part of my life’s work and calling, and I’m resolved to return to some of that work in 2021, recognizing that my time is more limited while serving as a College president. With that in mind, here is what you can expect in 2021.

The digital world continues to evolve and while blogging is still valued by some of us, many more people in education are consuming content through video and audio. This is not an opinion. The data is undeniable. As such, I’ve decided to focus my content creation and rough draft exploration of ideas in some new forums this year.

Much of How I Used Etale in the Past is Moving to YouTube in 2021

Check it out and subscribe here: https://www.youtube.com/c/bernardbull

You will still find an occasional blog post on Etale, but for 2021, I launched a new YouTube channel, tentatively called Inspired Learning. In terms of content, it is very much the type of thing that I’ve written on Etale in the past, but with less on education policy and a greater focus upon designing hopeful, humane, and inspiring learning experiences (for both personal learning and in formal learning communities). These will be short videos of five to fifteen minutes, rough draft, exploring ideas that matter in education, and challenging us to move from idea to action. I pre-posted a few videos to launch the channel, but I plan to add one new short video each week. Please check it out and hit the subscribe button if you like what you see. I would be grateful for your help in spreading the word about this change, inviting others to subscribe as well, but only if it is something that you think others will find valuable.

The Edu Futures Podcast is Returning for Season Two

Check out season one and subscribe for season two here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-edu-futures-podcast/id1497857342 (This link is for iTunes, but it is on most other platforms as well.).

Amid the almost all-consuming but meaning-rich tasks at Goddard College this past year, I found brief evening escapes to enjoy a new endeavor, the launch of the Edu Futures podcast, interviews that explore forecasts, frontiers, and futures in education. Season one, which is already available online, included a delightful array of guests, people like Angela Duckworth, Tony Wagner, James Lang, Rohit Bhargava, Robert Pondiscio, Sarah Fine, Howard Rheingold, Ozan Varol, Bryan Alexander, Tom Vander Ark, Michael Staton, Thomas Frey, David Staley, Michael Horn, and many others. Season two is scheduled to launch in the first few months of 2021, with the goal of releasing at least 40 new episodes for the second season. If you want to be notified when the episodes for the new season arrive, just subscribe using the link above.

New Books

Thanks to many of you who bought and offered feedback on my last book, Breathe a Vison and Framework for Human-Centered Learning Environments. Yet, another part of my scholarship that was largely put aside amid the complexities of my work at Goddard was my writing. As such, I renegotiated due dates for several books, but I remain committed to finishing them in 2021, while starting a couple new project as well.

The book that I’ve been promising readers that I will get to this for years, will be finished this year. Learning Beyond Letter Grades, a call to cultivating cultures of learning over cultures of earning, is a top writing priority. I’m addition, I’m slowly working on finishing anther book that is specifically designed to help struggling private and faith-based schools work through their challenges, engage in honest and important reflection on their future, and create a path forward.

These days I commit to a daily evening/night habit of writing 250 words, nothing like what I’ve done in the past, but I’m getting closer and closer to completion on these two projects. Once they are complete, I’m venturing into two more book projects that I’ve mentioned in the past, The Lincoln Test: A Legacy of Learning Beyond Credentials, and Made by Measurement: Education Priorities Revisited. I’ve spoken to a few editors about these, but have not secured publishers. As such, chances are that you will not see these released until 2022, but 2021 is the year that most of the writing gets accomplished.

I’ve Accepted a New Challenge

It was a difficult decision, as I believe deeply in the learner-driven model and mission at Goddard college, but I recently accepted the call to become the next President of Concordia University Nebraska (CUNE). If all goes according to plan, I finish my time at Goddard August 1 and transition to CUNE soon after that. Lutheran education is my professional home, so when the call was extended, I found myself deeply honored to give back to the education system that has been there for me throughout much of my life, even amid challenges like the death of my father when I was twelve years old. I am sad to leave the Goddard community so quickly, but honored to take on this new opportunity for service.

Those are the four big pieces of news as I enter 2021. I have one other, but the timing is not quite right to share it. Of course, you will all be among the first to know once I am able to say more.

Until then, I wish you all a meaning-rich new year!

With grit and gratitude,


7 Game Changers for Private & Residential Colleges

If you work at or lead a private residential college, things are going to get interesting. As we move through 2020 and beyond, these colleges have ten years (or much less with some of the items in the list) to figure out how they are going to respond or adapt to the following changes.

American higher education is the story of change, struggle, adaptation, extinction, flourishing, fumbling, innovation, and tradition. As such, the following list might include new challenges, but most are no greater than the challenges that shaped and reshaped higher education in the past. The question is whether colleges will carefully, thoughtfully, strategically plan and adapt; or whether they will wait until it is too late, only to find themselves struggling for a response at the last minute.

