Brain Food: Education @Unboundary #BrainFood

Like others, UNBOUNDARY sees education as one of the linchpin design challenges of our time. And like others, too, we’re drawn as if by a tractor beam to play a role.

That attraction, no doubt, is fueled by the parallels we see to our quarter century of helping some of the biggest and best-known enterprises in the world rethink and transform themselves.

We enter into this challenge with a declared bias: our belief that the transformation of education is interconnected to the transformations happening now in both corporations and the social innovation space…

This bias has shaped the structure and practices of Unboundary, which now has interdependent practice areas in corporate, social innovation, and education transformation.

We also enter this challenge offering Brain Food: a proven approach for shifting the din of idea-sharing into a useful design-thinking discussion.

Brain Food is curated provocation. It is both question and answer. It is both perspective and focus.

We welcome you to Volume One, Number One of Unboundary’s Education Brain Food. And we look forward to the discussion it opens among us.

Brain Food: Education, vol. 1, no. 1

In Atlanta – at Unboundary: @GrantLichtman #EdJourney, Week 9, Episode 10

This week, I enjoyed the gift of introducing my friend Grant Lichtman at Tuesday’s SAIS Lunch-n-Learn. He asked that I do so with the first three paragraphs of his introduction to The Falconer: What We Wished We Had Learned In School.

School prepares us to be successful. We aspire to be happy.
– Robert Landis, Falconer Class of 2001

We are not teaching our children, our students, and our co-workers what they really need to know. The lessons aren’t out there on some shelf or Web site. They won’t be found with more money and more programs to push more stuff in more different ways at our kids and our employees. It’s not about computer-to-student ratios, distance learning, high-speed links to the Library of Congress, or lecture podcasts. It’s not a pricey self-help guru claiming that his “new thing” is new, seven cookbook steps to success, or ten simple mileposts to make a million for your company.

Those tools help, but they are the dressing, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. We need to pay attention to the tree itself. Look at the people who invented computers, who designed the Internet, who overcame the Depression, who envisioned the best sellers, who challenged racism, who explored the ocean depths, who built the Panama Canal, who created the management-consulting firms that you hire to tell you how to run your business more efficiently. I want my children and my employees and my co-workers and my friends to exhibit qualities like invention, courage, creativity, insight, design, and vision a lot more than I want them to know the capitals of South America or the sequence of presidents and kings, fractions, computer science, art history, running a cash register, or throwing a football.

In short, I want us to spend more time teaching how to generate and recognize elegant solutions to the many problems facing our world.

School could – should – be more about generating and recognizing elegant solutions to the many problems facing our world. Content and skills could – should- be wrapped in contexts of citizenship, character, and caring. Not separate programs. Integrated programs. Systems programs.

What a pleasure it has been to help host Grant in Atlanta this week. After talking for almost two hours about the scope of educational transformation we envision at Unboundary, and after introducing Grant to the studio, we shot our weekly video interview – happily recorded not over Skype, but in the same room, sitting with each other.


Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney Atlanta posts, thus far…

Archive for the ‘Education Innovation Journey of Learning’ Category

System turbulence, needed green dye, innovating innovation, and #pedagogicalmasterplanning

Are you learning as fast as the world is changing? In this insightful HBR article, Bill Taylor wrote:

In a world that never stops changing, great leaders never stop learning.

Eddie Obeng made this passionately visual in his TED talk – “Smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Obeng provided a picture of injecting green dye into a pipe of faster and faster moving water until the turbulence created can actually be seen. Then, he graphed what happens when the pace of change outstrips the rate at which we learn.

What we call “schools” exist in this world of ever-quickening change. What “green dye” are you using in your school so that the pace and nature of change is more visible…more tangible and discernible?

When I was a school principal, a support I provided for nearly a decade, I thought the best green dye I could inject was providing time for faculty to be together – a meta-goal advocated for in Carrie Leana’s “The Missing Link in School Reform.” Together, we implemented and improved on a few practices:

  • Peer visits – we committed to at least two peer visits a year. Many practitioners, especially those who really strived to improve, made sure that they exceeded the minimum.
  • PLCs – learning from 25 years of research and practice in public schools, we built a system that created job-embedded R&D time for faculty. In the model we created, participating faculty spent four 55-minute periods a week together so that they could do things akin to what David Creelman described when writing about the architect Christopher Alexander as Eishen campus near Tokyo was designed and built. Just like Alexander employed a short-cycle, iterative-prototype mix of design-and-construction so that architecture could inform building and building could inform architecture, the PLCs together designed instruction and assessment, built the constructive lessons with student-learners, and debriefed how to improve the design for the next phase of building.

