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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20 Questions To Gauge the Culture of Compassion, Curiosity, and Character Formation in a School

When I talk to people about school models, I get mixed reactions. Some are inspired by the stories that I tell about learning communities that are rich with curiosity and compassion. Others listen, but are skeptical. Still others are quick to dismiss what I share as rare and unrealistic for their particular context. Yet, I’m at a stage in my research that I am confident in my stance. It is entirely possible to create a school of compassion, curiosity, and growing character in pretty much any context in the world. It takes time. It will not be a utopia. It will be a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, progress in this direction is indeed possible, and there are countless inspiring examples of schools that have gone incredibly far in this direction. I’ve seen, studied, and learned about enough examples that I cannot deny this wonderful and very real possibility. Yet, our school communities too often remain content with what they are doing, emotionally tied to the things as they are, uninspired or unconvinced about what is possible, or inhibited by doubts or uncertainly about how to make it happen.

Even amid well over a decade of focused study, I cannot guarantee that a community will be rich with compassion, curiosity, and positive character formation. Or rather, there seem to be many ways to achieve this, and ample challenges on such a grand but noble quest. Yet, in every school that seems to be making progress in this regard, I find people who are asking tough questions about what they what to be, why, and how to get there. There is hope and vision, there is persistence through the challenges, and there is a constant self-assessment that informs what they are doing.

With that in mind, I put together the following questions. These can be used by parents and students seeking out a new school. They can be used by administrators and teachers who are open to some serious school soul-searching. They can also be used for almost anyone who wants to gauge the type of culture that dominates a given school. These questions reflect some of my personal values and priorities, but most of them simply help us reflect upon traits that consistently indicate a school that is embarking on the quest to create a more hopeful, compassionate, and curious community; one where each student is also on a journey of learning, growth, and character formation.

  1. Do administrators, teachers, and students in your school know the difference between having a high grade point average or high test scores and having genuine intellectual curiosity? How do they describe this difference?
  2. If you ask students what it means for a student to be smart, how many answers start with statements about grades and test scores?
  3. How many teachers and administrators in your school believe that the only “realistic” way to get students motivated to learn is through academic carrots and sticks like quizzes, tests, and grades?
  4. How common is it to overhear student lunchtime conversations about great ideas, good books, projects, learning challenges, or significant issues in society…and not just in preparation for an upcoming exam?
  5. How does the trophy case for intellectual and social accomplishments compare to the trophy case for athletic accomplishments at your school?
  6. Compare these two statistics in your school: 1) the percentage of students on an athletic team, 2) the percentage of students who read at least a book a month for personal interest (as an extracurricular).
  7. How much of a priority does your school place upon care and kindness? If you had to prove that level of priority in a court of law, what evidence would you provide?
  8. How much time do students have for life beyond school, homework, and school-sponsored events? What does the school do to honor and support family and life beyond school? Look for specific examples, preferably things that point to policies or persistent practices, not simple anecdotes and one-time efforts.
  9. Look at the “decorations” in 3-5 random rooms in the school and at least 2 hallways. If what you see on the walls is the only indication of the culture and top priorities in the school, what would that tell you about the school?
  10. How much of the school culture revolves around athletics? How does that compare with a celebration of music, the arts, service, and intellectual pursuits? Look for evidence that goes beyond a few anecdotes.
  11. How often do students work on focused projects / challenges (other than traditional research papers) that require them to engage in independent, persistent work for an extended period (6+ weeks for middle school, 8-12+ weeks for high school)?
  12. Ask students to describe how much of their time is focused upon study and preparation for quizzes and tests compared to solving problems, exploring questions, cultivating new skills, or achieving goals. What does this tell you?
  13. Ask 5-10 random students to describe 3-5 people in the school community who inspire, challenge, or encourage them to be better people in one way or another.
  14. Ask a class of students to write down the number of students in the school they know who do not have any friends. How many are there?
  15. Does the school seek and use frequent feedback from students and parents? How? What is the best evidence that this is important to leadership and teachers at the school?
  16. Spent a morning at the school and look for the number of one-on-one interactions between students and teachers compared to one teacher to a whole class interactions. How much coaching, mentoring, and personalized teaching can you observe?
  17. Observe 3-5 random classrooms for 5-10 minutes each. How much of the time is dominated by the teacher talking versus the students discussing, doing, debating, creating, and learning?
  18. Ask 5-10 people at the school to define “academic success.” What does this tell you about the goals, values, and priorities in the school?
  19. Ask the school leaders to list the top two current problems or challenges in the school community. Then ask what they have done and are doing to address these two challenges. How much of a priority are these issues?
  20. If you shared this list with administrators and teachers at your school, how many of them would mock or laugh at the list as unrealistic?

There are plenty of other great questions, but I offer these as a good starting point. Join me in imagining an education ecosystem shaped by this sort of soul-searching. What would be different in education if we valued and asked such questions more often? How would our schools be different? How would the lives of learners be different? Over time, how would our communities be different?

You Matter: A Community Garden Vision of Education

You matter. You matter in education. Notice that I did not state that teachers matter, students matter, parents matter, school leaders matter, or policymakers matter. I stated that you matter, regardless of your role. Only, it is imperative that all of us recognize the important fact that each person has a role in education. As with government and healthcare, education is too important to be left to a select group of people who make all the decisions. This is not some neutral endeavor. As I’ve written many times before, education is deeply values-laden; it transmits, muzzles, and amplifies core beliefs and values. As such, if you think that your beliefs and values are important, then your voice matters in education. If you choose not to speak, then that is a decision to let the beliefs and values of others dominate your education, the education of your family members, and the education of others in your community and beyond.

We are nearing an important crossroads in education. There is the persistent battle of ideas between whether education is primarily and art or a science. The advocates of making it exclusively or primarily a science are, whether they realize it or not, advocating for us to place education decisions into the hands of a new, scientific priesthood. To question these priests is to question science, and that is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, to give into the advocates who would make it entirely or primarily an art, may unknowingly be driving us away from incredibly powerful educational breakthroughs that can produce incredible results.

Education is neither art nor science. It is a field that encompasses both, not to mention ideas and practices that do not necessarily fit neatly into the category of art or science. The word “field” might be a useful metaphor. We talk about fields of study. What do we mean by this? The word “field” derives from the Old English “feld”, or cultivated land (in contrast to woodlands). There is a thoughtful, even systematic cultivation of select crops in a field, compared to the randomness of the woodlands. What you plant, how you grow it, and how you cultivate it depends upon the context. There are affordances and limitations to those decisions, informed by sometimes competing and conflicting values. This is why I’ve long argued for the value of a diverse education ecosystem. Or, if it helps, picture a massive community-based garden, with different people and individuals planting and cultivating alongside one another. Some opt for a beautiful selection of flowers. Others go for a wide array of vegetables. Some choose raised beds while others stick with old-school rows. There will we some shared rules for those who play and plant in this field, but there is room for variety.

I love driving by these community-based gardens, seeing the creativity and values of different groups expressed in what they grow. People help one another. Others stay pretty much to themselves. Individually, they have their chance at growing something meaningful to them. Collectively, they are contributing to a wonderfully diverse ecosystem.

That is my dream for modern education, and this vision benefits from each person, you included, seeing your role in one or more of those gardens.

Some will argue that it is more efficient to plow over these diverse gardens. For the sake of efficiency, let a centralized and authorized group of farmers (government, corporate, etc.) take over the entire field, replacing these distinct plots with a single plan for everyone. Others argue for ignoring any need for the managers of each plot to play within any shared set of rules. Both extremes steal something from what is truly special about a community garden. Yet, for this vision and value in education, it depends upon you being a champion for it, resisting the voice of the extremes, and recognizing the importance that you and everyone else can bring to it.

Why Does More Disruptive Education Reform Come from Outside of the System?

