Education as a Gift Economy

The Gift
I originally posted this piece in 2012 to the group blog “Cooperative Catalyst” (a wonderful site where I first met David Loitz, John Spencer, Paul Freedman (of the Salmonberry School) and other amazing educators.  Having just read another amazing article by Arthur Chiaravalli on his journey to gradelessness, I was reminded of the notion of teaching and learning as a type of economy.  I’m reviving this article here as I’d like to think it might spark some discussion regarding the “economies” of education, especially given all the recent and growing criticisms of the “neoliberal agenda” in the realm of education.  (See here, here, and, most importantly in our Trumpian world, here for more on this interesting critique.)

Merry Christmas…

Einstein Teaching

In a monthly meeting at my middle school, we were discussing the issue of grades and homework.  I thought this bit from Prof. Einstein might offer some way of illuminating part of the discussion we were having, but it has led me even further down a wondrous rabbit hole, so far it demanded a blog post of me.

I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore.  We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grown into good people.  Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”

As regards Einstein’s observation, the assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.”  Too often students do see study as a duty and only that.  It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light:  light for ourselves, but also light for the community.  Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world.

You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing teaching as a gift.  Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?”  Which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing.  The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  

The GiftHyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy.  Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation):  For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the “paradox of the gift”: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.

“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….”  Tell me that’s not teaching.  I don’t impart knowledge.  No.  It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.”  Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience.  Teaching is a strange gift, though, in that I feel no sense of loss, nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing.  I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening the genius, if you will.  And it is that sense of genius that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.

Back to Einstein, then:  “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….”  It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.”  When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity.  But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”

I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy–that one need not ever accept a gift.  Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model where a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift.  But oh!  How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.



Following Their Passions…Dreaming of Seas

Following is a post I wrote 6 years ago for an older version of this blog.   A lot has happened on the education front in the past 6 years.  It’s a good time to rechristen the ship/blog post.

“The other day I ran across this quotation:


I’ve read a lot of books on creativity and creative thinking.  I’ve a library’s worth of tomes about how teaching in more creative ways helps learners develop flexible, adaptable habits of mind–key components for success in an ever-changing world.  Quotations by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fill those books.  

One might argue that such throughts ought to fill the minds of all the adults who work in our schools as well, for we are, in a sense, engaged in building a ship–the ship that will bear us into the future.  If we wish to be successful in that endeavor, we ought to heed Saint-Exupery’s words.

I am not saying that students don’t need work and assigned tasks.  We all need those things, but they must be meaningful.  They must be things that, by knowing, will create in the child the confidence and freedom to explore the immensity of whatever seas she wishes to navigate.  

Of course, many of our students don’t know what seas they wish to explore.  For too long they’ve been told what seas to explore, how to explore them, and how to report out on the results of their explorations, which, by and large, are the exact same reports that generations of children before them have churned out. 

Let us strive to listen to our children’s passions and inspire them towards the immensity of their future…even if, in such striving, we must, as learners all, fight against currents that seek to bear us ceaselessly into the past.

The List: Agents, Innovators, and Thinking Different in Public Education


In the late 1990s, my superintendent gifted me a book:  Thomas Armstrong’s Awakening Genius in the Classroom.  My receipt of Armstrong’s slim tome also coincided with Apple Computer’s release of the iMac and its corresponding “Think Different” ad campaign.  (See this video)


Think Different Print Ad text

In a bit of creative synergy I’ve rarely experienced since, I combined the message of Apple’s campaign (see text above) with Armstrong’s qualities of genius and for the next decade my students and I explored the how some of the most iconic figures of the previous century had persisted, taken risks, overcome obstacles, created, challenged the status quo, and in the end, whether intentional or not, pushed the human race forward.Genius Map

What I learned with my students over that time pushed me into years of intense study of how and why we create.   It also led me to discover design and innovation as fields of human endeavor where creativity was more than just expressive.  It was applied in the service of humankind.  And that kind of  creativity could have a much stronger place in education.

As an educator, this utterly changed my methods and role in the classroom.  I began reading others who understood that the mere acquisition of knowledge was no longer enough to achieve success in the world; who discussed the importance of creativity and creation, of metaphor, design, and storytelling to navigating an economy where the innovative application of knowledge was evermore important.

And it wasn’t important solely because I found interest in the subject.  It was vital to me as a teacher because the world I grew up in would not be the world my students were entering, because the world which we had left them wasn’t nearly the world I had thought they’d inherit.

“Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.” –Chinese proverb

I’ve spent the better part of 20 years reading about and, more recently, tweeting and conversing with these change agents, people who seek to help us move the world of education in a better direction, to reverse the pendulum’s swing from the “data-driven” world of high-stakes testing and accountability to one that is, in the words of George Couros, “data informed and learner driven.”  A world where we aren’t simply thinking, we are thinking, making, and being.

Below is a list of authors, speakers, academics, teachers, designers, websites, and others whose work is aimed at improving, informing, shifting, and changing the world of education. I don’t endorse any of them, but I do read their work, think critically about their ideas, and use the best of it to alter my practice, improve my classroom, and “think different” about what it means to be a learner in this world.

If you know of others I should be reading or to whom I should link, please reply.

Teachers, authors, and other innovators in education

Terry Heick:  Terry is the founder of the website teachthought.   I’ve followed him for a number of years.  You might not always agree with him, but he will always offer insight and his website’s store of resources and great articles is as broad as it is deep.

John Taylor Gatto: I’m going old-school here.  Gatto’s work is from the 80s.  It predates the internet.  But Gatto is a truly interesting figure: NY State and NY City teacher of the year, he quit teaching on the OP ED page of the Wall Street Journal in 1991 while still New York State Teacher of the Year, claiming that he was no longer willing to hurt children. His book titles like Dumbing us Down, and Weapons of Mass Instruction (among many others) offer some insight into his perspective.  Be warned.  He’s a firebrand and a whip-smart writer.

Sir Ken Robinson: If you don’t know him, read no further.  Ok.  Sir Ken had, and may well still have,  the most watched TED talk.  If you’ve never seen him speak, please watch the video.  You don’t have to agree, but at least watch it.  Otherwise, check out his books.

A.J. Juliani: AJ is a local guy, currently at Centennial School District.  His book on 20% Time/Genius Hour is excellent, but his two books with John Spencer, LAUNCH and EMPOWER are superb.

John Spencer:  I first met John on a blog called “Creative Catalyst.”  He was always writing about the great work he was doing with his MS students in Arizona.  He’s since moved on to a professorship in Washington state.  His work with A.J. Juliani is worth the money, but if you want to sample his sense of what we ought to be doing, check out his YouTube channel.

Grant Lichtman:  Grant has been a voice in design-based learning for years, but he’s since become one of the more rational and reasoned voices on empowering all of us to change how we “do school.”  His first book, The Falconer, is an amazingly imaginative, mashup of thought that will leave a lasting impression.  His next book, #EdJourney, follow’s Grant as he travels to over 50 schools doing amazing things around the country.  His latest book Moving the Rock , is a “how to” providing ways we, ordinary people and teachers, can help shift the culture of education for the better.

David BurgessTeach Like a Pirate.  Enough said.   David and his wife are parlaying the success of David’s amazing TLAP into a publishing company that seeks to disrupt the huge Educational Publishing conglomerates.  You’ll find other great authors in their stable, including George Couros.

George Couros:  I’ve read George’s The Innovator’s Mindset at least three times.  George came to speak to my district on Nov. 7th and the energy is crackling still.

Dan Ryder: Hailing from the growing (no kidding) educational innovation center of Maine, Dan has been using design thinking techniques in his classroom for years.  He recently published, with the equally amazing Amy Burvall, the book, Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom.  Blessed with a rigorously whimsical personality, Dan’s a true unicorn.

Amy Burvall: Partners with Dan Ryder on the book,  Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom, Amy Burvall has distinguished herself as a truly creative educator while still meeting the rigorous standards of the IB program.  She travels and speaks around the world on topics in education from history to metaphor.  Her YouTube videos mashing up history with pop music are reason enough to check her out, but her penchant for DaDa, Marshall McLuhan, David Byrne and (perhaps) William Burroughs makes her all the more rockin’.  She raises unicorns in Hawaii.

Don Wettrick: Hailing from the unassuming state of Indiana (can I say that of any state?), Don has forged a space for himself and his students in the annals of public education.  Don is an indefatigable champion of students and the innate talents we mostly fail to tap into in a system driven by compliance and testing.  Over the past 5 years, his students have applied for numerous patents, traveled to Google’s headquarters, and created numerous startups.  He has collaborated with a former student to create the website and company,,  “a space where educators, innovators, and entrepreneurs connect.”  A tireless champion of entrepreneurship, Don is passionate about what he does.  Check out his podcast, as well as his YouTube channel.

