Reimagining Education

Page 1

"To find the core of a school, don't look at its rule book or even its mission statement. Look at the way the people in it spend their time - how they relate to each other, how they grapple with ideas."

- Ron Ritchhart

There has always been much discussion about The Purpose of School. On this webpage you will find a collection of over 25 hours of informative and inspiring podcasts, webinars and articles that collectively define the purpose of school. If you teach in a IB World school or a school that embraces teaching and learning through inquiry, learner agency and explores what it is to be human in an environment that is safe for children to struggle, grapple, wonder, discuss and play, then this webpage is for you. The resources provide stimulating provocations to spur collective reflection and possibly positive action within yourself and your school community. Reading the following articles, 'Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find', and 'A Dozen Questions for Progressive Schools' by Alfie Kohn and viewing the two videos would be a good place to start.

N. Chomsky - Being Truly Educated

Run Time: 3:33 - May 26, 2015

What Is the Purpose of Education?

Click/Tap image to view document

Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find

Click/Tap to Read Article

By Alfie Kohn — © Alfie Kohn

Related Publications:

If progressive education doesn’t lend itself to a single fixed definition, that seems fitting in light of its reputation for resisting conformity and standardization. Any two educators who describe themselves as sympathetic to this tradition may well see it differently, or at least disagree about which features are the most important.

Talk to enough progressive educators, in fact, and you’ll begin to notice certain paradoxes: Some people focus on the unique needs of individual students, while others invoke the importance of a community of learners; some describe learning as a process, more journey than destination, while others believe that tasks should result in authentic products that can be shared.[1]

What It Is

Despite such variations, there are enough elements on which most of us can agree so that a common core of progressive education emerges, however hazily. And it really does make sense to call it a tradition, as I did a moment ago. Ironically, what we usually call “traditional” education, in contrast to the progressive approach, has less claim to that adjective — because of how, and how recently, it has developed. As Jim Nehring at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell observed, “Progressive schools are the legacy of a long and proud tradition of thoughtful school practice stretching back for centuries” — including hands-on learning, multiage classrooms, and mentor-apprentice relationships — while what we generally refer to as traditional schooling “is largely the result of outdated policy changes that have calcified into conventions.”[2](Nevertheless, I’ll use the conventional nomenclature in this article to avoid confusion.)

It’s not all or nothing, to be sure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a school — even one with scripted instruction, uniforms, and rows of desks bolted to the floor — that has completely escaped the influence of progressive ideas. Nor have I seen a school that’s progressive in every detail. Still, schools can be characterized according to how closely they reflect a commitment to values such as these:

  • Attending to the whole child: Progressive educators are concerned with helping children become not only good learners but also good people. Schooling isn’t seen as being about just academics, nor is intellectual growth limited to verbal and mathematical proficiencies.

  • Community: Learning isn’t something that happens to individual children — separate selves at separate desks. Children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning. Interdependence counts at least as much as independence, so it follows that practices that pit students against one another in some kind of competition, thereby undermining a feeling of community, are deliberately avoided.

  • Collaboration: Progressive schools are characterized by what I like to call a “working with” rather than a “doing to” model. In place of rewards for complying with the adults’ expectations, or punitive consequences for failing to do so, there’s more of an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving — and, for that matter, less focus on behaviors than on underlying motives, values, and reasons.

  • Social justice: A sense of community and responsibility for others isn’t confined to the classroom; indeed, students are helped to locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own ethnic group, and beyond their own country. Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others.

  • Intrinsic motivation: When considering (or reconsidering) educational policies and practices, the first question that progressive educators are likely to ask is, “What’s the effect on students’ interest in learning, their desire to continue reading, thinking, and questioning?” This deceptively simple test helps to determine what students will and won’t be asked to do. Thus, conventional practices, including homework, grades, and tests, prove difficult to justify for anyone who is serious about promoting long-term dispositions rather than just improving short-term skills.

  • Deep understanding: As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead declared long ago, “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.” Facts and skills do matter, but only in a context and for a purpose. That’s why progressive education tends to be organized around problems, projects, and questions — rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines. The teaching is typically interdisciplinary, the assessment rarely focuses on rote memorization, and excellence isn’t confused with “rigor.” The point is not merely to challenge students — after all, harder is not necessarily better — but to invite them to think deeply about issues that matter and help them understand ideas from the inside out.

  • Active learning: In progressive schools, students play a vital role in helping to design the curriculum, formulate the questions, seek out (and create) answers, think through possibilities, and evaluate how successful they — and their teachers — have been. Their active participation in every stage of the process is consistent with the overwhelming consensus of experts that learning is a matter of constructing ideas rather than passively absorbing information or practicing skills.

  • Taking kids seriously: In traditional schooling, as John Dewey once remarked, “the center of gravity is outside the child”: he or she is expected to adjust to the school’s rules and curriculum. Progressive educators take their cue from the children — and are particularly attentive to differences among them. (Each student is unique, so a single set of policies, expectations, or assignments would be as counterproductive as it was disrespectful.) The curriculum isn’t just based on interest, but on these children’s interests. Naturally, teachers will have broadly conceived themes and objectives in mind, but they don’t just design a course of study for their students; they design it with them, and they welcome unexpected detours. One fourth-grade teacher’s curriculum, therefore, won’t be the same as that of the teacher next door, nor will her curriculum be the same this year as it was for the children she taught last year. It’s not enough to offer elaborate thematic units prefabricated by the adults. And progressive educators realize that the students must help to formulate not only the course of study but also the outcomes or standards that inform those lessons.

Some of the features that I’ve listed here will seem objectionable, or at least unsettling, to educators at more traditional schools, while others will be surprisingly familiar and may even echo sentiments that they, themselves, have expressed. But progressive educators don’t merely say they endorse ideas like “love of learning” or “a sense of community.” They’re willing to put these values into practice even if doing so requires them to up-end traditions. They may eliminate homework altogether if it’s clear that students view after-school assignments as something to be gotten over with as soon as possible. They will question things like honors classes and awards assemblies that clearly undermine a sense of community. Progressive schools, in short, follow their core values — bolstered by research and experience — wherever they lead.

What It Isn’t

Misconceptions about progressive education generally take two forms. Either it is defined too narrowly so that the significance of the change it represents is understated, or else an exaggerated, caricatured version is presented in order to justify dismissing the whole approach. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Individualized attention from caring, respectful teachers is terribly important. But it does not a progressive school make. To assume otherwise not only dilutes progressivism; it’s unfair to traditional educators, most of whom are not callous Gradgrinds or ruler-wielding nuns. In fact, it’s perfectly consistent to view education as the process of filling children up with bits of knowledge — and to use worksheets, lectures, quizzes, homework, grades, and other such methods in pursuit of that goal — while being genuinely concerned about each child’s progress. Schools with warm, responsive teachers who know each student personally can take pride in that fact, but they shouldn’t claim on that basis to be progressive.

Moreover, traditional schools aren’t always about memorizing dates and definitions; sometimes they’re also committed to helping students understand ideas. As one science teacher pointed out, “For thoughtful traditionalists, thinking is couched in terms of comprehending, integrating, and applying knowledge.” However, the student’s task in such classrooms is “comprehending how the teacher has integrated or applied the ideas… and [then] reconstruct[ing] the teacher’s thinking.”[3] There are interesting concepts being discussed in some traditional classrooms, in other words, but what distinguishes progressive education is that students must construct their own understanding of ideas.

