Curiosity-Based Learning: Teaching Innovation Through Design #TVRSE15

On Tuesday, June 9, Meghan Cureton and I are facilitating one of the hands-on learning expeditions at the Traverse Conference in Boulder, CO. Actually, we’re offering the session twice – from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and again at 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Mountain Time)

Our sessions are called “Curiosity-Based Learning: Teaching Innovation Through Design.” You can find our session flow and resource links at, and the Google doc is embedded below, too.

Also, you can find a post on the Traverse Ideas blog that shares some details about the thinking behind the session – “How do we teach ‘the explorers’?”

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

If school is supposed to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?

If school is supposed to prepare students for real life,
then why doesn’t school look more like real life?

For more than a decade, this question has lived at the heart of my research and practice as a professional educator. While I worked at Unboundary, we created a Brain Food devoted to exploring this question.

A number of educators and school transformation agents connect to this question through an entire branch of educational practice known as “authentic learning.” At the end of January, #EdChat Radio featured the topic of authentic learning on an episode. And Dr. Brett Jacobsen, of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (where I work), recently interviewed Dr. Yong Zhao for his podcast “Design Movement,” and much of their conversation connects with this topic of authentic learning.

Given the habits formed by decades of industrial-age, delivery-based pedagogy, though, educators must explore and experiment with different structures in order to make room for more authentic learning – learning that is meant to serve a greater purpose than only a grade in a grade book and a future locker-clean-out session in late May or early June.

Exploring such new structures can be challenging for schools. In fact, some structures point to entirely different paradigms for schools – like “giving an education” rather than getting an education, taking a course, or whadya-get-on-that-test assessment.

Some school people imagine such paradigm shifts would lack structure – that it would be too free form, loosey-goosey, or soft-skills heavy. This is really a false set up for thinking about the structural-shift needs of schools in transformation. How “loosey-goosey, really, is your project work and real-world problem solving in your career and life?

As Tony Wagner says in Creating Innovators, it’s not a choice between structure and no structure to allow for more authentic learning. It’s a choice to build a different structure for School 3.0 – one that allows for student-learners to explore their passions and real-world purposes while engaged in challenges that exist in the world and yearn to be defined and solved. Structures that empower learners to engage in more authentic learning flows.

Creating Innovators - Structure

But how do educators make such shifts and create different structures? I believe one way we do this is to explore avenues and portals to empower students to engage in real-world problem solving. Instead of only organizing the curriculum – the track of learning – around subject-siloed disciplines, at least part of the curriculum could be organized around exploring and venturing into authentic, real-world problem solving as organizers of product-and-process-oriented work.

In my own life and work, I’ve explored opening such portals through #fsbl and #Synergy. Much of this work involves immersing oneself and other learners into the Innovator’s DNA traits – observe, question, experiment, network, and associate – through the methodology of observation journaling and curiosity-curated curriculum.

Of course, other ways exist to open those portals and explore into those worlds of authentic learning and real-life problem solving. Here are but a few inspirations and possible ways in…


Resources for engaging in real-life solution seeking:


Open IDEO is an open innovation platform for social good. We’re a global community that draws upon the optimism, inspiration, ideas and opinions of everyone to solve problems together.

NPR – All Tech Considered: Innovation

An exploration of interesting ideas that solve problems, introduce new experiences or even change our world.

Do Something is the country’s largest not-for-profit for young people and social change. We have 2,439,780 members (and counting!) who kick ass on causes they care about. Bullying. Animal cruelty. Homelessness. Cancer. The list goes on. spearheads national campaigns so 13- to 25-year-olds can make an impact – without ever needing money, an adult, or a car. Over 2.4 million people took action through in 2012.


Choose2Matter is a call to leadership and an accelerator to connect individuals and communities with a conscience. It combines technology, innovation and mentorship to solve problems that matter. It’s an important opportunity for business, brands, and communities to join forces in the causes and issues most important to those they lead and serve.

What has been inspired by students, has led to the official launch and creation ofCHOOSE2MATTER – a crowd sourced, social good community.

50 Problems in 50 Days

I’m on an adventure – to explore the limits of design’s ability to solve social problems, big and small. To do this I attempted to solve 50 problems in 50 daysusing design. I also spent time with 12 of Europe’s top design firms.

Peter Smart


InnoCentive is the global leader in crowdsourcing innovation problems to the world’s smartest people who compete to provide ideas and solutions to important business, social, policy, scientific, and technical challenges.

TED Prize

The TED Prize is awarded to an extraordinary individual with a creative and bold vision to spark global change. By leveraging the TED community’s resources and investing $1 million dollars into a powerful idea, the TED Prize supports one wish to inspire the world.

Ideas for Ideas


PROCESS POST: Contemplating innovation, homework, practice…and their intersections. An Example. Iteration Three.

A Peek Into Contrasting Homework Assignments

Homework, Option 1

  • In your algebra book, in chapter 7, section 4, do the odd problems. Be sure to show your work. If the assignment takes you longer than 45 minutes of singularly concentrated effort, stop where you are at three-quarters of an hour of working.
  • For social studies, read chapter 12, section 3, and respond to the three “Thought Questions” on page 192.
  • [more like this from your subject-organized classes]

Homework, option 2

[Underlying assumption: the below example is more scaffolded due to the type of academic and school environment that the student learners are used to, and because of the timing of where we are (in the hypothetical scenario) in the traditional school year – early in the cycle. As capacity builds, learners would be less directed and more self-sufficient.]

  • EQ: What is beauty?
  • Observe: As you go through the next 10 days, record in your observation journal instances of your thinking related to our current priority essential question. If appropriate and responsible, take pictures of things you find beautiful and make some notes about why. Ask others what they think, too. Because we are near the beginning of this experience together, I can suggest that the VTR (visible thinking routine) “See, Think, Wonder” might be one way to frame your ethnography notes. Of course, you can devise your own strategy (and you’ll be asked to do this more and more as you practice your Innovators DNA skills); if I, or some other mentor/peer, can help with your observation-strategy plan, let me/them know. Ask questions. We’ll share and review our “Game Plans” and “Gantt Charts” in two days, so we can see various strategies and plans.
  • Question:
    • Record the questions that arise for you as you detail your observations. I don’t want to overly constrain your thinking by suggesting specifics now, but let someone know if you feel yourself in some unresolved struggle about “What kinds of questions should be arising for me?”
    • In relation to your subject-organized classes, tag at least some of your questions by the department name(s) for which those questions seem particularly connected. For example, “What percentage of the population finds this painting beautiful?” might suggest a “Math” tag for a statistics portion of your emerging project.
  • Experiment:
    • Of course, you’ll be experimenting with your observation-strategy plan.
    • Also, use your observation notes to scan for trends and patterns. What hypotheses on beauty seem to emerge for you? Begin to outline – in big-picture terms – the experimental methods you might use to test your hypotheses. If it helps, pretend you are on staff with Myth Busters, like we’ve talked about during our f2f time together.
  • Network & Associate:
    • Suggestion 1 (if needed) – read and comment on the observation-journal entries posted by some of the others in this learning cohort.
    • Suggestion 2 (if needed) – find connections in your independent reading and link to nodes in your learning web on this EQ.
    • Suggestion 3 (if needed) – explore the playlist “6 TED Talks on beauty” and/or listen to the TED Radio Hour episode “What is beauty?
    • What are your suggestions regarding networking and associating with this EQ?

What are your thoughts, reader?


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Related Posts in This Thinking Path:

PROCESS POST: Contemplating innovation, homework, practice…and their intersections. +Awe. Iteration Two.

We have a responsibility to awe.

What if the molten foundations of K12 “homework” – if we must give it – were poured into and formed by the molds and casts of the Innovator’s DNA verbs?

  • Observe
  • Question
  • Experiment
  • Network
  • Associate

How might we better nurture our learners’ responsibility to awe? Our own responsibility to awe?

[Hat tip to David Cannon for the video!]

What’s our balance like, as educators…as schools, for utilizing homework to “go through the motions” vs. “inspire awe” at our condition as humans? How might we rebalance our scales?


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PROCESS POST: Contemplating innovation, homework, practice…and their intersections. Iteration One.

The Balance (mini)Series