  1. Tuition Free College – Like it or not (I have a number of concerns about all of the existing proposals that I’ve seen), there will be political ebbs and flows and there is a high likelihood of a bill passed that makes tuition free for 2-year degrees, and possibly 4-year degrees at public higher education institutions. If you are a selective or highly selective college, you might be insulated, but for the rest, this is going to impact your enrollment. In addition, the reallocation of federal funds for tuition-free college has the chance of removing or decreasing federal financial aid for undergraduate students in private colleges. This might not happen in the next 5 years, but schools are wise to at least have a potential plan should this occurs in the next 10-15 years.
  2. Online Degree Programs – Nothing new here, right? Wrong. I first got involved with online learning in the 1990s and there was already well over fifty years of research and practice on distance learning. We’ve only seen the beginning of online learning. The adoption rate is on the rise as is the growing comfort of spending more of our lives behind a screen. The stigma is on a decline, and while there are mixed views about how the pandemic will impact people’s perceptions of online learning, every indication is that it is on the rise. In the next decade we will see double digit declines in people choosing a residential college experience over an online (or largely online) alternative, at least for the academic portion of their higher education experience.
  3. Declining Value for Higher Education – We can ignore or dislike the statistics, but there is a steady increase in the number of young people (and people of all ages) who don’t consider traditional college as important as the last couple generations.
  4. Higher Education Alternatives with Equally Promising Career Trajectories – This combined with the last one is well on its way to creating a perfect storm. Education innovation is on the rise, but much of it is not confined to the work of regionally accredited residential undergraduate colleges. Many in academia may well dismiss these outsider educational movements as lower quality fads that will fade, and that is just how these innovations often begin. High or low quality, they are growing.
  5. AI-Powered Adaptive Learning – “Computers will never replace teachers” has been a common quote to comfort and appease educators for decades, but it isn’t true. Computers have already begun to replace teachers. Or, rather, the development of adaptive learning software has done so. We might not see a rapid reduction in full-time equivalent employees due to the growth of innovations like adaptive learning software right away, but it is only a matter of time before we begin to see student learning outcomes through computer-aided-instruction exceeding the outcomes of teacher-led instruction. Such results will create change. When an AI-powered piece of software can read and adapt to the slightest shifts and needs of every learner, we will see people wanting to use it.
  6. Shifting Demographics – Read Nathan Grawe’s Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. If your focus is traditional aged residential undergraduate students, read it twice.
  7. The New Normal – Will life return to normal post-pandemic? Yes, but it will be a new normal. Memories, habits, ways of thinking, and ways of being may well persist for a generation or longer. Some of these changes might be so subtle that we fail to notice them on a daily basis, but all of those little changes can add up to sizable shifts over years. Among many possibilities, people‘s connection to space and place is likely to shift.

These have potential to significantly change how people think and go about higher education, but they don’t mean the end of the residential college experience. Full-time and residential college has always and will continue to be the minority option in the United States, but that does not mean that the future is bleak. In fact, there are countless promising possibilities for such schools. They can and will continue to play a valued role in life of Americans and society, if only they are willing to listen, learn, respond, adapt, differentiate, and embrace new ways and possibilities.

What if These 50+ Activities Made Up 90% of Every School Day?

Given that I’m persistently arguing for reframing the nature of learning environments (ala the new book, Breathe: A Vision and Framework for Human-Centered Learning Environments), someone recently asked me what I want to see instead of traditional classrooms with desks rows, letter grades, and teacher’s directing and dictating while students have the primary roles of achieving expertise in compliance and conformity.

Here is my quick response…

I envision learning environments where one or more of the following 50+ items make up the bulk of every school day. I see schools where learning is rich, inspiring, meaningful, and transformational; and where the dragons of tests and grades no longer demand fear and submission. I envision a learning environment that is deeply human and humane, one that is responsive to the needs, callings, passions, proclivities, perspectives, and voices of all learners.

All of this is possible, but we must slay the industrial dragons that rule while boldly exploring and embracing the breadth of possibilities offered below (and beyond).

Note: There is plenty of overlap from one concept to the next in this list.

Adventure-Based Learning

Challenge-Based Learning

Quest-based Learning

Competition-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning

Experiential Learning

Phenomenon-Based Learning

Framing Study as Adventures & Quests

Engaged Citizenship

The Individual & Collective Pursuit of the Unknown & That Which has Never Been Accomplished Before

Service Learning

Acts of Service

Learner-Led Activities

Expeditionary Learning

Inquiry-based learning

Socratic Circles

Meaningful Engagement with Music, Art, Literature, & Performing Arts

Storytelling & Story-Making

Public Performances 

Learning in Depth

Self-Designed Projects

Self-Directed Learning Plans


Passion Projects

Genius Hour

Authentic Collaboration, Cooperation, & Teamwork

Positive Psychology Interventions

Random Acts of Kindness 

Game-Based Learning

Gameful Learning

Case-Based Learning

Gamification in Education

Real World Design Thinking Projects

Life Experiments 


Startup Competitions 

Games & Puzzles


Deliberate Practice Inspired by a Personal Goal or Aspiration

Deeply Meaningful Direct & Indirect Experiences with Mystery & Wonder

Rough and Tumble Play

Social Play

Communicative Play

Locomotor Play

Dramatic Play

Object Play

Explorative Play

Recapitulative Play

Deep Play

Creative Play

Socio-Dramatic Play

Symbolic Play

Mastery Play

Role Play

Fantasy & Imaginative Play

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What if Experimentation & Play Were a Daily Part of the Classroom?

This article is an early draft excerpt from the book, Breathe: A Vision and Framework for Human-Centered Learning Environments, available at Amazon and elsewhere.

“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.” -Pablo Neruda

Imagine an activity that can increase productivity at work and school, speed the rate and depth of learning something new, increase well-being and satisfaction, decrease stress, enhance the bonding between two or more people, and strengthen connections and communication with others. With such a long list of benefits, who wouldn’t want to engage in such an activity? The activity that I’m describing is play.

Stuart Brown, a leading expert on the merits of play, argues that, “Play is a basic human need as essential to our well-being as sleep, so when we’re low on play, our minds and bodies notice…” If this is true, then play is certainly not just for children, nor is it best reserved for a special treat. If humans really are designed to crave play, then it is best made a part of our daily lives, and the daily lives of learners around the world.

Yet, there is an ongoing tension about the word play for many people. In both schools and work, there continue to be some who are skeptical about anything that uses the word play. School and work are about productivity and hard work, and people think of play as something different. Turning again to Stuart Brown, he reminds us that, “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

When we diminish the value of play and playfulness in schools and workplaces, where many of us spend a significant part of our lives, we are depriving ourselves and others from something deeply inspiring and invigorating, something that we crave and that helps us to achieve well-being and higher levels of productivity.

