Living in a Personal Case Study – Curiosity-based Learning

Before the middle of November 2016, I had never really rock climbed before, other than some scrambling over boulders at various times of my life while playing or hiking. I definitely had never tied-in with a harness, donned the super-snug climbing shoes or doused my hands in chalk. There’s no way that I could have named a professional rock climber or told anyone what a Yosemite rating was.

For the last two months, though, I have been spending a considerable number of hours each week exploring and immersing myself in rock climbing, mostly of the indoor kind to this point. I feel wonderfully “addicted” to pursuing climbing and adding it to my other interests in hiking, mountain biking and kayaking. My older son is full-in with me (he’s 12 years old and in sixth grade.)

I am deeply curious about rock climbing, and I have purposefully taken it on as a new project and interest to pursue. I genuinely love it in its own right. Because I am an educator, however, I am enjoying the additional benefit (again) of studying this process of learning something new that originated in the “personal interest” category. I am fortunate to be living a personal case study in curiosity-based learning in parallel to a great deal of conversation and writing about curiosity-based learning in schools. Through comparative reflection, I am thinking about a number of possible insights that my climbing is teaching me about a fresh paradigm for learning in schools.

Initial Exploration Kindled Deeper Curiosity

My younger son (he’s nine years old and in fourth grade) voiced some interest in going climbing. So the two of us found a gym (Stone Summit Atlanta) and signed up for a session with an instructor. Adam helped us put on the harnesses correctly, tied us into the top rope and served as our belay (our human safety anchor). But there was no lesson that we had to sit through or listen to before we were encouraged to explore – to get on the wall and try some holds and establish some familiarity with the situational feel of what this pursuit was going to entail. Within minutes, we were “begging” for some lessons. We had a need-to-know that was sparked by an instructor setting conditions for us to explore and to come to him with questions when we realized we had them. Instead of priming us with “These are the 5 things you should know,” Adam allowed us to create cognitive demand for what was contextually most important to us. This would make the learning stickier – our exploration created one side of the mental velcro we needed to search for the matching side of the learning strip we most needed at the time. Switching metaphors, our exploration prepared the soil in ways that Adam could plant teaching seeds that were more likely to grow. If Adam had tried to plant the seeds before the soil was ready, I don’t imagine the sprouting and rooting would have happened as strongly.

At such places as the Buck Institute for Education, an expert organization in project-based learning, they recommend a compelling “entry event” to begin a project launch. For Jackson and me, our initial climb exploration was an ideal entry event. I wonder why we don’t use this methodology even more often in school – to set conditions for exploration and invitation before providing prescriptive lessons. To allow the learners to prep the soil first means that they will come seeking the lessons, which no longer feel prescribed to the learner.

Tests Are Gateways to Open New Opportunities

Well, my younger son has not really taken to rock climbing (yet?) as a passionate pursuit. But because I wanted to continue, my wife graciously agreed to attend a belay class with me, so that we could become certified belayers and operate more self sufficiently in the gym as a partnered team. The class lasted about 90 minutes. The component parts included a hands-on lesson in knot tying, a feet-on-the-ground lab for how to handle the rope and safety equipment as a belayer, and an experiential practicum that put us in the real-world position of climbing and belaying as partners on the actual climbing walls. At the conclusion of the class, we had progressed tremendously, but we were still not certified to use the gym independently. To reach this next level and attain the full certification, we had to take a performance test at our next visit to the gym. Upon completing this check-off demonstration of learning, the test opened for us the full use of the gym, with all of its top-rope routes and bouldering options. The test was pass/fail, and the test did not so much feel like a summation of previous learning. Rather, the test was a gateway to further exploration.

I wonder how often students in school feel the delight of a test serving as a door that they can open to more possibilities, versus a test feeling like a means to close the learning that has just previously occurred. I’m optimistic that the fresh paradigm for school-based learning will borrow mightily from this idea that tests open doors as opposed to closing chapters.

With Access to Vigorous Assessment and Feedback, I Don’t Require Average Grading

I’ve been climbing for two months now. One might say that I’m at the school-equivalent of being at the “midterm” of my first semester of climbing. I know very well how I am performing and growing as a climber. When I began, I climbed 5.6 routes. The 5.6 refers to the Yosemite scale of declaring a degree of difficulty for a route. Now, I am consistently climbing 5.8, and I even sent three 5.9 routes on Monday, January 16. (“Sending” a route is climbing lingo for successfully topping out in a single effort. That’s what I think it means – I’m still learning a lot of lingo!) Until that day, I had attempted one of the 5.9 routes on multiple occasions –  in fact, I had tried it about 11 times and fallen at various places, over a number of days – usually advancing another hold further on every second or third attempt. The formative feedback is continuous, and the quantitative measures of the Yosemite rating provide me a localized understanding of my current performance level and my next goals to set. But I don’t need a summative, average score telling me I’m a “B climber right now.” That would have no meaning to me – it’s not specific or precise enough and it hides too much invaluable data that is more granular in nature.

