If We’re Not Teaching the Self, What’s the Use?

I recently attended a conference at The Perkiomen School in East Greenville, PA on “Disrupting Education.”  Sure, it’s almost a cliché by now, this disruption thing.  However, when we’re disrupting the thing I do for a living, I’m listening.  I’m not one to sit on my laurels, trot out yesteryear’s lessons and hit replay.  If I’m not making my students uncomfortable in what they think they know, if I’m not “disrupting” their weltanschauung, I’m not doing my job correctly.

The conference attracted me not only because of the title.  Their keynote speaker was Ted Dintersmith, and I’ve been eager to see him since viewing Most Likely to Succeed and reading his latest book, What School Could Be.  Schools around the nation and world have looked to MLTS as an example of what’s possible in reimagining education, and countless educational leaders are using What School Could Be to help them identify models for redefining their own districts or schools.

Image result for what school could be

Dintersmith’s vision is not without its critics.  The more Marxist among them point to his history as a venture capitalist, to his links with big money and corporate big-wigs.  And then there are the more generic arguments that simply identify his vision as naive and too far outside the vision of the “Public School.”

After hearing Mr. Dintersmith last week, I don’t believe his critics.  He is as concerned about the state of public education as the best parents I’ve ever heard, and he is quite aware of the pressures and limitations put on schools.  His book is overwhelmingly focused on innovative public schools, and his vision is solidly founded upon his recognition that perhaps the most valuable courses he ever took (he has advanced degrees in physics even though he went into venture capitalism) were those in his BA–English.

But aside from the STEAM focus and the Project Based Learning methodology that Mr. Dintersmith points to over and over in his work, it is quite clear when you hear him speak that what really matters to him is relevant, real work that meets, in a very “Glasserian sense,” the needs of the learner.  (See my notes from his Keynote Q&A below.)

Dintersmith Notes

Furthermore, Dintersmith’s insistence on a learner-centered experience adds more energy to the tidal wave of articles and ideas hitting my news feeds in the past month on the importance of helping students develop a deep sense of identity and purpose in their work.  In fact, I attempted to capture, in a prominent way, this very notion in my notes when, in the upper right I posit the importance of a curriculum of self-knowledge surrounding the questions of “Who am I? What will I do? and Why does it matter?”

For most English teachers, such a focus is nothing new.  My own students have journeyed through a unit addressing the question of “Who am I?” with texts from Aristotle, Hume, Descartes, Edgar Allan Poe,  Jack Bowen, the existentials, Prof. William Cronon, even The Matrix.  While at first confused by the deep and often skeptical look at the nature of their being, students come to understand the way in which their choices and actions help define who they are and why living a life of intention matters.

And even at a systemic level, such a focus on the philosophical is not new to American public education.  Almost since its inception, our system of education has counted among its other goals (the Civic and Economic) a weak devotion to the development of a child’s highest personal talents.  What is new, however, is the preponderance of work currently being done to focus us far more on helping students develop a clearer answer to the question of “Who am I?”  See, for example: Prof. Yuval Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyChristian Talbot’s recent post referencing Harari’s work.  Will Richardson and the Modern Learners: “The Most Important Skill for the Future: Being Human.  And Scott Barry Kaufman’s recent Scientific American Article on Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence

Kaufman’s article is particularly interesting in that he is updating and reconsidering the work of Abraham Maslow.  Not just Maslow’s hierarchy/pyramid (a mischaracterization of Maslow’s work, Kaufman argues) but all his work on self-actualization.  The resulting article ought to be read by every adult concerned with the health, education, and well-being of our children.

The upshot here is not that we are entering a new “me” generation where it’s all about the self.  Rather, what does matter is that in a world that is ever more connected, ever more intrusive into our time and our lives; and in schools where status and ranking continue to rule over learning as the goal of education…in such a state we are recognizing the psychic fallout of such pressures and concerns.

In the end, all of us involved in education need to take a good long look at ourselves and what our systems of testing, ranking, ordering, filing, and grading have done to the humanity we (ought to) bring to our work, and the humanity we seek to engender in our children.  Such concerns are not mutually exclusive of deep, focused, academic work.  Indeed, they are the very precursors and foundations that allow for such work to happen in the first place. Univ. of Pennsylvania professor and proponent of positive psychology Dr. Martin Seligman put it best:

Those who regularly read my irregular posts are familiar with my take on the three main goals of American Public Education.  We educate for economic reasons: A secure economy is the foundation of a capitalist democracy, and when the economy goes south, our democracy suffers.  (Yes, I realize it’s a rather sanguine view.)  We educate for civic reasons:  to create a populous capable of continuing this, the world’s longest running experiment in self-rule.  But the third goal, the personal ends of education, is often overlooked.  And it is this goal, especially in a world as uncertain, shifting, and “disruptive” as ours, that commands us to know ourselves better, and in doing so, to better adapt to the systems we create, and how they create us.

Thus, I’ll be exploring the importance of ontology and self-knowledge as fields of study further over the coming months.

Beautifully Irrational Arguments: Wayfinding, Designing, and Staying Foolish


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayfinder Way image

Author’s sketchnote of Wayfinder iterative experiential learning process

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

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

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

Only Connect at Project Wayfinder: Purpose, Meaning, and Human-Centered Education

Wayfinder Canoe

Polynesian Voyaging Society “Voyaging Canoe.”  http://www.projectwayfinder.com/why-wayfinding/

(Following is a blog post introducing a series I’m posting at plusus.org based upon my attendance at Project Wayfinder’s Summer Teacher Institute.  I’ll be posting once a day about my experiences at Proj. Wayfinder and links I find to design and design thinking as well as to education in general.)

In a few days I will be among 50 educators from around the world attending the Project Wayfinder Teacher Institute at Brown University.  Based upon the navigational techniques of ancient Polynesian sailors, Project Wayfinder’s vision is “that all people have access to tools to create lives of meaning and purpose.”

Founded by Patrick Cook-Deegan and designed through his work as a fellow at Stanford’s d.school, Project Wayfinder seeks to meet a glaring need in education:  We are turning out students who may know a great deal but lack any purpose with which to apply their knowledge. In doing so, we are denying a generation(s?) of adolescents access to a life in which they can flourish in ways beyond mere self-fulfilment or pursuit of happiness.

Indeed, if a recent survey from the National Institutes of Mental Health is correct, approximately 31.9% of adolescents age 13–18 have suffered from any type of anxiety disorder.  As Project Wayfinder points out, “while school is in session, high school students are the single most stressed out population in the US(http://www.projectwayfinder.com/our-vision/).

As an educational design consultancy, PlusUs is dedicated to a human-centered approach to our practice.  In addition to providing a full range of design solutions, we strive to keep the learners and their needs at the center of all we do. Regardless of whether we’re working with you to design a new informational mailer or to create curricular materials, we are always thinking about the learners our work will ultimately affect.

Thus, our attendance at Project Wayfinder will assist us in better understanding the needs of today’s learners.  It will also help us position our designs more firmly within a value system that recognizes the importance of meaning and purpose to a healthy, fulfilling life.

Starting on Monday, July 16, I’ll be blogging about my experience at Project Wayfinder’s Teacher Institute both here and at Form & Faculty.