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.

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 #2: Use TED as a rolodex of idea sparks for a virtual army of engaged citizen leaders

I love this talk from Aziza Chaouni: How I brought a river, and my city, back to life.

As I watch, I see an inspirational activist and change maker. And I see a meta-lesson. I see the potential and possibility of dozens and dozens (thousands?!) of student learners giving just such a talk to showcase and share the work that they are engaged in — as their school work — to make a difference in their project(s) of passion and curiosity as engaged citizen leadership.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have watched a TED or TEDx talk everyday since May 11, 2011. Maybe it’s rewired my brain somehow. Because I see in my mind’s eye a virtual rolodex of project stories — to spark, to inspire, to model storytelling, to demonstrate the integrated and connected nature of real-world learning.

Imagine schools across the world where student learners are giving such updates on their project work. What if they joined the rolodex of examples?

Imagine. Make happen. What are the possibilities?


I am thinking of 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 second prototype. I’d love to know what you think.

Project Idea #1: Establish a true, three-part government in school. Live the democracy.

Project Idea #1: Establish a true three-part government in school. Live the democracy.

How serious are we – U.S. schools and educators – about educating citizens for our American democracy?

How many of our schools allow for, or even promote, student governments that model and mirror the three-part system of our governmental system?

Imagine a high school that elected two senators for each grade level. Imagine that high school electing representatives for each grade level, based on population of the grade level. Or perhaps advisories or homerooms could provide for the “state” structure to mimic.

What if there were a true judiciary of the student body, elected and appointed just in the same mechanisms as our U.S., state, and municipal judiciaries? 

What if there were a true executive branch of the student government, elected and empowered in the same manner and mechanism as our President, governors, and mayors?

Imagine that such a system started in elementary school, progressed through middle school, and culminated in high school. 

Over the years, how might our democratic citizenship be “practiced” in the ways of leading and participating in our civic structure and responsibilities?

Imagine a student or group of students who became so passionate about such an idea that they made it happen. Image if they lived the lessons they are being taught in U.S. History and Government classes. 

What system of government are students actually practicing in school? Is it a representative democracy? Is it a relative dictatorship? I wonder what that’s teaching them over 13 years. 

What if they lived and practiced the system that we want them to take responsibility for? What if we operated school in the ways that would more authentically educate a citizen of our democracy?

Imagine. Make happen. What are the possibilities?


I am thinking of 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 first prototype. I’d love to know what you think.

The driver and the passengers. Is school driver’s ed or passenger’s ed?

When traveling in a car, who tends to learn the routes better? The driver or the passengers? Who better internalizes the paths and roads and mental maps of the journey?

It’s an interesting metaphor for schools, isn’t it? If we say we want children to be and become deep learners who internalize the cognitive and social skills and knowledge to direct their own paths and journeys later, then how much are we willing to commit to letting them be the drivers more often?

While it’s certainly not always the case, I’ve found that subject-area organization of school – the traditional math, then English, then science classes for a little less than an hour each – tend to be driven by the teachers, and the student-learners are more the passengers.

If you want to test that assumption, then ask a K-12 student to describe to you what they will be doing and studying during an upcoming day or week of school. Then ask them who decided on that plan – that route.

Yet, in project-point-of-origin settings, where the learners launch projects based on their curiosities, interests, wonderings, and passions, the students tend to be in the drivers’ seats, and the teachers can become more like navigational passengers (not backseat drivers!) on the journey.

Who are you letting drive the learning? What’s your school’s balance among time for the teachers to drive and time for the students to drive? Whom do you say you want to engage in deep, powerful learning?

So, I can’t help but ask: Do we want school to be more like “Driver’s Ed” or “Passenger’s Ed?”

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Inspired by Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Adele Diamond.

Related posts on It’s About Learningsearch category: “Curiosity”