And in the bouldering room, I began at a V0-V1. (In bouldering – climbing shorter walls with no rope – one metric for degree of difficulty is the Vermin scale, or V-scale for short.) Now, I am working on V2-V3 routes and learning more about pinch holds, slopers, crimps, and others. I am watching other bouldering climbers and picking up on techniques and styles that will propel my climbing forward. I am asking questions of others and receiving welcome, but often unsolicited, advice about what has worked for them on the same problem. Oh, in bouldering, a particular striving up certain holds to the top is called a “project.” And the pieces that one has to figure out to be successful are called “problems.” (Isn’t that wonderful!) It is very common to work a project and a set of problems for hours. The level of formative self-assessment and peer-assessment is profound. And the iterative, recursive nature of “trying, failing, trying again, getting further than before, failing at a new problem, trying again, ultimately topping out” is a vigorous endeavor with continuous assessment and reflection built in all along the way.

Of course, no one is trying to “average” my performance over the last two months to derive some sort of quantitative indicator of my mean performance. If someone were doing this “school thing” of recording an average of my overall performance, I know it would be a false indicator of my growth, progress, and current capabilities. As in karate, the highest belt level obtained indicates current performance indication. If one started at white belt and progressed to black belt, they are not considered a gray belt – the average of white and black. Similarly, in rock climbing, I am currently challenging myself with 5.9s and V2-V3 climbs. And I regularly work on lower ratings, with no shame, as I re-establish confidence, deal with tired arms, or provide myself a break from the higher-rated strivings.

I dream of not-too-distant futures when we will employ much more vigorous feedback and assessment in schools without feeling the historical urge to report only a summative, mean-averaged score. In truth, the schools who have a more robust degree of project-based experiences as core curricula often lead the way in innovating their assessment practices to more closely align with the ways we learn and track progress in our other performance-based pursuits in life.

If We Are to Pursue Our Interests, Assigned Homework Can Get In the Way

Since the belay class with my wife, my older son Phillip decided to try out the rock climbing. Shortly after the first attempts, he decided to get belay certified. For the past two months, he and I have been climbing and bouldering together as much as we can. We are spending about five to six hours a week climbing. We love it – both inherently and because we are getting to learn alongside each other. On top of the hours at the gym, we also now call up YouTube searches of rock-climbing technique. We have read two Rock and Ice magazines. We turn to Red Bull TV and watch episodes of Reel Rock. Just last weekend, we ventured to Boat Rock, an outdoor bouldering area in Atlanta, so we could start scouting out what the adding of outdoor climbing might look like for us.

Too often, I hear educators across the country talk about students not seeming to have interests and curiosities and “passions.” Many talk of how over-scheduled children are these days. Certainly, this is a complex situation with a number of variables. And certainly one of the variables must be related to homework. If the view that teens have fewer interests these days is true (and I’m not sure it is), I wonder when we expect them to pursue such explorations and potential paths of discovering their interests. After  a full day of school, upon completing an activity offered by school in the afternoon, many children and teens go home to begin a second shift of school called “homework.” This, too, is a complex issue which I do not mean to ridiculously simplify. But sometimes (often?), assigned-by-others work can get in the way of assigned-by-self work. Phillip and I assign ourselves five to six hours a week of gym time – we typically spend two sessions at the gym a week. Additionally, we pursue our curiosities and learn through reading, videos, and climbing shows. While I am not advocating for single-mindedness here at the exclusion of other learning and pursuits, I do wonder when we expect young people to explore and learn deeply “on their own.” Perhaps we should make sure that such time is an intentional and purposeful part of the whole picture. And perhaps we should not assume that so many young people would idle after school if we educators did not assign them so much homework. Maybe young people need more practice in building the motivation to assign themselves meaningful work. What if we made space for them to do so, with a bit of coaching and support?


As for Phillip and me, we intend to keep striving with rock climbing. We are having a blast, and we have a goal to work up to lead climbing (setting one’s own rope as you climb) and to add more outdoor climbing. Because we started with the project, we are also learning across many, many disciplines that tend to get subdivided in schools. Not only do I find the greatest joy in exploring a curiosity deeply and doing so with one of my sons, but I also find great scholarly challenge in connecting this to my understanding as a professional educator and educational innovator.

In The Innovator’s DNA, the authors described the five common traits that their research has revealed about innovators. Innovators observe, question, experiment, network and associatively think. By being highly conscious of my own personal case study in rock climbing as a curiosity-based learning goal, I am applying associative thinking and comparing this situational learning for me with the ways that learning is often situated in schools. Maybe more than anything, I am developing again a heightened sense of empathy for what it takes to learn, learn experientially, and learn deeply.

For you educators reading this – those who are working to transform and innovate and enhance schooling – what case studies and experiments are you intentionally engaging to most deeply understand the various ways that humans learn best? I’d be genuinely interested in your links, stories, comments, questions, and co-reflections.

I have much left to learn.

SPARKplaces 2016

“Welcome to the first-ever SPARKplaces gathering.

From the very beginning of daydreaming this event, we were certain about a few things. We wanted:

  • an intimate experience that invested in authentic human relationships;
  • to gather creatives and visionaries that love discovering new ideas;
  • all participants to be uniquely hand-selected year one;
  • a fully immersive expedition, not a pick-n-choose conference;
  • to explore the design of learning environments but make sure we were focused on ‘learning’ first, ‘environments’ second;
  • to trust in everyone’s expertise and experience coming in the door, but more importantly we wanted to see what happens when people let go of their own biases;
  • to be inspired by the spirit of ‘design thinking’ without over worrying details;
  • to ‘wander’ and ‘wonder’ without apology;
  • to ‘do’ and ‘create’ something that gained momentum after the event ends;
  • to see if a tribe could emerge that seeks to keep exploring together over time.”

Such is how the SPARKplaces notebook began with a welcome to the participants. In this two-day design expedition, we gathered in the stunning Convent and Stuart Hall School, situated in the Flood Mansion, and we engaged in a collection of provocations and challenges that yielded compelling design possibilities and inspiring manifestos. For me, one of the most exciting findings took the form of the fast-cycle in which all of this concentrated effort occurred. The window of work, not much more than ten hours when all was said and done, created a set of artifacts and launching pads derived from committed teams of people — work that could be replicated, in process, with the people who make up a single-school community, as well as a tribe of people from various schools.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rapid-fire speakers sharing profound talks in five minutes, dinner table prompts hybridizing a Jeffersonian Dinner format, epic questions, learning metaphors, and a learning ecology build palpable momentum, “completed” by a manifesto drafted by each team and percolated to richness because of all of the meaningful pump-priming that preceded the quick-write of shared understanding and conviction.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Paradoxically, the work felt “finished” and unfinished simultaneously. Wonderfully, it excited me to continue the efforts and forward the next steps…whatever they may be.

SPARKplaces 2016 Storify

Many heartfelt thanks to Christian Long (Wonder, by Design), Carla Silver (Leadership + Design), Howard Levin (Convent and Stuart Hall), and to the fellow participants who poured themselves into this collaboration. I felt honored to be in your learning community.

Visit to Brightworks School

I met Gever Tulley in 2010. We spoke at the same TEDxAtlanta event, and then Gever extended his stay in Atlanta so we could hang out and talk more about schools and education. Mostly, we talked about how schools could better “mirror” deep learning.

After that, I rushed out and bought his book, 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), and my sons and I added it to our Father-Son-Based-Learning (#fsbl) excursions. And we regularly re-watch Gever’s talks from the big TED stage.

Gever and I keep up sporadically, and I would count him as a huge influencer of mine. When he founded Brightworks, an amazing, change-everything school, I followed with great interest and excitement.

So, I consider it a dream come true that I was able to visit Brightworks on Tuesday, February 23! The two-hour immersion was intriguing and inspiring and provocative. Having colleagues from Mount Vernon and Hillbrook School enriched the experience even further because we were able to exchange curiosities, reactions, inquiries, and ponderings.

What stood out most to me? The high degree of ownership that students possessed and demonstrated about their relationship to learning. The high degree of trust that “collaborators” (the Brightworks word for teachers) exhibited for the learners. The empowered vibe that children exuded as they explored deep curiosities and thrived in a culture of exploration-expression-exhibition arcs of learning. The mixed-age “bands” that prioritized relationship and community. Content was at the service of explored curiosity, rather than any sense of compliance-based digestion of content out of context.

My visit will have me thinking for a long time!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What kids and teachers can do…ARE doing!

Some people collect stamps. Some collect rocks. People collect many things.

Me? I collect examples of the work that students CAN do.

Many people underestimate what children can do as “school work.” What if “school work” were more “real-world-work” sourced? It’s happening at so many innovative schools. It’s happening at Mount Vernon, where I am blessed to work.

Largely because of the work that we do at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, I collect inspirations and examples of children doing “school work” that many might deem “adult work” for later in their lives.

This TED video from Cesar Harada is one of the best samples of “school work” that absolutely can be done by children. It’s worth your 10 minutes. And it’s worth you helping to make such work even more of a reality at the schools near you.


Related: Mount Vernon continues to drive for enhanced mashup of “real-world work” and “school work” with Council on Innovation 2015

Innovating the very foundations of school – who creates the courses!

What if “students” created the courses – at least some of the courses – offered at school? What if those courses were the kind that many people would describe as “the most rigorous” a school offers? This is innovation.

Two members of the Innovation Diploma at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (and Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation) launched their own AP (Advanced Placement) Language course. Together they collaboratively built the learning targets, educational paths, academic arcs, and assessment strategies for exploring certain wonders and complexities of the English language.

They are both juniors in high school. I don’t think either of them actually drives a car on her own yet.

This is a story I highly recommend that you follow. Here are some posts Pinya and Kat have published to get you started: