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


Paper or plastic? Work that blurs the lines between school and real life. #Synergy #iDiploma

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

This question lives at the heart of my research for the past decade. This question largely drives my work.

Many people ask me, “So, Bo, what do you mean by ‘real life?'”

Well, one aspect of blurring the lines between school and real life involves reimagining the kind of work that students engage in during their school experience. What if more of the student work had real-life application? What if more of the student work were aimed at targets well beyond the grade-book columns and end-of-year locker clean outs?

For example, what about the question, “Paper or plastic?” You know – at the grocery store. How should we respond to that question at the conveyor-belted check-out counter? (If, of course, we don’t bring our own reusable bags.)

From that question, a group of student designers and solution seekers might find themselves on a path leading to the investigation of the refrigerator and the crisper drawer.

“What?!” You might ask. What if student-learners actually worked on product design for such things as refrigerators, water boilers, etc.? What if students really knew the best answers to “Paper or plastic?”

Watch this TED talk from Leyla Acaroglu, and you might just see what I’m talking about – what I dream about…

Student-learners engaging in real-life work that goes well beyond a grade in a grade book and provides the weave-work and relevancy hooks that integrate and amplify the core purposes of our school-segregated subject areas. Work that recognizes and respects the systems of which our products and our persons are all parts of the whole…


Innovation Diploma @MVPSchool

PROCESS POST: Observation Journals, Bus Stops, Daring to Fly High #TDed

“Taking issues and situations and problems and going to root components; understanding how the problem evolved – looking at it from a systemic perspective and not accepting things at face value.

It also means being curious about why things are the way they are and being able to think about why something is important.”

Annmarie Neal’s definition of “critical thinking,” as reported in Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap, p. 16. Neal is VP Talent Management at Cisco Systems.

Training to Be an Innovator

In working to be a student of innovation, I have come to believe that I must practice the five skills of disruptive innovators, as defined by Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen in The Innovator’s DNA: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking, and associating. (Of course, these traits mirror the phases and stages typically described in “design thinking,” too.) For me, this practice takes several different forms. As just one example, keeping an observation journal has proven to be a transformative exercise that continues to develop fascinating habits-of-mind muscle. Just like a person purposefully training in running or cycling develops fitness and musculature, by purposefully training in observation and questioning, as well as in the other skills, I know I am developing fitness and musculature as an innovator and design thinker.

Such observation journaling and innovation training, I believe, exist as critical foundations and pillaring for faculties and students who are serious about developing the Seven Survival Skills that Wagner details in The Global Achievement Gap:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

An Example from the Field

Thanks to my training, I walk through my surroundings and communities differently now. My senses are sharper and I am more intentional about my awareness.

Not long ago, on one of my morning walks with Lucy (my pointer-hound mix), I was stopped in my tracks by these signs:

2013-06-29 07.19.58

Along this railroad-tie wall, there are several of these signs. The wall is located on Howell Mill Road, near the I-75 ramp at Northside and W. Paces, in Atlanta, GA. The wall is immediately adjacent to a MARTA bus stop:

2013-06-29 07.20.25

As has become my practice, I act on my curiosity in such situations by 1) snapping a picture or two with my phone, 2) sending the images to an email composer, 3) recording a few questions or ideas, and 4) sending the email to be uploaded to a blog I keep for observation journaling.

What was/am I curious about?

  • Why don’t “they” want people to sit on this wall?
  • Are the bus-stop users sitting on the wall because they are tired, wanting to take a break, etc.?
  • Has the wall failed or fallen because of previous sitters? Did the place of business behind the wall have to spend money to replace a wall in the past?
  • What are the bus-stop users supposed to do… where might they sit?
  • What’s it like to have to use Atlanta’s public transportation, for those that might not have a car, for convenience, like I have?
  • Would I want to sit down – even on that wall – if I rode a MARTA bus every day?
  • What happens when it rains? When it’s bloody hot!? When it’s freezing cold.
  • What other solutions to the problem could be tried? Have any others been tried?
  • What did that wall and those signs cost? What would a wall with integrated seats and head cover cost? Would adding benches be that much to spend?

And I could just go on and on.

It’s only fair for me to divulge that I have been significantly influenced by the 2012-13 First Graders at my school – Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. While I don’t know any of last year’s First Graders, I do practice networking and associating, too, and I followed the blog of the iDesign Lab at MVPS. Last year, before I joined MVPS and MVIFI (Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation), the First Graders took on a design challenge related to the bus stops in Sandy Springs. There are numerous posts demonstrating the D.E.E.P. method of design thinking (Discover, Empathize, Experiment, Produce) – here’s just one showing some of the prototypes after spending quite a bit of time in the discovery and empathizing modes, and after creating Point-Of-View statements and HMW (How Might We…) declarations.

So, if I were as smart as an MVPS First Grader, supported by my teacher and @SciTechyEDU, then I might spend more time at that bus stop, near those signs, and interview some of the people who are regularly there. I might ask for an interview with a MARTA official, one of the people that manages the business behind that wall, etc. Then, I might develop some POVs and HMWs. All of this involves a great deal of in-context, relevant communication, critical thinking, etc. (some of the essential Cs of 21st C or Modern or Timeless learning, depending on which “label camp” you belong to for these essential skills and habits of mind).

Next, I might begin prototyping various solutions based on my insights gathered during my discovery and empathizing. I imagine lots of creativity here as I build and experiment. I could return to the MARTA office, business, bus-stop site and get feedback on my designs. I imagine I would have used quite a bit of mathematics, physics, sociology, etc. during this experimenting and prototyping stage. Perhaps even some history, economics, engineering, foreign language. More communication skills, too. All very STEM, STEAM, and STREAM, if you ask me.

Of course, in “regular school” these subjects would be more siloed than they are in the experience I am describing. Like dinner plates of different colors, they would occupy their distinct places on the table. However, in my field-study example here, the plates have been smashed and the colored shards have been re-organized and glued as a different-kind-of-beautiful mosaic. Same number of total-size pieces (theoretically) as existed when they were whole plates of one color, but now they are mosaically bonded with pieces of various colors. Same amount of total school time might be involved, regardless of whether we scheduled by departments or in an integrated manner, but the time would be more mosaically organized with the integrated approach. My engagement and motivation in this kind of mosaic, difference-making environment might also help me to remain captivated, involved and experiencing Csikszentmihalyi flow for longer than just 45-55 minutes. Of course, different days of the week might be organized differently, depending on what our needs and purposes were as we undertook such challenges as curriculum.

Finally, after presenting my project results and solution to a board of experts, so to speak, I might partner with MARTA or the business or the bus-stop regulars or the surrounding community to realize the solution we developed together. Great opportunities for collaboration, creative expression, leading by influence, entrepreneurialism, etc.

Feeling pretty motivated and invested by now, I might be at a different level of understanding and wisdom about citizenship, civic engagement, and difference-making.

Another Interesting Thought (To Me)

Within a 2-mile radius of this bus-stop-railroad-tie-wall-shouting-signage location, there are about seven schools – some being independent/private and some being public. Meaning that it would not be that challenging to think of a “curriculum,” or “unit,” or “lesson,” or “experience” that could involve student and adult learners engaging in similar design-thinking, project-based, and innovation-training exercises. I am NOT meaning to sound critical of these schools in any way. Some of them, perhaps all of them, are already practicing such mosaic learning and community engagement to develop the Cs and the Seven Survival Skills. My point is that schools have possibilities – infinite possibilities – for such exercises and engagement in their immediate and close-by surrounds. Perhaps the most underutilized learning spaces for schools are our own campuses and immediately surrounding communities.

A Final Note

Rigor (I prefer Vigor – see Amy Purcell Vorenberg’s article in Independent School, “School Matters: Rigor vs. Vigor”, Spring 2008) may not equate to volume of material covered or pace of coverage. Rigor (Vigor) may equate to real-world context that challenges student learners to approach real issues in more integrated, holistic ways and seek solutions to problems that don’t just have one answer or an easily identified one. What’s more, the desire to make a difference and the efficacy to know that one can make a difference are such strong motivators that I have seen countless people – young and old – choose to put themselves into unbelievably rigorous (vigorous) situations because they care and they feel a certain locus of control.

The bus-stop example above is just that – one example. There are countless others. You could/will think of many that would appeal to you more. For me, though, this example lives at an intersection of real-life practices – my training in innovation and design through observation journaling AND the capacities of First Graders (who could have been 5th graders or 11 graders or no graders) to engage in real-life problem solving with their community.

How are you being a student of innovation? How are you engineering practices and creating opportunities for your colleagues and students to develop and grow in the Cs and Seven Survival Skills?

If we are not intentional, it just won’t happen. We need to shift culture.

“The question, as we move from an industrial economy that cherishes compliance to a connected economy that prizes achievement, is this: Are we supporting this shift with a culture that encourages us to dream important dreams? What do we challenge our achievers to do? When do we encourage or demand that they move from standardized tests and Dummies guides to work that actually matters?”

Seth Godin, “The Achieving Society,” The Icarus Deception, p. 22.