Ottawa Child Friendly Community Day, Nov. 20, 2020

A few remarks on Sir Ken Robinson and the “new normal”

Posted December 10, 2020

Note: This 8-minute Zoom talk was accompanied with a powerpoint presentation. The talk draws on previous postings. Parts identified with an asterisk were omitted due to time constraints.

Hello. I hope everyone is safe and well. It is a great honor to support this community event, scheduled to coincide with Canada’s National Child Day. My thanks to Richard Fransham, organizer of this event, both for his efforts to advance democratic education and generous invitation to participate on this panel to reflect on Sir Ken Robinson’s insights into how we might “do school” in the “new normal.” Thanks to Michael Wilson for serving as moderator. First, I give some context that make this project more urgent today than ever before.

We are in unprecedented times. Our children and youth are “living and learning” amid storm clouds that threaten our very existence and which present challenges that are simultaneously scientific, environmental, ethical, and moral in nature.

  • Covid-19. We are meeting via zoom because Covid-19, a virus so tiny it is invisible to the eye, has upended our social and economic- systems, unveiling in its wake deep pockets of racism- injustice, inequity. As we build for the new normal, we MUST construct systems that ensure justice for all people of the world.
  • Ecological Degradation: The world’s glaciers are melting, water bodies are polluted, oceans are warming, wildfires are raging. Our most vulnerable populations are affected. We have a new term: “environmental racism.”
  • Rapid Technological Change: We are subject torapid technological change, characterized by AI, automation, robotics and computerization, a time period that the World Economic Forum presents as the fourth industrial revolution. Jobs of the future are unpredictable.

The most in-demand jobs of today did not exist 5-10 years ago. . . 65% of children in school today will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. [World Economic Forum, Jobs Report 2016]

As Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be, observed in 2018:

Machine intelligence is racing ahead, wiping out millions of routine jobs as it reshapes the competencies needed to thrive . . . Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling up on the side lines jeopardizing civil society.

  • Democracy is under fire, under threat of destabilization.
  • Social and Racial Unrest. Across the US-we witnessed the unjust killings of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and so many others. Across the nation and around the world there are justified outcries of social and racial unrest. As the poet Langston Hughes asked,

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it explode?  (Harlem)

Our children inhabit a world fraught with issues and challenges they did not cause but are theirs to solve.  To grow to their full potential, to live fulfilling lives, to be stewards of earth and democracyhumanity-we must create an education that nurtures mind-body-spirit-and acknowledges all our children as thinkers, inquirers, collaborative problem-solvers, creative innovators…     as change agents.

By 2022 no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling.” However, the “skills” of creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion and negotiation are projected to retain or increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving.  [World Economic Forum, 2018 Jobs Report]

*We must go beyond preparing students to meet academic minimums.We must transform our schools into environments which promote “deep learning.” Environments which, in the words of Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine,  

help students to flourish-to think critically, to become engaged in their learning, and, in a variety of ways, prepare for the demands of twenty-first century life. [Mehta and Fine, 2019, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School]

Of utmost importance, we must create an educational model that helps youth and children to develop their full humanity, to see themselves in others-as neighbors.

As Martin Luther King said so many years ago and echoed more recently by Pope Francis in March 2019, our youth must be peacemakers, builders of “bridges not walls.” As the late John Lewis said in 2009,

 “We are one people -one family. We all live in the same house….”

*Or, as Haim Ginott put it in a “Letter to Teachers

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. . . .So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. . . . Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Disruption can be a constructive force. Real change and development is never smooth.  How we respond and adapt to change is a matter of survival-think of the dinosaurs! Through disruption, amid the dust and ash, new life and new ways of thinking emerge. We are ourselves built from stardust.. forged in the shockwaves of a supernova!   So, now is the time to imagine a better more just world, to create and innovate for a new consciousness-a new realityfor our children and for the whole of humanity.

Today’s Challenges require [radically] New Solutions. As the authors of Ontario’s 1965 Living and Learning report wrote:

Like the men who make the initial landing on the moon, our children must be thoroughly prepared for a destination whose features no one knows at first hand. . . . The achievements of the past are there to orient our youth; the vision, the speculation and the prediction for the future are there to challenge and excite their minds; it becomes a function of the school to provide that orientation and foster that excitement.

Sir Ken left us too soon. Yet, his many talks provide insights to guide us as we create and innovate. First and foremost, we must

  • “Reimagine that learning can [and does] change the world.”
  • We must act on the notion that “Education [is the vehicle that] will take us into the future.”
  •  And we must “Educate whole person.”  All great teachers know that at its best, true education, education that results in new ways of thinking and acting involves not just our minds but engages our Head-Hands-Heart

As SKR noted,  “We flourish when the culture is right.” Focus on the conditions of growth-the soil of learning–not test scores and the like.. and our children and youth will flourish and thrive; they will be healthy and strong. Great teachers know that many things go into that soil: compassion, creativity, empathy, collaboration, care, choice… the freedom to question, the freedom to explore.

For Sir Ken, creativity is not a synonym for the arts…rather it is

  • “the process of having original ideas . that have value. .”

The idea need not be new to the world (it likely will not be) but it should be new to the child.

From this perspective, true learning is a creative-constructive act; it is joyful; it begins in and develops from play and self-initiated explorations. As my mentor Eleanor Duckworth, a former student and colleague of the Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget, has said, intellectual development is “the having of wonderful ideas.”

  • Finally, declared Robinson, “we have a national plan for literacy. We need a plan for creativity.”

 Sir Ken also offered thoughts about Teaching, Learning and Curriculum.

  • Teaching is facilitating knowing [and meaning].” It is NOT the delivery or transmission of information.

From this perspective, Learning is what learners must do for themselves. We cannot do it for them.

  • Curriculum is where students discover themselves most fully.”

 That place is the world beyond the classroom- where they encounter phenomena and subject matter in all its fullness and complexity-providing student explorers with opportunity and possibility! Curriculum must be learner-centered, project and community-based. It must engage students with real-world challenges that responds to and builds on their interests, their questions, concerns…It must acknowledge students as leaders, thinkers, doers-who explore, create and innovate with head-hands and heart. Think Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and Pakistan’s Mala.

Having faith in our “boundless capacity, creativity and innovation” Robinson, provided guideposts – but not the solution. This is what we know: All true learning is rooted in experience

It involves play-messing about-free exploration, observing, questioning, imagining, creating, inventing.  Bell Labs and Google know that innovation requires free exploration. They pay adults to play, explore-“to mess about”! As water rat/vole “ratty” said to mole,

“There is nothing, absolutely nothing more worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” (Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908)

For these reasons, I see great promise and potential in the principles and practices of Self-Directed Learning and Democratic Education which though connected are not mutually inclusive.  And believe that these practices must be scaled up to the greatest extent possible in our public schools-at all grade levels.

Now is the Time to Unite as one “village,”  one “ecosystem,” one people to build a better world for the well-being and future of children, our communities, society, and humanity. 

As John Dewey reminded us more than a hundred years ago at the advent and dawn of the first industrial revolution,our schools are engines of democracy and social progressengines of hope and keepers of “dreams.” 

All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its members. All its better thoughts of itself it hopes to realize through new possibilities thus opened to its future self. [John Dewey, School and Social Progress, 1990/1900]

How we do school reflects our collective aspirations for humanity-our view of what it means to be a democracy.Social change for a new and more just world begins with how we do school.

We must write a new story. We must have courage and a sense of urgency. If not now, when?

As Sir Ken reminded us:

We created school. We can reinvent school. We are the system-what we do next is the system.”

Self-Directed Learning as Transformational Practice

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun . . . or does it explode? Harlem, Langston Hughes

How we do school matters.  The structures and practices that schools enact define what education is and is not. Decisions about what students are expected to learn, how they are to learn it and how they are organized have profound implications for students, their communities, society, and the world at large.

The current educational model, enforced by federally-mandated assessment and reporting systems, equates student learning with increases in standardized test scores. It is a model that is driven by corporate needs and nationalistic interests and grounded in a worldview that favors scientific reductionism and quantitative measures. Academic superiority on the global stage is presented by national leaders as critical to maintaining economic competitiveness and national security. [1]  Education’s sole purpose-and resulting educational system-is to produce academically prepared high-achieving students. Accordingly, districts across the US utilize “value-added measures” [VAMs] to predict the impact a given teacher will have on student test scores[2] and are integrated into policy and personnel decisions. Despite widespread criticism from educators, professional organizations, and educational researchers, the practice of using VAMS to evaluate teachers, schools and teacher preparation programs persists.[3]  The reductionist view of schools and student learning “channels the educational endeavor in ways that diminish self-understanding and human development.”[4]

The focus on academic content knowledge as a measure of student learning is losing status among leaders in business and industry. Faced with diverse global markets and what has been termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution [41R], employers are looking instead for graduates who exhibit a capacity for creative and innovative thinking and an ability for collaboration and communication.[5] What were once presented as “soft skills” or twenty-first century skills are now the “essential employability qualities.”[6]

Drawing on Sir Ken Robinson’s Call to Unite[7] and Ron Miller’s analyses of trends in American education, I have argued in an earlier posting that the current educational model has proved to be unsustainable, inequitable, and unjust. I have argued that education’s many shortcomings, as detailed by Jennings and others, and the storm clouds of disease, ecological disaster, social and racial unrest, reveal the intersection and interdependence of all social and ecological systems–we are one ecosystem, a tiny blue dot in the universe. How we do education, reaches into all social and ecological spheres. In Fratelli tutti,[8] Pope Francis argues that the current ecological degradation is, in part, a reflection of our loss of humanity. Education is at its heart a moral, ethical enterprise. Education needs more heart.

School Transformation author Wayne B. Jennings and numerous others like myself are “disillusioned by a system that prizes intellectual growth and neglects the humanistic aspect of education.”[9]

During his years as a high school teacher in the public-school system in Minnesota that had adopted principles of progressive education, Jennings taught at level five which had no prescribed curriculum. Rather than being a predetermined sequence of lessons, curriculum was

built on the assumption that students should be equipped with competencies for life. That’s best done through designing a curriculum including student-determined learning activities, using student interests and accomplishing societal expectations for educated people.

Jennings writes,

Deeply embedded in my mind and something I was constantly aware of was the aim of producing people who would have the skills [and disposition] to create better lives and work for a better society. (p. xvii)

In proposing that our schools need to undergo transformation, Jennings writes:

I want to see schools with enthusiastic students who are engaged in a wide variety of activities. There should be a hum of energy as students explore their interests and the opportunity to stretch themselves. . .  (p. xxvii)

Jennings notes the gap and disconnect between schools’ aspirations for graduates and educational practice.

While most school districts acknowledge the value of helping students achieve their aspirations and accept the idea of achieving competencies for life, they fail to detail the implications of those hopes. (p. 12)

my major quarrel about schooling is not about mission; almost everyone accepts school and district broad mission statements. The disconnect comes when organizing learning to achieve the mission. (p. 37)

Imagining the education students need to flourish and thrive, and which reflects the progressive values we want to see advanced in the world, Ron Miller suggests that schools might do well to adopt principles that holistic educators have advocated for two centuries:

Building on these holistic values and Jennings’ summation of education’s larger purposes, I presented what might be four larger purposes to guide schools in their educational planning:

I identified Self-Directed Learning as a transformational educational practice that holds the promise, possibility, and potential to help schools achieve their larger purposes.[10]  I begin with research from the field of learning psychology on how people learn and build understanding. Some readers may choose to skip this portion.

How People Learn and Build Understanding

By making extended clinical inquiries following how infants, children, and adolescents build an understanding of the world, Piaget and his colleagues at the University of Geneva showed that knowledge and understanding does exist as a ready-made commodity “out there.” Nor is it located pre-formed inside children’s minds waiting to “unfold.” Children’s thought structures and object knowledge develop with their ongoing exploratory actions on the objects in their environment and their efforts to reconcile and coordinate those actions.   It is through reaching out to the world that children grow in understanding. When defined by growth in knowledge and understanding, learning involves the dialectical relationship between the child and the world, resulting from the child’s self-directed exploration of the environment. Learning is what the learner does. Learning reflects adaptation of existing internal schemes to accommodate to the environment and new experiences. Learning is grounded in learners’ experiences in larger, outer the world. While object knowledge does not reside within the child, as an entity waiting to unfold, what children do bring to the world are the capacities for action, reflection, and sense-making. Peter Gray, , describes this as children “coming into the world equipped to educate themselves.” [11] This equipment includes disposition to explore, to be curious; and they are naturally social and like to watch, observe, and play with others. 

The research sheds light on the failure of didactic and transmission instruction to support changes in how learners understand a subject matter. [12]  Children arrive at new insights and understandings of objects and phenomena in their environment as they work to coordinate and make sense of how one action and observation fits with another. Children are supported in their learning when objects presented pique their interests and curiosities, activating previously held schemas.[13] This finding from developmental psychology provided the basis for an activity- and discovery-based “science of education.” [14] Piaget decried so-called “active methods” that presume that the mere manipulation of objects results in learning, asserting:

Knowledge derives not from objects manipulated, but from the actions of the child and their coordination, . . . the most authentic research activity may take place in the spheres of reflection, of the most advanced abstraction, and of verbal manipulation (provided they are spontaneous and not imposed on the child).[15]

Genuine learning requires that learners have first-hand experience with phenomena, are free to explore observations and questions that emerge from their own activities, interests, and curiosities, and have opportunity to interact with other learners. By listening to and taking in observations and ideas shared by other learners, children deepen their own understanding. Learning is an intensely creative and constructive act as each learner, by coordinating thoughts and observations, seeks understanding of the whole. In this way, learning, while located in the work of the individual, is socially situated, supported when learners collaborate in groups, forming a learning community. Environments that facilitate learning and understanding encourage (rather than suppress) imagination, creativity, and innovation and, by their nature, generate feelings of joy and satisfaction. Development of understanding involves the transformation of thought structures.

Freedom to learn, does not mean that there is not a much needed role for a well-informed teacher, or other caring and attentive adult, who, rather than directed learning and teaching via transmitting information, instead puts his or her knowledge in the service to supporting others in developing understanding. As Dana Bennis[16] emphasized:

Eliminating coercion will not necessarily lead to the realization of freedom. Rather than needing only the absence of something (constraints), complete freedom. . .also requires the presence of certain factors, including potentially a democratic forum. . .and environment that opens up possibilities, relationships with others, and the ability to think and act for oneself. Practically, this implies that freedom-based schools, or any schools, that do not consider these additional conditions may not support freedom for students. 

Progressive educator John Dewey cautioned against the “radical fallacy” of choosing between the child or the curriculum. Teaching that center solely on the child and that which implements a prescribed curriculum both have its risks. Dewey proposed that teaching must follow and build on children’s interests and curiosities-as revealed by closely observing children’s exploratory activities and listening to their questions and wonderings. Curriculum development involves enriching the environment with materials that connect to and sustain children’s exploratory activities and which are drawn from the culture of the adult world and “occupations.” Other acts of teaching involve helping learners to observe and creating spaces for learners to share their observations and insights with freedom to pursue inquiries of their own making. Learning to “teach” in this way requires engaging in experiences that nurture these teacher capacities. It goes without saying, that learning in this way generates feeling of joy, happiness and satisfaction as children become the authors and authorities of what they know and understand.

SDL and Education’s Larger Purposes

  • Advancing Equity, Diversity, Identity, and Inclusion for All

For most families, the public education system is the entry point to access the American dream. It is a testament to our growing democracy-a democracy that is becoming more inclusive- that today’s public schools provide greater access to a wider spectrum of demographic groups than at any time in our educational history. As Deborah Meier and others have noted, there never was a “Golden Age” in education.[17] Today’s schools reflect the increasing and widening diversity of both the local communities and global world in which we are all a part. Students enter school with a wide array of talents, abilities, intelligences, interests, experiences, and gender orientations and come from a spectrum of cultures and backgrounds (economic, religious, etc.). Equity, justice, and inclusivity for all demographic groups are advanced, and students flourish and thrive, when education, rather than utilizing prescribed methods and seeking conformity, acknowledges and builds on this rich diversity.  By providing students choice in what they study and the questions and observations to pursue, the approach they select to explore and gather data, and the modalities and forms through which to express their ideas, Self-Directed Learning, supports individuality and positive identity construction, and nurtures students’ capacities for imagination, creativity, and innovation. All students have opportunity to follow their interests and develop their capacities to their fullest potential.

  • Nurturing our Wholeness and Humanity

In The Soul of Education, “whole child pioneer” Rachael Kessler[18] identified seven needs of adolescent learners: a need for deep connection, stillness and silence, meaning and purpose, joy and creativity, transcendence and initiation.  ASCD remembered Kessler “for advocating for schools that support the spiritual and personal growth of the whole child, not just academics in isolation.”  I am convinced that Kessler would have seen in SDL the attributes that she believed made for a positive socio-emotional learning environment for adolescent students.

In Teacher and Child, noted child psychologist Haim Ginott published an excerpt of a letter written by a Holocaust survivor to educators.[19] It is a document that I present to each incoming class of teacher education students. The letter reads,

Dear Teacher

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is this:  Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

By encouraging and facilitating students’ self-directed explorations of the larger world, Self-Directed Learning meets the needs of adolescent students as Kessler describes and increases students’ interactions with and knowledge and appreciation for cultures that differ from their own. This helps adolescents to recognize their own identities and cultures as one among many and helping them to see themselves in the “other.” These relationships both nourish the human desire for connection and nurture an ethic of care, developing the capacities for empathy, compassion and perspective taking. In so doing, SDL advances the ideals of holistic education.

  • Autonomy, Agency, Competence, Confidence, Problem-Solving and Leadership

Today’s students live in a world that is experiencing and exhibiting the stresses and strains of a range of environmental, social, and global issues that they did not cause but which are theirs to address and solve. Self-Directed Learning, by engaging students in real-world issues and dilemmas drawn from their own lived experiences, engages students in Freire’s “problem-posing”[20] education in which problems that students identify and which are drawn from communities in which they live become the learning materials, i.e..,  the curriculum.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

In this way, the approach is learner-centered, centers on “place,” and engages students in civic action. The approach respects students’ sense-making capacities and positions students as problem-solvers through which they develop autonomy and agency, and find relevance, meaning, and purpose in their learning.

  Communities and schools are revitalized, developing in reciprocal and dialectical relationship, as school and community develop and progress together. As researchers with the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment [NCIEA] found, students who experience SDL “a heightened ability to adapt to changing social and contextual conditions . . . feel more empowered to take action when oppressed . . . are more likely to reach self-actualization.”  Theydevelop their communication and collaborative capacities and gain a disposition for civic and global engagement.

  • Adapting to a Rapidly Changing Landscape

Rapid technological changes have created a landscape in which the jobs of the future are “unknowable and unpredictable.” The World Economic Forum has reported:

in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago . . . 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.[21]

Ted Dintersmith, author of What Our Schools Could Be, presents the new employment landscape and what it means for students and society in blunt terms:

Machine intelligence is racing ahead, wiping out millions of routine jobs as it reshapes the competencies needed to thrive . . . Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling up on the side lines jeopardizing civil society.[22]

The Hewlett Foundation coined the term “deeper learning” in 2013 as an “umbrella” for the competencies needed to be successful in twenty-first century jobs and civic life. Competencies include: an ability to engage in critical thinking and complex problem-solving, work collaboratively, communicate effectively to share findings and thoughts; monitor and direct one’s own learning and understanding how to learn; and an academic mindset with a positive attitude and belief about themselves as learners.

The Quality Assurance Commons created A Graduate Profile that presents “hire-worthy” graduates as: inquirers and problem solvers; collaborators; communicators; adaptable; principled, ethical and responsible; professional; learners.[23]

The World Economic Forum released Education 4.0,[24] a frameworkdesigned to help teachers develop students’ collaborative skills and innovation and creativity capacities.  The framework calls for “active pedagogies” and “deeper learning experiences” that students “will remember and internalize” such as “problem-based” and “student-driven learning.”

  • Democracy, Community, and Social Progress—freedom and liberation

With the declaration “Education is a process of living, not a preparation for living,” John Dewey[25] put forth a vision of education in which experience is the basis of all learning. Dewey justified this positioning with reference to rapid industrialization and a changing landscape. Rather than equipping students with the technical skills to meet anticipated conditions, Dewey proposed developing students’ capacities to the fullest such that they gain “command” of themselves. Students’ eyes, ears, hands, and judgement are the needed tools to navigate, adapt to, and remain in command of the changing landscape. Dewey writes,

With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell just what civilization will be twenty years from now.  Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently. (p. 21-22)

The same holds true today. A role for education is to provide students with experiences out of which they can grow and develop into the culture of the adult. Dewey advocated for active learning methods on the basis that

more active, expressive and self-directing factors  . . . are necessities of the larger social evolution.

While active methods do not by themselves guarantee liberation or freedom, through such methods:

Learning [is]. . . put into circulation. [A] distinctively learned class is henceforth out of the question . . . Knowledge is no longer an immobile solid; it has been liquefied. It is actively moving in all the currents of society itself.

School transformation, Dewey recognized, is our best hope for social progress and realizing the vision of the progressive era.

All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members. All its better thoughts of itself it hopes to realize through the new possibilities thus opened to its future self. Here individualism and socialism are at one.

If schools are to fulfill their promise in advancing social progress and  democracy, Dewey recognized that each school must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect life of the larger society.” Only when schools are successful in accomplishing this aim,

we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious. (p. 29)

Ahead of his time, Dewey understood that for new education movements to take hold, “rather than existing outside of and ignoring social context,” they must “take the broader, or social view.” Otherwise, “changes in the school institution and tradition will be looked at as the arbitrary inventions of particular teachers.” 

Self-Directed Learning is a way of doing education that can help school meet their larger purposes for students, advance progressive and holistic values, and foster transformative change, for both students and society. It is an education that ensures that schools, students, and society develop the capacity to adapt to a landscape that is ever-changing, unknowable, and predictable.

The time is now to be a dreamkeeper.

November 4, 2020

[1] National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk.

[2] See Hanushek, E. A. (1971). Teacher characteristics and gains in student achievement:  Estimation using micro-data. The American Economic Review, 61(2) (pp. 280-288). Papers and Proceedings of the Eighty-Third Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association; Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S. G. (2006). Teacher quality.In E.A. Hanushek and F. Welch (Eds.) Handbook of the economics of education, Vol.2 (pp.1051-1078). Elsevier B.V. doi: 10.1016/S1574-0692(06)02018-6.