Thomas Vander Ark: a critical player in the movement to improve public schooling, Vander Ark came to education with extensive experience founding and then selling businesses.  However, he’s not one to see the field as “ripe” for a sort of corporate overhaul.  Vander Ark understands education as a fundamentally different field.  He helped to found, a website that explores the potential of, among other things, Project-Based Learning in the classroom.  Check out one of his many videos, this one on “Innovations in Education.”


Edutopia:  If I can say any site was my playground as a young teacher, it would have to be Edutopia, created with a lot of help from George Lucas (yes…Star Wars).  You would do well to pay attention to the articles and writers you find here.

XQ:  Ok, you can offer your leftist critiques of any reform funded by a billionairess…like Laurene Powell-Jobs (yes, that “Jobs”).  But what XQ has been trying to do is far more than just throw its money at schools.  They’re seeding the creation of new and innovative schools and programs in both the public and private realms.  I hear you, Marxists, leftists, and my liberal brothers.  But when I look at the models of schools that applied for and won the XQ prize–and I’ll be forthcoming here, I was on the XQ Team for one of the winning schools–Design Lab Deleware–this competition has unearthed some interesting ideas.  A phenomenal source of sensible, innovative articles on how and why we need to shift the paradigm.

Education Reimagined:  Publisher of the Learner-Centered magazine, Pioneering, Education Reimagined “seeks to discover champions for learner-centered education, connect them to one another, and create the space for exploration, collaboration, and innovation.”




Do No Harm: A Teachers’ Hippocratic Call to Action


Teaching as a Subversive Activity

So my district is talking about “doing school different.”  Sorry, but haven’t many schools been talking (or avoiding talking) about it for long enough?  (See featured image above.)

There’s plenty of reason to stop talking about it and start doing it, and most of the reasons stem all the way back to Postman and Weingartner, if not  John Dewey himself.  But then there’s this blog post, the first lines of which are chilling:  more or less they are,  “We’re not helping kids…we’re actually imperiling them!”  If this is true, and I tend to think, given all the voices in this direction, that it is, how much time can we waste?  How much of my own children’s time is being lost to outdated, outmoded, never-more-than-compliance-seeking methods of learning?  This isn’t just about my district doing school different…this is about every school.  You can call me an evangelist…fine.  I’ll be evangelical if that’s what it takes to make sure my own children and those children I serve are provided with a thought-ful classroom.  And if that means I’m called on the carpet…then fine, because I refuse to be complicit in a thought-crime.  If my refusal paints me as crazy…then I’ll accept that.  “Here’s to the crazy ones/the misfits, the rebels/the round-pegs in the square holes/the ones who see things differently….about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”

I know the following reeks of clickbait, but the article’s title is:

Traditional School Imperils Kids; They Need to Be Innovators

As well, it implies an agenda (creating business-world ready “innovators”).  But don’t make me a Cassandra.  Too many people are shouting the same prophecies.  We need to change how we are doing.  (Emerson said as much: “A foolish consistency is the Hobgoblin of little minds.”)

But it’s frightening, right?  Change is frightening.  We talked about this in my 10th grade classes yesterday.  It’s frightening because it carries with it a sense of loss.  Loss of a sense of who we are and have always been.  The fear is deep; it’s existential.  At that level, we try to bury the fear, ignore it…but it doesn’t go away. It eats at us and for most of us…we just retreat further and further into what we know, seeking an ever shrinking security from a future of change that looms ever larger.  Why do we still read The Catcher in the Rye?  Because Holden’s desire to hold onto the past is what kept him from growing into a larger, more genuine and healthy sense of himself.
The same is true for institutions.  And SCHOOL is an institution.
Last year I worked with twin girls in an independent study where they sought to bring more curiosity and student inquiry into the classroom.  One of those girls, Cali, wrote a brilliant blog post this summer about how she experienced the institution of school, about how it distorted her sense of self and robbed her of her health. Sure…there is opportunity and good that comes from “doing school,”  but the results of a cursory cost-benefits analysis are clear.   If the lives of students are not reason enough for teachers to question their practice and make substantive changes, then I would unapologetically argue that those teachers are part of a system whose leaders need to be replaced, for both the leaders and the teachers who refuse to or are not actively seeking out change are imperiling the lives and livelihoods of the children in their classroom.

And sure, the Institution offers a pretense of change.  It has catch phrases, it goes through the motions of “change.”  But are enough of our institutions of schooling doing so?  And more important, are they doings so quickly enough?  I don’t see it. But the rocks are starting to roll thanks to people and organizations like Ken Robinson, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, Grant Lichtman, Education Reimagined, and countless others.

And so time ticks, and our incremental “hops and skips” of change often go nowhere.  We wind up with “change fatigue”, with teachers who “pay lip service to in-service,” but then retreat into their classrooms and do what they’ve always done, or try something new, fail, and then go back to what they’ve always done.  Such a pattern, and it’s what I’ve seen for over a decade now, is the pathway to irrelevancy.  Worse, it admits an abdication of the responsibility of the teacher to “do no harm” to those in his/her charge.

We can do better, we can be better, we must be better.

Design Thinking For College Admissions

FullerI received the letter below from one of the counselors at my HS today.  As a recap, I piloted a Design Thinking and Open Source Learning class last year for 13 students.  For several reasons it didn’t fill up enough this year, but with the endorsement below, I’m hoping to be off and running like nobody’s business next year.

The course referenced in the student letter below was a hybrid between a course based in design thinking and one that was based on the work of Don Wettrick and his Innovation and Open-Source learning course at Noblesville HS.

The upshot of the letter?  The student gets into a select class in design thinking for engineers at Syracuse BECAUSE she had a class in Design Thinking in HS.  img_3055

Dear Mrs.___,

HELLO THERE!!! How are you? I’m so sorry I didn’t email you sooner, college has been so extremely busy, and I have way less time than I thought I would. Classes just started yesterday, and it’s overwhelming, but I am so ready for the next four years, and honestly, that’s thanks to PVHS for preparing me. 🙂

I remember coming into your office all the time last year panicking, but I can honestly say I made the right choice. I live in the engineering dorm at Syracuse, and my whole hall became really good friends right away (which for some reason hasn’t happened in other halls). As I spend more time with these kids and get to know them, I’m realizing how similar we all are, and all my doubts about whether I picked the best school for me and very quickly fading away. I wish I could have told myself last year to just CALM DOWN, because everything truly does work out in the end. XD

In addition to the residence halls, the college itself is really really cool too. It’s much more progressive than I imagined it, and for the most part, they’re really good at addressing certain situations appropriately and with grace. Everyone feels really safe here, and I’m so grateful for that.
And I’m not sure if you remember, but I was freaking out last year because my design thinking class dropped my GPA (it was prep) and I didn’t think I’d get a lot of scholarships. I want to tell you this because I feel like a lot of incoming seniors NEED to hear this, so if you could please please please tell them about my experience, I honestly think it might help them decide what electives to take.
I am majoring in chemical engineering. The scholarship that I got at Syracuse is called the Engineering and Computer Science Leadership Scholars Program. When I got into the program, I was required to take this class called ECS 100 Seminar…I had no clue what it was, but when I showed up for the class I found out that it’s a new program they’re trying out, and it is COMPLETELY DESIGN THINKING BASED. We all need to find a problem in society, and as future engineers, design some sort of solution. We go through the entire design process and constantly revise. At the end of the semester, we present a prototype and a presentation to the class. We don’t get homework, and class time is devoted to working on the project. The class isn’t graded on a grade level…you basically get an A based on how well you work as a group, attendance, and participation. They want us to utilize all our resources and come up with creative and innovative solutions on our own, and without a real template. In addition to this kind of exposure, we get a lot of money, a paid research position, and invitation to the honors program, and priority consideration for study abroad, among other benefits. It is SUPER cool, and I will definitely let you know how it goes. It’s amazing to me that a college is trying this hard to change with the times, and I’m really glad to go to a school that does this.
HOWEVER, I honestly think part of the reason I got into this program is because I took design thinking. I was talking to the admissions director because they handpicked the recipients, and they told me that the fact that I had experience taking this type of class really stood out because although engineering students need to know about the design process, a lot of them just take math and science classes and aren’t well-rounded. I REALLY wish someone had told me this, but if someone ever asks about it, here’s a first-hand experience 😉
Thank you for everything you’ve helped me with for the last four years, and I REALLY look forward to college and keeping in touch with you!