Purpose and the Story We Tell Ourselves: Wayfinding our own Oceans.

the-seaIn 1995, the prolific warbler Neil Young (and members of Pearl Jam) released Mirror Ball.  The album featured one of Young’s iconic declarations of independence, “I’m the Ocean.”  With a chorus declaring the title’s metaphysical conceit and lyrics probing smaller, stranger metaphysical comparisons (“I’m an accident/I was driving way too fast), Young contrasts being a trivial, single thing (“I’m an aeorstar/I’m a Cutlass Supreme”) with being something as expansive, deep and meaning-full as the ocean itself.

Young’s song is, perhaps, a meditation on the 90s as the beginning of the fracturing of meaning and attention that has come to mark our contemporary existence.  But more so, it is an exercise in the utter necessity of always writing our selves into the present in ways that both extend our individuality and acknowledge the reality that we are part of something much larger.

This recognition, that we are all part of an ocean of humanity and that we all have a tidal power to extend ourselves out and back again, this is one of the great mysteries of existence: That our individual self floats and drifts and surges amidst all other selves in the world.  It makes us humble but also allows us to know the great power each of us has to change the world.

However, as Young’s lyrics reveal, developing a sense of ourself in this way is not an easy task.  Such wisdom is hard-won, the process of struggle, of loss as well as success, and of many, many hours spent reflecting, talking to/with ourself…a silent, internal sounding of our own depths.

And for as important as such knowledge is to our own mental health and sense of well-being, there is little in most students’ school careers that helps them meet the self by itself and the self within our larger communities.

For most of my career as a teacher, be it in middle or high school, I’d always known that students hungered to better understand themselves.  After all, what else is education for if not to better understand the self?   For years I addressed this through stories, through philosophy, and through metacognitive exercises, and while all those had some meaningful effect, they never felt focused or cohesive.

Image result for Students polynesian wayfinderAnd then, two years ago, I stumbled upon Project Wayfinder.  The focus of this unique curriculum on understanding the self at the individual and community level has been instrumental in helping me to provide deeper meaning to the purpose projects that drive the way we learn in the elective I teach, NOVA Lab.  But more important, it has provided key experiences to recognize the critical role of community in our classroom.  When students are provided with an open and understanding environment in which the entire community is driving towards a common but unique goal (to better know ourselves), they learn how to develop empathy and communication flourishes.

Oh, I realize I am only seven lessons into this unique curriculum, but I know enough to know when the tenor of a classroom changes.  And even if some of the lessons in the year-long curriculum don’t work for all students, their belief in the importance of the overall goal of the project is, I think, strong enough to keep them focused on the need for others in the community to engage more deeply.

I’ve asked students to write blog posts reflecting on their work with Project Wayfinder so far.  Below I’ve culled a number of quotations from their writing so that their own words might speak to the power of the project itself.


“WayFinder has proved to be more beneficial than simply planning out my career path. I have learned more about my personality and strengths, and thus more about myself. By obtaining this knowledge, I believe it will help me in my future career and relationships.  —Emma C.

“[Wayfinder] Mondays are one of the best parts of our inNOVAtion Lab class, as they give me a time that I would not have otherwise had to think about my own desires and goals in life.  Especially as I’m now applying to college, recognizing my own strengths and goals in life gives me such a good base upon which to base my essays and interviews.” –Andrew D

“The idea of living beyond the simplicity of school work and the all-too-familiar monotony of the workweek has been planted in our minds.  The only way to really have direction in one’s life is to define what makes us tick–our purpose(s) and how we want to leave our mark.  Wayfinder has done this for me.” –Ethan F.

Project Wayfinder has slowly shifted my attention to parts of myself that before I wouldn’t share with people I didn’t know very well or even people I am very close with. It’s reinvigorated my passion in things that had been overtaken by other aspects of my life and brought them to the surface as bold as ever.” —Jane H.

“Project Wayfinder been a unique experience unrivaled by any other in my high school career. In school, we’re always working for a grade, molding ourselves to the machine in order to get to college and beyond. [In Wayfinder], we’ve had the ability to not only shape our minds and opinions but adapt our personalities and go on a path of self-discovery. Most teenagers don’t even consider who they want to be as a character in their story, but Wayfinder asks us to stare our future in the face and affords us the time to mold ourselves to our own personal goals. It’s been really inspiring to not only go through these activities but see how others have been impacted and adapted from the knowledge they gained during Wayfinder activities.”  –Glen R.

“Project Wayfinder offers us learning not covered in any other aspect of the school system. At times this can be challenging but overall it is a very beneficial process. This allows me to take time and reflect on what I have done, what I want to do, and why these things matter to me. I personally do not do these things on a frequent basis, but this course brings a healthy cleanse of my pent up mental strain. Focusing on my goals and feelings is a foreign concept to me but has proven important. The course could not have come at a better time due to how now is the time where so many, literally, life-changing events are coming up. Whether this be college or academic prospects.
–Ethan S.