A common critique of the education reform movement (as some refer to it), is that many of the people involved with education reform are not inside the system. What most people mean by this is that it is not the teachers and principals who are doing much of the reforming. Instead, we see community members, policymakers, philanthropists, directors of foundation portfolios, people in the corporate world, and others who sometimes drive the conversation, fund the initiatives, and set the agenda. First, I want to note that I am not convinced that this is an accurate picture. I’ve interviewed countless new and alternative school founders who were educators. In addition, I’ve met many parents and students who helped drive significant reforms and new models, and I would hardly consider parents and students outside of the system (if we do, then that points to a larger and even more serious problem).

Nonetheless, the concern about people outside of the system tends to be related to one or more of the following.

  1. People outside of the system do not really know the intricacies and complexities of the system. As such, their ideas risk being ill-informed or maybe even harmful in the big picture.
  2. People outside of the system sometimes have ulterior motives, even financial ones.
  3. People outside of the system lack the professional position or expertise of trained educational professionals.

There are other reasons, but these are three of the most common.

There are also some good reasons why some of the more innovative reforms come from outside of the system.

  1. People inside the system somethings get so used to it that they have trouble seeing the problem, limitations, or promising alternatives.
  2. People inside the system often have competing interests and, even while some might strive to be altruistic when it comes to matters of school structure and design, self-preservation is often a factor.
  3. People trained in the ways of the current system do not necessarily have expertise in creating alternatives.
  4. They are limited by the policies and procedures within, making it hard to try something new unless they were to leave the system, only they then become labeled as people outside of the system.

Did you notice anything interesting about the first list and the second list? Many of the items are same, but from a different angle. The truth is that good education reform can come from inside or outside of the system. There are benefits and limitations to all reforms, regardless of the origin. There are competing interests with each approach. Yet, when it comes to more disruptive innovations in education, this simple reflection indicates why more seems to happen on the outside. As one who has spent his formative years inside the system, followed by his adult years working in that system, it is apparent to me that we need those external innovators.

At the same time, the most significant lever for change is actually within the system, and that is the student. Students today find themselves in a peculiar position. They are within the schools but often have limited voice or influence. Yet, as K-12 and higher education institutions continue to lose more of their monopoly as the exclusive source of formal learning, that voice will be heard and that influence will grow.

How About a School Detox Program for Educators, Parents, and Students?

While working on some research about the myths, realities, and complexities of the concept sometimes known as Internet addition, I found myself reading through dozens of articles and blog posts about what some call a digital detox. This usually refers to people refraining from or limiting use of computers and other digital devices for a given time to strengthen face-to-face relationships, reduce stress, reconnect with the physical world, gain a healthier balance between one’s life in the digital and physical world, or maybe just to gain new perspective and insight on the role of technology in a person’s life. I’ve done this at different times in my life, with varying results. However, as I perused articles on the subject, a familiar experience occurred. I found myself taking this idea of a detox and applying it to a completely different topic that was on my mind, namely the challenges and limitations of the modern school system. Put those together and you get this wonderfully intriguing thought experiment that I call the school detox program.

Why do our schools persist with so many rituals, practices, and processes that are grounded in traditions that have questionable relevance today? Even as many educator and school leaders are discovering the possibilities beyond existing models, and some of us are heartened by many new models and approaches to education, the status quo is largely unquestioned. We tweak what we are doing. We trim the weeds, but we do not pull them out at the roots. As such, they just keep growing back. I’ve long argued that a key to overcoming this is to help people see and discover what is possible, helping them to experience firsthand that there are better options available. This brings me back to the schooling detox concept and a thought experiment.

