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

Synergy – Questions are the waypoints on the path of wisdom #MICON12

On Thursday, June 14, Bo Adams and Jill Gough are facilitating a double-session at The Martin Institute’s 2012 Conference (#MICON12 on Twitter). Below, conference participants and blog readers alike can find an outline of our session (at least as we intend it before we start!), complete with links to the resources we plan to use.

Synergy – Questions are the waypoints on the path of wisdom (Framework Plans) [100 minutes]

  1. Marshmallow Challenge [18 minutes + setup + debrief = 30 minutes]
  2. Synergy 8 Preso + Showcase Project Products/Q&A [15 minutes + 15 minutes = 30 minutes]
  3. Reading from The Falconer re: Questions [5 minutes]
  4. Gamestorm to share about others’ experiences/practices with PBL (see “Post-Up”) + Gamestorm to generate future ideas for PBL (see “Storyboard”) [30 minutes]
  5. Wrap-Up + Goodie Bag[5 minutes]
    1. “7 Essentials for Project-Based Learning” article + “4 A’s” protocol
    2. Peak Learning Experience Exercise – “Think about your own life and the times when you were really learning, so much and so deeply, that you would call these the ‘peak learning experiences’ of your life. Tell a story (you may include pictures, symbols, or other icons, too) about this peak learning experience, and respond to the question, ‘What were the conditions that made your high-level experience so powerful and engaging?'(adapted from 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, Trilling and Fadel, 2009). Jill and Bo often use this prompt as a pre-writing exercise in order to connect people with the project-based nature of our most enduring learnings throughout life.
    3. Synergy2Learn (resource on PBL)
    4. Synergy 8 Logo, Essential Learnings, and Learning Targets (via Scribd) [also embedded below]

Title of the Conversation
Synergy – Questions are the waypoints on the path of wisdom

Conversational Focus/Audience
High School
Middle School
Upper Elementary School

Short Description
Like a tribe around the fire, let’s discuss how we implement PBL as an entire course or as an input to a class. The conversation starters will describe Synergy – an 8th grade community-issues course. Then, through story exchange, we will share a variety of PBL ideas and implementation methods.

Extended Description
In Westminster’s 8th grade, we are experiencing year two of a new course called “Synergy 8.” Synergy is a non-departmentalized, transdisciplinary, non-graded, community-issues, problem-solving course. While we begin with an “alpha project” to practice project process, we use the “Falconer” method to empower student questioning and curiosity. From the student questions, the entire team generates the projects on which learners of all ages ultimately work.

Our conversational focus will be PBL (project-based learning, problem-based learning, passion-based learning, place-based learning, etc.). We intend to generate ideas from an exchange of current practices and possibilities. We hope to move beyond mere conversation and bridge into collaboration by building for the future more student-learner generated PBL…perhaps even “big, hairy audacious” PBL that unites our various schools and increases the mass of folks working on the problems which define our world.

For more detailed stimulus about “Synergy” and “PBL,” see categories and tags on Bo’s and Jill’s blogs: It’s About Learning (Bo’s blog) and Experiments in Learning by Doing (Jill’s blog).

[Cross-posted at Experiments in Learning by Doing]

Synergy2Learn, #EduCon 2.4, #Synergy8 – Questions are the way points on the path of wisdom

How are you engaging learners in community-issues problem solving? Is your school contemplating and implementing more project-based learning? Do you find it challenging to dig into high-quality PBL? Do you wish you could share stories (like around a campfire) about how to utilize real-world issues to guide instruction, curriculum, pedagogy, and learning? Wish you were elbow-to-elbow with a tribe engaged in a project about PBL?!

On Saturday, January 28, Jill Gough and Bo Adams will be facilitating a conversation at EduCon 2.4: “Synergy – Questions are the way points on the path of wisdom.” We hope you can join the conversation. We plan to 1) share our stories about Synergy 8, 2) elicit others’ stories about how they engage in deep-level PBL at their schools, and 3) ask and respond to a big “What if…” question – What if we built a network of people who were taking on the challenges of community-issues problem solving with adult learners and student learners alike?

We might even start a blog to help connect us all…Synergy2Learn. Let’s build something together…It’s About Learning and Experiments in Learning by Doing!

