When Students Realize “This is Different”

Each September I welcome over 100 new students and learners into my classroom.  And each year by around mid-September, I begin to note they walk a bit slower, their shoulders droop a bit more, they flop in their chairs rather than sit attentively, and they wonder less.  And this is not for lack of trying.  I pepper our days with varied rituals and routines intentionally designed to get students up and moving, or which challenge them creatively or critically, to think in new ways.  We engage in improv theater activities, collective storytelling, and group work that challenges them at their creative core.

High School VolumesHowever, each year when I introduce them to the Touchstones Discussion Project (www.touchstones.org) they perk up.  This year has been no exception.  My 9th and 10th-grade students just finished their first discussion on Monday, and their responses to the process were as insightful and revealing as ever.

“Much different than any other discussion I’ve had.  We actually got to ask questions.”

“Instead of the teacher asking questions with definite answers, getting the answers and moving on, we actually built off each others’ ideas.

“I like how Mr. Heidt stayed on the side of the discussion, helping to guide us but not judging our answers.”

These responses are but a few from my 9th graders this year, but they are not unusual.  The Touchstones Discussion Project opens students to themselves, the importance of their language and their listening, as well as to the importance of community in all they learn.  And Touchstones does this better than any project I’ve experienced in 25 years in the classroom.

A quick look at the opening discussion from the High School Volume 1 text proves why:

“Touchstones discussions differ from your regular classes.
1. Everyone sits in a circle.
2. The teacher is a member of the group and will help, but isn’t the authority who gives the correct answers.
3. There is no hand-raising; instead, everyone will learn how to run the discussion.
4. No one does homework for this class.”

IMG_1308No hand raising?  The teacher is a member of the group? Students learn how to run the discussion?  Sure, programs that seek to level power structures in the classroom are numerous.  However, few of them are as thorough and deliberate in their intention as Touchstones.  And none of them are as focused on developing the skills necessary to engage in civil discussion as Touchstones.

Over the course of a year, students experience 30 discussions in which they are guided to pay careful attention to the dynamics of their discussions, from their troubles and successes in coming together as a group, to listening to others, to developing themselves as leaders of the discussion.

This focus on the process of the discussion rather than merely analyzing and discussing texts shifts the students into a different role.  It problematizes their traditional understandings of the purpose of texts, of what it means to be a student in the classroom, and it empowers them to see themselves as creators of meaning and structure.

Touchstones calls their attention to their power as self-directed learners, offers them guidance, and helps them take charge of their own learning.

Indeed, so “different” is this method from what most of them have experienced in their public school classes that when asked to choose a goal for themselves for the year, their rationales indicate a recognition of the potential this kind of class has for them.  And while their rationales may be brief, they are honest and incisive in their insight:

“I want to ‘admit when I’m wrong.’  As a person with very definite opinions, I think I’m always right.  It’s very hard to change what I think.”

“I would like to ‘become more aware of how others see me.’  I’ve never really thought about how I or my standpoints come off to others.”

“I would like to get better at ‘speaking with everyone…whether you know them or not’ because sometimes I go straight to my friends, even if I know what they will say.  It would be good to talk to everyone.”

“I would like to ‘admit when I am wrong’ because I rarely admit when I’m wrong and I don’t let my ideas change.  I want to become more open and respectful of people’s ideas.”

Image result for congressional debate

<I know…I see it, too.>

I am not so naive as to think that 4, 10, even 12 years of exposure to all levels of Touchstones would help us resolve our own issues with civil discussion at all levels of the social strata in our country, but it couldn’t hurt.  And the costs?  A day-a-week or every other week.  Surely a democracy is worth at least as much.

I was a young teacher, barely 4 years into my career, when I first encountered the Touchstones Discussion Program.  One year later I wrote a statement about how Touchstones had shifted my understanding of myself as a learner and a teacher.  That statement has become my personal philosophy as a teacher:

“When we trust our students, empower them to take charge of their learning, and offer the necessary guidance, they will astound us.”

I realize the success of programs like Touchstones are driven by the passion, dedication, and pedagogical beliefs of the teacher.  There are still too few teachers willing to engage with learners on a playing field of leveled power.  But if you agree to risk your power status, to shift your position to that of Lead Learner rather than “teacher” you will realize a seismic shift in your work.  I guarantee it.  And if you are there already??  Well, so much the better to have another arrow for student voice and inquiry in your quiver.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the author notes he is a member of the Touchstones Board of Directors)

What We Practice and What We Preach


They say your practice/message should always align with your mission.  Or something like this:

do believe culture

Or maybe like Will Richardson in the tweet pictured below, I have to note: “Regardless of what you say, you live what you believe.”

So…what do you believe, and what are you saying?

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Beautifully Irrational Arguments: Wayfinding, Designing, and Staying Foolish


Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary….Stay Hungry, stay foolish.
Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

In twenty-seven years of coaching high school debate, I doubt I ever coached my teams to go all in on the emotional appeals at the expense of reasoned, rational, evidenced arguments.   After all, aside from a liberal sprinkling of pathos here and there, you don’t win debates with irrational arguments based solely on emotion. Besides, I graduated from a liberal arts college that schooled me in empiricism and rational thought, even as I pursued an English degree and numerous credits in the Religion department.

And yet, a growing body of research (here for example) within the past 10 years reveals that humans are not the rational actors we thought we were.

For designers, this may not come as a surprise.  Good designs make arguments at ethical, rational, and emotional levels.  You might say that a good design argues at the level of purpose, utility, and aesthetic. This, too, is no surprise.  It is the aesthetic level–call it beauty, simplicity, elegance, truth–that moves users to engage with design.  For example, Apple’s iMac, when first released, was not more powerful or faster than the majority of PC’s on the market.  But it was “different”…its aesthetics and design touches shocked consumers who were used to generic, flat-beige PC computers running a rather uninspiring operating system.  (Some readers might recall that “No Beige” was actually a slogan for the original iMac’s ad campaign.)

Education, too, is far less successful when practiced from a purely empirical angle.  Sure, Descartes may have helped usher in the age of rational empiricism with his insistence on thinking as the essence of being, but he did no great favor for students in Western society by doing so.  Our hearts, the traditional symbolic seat of emotion, are far more important to our decision-making processes, and thus to what we learn and why than our power of rational thinking alone.  A recent article in the National Association of Independent Schools’ publication, Independent Schools, includes a full section on Emotions and Thinking.

The recognition that most modern schooling, aside from meetings with counselors and the occasional gym, art, or English teacher, has often overlooked or shied away from the messy, unpredictable, irrational realm of emotions is not a new one.   Few teachers graduate their teaching practicums without knowing the primary importance of establishing caring, working relationships and emotionally safe environments for their students.  And yet those practices are some of the first to fall by the wayside as teachers establish themselves and realize that what the system actually cares about is test scores, normalized results, and “Adequate Yearly Progress.”

How teachers fall deaf and blind to the natural, emotional landmarks that help them get their bearings in the classroom is as much due to the pressure to perform and bring everyone up to standardized proficiency, as it is to the fact that for most teachers, and I include myself herein, we did well in the system that “produced us,” and so we naively believe that repeating what was done to us is what will best benefit our own students.  Rare is the teacher who experienced primary or secondary school (and, for all intents and purposes, in college as well) meaningful and sustained classes in socio-emotional learning.

And this is why Project Wayfinder is so crucial to the health and welfare of our students as well as our teachers.  Project Wayfinder understands the importance of our emotional selves and engages learners at the level of the whole human.  From start to finish, the project recognizes the necessity of the emotions, both their chaotic, productive messiness and their powerful mnemonic potential as the precursor to deeper learning about everything.  Finally, and Wayfinder is non-apologetic about this, we can’t hope for our children to live meaningful, purposeful lives if we deny the reality of felt experienced and embodied knowledge.

Finding our way in life is not something we should leave to chance, and yet our educational systems do a poor job at helping students truly understand how to achieve what is in their hearts.  Most wind up following pathways already mapped out by others, following what are, essentially, best guesses or paths of least resistance to ho what we think we want to do with our lives.

And sure, navigating our ways to futures beyond our horizons is a seemingly impossible thing to do, so it helps to have a map of sorts.  But what if there were another way, a way absent maps, a way that employs a cycle of “experience, reflection, sharing, and experimenting” to design a life?

Wayfinder Way image

Author’s sketchnote of Wayfinder iterative experiential learning process

It is just this iterative process that is at the core of Project Wayfinder’s story-based, designerly minded curriculum.

Wayfinder’s powerful focus on students’ emotional learning is no accident.  It is the result of the project’s reliance on design thinking and its empathetic approach to curriculum development.  It is the result of a researched understanding that what drives us to do anything (and here we can go back to the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, or more anecdotally, the work of William Glasser in Choice Theory) are our emotions.  If we are not “in” in our hearts, then the learning in which we are engaged will be, at best, moderately effective…however you chose to measure the effectiveness of learning.

As an educational consultancy practiced in design thinking, PlusUs.org also starts with empathy and a focus on the most emotionally impactful stories our users relate.  PlusUs, like Project Wayfinder, helps you navigate your way not only to better defining your purpose, but also designing a meaningful solution to your challenge.

Design, Education, and Human Beings in the Becoming

(This post is the second in the Project Wayfinder series I’m writing for myself and the design consultancy PlusUs, where I serve as Learning Director)

Project Wayfinder‘s Summer Institute for Teachers at Brown University has thrown me for a loop and shifted my perspective on professional development in several ways.  After twenty-five years in education, I don’t say those words lightly.  I’ve sat through too many workshops and classes where all it seemed I was supposed to do was pack my toolbox with another method, where deeper philosophical discussions of “why” this really mattered to learners were never addressed.  So when in my second day of Project Wayfinder it became clear that the design team behind the project were not letting up on the “why?” pedal, I realized I was into something entirely different here.  Every aspect of the project was detailed not only in terms of what we were doing, but more important, in terms of why we were doing it and where it fit into the narrative of the curriculum.

That last point is crucial.  Project Wayfinder’s curriculum is geared towards helping students design meaningful lives.  The key to that end is the realization that our lives are stories driven by the conflicts inherent in purposeful quests.  What Project Wayfinder essentially accomplishes is something sorely missing in modern schooling:  the curriculum teaches students to design their lives with purpose and with the realization that there is more to education–and life–than achieving the highest GPA and attending the best college.

So what has so totally turned me upside down about Project Wayfinder is that they are open and honest about the fact that they are intentionally designing a curriculum to disrupt the status quo.  Not only are they open and honest about it, they have the research to back up their endeavors, the backing and branding of Stanford University, and the verve of youth to push them past obstacles and naysayers.

I’ll be blunt. This is one of the most intentionally optimistic and “real” pieces of curriculum I’ve seen in 25 years of teaching. Nor have I ever seen one as ruthlessly honest about what really matters in education: relationships, and human connection.

I came to Project Wayfinder to see how many of the disparate parts and pieces of pedagogy I’d practiced over my quarter century in the classroom had been synthesized and applied in a curriculum I’d only ever read about.  Two days in and I’m realizing something else:  Wayfinder’s insistence on honoring and helping students craft meaningful stories allies them with the work we do at PlusUs.  Like PlusUs, Wayfinder and all educators who recognize that we are–ever and always– “human beings in the becoming,” are facilitators of the most important work in the world:  helping other humans design and redesign their lives.

PlusUs has dedicated ourselves to this work since our inception.  We help our clients discover the most important stories they want to tell, and we help you craft those stories in ways that resonate most strongly with you and your end users.  We are tireless in our pursuit of designing purposeful, intentional solutions that honor your needs as well as the stories you are helping your learners write.

Education for the Self and Community

I’ve been thinking more about what it would take to redesign an educational system to honor student agency and center the learning where it belongs…on the learner.

First, we need to have some idea of what knowledge and skills an educated person ought to possess.  I wonder how many administrators/teachers/citizens have a common picture of what that person looks like.  We could refer to the standards, but inferring from those to the real world seems hard for some, and their codification and commodification (from the outset, in terms of big business’s influence of the creation of the Common Core) is a non-starter to many.  Instead, in the face of innovation-speak and market economies, a better picture can be drawn from the tradition of a liberal education.

I was a fortunate learner.  Somehow I developed/possessed the skills necessary to win the game of school.  This allowed me the great fortune to explore the meaning and importance of a liberal education for over 25 years.  One document in that time has meant more to me in terms of getting that “picture” of an educated person than any other: “Only Connect:  The Goals of a Liberal Education” by Professor William Cronon.  I’ve studied that document and revisited it every year I’ve taught.  It is part of me.  As such, I have a  particular and, I think, historically accurate (though culturally and ethnically skewed) view of what an educated person ought to know and be able to do.


William Cronon’s 10 Goals of a Liberal Education

Thus, at least in some part, redesigning schools necessitates designing/redesigning curricula to create modern pathways to the goals of a liberally educated person.  Further, though…schools need to have a common picture of their end and language with which to talk about the learning experiences they can design to help all learners get there.

Education as an Organic System

Still, none of that matters if the school leaders, both administrators and citizens on school boards and in other elected offices, do not view education as more than some assembly line/linear process.

“Liberal” (as in the “liberal education” which public schools purport to provide), as Cronon points out, derives from a proto-Indo–European root, “rodhati”, meaning “one climbs, one grows.”  Clearly, education wasn’t originally viewed as a linear, mechanistic process, but rather as an organic/dynamic system.  Like a vine, it rises to the light, adjusts, stalls, changes, and moves up again.  It is always overcoming obstacles, making course corrections.  It does not follow rubrics or recipes. It seeks the light.

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From Patrick Cook-Deegan Wayfinding Our Purpose” in Purpose Rising: A Global Movement of Transformation and Meaning, Kuntzelman and Diperna, eds.

But linear systems are easier and more efficient for humans to create, and so we wind up with a school system that works in a linear fashion.  We know this is not the best system for education–one of the most important responsibilities of any community–and yet, here we are.  Our communities and school leaders need to create cultures where calculated/educated risk-taking is part of the environment, where such traits as courage, persistence, creativity, and risk-taking are what we look for, not only in our students but in the lead learners hired for our schools.

Get a B.S. Detector

As well, if we are to truly shift our systems of public education,  we need the same thing that Hemingway said all great writers need:  a great B.S. detector.  It’s so easy to want to jump on the new, the ed-tech, the subversive, the test-prep, the “innovative” because it seems so…shiny and data is so “objective.”  And yet,  so much of it is B.S.

At the most basic level, our understanding of human beings hasn’t grown all that much. The observations of the Progressives about the classroom environment, the efficacy of discovery learning, and (still) the work of Dewey are ever reified in the studies of more modern social scientists.  While our potential is infinite, our learning interventions need not be so.  Human beings require meaningful relationships, connection with their natural environment, and a sense of joy and purpose in what they do if they are to grow and learn.  (We do not learn through coercion unless the learning goal is how to despise learning.  I recommend William Glasser’s The Quality School and The Quality Schoolteacher for more on that point.) If we can use these needs to guide our schools past the dictates of efficiency and cost savings (a daunting task) we’ll have a more humane society, perhaps.

Human-Centered Education

Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that, at its heart, American Public Education will always be driven by three goals:  Economic, Civic, and Personal.  (Erin Raab names four…and I’d not disagree with her, though the Eudaemonic goal–Aristotle’s “Flourishing”– I’d fold into the “personal” (again, see Cronon’s “Only Connect”).)  While we’d like to think there is no hierarchy in these goals, the economic goal generally dominates and pushes the other goals behind it.  Its ends are to ensure the continuation of the free market capitalism that is the foundation for our own form of democracy and which makes our pursuit of happiness (the personal ends) possible.  While I’d rather think it otherwise, I have to believe that without a functioning economy, our government and our own pursuit of self-actualization break down.  Empirically, look to our devolution as a political society and our hunkering down with those most like ourselves post-2008 market crash as evidence. So we must always consider that the culture our schools create is geared towards feeding a hungry, (sometimes beneficient) monster…though monster nonetheless.

But that monster need not be as frightening and consumptive as I paint it.  An education that puts the human at the center, that recognizes its end as the elevation of all learners so that they may reach their own highest potential could ameliorate many of the more base effects of the economic ends.  Of course, that can only happen within a functioning democracy and that end, the civic end, of public education, cannot be overlooked.  We must understand and be driven by the sense that Jefferson noted when he wrote that “A people who seek to remain ignorant and free, expect what never was and never will be.”

It is no secret that education is Wicked Problem. We will always be at it…tweaking, pushing, pulling, and at times disrupting.  We’ll never solve it. The best we can do is hope to manage it better and seek balance among our goals.  But none of that should ever, must never, distract us from what I believe is William Cronon’s most important point in “Only Connect“:

“In the act of making us free, it [a liberal education] also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves…Liberal education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community” (pp 5-6).

And so, the picture we need of this learner is not intended to create a template for some standardized form of “liberally educated widget maker.”  Rather the picture will serve to show us that these learners, these children so full of freedom and potential, reveal to us our own best selves, and their education represents our own highest potential.