A good experiment usually starts with a hypothesis, whether it is an actual experimental design or it is a simple experiment that we play out in our minds. As such, here is my hypothesis. As a starting point, if we can immerse parents, current educators, aspiring educators, and students in a given community to a persistent litany of immersive, open, engaging, empowering learning experiences that are rich with curiosity, learning and growth; but that are void of the modern trappings of schooling like tests, grades, classes, bells, unnecessarily complex processes, and all the rest; the people in this community will be better positioned to help create sustainable alternatives to traditional schooling in that community. Or, if that one seems too grandiose, what if we simply started with a two-week summer camp for parents, teachers, students, and others that was all about rich, rewarding, personally meaningful learning and growth, but it did not have any resemblance to the current system of grades, bubble tests, lecture-dominated classes, desks in rows, potentially outdated regulations and policies, and the rest? Might that be enough of a school detox to jump-start more root pulling and sustainable education reforms?

What would it take to move this from a thought experiment to an actual one? What would your ideal school detox program look like?

Or, is this enough? Perhaps an alternative line of thinking would be a schooling debunking boot camp. I will reserve that idea for my next article.

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What Type of a Person Do We Nurture with Standardized Tests & Quantifying Students?

I’m not a fan of the heavy emphasis upon standardized tests and I’m increasingly skeptical about our rapid move toward the quantification of learners, but I am almost certainly on the losing side of that debate. Learning analytics will be ubiquitous in schools of the future. Big data will transform how many think about education. It will bring about affordances, but it will also bring about plenty of limitations. Even though big data is the future, I’m not going silent on this issue, because there is too much at stake…even the minds of a generation. I’ve written about this a in different ways over the past few years, but I’m compelled to add one more article to the conversation.

I was reminded of this when reading Noam Chomsky’s article about the dangers of standardized testing. While I don’t always agree with Chomsky’s interpretations and evaluations, I appreciate that he gets the issue with standardized tests. It isn’t just about what is on the tests, it is about the whole idea of making school centered upon measuring and quantifying students. It is that these tests and measurements start to take over our thinking, and they begin to take over the mindset and focus of the person being tested and evaluated. It drives us into a mindset of quantification. We value that which is easier to measure and begin to dismiss that which is not.

Candidly, I’ve experienced this countless times in K-12 and higher education contexts. When schools started to make the move toward becoming more data-driven, I urged them to start by clarifying their core goals, beliefs, and values; and to hold on to those even when they struggle to find easy and accessible ways to measure how they are they are doing with regard to those goals, beliefs, and values. If they give in, even if just for the short-term, this the data with take over. It becomes a data-driven and not a mission-driven organization, even though well-meaning leaders will insist that this is not the case. Hard to measure and less concrete goals get set aside and other goals get put in place that are more easily quantifiable or that align with the data that is readily available. Before long, our focus is on how to raise the numbers of whatever measure. Those rich conversations about beliefs and values fade away as relics of the past. Those who speak up about the change are labeled as Luddites, anti-progress, or unrealistic romantics. Even more common, they are just ignored as the data-ocracy bulldozers its way through the organization, bypassing existing governance and organizational structures, even demanding submission from the the leaders of the organization over time. They even do it under the guise of mission.

From the sound of that last paragraph, you might think that I am not a supporter of standardized tests, big data, or learning analytics; but you would be wrong. I see promise and value. I also see caution. I believe in mission-driven organizations that are informed by data that best supports the mission, vision, values, and goals; and that is not what I was referring to in the last paragraph. Data in the form of standardized tests can be useful and offer valuable insights, but my concern in when we let these data points take over, and they do it quite often.

In higher education, consider how narrow our policy conversations become when we try to reduce the mission, vision, values, and goals of higher education institutions to graduation rate, retention rate, post-graduation employment rate, and loan default rates. These are valuable data points, but if they are the top priorities in higher education, then we are better off shutting down all Universities. That is not worth the time, energy, and investment (of many and lives).

What is education really about? I sure haven’t devoted my adult life to supporting an education ecosystem that is about achieving increasingly higher test scores in math, science, or language arts. My daily thoughts are not consumed with musings about education because I want to get high graduation rates for as many students as possible. Not that this is unimportant, but there are grander goals related to access, opportunity, learning, and equipping people for rich, full, meaningful, and impactful lives.

