I’ll never be the same again. A reflection on transforming school from consumer to creator. #IDreamASchool

I’ll never be the same again. 

Today marks an anniversary, of sorts, for me. Two years ago, on January 31, I committed to watching a TED talk everyday. I made this 3-to-18-minute commitment part of my larger personal learning routine – my way of “going to school” everyday. I had been watching TED talks for a few years, but I decided to up my ante and watch one everyday.

That’s over 700 talks in as many days – windows to some incredible topics and teachers from whom I can learn… for free (excluding opportunity cost, of course). My perspectives and points of view have been stretched, developed, altered, and grown.

I realized yesterday morning, while watching “Janine di Giovanni: What I saw in the war,”

that my TED-talk education has forever changed the way I view education at large. I will never be the same again. I will forever see schooling as being about so much more than just content delivery and knowledge transfer from one generation to the next.

School must engage and prepare students for the realities of their times.

Aran Levasseur wrote, “The best schools throughout history prepared their students for the social and economic realities of their time.” While watching over 700 TED talks in two years, I have witnessed great inventors, social activists, business owners, cause elevators, and thoughtful citizens. I have seen solutions seekers, problem finders, and connection makers. I have learned about societal issues, advancements in brain science, technological innovations, and global challenges.

Part of me thinks that the reason we have such talks and TED moments is because we need more of these heroes and opportunities. We need more creative solutions seekers and problem finders. We need more social activists and cause elevators. The talks are like advertisements for what we need more of.

And I’m not convinced that the traditional school structure – largely formatted to deliver departmentalized content knowledge – is the best means by which to develop and nurture the scale and shear numbers of engaged citizens that we need for the times in which we live. When traditional school works on a consumer framework – kids being receivers of information like radios to a broadcast tower – then the students get far too little practice exercising their muscles for problem finding, solutions seeking, empathic empowerment, and product creation.

If you want to develop soccer players, you facilitate the playing of soccer. If you want to develop violinists, you facilitate the playing of the violin. If you want creative solution producers, you facilitate the creative production of solutions. To real problems.

We don’t need many more “project” outputs that get thrown in the trashcan as soon as the grade is in the gradebook. We do need iterative prototypes that get discarded because the makers are learning from their mistakes as they create real solutions to real issues. I’d rather see my trashcan filled with early prototypes than finished school projects.

What doesn’t get thrown away is work that makes a real difference.

These projects are improving our world, not littering our trashcans:

There are countless more examples. But it’s not enough. More of a student’s day should be engaged with relevant issues that motivate their innate problem-solver genes. Our students are one of our most underutilized resources. They want to do work that matters. We must work to develop our profession as educators so that more feel comfortable facilitating such learning and growth for our young people. They are all smart in countless ways, and the bandwidth of wisdom that the world demands is much wider than the current bandwidth of knowledge transfer that too many schools are patterned on. Our young people are artists and makers and empathizers and solvers.

So, are we going to continue “manufacturing” consumers, or will we rise to our challenge and help grow creators and producers?

Maybe if we did, Janine di Giovanni would have fewer wars to cover.

Do you think I’ve taken the hypothesis too far? Well, maybe we should just try.

PROCESS POST: Brittany Wenger, TEDxAtlanta, and Re-Imagining School

Live like you’ll die tomorrow. Learn like you’ll live forever.

Ben Dunlap, The life-long learner, #TED

Yesterday, on September 25, I lived on an edge with a number of inspiring people gathered on a common edge – people who are living like they could die tomorrow and learning like they could live forever. Gathered in Unboundary’s TED Dome, more than 300 movers and shakers came together for TEDxAtlanta “Edge of the South.” We lived and learned with “12 Southerners who are breaking new ground. In art, filmmaking, media, and fashion. In business, social innovation, energy production and the sciences.” I grow giddy with excitement and anticipation about these TEDxAtlanta days…

Here’s a quick Storify that captures a bit of the incredible experience for me:

Once again, though, I failed to ask my most burning question:

“So, in what ways did your formal schooling propel you on your current path, and in what ways did your formal schooling impede your current path?”

I remain optimistically frustrated by this question. Certainly, most everyone with whom I’ve ever talked can remember a moment in school or a particular teacher that contributed to his or her unique path in life. Of course, all of those same people can also name an aspect of formal schooling that existed as an obstacle to their journey, too.

We can learn so much about how to continue improving school by exploring this question.

I could recount more than a thousand stories or thoughts inspired at TEDxAtlanta “Edge of the South.” At this particular event, however, one stands out…

“Brittany Wenger, 17, Wins Google Science Fair Grand Prize For Breast Cancer Diagnosis App.”

If you missed Brittany’s talk, I cannot wait for you to see it when the videos are processed and uploaded to the TEDxAtlanta site. Yes, she spoke of being inspired and supported by a biology teacher and a computer science teacher. And she spoke of the project that she undertook as an independent study – partly due to the fact that her school does not engage in a science fair system, partly due to the fact that her work did not “fit” into her required coursework.

Motivated by a passion to make a difference in the lives of others and in medical science, Brittany combined biological biopsy processes with cloud-based artificial intelligence to create an app – Cloud4Cancer – that could just be a revolution for breast cancer detection, prevention, and treatment.

And Brittany worked on this primarily “outside of school.”

Why couldn’t this BE school? Let me ask that in a more positive manner…

How might we re-imagine school so that a veritable army of learners – students and teachers together – might contribute to the problem identification and solutions-finding for our world’s grand challenges and issues?

[Out of time to write, for now! There are deep connections among the TEDxAtlanta “Edge of the South” speakers…and educational transformation. There are deep connections between Ben Dunlap’s talk and re-imagining schools.]

Inspired by possibilities of #PBL – how are we engaging our students with problem finding and solving?

Two emails and a nearby creek have me giddy about #PBL possibilities. Yep, that’s right – I said giddy. I admit that I have an issue – whatever it is I think I see… becomes a PBL to me.

Giddy-up #1: Soccket! Yesterday, my long-time co-teacher and learning partner @jgough sent me a link to this amazing invention – a soccer ball that functions as a generator. Incredible – Uncharted Play: Innovate. Play. Empower. Watch the video, at least!

Giddy-up #2: Hopscotch Detroit! Thanks to a subscription to The Daily Good, I was invited into a story about a community building the largest hopscotch court in history. The goal – to encourage a city to find communion in playing with each other.

Giddy-up #3: Seeing students in Peachtree Creek. I wish I could give you a link to this one. As I was driving to work this morning, I noticed a school activity vehicle (a.k.a. “bus”) stopped near Memorial Park. It appeared that high school students were collecting water samples in Peachtree Creek. Yes! I have dreamed for a few years that more schools would engage our city creeks in such a way. I only with I knew who it was; I’d love to talk with them about what they’re trying to accomplish.

So, when I read and see these examples, I imagine a cohort of students posing questions and curiosities to a facilitator (known as a teacher in the olden days). Through expert contextual guiding, the facilitator enables the students to pursue their own passions. One group is interested in energy, and one of the team members had recently read about using a piece of playground equipment to pump water in an African village. Another team member wondered what other play things could be turned into energy generators. The soccket – or something like it – is born. In another group, the student-learners are crazed at thinking that they can turn the city streets into something like an adult playground. Perhaps they’ve watched Kiran Bir Sethi’s TED talk about teaching kids to take charge, or maybe they’ve seen the video about turning steps into piano keys. They are inspired by the Indian children’s zebra-stripping and the feet symphonies of subway exiters, and they want to go large scale to with a Hopscotch Detroit idea. And a third group feels passionate about improving the water quality of the creek that runs in front of their Atlanta homes. They decide to do something about it, and their facilitator organizes an activity vehicle to cart them to the shores of the waste-ladden waters.

Oh, the possibilities! There’s science, math, English and language arts, history, sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology, design and city planning, architecture, prototyping, community interviewing and communication, making a difference with things that matter and affecting real audiences.

It’s not 50 minutes of math, 50 minutes of science, 50 minutes of English, and homework to check and grade the next day. It’s as much transformational as informational. It’s not unstructured and loose; it’s hyper-structured and necessarily tight. It requires more of technology as field equipment than just a digital replacement for a notebook. It’s engaging and inspirational. And it’s highly and gloriously doable.

But more schools could be doing it.

Just imagine…

No, don’t stop there. Get started…

What’s your school’s pedagogical master plan? Will your students systemically have such experiences?

They could be.

Another piece of “why:” Tis more blessed to give than to receive…and school change

At bedtime, my two boys, my wife, and I often return to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

For me, the story has always been aspirational. Throughout my life, I hope to grow closer to the end of the spectrum where giving is more valued than receiving. In the book, of course, the boy takes and takes from the tree and his happiness is only temporary and fleeting – it lasts until he needs the next thing…maybe shorter. But the tree finds its happiness and joy from giving, and the tree’s joy seems to be more permanent and long-lasting.

This weekend, as we read The Giving Tree, I was struck by the lessons that this story could teach school. I am constantly amazed by the latest generations’ generosity. As a school principal, I had countless students come to me seeking permission to have a fund raiser for a special cause to help others. I had numerous others want to stage events to make a positive difference in the world. In fact, my school had to create a policy to deal with the number of requests for coordination and organization reasons.

Interestingly, most, if not all, of these special requests existed outside the curriculum. Shouldn’t such giving, and work, and lessoning BE the curriculum? Or at least more of the curriculum?

Schools seems so geared to getting. So much of the fundamental set-up is about what each student gets, as they enroll in math, English, science, history, etc. We send them from class to class to be filled like vessels with departmental knowledge so that they can “get” into a good college and so that they can “get” a good job.

What if school were re-imagined and re-purposed to be about what students can give? What they can contribute to the world now.

This is why I feel so passionately about PBL – project-based learning, problem-based learning, passion-based learning, place-based learning, etc. This is why I love examples like Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School. This is why I feel so strongly about school curricula being more integrated and participatory in design-thinking and problem solving.

This is another piece of why people talk of 21st C education.

Twentieth-century education was modeled on the widget-creating, assembly-line system. Send the product down the line to have parts added and reservoirs filled. It was about 1.0. It was about receiving, like radios taking the signals from the towers.

Twenty-first-century education can be about giving. It is 2.0 and 3.0. Students can be co-creators of systemic improvement in the world – from better design, to water solutions, to energy enhancements, to health improvements, to more powerful robotics, to improved communications tools, to…, to…, to….

Tis better to give than to receive. Let’s facilitate kids “giving an education” instead of just “getting an education.”

Does any of this make any sense?


Young people today think in terms of fixing the world,…

Young people today think in terms of fixing the world, by making things, and selling them. Selling them is just the necessary end point of the process.

William Deresiewicz, Writer and Critic speaking at CreativeMornings/Portland (*watch the talk)


Related Posts:

[“A piece of ‘why,'” A piece of ‘what,'” and A piece of ‘how'” are strands of a series on why school needs to change, what about school needs to change, and how schools might navigate the change.]

I dream a school…that plays matchmaker between world issues and adolescent energy

Do you know about Innocentive? They match innovation needs with innovation providers – that whole demand and supply thing. In addition to doing great work, they also make a great metaphor for what school could be.

I believe schools could be structured this way.

Adolescent energy, resourcefulness, and desire to engage relevance
Issues of the world

Engaging curriculum that positively influences the world

Imagine the F=ma implications, in a social justice application of Newton’s Law, if a majority of schools employed the collective mass of our students…in integrated studies, project-based learning formats…to make huge dents in world issues. The size of that “additive amoeba” (think collecting broken up play-dough into one mass), could really make a difference. [Yes, I want to embed Kiran Bir Sethi’s TED talk right here, but I’m not gonna do it. Gonna use Jamie Drummond’s instead.]

I dream a school that crowd-sources with myriad other schools to impact the world now. Imagine the power of that!


Related resource: