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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Is Learner Driven Education Dangerous?

Is learner-driven education dangerous? Yes!

I’m a champion of self-directed and learner-driven education. It is a compelling and important part of the larger education ecosystem. I support the rights of others to embrace different philosophies and models, and some of my most engaging conversations are with people who hold to other approaches of education.

I don’t simply support the value of diverse education approaches, I see and celebrate the beauty of them. Yet, it is still common for me to encounter people who challenge the value, sometimes even the ethics, of learner-driven education, at least as they understand it. I often hear arguments like the following.

“Students don’t know what they don’t know. If you ask students what they want and need to learn, how are they supposed to know? That is our job as teachers and professors. We know what they need and we give it to them. Leaving it up to the students is irresponsible if not downright dangerous. At a minimum, it will inevitably lead to subpar results.”

If learner driven education was only about learners not listening to or learning from other people, I might agree with much of that critique. The problem (or maybe the lack of a real problem) is that this is a misunderstanding of both self-directed learning and the philosophy of learner-driven education. Nothing in learner-driven education ignores the fact that we can and do develop important knowledge and skills from other people. Learner-driven education is not against the real and incredible power that comes from learning with and among other people, often people who have a greater level of insight or expertise.

After all, students in learner-driven communities watch videos, read books and articles, interview people, engage in formal and informal apprenticeships, observe others, have mentors, sometimes take traditional and teacher-led courses, and participate in many other activities that involve learning with and from others.

Here is what is fundamentally different about learner-driven education. A community that embraces such a philosophy seeks to recognize, affirm, and amplify the voice, choice, ownership, and agency of the learner. This means respecting the questions, life contexts, and curiosities of each person. It means leaving room for people to make choices, to practice and develop a personal voice, and to be a creator or co-creator of the learning agenda.

Learner-driven education strives to honor the voice of students where they are at a given moment. We resist the idea that a learner’s voice is not valuable until it begins to resemble the voice of the teacher or professor. We do not ignore the concept of expertise, but we do believe in the value of a context where learners have choice on when, if, and how they engage with and learn from experts. We question, challenge, guide, and support; but when it comes to the larger education environment that we strive to cultivate, we resist the temptation to dictate.

We do this because we are convinced that agency and ownership are best cultivated by being respected and nurtured. Our goal is not the creation of complacent and compliant conformists who follow and submit to the will and declared expertise of others. We believe that democratic societies are bolstered by a people who think for themselves, act upon their convictions, and cultivate the character and courage necessary to effect change in the world around them.

Learner-driven education is not about ignoring experts. It is about about nurturing a nation of people who are ready to pursue expertise over and over again in life.

Is learner-driven education dangerous? Yes, it is dangerous to anyone who benefits from the complacency and unquestioned compliance of others. It is dangerous to those who would have us simply follow their lead. It is dangerous to those who are threatened by people who learn to think for themselves, who know that their voices and choices can make a difference in their own lives and the world around them. It is dangerous to people who believe that the world should be directed by a select group of experts who are therefore entitled to tell others what to do, when to do it, and how to do it; without question or conversation. It is dangerous to people who are threatened by others who ask difficult questions and are not quick to follow the lead on a “because I said so” basis. Learner-driven education is dangerous. It is dangerous and beautiful and necessary.

“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”


10 Education Trends to Watch: What is on the Horizon in 2019?

We are two months into 2019, and I’m finally ready to share my education predictions. As many of my regular readers know, this is not a random list that I throw together at the last minute. It is based upon an ongoing, relentless analysis of what has been in development over years (or sometimes decades); consideration of the current conditions; and an examination of the various levers that often lead to a trend being amplified or muzzled in a given moment.

I am not trying to create a list of buzz words that peak interest. I’m happy to use concepts that have been known and used for the last century, but only if there is something new to consider or watch. As I review my list for this year, there are ideas that have been around for millennia. I include them this year because I anticipate an important change or turning point.

I make no claims of a neutral or objective assessment. There is a measure of activism in my predictions. I am predicting what my ongoing analysis leads me to believe is likely, but I candidly use this to highlight that which interests me (because of potential positive implications, negative implications, or a mix of the two). And because I’m a researcher/practitioner, I’m already actively engaged in trying to co-create the future in many of these areas.