[3] Rothstein, J. (Fall/Winter 2012-13). Effects of value-added policies. Focus, 29, (2); Sawchuck, S. (2015, October 6). Teacher evaluation heads to the courts. Education Week.  

[4] Miller, R. (1997/1990). What are schools for? Brandon, VT. Wholistic Education Press.

[5] Hart Research Association (2015, January). Falling short? College learning and career success. Selected findings from online surveys of employers and college students. On behalf of Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC: Author.; Hart Research Association (2018, July). Fulfilling the American dream: Liberal education and the future of work: Selected findings from online surveys of business executives and hiring managers. On behalf of Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC: Author.

[6] The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Post-Secondary Education (2020, March). Graduate profile. Retrieved from

[7] Sir Ken Robinson, My thoughts on the Call to Unite. May, 7, 2020.

[8] Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti,

[9] Jennings, W.B. (2018). School Transformation. North Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace, an Company.

[10] McDonnell blog

[11] Gray, P. (2020, November 3). Mother Nature’s Pedagogy: The Biology of Self-Directed Education, Q &A, paper presentation. Web IDEC 2020, International Conference of Democratic Education.

[12] The field of physics education has accumulated a vast number of studies that illustrate the failure of didactic instructional approaches to support conceptual understanding.

[13] Inhelder, B., Sinclair, H., & Bovet, M. (1974). Learning and the development of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Trans. S. Wedgewood.

[14] Piaget’s research prompted mothers of newborns to place brightly colored objects above the crib for babies to watch and grasp and to seek out objects and materials for their young children explore.

[15] Piaget, J. (1971). Science of education and the psychology of the child. New York, NY: Viking Compass Edition, The Viking Press, Inc. (D. Coltman, Trans.) (original work published (1969).

[16] Bennis, D. (2006). Demystifying freedom-based education. Cincinnati, OH: Union Institute and University: Master’s thesis. In Jennings, 2018, p. 13.

[17]Meier, D. W. (1992, September 21). Myths, lies and public schools. The Nation, p.255, 271.

[18] Kessler, R. (2000). The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion and Character at School, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

[19] Ginott, H. (1972). Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers. MacMillan.

[20] Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. 30th anniversary edition.  (Original 1970). Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York, NY: Continuum.

[21] World Economic Forum (2016, January). The future of jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the fourth industrial revolution. Global Challenge Insight Report. Geneva, Switzerland.

[22] Dintersmith, T.  (2018). What School Could Be. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[23] The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Post-Secondary Education (2020, March). Graduate profile. Retrieved from

[24] World Economic Forum (2019).

[25] Dewey, J. (1959a). My pedagogic creed. In Dewey on education: Selections, Martin S. Dworkin (ed.) (pp.19-32). Classics in Education No. 3. New York: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 1897).

Self-Directed Learning and the “New Normal”-Part 2

Blog posting, October 22, 2020

COVID 19 has resulted in significant disruption to the education system.  The temporary closure of our public schools creates space to rethink the purposes of public education, its grounding framework, and the way we do school. As one reporter put it,

COVID-19 has created a strange natural experiment in American education: Families who would have never otherwise considered taking their kids out of school feel desperate enough to try it.. . . Although some of these parents will likely put their kids back in school once the pandemic is under control. . . [s]ome families may find that they want to exit the system for good. [1]

In a video message recorded in front of an unseen audience just weeks before his passing, Sir Ken Robinson, dropping the humor that we know from his TED talks, looked squarely into the camera and asked: “As we prepare to hit the reset button and look ahead to getting back to normal, What is the normal that we want to get back to? Is it the normal that we left behind us?”[2]  

For Robinson, perhaps many of you, and others—such as students who, dis-affected by their experiences, opted out of school; employers who look for graduates who have the skills to successfully engage with a workplace and society that is increasingly global and diverse; and those who see education as preparing students for civic engagement and the engine for building and actively constructing an equitable and sustainable democracy–the answer is clear. No.

Imagining and Envisioning What School Could Be

Sir Ken Robinson left this earth all too soon, amid the summer heat of COVID 19, a loss and disruption of cataclysmic proportions, creating shockwaves across educational circles. Yet, Robinson is with us in spirit. Through his many talks and public presentations Robinson sketched a vision, framework and new paradigm to guide us as we work together as an “ecosystem” of persons united by a shared concern for the flourishing of children and youth, our communities and society and the world at large. We must draw on this inspiration to imagine and dream the world that we would have, a world that lifts up and sees value, possibility and potential in all people, and create a new educational model for the “new normal.”

Speaking in 2018 at the Reimagine Education Conference,[3] Robinson was emphatic that this work necessitates that we “reimagine that learning can [and does] change the world.”

We must re-imagine schools as places that “re-ignite learning” and nurture curiosity, where students have an identity and “develop a sense of promise,” as they come to “understand their relationship to earth and their communities.” In these places, curriculum is “where [students] discover themselves most fully” and teaching is “facilitating knowing.

Most fundamentally, the current educational paradigm, rooted in the industrial era in which school responded to societal needs to compete in a rapidly growing marketplace, and which equates increases in student test scores with national economic superiority, is “unnatural,” “unsustainable” and deeply flawed. Rather than focusing on test scores as measures of learning, teaching and school effectiveness, suggests Robinson, we must look to other “outcomes.” These outcomes are the human attributes of curiosity, creativity, criticism (critical thinking), communication, collaboration, compassion, composure, citizenship.  Ron Miller, a historian of progressive education and founder of Holistic Education Review, agrees. Miller finds what Pope Francis knows. The current system emerged from a “consensus consciousness” and worldview that prioritizes scientific reductionism, capitalism, nationalism and “restrained democratic ideals.” From Miller’s perspective

Our nation is not at risk because the schools are failing; schools are failing because our nation, our culture, have entered a period of serious decline. . . . educating our youth for the sake of national economic superiority is a profoundly self-destructive mistake![4]

In the current model, like fruit produced by industrial farming, “our students wither on the vine.”  Fruit produced by industrial farming cannot provide the nourishment and nutrients we need to survive. It does not have to be that way. Indeed, as organic farming is replacing the corporate industrial farm, “another way is possible.”

Now is the time to make “radical decisions” about how we do school that, to quote Pope Francis in his October letter to educators, [5] “can shape not only our way of life but above all our stance in the face of possible future scenarios.”

The value of our educational practices will be measured not simply by the results of standardized tests, but by the ability to affect the heart of society and to help give birth to a new culture. A different world is possible and we are called to learn how to build it. This will involve every aspect of our humanity, both as individuals and in our communities. [Para 12]

Robinson, having deep trust in our  “boundless capacity and innovation,” illuminated a guiding vision but left the path and creative constructive work for attaining and reaching the vision and dream to us.

Self-Directed Learning and “Catching the Dream”

Self-Directed Learning [SDL] is a creative and innovative way of doing school that provides a path to Robinson’s vision for schools.  The benefits of SDL are such that it should be a part of all redesign projects, available to all students, and scaled-up to the greatest extent possible in our public schools. SDL embodies what we know about how people learn and build understanding and resolves the dilemma of the student-teacher relationship, while helping schools achieve theirlarger purposes.” As an approach to doing school, SDL creates a dynamic and dialectic relationship between school and community that provides schools the flexibility to adapt to the challenges of an ever-changing and unpredictable environment.

Self-directed learning is

a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.[6]

Currently, there are families who choose to make SDL constitute the entirety of their student’s educational experience.[7] These students, typically less than 4 percent of the school-age children and youth,  are either homeschooled or attend alternative schools outside of the public system. Each fall, approximately 57 million students enroll in state-funded elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States.[8] Students within the public system, may experience SDL as one part of their schooling, perhaps as a capstone project.