While distinct, experimentation often flows out of play and playfulness. In imaginative play, we venture beyond the present world as we see and experience it. We find ourselves experimenting with other possibilities, even if only within the realm of our own minds. Experiments are, in one sense, tests that we conduct to explore some thesis, question, or examine a possibility. They often grow out of a willingness to ask and wonder. Some of the most powerful questions in human history led to both play and experimentation but went on to discovery and transformation.

Ray Bradbury once wrote that, “life is trying things to see if they work.” Ralph Waldo Emerson similarly wrote that, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” While the scientists among us have more narrow definitions for an experiment or what constitutes a good one, it is the orientation toward experimentation that we are talking about here. To experiment is to test something out, whenever possible, in the real world. You have an idea of how things might be, and you conduct one or more experiments. You observe and seek actionable insights that often leads to more experiments.

To experiment is to learn, and it taps into that drive for adventure that we already explored. Every true experiment is an adventure because you are going on a journey, and you don’t know the outcome. Experiments have that measure of wild, curiosity, uncertainty, and mystery; and these are things upon which thrive as people.

You don’t need formal training to start experimenting, although there are many tools that can help. In fact, you’ve been experimenting your entire life. You conducted an experiment the first time that you tried to walk, and each time after that. You experimented when you tried to reach out and touch that intriguing red stovetop. You experimented when you stuck your tongue out to catch your first snowflake, and to figure out how to get your bicycle to stay upright while you pedal it. You conducted an experiment each time that you tasted something new, tried to improve on a video game, or explored people’s reactions to your words and actions. Maybe you didn’t start each of these with a thesis that you were testing, but each of these are expressions of experimentation.

People continue to experiment throughout their lives, but over time we find comfort in that which doesn’t require experimentation. We develop rituals and habits. We find ourselves drawn to safe and stable situations where we are already confident about the outcomes. Think of how often we design classrooms in this same way? Experiments entail risks, and the yearning for safety and security competes with the equally important yearning for novelty, adventure, and learning.

There is nothing wrong with safety, and rituals are rich, beautiful, and meaningful parts of our lives. Or, even when they are not, they serve other useful purposes in our lives. The problem is when the pull for safety and security begins to close us off from the experimenting part of learning.

It helps to make experimentation a more planned and intentional part of the learning community. One way to do this is through what I call life experiments. These are simple experiments intended to test out new practices, ideas, and activities. For example, if you find yourself struggling with negativity, what if you conducted a simple experiment for 10 days in a row where you end each day writing down three things that went well and why. This particular “experiment” comes from Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, finding that something as simple as this can greatly improve the optimism and sense of well-being for many people. Of course, you don’t know if it will work for you unless you try it, perhaps you can test it out for 10 days and see for yourself. You can do the same thing with experiments around building new relationships, setting and achieving goals, managing your time, or getter better at a hobby or a skill for work. Now imagine a classroom or learning community of students who are persistently creating simple experiments for themselves and others, gaining new experiences and insights, and using that to learn and grow in new ways.

Some students will be hesitant, not having engaged in this sort of playfulness or experimentation. Here are three simple suggestions to help them get started. First, have them begin with exploring something that they want to understand or improve, or a problem that they want to solve. Maybe they want to better understand how to make money, get along with a sibling, improve a skill in a sport, address a troubling social issue, or how to develop a new skill.

Next, create a context or where they can read, talk to people, watch documentaries and YouTube videos, and gain some new knowledge about the area of interest. As they learn and explore, they will start to find possibilities and practices that intrigue them. That is where we go to step two. Have each student create a simple, time-based experiment that allows them to learn, through direct experience, how that practice or possibility might work in their life or the world. For example, several years ago, Martin Seligman and others popularized findings of a study that revealed the power of a simple bedtime practice. Before going to sleep, write down three things that went well that day and why. I read this and decided to give it a try. I committed to doing it daily for 4 weeks. At the end of each day, I also wrote down how I felt: bad, okay, good, or amazing. At the end of the four weeks, I went back, reviewed my “what went well?” statements, and I tallied up how many days I felt bad, okay, good, and amazing. I probably should have recorded how I felt daily for a month before starting the experiment. I didn’t. Regardless, the pattern was clear. In week 1 of my little life experiment, I felt bad two days, okay on four days, and good on one day. At the end of week four, I felt bad one day, okay one day, good three days, and amazing on two days. For my personal sense of well-being, that was a great outcome, so I decided to continue with the practice or different versions of it, which leads to the third suggestion.

Once students identify something to explore and conduct their personal experiment, they can make it their goal to gain actionable insight about themselves, the topic, the problem, or the world. It isn’t simple about whether it worked or not. There are lessons to be learned regardless of the outcome. This is where some form of personal reflection is valuable. This can be as simple as posing a few questions to oneself and pondering them. I tend to create times throughout the experiment for reflection, dedicating a more extended time at the end. In addition, I always include some sort of question like, “What next?” In other words, now that I completed this experiment, what do I want to do with the insights? I might continue the experiment, make some adjustment to my life in some way, or get an idea for a new or related experiment. 

This should be fun, even playful. They are exploring and experimenting. Some might enjoy inviting others to join them in creating and conducting personal life experiments, sharing their lessons and insights along the way. Others might prefer keeping them private. Learners can chart their own course. I’m offering a few suggestions, but engage the learners to decide what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

In some ways, this recipe approach might feel “industrial” in nature. As I’ve mentioned before, those are not bad values. We just need to gain control of them and make sure that we are prioritizing and celebrating the deeply human-centered ones. That is what we are doing here. We are creating a recipe that helps you prioritize more experimentation and play in your life.