We must not let standardized tests drive the design of our learning organizations. Data must not dethrone mission, vision, values, and the goals informed by those three. When we discuss and debate the efficacy of various policies and practices, we must resist reverting to comparisons of the options on the basis of numeric scores on tests only, or other easily understandable data points. We are far better off taking the time to collectively decide upon a larger and broader set of data points, quantitative and qualitative. The statisticians and often the policymakers will want to drive us to that which is more systemically quantified and validated, and we must push back. Life and learning is about more than numbers and setting up the most valid and reliable measures and experiments.

As Chomsky notes, what is at risk is the mind of a generation. Our worship of numbers, quantification, and standardization produces a certain type of person, and I choose that word “produce” intentionally. There is a better way. There are, in fact, many better ways. I vote for one of them.

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The Why and How of K-12 to University Partnerships

What do you think about K-12 to University partnerships? That is the question that I’ll briefly explore in this article in response to a recent question posed by Dan Burk. Dan wrote:

For my class [Dan is a doctoral student.], one of our readings was on John Dewey and 3 of his lectures. In Lecture 1 his point that, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.”

What stood out more and my question for you came from his 3rd Lecture on “Waste in Education”. During this lecture, he comes that to remedy these issues is to connect the schools to their surroundings, to real-life, to nature, businesses, and etc. In this, he notes how his school works closely with the University. Do you agree on that part that we need to get our elementary schools working more closely with our universities and how would we go about this?

The school to which Dewey is referring is actually still in existence today. It is the Laboratory School that John Dewey started in partnership with the President of the University of Chicago, William Harper. As an aside, this is the school that Arne Duncan (former US Secretary of Education) attended as a child. Anyway, from its beginning, the school was born out of a close University partnership, with the University of Chicago president having oversight. Dewey appointed his wife as principal, but that didn’t work out well. Harper eventually asked her to resign and Dewey was frustrated with his ability to shape the school in the way that he originally hoped. So, he and his wife left and Dewey took a position at Columbia University. You can read more about it in this short essay.

As I understand it, the type of partnership that Dewey sought was one where faculty used the school as a laboratory (hence the school name), engaging in research as well as educational experiments and innovations. In addition, the education students in the University would benefit from seeing theories and models applied in a real context. There are plenty of modern examples of this sort of arrangement in various parts of the country to be sure with varying degrees of success. There are instances of University faculty actually serving in administration in the schools (even as founders), University faculty conducting research, and much more. Sometimes it is action research, working with teachers to test out the efficacy of a potential intervention or innovation. In fact, even if it is not as tight of a relationship as what Dewey envisioned, these sorts of relationships are critical to making much progress in our pursuit of best practices in education. How do you conduct research on what works in K-12 education without a laboratory or a population to study?

This is assuming that we are talking about a partnership with a research University. There are plenty of University education programs where the faculty have larger teaching loads and do not devote much time to research. As such, a K-12 to University school partnership would inevitably look different there as the University faculty are largely teaching that which they learned from other researchers. They are just passing on the knowledge and best practice to a next generation of students while doing a very small or modest amount of research on the side.

Nonetheless, given the right arrangement, I see great promise in strong K-12 to University partnerships focused upon educational innovation and best practices in teaching and learning. I see the most promise when the faculty from the University are closely integrated with the administration and teaching staff on the K-12 level. In other words, it is a truly academic partnership and not just a University attempt to get more enrollment or for the K-12 school to get free professional development or a funding source. It is a relationship where they are working together to establish priorities, co-create research agendas, and co-implement various models and promising practices. This is less of a consultant role and more of a true integrated team and partnership. For that to happen, it usually requires a solid funding sources and a formal agreement, one where there are often people at the University who are dedicated to overseeing the research and relationship.