Finally, note that these are “trends to watch.” I use this language because I believe that these are worthy of our attention, sometimes because of the direct impact of a trend, but also because of the indirect impact or the important lessons that we can learn…even when/if some of these fail to deliver on their promises.

With these important caveats, here is my list for 2019.

Humanizing Education

I’ve been using the word “humanize” in reference to education for years, but I’m not the only one. For some, this is a word used to get at concerns about what people deem as the abuse or misuse of technology. I don’t use it that way. I’m using it to direct people’s attention to the fundamental notion that education is, at its core, a deeply human endeavor. This calls for shedding a narrowly mechanistic or reductionist approach to education design, learning experience design, education innovation, as well as education policy and practice.

As we see adaptive learning and AI find their ways into education, there is a parallel conversation about how we can embrace these technologies and innovations, but doing so in ways that honor, even celebrate, the lived human experience, learner voice and choice, the importance of individual and collective well-being, and a growing body of knowledge about human learning, agency, and motivation.

Positive Psychology in Education

Positive psychology continues to grow in general, but the applications for education will be amplified this year. Expect more research, frameworks, models, methods, and approaches to education that draw upon the rapidly growing body of knowledge that looks at the psychology of human flourishing.

It is difficult to find people in education who are not familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindsets, or Angela Duckworth’s research on grit. Yet, there are hundreds of other researchers doing fascinating work in this larger field of positive psychology, and we can expect 2019 to be a year where more of these scholars (or their ideas) reach the same sort of mainstream conversation.

I’d keep my eye out for the fascinating research on the psychology of awe, wonder, gratitude, and mastery. While I’m personally intrigued by these four, I’m not sure if they are the ones to hit the education mainstream in 2019, but awareness will undoubtedly expand this year.

Education R&D

The idea of research and development in the corporate world is being explored and applied in higher education and education companies in intriguing ways. In 2019, we will see this grow, being increasingly common in the public discourse, and finding its way into more K-12 schools and school collaborative efforts.

More people recognize that innovation and differentiation are not optional for organizations today. They are and must become a core part of a thriving education organization’s strategy and culture.

Notice that I’m predicting a growing focus on R&D and not simply innovation. This is a critical distinction. R&D is more systematic, closely tied to the strategic goals and mission of an organization, and keenly focused on a desirable return on investment. Innovation has too often been framed as a value in itself. A shift to a R&D approach will help our discourse and mindset around innovation evolve into something far more mission-minded and ultimately more beneficial for everyone involved.

Academic Partnerships / New Expressions of Education in a Networked World

We are still figuring out what it means to live in a connected and networked world, and while many schools have embraced strategic partnerships and connections for decades, we are going to see several high profile announcements about new and different types of collaborations in 2019. Some of this will be driven by necessity. Some of it will come from what will later be revealed as moments of serendipity. Most often, however, it will come from a growing awareness of how to live and learn in a connected world. More leaders in education are seeing enough exemplars to finally understand how partnerships and collaborations can be mutually beneficial, perhaps even necessary for survival.

I expect 2019 to be a year of new experimentation in this regard, and I plan to be directly involved in that work.


Out of all of the items in my list, this might be the most ancient. I certainly cannot claim that storytelling is a new “trend”, and yet it is becoming a newly discovered one in education communities.

Many schools are not good at storytelling, not internally or externally. Yet, in an increasingly crowded marketplace of ideas, there is a craving to find methods to connect with people in deep, memorable, and meaningful ways. For many, they will find the answer in new, multi-modal, cross-platform approaches to storytelling. The smallest of learning organization will and can capture the attention of the larger world, even amid the multi-million dollar marketing investments of a small number of educational behemoths.

School Startups

Amid the talk about school closings on the higher education level, people have missed the more significant story, the massive growth of education and learning community startups. I’m defining learning community as broadly as possible, to include contexts as simple a Facebook group with a learning or education focus. This is necessary if we want to understand how education is evolving in our connected age. We can’t limit ourselves by narrow mental models or constructs about what constitutes a “school.”

Look for more informal or outsider learning communities in 2019, but I’m also stepping out and saying that we can expect plenty of new school startups (or startups in the works). 90% of the time, these will not be standard schools. They will have a niche, a distinct focus; what I’ve long referred to as unavoidable, undeniable, school-shaping concepts.

Even as some colleges are at risk of closure, you can expect to hear about as many as a dozen new college launches. They will not all launch this year, but look for them to announce their plans, oftentimes in conjunction with an understanding of trend #4 about partnerships and collaboration. This means that some will be standalone efforts, but others will be attached to an existing school or organization. I expect the same thing to occur on the K-12 level, although there has been a rapid emergence of new K-12 schools for the last two decades. What is different on that level is that it has never been easier for a person or group of people to launch a new K-12 micro-school. Plus, school founders don’t presume that their school startups will last for decades.

Talent Management in Education

In certain levels of higher education, the competition over top talent has been going on for a long time. This type of thinking is not common in K-12 and less competitive higher education institutions. What I’m predicting for 2019 is that more education leaders are going to discover new and improved ways to find and connect with the talent that they need. Some of this will be aided by new employment platforms and startups focused upon solving this problem. Other parts of it will be highlighted by a growing public conversation about the limitations of so many simplistic and transactional hiring practices that achieve subpar results. The science and art of true talent management is something that will capture the attention of more education leaders this year.

Challenges & Competitions

Foundations have a history of using challenges to find worthy recipients of their funding and support. Communities use them to gather engagement and interest around a valued goal or theme. Companies are using them to find talent or great ideas. Serious game designers are creating them to achieve any number of goals around learning or awareness of a valued cause.

We are reaching a point where challenges and competitions are just about to show up as the next MOOC-like trend in education. I’m not sure if competitions and challenges are packaged enough to garner the same viral media attention, but looking at what seems like a convergence of ideas and developments, 2019 might just be the year where we see this begin to happen. I expect it to start in 2019 with some high profile partnerships between education institutions and other organizations. In 10 years, I suspect that we will look back at 2019 as a turning point.

Experiential Education

First I included storytelling, and now I’m putting experiential education in a trend to watch in 2019? Any student of education knows that this is most certainly nothing new. Agreed. Here is what is new.

Technologies like augmented, virtual and mixed reality have reached a level of maturity that will help amplify and help us re-imagine what experiential education looks like.

Assessment innovation has evolved enough to give us ways to measure growth with experiential education.

Research on the power and importance of engagement and how knowledge transfer works is increasingly known.

Then there is a growing yearning for meaning and differentiation among schools.

There is more public interest in apprenticeships and experiential approaches to education.

More people are questioning the traditional sit and get methods of schooling.

Put all of these together and we have the conditions for a rapid increase in experiential education experimentation in 2019 and beyond.

Authentic and “Alternative” Assessment Goes Mainstream

The growth of alternative credentials along with the rapid increase in critics of the letter grade system leaves people looking for something better than what we’ve done in the past. The push for improved ways to help people find jobs and help companies find qualified people is also growing. Alongside both of these, we have decades of authentic assessment exemplars on every level of education, but we’ve not fully grown into understanding what this means, what opportunities it creates for organizations and communities. 2019 is a year of awakening in this regard. As outdated assessment and grading practices begin to lose their grip on the education ecosystem at large in 2019, we can expect it to launch us into a new era of educational innovation and experimentation.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my “predictions” each year are not neutral. They are informed by a mix of research and aspiration. They are also not simple trends. These come from a careful and ongoing assessment of what is happening in education and society over years and decades. As such, I’m looking forward to tracking and/or helping amplify the impact of these trends through and beyond this current year.

Wondermill Powered Schools

Over the last few years, I’ve started to re-organize my thoughts to better communicate concerns about the modern education system, and what I see as a better and more hopeful way forward. This comes down to recognizing that we have built much of the modern education system upon the persistent values of the industrial revolution:

  • standardization and uniformity,
  • mass production (and products in general),
  • efficiency,
  • quantification,
  • centralized power / authoritarianism, 
  • mechanization,
  • and applied scientific knowledge (also referred to as technology).

I don’t argue that these are bad. In fact, they bring about much good in the world. As good and useful as they might be, they make for a poor foundation upon which to build a deeply human and meaning-rich learning community. As such, I began to propose that we consider replacing these 7 priorities with alternatives:

  • adventure,
  • agency,
  • compassion,
  • experimentation,
  • mastery,
  • meaning,
  • and wonder.

There is nothing definitive about this list of 7. There are plenty of other worthy, meaning-rich, and more deeply human options. Yet as I seek to offer an alternative to the 7 priorities of industrial education, I’ve come to believe these these are a promising starting point, and each one has particular power in transforming the way that we design learning communities and learning experiences.

Consider the last of these seven words. To experience “wonder” is to have this combination of surprise and admiration. It also has a way of leading to any number of positive thoughts and experiences: humility, delight, curiosity, heightened attention, long-term memory, and even a propensity toward generosity. Now that is a powerful experience in a learning community. That is something upon which to build a rich, robust, vibrant learning experience.

Driving past a windmill recently while thinking about the power of wonder in schools, I made the connection with wonder. Wind is necessary for the windmill to accomplish its purpose. We are harnessing the power of the wind, converting it into something else. That is precisely what could happen if we sought to re-imagine our schools around an ideal like wonder. A Wondermill powered school is one that harnesses the natural energy in wonder, converting it into curiosity, interest, and learning. It is readily available to any person, school, or learning community, and it has the potential to generate better results than so many of the compliance-fueled practices of the modern education system.

In this sense, wonder, while currently considered a nicety but not a core ingredient, is all around us, but rarely harnessed to its full capacity.

Yet, the 7 priorities of the Industrial Age persist and demand our attention. I’m not suggesting that we remove them, only that we move then down the list a bit, starting with something more appropriate to a deeply human endeavor.

With this in mind, consider an experiment. Choose the most seemingly boring and mundane topic that you had to learn in the last year or two. Now challenge yourself to turn it into a wonder-filled experience. What would it look like?

Once you try that experiment, consider doing the same thing with an important but monotonous part of a modern school curriculum.

Then take it to the next level. What would it look like for “wonder” to be a basic part of lesson planning or learning experience design? Just as many educators are asked to begin with a set of learning objectives, what if every lesson or learning experience design started with a plan for how wonder might be conjured?

Now go another level. What would it take for students to learn how to conjure their own wonder?

Finally, imagine an entire school powered by wonder.

Educating Hope

For scholars on hope (yes, there are actually scholars who study wonderful topics like this), they sometimes make a distinction between hope and optimism. Optimism is a more general sense that everything will work out, where scholars sometimes describe hope as a more goal-oriented optimism. I love how this article describes hope as necessary to stretch yourself and grow.

According to researchers, if you don’t have hope, you are more likely to employ “mastery goals,” i.e. choosing simple, attainable tasks that aren’t challenging and don’t help you grow.

When I was a classroom teacher for the first decade of my career, it was easy to recognize the presence and absence of hope in a student. I could not always tell why it was present, but when it was there, students persisted through challenges. Their effort was fueled by their hope, allowing them to keep working through the messy and challenging parts of the learning experience.

How do we create the conditions where people are more likely to develop hope? One thing is certain. It isn’t enough for people to want to achieve something. Hope grows when a learner wants to accomplish something, establishes a goal, and sees that she is making progress toward achieving the goal. The more this happens, the more a person’s sense of agency and hopefulness begins to grow.

Is Your School Living Up to Its Mission? Look No Further Than the Cafeteria

After visiting hundreds of schools over the years, I can usually tell you the values of a school in a single day, and I don’t even need to sit in on a class (although that helps). I will just show up thirty minutes before the day starts and begin observing until students head home in the evening. I don’t need to talk to anyone or read anything. By what I see in that one day, the values of the community will be evident. They shout from wall and halls. But what if I only had an hour at the school? In that case, I’d pick lunchtime.

While not as good as a full day of observation, I can get a good sense of the extent to which a school truly embraces its mission and values during that single hour. Look at the cafeteria, the food service, and what happens during meals. Do you see the values and mission embodied in the quality of the food, how it is prepared and served, the nature of the conversation, the tone, and what happens among the students?

This might sounds strange at first, but looking at areas like the cafeteria gives us a glimpse into the extent to which the mission and values truly permeate all parts of the learning community.

Consider a couple examples.

Imagine you are at a school that claims to be learner-centered. Then you go to the cafeteria and witness a fast food style service. The quality of the food is poor. People who serve it seem to hate their jobs. It is set up like a factory. If you have allergies or special needs, you are on your own. At best, it is a clean but transactional experience. When students are not happy with the service or complain abut the low quality, administration and staff just dismiss it saying that students always hate cafeteria food.

Compare that to another school that boasts of the same learner-centered value. Then go to their cafeteria, which they call a dining hall. Food is fresh and high quality, maybe even prioritizing locally sourced options. Meals take into consideration the needs and preferences of different people. The kitchen staff find time to walk around and talk to the students. Along the way, they learn about student’s favorite foods, their goals, their struggles. Staff learner the names of students and greet them when they arrive. Sometimes the kitchen staff members surprise a student with a special meal or option, just for them.

The staff members are constantly exploring ways to turn the dining hall into a place where people are cared for and are welcome. “Food is about so much more than food,” they explain with a grin of well-earned pride. There might be the occasional dissatisfied student, but in general, people love the food and talk about how great it feels to be cared for in this way. And that dissatisfied student is not disregard or ignored.

Or, another school might manifest its learner-centered values by the learners being directly involved in the decisions about the dining hall, or even joining in the work. I’m not talking about simple work study roles, but where students see themselves as co-owners of the dining hall, taking pride in how they are creating a great community and place for their co-learners to eat and enjoy fellowship with each other.

Schools are communities with a mission and values. The more that the mission and values truly shape every part of the community, the more inspiring and transformational that community becomes. That is why aspects like the food service can be a useful check. From there, we can go on to look at how we approach facilities maintenance, cleaning and care for the space, decorating and designing the space, our rituals and practices for communication, what we publicly celebrate and elevate, and more.

After all, if we can’t get our values right on matters like the dining hall, how can we possibly expect them to happen in the rest of the learning experience?

The Most Inspiring Education Leaders & Schools are not Content with Tweaks & Small Improvements

Things are going okay, but something doesn’t feel quite right. You love education, learners, or both. That is why you became a teacher, educational leader, or stepped into some other role within a school. You see pockets of promise all around you, but it never quite reaches the level of what you dreamt was possible for a school or classroom. While striving to be and stay positive, a persistent and unrelenting discontent haunts you. You know that something better is possible, and you want to be part of it.

Or, maybe you are one of those people who doesn’t work in education, but you are looking at it from the perspective of a learner, parent, or community member. You see what is happening. Maybe you experience it. Like the others, you recognize the moments of goodness, even greatness; but you know that these moments can and should be the norm.

It is as if you are looking at a night sky filled with stars. Only that darkness is a blanket and the stars are pin holes, giving you a glimpse of what is behind the blanket. It is beautiful and conjures a feeling of wonder. Yet, these are just the pin holes. What would happen if you could tear that blanket out of the sky and behold the grandeur of the light behind it?

That is how you feel about your classroom or school. Why settle for the pin holes when you could tear off the blanket and have a beautiful, awe-inspiring, wonder-filled learning community?

Most schools and classrooms have pin holes, some more than others. These are glimpses of grandeur, reminders of what is possible. Very few ever figure out how to tear off the blanket, creating a classroom or school that shines with your most deeply held values and mission. You have glimpses, but there is still so much darkness.

I’ve studied, interviewed, or visiting over a thousand educators, leaders, and schools around the country and world. I’ve see some places that are almost all blanket, with a few pin holes. I’ve seen others where there are more pinholes than you could count. Every so often I’ve walked into a classroom or school that left me stunned. The blanket was gone and it was glimmering, shining with the core mission and values.

These rare schools and classrooms are the ones where people like you discovered an incredible secret. They relentlessly examined and re-examined every single aspect of the school, sifting it through a core vision, mission, and/or set of values. They didn’t just recreate their image of a school or what they experienced as young people. They started with mission and values and they ended with them too. They dared to dream of what could be instead of being content striving to poke a few more holes in the blanket.

And doing this led them on an incredible journey of what I call mission-minded innovation. Everything from dress code to assessment, the role of learner to role of teacher, the learning environment to the school policies and rules. Everything was on the table for consideration and reconsideration. The end result was a truly transformational learning community.Anyone can do this, but it takes a clear sense of mission, vision and values; unswerving resolve; and the courage to make everything (and I mean everything) conform to the mission, vision, and values. No more compliance-based practices. No more doing it just because that is how others do it. No more reliving and recreating your own school experiences. This takes courage and conviction, wisdom and imagination, and a willingly to follow your wild and unleashed mission and values wherever they may lead.

Years ago I was invited to speak to a group of school principals about educational innovation. They didn’t want me to come with an agenda, but to instead facilitate a 90-minute question and answer session about how they can move their schools into a 21st century vision and model. I accepted the offer, but when I arrived, I explained that I wanted to know how far they were willing to go. So, I asked them this question. Keeping your mission as central, what in your school is non-negotiable. In other words, what are the polices, practices, procedures, activities, systems, and ways of thinking that you are unwilling or unlikely to consider revisiting or changing?

At first, they said that they were open to changing just about anything. Then I asked them a few questions.

If letter grades were interfering with your mission and core values, how many of you would be willing to get rid of them or significantly change your use of them? One hand in a room of forty went up. Then I asked about their course-based model and school day. Two hands. What about . drastically revisiting the role of the teacher? No hands. I went on like this for about five minutes. By the end, I had a clear sense of the group. They were willing to poke a few holes through the blanket, but none of them were willing to do what it takes to tear off the blanket.

This might be the greatest problem in our modern day education ecosystem. Very few people are so devoted to the education mission and values enough to move beyond poking holes. They want to tweak the system, but not re-imagine it in a way that allows their little part of the ecosystem to reach its truest and full potential. This holds back everyone in the community, including you. It leaves so many believing that it could be more, but instead spending all of their time and energy trying to find ways to be happy with some version of the status quo.

The Case for More Wonder & Awe in Life, Learning, & Education

While attending a conference in Las Vegas many years ago, a friend gave me a free ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show called La Reve (the dream). It was a mesmerizing, beautiful, musical, display of artistry and physical precision. I witnessed constant and flawless movement that invited me into this magical dreamscape. I walked away from the show silent and stunned. I remember the feeling of awe and wonder at the fact that people could perform such a complex, beautiful, dangerous show night after night. How is it possible to achieve that level of excellence and precision, I wondered? Those two hours provided me with a heightened sense of possibility, but also greater humility. My standard for excellence was deepened by this experience.

I’d like to say that this experience catapulted me to new levels of excellence in my own life. It didn’t. I persisted with many of my mediocre way of doing many things in my life, but I was less comfortable with them. Seeing such excellence made it easier for me to see where excellence lacked. Now came the true challenge. Was I willing to make the changes and commitments necessary to achieve that level of excellence in some domain of my life? That might seem like a question with an easy answer, but mediocrity pays moderately well. It is the norm in education, work, and life. It is sometimes safer too.

This experience led me on an exploration of the psychology and philosophy of wonder and awe that continues. I’ve decided to make this area of inquiry an even greater emphasis in my thinking this year, with particular interest in the implications of wonder and awe upon our personal learning journeys and nurturing more deeply humane and self-empowering learning communities.

The writing and research on awe and wonder rarely finds its way into conversations about learning and education, but the more that I learn, the more I realize that this body of research brings immense insight and value to such work and discussion. How can we leverage this relatively new and growing body of research about awe and wonder to create richer, better, engaging, memorable and lasting, meaningful learning experiences? Consider just a few valuable insights.

One study indicated increased acts of generosity and a decreased sense of entitlement in a game after having an experience of awe.

Another study showed that experiencing wonder (the noun) about math can lead to greater wonder (the verb…a sort of curiosity and motivation to learn more).

