What (Should) We Talk About When We Talk About Education(?): Freedom, Growth, and the Right Question.

I’ve been reading this morning an incredible overview of bell hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress. (Huge thank you to Chris McNutt at The Human Restoration Project (HRP)).  hooks should be required reading for all educators, for she persuasively reveals why structures that empower all students are crucial to the continued pursuit of education as a human endeavor in freedom and liberation, and, even more important, to our democracy itself.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 8.08.07 AMThe Human Restoration Project’s review of Teaching to Transgress summarizes part of hooks’ challenge to her readers as a call to change the system of education itself:  “To change education means to rebel against prevailing notions of what education means — to dismiss grading as an inauthentic means of communicating standing, to challenge content relevance and usage, to reinvigorate pedagogy that puts learning in the hands of students beyond faux choice, to create communities of compassion and tolerance by enlightening the prevailing oppressive narrative. ”

I have no problem with the understanding that content itself is important.  One cannot think creatively and critically if one has no knowledge to turn over, probe, question.  However, when students remain mere vessels to be filled and there are no structures to A) actuate the knowledge they attain  in uncertain, ambiguous scenarios, and B) question the nature and origin of that knowledge to begin with, we are in danger of falling into the type of passive and compliant schools we seek to escape with our rhetoric of student-centered/learner-centered-ness.  Mere lip service to these goals only perpetuates “the oppressive narrative.”

At least one major plotline in that oppressive narrative is that learning is actually an


Source: NYU

exercise in achievement.  That exercise manifests as the incessant striving to jump another hurdle or check off another box.  The oppression here perverts human life itself, turning us into creatures ever driven to get to the next checkbox.  “I’ll have time to live when I pass calculus” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get my masters” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get that raise in salary” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I retire.” 

Many schools are beginning to shift their narratives to more learner-centered methods.  My own district’s shifts to #pvempowers and #pvsddoschooldifferent are a start in moving away from the oppressive narratives.   But they and all such efforts are mere digital rhetoric if we do not act within the spaces those terms create to truly honor the curiosity and voice of all learners.

For me, such action begins with questions:  two of them emblazon the wall in my classroom (see image below).  The first is a question that empowers students to inquiry:  “Why are things the way they are?”  I believe it should be the primary question in all classrooms.  It is certainly the primary question in the mind of a K—2 aged child.

The second question, “How can we make them better?,”  speaks to something we need to recognize more, and to which bell hooks is directly speaking:  agency.  All humans have agency, but schools, in the name of efficiency and normative measures, serve as obstacles to students exercise of that agency.  And as all learning initiates in questions, the greatest obstacle the system presents is the lack of student questioning.

Why are things the way they are...As a debate coach of 27 years, student questioning was central to my practice with the team and in my classroom.  But for most of those years, my classroom students’ questions were based upon free-form generation, tapping into their natural curiosity.  Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique.  The Right Question Institute tags itself as a “Catalyst for Microdemocracy” and it founds that democratic action in questions.

Little I’ve done in over 25 years in the classroom has the impact of the QFT.  It is built with simplicity and rigor and it delivers on both areas.  However, one should not believe this is as easy as, “Just let them ask questions.”   Its simplicity is deceptive, and any teacher employing the QFT needs to prepare and establish consistency for the technique to work.

But the results of proper implementation are immediate.  The students are engaged, deeply, in the work.  I’ve seen them lose themselves in developing questions, restating questions, and prioritizing questions, and the thing is, all these questions are coming from them.  Yes, the teacher must have a purpose for these questions, and that constraint helps guide the later parts of the generation process, but it does nothing to change the fact that the students are allowed to “linger at the point of wonder” and touch base with their curiosity in a way that honors every student’s ideas and direction.

While I’ve spoken mostly of the benefits of the QFT to students, make no mistake, the most crucial change the process brings about is within us, the “educators.”  In American public education, we are engaged in the creation of a liberally educated populous.  The word, “liberal,” however has acquired such a political charge that many turn away before understanding the history of the word itself.  Professor William Cronon does such justice to this adjective that I defer here to his brilliant words from the essay, “Only Connect,” which gives this blog its name.

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The worn but valid metaphor, then, is that educators are gardeners, nurturers of freedom and growth, for whom a liberal education is not a tool of some leftist conspiracy driven by trigger words like “social justice” and “white privilege” but rather the very basis for all the benefits of this, the world’s longest experiment in self-rule.  Thus, education is about liberation, about freedom, about empowering people to take charge of their lives rather than live them as dictated by others.  In other words, it is about questioning our educational systems, our roles in them, our part in forming them, and about narrating our own way out of the oppressive narratives of those self-same systems.

What the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique get so right is the power of questions within democratic structures.  They are not merely methods through which to learn information.  Questions are the main tool of growth, liberation, and freedom.  They probe for information to better inform the polity.  They expose corruption, unmask deception, and hold power accountable.

Could anything be more important in our wickedly complex world?


To What Avail…?


I was rereading the blog of Prof. Paul L. Thomas the other day when I came across the quotation below.  (But first, massive props for Prof. Thomas’ work with pre-service teachers.  We need more people like him in those positions.)



Thomas quotes Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

I’d not encountered/remembered this quotation from my previous readings of Dewey.  I wonder…is it problematic?  Does it merely draw attention to the war that’s been ongoing for so long around content and skills, between the conservative wings of pedagogy and the more romantic/progressive wings?

As well, Dewey seems to indicate that winning that information comes at the cost of losing one’s soul.  I wonder if it isn’t possible to gain information and yet retain the soul.  I sure as heck hope so.  Though, I suppose what Dewey’s reacting to is a system that so champions acquisition over meaning and human growth as to suck the soul out of the very natural act of learning itself.

I think about these kinds of situations a lot, especially now that I’m working on a class, inNOVAtion Lab, in which I’m employing a rhizomatic approach to learning, an approach that champions the community as the source of the curriculum.  I’m still navigating the difficulties of moving from a curriculum map to a community that maps the curriculum itself, but if your curriculum map is anything like the ones I have to deal with, I’d rather have the community map the curriculum any day.

I’m not sure what my point is here.  I’m drawn to the work of David Cormier around Rhizomatic Learning, as well as to the writings of Ira Socol around similar topics, and, though I find it far more prickly, the writings and ideas of Gary Stager that stick a knife deep into the concept of curriculum in general.

Certainly a first-world problem, though, given how old “learning” is when compared with “teaching” and the school system itself, maybe not so first-world after all.

Just add water–Is Instant Curriculum in Your Future?

Splash Water Glass Just Add WaterIt’s not an overstatement to note that most curricula in American Public High Schools are bloated.  There’s too much to learn and so our toxic love affair with memorization and regurgitation continues, and only those students who like to play the memorization game feel loved by the system, and those who don’t find themselves jilted or just plain lost.  And while I note that the AP system has made strides to move away from content cramming and into more concept-based classes, the notebooks I’ve seen from students in certain AP classes read like the copied pages of an encyclopedia.

Now, there’s something to be said for the ability to memorize and retrieve information.  Indeed, I’ve benefited to some extent from having such a mind. My two appearances on TV game shows and the infinite nights of bar trivia I’ve attended evidence at least one benefit.  And, of course, there is the cognitive benefit that the more one knows, the more one is capable of knowing.  

But as most every pundit of education has noted for better than 15 years, drowning the brains of captive children with information is a poor goal for education in the digital age.  With the world’s libraries and all their stores of information in our pockets and at our fingertips, information is (clichéd phrases coming…) “ubiquitous,” and that means it’s no longer “what you know, but what you can do with what you know” that matters.  It’s the compelling stories you can tell with the information that will matter more than the knowledge of the information itself. * 

This is, of course, not entirely true.  Doctors, politicians, plumbers, engineers…we would agree that possession of a standard body of knowledge is crucial for them (and us).  However, for most of us, knowing the process of mitosis by heart, or the economic deficiencies of a banana republic…for most of us, those things are not (and here I’ll adopt David Perkins’ standard from his book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World) “lifeworthy.” That is, they are not “likely to matter, in any meaningful way, in the lives learners are expected to live.”  

And so, when I read a recent article by Alden Wicker on Vox about the movement to remove water from many of the cosmetics and cleaning products we use (to reduce packaging, plastics, and shipping costs), I got to thinking, thanks to the musing of Paul Haluszczak of Education Reimagined, about how a concentrated curriculum (focused on vital competencies) could be reconstituted by each learner through his or her own liberal application of “water” which Haluszczak suggests might be learner agency or interest–a sort of “autodidacticism via starter formula,” if you will.  


This concept is reminiscent of an idea I encountered on the website of consultant Christian Talbot–Minimum Viable Curriculum.  An MVC is “centered on just enough content to empower learners to examine questions or pursue challenges with rigor.”  As they explore, they will invariably encounter spaces where they need more information, and so they will grow the curriculum, with teacher assistance, of course.

As such a model would have to be project-, design- or challenge-based, the learning would occur mostly on a “just in time” basis rather than following the “just in case” model we use to stuff so much irrelevant information into our children’s heads.   It would also help focus our pedagogy on the act of learning itself, rather than mere transmission of content.  I doubt there’s a teacher alive who wouldn’t admit that what they seek most for all their students is that they learn how to understand and best manage their own learning processes.  A model like what I (and many others) am scratching at here seems a reasonable and prosperous starting point for such a goal.

I’ll continue to add water to this idea and see what (re) constitutes.  Hopefully, more such posts will emerge.

*(Note here I’m not saying that there is less value in knowing things.  Only that flooding students with content at the expense of building skills in self-driven, self-determined learning is, anymore, little better than treading water in order to cross the English Channel.)

I Am The Stories I Tell Myself: Teaching, Learning Narratives, and Our Responsibilities as Collaborative Authors

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From Jason Silva, Shots of Awe

We, that is this thing we call our “self”, are a narrative construct.  We are the stories we tell ourselves. This should come as no surprise to teachers and other educators.  We know that positive self-talk is correlated with higher levels of success and happiness in all students.  But these narratives are not crafted in a vacuum. We are, after all, social creatures, and thus our narratives include the lived stories we craft based upon how we perceive others perceive us.  As the philosopher Charles Cooley posits, our “self” is a narrative crafted within the social realms, that is, between us and others (or, as Jason Silva puts it: “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am”), and so our words, our deeds, and the actions we inflict upon others are immeasurable in their repercussions. 

In other words, Stories Matter!  A lot! We are, to borrow the words of Jonathan Gotschall, “Storytelling Animals.”  Thus the narrative turn in our understanding of who we are should play a larger role in how we help the next generation learn than the faux empiricism of evaluations couched in letter grades.

When we turn this theoretical lens onto our classrooms, we should immediately recognize that grades and the narrative we (adults) have shaped around them are a major influence on the selves whose stories we help craft.  And their influence is, by and large, negative. By all accounts, student (and parent) grade-watching is rampant, stress and anxiety are increasing in our children, and the stories our students tell themselves about themselves hang too precariously upon a letter.

We need to shift the focus away from largely arbitrary (and therefore mostly meaningless) letters and numbers to narrative assessments.  At least there, going back to Cooley’s work, we are not inflicting the system’s narrative upon the child/young adult. Instead, we are opening a dialogue, negotiating, and collaborating in the authorship of this human being’s learning narrative by helping them understand what we mean by “growth” in a cognitive sense.

 “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.”  — Vikram Chandra

No doubt, many students and adults become successful because they fit within the narrow confines of the system’s narratives.  And there are those who succeed in spite of the narrative…who are not prisoners of the thoughts and perceptions of others, of the worth implied via evaluative grades.

But how many persevere, silently or quietly, despite the system, all the while internalizing ideas of who they are based upon systemic labels (“I’m not an honors student.  I’m not good enough for …. I’m never going to be….”)? We talk about how students need to overcome their “fixed mindset” and use “Grit” to develop a “growth mindset” (“I’m not an A student…YET”).

That’s dandy, but we know that’s easier said than done.  We also know it denies social, economic, and countless other inequities.  If these students are constantly on the receiving end of grades which are often manufactured or, worse, inconsistently applied, if they perceive that they have no control over the system’s narrative…? If that is the case, it is a sick and sadistic system that doesn’t ask itself, “What harms are we committing in the name of “Adequate Yearly Progress” or “proficiency” or other “normalized” notions of human potential.

It is part of our shared story that we are all human beings in the becoming. (That’s the only perspective through which those videos of “The Power of Yet” make any sense.) If that is so, then grades, which imply for so many students an endstate, need to be seriously rethought, or in the very least their implementation needs to be reconsidered given the understanding of their power to prematurely end students’ learning narratives.

One of my academic heroes was the Nobel Prize Winning physicist, Richard Feynman.  As he sat by his young, first wife on her deathbed, he discussed how those he was working with on the Manhattan Project may be viewing his constant trips away to her hospital.  She asked him point blank, “What do you care what other people think?” (Those words were to become the title of one of his amazing, anecdote-filled memoirs).

I would love to think that all of us had enough fortitude to live by such a credo.  But we can’t. I don’t think anyone, even a mind like Feynman, can live that way 24/7.  However, when we continue to evaluate and judge students as we do, we send the message that we’re all supposed to be people pleasers, and that our self-worth is predicated upon how much others find our presence in class pleasing, our work satisfactory–“Are you an “A” student or a “C” student?”  

As educators, we must ask ourselves, is our work to help students coauthor their own ”Learning Narratives,” an ongoing subplot of the stories of themselves, or is it to be complicit in (and if so to what extent) the continued creation of compliant rule-followers who seek the approval of others to validate their existence.

One should not read that choice as a pure binary.  Obviously, boundaries and knowledge of what constitutes quality work and pro-social behavior are necessary, but they are not sufficient for the full realization of human potential.  Only narratives and shared stories help us understand one another that deeply.  And that, more than anything, is at the foundation, at the heart, of education.


The Privilege of Teaching

IMG_2667I woke up this morning, as I do many mornings, full of doubt about what I do in the classroom.  As a teacher who is trying to shift the narrative of teaching, to improve the cultures of learning, to accelerate change and improvement in my classroom and also my school, I often assume a Sysiphean mindset.  I often feel like I’m not getting anywhere, so why keep trying?  (Of course, this is all while I’m teaching gifted and honors level students. I’ve little reason to complain.)

And, as I often do at 4:30 in the morning, I shared my micro crisis with my wife.

Before I go into the answer she gave me, a bit of context:  My wife was a full-time teacher in Philadelphia until 2004. Before that, she taught in Yuma, Arizona, and New Jersey.   She stayed home for the next 10 years to help raise our three children.  For the past 4 years she has worked as a reading intervention strategist for our local school district, building new skills and relationships with some of the youngest learners in the district (K–3rd grade).  While she has taught students from K–8th grade in her career, she readily admits that in her heart, she is a Kindergarten teacher.

And so, last week, when she found out the district was interviewing for full-time Kindergarten teachers, she was elated to find her resume had been chosen for an interview.  With the help of a family friend and some quick research, she’d soon boned up on her interviewing skills, the state standards for just about everything Kindergarten, and the basic structure for our districts roll out of this new, full-day Kindergarten program.

The interview was yesterday, and to hear her tell it, she nailed every question…every question except one.  She found herself rambling in her answer and couldn’t bring herself back to a central point.  And so, while successful in most ways, and possessed of several years working with Kindergarten students in the district, she felt defeated.

It was with this experience so fresh in her heart that my wife crafted a response to my early-morning lament that so much of my professional life seems like trial and error.

“You know, it is a privilege to be able to teach that way, to enter the classroom with a community ready to try something, and to be able to fail together and learn from the experience.”  She paused.  “But most teachers are filled with the pressures to meet adequate yearly progress or some other state standard, or they don’t have their own classrooms at all.  And these are good teachers, teachers who love children and believe they can make a difference.  So don’t you go getting all ‘down’ on me with your worries about ‘trial and error.’  It is a privilege for you.”



And she’s right.  I am privileged.  Oh, I worked for it.  I was great at the game of school, but I don’t play that game anymore because the world is different.  So as I drove into school today, thinking about this conversation, I turned to the work of my Twitter friend, @montesyrie.  Each morning he writes a message to his students.  Something from the heart, something about gratitude, the honest outcomes of doing good works together.  I vowed to start the same for my students.  Below is my first message.  I thank you, @montesyrie, for your huge heart and the audacity with which you live your professional and (now that you’re climbing trees) your personal life.

But mostly, I thank my wife for helping me, as she always does, to see beyond myself, and my own opinions to the larger and more important truths about what it means to teach, to be a teacher, and to recognize the great responsibility that comes with the privilege I have.

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