PROCESS POST: Ludwick Marishane and #PBL – “What’s stopping you?”

… one question I have for the audience today is, on the gravel roads of Limpopo, with an allowance of 50 rand a week, I came up with a way for the world not to bathe. What’s stopping you? (Applause)

What is stopping us? Ludwick Marishane did so much more than just come up with a way for the world not to bathe. He figured out a way to battle trachoma and fight disease-based blindness in under-resourced areas.

I believe strongly that school should be more community-issue-problem-solving based. As Daniel Pink explained in Drive, we are motivated most strongly when we feel higher degrees of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Purpose has long been a question driver in schools. “When will I ever use this?” “Why are we learning this?” School could live more deliberately at this nexus of desired relevance and purpose and problems craving solutions. Learners want to maintain choice at pursuing things that matter to and interest them. By pursuing such passions, while the hard work can often feel playful, we develop deep mastery.

If you watched the five-minute TED talk from Ludwick Marishane, do you think he got the following:

  • growing understanding of science, perhaps in the integrated fields of chemistry and biology
  • increased cultural thoughtfulness and empathy
  • strengthening communication skills in writing business plans, patents, grant proposals, etc., as well as enhancing oral communications with presentations, sales pitches, etc.
  • heightening proficiency in mathematics, quantitative and qualitative statistics, and application of mathematical reasoning
  • developing sense that he is a creative and critical-thinking problem solver, with agency to make a difference in the world now
  • expanding appreciation for socio-economic and psychological dimensions of getting a solution to market
  • understanding the necessity of genuine collaboration to combat big, audacious goals

I think he got all of the above and so much more. And what he is giving may far outweigh what he is getting. I think he might help more than 8 million people affected by trachoma. And he developed DryBath because he wanted to figure out a way that he would not have to take a bath himself.

I can imagine elementary, middle, and high schoolers engaging in such starts-as-a-selfish-and-seemingly-ridiculous project. I can see them spending time in more time-concentrated laboratories of integrated learning, rather than interrupting their flow because of bells set to 50 minutes and disciplines sub-divided by cinderblock walls. I can see them solving big problems and growing as engaged, empathetic, empowered citizens. I can see them practicing the skills and learning the content that will serve them, and the world, most dearly in the coming decades.

Some schools might want to make wholesale change to such a model. Others might want to revamp their curriculum and instruction so that “lab” problem solving represents 50% of the day and more traditional classes represent the other 50%. Still others may want to discern how to incorporate such community-issues-problem-solving courses into just 20-25% of the school day or week. Whatever the ration, I believe the students and the world would benefit from the increased and enhanced concentration on dealing with real community issues – issues within one’s school, wider neighborhood, city, state, nation, or world.

As I’ve written this post, in less than 15 minutes, I’ve imagined a sort of “kit” that could help a school get started…

  1. Alan November’s book, Who Owns the Learning?
  2. Suzie Boss’s book, Bringing Innovation to Schools
  3. Will Richardson’s e-book, Why School?
  4. frog design’s Collective Action Toolkit

In fact, if you are already convinced that schools are, or should be, doing such community-issues-problem-solving based learning, then you could use just #4 to help you get started.

As Marishane challenged us all, “What’s stopping you?”

Book Review: Bringing Innovation to School @SuzieBoss @SolutionTree

There has been an explosion of interest in and writing about innovation. By no means have I read all of the latest works on innovation, but I have read quite a bit – books and articles by Tony Wagner, Clayton Christensen, Steven Johnson, Tom Kelley, and Peter Drucker. Most recently, I have completed my first round of studying the book Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World, written by Suzie Boss and published by Solution Tree. For those who subscribe to “seeing is believing” and respect storytelling as a vivid means for seeing more clearly how we might innovate schools and prepare our next generation of innovators (Boss, 1), this is a #MustRead.

From the very first line of the introduction, Boss shows us innovation in schooling by telling us real stories. The first tale begins in Bertie County, North Carolina, with Emily Pilloton’s elective-course project called Studio H – “a hand’s on immersion in the design and build process with an emphasis on local problem solving” (1).  Having seen Pilloton’s TED talk, “Emily Pilloton: Teaching design for change,” I was immediately warmed and invited in by Boss’s initial fuel and kindling for the book. I knew that Boss was committed to presenting high-quality examples, and I wanted to listen to and engage in more of Boss’s storytelling.

Whereas many books primarily present summarized theory and garnish the conceptual with brief examples pushed to sidebars, Boss treats the real-life stories as the main dishes, and she peppers the well-told tales with summarizing remarks and connections to big-picture innovation strategies. In some ways, Boss flipped the typical book, much like all kinds of educators talk of flipping the classroom. I loved this approach and methodology. Many of her stories involved educators and schools that I follow closely through blogs, Twitter, and the news. Some of her stories involved educational leaders that I have come to regard as friends. A number of her stories were brand new to me. All of her stories – and there are many of them – taught me things I did not yet know, filled in gaps about things I had wondered, and inspired in me an even deeper desire to investigate more robustly and learn more. Boss’s book strikes me as one of those rare finds that I know I will pick up time and time again to find a particular story as I connect its dots to another case I am working on, to review my notes and highlighting as I am making my own meaning about innovation in schools, and to return to a dog-eared page as I am ready to explore in more detail the robust set of resources that Boss accumulated in one place.

In the curation of her book, Boss organized the learning arc in a wonderful manner. “Part I: Setting the Stage,” creates a clear understanding of innovation and makes a compelling case for the critical nature of marrying education and innovation. Throughout “Part II: Building a New Idea Factory,” Boss weaves together her case studies – fabulous stories that balance ideal amounts of individual length and collective insightfulness. She wows the reader with what’s already being done, as well as with what’s possible, in regards to creating space for students to be immersed in and empowered by motivating, exciting work that honors their capacity to make a difference now and grow into the knowers and doers that our world demands. And Suzie Boss means to disrupt our own complacency. As an advanced organizer, she wrote in the section intro, “As we take a closer look at these schools and classrooms in the following case studies, put on your own critical lenses and consider: Which ideas are you ready to borrow now? What seems possible longer term? What feels out of reach in your current situation (and why)? Each case study ends with practical suggestions for how to get started” (51). This is meant to be a book of action. It’s a destination and travel book with images and narratives that make one want to venture out and arrive posthaste. What’s more, “Interspersed with these examples are five Strategy Spotlights to further expand your innovation toolkit” (51). Not only does Boss inspire us to go and do, but she also provides parts of the map to get to those places – enough pieces to help us feel we’ve already started and well on our way. In “Part III: Moving from Thinking to Doing,” Boss reiterates even more directly the importance of sharing ideas and leveraging networks for innovation progress. She also details eight action steps for impacting systems-level innovation. This third of the three sections is the shortest and took me the longest to read – I had trouble deciding what not to highlight, as it was all underlining-worthy.

At the end, Boss provides three appendixes, too: A) additional resources for design thinking, digital gaming, innovation and invention, project-based learning, and social innovation; B) an innovation rubric; and C) a discussion guide that could facilitate endless, powerful reflections and planning for motivated groups of administrators, faculty, parents, and/or students.

In Gary Hamel’s great new book, What Matters Now, he writes, “We owe our existence to innovation. We owe our prosperity to innovation… We owe our happiness to innovation… We owe our future to innovation… Innovation isn’t a fad—it’s the real deal, the only deal. Our future no less than our past depends on innovation.” And in Suzie Boss’s Bringing Innovation to School, she relays a rich repertoire of stories of how we might pay our indebtedness to innovation by investing in it more purposefully and pervasively in our educational system – for our dear children.

P.S. You can also read Suzie Boss’s work on blog sites for Edutopia, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Huffington Post. I highly recommend her postings. She tweets to @SuzieBoss.

Bo Adams (@boadams1) serves as Director of Educational Innovation at Unboundary, a transformation-design and strategic studio in Atlanta, GA.


Boss, Suzie. Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World. Bloomington: Solution Tree, 2012. Print.