Guns and butter, production possibilities frontiers, and students doing real-life work #WhatIfWeekly

I believe the most underutilized resource in our nation is our young people in schools. As an economics major in college, and as a long-time teacher of 8th graders enrolled in economics, I studied “production possibilities frontiers.” You may remember them as “guns and butter” graphs, if you’ve studied any introductory econ.

Perhaps the school application is “20th century learners” and “21st century learners,” instead of guns and butter. Regardless, to work below the frontier is to underutilize resources – to waste available capacity. I believe we are wasting a good bit of the capacity of our student learners.

I believe students are perfectly capable and willing and eager to work on real-world issues. I love finding examples of such work, partly because I think it’s like the Bannister 4-minute mile. Once we know it’s possible, more people will do it! If you read here regularly, you’ll likely remember previous examples that I have highlighted about students doing real-life work. Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School. Geoff Mulgan’s Studio Schools. Brittany Wenger. There are many examples.

Recently, I’ve discovered a few more examples of students doing work that goes beyond just handing it in to a teacher for grading and “recycling.” They’re doing work for a larger scope. For a bigger cause.

  1. Adobe has created The Adobe Educators’ Choice Awards: Honoring the work of innovative educators. The finalists in the primary and secondary-school categories are fabulous. Tagature and the study of graffiti tags combined with classics literature…turned into a book that you can acquire. A partnership among students and Powerhouse Factories to create gig posters for the band Belle Histoire. The Digital Voices project for understanding cultures (see the actual class website here). The work does not stop with the teacher and the classroom walls. The work extends well into the real world.
  2. Recently, TED released “Beau Lotto + Amy O’Toole: Science is for everyone, kids included.” The story they share is about 10 year olds who become the youngest people ever to publish a peer-reviewded science paper. As the talk begins, Lotto shares that “perception is grounded in our experience… Now if perception is grounded in our history, it means we’re only ever responding according to what we’ve done before. But actually, it’s a tremendous problem, because how can we ever see differently?” We must see “students” differently. They CAN work on real-world challenges. They WANT to work on real-world challenges. They SHOULD be working on real-world challenges. We adults are too often the greatest limitations to helping them reach their production possibilities frontier…exceed it even! What if more of us inspired and enabled such work and play for our students?!

Networks, Peer Progressives, School 3.0, and Future Perfect #IDreamASchool #School3pt0

Imagine a web of collaboration.

A growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that govern the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems.

The world is full of problems that can be solved with peer networks.

– from Steven Johnson’s video on Future Perfect


School 3.0 is likely to look more like the peer networks that Steven Johnson describes in his video summary of his book Future Perfect. By even using the word “school,” however, I imagine that I have unintentionally conjured up old movies in certain readers’ minds. But when I say “school,” I actually mean something newly designed and significantly different.

  • School 3.0 has “students” working on a curriculum composed of, or at least more balanced toward, real-world challenges and problem-finding-problem-solving.
  • School 3.0 creates partnerships among 1) student-learners and faculty-facilitators, 2) businesses, and 3) non-profit, social-innovation organizations and NGOs, and potentially 4) governments. In fact, this could be the “peer network” of the future…the future that I believe Johnson is describing. By linking, yoking, and amassing such networks, we could achieve the social equivalent of Newton’s F=ma.
  • School 3.0 utilizes peer networking to amplify the group-smart of the “school,” newly defined with a broader understanding, and it flattens the industrial-age hierarchies and silos that tend to separate context and power.


Many thanks to Jonathan Martin for reviewing Steven Johnson’s book Future Perfect. I have not yet read the book, but thanks to my network of co-learners and co-leaders, I have been linked to the possibilities exposed by my peer progressives.

Related posts on It’s About Learning:



College and university aspirations as a piece of pedagogical master planning

Reviewing the Duke Forward website, home base for Duke’s $3.25 billion capital campaign, I was most struck by two statements:

But we cannot be satisfied with methods of teaching, or learning, that were born out of different needs and different realities. In a world where technology is reshaping the very definitions of communication, education, and knowledge, universities must adapt, preserving the best of our traditions but also transform­ing inherited approaches to education and research to meet today’s challenges.

The university of the future will be defined as much by collaboration as it is by individual accomplishment, and as much by the opportunity to engage with problems as it is by the accumulation of knowledge.Deeply con­structive partnerships across areas of expertise, between researchers and practitioners, and among students and faculty of diverse perspectives must be the norm rather than the exception.

In such an environment, the walls are low and the aspirations high, the solutions nimble and the breakthroughs profound. (emphasis added)

– from President Brodhead’s Overview


Through the campaign, we’re seeking support to strengthen curricular and co-curricular programs that give students throughout Duke’s 10 schools the opportunity to develop their talents by solving real problems. (emphasis added)

– from Boundaries Not Included page

If schools declare that we work to prepare students for college and for life, then how are we studying and implementing such innovations ourselves? How are we lowering walls, crossing borders and boundaries of subject and expertise, and engaging real-life problems?

What if a content-centric curriculum and silo-ed departments and walled philosophies disadvantage student and faculty learners for the future at our doorsteps?

[Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Blue Devil, undergraduate class of 1993. Duke was the only undergraduate school to which I applied because it was the only place I wanted to go since I was 7 years old. Go Duke!

Of course, I would love to see Duke’s “pedagogical master plan” for all of this – those plans with the equivalent, intricate detail of analogous architectural plans and engineering schema.]

Making reality a school. #IDreamASchool

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

This is the primary question that has kept me research-busy for the past seven to ten years, at varying degrees. Of course, there are countless corollaries that spur me to sidebar explorations, integrated component searches and implementations, and related co-primary investigations. For example, during my middle-school principalship, I concentrated significant efforts to studying and orchestrating professional learning communities (PLCs) as a foundational structure and ethos for the way we worked. If the world at large is moving to more collaborative ways of working, then our educator workforce should operate in such paradigms and methods, too. (Of course, 25-years of research from public schools helped enormously!) By becoming a more formalized professional learning community, we blurred some of the lines between “school” and “real life,” and we enhanced the ways in which we worked as team problem solvers and educational designers – for the benefit of ourselves and our students. What’s more, we were able to empathize more genuinely about what we were asking students to do when we asked them to collaborate.

One of the most important and critical co-primary investigations in which I continue to search is How might we transform school to look more like real life?

As schools explore sustaining (tier 1 and tier 2) and disruptive (tier 3) innovations, one strong way to transform schools into more life-like analogues is to reconsider the traditional departmental structure. Typically, schools sub-divide into departments called “Math,” “Science,” “History,” “English,” etc. Curriculum tends to be categorized by these departments and divisions – by subject-area or topic. Often times, silos develop…sometimes intentionally, but more understandably in unintentional ways.

But what if we re-imagined curriculum to be more about the issues and challenges that we face? What if we had departments like…

  • the Department of Energy
  • the Department of Justice and Equity
  • the Department of Education
  • the Department of Health and Human Services
  • the Department of Environmental Sustainability

Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education

Through project-based and problem-based learning, students in K-12 education could engage genuine issues, concerns, opportunities and possibilities. Whereas the traditional departments – math, science, history, English, etc. – have been used to segregate the disciplines, with a newly devised departmental structure, the traditional subject areas would continue in importance and vitality, but they would do so as lenses co-ground into the same optic glass.

Imagine a Department of Energy in school. Student learners could explore and work in the fields of energy research and investigation, and they could employ mathematics and statistics as lenses through which to understand energy – math in context. They could hypothesize and experiment as genuine scientists working to discover the emerging, integrated sectors of biofuels, solar energies, and other non-fossil-dependent sources – science in context. They could research through lenses of historian, anthropologist, and sociologist, and they could write persuasive and expository pieces – humanities in context. They could examine the economics and psychology of energy consumption – interdisciplinary human studies in context. Design and visual prototyping could play an integrated role – industrial arts in context.

Context should inform content and cognition. And student learners deserve to gain practice with “the app for that.” We know that athletics require much practice, but the athletes regularly have opportunity to apply their skills and development to “real-life” settings called games. We know that musicians require much practice, but the instrumentalists regularly have opportunity to apply their skills and development to “real-life” concerts and performances. When do student-learners regularly have opportunity to apply their content learning and skill development? A test is not a game or concert. An essay for a teacher is not a game or concert. Contributing to a blog about experimental energy sources is more like playing in a game or concert. Designing alternative-fuel engines is more like playing a game or concert. Partnering with local businesses, NGOs, universities, and other co-creators of our energy future – such experience most certainly is comparable to playing in the games or concerts of real life. Surely, we don’t really believe that students should wait for application until they are finished with formal schooling. Surely, we can devise better responses to the age-old question, “When will I ever use this?” Student-learners could be using their imaginative, developing understanding now.

Compassion should also inform content and cognition. The world needs problem finders and solutions makers. Todays students care more deeply about the world than I think my generation cared when we were in elementary, middle, and high school. By engaging student-learners in real-life, problem-based work, we could essentially connect the millions of students like batteries in a series to light the solutions to some of our greatest challenges in society. Business and non-profit could become involved in more integrated ways with education so that a symbiosis of efforts would build self-reinforcing and sustaining capacities – innovators guiding future innovators for for a more dynamic and productive future.

I am not just theorizing and hypothesizing. The type of real-life schooling described above is already happening in many places. Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School comes to mind. Bob Dillon’s Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School comes to mind. Project H Design comes to mind. Whitfield County Schools comes to mind. Geoff Mulgan’s Studio Schools come to mind. Projects at High Tech High and Partnerships at Science Leadership Academy come to mind. Even in my own personal experience, I co-piloted Synergy 8, a non-departmentalized, community-issues, problem-solving course for 8th graders. One group of four boys organized a job fair for residents of English Avenue and played a major role in helping people secure jobs. Other programs at Westminster, like the Summer Economics Institute, Philanthropy 101, Dr. Small’s Research course, and the Junior High Leadership Experience Advisory Program come to mind.


And just this week, I heard Brittany Wenger share in her TEDxAtlanta talk about her experience creating an artificial intelligence app to help more accurately diagnosis breast cancer. However, she did reveal that only about 10% of the project was supported as actual school work. The kind of work and contribution that Brittany Wenger is making could BE school.

Business leaders understand the inter-related, interdisciplinary nature of real-world problems and issues. Consider Michael Moreland’s explication on his SEEDR website:

No single discipline or sector can drive meaningful progress alone. To meet the most intractable challenges, we built SEEDR as a vehicle for next-level collaboration, building bridges among industry, philanthropy, government, and academia worldwide. We value wild multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral work and if you share our passion for global development and thirst for learning the languages of technologies, causes, and cultures, we want to work with you.


Does our world possess high-quality activists and efforts geared toward making the world a better place? Absolutely! Do these people come from our existing schools and educational institutions? Of course. However, I believe there is a realization gap. The type of interdisciplinary and cross-sector work that Moreland espouses above could be significantly enhanced with innovative thinking and implementation to transform schools into more “real-life” organizations. We could realize an amplification and acceleration of problem solving by activating our schools as more contributory blends of practitioner-based learning labs. With the proper attention to pedagogical and instructional master planning, I can imagine many scenarios in which content knowledge and cognitive accountability would only be enhanced. In other words, I challenge the typical rebuttal that students would loose content-knowledge attainment chances by working in the ways suggested above. Numerous researchers and practitioners are finding otherwise…especially as they focus more on what is learned and retained, instead of what is delivered and taught.

To summarize several of the points discussed earlier, and to introduce a few not detailed above, I believe that a number of advantages could come from re-organizing school departments in such ways that make school more like real life:

  • Student engagement would improve, as school studies became more relevant and contextual. Attendance issues could improve. In the current state of testing, assessment performance could rise, as shown by people such as Kiran Bir Sethi.
  • Testing could be re-balanced, even replaced in cases, with performance-based assessments that are more realistic and aligned with those performance assessments encountered in the “real world.”
  • The 21st century skills, particularly the 7 Cs, would be more purposefully and realistically integrated into the school day. The practice would better match the games and concerts.
  • Curriculum would move to curricula vitae – “the course of life” – as learning goals and objectives aligned more authentically with the challenges facing our societies and world.
  • For-profit business, government, and non-profit organizations – spokes of a wheel, in some ways – could be connected through the hub of education. Innovation could breed innovation as social entrepreneurship and education became more intertwined and interrelated.
  • Students could experience more giving and contribution as an eventual norm in schools, instead of school being so focused on what students get during their school years. Yet, students would also gain tremendously as they experienced more of a powerful mixture of cognition and affective domains.
  • The issues we face as a human race could be addressed in a solutions-based manner with amplified and accelerated attention from and with schools…schools working more in partnership than in precedents with real-world problem solvers.

Of course, such a move to organization around Departments of Energy and Departments of Justice and Equality could strike fear and trepidation in school administration and faculty and parents. Transitions and transformations could occur in a number of ways. Schools could invest more in master planning. Schools could experiment with a mini-test of such a department with those teachers, students, and parents who were interested and willing. Or wholesale changes could be bravely attempted. In fact, many of our new-school startups are exploring just such re-imagining and re-organizing.

What are your thoughts? Where are the opportunities? Where are the challenges? Do you know of more examples, exemplars, failed prototypes, and not-yet-realized possibilities? How might we think together on such multi-tier innovation in schools and education? I would appreciate your idea, links, questions, and insights. It’s going to take many of us working together to make reality a school.

[This post was cross-published on Connected Principals and Inquire Within on 9.28.12]

A piece of “what:” map making, problem finding, messy searching

Rebecca Chapman, literary editor of a new online journal called The New Inquiry, was quoted in the New York Times. “My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”

The only surprising thing about this statement is that some consider it surprising.

Rebecca trained to be competent, excelling at completing the tasks set in front of her. She spent more than sixteen years at the top of the system, at the best schools, with the best resources, doing what she was told to do. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, no one is willing to pay her to do tasks. Without a defined agenda, it’s difficult for her to find the gig she was trained for.

[Then, later…] Education isn’t a problem until it serves as a buffer from the world and a refuge from the risk of failure.

(from section 35, pages 53-54, of Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams.” Read the entire section and manifesto here.)

In my jobs as teacher, school administrator, husband, father, educational innovator, etc., I am having to search and discover what needs to be addressed, celebrated, ceased and desisted, opened, studied, innovated, reiteratively prototyped, and enhanced. No one is digesting the messiness for me and handing me well-crafted assignments to complete. While I was in formal school, I think the tasks given to me and the work assigned to me taught me invaluable lessons that I would not trade for the world. I am eternally grateful to my school teachers. But my life has also been filled with the need to make maps, not just read them. I have found it essential that I find problems, not just solve the ones given me. I have needed to search through mess and muck to explore possibilities, connections, relationships, and opportunities. I don’t think I learned these things enough in my formal schooling. Why shouldn’t we incorporate more of this set of modalities into school? Why can’t we create and design more balance into the system of well-defined problems and ready-made assignments?

As the school year begins, are you…

  • Letting students wander in search of their own questions and curiosities, or just directing them to the ones you’ve already defined?
  • Designing space and time for map making, or just promoting and teaching map following?
  • Getting off to the side while students find problems that they think need solving, or just having them solve problems with answers that can be found in the back of a textbook?
  • Making room for students to explore what various real-life work feels like, smells like, tastes like, and sounds like…or just handing them the packages of industrial-age school?

[“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.]