There is further research about the role of awe in healing from past and present social and emotional experiences in life.

There is also research to indicate that shared experiences of awe can lead to greater openness to and acceptance of people who are different from us in some way.

Then there are centuries of texts that describe the role of wonder and awe in personal transformations, some that seem to occur suddenly, but others that develop over a lifetime.

This is a growing theme for study, and the body of research will likely double in the upcoming years. It is the perfect time to explore the literature, begin our own personal experiments with awe and wonder, and join the conversation about awe and wonder as fundamental building blocks for rich, lasting, and engaging learning.

Educators: We are not Heroes as Much as We are Guides and Allies for the Heroes

Each January I notice the increase in two types of articles and social media messages from educators. One is the common lists of reflections and goals. We reflect on the past year. What went well? What was memorable? What did we accomplish? What trends emerged and what happened with them? What can we expect for the new year? What goals does one hope to achieve?

Then there is a second type of article and message. It isn’t unique to this time of year, but it is more prevalent. As people reflect on what they accomplished in the last year and what they want to accomplish in the future, that naturally sparks questions and reflections about one’s purpose, meaning, value, and role in the field of education. What is my role? Have I accomplished anything worthwhile? Am I making a difference?

Perhaps that is why I find this longstanding quote getting shared and re-shared three times a year: the beginning of the school year, the end of the school year, and the end of December through early January.

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a boy.” – Forest Witcraft

Most of the time today, the word “boy” from the original source is replaced the the word “child” and the source is referenced as “anonymous.” Only it wasn’t anonymous. It comes from a 1950 article in the publication, Scouting. If you want the original context of the quote, the article is worth the one to two minutes that it takes to read it.

This quote resonates with many educators. Since teaching isn’t the highest paid profession, the quote resonates with the reason that many choose to go into the field of education. It also reminds people that their work is noble, and important. It is important for each child and for the world in which that child will grow and live.

“…because I was important in the life of a child.” This part of the quote, without the original article, is something that leaves me on edge. What does it mean to be important in the life of a child? In the 1950 article, the author explains what he means. He is writing from the context of being a scoutmaster, organizing Scout Troops, nurturing a sense of community, and serving as a guide on what the he considers a noble path for children.

Only, there are many other messages in social media that take this part of the quote, or some derivation, making the primary focus about being important, being a hero to the students, being loved and valued by the students. I’ve never been comfortable with this language, as it risks diverting attention away from the students.

I saw another teacher’s online profile that included being “a daily hero to children in my classroom.” This statement gets to the essence of my concern about the “being important in the life of a child” discourse in education. I celebrate and support educators grounding their work in a compelling reason, a sense of purpose. It makes sense to care that our work matters, that we are indeed making a difference in the lives of other people. Where this risks going awry is when such a discourse makes it more about us and less about the students. It isn’t about our importance as much is it is about their importance…and that is what makes our work important.

I don’t want a teacher to be a hero for my children each day, as much as I want someone who will invite my children to discover what it means for them to be a hero in the world. I recognize that “hero” is used in different ways. Some use it to mean “role model”, and that certainly makes sense for a teacher. In a more traditional sense, a hero is “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Joseph Campbell). In this sense, it seems to me that the rich meaning in the teaching profession is less about being a hero, and more about pointing students to the heroic life. Or, as Christopher Reeve described it, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” The incredible honor of guiding students as they consider the path of the hero…that is the rich meaning of being an educator. It is not about being a hero as much as it is about being an ally and/or guide for heroes in the making, the students.

Teachers do important work. At their best, they are incredible guides, mentors, coaches, and even models. They are masterful designers of learning experiences and cultivators of learning communities. If people want to define that as a hero, then they will not get any opposition from me. Only, I caution myself and anyone who identifies as an educator to remind ourselves that, more than being a hero to the students, we exist to support the true heroes (or people on the path to the heroic life), the students. To be an ally and guide as a student embraces and persists with such a call, that is one of the most heroic things that I can imagine for a teacher.

Ultimately, if people protest my concern and line of thinking on this subject, I’ll finally concede. After all, a “hero” in my childhood said it this way:

“When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” – Fred Rogers