How does this happen? Some higher education institutions establish dedicated offices, centers, or research institutes where a director of some sort oversees these relationships. Sometimes these are established by a single professor or team of researchers with outside funding. In other cases, there is a formal partnership between University executives and leadership at a K-12 school. With some states allowing Universities to be authorizers for charter schools, that has become a popular means of funding and encouraging such relationships. In still other cases, the school is co-founded, with the partnership embedded into the very formation of the school.

So, yes, I see great potential. In terms of how to do it, there are dozens of options. As many of my readers know, I see great wisdom in starting from scratch and pursuing the co-founding approach. Yet, there is promise and possibility in the other approaches as well.

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What Would You Prioritize If You Were the Next US Secretary of Education?

It is decided. On the late morning / early afternoon of February 7, 2017, the Vice President broke a 50/50 tie to confirm Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education. Now what?

I followed the nomination, hearing, vetting, debates, and lobbying closely in this process. Given the nature of my work, this particular position is one of personal interest. I’ve been candid about my past criticisms of the US Department of Education regarding certain policies and practices that are restricting promising innovations and reforms in education. I’ve also spoken up in support of other efforts, especially the desire to create ways to increase access and opportunity to quality education (even if I might have differences on the “how” in the past).

I didn’t speak out in support of Devos, nor did oppose her. If you read my work often enough, you already know where I have some shared ideas with Devos and where I might deviate from her stance in other areas. I am and will continue to be a person who speaks out about affordances, limitations, and promising possibilities in education, and all three are always present.

Now Betsy Devos is the US Secretary of Education and I will work alongside her in the effort to create and refine the educational ecosystem in the United States. For any of us who are engaged in the good and important work of education, I consider that a minimum responsibility. We are charged to speak out when we disagree, but in productive and civil ways. We are also called to work together on areas where we can agree, setting our personal agendas aside and striving to help create the best possible education ecosystem in the United States. Even more important, we are called to live out our educational callings in our distinct contexts.

Yet, I also want to use this as an opportunity to muse about this role. What if the Senate just confirmed you as the next US Secretary of Education? What would be your priorities? How would you spend your first ninety days? Here is what I would do.

Build a world class team.

This is not a lone ranger endeavor. You need to build a great team. These are people who understand the issues, strive to explore the breadth of possibilities, can engage in systems thinking, are committed to collaboration and coalition building, have bigger ears than they do a mouth, put students and families first, refuse to politicize education, they are deeply curious, they have a love of learning, they think deeply, and they are going to get things done. Some diverse viewpoints and experiences will only make this richer and more impactful.

Revisit the Mission Statement.

This is not a quick and easy task, but the US Department of Education mission statement is outdated. Missions matter, especially if there is leadership committed to focusing upon the core mission and sifting everything (and I mean everything) through that mission statement. Yet, if you read it carefully, I think that you will probably agree that it feels like a relic from the days of the Cold War and the industrial revolution, and it needs revision. Work with the necessary stakeholders to rewrite it and establish a clear set of core values to inform what will shape our work. Then we can build the rest around this mission and values. I know that a US Secretary of Education can just change such things on a whim, but I think this is worth the time and effort to push for change.

Systematically Review Existing Policies.

The current state of federal policies regarding education are often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and often so tied to past or current education practices that they unintentionally inhibit innovation and emerging practices. They are too often established without careful enough attention to unexpected consequences. It is hurting quality and progress. As such, I would engage policymakers, education administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders in a robust analysis of the affordances and limitations of existing policies, seeking to surface the problems with certain policies and ways to resolve these policies without also creating loopholes that allow for abuses and a complete lack of accountability. The financial aid program would be an early priority for me.

Clarify Local, State, and Federal Roles.

People talk about protecting all students through federal mandates. Others talk about pushing as many decisions to the state and local level. We need to get everything on the table and assess what belongs where. We will likely discover that there are a small but important number of policies that belong at the federal level, while others are better suited for the state or local level.

Support, Celebrate, Disseminate Educational Innovation and Preparation for Vastly Different Futures in Education.

We need a boost of future-readiness. Whether people think most of the innovation should happen on the hyper-local level, the state, the federal level, in private enterprise, or a mix of them; I see the US Department of Education as well-positioned to be a supporter and champion for educational innovation that empowers all individuals, equipping them to thrive as humans and citizens in a connected age. I would maybe even consider establishing, if possible, a Moonshot Task Force to aid in this effort. We can’t stay tied to existing models and constructs for education too much longer. It is holding us back from creating a better education ecosystem that truly equips people for life and learning in a connected world. Personally, I would love to make the future of credentials and reputation systems a priority and key part of this effort. It is time to move from a faster horse mindset to creating the educational equivalent of the automobile.

Create Conversations About What Really Matters and What Really Works.

We can benefit from having have national, state, and local conversations about what really matters; and this has to get beyond soundbites and political positioning. Our students deserve this, and our definition of “student” needs to broaden extensively. We have existing efforts around this, but I believe that we can be better about how we approach it. We need deep and substantive conversations. Our public knowledge and conversations (even within plenty of schools) are still too often uninformed about important foundational matters and emerging research.

We need to tell better stories and tell them more broadly. We can find powerful ways to tell stories, inspire people to action, deepen our collective knowledge about education, and facilitate the dissemination of quality resources. I’m not talking about a large, bureaucratic federal effort. I’m just talking about using this office to facilitate and amplify all the great work that is already out there.

I know. I’m not the next US Secretary of Education. Yet, these are still the types of priorities that I will push for as I am able. Devos is in and (regardless of a person’s stance before her confirmation) it is now time to get to work.

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Why Art Matters in Education, Public Life, and Democracy

Art, in is broadest sense, matters in education. Art is too powerful of a force to be excluded from learning because it is everywhere in culture and public life. Art is influencing, moving, conjuring, provoking, inspiring, challenging, and shaping. The question is whether art will be an authoritarian or democratizing force in society. Will art be limited to a few influential people? Will its secrets be hidden from the majority? Or, will we nurture of people who are informed about its power, how it works, its role in our lives and communities?

Art reflects culture and shapes culture. As such, artists, those who partner with artists, and those who learn to use the tools of the artist wield an incredible power in a modern republic like the United States. Their words, images, music, stories, metaphors, and themes flow into the imaginations of people with whom they encounter. Sometimes this solidifies what is already present. In other cases it is redirects minds and hearts.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Even when one lacks a nuanced understanding of the art or medium, it already starts working on us. It awakens emotions about topics that were previously paired with completely different emotions. It provides lenses that give us new perspectives on an issue or even ourselves. Depending upon the lens, it might give us a macro view, zoom in on a nuanced detail, or change our perspective with a new shade or color.

Consider how art and its countless manifestations play a role in public and political life. These are not small matters. Art does not shy away from the provocative, candid, volatile, vile, or virtuous. It doesn’t play by cocktail party rules of no talk about politics and religion. It goes where it wills, says what it wills, and invites anyone listening, reading, viewing, or watching to join in the conversation.

This is why art belongs in education. If what I write about art is true, then learning to be a creator of art is a means of engaging in public life. It is part of engaged citizenship in a modern democracy. Avoiding it risks leaving people as consumers of art but not as creators. They are shaped by art but do not understand how or why. Art can, too easily, be turned into manipulation or propaganda, leading people where they do not want to go, but convincing them that the journey is their destiny.

In contemporary conversations about the role of the liberal arts in education, this is an important point for our consideration. Education (informal and formal) is opportunity to prepare for jobs, but it is also a chance to cultivate aesthetic and intellectual habits and ways of thinking that have relevance to engaged citizenry. If we ignore or dismiss such arguments, I fear that we will be incredibly successful at producing highly employable sheep who can and will be led by any self-proclaimed shepherd.

That is a dangerous prospect for individual agency but also for a democratic republic. If we are to empower people to think for themselves and believe that their voices and actions matter, then art matters. If we believe that a free nation consists of a people where every voice and life matters and is worthy of influence in the public sphere, then art matters.

I’m not convinced that most liberal arts curricula in formal education necessarily do a good job addressing this fact, but the topic remains important. We can teach poetry, art, creative writing, film-making, music theory, photography, and graphic design to people but still fail to prepare them for a world filled with such things. We must improve at exploring why these matter, how they are infused in our culture, how they work on us, the many ethical considerations related to them, and how we can refine our ability to communicate, create, and express in these ways. We can examine the role of art in the public life and its incredible power. In doing so, we can equip people to speak and understand the many languages of art that shape and reflect ourselves, our communities, and our society.


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A World-Class Driver in a Yugo Will Not Win The Indy 500

There is plenty of research to support the value of great teachers. Skilled and committed educators often make a difference for individual students as well as entire classes. There is little to no debate about this fact. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the skill of the teacher is the only factor. In fact, you can have an amazing teacher who, given the right conditions, can experience less than impressive results with a group of students.

Or, as I state in the title of this article, a world-class driver in a Yugo will not win the Indy 500. It doesn’t matter how well the driver handles the curves. That driver’s car lacks the horsepower to compete. The driver can be passionate, committed, and the most skilled driver in the world; but still find himself/herself in last place.

To what extent does this same concept apply to teachers in many schools? What are the key resources necessary for great teachers to produce great results? Some argue that great teachers are just great teachers. Put them in a room with students and they will make magic happen. This is a wonderfully inspiring and romantic view of the teaching profession, and I don’t deny the fact that great teachers are more likely to help create a rich learning environment than those who lack skill in or commitment to the task. Yet, there is a limit to this vision and I’ve witnessed it in school systems.

Policies are not neutral. By their very nature, policies create opportunities and limit others. Policymakers quite often create them to address specific problems or amplify certain values and convictions over others. In doing so, they will muzzle other values and convictions, while also limiting certain practices. This includes unknowingly limiting the convictions and practices of great teachers.

This happens all the time. We set policies about testing requirements, unknowingly transforming how people spend time in school and class. We set policies about attendance, what constitutes attendance, and what constitutes truancy. We come up with measures like seat time that are well-meaning but again unknowingly limit creative approaches to teaching and learning. We create educational bureaucracies where the policies and practices are increasingly decided and distanced from teachers, students, and parents. We do it “for their own good”, often inspired by some sort of moral or pragmatic imperative. Then we find ourselves surprised when there is limited ownership by teachers, students, and/or parents. We put them in a Yugo of our own creation and then complain when they don’t place in or win the Indy 500.

Charter schools were created on the K-12 level to become incubators of learning protected from such a world. Yet, this has become the primary attack of charter schools by many, that they lack oversight and accountability. By freeing them from some of these policies we removed certain policies that protected against abuses. Unfortunately, these critiques are sometimes warranted as some have taken advantage of this freedom or failed to accept the high responsibility that comes with it. I’ve far from given up on the charter model however, as I see the alternative as even more dangerous.

I’ve met plenty of wonderful, quirky, interesting, committed, and skilled teachers who found charters to be havens from the bureaucracies that nearly drove them away from their callings. It is sad to see the passion extinguished from the eyes of teachers, and more importantly, students. The charter approach may not be the best solution, but I’ve seen enough cases of charters creating space for that passion to return that I couldn’t possibly argue for shutting them down. Until we have something better and scalable, I will be an advocate, albeit one who also calls for non-stifling but stringent accountability.

Yet, I don’t intend to make this article about the good and ills of charter schools. This is about setting people up for success. A good school leader must ask a couple of important questions. What are the conditions under which teachers perform at their best? What resources do I need to provide for that to happen? How can I get these in place? The same questions can and should be asked about students. What are the conditions under which students perform at their best, are engaged, developing a love of learning, and nurturing a senses of calling, purpose, and agency? How do we get both teachers and students out of our institutional Yugo and into something that sets them up for the best possible performance in the race of life and learning?

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