By adding more play and experimentation in our learning communities, we are embracing a sense of possibility, and possibility breeds hope and a deeper sense of meaning. As Paul Rogat Loeb wrote, “Possibility is the oxygen upon which hope thrives.”

Here are a few questions for further consideration:

  • How much do learners presently play and experiment in the classroom or learning community?
  • What are simple ways for learners to engage in the content or learning goals through structured or unstructured play?
  • How can we infuse more playfulness into the classroom or learning community? What ideas might students have for this?
  • How can I invite learners to take a posture of experimentation about their own learning, but also about seeking understanding of other things that are important in their lives?
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Are Predictions About College Closures Causing More Schools to Struggle? How Might Alternative Predictions Shape the Future of Higher Education?

Anyone who follows contemporary issues in higher education is familiar with the provocative prediction from Clayton Christiansen (and others like Thomas Frey) that 50% of colleges will close over the 10-15 years. Will it happen? We are already several years into the prediction, so we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Only I’d like to posit three other questions.

First, does it have to happen?

Second, is the college closure prediction causing colleges to struggle and close?

Third, could the definition of “higher education“ be keeping us from recognizing that the more likely future is one of expanded higher education?

Let’s start with the first question. Does this closure prediction have to happen? Thomas Frey, a futurist whose work I follow and admire, is known for saying that, “the future creates the present.” In other words, our visions and musings about the future shape our thinking in the present. By thinking more deeply about a particular vision of the future, we may also be helping to make it a reality.

So, does it have to happen? At this point, I suspect that some version of the college closure prediction is likely to occur. In fact, the spirit of the prediction has already occurred. The number of closures is up, and there are many colleges struggling for survival. Did this have to happen? Yes and No. There could be other data-informed predictions and ways of thinking about the future that could create a very different future for higher education. Competing predictions could have shaped and redirected the public conversation in very different ways. Some colleges would have still closed, as they have always done. For a helpful historical perspective of the wild rise and demise of colleges in the United States, check out A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Labaree.

What about the second question? Is Christiansen’s prediction causing colleges to struggle and close? If Frey’s concept is accurate, that the future creates the present, does that mean that the prediction of the future is indeed helping to create the present circumstances? Or, to be fair, is the prediction of several futurists that many colleges will close soon helping to make that a reality?

Consider this example. There was recent rumor about a possible release of an article in a well known higher education news source that was going to provide a list of predictions about which colleges are likely to close in the next ten years. It turns out that this was not exactly the intent of the article and it has not released at this point, but there are indeed groups that are analyzing colleges based upon publicly available records, and they could release such a list.

What happens next? Suppose there is a college that is struggling but it is doing amazing work to stabilize, turn itself around, and re-imagine itself in ways that could be incredible, inspiring, and valuable to the world. Yet, the current circumstance of that organization is fragile. Then an article releases that predicts this college’s closure within 5-10 years. How do you think that will impact the college’s ability to recruit new students or raise new funds? How do you think it will impact its ability to build strategic partnerships? By publishing such a specific prediction, it didn’t just offer a neutral report. It helped make the prediction a more likely reality. It might have potentially undermined the present turnaround efforts of the institutions on that list. Of course, I live in a nation where there is freedom of press, and I would not want to censor such free exchange. I just want to acknowledge that such writing isn’t just describing. It is helping to create a particular future. It isn’t just informing. It is forming.

The same thing applies with broader or more general predictions about higher education. It would not be fair or accurate to claim that Clayton Christiansen’s prediction about college closures is the cause of so many recent college struggles and even closures, nor would it be accurate. There are many other factors. Yet, it is hard to deny that this prediction changed the contemporary discourse in higher education. Just scan the number of media headlines. If you go to higher education conferences, there is no doubt that you’ve heard countless people quoting Christiansen’s prediction or discussing it between sessions. Talk to groups of college presidents or to chairs of college boards, and you will find that this quote has influenced in will influence their thinking and choices. To publicly predict something is to help make it a more likely reality.

I don’t write this as a criticism. I support the fact that Christiansen wrote this. It sparked good and important conversation. It drew people’s attention to the many forces influencing the future of higher education. It also sparked new thinking and innovations.

Yet, when a well-respected Harvard professor makes such a prediction and it starts to gain traction, that is powerful force. It gets picked up by more media sources and gains the attention of people in places of influence. Just look at how Howard Gardner’s writing shifted an entire generation of educator’s view of intelligence. Ideas (and predictions are ideas) have consequences. They are never neutral. If they are shared and discussed, they influence. They influence policy. They influence the thinking and decision of key influencers in government, higher education leadership, accrediting agencies, think tanks, and more.

So, did the prediction that 50% of all colleges will close in the next 10-15 years help make that a more likely future? There is compelling case that the answer is “yes.” Would that future have occurred even without the prediction being shared? I think the answer that question is also “yes.”

This brings me to the third question. Could our definition of “higher education” be causing us to miss an opportunity to help create a possible future of rapidly expanding higher education?

Followers of my work know that I’ve challenged the college closure prediction, not because I think it is inaccurate, but because I think a more nuanced prediction could help us create a more hopeful future for learning beyond high school. I don’t doubt or question that many colleges will struggle and close, especially those resistant to fundamental changes. We already see that happening, and if they are not able to provide enough value to warrant the attendance of students and the support of donors, perhaps it is time for them to close. Yet, despite all of this, I made the following prediction in 2015:

Will that mean that only half survive? I think that is too simple of a picture. Many will have extreme makeovers, but will emerge with new life. Some will shrink while others expand. And alongside all of that, I am convinced that we will see an entirely new breed of higher education institution… I expect that, by 2030 [or maybe 2035], we might have two to three times as many higher education institutions as we have today, even as there will be more alternatives to the traditional college routes for people. Get ready for the higher education “startup” revolution. They might not all be higher education institutions as we’ve thought of them in the past, but they will be institutions [or communities] that provide education beyond the secondary level.


In fact, while many media sources are quick to join in helping to amplify the impact of the prediction about college closures, I continue to contend that we are missing the higher education revolution underway. People are drawn to the headlines of college closures and colleges on probation with their accreditors (I’m helping lead one of those colleges right now, and the future is admittedly unclear), and those make for provocative headlines. Yet, one need not look further than Clayton Christiansen’s own writing about how disruptive innovation works to know that the true disruptions are often missed, even ignored in early stages. Not only are they missed and ignored by the established institutions, they are also often missed by the media and larger system. That is happening today.

There is a rapid democratization of learning community creation, formation, and cultivation at work today. I’ve sometimes referred to this as “outsider higher education” because it resembles the development of outsider art. Outsider artists often didn’t (and don’t) even consider themselves artists. Yet, over time, outsider art became a part of the larger ecosystem. This is happening all over the place, especially in the digital landscape. Individual instances have an ebb and flow of media attention and discussion in higher education communities, but people rarely recognize how these individual instances represent a larger pattern and movement that is changing the nature of learning and education. Sometimes these individual instances resemble traditional higher education communities. Other times they don’t, and they don’t bother with such things as grades, transcripts, degrees, any many other characteristics that are part of our image of higher education.

As one who studies past, present, and future trends in education; I continue to be amazed at how little many of us in higher education know about our own history, and how short that history is when it comes to aspects of college or higher education experience. When we step back and look at the history of higher education, we see that change is the norm, sometimes drastic change.

The problem is that these new and emerging higher education communities look so different from what we think of as college that we don’t think to include them in our conversations about the future of the ecosystem. Yet, if we think of them in terms of the goals that they help people achieve (beyond earning a degree), there is a strong case to be made that they are indeed a part of the broader notion of higher education.

When I predict that we will have two to three times the number of higher education communities, I am not suggesting that these will be formal or regionally accredited colleges. Rather, I am suggesting that they will be communities that, at their essence, expand and extend people’s learning beyond the secondary level. If we are willing to broaden or perspective, we soon begin to see that this is a revolution that has been underway for fifty years, and it is growing exponentially.

So, while we already have predictions about college closures, I expect that the far more interesting and promising predictions relate to what forms of higher education will persist. By only focusing upon the college closure predictions, we risk contributing to a future where there are a smaller number of dominant institutions that lack the variety and diversity that exists today. If we instead broaden our definition of higher education and focus upon predictions of a rich, vibrant, diverse, and highly valued ecosystem; we have a much better chance of helping make that future a present reality.

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A 9-Stage Continuum of Teacher-Centered to Learner-Led Classrooms & Communities

Inspired by a recent thread about student-centered versus student-driven learning in a Facebook group and on Twitter, I turned to my keyboard to think through the topic. In recent years, it has become popular to champion what many refer to as student-centered classrooms and schools, often described in contrast to what people think of as teacher-centered contexts.

Yet, education is a messy field of study when it comes to definitions. Consider the phrase “student-centered learning.” One person’s understanding of student-centered learning might simply refer to teachers taking the time to get to know their students, adapting their teaching methods based upon the knowledge gained. For those teachers, student-centered learning is really a synonym for differentiated instruction. Another teacher might use the same “student-centered” phrase to describe a classroom where students are granted the authority to decide much of what and how they learn.

With so many competing definitions of the same terms, it can be challenging to make sense of the current landscape. So, I’ve decided to complicate the matter by offering my own definition of terms. I certainly don’t claim to be the definitive source for these terms. Instead, I offer them as working definitions to provide a way for us to add greater depth to the student-centered versus teacher-centered conversation in education.

While some people might think it would be nice to have a set of universally-accepted definitions, that is beyond the scope of this article. For now, it is enough for me to contrast different approaches, and I’m using the following terms to achieve that goal.

Also, while we might think of these terms as being part of a continuum, that is a bit too linear for me. The continuum construct is easier if you are just comparing and contrasting two terms, but it gets complicated when we add the others into the mix. As such, some people might choose to look at the following in a linear fashion, but in the real-world, there is often a mixture of these philosophies and perspectives in the same classroom and school. One concept might be the focus, but others are still present, influencing the culture and climate.

With that introduction established, consider the following.


Some people use this phrase to describe sage-on-the-stage teaching methods, instances where teachers lecture and students are expected to “sit and get.’ Yet, the more consistent use of the phrase in the literature relates to where the power resides in a classroom or school. A teacher-centered classroom is one where the teacher is in charge of deciding what to learn, how to learn it, what will be graded, and how it will be graded. The teacher chooses the pace of the learning as well as determines the learning pathway followed by each student.

This term is also used even when the teacher doesn’t actually have full say over what is learned or how it is learned. There are many classrooms where the teacher is given a set of standards or maybe even a pre-existing curriculum. That teacher might have some choice and voice in what to do and how to do it, but part of all of those decisions might have actually been made by an outside group or organization.


A nuanced but important distinction from teacher-centered, the teaching-centered classroom puts the quality of teaching at the center of what happens. If you want to improve student outcomes, some argue, the best way to do that is the increase the quality of the teaching. So, while teaching-centered classrooms are sometimes also teacher-centered, the focus here is upon improving the quality of the school by celebrating and championing the quality of teaching. Get teachers to embrace and embody the best practices that are well supported by the research, and everything else will fall into place.


Content-centered is often teacher-led, but not necessarily. Instead, the focus is upon exposure to and experiences with a given body of content. These classrooms tend to be content heavy, but contrary to common straw-man arguments against content-centered education, these classrooms are usually about both content mastery and progress toward higher levels of thinking with that content. What is distinct about the content-centered classroom is that the focus is neither upon the teacher’s action or the student’s actions and interest. It is more about getting lost in what is being studied. Great content is at the heart of great schools.