“Project Wayfinder is less about the specific answers it provides than the process. Instead of blindly doing things because I’ve always done them that way, I now regularly consider what brings me joy, what kind of person I am, and more. The power of Wayfinder, at least the early portion of the curriculum, is not to define one’s lifelong purpose, but to encourage the careful consideration that will one day result in one.” –Matt T.

Students everywhere will tell you that the idea of curriculum is killing any sense of purpose they have, and Wayfinder knows this. So instead of trying to give you a book as a surefire method to find your purpose, they use the best tool available to anyone, other people. All the book does is give them better questions to ask. For example, instead of asking you for a definite answer to what you’d like to do, another person is prompted to ask you to tell a story about a time you’ve enjoyed doing something. Humans aren’t meant to spit out correct answers and know ourselves perfectly, we find ourselves through the stories we tell and the people we tell them to.” –Miles C.

“While Project Wayfinder is still a young product, I thoroughly enjoy it and think that it should be applied wherever it can. Not just innovation classes – other classes, other schools, workspaces; there is never a wrong time or place to find your North Star.” Valencia C.

“Project Wayfinder helps us succeed in the world rather than merely in the classroom. It shows us that no matter how different we are and how separated we are that we have a purpose and that our purpose is consequential to the world.” –Nicholette D.

“Project Wayfinder is a way to ask questions to yourself and find out who you are. Completing the exercises with integrity and wholeheartedness is vital to really discovering oneself and peeling back the layers to become more open and vulnerable. I thoroughly enjoy Project Wayfinder every week and figuring out more about who I am, little nuances about my personality, and how I can find my purpose.”–Aleesha P.

Being only seventeen years old, most of my life has been dominated by my time in school. Because of this, when I think of my identity, I think “student,” but Wayfinder purposely tries to leave school out of the activities. I’m interested to see what the next lessons will bring, and how I will think of my identity outside of being a student.”
–Brandon S.

Beautifully Irrational Arguments: Wayfinding, Designing, and Staying Foolish

Stay-Hungry-Stay-Foolish-Whole-Earth-Catalog

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.

Design, Education, and Human Beings in the Becoming

(This post is the second in the Project Wayfinder series I’m writing for myself and the design consultancy Form & Faculty, where I serve as Learning Director)

Project Wayfinder‘s Summer Institute for Teachers at Brown University has thrown me for a loop and shifted my perspective on professional development in several ways.  After twenty-five years in education, I don’t say those words lightly.  I’ve sat through too many workshops and classes where all it seemed I was supposed to do was pack my toolbox with another method, where deeper philosophical discussions of “why” this really mattered to learners were never addressed.  So when in my second day of Project Wayfinder it became clear that the design team behind the project were not letting up on the “why?” pedal, I realized I was into something entirely different here.  Every aspect of the project was detailed not only in terms of what we were doing but more important, in terms of why we were doing it and where it fit into the narrative of the curriculum.

That last point is crucial.  Project Wayfinder’s curriculum is geared towards helping students design meaningful lives.  The key to that end is the realization that our lives are stories driven by the conflicts inherent in purposeful quests.  What Project Wayfinder essentially accomplishes is something sorely missing in modern schooling:  the curriculum teaches students to design their lives with purpose and with the realization that there is more to education–and life–than achieving the highest GPA and attending the best college.

Thus, what has turned me upside down about Project Wayfinder is that they are open and honest about the fact that they are intentionally designing a curriculum to disrupt the status quo.  Not only are they open and honest about it, but they also have the research to back up their endeavors, the backing and branding of Stanford University, and the verve of youth to push them past obstacles and naysayers.

I’ll be blunt. This is one of the most intentionally optimistic and “real” pieces of curriculum I’ve seen in 25 years of teaching. Nor have I ever seen one as ruthlessly honest about what really matters in education: relationships, and human connection.

I came to Project Wayfinder to see how many of the disparate parts and pieces of pedagogy I’d practiced over my quarter-century in the classroom had been synthesized and applied in a curriculum I’d only ever read about.  Two days in and I’m realizing something else:  Wayfinder’s insistence on honoring and helping students craft meaningful stories allies them with the work we do at Form & Faculty.  Like Form & Faculty, and all educators who recognize that we are–ever and always– “human beings in the becoming,” Wayfinder is facilitating the most important work in the world:  helping other humans design and redesign their lives.

Form & Faculty has dedicated ourselves to this work since our inception.  We help our clients discover the most important stories they want to tell, and we help you craft those stories in ways that resonate most strongly with you and your end-users.  We are tireless in our pursuit of designing purposeful, intentional solutions that honor your needs as well as the stories you are helping your learners write.

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.