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.

How do we teach “The Explorers?” #fsbl #synergy #iDiploma #TVRSE15

How do you teach “The Explorers” at your school?

Stop and think about that question for awhile. Interpret it. Ponder it.

Did you interpret the question to mean, “How do we teach about Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Columbus, Lewis and Clark, York, Shackelton, Earhart, Nellie Bly, etc.?” How do you teach those persons and their incredible stories? Do you hold them up as heroes? At least as important to discovery and building of knowledge? Are you holding them up, at least a bit, as models for your student learners – as people or dispositions or pursuits to emulate?

Did you interpret the question to mean, “How do we teach the learners in our care? All of the children, young people, and adults in our community who are explorers and discoverers by the very nature of them being human?”

Perhaps you interpret no real appreciable difference in those two digestions of the initial question. Maybe you see them as something akin to two sides of the same coin.

For me, teaching explorers and exploration is essential. Better yet, creating the conditions in which learners can learn exploration and be explorers seems even more my calling.

Starting with Myself and My (Biological) Children

In 2004, I became a father for the first time. It happened again in 2007. Two boys. And while I love and adore my own father – and respect him immensely – we did not spend a great deal of time together as I was growing up. As a father myself, I wanted to be the incredible dad that my father is, while also figuring out ways to spend more time with my own sons. As my boys got older, I worked to understand more and more ways to accomplish this goal.

At the same time, and for more than 20 years, I have been a professional educator, and I have found myself (placed myself!) square in the crossroads of all of this transformational energy happening in our industry. Certainly, at the heart of this transformation is a growing knowledge of 1) how our brains work, 2) how human curiosity and yearning to explore drive our developing perception and understanding of our world, and 3) how the changes in our cultural capabilities make it ever more possible to be a producer and not just a consumer in various circles of our existence. Certainly, at the heart of this transformation is a growing realization that life is very project-based, and school – if meant to be even a portion or fraction of facsimile for “life” – should replicate and honor the project-based nature of genuine learning that is wonderfully integrated and purpose-driven in the 87% of our lives outside of our formal school years. (By the way, I think any lines between “school” and “real life” should be blurred, proverbial walls torn down, etc.)

And so, with my deep desire to be an involved father to my sons, interwoven with my deep desire to make school more life-like and project-based, I started an experiment I call #fsbl – “father-son-based learning.” Essentially, my sons and I go on missions together to explore and understand our world. As much as possible, they lead the way. Our primary tools are as follows:

  • Curiosity
  • Willingness to question aloud for others to hear and co-ponder
  • Courage and patience, when needed
  • Observation journals.

When we embark on an #fsbl journey, we commit to observation journaling. Sometimes we use paper and pens/pencils, and we almost always use a smart phone to record pictures – milestones – during our outings. With these images, we upload our questions, our findings, our hypotheses, our ponderings, our wonderments, our befuddlements. For many years, we have recorded these postings to our favorite-at-the-moment technology tool – sometimes Posterous, sometimes WordPress, sometimes Instagram. On each tech tool, we have set an auto-post to Twitter (with hashtag #fsbl) so that we might invite in teachers and co-explorers for our own corp-of-discovery team. We’ve now done this for nearly seven years, and we are well-practiced explorers, ethnographers, and archivers.

4. FSBL. Exploring.

From our explorations, we build micro-curricula. Things we want to continue exploring and learning more about. In formal schooling, it’s too often the other way around. From curricular decisions made by a well-meaning teacher, short-term explorations are enabled to “enrich” the lesson or unit. School tends to privilege curriculum deriving explorations. #fsbl privileges explorations deriving curricula.

How does it happen naturally in our lives outside of school? What if school progressively transformed to more deliberately derive curricula from explorations and human-driven curiosity? Such is the core purpose of experimenting with observation journals as something of an “excuse” and invaluable tool to get out and explore together and to create breadcrumbs to which to return at another time!

Building Synergy with My Other Children

After a few years of practicing with #fsbl, I began to wonder about scaling this model to my “other children” – the student learners at my school. If observation journaling could build micro-curricula for my sons and me, then could a networked group of observation journalers – EXPLORERS – co-create exciting and pursuable curricula derived from our own synergized curiosities?

In the fall of 2010, Synergy 8 was added to the middle school curriculum at The Westminster Schools, where I taught and principaled at the time. Essentially, a number of micro-curricula were derived from the co-explorations and collective observation journaling of the Synergy 8 team. My teaching and learning partner Jill Gough and I established some categorical learning outcomes (see and explore the Synergy 8 link above) from which explorations could be launched and upon which explorations could be reflected. At the core of the experience, though, one could find a heart of observation journaling. As learners went about their days and existences, they developed stronger and stronger habits in capturing their curiosities, their wonderings, their questions, and their befuddlements. These observations were chronicled and archived with tech tools similar to those used in #fsbl, and the Synergy 8 team built a virtually bottomless pool of potential and actual curricular pursuits.