The infrastructure contained some additional parts and pieces, and this infrastructure facilitated learning at a rate and pace that more closely matches the rate and pace of change that we are experiencing in schools – from technology, globalization, and knowledge about the brain, just to name a few influencers.

My best work, which I did not do alone – I had tons of collaborative help, was simply to make it easier for faculty to work together. Individual learning remained important, too, of course, but the traditional silo-ing traits of school were broken down so that necessary and essential co-laboring and co-learning could occur more often than at sporadic lunches or happenstance encounters in the faculty lounge. The get-togethers were made intentional, purposeful, and systemic.

My next arc of learning and educational support finds me at Unboundary, a transformation design studio. As Polly LaBarre is calling in “Help Us Innovate the Innovation Process,” we are working to design and prototype something currently called “pedagogical master planning.” Essentially, we are deconstructing the campus-master-planning process, and we are re-imagining it as a metaphor or framework to architect and engineer a strategic-design method for systematizing and enhancing the core purpose and radial functions of a learning/teaching community. It’s a next generation of strategic planning. Like Christopher Alexander’s methods with Eishen, pedagogical master planning will involve a short-cycle, iterative-prototype, dynamic responsiveness. Like the PLC’s ethos and structure, pedagogical master planning will systematize the parts and pieces of the whole – not to make the system rigid or slow-moving in complexity, but to respect, leverage, and amplify the interrelated and integrated nature of real systems.

At a time when change continues to quicken, we must design learning systems that can keep pace – or even outpace – the rate of change in the world. Master planning for such learning systems will necessitate a series of shifts from strategic planning to strategic design…design that serves as a green dye to make the intersections of change and learning visible, harness-able, and enhanceable.

Lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons #Unboundary7pt0

Some of you know that I am a stack reader. Well, some beautiful serendipity happens occasionally in my routine of stack reading. Recently, such serendipity occurred while I was exploring “illusions” and “it’s all invented.”

For my birthday, my close friend Mary Cobb gave me a copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I’ve made my first, quick pass of the book, and I took a short page of hand-written notes. I put the book and the notes in a stack with Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander’s The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, which another close friend – my teaching and learning partner – Jill Gough gave me in January 2011, and which I was re-reading for purposes at work.

In Illusions, Bach wrote about a return of the Messiah as a airplane pilot who spends time with another airplane pilot who provides rides to midwesterners for about $3 per 10 minutes. In the section of the book I am currently re-reading as part of the meta-stack on which I am concentrating now, the Messiah is explaining to Richard that life is a series of illusions. Skeptical of such a philosophy, Richard bucks the thinking, and the Messiah takes Richard to a movie – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.



“Why are you here?”

“It’s a good movie, Do. Sh.” Butch and Sundance, blood all over them, were talking about why they ought to go to Australia.

“Why is it good?” he said.

“It’s fun. Sh. I’ll tell you later.”

“Snap out of it. Wake up. It’s all illusions.”

I was irked. “Donald, there’s just a few minutes more and then we can talk all you want. But let me watch the movie, OK?”

He whispered intensely, dramatically. “Richard, why are you here?”

“Look, I’m here because you asked me to come in here!” I turned back and tried to watch the end.

“You didn’t have to come, you could have said no thank you.”

“I LIKE THE MOVIE…” A man in front turned to look at me for a second. “I like the movie, Don; is there anything wrong with that?”

“Nothing at all,” he said, and he didn’t say another word till it was over and we were walking again past the used-tractor lot and out into the dark toward the field and the airplanes. It would be raining, before long.


I thought about his odd behavior in the theatre. “You do everything for a reason, Don?”


“Why the movie? Why did you all of a sudden want to see Sundance?”

“You asked a question.”

“Yes. Do you have an answer?”

“That is my answer. We went to the movie because you asked a question. The movie was the answer to your question.”

He was laughing at me, I knew it.

“What was my question?”

There was a long pained silence. “Your question, Richard, was that even in your brilliant times you have never been able to figure out why we are here.”

I remembered. “And the movie was my answer.”



“You don’t understand,” he said.


“That was a good movie,” he said, “but the world’s best movie is still an illusion, is it not? The pictures aren’t even moving; they only appear to move. Changing light that seems to move across a flat screen set up in the dark?”

“Well yes.” I was beginning to understand.

“The other people, any people anywhere who go to any movie show, why are they there, when it is only illusions?”

“Well, it’s entertainment,” I said.

“Fun. That’s right. One.”

“Could be educational.”

“Good.” It’s always that. Learning. Two.”

And the exchange goes on, even more brilliantly.

Now, in The Art of Possibility

Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative form; it’s a story we tell.


Experiments in neuroscience have demonstrated that we reach an understanding of the world in roughly this sequence: first, our senses bring us selective information about what is out there; second, our brain constructs its own simulation of the sensations; and only then, third, do we have our first conscious experience of our milieu. The world comes into our consciousness in the form of a map already drawn, a story already told, a hypothesis, a construction of our own making.


It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.

And, then, as illustration, the Zanders utilized the famous nine-dot puzzle.

As you may or may not know, the puzzle asks us to join all nine dots with four straight lines, without taking pen from paper.

Nine-dot puzzle, Art of Possibility, p. 13

The solution involves untethering our minds from some inferred systems constraints and drawing outside the boundaries.

Nine-dot puzzle, Art of Possibility, p. 14

And the Zanders concluded the chapter this way…

The frames our minds create define – and confine – what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear…. you can shift the framework to one whose underlying assumptions allow for the conditions you desire.

So, if you’ve read this far…God bless you. And what’s my point?

When I talk of school and education to many people, I think they unknowingly enter the nine-dot puzzle or ask “Why are we here?” But to me, school and education – the 3.0 versions – can be solved by thinking beyond the unintended boundaries of the dots…by creating a new movie of fun and learning. School 3.0 could involve a family of sorts including business, social innovation, and education. The lines that solve that puzzle may be discovered by re-imagining the boundaries…by creating a new script for the next story.

A few more quotes from Illusions, to close…

The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.


Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.


A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed. It feels an impulsion…this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons.


Works cited:

Bach, Richard. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. [New York]: Delacorte, 1977. Print.

Zander, Rosamund Stone, and Benjamin Zander. The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. New York, NY: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Unboundary 7.0

This morning, at work, I was am a part of something very exciting. We are actively and purposefully transforming.

Cover of handout at Unboundary everyone meeting 10.9.12 9:30 a.m.


After almost twenty years as a professional educator based in a school, I am three months into a new venture as an educator at a transformation design firm named Unboundary. Well, technically, we are now “Unboundary 7.0.” We were Unboundary 6.5, and before I even knew of Unboundary we were Unboundary 6.0, but now we are Unboundary 7.0.

I’ve written about this version software nomenclature before. Here are two, sample posts that shed light on this methodology of being purposeful about changing, evolving, and improving as an organization.

Not too long ago, on a morning walk with Lucy (my dog), I re-listened to a podcast from Daniel Pink’s Office Hours. On the show, the guest explained that progress is achieved by a recipe of creativity + discipline. Interestingly, the guest shared that we actually have very little problem with creativity – we are humans and we are inherently creative. Where we struggle is with discipline. For a few years, I have felt drawn to Unboundary, partly because of the organization’s purposefulness about practicing the discipline of intentional transformation and continuous improvement (kaizen, in Japanese – a concept I write about often here).

Part of re-versioning ourselves is about developing a genuine clarity about who we are and what we do…

We are a strategic studio that enables organizations to transform.


We see transformation as purposefully designed change.


The need to transform can be triggered by several things – new leadership, a significant innovation, lackluster performance, or a competitive threat – but it always involves recognition of a new, greater possibility.


Enabling transformation is the best but often hardest work of leadership. It requires helping others to see, believe, understand and act on that greater possibility.


Through unique experiences helping some of the biggest and best known companies through significant periods of transformation, Unboundary has developed a unique combination of strategic thinking, communication design, and enablement workshops.


We’re a boutique-sized firm with well-developed methodologies but few rote processes. We work in a dedicated, immersive way with a handful of organizations, always focused on creating something significant.


What is our purpose?


Enabling organizations to act on what matters in important periods of transformation.

This is what my next chapter is all about. Education is indeed in an important period of transformation. With this team at Unboundary 7.0, and with our co-authors and partners, we will strategically design next possibilities for Education 3.0, which we believe is forming at a confluence of business, social innovation, and education.

Image in handout at Unboundary everyone meeting 10.9.12 9:30 a.m.

Such a confluence also locates where Unboundary sees ourselves…geo-transformationally. Perhaps that is something of the core that I love about these people and this place – we practice what we preach. Or, we transform ourselves to better teach. We learn by doing, and we do by learning.

Recently, Jonathan Martin asked me in an email to share more about what I do at work at Unboundary. What a fabulous suggestion and invitation. I plan to do more of that sharing and storytelling. Often we find our voice when we tell stories that feel important and intriguing. I believe I am a part of such a story.