Self-Directed Learning and School’s Larger Purposes

Few schools in the public system put the attributes that Robinson identifies in Creative Schools-and which likely many of you hope to see nurtured in school- at the center of educational planning.  As Wayne Jennings has commented[9]

As presently constituted, schooling operates out of syc with modern principles of learning, recognition of individual differences, and attention to societal needs and is not managed with contemporary organizational procedures. The present model is simply outmoded in the same way that the nineteenth-century practice of medicine is obsolete today. (p. xxii)

In School Transformation, Jennings builds on his research of studies in the field to identify four goals to serve as foundational cornerstones for school transformation projects. Preparing students as responsible citizens for life in a democracy; productive workers, lifelong learners and fulfilled learners.  As a way of doing school, SDL aligns with recommendations outlined in a Generations Citizen report, a call to action, for policy-makers, stakeholder-students, educators, school leaders, parents-that encourages use of approaches that are “student-centered, experiential civics education to prepare students as civic actors ready to participate in a sustained, equitable 21st century democracy.”[10]

I reorganize Jennings’ “larger purposes” as:

I elaborate on how SDL supports each of these larger purposes for public education in another posting.

SUPPORT FOR SDL: “Self-directed learning is vital in today’s world.”

Support for SDL comes from an in-depth study conducted  by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment [NCIEA].[11] Researchers found that students who experience SDL

have a heightened ability to adapt to changing social and contextual conditions . . . feel more empowered to take action when oppressed . . . are more likely to reach self-actualization. [And] as adults, they are better equipped to learn new skills, remain employed, and nurture their own long-term career success.

The report concluded:

Self-directed learning is vital in today’s world. People in developing countries now have access to massive amounts of data and virtually ubiquitous access to information. This creates conditions for rapid societal change and presents challenges for educational institutions to fully prepare students for demands in the workforce. These demands extend beyond content knowledge to include skill-based competencies such as problem-solving, curiosity and reflection, creativity, written and verbal communication, collaboration, accepting and applying critical feedback, applying knowledge to real-life problems, and managing and supporting constant change. To survive in today’s workforce, individuals must know how to take charge of their learning—to plan, develop, adapt, and change in a digital, interactive and global society.

A different world” is possible . . . and it begins with how we do school

Our best hope for social progress and realizing the vision of the progressive era is, as Sir Ken stated, in how we choose to do school. Indeed, as Dewey noted, how we do school is a direct reflection of our values and how we view society. It will shape the future of our humanity. A more peaceful and humane world that values and nourishes the creativity, possibility and potential within all people is reflected in and shaped by how we do school.

As John Dewey had said 100 years ago,

All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members. All its better thoughts of itself it hopes to realize through the new possibilities thus opened to its future self. (p. 7)

Only when schools are successful in accomplishing this aim,

we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious. (p. 29)

In the words of Pope Francis, taken from his October 15 letter to educators

it is time to subscribe to a global pact on education for and with future generations. . . . [para 11]

. . .  We have the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes. Let us take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies. [para 13]

Covid 19, so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye, but with impacts that reach beyond all walls, has unveiled the interdependence of all social systems and the deep inequities in society. Change happens through disruption. Through the dust and ash, new life emerges.

Our social problems and failures-those of disease, poverty, and education- cannot be solved with technologic innovations. Eradication of disease, as Paul Farmer, “the man who would cure the world,”  has said, starts with eradicating poverty and the inequities that exist throughout or social-economic-cultural-educational systems. Eradicating social inequities and disease begins with how we do school.

Robinson reminded us:

We created school. We can reinvent school.” We are the system-what [we] do next is the system.”

Now is the time to catch and realize the dream and to be dreamkeepers for all.

[1] Green, E. (2020, September). Politics. The pandemic has parents fleeing from schools-maybe forever. The Atlantic

[2] A Call to Unite,


[4] Miller was referencing the controversial 1983 national report, A Nation At Risk, which attributed America’s so-called educational declines to “a rising tide of mediocrity.”[4] The Committee’s response: demand that schools put even greater emphasis on academic content and test scores.

[5] Video message of his holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the meeting organised by the congregation for catholic education: “Global compact on education. Together to look beyond”.  Thursday, 15 October 2020.

[6] Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Cambridge: Englewood Cliffs.

[7] I present the definitions for SDL and SDE in a pervious blog posting. For a listing of SDE schools go to

[8] In fall 2020 56.4 million students were projected to enroll in a public school and just 5.7 million will opt for a private school.

[9] Jennings, W.B. (2018). School Transformation. North Charlestown, South Carolina: CreateSpace, an Company.

[10] Citizen Generation  Through an Action Civic Lens.

[11] Brandt, C. (2020). Measuring student success skills: A review of the literature on self-directed learning. Center for Assessment, National Committee for the Improvement of Educational Assessment [NCIEA].

Why Self-Directed Learning Should Be Available to All Students-Part 1

Why Self-Directed Learning Should Be Available to All Students

This summer I attended a 4-day online conference organized by the Alternative Education Resource Organization [AERO]. Presenters talked on a range of topics including “self-directed learning,” “self-directed education,” and “unschooling.” This blog posting consists of two parts. In Part One, I provide a brief overview the terms and concepts. In Part Two, I make four arguments for why self-directed learning should be available to all students.

Part One: Terms and Concepts

Self-Directed Learning

In Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, Malcom S. Knowles, known primarily for his scholarship in the field of adult education, defined self-directed learning [SDL] as:

a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.[1]

Sharan B. Merriam, also in the field of adult education, presents SDL as

a process where individuals take primary charge of planning, continuing and evaluating their learning experiences.[2]

A significant feature of SDL is that the

responsibility of learning shifts from an external source (teacher, etc.) to the individual. Control, active involvement and consent of the learner in the learning process is crucial in the process.[3]

A recent report by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment[4] observes

self-direction is best viewed as a continuum that exists in every person and learning situation.

All learning experiences fall on a continuum somewhere between a teacher driven, teacher dependent to self-determined, self-developed. The report includes a chart to assess where a given learning experience falls on the SDL continuum.  The same report finds that an individual’s environment and social interactions play a critical role in shaping the learning process and the development of self-directed learning skills.

Finally, whereas students who attend a conventional school may have opportunity for SDL as one part of their education (perhaps as a special project, capstone experience, project-based learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning, competency-based learning, or inquiry learning experience), some families opt out of conventional schooling to make SDL constitute the entire educational route.

Self-Directed Education

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education [ASDE] ( contrasts Self-Directed Education [SDE] with “conventional schooling,”  a system that “imposes” and “forces curriculum upon individuals, regardless of their desire for it.” Conventional schooling

is generally aimed at enhancing conformity rather than uniqueness, and it operates by suppressing, rather than nurturing, the natural drives of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.

Self-Directed Education [SDE] is that which

derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person becoming educated, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education.

SDE is the educational route of families who

have chosen not to enroll [their school-aged children] in imposed schooling, but, instead, allow the children to take charge of all of their education.

Educative Drives. The Alliance identify four specific aims or goals of SDE, which it presents as the “four educative drives.” These drives aspire to Curiosity, Playfulness, Sociability, and Planfuless.

Optimizing Conditions. The Alliance also identifies six conditions must be met for the educative drives to be fully realized:

  • recognition that learning is the learner’s responsibility,
  • unlimited time to play,
  • opportunity to play with the tools of the culture,
  • access to caring adults who serve as helpers not judges,
  • free age-mixing among children and adolescents, and
  • immersion in a stable, supportive and respectful community.

SDE-aligned schools satisfy the legal requirements of compulsory schooling laws while giving students as much freedom as possible to direct their own education. ASDE maintains a listing of schools in the US and around the world that provide learners an SDE experience.


John C.  Holt (1923-1985), the recognized leader of the homeschooling movement, introduced the term “unschooling.” Patrick Farenga, co-author of the 2003 re-edition of Teach Your Own” The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, explained the origins of the term:

[W]e are practically programmed to teach [at home] the way we were taught in school. . .. We’ve all spent so much time in school, it is difficult to imagine that there are other ways to live and learn in our current society. . .  In response to the prevailing definition of school, John created the word unschooling to describe how we help children learn without duplicating ideas and practices that we learned in school.[5]

The Freechild Project ( inspired by Holt, defines unschooling as:

living life without any structure in life that resembles schools. Rather than relying on curriculum, schedules, teachers and tests, unschooling can give young people opportunities to learn with life as teacher.

Unschooling School ( seeks to create Unschooling Schools within the conventional school. The organization, a community of students, parents, educators, propose to

[make] space for change within schools by choosing not to comply with the age-segregated, curriculum-driven, testing, grading, and homework-laden nonsense. . . [with the insistence] that our children be allowed to choose what they want to do at school.

An innovation of this organization has been the invention of a new designation for students: The Free Learner (or FL). Students who declare themselves to be a Free Learner and receive the FL designation will require accommodation in the class and school. The accommodations will vary and depend on the wishes/interests of the FL child and parent(s).

In Part Two, I present four arguments for why ongoing opportunities for self-directed learning should be available to all students.

[1] Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Cambridge: Englewood Cliffs.

[2] Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., and Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[3] Boyer, N. R., and Usinger, P. (2015). Tracking pathways to success: triangulating learning success factors. Int. J. Self-Directed Learn. 12, pp. 22–48.

[4] Brandt, W. C. (2020). Measuring student success skills: A review of the literature on self-direction. Dover, NH: National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

[5] Holt, J. C. & Farenga, P. (2003).  Teach Your Own: The John Holt Manual of Homeschooling (original published in 1981), Perseus Books.

Re-Inventing School: A Tribute to Sir Ken Robinson

A few weeks ago, on a hot sunny afternoon in mid-August, as I sat writing at my desk, an email in my inbox announced Sir Ken Robinson’s untimely passing. I was stunned. In late July, as part the Alternative Educational Resource Organization [AERO] annual conference, this year held online via zoom technology, I had listened intently as Kate Robinson and school Dr. Michael Hynes, superintendent of Port Washington public schools, shared some of their thoughts about the purposes of education, and the principles that might drive school design. Quoting E. Deming, Hynes stated, “Every system is designed to get the results it wants.”  Hynes responded that each semester he starts off the school year asking teachers and staff two questions: “Why are we here?” “What is the purpose of school?” If we don’t know the answer to these to questions, then how are we building experiences for students? When asked, Kate Robinson shared that for her dad, whom she referred to as “SKR,” education should help students to “understand the world around them,” and develop their capacities “to engage with the world.”

At the time that I received this tragic news, I was involved in a weekly online discussion on the topic of school transformation and a shared reading of book with the same title. We were fortunate to have the book author Wayne B. Jennings as part of the reading discussion. The group had been discussing the goals and purposes of schools, the topic of Chapter 1.  I was sketching out my thoughts about what Vito Perrone, another personal hero, mentor and dare I say colleague, termed the “larger purposes” of school. Having spent my entire professional career in education, first teaching secondary science in the public setting, then as a teacher educator, and most recently as a college administrator, clarifying the larger purposes of school, for specific purpose of building experiences around those shared purposes, is something that I think about a lot. Indeed, As the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland points out, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Lacking consensus on the larger purpose of schools, makes it challenging at best to provide a rationale for certain instructional choices. And so, during the quiet of “lockdown” brought about by COVID 19, I revisited the question, What are schools for?  

I had watched Robinson’s now famous 2006 TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? I recalled chuckling out loud at his humor, but as an educator also with some awkwardness, as I quietly considered the premise of his arguments. “Creativity,” he declared some fourteen years ago, “is as important as literacy.” (It is important to understand Robinson’s definition of creativity. For Robinson, creativity is the process of having an original idea about something of value–(not in the dollar sense!) Moreover, creativity applies to all subject matters, science, technology, not just music, art, etc. And, the idea should be original to the person who had the idea, not necessarily to the world. Others may have had the idea before, but it is the first occasion on which the person/child had the idea.) “Education will take us into the future,” a future he reminded us that given the rapid changes in technology is both unknowable and unpredictable. With the audience, I laughed as Robinson shared stories of talents left behind and depicted schools as places which educate students from “the head up, and to the left-side,” with “the body as transport for the head.”  Would schools today recognize the talent of a young William Shakespeare? Schools, said Robinson, himself a former teacher, provide students a “disembodied” experience. Schools are “educating people out of their creative capacities.” What our children and society needs is an education that thinks “radically differently about intelligence,” seeks out and values the diversity of talents that students bring into the classroom, and which nurtures creativity, imagination, and innovation. We need to “rethink the fundamental principles on which we educate our children.” I agreed then. I agree all the more so today.

In a short videotaped message, recorded while in “lockdown” from his home in London, just three months before his untimely passing, a message that would be his last public address,[1] Robinson drew on the metaphor of a movie camera.   As a result of COVID-19, he reflected, we have “pressed pause” on most of our social systems, including education. For a while “the whole education system has been turned off . . . the treadmill has stopped.” Dropping the humor to which we had become accustomed and now steeped in deep sincerity, Robinson, perhaps aware that his time was short, spoke earnestly as he addressed an unseen audience. As we prepare “to press the reset button,” and “look ahead to a time when we get back to normal, the question is: What is the normal that we want to get back to? Is it the normal that we left behind us?” For Robinson, and for so many others, myself included, the answer to this question is a resounding, no.

Born into a working-class family in Liverpool, England, Robinson was well aware that for the majority of children and adolescents, public education is “not the best option, it is the only option.”  In a conversation with the yogi and mystic Sadhguru, in which they explored their visions of “The Ideal Education,” Robinson described public education as “a jewel in the crown of America’s achievements.”[1] Robinson was a staunch advocate of free public education and immensely proud of the years he spent as a teacher, declaring, “I am a teacher.”  Teachers and public schools everywhere, he observed, perform miracles… teachers and public schools are “in the miracle business.”

Robinson left this earth all too soon. He did so, however, leaving us his insights into what makes for successful schools, and by successful he means both for the students who attend them and for the future of humans on this earth. Robinson drew on a parallel which he had developed over the years between industrial agriculture and the design of schools. Industrial agriculture with its mechanization and use of pesticides and fertilizers, is not sustainable, is unnatural and short-term, and “wreaks havoc” on the health of the earth, leaving topsoil eroded. In much the same way, today’s educational system, which also focuses on outputs and yield (of test scores, graduation rates, etc.), does not allow students to flourish. Like fruit in poor soil, students wither on the vine. There is, Robinson declares, an “alternative system.” Organic farming, on the other hand, values crop diversity and natural development. With an emphasis on the soil, no pesticides or fertilizers are needed. Principals of successful schools, Robinson noted, know that “we flourish when the culture is right.” These schools create a culture of compassion, collaboration, and empathy. This culture values and sees the strength in diversity and individuality and joint participation. In Creative Schools, Robinson identified eight capacities that all schools might nurture: curiosity, creativity, criticism (critical thinking), communication, collaboration, compassion, composure, citizenship. I would add community and civic engagement. Successful schools “re-ignite learning” and nurture curiosity. In closing, Robinson reasserted a long-held belief. The problem is not school itself but “how we do school.” A firm believer in our “boundless capacity, creativity and innovation,” Robinson reminded us: We created school. We can reinvent school. “As we get back to normal, we need to re-imagine what that could look like.” Let’s continue this work.

It is with this same spirit that I undertake these blog postings.

As we press the metaphorical reset button and re-invent school, What might school look like when it is grounded in the principles that we know help all students to flourish and thrive?

[1] Sir Ken Robinson with Sadhguru. The Ideal Education. March 6, 2017.

[1] Sir Ken Robinson, My thoughts on the Call to Unite. May, 7, 2020.

Learning, Leading and Learning-Informed Leadership: Dilemmas and Struggles of a Community college Administrator

Learning, Leading and Learning-Informed Leadership: Dilemmas and Struggles of a Community College Administrator

This week I began thinking about my work as an academic leader and administrator in a community college, and how this work is shaped by my knowledge of how people learn and form understanding. As I shared in my first blog posting, in the early 1980s, having completed an undergraduate degree and some graduate coursework in zoology, I was hired to teach secondary science in a large public high school. Without any other knowledge to draw from, I instructed my own science students in much the same way that I had been taught.  Most evenings I worked past midnight to create lectures and laboratory experiences which would effectively deliver to students the ideas I wanted them to know. I struggled with determining the most logical sequence to deliver course material. When teaching the solar system, for example, I questioned whether to start with the inner or outer solar system, and which object to present first, the moon, sun or planets!

Becoming increasingly sensitive to the limitations of this approach (I noticed that many of my students held the same ideas following my instruction as they did at the course outset) I began to experiment with a number of approaches to teaching science (hands-on, predict-observe-verify, etc).  I soon became involved with some NSF funded science curriculum projects. These curriculum projects did add something to my teaching and had varying degrees of success in changing student’s initial ideas about scientific phenomena.  In 1991, intrigued by the complexity of how people learn, I accepted an opportunity to pursue graduate work at Harvard Graduate School of Education in the field of Teaching, Curriculum and Learning Environments.  My research with Eleanor Duckworth, who supervised my doctoral research with a high school physics teacher (Kris Newton) and her students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, generated insights into how people learn for understanding and the conditions needed to support learning. These insights revolutionized my understanding of learning and how I thought about my work as a classroom teacher.  

For example, I realized that while the well-crafted lecture can convey to an attentive audience certain knowledge of the scientific world (the names and structures of planets and plants, etc., conceptual understandings of how those things work cannot be so readily conveyed.  Conceptual understanding is constructed by the learner and requires that the learner, rather than assuming the stance of passive recipient, become actively involved in the learning process.  When learning is defined as having an understanding of how something works, rather than the recall of discrete pieces of information, learning becomes an activity in which the learner must become engaged. Similarly, teaching, rather than the act of transferring information, becomes the act of facilitating learning by engaging learners with the phenomena to be understood. A learning-informed teacher uses his/her authority in the classroom, not to deliver specific and discrete information about the world; but, instead, uses his/her special knowledge to make the subject matter accessible to students such that they can be the authors and authorities of what they know by making active explorations into the subject matter and sharing observations, questions and insights with peers.   When learning and teaching is viewed from this perspective, classrooms are inherently democratic, student-centered, and collaborative, as discussions about the subject matter of study are inclusive of all ideas and observations shared.  Collaboration and respect for what others are seeing, noticing and questioning among students and between teacher and students—and trust that students have the capacity to make sense of—and ultimately transform– their world–is an intellectual necessity. Teachers are no longer viewed—by either themselves or their students—as the source of knowledge; rather, it is the subject matter itself and students’ self-directed explorations of it that form the basis of understanding. Teachers become facilitators of knowledge construction rather than deliverers of knowledge. The more familiar a teacher is of the subject matter and the different ways their students are seeing and thinking about it, the more equipped the teacher is to enrich the learning environment and support knowledge construction.    Teacher and learners enter a new relationship as learners explore and engage perplexing phenomena, and teachers facilitate learning by using their knowledge of the subject matter and students’ ideas to modify the environment to support developments in learners’ thinking.

It is this understanding of learning and knowledge construction that I take with me into my work as an administrator and academic leader at a community college in southern New Hampshire. Community colleges are facing a number of perplexing phenomena, such as low completion rates, which require innovative solutions and changes in practice. I frequently find myself deciding when to produce changes in practice through the implementation of policy (what might be called administrative action)  and when to use of learning-inspired practices.  

From the perspective of learning research, learning within a system is produced much like that within the individual. Meaning that the environmental conditions that need to be met to support genuine “learning” within an individual must also be met to support real learning and real changes in practice within a social system. Without this, any changes produced result from external pressures and compliance rather than through a genuine internal re-organization of thinking. Such compliance-induced changes in behavior are sure to be short-lived and discontinue when the external pressure or stimulus is removed. 

In addition to what I see as the short-comings of changes that result from compliance to external pressures and stimuli (punishments and rewards), I am equally motivated by the non-cognitive outcomes of a teacher as facilitator view of learning. These outcomes include collaboration among learners, the formation of community within the classroom, and teachers listening to learners’ observations, questions and explanations of the phenomena they are studying. I have experienced the transformation (and yes liberation and freedom) that can happen for both teachers and students when teachers use their expert knowledge to engage students with the world of phenomena they are studying, and interact with students from a research stance, or from what Freire might describe as a position of “epistemological curiosity,” to understand what different students are seeing, noticing and questioning.    As Duckworth has described, it just so happens that when a teacher assumes a research stance and interacts with learners to explore their understanding of subject matters that engage them, learning happens “in the very process.”

And so, in my work as an academic leader in a community college, I began where I started so many years ago-almost. Deciding how to best use the authority that comes with my position (and limited time that I have) to produce changes in behavior and thinking.

My interest in involving faculty and staff in developing innovative solutions to troubling educational phenomena by engaging them in exploration of the phenomena must be balanced by and not outweigh my responsibility to ensure that all students have access to those “treatments” which research has found to be effective with similar populations. And while as an academic leader I have a responsibility to support the professional growth of faculty and staff, I have a responsibility to ensure that students have access to practices and policies that research has shown to be effective in supporting their well-being and learning. My struggle and dilemma is and will continue to be deciding how to best use the authority that comes with my position such that faculty, staff and students are well-served. So long as I recognize that to serve students and faculty well this dilemma must always be a part of my thinking I will be in good stead.


Leadership that is informed by learning theory is inherently democratic, collaborative and inclusive in that it elicits and encourages input and perspectives from all stakeholders in the decision-making process. Communication structures result from a genuine desire to promote dialogue and conversation among stakeholders.

Learning-informed leadership is the exception to the norm, and administrators who ascribe to a learning view of leadership encounter several challenges. Challenges involve time, space, skills and trust.

Time. Rarely do institutions have sufficient time built into the schedule to permit the conversations and dialogue among stakeholders necessitated by learning-informed leadership.  On those few occasions when stakeholders do come together time is typically used for the sharing of community announcements regarding facilities, budget, and the likes.

Space. The physical spaces within institutions are rarely structured to facilitate face-to-face communication nor are they sufficiently large to accommodate all community members. Such space limitations put constraints on the conversation among stakeholders.

Skills. Facilitating conversation among stakeholders for the specific purpose of gaining diverse perspectives on an issue of significance requires that the facilitator have deep knowledge of both the issue and stakeholders and the skills to bring multiple perspectives to bear on the issue.

Trust. Of all the challenges a learning-informed leader is likely to encounter, gaining the trust of stakeholders presents the greatest challenge. When academic leaders act in ways contrary to stakeholders’ previous experiences, using time to explore and bring multiple perspectives to bear on an issue rather than announce a new initiative, for example, such use of time can be perceived and construed by stakeholders as a lack of experience and competency rather than a desire to engage the community in designing their own solutions to the phenomena.

So given the challenges and threats to learning-informed leadership, why not continue with the leadership practices of previous administrations? What motivates an academic leader to persist in the use of learning-informed practices. The answer to this, I believe, lies in the promise of what can be for faculty, administration, staff and students when decision-making centers on the well-being and learning of students and results from the inputs of all parties.  When decision-making happens in this way, faculty, administration, staff and students are brought into new relationships. New questions are raised, new solutions to perplexing puzzles are considered, and, perhaps of greatest importance, all are viewed as knowers. Stakeholders, rather than acting out of compliance to external authorities, act out being a part of a learning community with shared interests and goals. It is this vision of what can be that motivates the learning-inspired leader despite the odds.   

Finally, as an academic leader I strive to use my position and authority that comes with that position to create for faculty and staff the same inclusive learning environment that we aspire to create for students. These environments support authentic learning and respect all community members as thinkers, knowers, innovators, collaborators and problem-solvers.

Development, Learning and Curriculum

Development, Learning and Curriculum

I recently attended a meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organized by Critical Exploration Press, that brought together educators with a shared interest in Piagetian research and introducing Piagetian ideas and principles about growth and development into formal teaching-learning settings. The majority of attendees were alumni of the course Teaching and Learning taught by Eleanor Duckworth at Harvard University. Duckworth is herself a former student, translator and colleague of Piaget. Attendees included Eleanor Duckworth; a professor of mathematics from Brazil; several teacher educators from Boston and the greater Boston area; a museum educator; a educational researcher and author who travelled from Rome, Italy; two consultants in governance and leadership and came from as far away as South Africa; and a teacher educator from south Korea, currently a visiting scholar sponsored by Yale University.

In the morning session a classroom researcher shared her work with 8th grade students. Following that session, myself and two colleagues found ourselves discussing the dilemma below presented by one of the meeting attendees:

“As a teacher, how do I ensure that the materials and curriculum I plan will truly allow for free exploration on the learners’ part? How do I prevent the goals I see in a particular subject matter from seeping into the lesson and dictating the pathway of the learning?”

One person in the group posed the question, “Can exploration be free?” This first blog posting was inspired by our ensuing discussion.

As educators who have studied Jean Piaget’s research into the origins of knowledge in children, we understand that children are active participants in constructing their knowledge and understanding of the world. We recognize that what children “know,” their conceptions of the world, originate in children’s actions on objects. For the very young child, these objects are limited to the concrete and physical objects in the child’s immediate environment. For the older child, objects include the ideas and observations expressed by other children.

In their exploration of objects, children can take in and grasp (assimilate) only those aspects of the object for which they have constructed an assimilatory scheme. Aspects of the object for which children have not yet constructed an assimilatory scheme go “unnoticed.” The good thing is that children’s ongoing efforts to grasp the object extends and modifies their existing assimilatory schemes. Modifications and adaptations allow the child to grasp and take in more of the object. In this way, learning results from what learners do as children’s internal knowledge structures (conceptions) are shaped by the child’s actions on the outside world. What children come to know and understand of the world (children’s conceptions of reality) reflect both children’s assimilatory structures and the nature of the external world.


Piaget’s observations and research findings about the origins and development of children’s knowledge of objects, and the essential role of children’s self-directed actions on what children come to know as their “reality,” speak to the primacy of experience in fostering authentic or genuine learning and development in all social settings regardless of who the learners are, adults or children.

Development, Teaching, Learning, Curriculum:

From a cognitive perspective, the terms development and learning refer to any transition or modification of an existing assimilatory scheme to accommodate a new experience. For the very young child, and the development and learning that happens in informal, natural settings, modifications of existing assimilatory schemes result from children’s self-directed exploration of objects in the environment. All learning, including children’s self-directed learning is subject to the environment and children’s interactions with that environment. The natural setting is the teacher in the sense that it presents the child with materials for exploration and transformation.

In the formal environment of the classroom setting, where there is both a teacher and certain ideas that a teacher must teach, and which learners must come to know, one role for a so-informed teacher is to create an environment that stimulates learners’ exploration of materials. This requires that the teacher is sufficiently knowledgeable of the content such that s/he can select objects that stimulate exploration and contain within them concepts to be understood.

Inviting different learners to say what they are seeing, noticing, questioning and thinking keeps learners focused on exploring different aspects of the object and by sharing what each learner is noticing provides more handles or points of access for other learners to grasp the objects. While what each learner comes to know and understand results from internal construction and coordination of actions and observations of the objects under exploration, the resulting assimilatory scheme is shaped by both the observations of the group and mediated the external reality.

The challenge for teachers who aim to teach in this way is to bring to learners objects which contain within them the concepts to be known and to choose objects that are within learners’ reach, which they can grasp and assimilate. Selecting such objects requires that teachers are deeply familiar with both the subject matter itself and the nature of learners’ assimilatory schemes for taking in the subject matter.  

As Eleanor Duckworth, former student, translator and colleague of Piaget observed when working with children in schools as a researcher with the Elementary Science Study [ESS], to the extent that she interacted with the children to understand what they were seeing, noticing, and wondering about materials presented, (rather than telling them what they should be seeing and thinking) the more she learned about the children’s understanding and the children’s understanding of the materials under their exploration developed “in the very process.” In this way, the activities of researching, teaching and learning are in dialectic relationship.

Curriculum (the activities in which learners engage and questions that learners pursue) is not pre-determined but instead emerges from the teacher’s active assessment of what students know and understand.

In another post I will consider Dewey’s concept of the child and the curriculum.



In June 2017, following several years teaching and leading in the field of teacher education, years that included 7 years at a Catholic liberal arts institution that served primarily first-generation students; 6 years serving at a selective Catholic liberal arts institution in Boston, that included two years as education department chair; 3 years as assistant professor/ clinical supervisor for the Clark University-Worcester k-20 professional development collaborative; and one year serving as department head of a multi-campus institution, I accepted a position at a community college as a senior academic leader. I began my professional career as a secondary science teacher in a public high school with a student population of 1200. It was my interest in understanding my students’ thinking, and desire to gain a better grasp on what I could do as a teacher to support my students’ learning (my students expressed ideas about phenomena that were dissonant from the ideas I thought I had taught) that prompted me to to pursue research into the nature of students’ science learning and take a leave of absence from my work as a secondary science teacher . At Harvard University, thanks to the generosity of Vito Perrone (1933-2011), I was most fortunate to work as a researcher on the Teaching for Understanding project that was co-directed by himself, Howard Gardner and David Perkins. It has, however, been my ongoing experiences with Eleanor Duckworth (1935-) (author of “The having of wonderful ideas” and other Essays on Teaching and Learning (3rd ed.) (2006) and “Tell me more” Listening to Learners Explain (2001)) first as a student, then as doctoral advisee, and now colleague , who is herself a former student, translator and colleague of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and assistant to Barbel Inhelder (1913-1997), that have been significant in helping me to shape my ideas about development, learning, teaching and curriculum. The insights provide a guiding framework both in my work with teachers and as an academic leader.

I live in a small town with a population of 7,000 in southern NH that is 55 miles north of Boston and 50 miles south of Conncord, NH. My husband is a secondary CTE teacher. Our multi-talented son has many interests and is an avid sailor. We had until very recently two labrador retrievers-Eddie and Bode. Sadly, we lost our beloved 12-year old lab, Eddie, just a few weeks ago. As a family we have hiked all 48 of NH’s 4,000 footers.

Welcome to My New Education Blog

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” 

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” 

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed .

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.