Through selected observation journal posts, Synergy 8 team members opted into such projects as “Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism?” Several opened an internal advertising agency. Four boys became interested in the English Avenue area of Atlanta and worked through initial thoughts of urban gardening to solve a perceived nutrition problem, only to be encouraged in another direction by a community member who showed them four nationally-registered urban gardens and explained that what they needed were jobs to solve for 70% unemployment. So, the boys developed a partnership with Fleet Corp and hosted a job fair for the community.

At the points of reflection along the way, we, of course, discovered a lot of interconnected nodes of learning that might be sub-categorized as “English & Language Arts,” “Maths and Statistics,” “History and Social Sciences,” “Economics,” etc. More importantly, these students pursued ways that they could contribute as citizens now – not just future resources always preparing for something they were told would come in the future, but current resources who wanted to – and were perfectly capable to – make a dent in the present. To work well beyond the domain of green-covered grade books or siloed subject areas.

These projects, and many more, started with exploration of community, observation journaling, and learner-curated and derived curricula.

A Next Iteration and a Brand New Launch – Innovation Diploma @MVPSchool

Since June of 2013, I’ve been serving as Chief Learning and Innovation Officer (“CLIO”) at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. Also, I am acting Executive Director of the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation. As part of my duties in these fully integrated organizations (the organizations are something of a Clark Kent and Superman, if you will, neither alone being either persona), I assist Meghan Cureton, our Director of the Innovation Diploma program. From her lead, I help co-facilitate our inaugural cohort of iDiploma members – a dynamic team of twelve super-learners and uber-doers who are reinventing what we even know as the thing we call “school.” In fact, one of our mantras in iDiploma is “We’re not a class. We’re a start-up!”

As you might have predicted from the chronological flow described above, one set of the tools and methods we use in Innovation Diploma is ethnography, discovery, and observation journaling. From the cohort members’ explorations, they originate ventures – both (i)Ventures and coVentures. With (i)Ventures, an iDiploma member pursues an individual objective through the lenses of inquiry, innovation, and/or impact. With coVentures, a small team of iDiploma members collaborates more interconnectedly to create new value and entrepreneurial or innovative enhancement in some thing, event, community, process, or product.

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If one traced backwards to a point of origin for any of these ventures, one would likely discover an exploratory observation and chronicled curiosity jotted somewhere to launch a purposeful endeavor, all clothed in dynamic exploration. Jumping off from such a point of origin, the Innovation Diploma cohort embark on incredible expeditions informed and forwarded through design thinking and The Innovator’s DNA.

Traverse – An Opportunity to Explore and Expedition through Observation Journaling and Design Thinking

In early June, at Watershed School, Meghan Cureton and I will lead one of the expeditions at the Traverse conference. Our current expedition description reads as follows:

“Whatever it is I think I see…” Curiosity-Based Learning – #FSBL, #Synergy, #iDiploma


We are born insatiably curious. It’s how we learn. In too many cases, though, curiosity can be shoved to the back seat, or even completely tossed out of the vehicle, in environments we call “school.” Yet, we talk of nurturing innovators and being innovative in schools. What if we more purposefully pursued the traits and mindsets that we know are essential to the “Innovator’s DNA?” How might we grow our curiosity muscles and build integrated, real-world learning pursuits through observation, questioning, experimenting, and networking?


In this Traverse Expedition, @MVPSchool and @MVIFI Innovation Diploma leaders Meghan Cureton and Bo Adams will share stories and methods from #FSBL, #Synergy, and #iDiploma. They will guide the group through community exploration, observation journaling, and networking with external experts to spur curiosity-based learning and innovation for a variety of learning and school uses. Participants on this journey will construct framing for curriculum and projects that originate from learner observation, develop through DEEP design thinking methods, and culminate in innovations and impacts that respect students for the current resources they are! Together, we’ll expand the very definition of “school.”


Prototype of the Three-Hour Expedition (basecamp: Impact Hub, Boulder):

  • Intro to Observation Journaling and Exploration as School; Stories of #FSBL, #Synergy, #iDiploma (45 min)
  • Exploring Boulder as a Source of DEEP Learning (75 min)
  • Debrief and Ideation for Curiosity-Based Learning in Schools (60 min)

We are looking forward to joining with a new corp of discovery at Traverse, and we are excited to share some of the methods and tools we use to create opportunities and utilize environments for exploration and discovery. More than anything, we are thrilled to imagine what we might build together with those attending and exploring with us. We will be teaching the explorers… and learning from the explorers! What curricula might we derive from our explorations? What new ways of doing school might we discover?!


NOTE: This post first appeared on the Traverse website, February 17, 2015

What if we used adventure and curiosity as more of what we call school?

Fabien Cousteau opens his TED talk, “What I learned from spending 31 days underwater,” with these words:

I have a confession to make. I am addicted to adventure, and as a young boy, I would rather look outside the window at the birds in the trees and the sky than looking at that two-dimensional chalky blackboard where time stands still and even sometimes dies. My teachers thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t paying attention in class. They didn’t find anything specifically wrong with me, other than being slightly dyslexic because I’m a lefty. But they didn’t test for curiosity. Curiosity, to me, is about our connection with the world, with the universe. It’s about seeing what’s around that next coral head or what’s around that next tree, and learning more not only about our environment but about ourselves.

What if we celebrated adventure and curiosity (even more) as a fundamental component of the schooling part of education and learning? What if we moved the needle from thinking that “something is wrong” with a child who drifts in his attention to exploring what it is that might capture his curiosity?

Fabien Cousteau offers an amazing talk of accomplishing three years of science through 31 days of dedicated PBL. How might we backwards design from such adult projects and ventures to design opportunities and make room for such adventure and curiosity exploration in that learning segment we call school?

Three views into the potential and power of project-driven learning. #iProject #iVenture

My dream is to build the world’s first underground park in New York City.

I always knew as a kid that I wanted to make a difference, and to somehow make the world more beautiful, more interesting and more just. I just didn’t really know how.

Dan Barasch: A park underneath the hustle and bustle of New York City

My dream is _______________________.

What a powerful sentence starter. What a powerful action starter. If we only treated it that way more often. What a profound entry point into an endless supply of worthwhile projects. And not the kind of “dessert-at-the-end” style projects that are all too common in schools when the “important content” has already been “covered.” But the kind of projects that serve as the meal and the fundamental sustenance on which the nutrients of interdisciplinary topics are baked in and intentionally made part of the main course. (On a brief aside, this makes me think that we might need “nutrition labels” on projects — like those nutrition labels on our cereal boxes and cans of food. But in this case, the learner would progressively include what learnings are contained in his or her project.)

People from all over contact me to talk about project work. I think more than a few struggle with seeing what others view as robust and vigorous projects. So, I look for examples to show people. Dan Barasch’s TED talk is just one such example. And it’s an excellent six minute view into how dreaming can materialize into a vibrant project of inquiry, innovation, and impact.

When Dan shares his vision and work on the Lowline, I also see the potential for almost any high schooler or middle schooler to showcase similar stories of their dreams and projects. Maybe they would’t have the 3D computer renderings of the proposed space, and maybe they wouldn’t have the solar arrays built for a pilot installation. Or maybe they could. With partnerships of internal and external experts. If not, they could be coached and supported to produce comparable and lower-resolution prototypes, sketches, concept drawings, etc.

So many possibilities to dig into one’s dreams. And as an integral part of schooling.

As this blog post was bouncing around in my head waiting for me to put it in writing, I re-watched October Sky with my family.

I was reminded of how Homer Hickam’s project started with an observation of Sputnik, a curious spark about rocketry, and a teacher who did not let her lack of knowledge about rocket science allow her to say, “I can’t do this — I don’t know anything about rocketry and it’s not part of our curriculum.” Still, Homer’s project, at least how it was portrayed in the movie, was mostly confined to time outside of school and the project work only “counted” in school thanks to the science fair possibility.

But what if that work had actually been a fundamental part of Homer’s schooling? And not simply confined to “Science” class, but originated in a project-block such that the subject-areas were allowed to weave together as they naturally do, unbridled by the typical boundaries of 55-minute, subject-narrow periods.

At the risk of seeming like this post is “all over the place,” I also remembered Dolphin Tale as my family watched October Sky last Friday night and visions of the Lowline project connected in my mind. Dolphin Tale is another “based on a true story” movie that shows how a student struggling with typical school finds a project that lights his heart and mind on fire. I first saw the movie on Oct. 1, 2011. I know because I walked out of the theatre and had to quickly record a blog post by phone.

Why do so many project ideas seem to happen outside of school? Why can’t they BE school? At least a part of school.

So, here are three examples that I believe help many people visualize the power of project-driven, transdisciplinary learning. I hope they help you see the potential of drawing this form of working and learning into our next iterations of school.

Project Idea #4: Grab a challenge on Innocentive

Innocentive is like a matchmaker for problems and solvers. If you’re looking to make a difference (or just looking for an interdisciplinary project), the innocentive site ( can provide a ready-made “bug list” of challenges that are looking for creative solutions…and creative solution seekers.

On the landing page, one of the top level menus is “Challenge Center.” Once you’re in the center, you can use various filters and tabs to narrow a search. 

Another bonus — many of the challenges come with solution “rewards.” For instance, a past TSA challenge posted a $15,000 prize. (Hat tip to @LauraFlusche of MODA.) So, a school full of innovators might just find an additional source of income, in addition to doing good work for the good of others.

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I am writing a series of blog posts about project ideas that could happen within a school – projects that could both transform school and, ultimately, transform us beyond school. This is my fourth part in the series. I’d love to know what you think.

More on Project Ideas: