A Golden Rule of School Reform… Okay, Maybe a Few Golden Rules #WhatIfWeekly

From “Why Not Ask Teachers How They Would Improve Our Schools?,” Kenneth Bernstein, Nation of Change, 17 January 2013 (emphasis mine) —

We teachers are aware that our influence can be both positive and negative. To be certain that it is positive, we need to have our voices heard as educational policy is being formed. And yet, for too long, teachers have been forced when they are allowed to speak to do so in a frame that is not authentic. In my conversation with the reporter, she began a question by framing it in terms of “accountability,” and I immediately stopped her. Those of us who take teaching seriously dislike that word because it implies that we would not care nor act responsibly towards our students absent some outside measure. To a teacher, that is a wrong mindset, an improper frame that loses sight of the students for whom we are responsible.

Just to be clear, I agree with Bernstein – educational reform MUST include the voices of educators. But this post is not about my agreement with Bernstein.

This post is about the statement in bold above and repeated here – “Those of us who take teaching seriously dislike that word [accountability] because it implies that we would not care nor act responsibly towards our students absent some outside measure.”

But isn’t this exactly what many of us do to our students? We assume – intentionally or unintentionally – that they “would not care nor act responsibly” towards the curricula “absent of some outside measure.”

“Let’s do unto our student learners as we would want done to us.”

Let’s ask students what they want and need from their schooling reforms as well!

…and parents

…and various industry leaders

…and real-world problem solvers

…and …


What if… we did.

[Hat tip to Charles McNair for passing along the article to me.]

School Innovation Teams – Start with Outrospection #WhatIfWeekly #StudentVoice

Education faces a design challenge. From what I know about design challenges, it seems that the best designs begin with intensive stages of immersion and discovery – putting the designers in the positions of chief empathizers.

One of the best examples I know of related to this commitment of being chief empathizers comes from Dan and Chip Heath’s book Switch. The story of Dr. Jerry Sternin harnessing the local wisdom of Vietnamese mothers who were rearing healthy children amidst a malnutrition epidemic stands out to me. Actually, the story inspires me. Dr. Sternin did not swoop in with pre-conceived notions and ready-made solutions. Instead he committed to a process of immersion and discovery to find sustainable, scalable solutions that came from within the community. He leveraged empathy to create a most-likely-to-succeed solution that honored the end users.

Countless other examples come to mind, but I’ll restrain myself and offer only a few here:

  • When I enrolled in a design-thinking course from IDEO and Design Thinking for Educators, we began with a mini design challenge, and step 1 was to interview someone about their morning commute. “Learn how they feel, what they wish for, what gets in their way. Your job is to ask great questions, listen, and learn. TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask ‘Why?'”
  • When I participated in Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Design Institute, before we began designing our ideal outdoor classroom, we interviewed students. We collected insights from them before we even thought about preparing solutions to our own notions of classroom design.
  • When Emily Pilloton asked her student designers to imagine a better chicken coop and design it, they started with observing how chickens behave. “In three days, students would get to know their feathered ‘clients’ by observing their behavior. How do they eat? ‘They like pecking out of the straw, not eating from the trough,’ noted Kerron. How do they sleep? ‘They huddle together up in the roosting box,’ said another student. After three days, our students knew far more about chicken behavior than they ever imagined or wanted.”
  • When Imagining Learning formed to help crowd source ideas for redesigning education, they began with Listening Sessions – for students.
  • When University of Missouri-Columbia freshman Ankur Singh thought to study standardized testing, he decided to take a semester off of school in order to ask those most affected – the students.

So, for all of the schools facing essential questions of innovation, I am wondering how you are factoring in “immersion and discovery.” How are you building empathy into the design challenges?

When I was a school principal, one of the most valuable things I ever did was to shadow a student every year. For a day, I would partner with a student – most often a sixth grader – and I would trail along beside them and pretend to be a student for a day. I was off limits as a principal because I wanted to be completely immersed in the experience. In the years that I was most committed, I would even do all of the homework assignments that night of the shadow. Often, on blogs like Connected Principals, I read of other administrators engaging in such empathy gathering. Now, I am wondering if schools should not build this process into their regular routines and habits.

Maybe schools need innovation teams. Among other jobs, these innovation teams could commit to shadowing students, interviewing students, observing school days and after-school activities, talking with parents about what family life is like at home after school, etc. I bet devoting just three days a year to such immersion and discovery would yield invaluable insights and empathies. [Why the arbitrary number of three days? Well, if it’s good enough for the chickens in Bertie County, NC, I figured it was a good starting place!]

Our school innovations might improve mightily if we designed with the students’ voices at the core – if we committed to “outrospection.”

“How do we educate young people to thrive in a world of possibility?” #ImaginingLearning #ListeningSession @Unboundary

A Listening Session’s purpose is to discover each young  person’s deepest knowing about how they would answer the question, “How do we educate young people to thrive in a world of possibility?”

– from Imagining Learning…About Listening Sessions

On Thursday, November 15, 2012, Unboundary hosted Charles Kouns and Stella Humphries from Imagining Learning to facilitate a Listening Session for seven Atlanta high schoolers. Sophomore Tara Subramaniam initiated the opportunity with Charles Kouns and asked me to help her organize the event and invite a group of students from surrounding schools. What inspiring vision and determination from Tara.

The session unfolded in three stages. In stage 1, Charles explained the purpose of Imagining Learning’s U.S. tour of Listening Sessions, set some general guidelines, and opened the sharing with eight writing prompts to which the students responded.

For stage 2, the students wrote and shared a story about a seed of life wisdom that someone else had provided them during their lives. And during stage 3, students co-created a piece of original art to express what they imagined as their ideal learning journey.

As Charles’ partner Stella recollected at the closing circle of the session, “It was beautiful to watch and listen to you as your participation grew and crescendoed in energy and expression throughout the three hours.”

I assured Charles that I would not give away too much of the content and take-away from this session by way of this post. By traveling the country to listen to young people about what they imagine education could be, Charles and Stella, along with David Loitz, are conducting invaluable research – and to their credit, they are thoughtful and deliberate about how they gather their research. They don’t want sharers like me to overly taint the authenticity of future sessions.

Also of note, they are staying true to a fundamental tenet of design – start with empathy and a genuine desire to understand those for whom you are designing. Seek first to understand and then to be understood.

Combining these seven Atlanta voices with the hundreds of other student voices, Imagining Learning will contribute the collective wisdom of our young people to our national discussion about how to improve and enhance education – how to “educate young people to thrive in a world of possibility.”

As Stella and Charles departed, Charles did say he trusted me about what I would post immediately. And I just could not resist sharing this 60-second piece – hoping that Tara’s efforts and the information here might inspire you to organize a Listening Session yourself.

Many thanks to the seven young people who shared their profound wisdom about what school could be, and many thanks to their five schools who helped make it possible for them to attend and participate. And many thanks to Charles Kouns, Stella Humphries, David Loitz, and to Imagining Learning – for Listening.

If you want to learn more about Imagining Learning and the Listening Sessions, I highly recommend the following:

To Tara, this Atlanta Listening Session cohort, and Imagining Learning. And to all of the invaluable voices of our young people – in both their individual strengths and in their collective power.

Empathy. Listening Sessions. Imagining Learning.


In studying design-thinking in education, I have been seriously educated in the incredible importance of empathy. In embracing PBL, I have been humbled by the essential nature of empathy. Through such endeavors as “student for a day,” I have been reminded to practice empathy as a teacher. As an aspiring change agent for educational leadership and school transformation, I have been taught many lessons about empathy.


I’m embarrassed how little empathy I have shown to current students about possible changes and enhancements in schooling and education. Why haven’t I asked them more about what they think, feel, want, and desire? Am I too busy? Do I think I already know? Do I think “father knows best?” Why haven’t I asked…and listened?

On too many occasions to recall, I have read from Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Switch. The passage I gravitate to most is the chapter about Dr. Jerry Sternin, who was charged years ago to improve the nutrition issue in Vietnam. Does he swoop in and save the day with expert solutions? No, he asks the people of the villages what they do to care for their children – especially if the children are above average in health criteria. He trains a small army of ethnographers and interviewers to go into the villages and seek the wisdom and knowhow of the communal inhabitants. And, then, Dr. Sternin “merely” amplifies what the healthy-child mothers do to enhance the nutrition and wellness of their children.

I’ve read these pages, maybe, over 100 times to audiences, classes, faculties.

I can count on one hand (doesn’t even take me all the fingers of one hand) the number of times that I have emulated Dr. Sternin and asked a collective of students, “How would you design education to fulfill the needs of learners who are growing up in today’s world?”

That’s embarrassing.

I strive to be better than that.

Thanks to a former student of mine (from whom I learn more than she has probably learned from me), I have found Imagining Learning by way of a Cooperative Catalyst post by Charles Kouns.

Imagining Learning is an invitation to participate in a heart-centered exploration of the question, “How do we educate young people to thrive in a world of possibility?”

Our purpose is to work with individuals and communities to co-create a new education system for all children – a new seed if you will – that sees the healthy, internal world of a child as vital to the future of humanity and the planet. Our anchoring question also recognizes that our children’s ability to thrive is directly related to accessing possibility.  Possibility here means every child having access to opportunities for learning that are as diverse and dynamic as the world around them, and having access to inner capacities that enable them to activate these opportunities.

As the primary step, we have invited young people’s voices into the co-creating process.   We have designed a creative process we name Listening Sessions that give young people the opportunity to share, in a safe and nurturing environment, their aspirations and insights on education.  Listening Sessions are designed to tap into the inner wisdom that young people (ages 13 – 19) implicitly hold through a series of appreciative questions, sharing stories and collaborative painting.  The Listening Sessions are short (3 hours) and  allow us to repeat the process easily. We are currently conducting Listening Sessions with groups across America. The Listening Sessions are welcomed whole-heartedly by young people, who consistently express their gratitude for the opportunity to be heard.

– from http://www.imagininglearning.us/#!about/c2308, accessed 8-23-12

I hope you’ll find 5-10 minutes to explore the site. It’s beautiful in design and content, purpose and character. I hope you’ll spread the word and even consider hosting a Listening Session. I hope you’ll ask more students for their thoughts and ideas about schooling and education.

I know I need to. I plan to. Imagine what I could learn! It’s about learning.

I owe a huge debt to TS. Thanks for being my teacher and for reflecting back to me how to be a Dr. Sternin…how to listen…how to practice empathy.