“This is so next level!” Video Team-Teaching in #Synergy

Twenty-four, eighth-grade synergists are working in six discreet groups – their projects originated from the data-mining of over 300 observation-journal blog posts that they collected. The projects are:

  1. Graffiti (is it art, vandalism, both? how can we use it for good?)
  2. Nancy Creek (what can we know and understand about the creek that runs through our campus?)
  3. Crusade for Cleanliness (how could organizational-flow changes enhance the stewardship in our dining hall?)
  4. Obesity (how can we improve the alarming issue of obesity in American youth?)
  5. Sleep (what impact on school do our sleep habits create?)
  6. Habitat for Humanity Spring Fling (how could a school fair raise money and awareness for homelessness?)

Because Jill Gough, one of the two Synergy facilitator-coaches, was presenting at the Learning Forward Annual Conference on Monday, Dec. 5, she was in Anaheim, CA. The other facilitator-coach, Bo Adams, was in Atlanta, GA. Having grown accustomed to and convinced of the viability of team-teaching in such a project-based course, Bo and Jill felt some anxiety about having only one facilitator present to serve best the six groups during this critical phase of their project development.

[In your mind’s ear, cue that quintessential cartoon superhero intro theme.] Never fear…video conferencing is here!

As we think about preparing students for a work world that will most likely include significant use of such tools as iChat, Facetime, Skype, and other video “conferencers,” then it seems natural to practice such work processes. Perhaps students already use such tools socially, but school could help coach the use of such tools for more formal, business-like purposes. Additionally, we should all be thinking more about how we can invite various co-teachers into our classrooms – to break down the walls that seem to preserve the arcane model of one adult per group of classroom students. Practice leads to enhanced proficiency. On Monday, Dec. 5, Synergy engaged in some additional practice of tearing down those 20th century classroom walls. Who knows who else we might next invite to teach with us…from the exterior of our learning space’s four physical walls.

As one student-learner can be heard exclaiming in the video: “This is so next level!”

[This post is cross-published at Experiments in Learning by Doing.]

Connecting Ideas – Action, Traction, Reaction

In Synergy, a non-departmentalized, non-graded, transdisciplinary, community-issues-problem-solving course, we use blogging as a means to communicate and collaborate on ideas as well as to reflect and to revise thinking.

Currently we offer our learners an Action-Traction-Reaction prompt to spur their thinking, reflection, and writing.

One of our learners offers this reflection that connects his thinking about his team’s project with the ideas from Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize Wish:

Relating Jamie Oliver’s Prize Wish to my Project

Posted on November 17, 2011

Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef, wished to educate every child about food as a use of his TED prize. I’ve known about his fight against obesity and eating right since learning about his TV show in 6th grade, so this wish makes sense to me. He’s creating a

Strong, sustainable movement

to educate every child about food.

The core of this action is to create a movement. This core action could be applied to my project, because in my project we are trying to get people to clean up after themselves, and stop cutting in line. Both of those problems are just bad examples that people have seen and copied. Creating a movement would create new standards in the community for cleanliness in the lunchroom, and could reverse the bad examples in place there.

For Jamie’s wish, he wants to create an online community and also a movement. He said

The grassroots movement must also challenge corporate America to support meaningful programs that will change the culture of junk food.

I didn’t know what a grassroots movement is, so I looked it up. I came up with this. “A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.”

For Jamie’s project, he is relying on creating a following, that would create the foundation for his project and help spread the message. But he also would like to create traveling kitchens and a traveling food theater to make his project entertaining and interactive. From my perspective, the traction for this project is based on two components: people and interaction. This is a good formula for other projects who are looking to gain traction in a community. You draw the people in with interaction, and then rely on them to feel passionate and spread the word.

In the comment section of the article, many people were eager to partner with Jamie’s project to support and help organize his ideas. I think that the biggest way to attract reaction like this, is to be backed by TED! But the other large factor is that he’s addressing a large problem and is presenting a sound project plan. Creating this plan is an easy thing to do in Synergy to make sure our projects look attractive in the eyes of the administrators inside and outside of Westminster. If our projects only look half-baked, they won’t attract support.

“Grassroots.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

[Permission to post obtained from student and student’s parent.]

Do we write to read and learn what we are thinking?  Do we prototype, seek feedback, and revise?  How do we connect our thinking to the ideas of others?

Shouldn’t we practice?

[Cross-posted at Experiments in Learning by Doing]