While some might think that the content-centered and standards-centered classrooms are similar, a standards-centered classroom is often agnostic to specific content (as in a set reading list). Rather, attention is placed upon concise statements (called standards) of what students are expected to know and be able to do at different stages or levels of their education.

The focus is upon student’s making progress toward mastery of academic standards in each academic area. By its very nature, this tends to put heightened attention on what is happening with each student, and assessment tends to became a greater focus. Diagnostics that allow one to track students movement toward mastery of standards gets much greater attention in this type of classroom.


The learning-centered classroom makes student individual and collective learning the top priority. It could be focused upon students progressing toward mastery of standards, but it could also be about the relative progress (or improvement) of a student from the beginning of the semester to the end.

Because the focus is upon learning, there is obviously significant attention to what is happening with each learner. As such, it is common for people to describe the learning-centered classroom as also a learner-centered classroom.


This is a classroom where the focus is placed upon the learner. What are the individual needs of each learner? What are the interests, goals, and aspirations of the learner? What is the prior knowledge that each learner brings to the classroom? What is the cultural background of the learner? What are the beliefs, values, joys, and fears of the learner?

Notice that this is not just about getting to know a group of learners. It is about getting to know each learner in a deep and substantive way, and then adapting the learning plan accordingly. At the same time, some who describe their classrooms as learner-centered don’t necessarily engage in an in-depth investigation of these factors. Yet, the idea is that knowledge about each learner is what shapes decisions about what students learn and how they learn it. In some cases, the teacher is still making most of the decisions. In other cases, students are given greater voice and choice (even though I’ve set aside a different term for classrooms where that is the focus).


I thought twice about including this category, but without it, there is a significant gap. This represents classrooms where the focus is not actually upon the teacher, the learner, standards, or specific content. Of course, each of these are a part of the mix, but the problem-centered classroom is one that that is actually more focused upon engaging in acts of service, or understanding and engaging in solving real-world problems. Much learning happens, and in most schools or classrooms that embrace this approach, there are typically ways to document (if not assess) student learning along the way. Yet, the primary attention is upon doing something real in the world…and learning by doing that thing.


In some ways, this is the most direct contrast to the teacher-centered classroom because it is about where the power resides. The learner-driven classroom is the one where learners are the primary decision-makers about what they learn, how they learn it, and maybe even how they demonstrate their learning. There are instances where each learner has almost complete control. In other instances, the learner has to fit plans within a set of standards (so a mix with a standards-centered classroom) or some pre-developed fences within which the learners are permitted to work. In other cases, the learner is co-creator of what and how to learn, doing that work with the teacher (mentor, coach, guide) and/or other classmates.


It is probably sufficient to simply acknowledge that there are different levels of learner-driven classrooms and schools, but I’m compelled to create this last category to acknowledge what some might describe as the most immersive expression of being learner-driven. That is when the learner (and collective of learners) not only has voice, choice, ownership, and agency of the learning process. The learner also has significant influence on what happens in the entire learning community. Learners have say on the rules, policies, practices, the physical environment, and more. In fact, while less common, there are examples of schools that are entirely learner-led, with no teachers, or where learners can vote on which teachers stay or go.


I’m sure that I missed other important distinctions, but my main goal here was to acknowledge and reflect upon a level of nuance that gets missed when we simply contrast teacher-centered versus student-centered learning. While breaking things into these nine categories was an exercise in organizing my own thinking as much as anything else, perhaps others will find it useful as well.

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The Open Education Resource Movement Has Promise, but It Also Has This Significant Limitation

Let’s get controversial. In my education innovation circles there is widespread support for Open Education Resources (OER). I value and support the promise, possibility and idea of OER, but there is a persistent equity issue in the OER world that doesn’t seem to get much attention. Before I get into that, how about a quick definition break?

For newcomers to the topic, here is a quick description of OER from CreativeCommons.org:

Open educational resources (OER) are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.

Open Education “…is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge.”
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

That sounds great, right? What is there to not like about free resources? There is potential to remove a financial barrier to education materials for more learners, thus lowering the cost of education. It gives faculty (students, and pretty much anyone) greater control over the teaching materials. OER also creates fertile soil for any number of potential teaching and learning innovations. From a philosophical lens, OER also contributes to a type of collaborative creation, co-creation, sharing, and use of education resources. All of those have affordances.

So why would I have an issue with OER? Allow me to offer a few scenarios about how open education resources often get created, drawn from my direct conversation with content creators. After that, I’ll explain.

The Grant-Funded Independent Scholar

A person seeks out a grant from a foundation, government source, or other organization. Essentially this grant money serves as pay for the person to create the content. In return, the person agrees to license the content so that it becomes an open education resource, free for others to use (and in this case) edit, revise, and reshare as they see fit. The creator of the original content doesn’t get royalties for ongoing use of the content, as one might through a traditional publisher, but as long as that person has another source of income, or is able to keep securing grant money for the next project, the person has a living wage.

The Tenured Professor

This person already has a solid, stable source of personal income. And when deciding to work on writing a book and related resources that she intended to make an open education resource, her University actually gave her an extra grant or stipend for the work. So, she not only got paid her regular salary for blocking out time of her day to do the writing. She essentially got bonus pay.

The Content Creation Team

Similarly, in this third scenario, a team of scholars at multiple Universities came together to work on a shared open education resource project. They secured a grant from an outside source that paid for a percentage of these faculty member’s salaries. In other words, each faculty member got a 10% or 20% release from their regular work to focus on this project, and the grant paid the college that percentage of each faculty member’s salary. So, while the faculty member didn’t get paid extra, the work on the OER was an integrated part of their workload at the University.

The OER But Pay-For-Print Author

This person, a teacher at a K-12 school, submitted a book proposal to a publisher that agrees to publish the book in digital format as OER, but also sells paper copies of the book. The author gets royalties on any book that is purchased. Typically that might amount to anywhere from $500 to $10,000 dollars over a 5 year period. So, it is a nice side-project for the author, but he does this more as a free gift to the world, depending upon his full-time job at the K-12 school for his primary income.

The Education Entrepreneur

This fourth category is incredibly rare, but not if we expand our thinking beyond formal OER, allowing ourselves the messiness of also including the creating and sharing of free content in general (ala bloggers like me). Imagine a person who writes and creates content on a blog or other online platform, making it freely available for others to read, use, or maybe even edit and reshare. This person doesn’t get paid for creating any of this content and doesn’t have another job. He just writes and creates content with much of his time because he wants to share ideas that matter with the world. Yet, how does he make a living wage? Well, he uses the creation of free content to get lots of people to visit his website. His reputation grows as a thought leader so much that a number of funding opportunities emerge:

  1. Invited and paid speaking opportunities.
  2. Paid consulting opportunities.
  3. Traditional online and paper publishers notice his work and reach out to offer paid/contracted writing work (of course, that content is rarely OER).
  4. As his reputation grows, he starts to get full-time job offers because of his expertise.
  5. Vendors and others reach out about possible sponsorship deals, offering to subsidize his work in return for advertising or promoting products and services for them.
  6. He even has a Patreon account where followers of his work make one-time or monthly donations to fund his ongoing writing and projects.

There are very few OER creators in this educational entrepreneur category. It is a tough road. While many can augment their full-time salary by doing this type of work, there is as much luck as there is skill in making this happen.

Who is Missing?

This brings me to a persistent concern in the OER movement. Right now, OER either depends upon the narrow band of people in the categories described above, or it relies upon people working for free. Add to the fact that there is a significant amount of passionate and evangelistic fervor among some advocates of OER with a thick layer or moralistic assertions. They celebrate poets, musicians, and others creatives who charge for their work; but the moment that someone’s creative energy is focused upon something defined as educational content, they decry the creative who might opt for a traditional publishing route.

There is a fervor among some, but certainly not all, that almost comes off as wanting to ban or abandon any education content that includes a price tag. Yet, doing this has a serious risk of turning education content creation into an elitist enterprise. There are lots of people out there who don’t fit neatly into any of the categories that I described earlier in this article, but they produce great content.

OER has its promise and benefits, but this is no small matter to address. Not only does it involve the problem of limiting content creation to a privileged few (or demanding that others content creators beyond this group work for free), it also underestimates the significant creative and intellectual resources that come from people who don’t work in places that will pay them to create OER.

So, as much as there is a place for OER, I expect that some of the best and most creative content will continue to have a price tag associated with it. Regardless of that fact, it would serve the OER community well to identify some creative solutions that increase access and opportunity for a broader array of content creators.

And just for a fun, paradoxical conclusion to this article…

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you like part of it but not another part, make it better, but don’t forget to give attribution to the original content creator.

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Why Innovation is Important in Education

Have you seen the viral video of the man on the airplane, working with all of his might to fit his bag in the overhead compartment? After 45 seconds of trying, a flight attendant comes to help. She twists the bag and it slips into the compartment. At the very end, you can see the the onlookers laughing at the man, shaking their heads at his inability to see the obvious.


We can find the video funny, but I’d like to suggest that we have all been the man in this video. We have an idea of how it is supposed to work. We try, and to our confusion, it doesn’t happen. So what do we do? We try again, and again, and maybe again. Perhaps we convince ourselves that grit, perseverance, and persistence will win the day. With that personal pep talk, we pick up the bag once more and try the exact same way, but to no avail.

Then someone comes to us and suggests another way. Maybe we are open to taking their advice? Or, maybe we reject it. Sometimes on a matter of principle, we persist with the method, protecting it like our only child.

“This is now how it is supposed to work.”

“This is the right way to do it.”

“It has worked for me this way before.”

“I’ve tried everything and it just doesn’t fit.”

This is why we need innovation in education. Innovation is not just a buzz word. It isn’t just about embracing new and trendy ideas. It is about embracing the breadth of possibilities, acknowledging that there might be a better way, being open to new ways of embodying our values and embracing our mission.

We’ve had enough of trying to stuff students in our educational compartments. We blame the students, the compartment, the people around us, or even ourselves when it doesn’t work out as we desired or expected. Maybe innovation is really about having the openness and humility to consider something new. And maybe it is sometimes as simple and subtle as twisting the idea on its side.

A Student Saves a Teacher’s Life & Reminds us all About The Power of Self-Directed and Connected Learning

I’ve been writing about and advocating for the importance of learner voice and agency for years, but a young man in Michigan might have just taught us all more about the value of such attributes in less than a minute.

Did you read the news story about the fifth grade student who saved his teacher from choking? According to the news sources, Dylan saw that his teacher was choking, got up, and used the
Heimlich maneuver while other students ran for help.

This is an inspiring story in itself, but I’m particularly intrigued by how Dylan learned to use the Heimlich maneuver. According to the article, his mother is a nurse, so he had that going for him. Yet, when asked about it, Dylan explained that he learned it from a YouTuber, Jaiden Animations.

Think about that for a moment. An entertaining animated videos watched by a fifth grader during his free time actually equipped him to make a real and significant difference in the life of another person.

