What if form followed function in school? Inspired by David Epstein #TED talk

On May 11, 2014, I will (quietly) celebrate a third anniversary. That day will mark the moment that I have spent exactly three years watching a TED talk every day.

Being an educator, as I watch TED talks, I think about how they might “fit” into school. I sometimes imagine the speaker as a student in a typical high school, and I wonder what courses and subjects his or her talk would align with.

And often that exercise bothers me. It bothers me because I imagine a speaker like David Epstein prepping and preparing his “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?” talk embedded below. I wonder…. Would David be doing this “project” in math class? In science class? In history class? In English class as a persuasive speech assignment? Maybe in some technology course? Would he be so lucky as to have teachers who would allow a single project to “count” for all of his courses? After all, the project integrates a number of disciplines that we subdivide and separate in school.

And that entire imagining bothers me because of the ridiculousness of having to think this way. Why do we continue to remain so wed to the unnatural subdivision of the “school subjects?”

What if at least part of David’s school day allowed for him to pursue the project of his dreams and interests and the subject-area lenses were more like threads in a tapestry that David is weaving?

And what if that deep project identification and discernment had developed partly because of more innovative “homework” that encouraged and made room for David to explore his developing passions and curiosities?

And what if the subject areas in his school behaved a bit more like “subjects on demand” and recitations in which David could schedule time with a relative expert to spend some concentrated time digging into the statistics or biology specificity that he needed for his emerging understanding?

And what if his assessments were more akin to badges and endorsements showcasing the disciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary knowledge, skills, and understandings that David was building?

And what if David were at the center of his own progress reporting and learning conferences?

Then school would look different. Because form follows function.

Enjoy the talk. It’s amazing.

Shark Tank at MVPSchool – 5th Graders Break Into Business

Last week, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School hosted a Shark Tank for entrepreneurs who were striving to establish startups in a particular target market in Atlanta.

The lean-startup entrepreneurs are 5th Graders!

Thanks to the work that Stephanie Immel (@teachingsteph) coordinated and collaborated with Monica Lage from Break Into Business! And kudos to our young entrepreneurs! What amazing experience in real-world context and application of knowledge and skills.

Read two great stories from the News Page at MVPS and on John Saddington’s blog. And see the Shark Tank judging criteria below…

#MVimpact Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Transdisciplinary Capstone Projects Expo


From a letter to parents from Tyler Thigpen, Head of Upper School at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School:

Dear Upper School Family,

When a representative from Dartmouth College was on our campus Monday, an Upper School student astutely asked, “Beyond test scores and GPA, what can set me apart as a candidate to your school?” The representative responded simply, “That you make an impact.”

Speaking on behalf of the Upper School faculty and staff, we could not be prouder of your students who have done just that – i.e., “made a dent” – over the course of this year. Led by mentors, Upper School students, via their Transdisciplinary Capstone Project work, have collaborated, empathized with others, failed fast to iterate, actively used knowledge, and ultimately engaged real world issues as compelling contexts for learning. Tomorrow’s EXPO is both a showcase and also celebration of the impact students have made. And you are invited to drop in anytime between 9:15 a.m.-10:45 a.m. to see and celebrate the wins.

To highlight just one such project, I invite you to visit Wedding Wells, an emerging nonprofit, led by seniors Shelby Garde, Addie Goins, and Judge Jones, and juniors Gareth Tremege and Hannah Zenas, that aims to link the love of selfless American couples bound to be wed with underprivileged men, women, and children in dire need of safe drinking water.

If you are unable to visit the EXPO in person, you can follow the action on twitter via the hash tag #MVimpact.

Storify archive of #MVimpact.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

* With enormous gratitude and genuine awe for the @MVPSchool Project Managers (Kristyn Anderson, TJ Edwards, James Campbell, and Zach Strother), the #MVUpper Faculty extraordinaire, and, especially, the student innovators, collaborators, creative thinkers, communicators, solution seekers, and ethical decision makers. YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE!

= = = = =

Real-World Impact: Guest Post @TylerThigpen #MVPSchool #MVIFI #MVImpact, January 16, 2014

“The tyranny of the curriculum” #TEDx @ThinkThankThunk

An extraordinary 17 minutes about the intersections of 1) our personal interests and passions, 2) the “interdisciplinarity” of life, and 3) the world as external audience looking for an improved world.

Well…no, that’s not exactly right. It’s really about widening and deepening the options of school so that “school” is more well aligned with what life beyond school demands of us and the leaders we need.

And Shawn wonderfully wants it to be ordinary. Not “extraordinary.”


HT @occam98 (THANK YOU!)

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

DoSomething.org 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. DoSomething.org 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 DoSomething.org 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