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.”




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