I also find it particularly intriguing that this free range learning via YouTube made a difference in a school, a place that does not typically formally acknowledge or incorporate such learning. Schools, as most people experience them, are places where learning is more planned, prescribed, and directed; and there are plenty of us who learned and valued what we took from such places. Nonetheless, I’m compelled to recognize that this recent event is a beautiful reminder that learning is so much bigger than schooling; that education exists before, after, and beyond the school day; that some of our most valuable lessons are not housed in formal lesson plans and carefully assessed on quizzes and tests; and that schools themselves can benefit from finding ways to re-imagine learning environments as places that build upon, support, celebrate, and incorporate the larger world of learning in the lives of each student.

As progressive educators have been embracing for a century, life and learning are inseparable. School walls, no matter how thick, are permeable, and that is a very good thing. Now amplified by the nature of life in a connected world, we have the exciting task of creating learning communities that are strengthened by embracing this reality, and re-imagining school accordingly. And just as we learned from young Dylan, the students have much to teach us. Maybe they will even lead us to such a future. Perhaps they are already doing it.

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Writing Recipes for New Learning and Personal Growth

Typically, I don’t follow recipes. I like to reference a few, come up with my own twist on how to make something, and then learn through trial and error. At other times, I follow the recipe as closely as possible. After building some confidence (and maybe a fraction of competence) making it a few times, then I start to experiment with other options. Don’t get me wrong. I’m rarely in the kitchen, and I tend to make things that don’t require much of a recipe. Recently, while transitioning jobs and living away from my family for an extended period, I lived off of 3 smoothies a day, the exact same smoothie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As much as I seek out and value new challenges and experiences, sometimes I have so much novelty and change in my life that it is nice to not have to think about something like what I will eat that day.

Over the last ten years, I’ve been spending a great deal of time creating and then following a different type of recipe. In fact, I’ve created and tested well over a hundred of them. I don’t typically use the word “recipe”, but I’ve come to learn that the word connects with people’s prior experience, making it easier to grasp than while I typically call them, which are “life experiments.”

It started when I discovered this beautiful intersection between three areas of interest: 1) emerging research about well-being from positive psychology, 2) my intrigue with alternative and innovative education practices, and 3) my ongoing value for ancient wisdom and practices that seem to transcend time and place. This occurred around the same time that my son was born and I suddenly experienced an existential crisis about my own mortality (that is a story for another time). Those closest to me know that it was not my best moment, but it did motivate me to explore research on well-being, gratitude, grit, having a growth mindset, and so much more.

The more I read, the more I wanted to read and learn. Only I knew that my current personal crisis needed more than reading and new knowledge. I needed to cultivate new habits and ways of being. That meant turning some of this knowledge into practical experiments that I could conduct to see if they could help me learn, grow, and work through some of this new anxiety and depression that competed for my time and attention. There is more to this story, but I’ll save that for the introduction to yet another book that I’m working on tentatively called The 12 Quests.

[For the record, I’ve never enjoyed a writing project more than this one, and it is completely different than anything that I’ve written before. Of course, true to form, it is slowed by the fact that I realized that I needed to write a second book to explain the vision and philosophy behind the first book, and that is the one that I’ll likely finish first. That one is tentatively called, Breathe: 7 Priorities for Inspired Living. If there are any editors or publishers reading this, no I don’t have a contract yet, and yes, I would love to explore the possibilities with you.]

Back to the point of this article. So I started to take these positive psychology (and other) ideas about well-being, and I wrote out recipes for how I could test them in my life. I came up with recipes for things like:

  • experiencing more wonder in my life by watching sunrises and sunsets,
  • cultivating more optimism by bedtime journaling,
  • gaining motivation and order by making my bed in the morning,
  • showing more appreciation and experiencing more connection with others by sending daily thank you messages to people,
  • creating more times to celebrate the small things in my life,
  • systematically overcoming specific fears,
  • adding more gratitude and mindfulness by taking daily pictures of things for which I am grateful,
  • cultivating and planning for new experiences (there is a TON of research about the importance and benefits of novelty and new experiences, by the way),
  • and the list goes on, to now what is well over a hundred different life experiments.

Each recipe or life experiment included 3 to 10 steps, and I tried to make any critical element explicit. For example, I quickly realized that, to ensure follow through, I needed to add steps in each recipe for planning and scheduling. That might mean a step like, “Create a list of 10 possibilities, and then narrow it down to the 1 that you want to use for this experiment.” and “Now that you have your plan, block off 30 minutes on your calendar for each of the next 10 days.” I also included steps that reminded me to pause and journal about what I’m observing, feeling, thinking, experiencing, and learning (an incredibly important step!). At the end of each recipe, I created a “tips” section where I recorded words of encouragement, suggestions for working through what I anticipated to be potential roadblocks, etc. I also added to the tips section after each experiment, giving myself reminders for the next time.

The more I wrote recipes, the more I figured out what worked best for me. I got it down to an art, science, or maybe a blend of the two. What I know for sure is that I become intrigued by writing recipes for myself and then testing them out, sometimes refining them a couple times. I rarely shared these experiments with others. I’ve historically shared so much about my life on this blog and elsewhere, that I enjoyed keeping this one part of my life to myself (that is until now, as I’m working on the new books).

I’ve also decided to start sharing my past, present, and some of my forthcoming recipes or life experiments on a separate blog to see if others might be interested in trying out some of the recipes as well. If that interests you, head over the the What is in the Air? Blog. At the time of writing this, What is in the Air? is less than a year old. Since I have so many recipes scribbled in a dozen or more of my old idea journals, I’m beginning to transfer some of them to the digital world, and I’m excited to see if others might like to try them out, give some feedback, or maybe even suggest some of their own recipes / life experiments.

So much of modern education is biased toward knowledge acquisition, but so much significant change happens when we convert knowledge into habits, practices, rituals, and direct experiences. This recipe / life experiment approach is my effort to bridge those two worlds.

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