There’s another mistake based on too narrow a definition, which took me a while to catch on to: A school that is culturally progressive is not necessarily educationally progressive. An institution can be steeped in lefty politics and multi-grain values; it can be committed to diversity, peace, and saving the planet — but remain strikingly traditional in its pedagogy. In fact, one can imagine an old-fashioned pour-in-the-facts approach being used to teach lessons in tolerance or even radical politics.[4]

Less innocuous, or accidental, is the tendency to paint progressive education as a touchy-feely, loosey-goosey, fluffy, fuzzy, undemanding exercise in leftover hippie idealism — or Rousseauvian Romanticism. In this cartoon version of the tradition, kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun). Learning is thought to happen automatically while the teachers just stand by, observing and beaming. I lack the space here to offer examples of this sort of misrepresentation — or a full account of why it’s so profoundly wrong — but trust me: People really do sneer at the idea of progressive education based on an image that has little to do with progressive education.

Why It Makes Sense

For most people, the fundamental reason to choose, or offer, a progressive education is a function of their basic values: “a rock-bottom commitment to democracy,” as Joseph Featherstone put it; a belief that meeting children’s needs should take precedence over preparing future employees; and a desire to nourish curiosity, creativity, compassion, skepticism, and other virtues.

Fortunately, what may have begun with values (for any of us as individuals, and also for education itself, historically speaking) has turned out to be supported by solid data. A truly impressive collection of research has demonstrated that when students are able to spend more time thinking about ideas than memorizing facts and practicing skills — and when they are invited to help direct their own learning — they are not only more likely to enjoy what they’re doing but to do it better. Progressive education isn’t just more appealing; it’s also more productive.

I reviewed decades’ worth of research in the late 1990s: studies of preschools and high schools; studies of instruction in reading, writing, math, and science; broad studies of “open classrooms,” “student-centered” education, and teaching consistent with constructivist accounts of learning, but also investigations of specific innovations like democratic classrooms, multiage instruction, looping, cooperative learning, and authentic assessment (including the abolition of grades). Across domains, the results overwhelmingly favor progressive education. Regardless of one’s values, in other words, this approach can be recommended purely on the basis of its effectiveness. And if your criteria are more ambitious — long-term retention of what’s been taught, the capacity to understand ideas and apply them to new kinds of problems, a desire to continue learning — the relative benefits of progressive education are even greater.[5] This conclusion is only strengthened by the lack of data to support the value of standardized tests, homework, conventional discipline (based on rewards or consequences), competition, and other traditional practices.[6]

Since I published that research review, similar findings have continued to accumulate. Several newer studies confirm that traditional academic instruction for very young children is counterproductive.[7] Students in elementary and middle school did better in science when their teaching was “centered on projects in which they took a high degree of initiative. Traditional activities, such as completing worksheets and reading primarily from textbooks, seemed to have no positive effect.”[8] Another recent study found that an “inquiry-based” approach to learning is more beneficial than conventional methods for low-income and minority students.[9] The results go on and on. In fact, I occasionally stumble upon older research that I’d missed earlier — including a classic five-year investigation of almost 11,000 children between the ages of eight and sixteen, which found that students who attended progressive schools were less likely to cheat than those who attended conventional schools — a result that persisted even after the researchers controlled for age, IQ, and family background.[10]

Why It’s Rare

Despite the fact that all schools can be located on a continuum stretching between the poles of totally progressive and totally traditional — or, actually, on a series of continuums reflecting the various components of those models — it’s usually possible to visit a school and come away with a pretty clear sense of whether it can be classified as predominantly progressive. It’s also possible to reach a conclusion about how many schools — or even individual classrooms — in America merit that label: damned few. The higher the grade level, the rarer such teaching tends to be, and it’s not even all that prevalent at the lower grades.[11] (Also, while it’s probably true that most progressive schools are independent, most independent schools are not progressive.)

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

But we’re also left with a question: If progressive education is so terrific, why is it still the exception rather than the rule? I often ask the people who attend my lectures to reflect on this, and the answers that come back are varied and provocative. For starters, they tell me, progressive education is not only less familiar but also much harder to do, and especially to do well. It asks a lot more of the students and at first can seem a burden to those who have figured out how to play the game in traditional classrooms — often succeeding by conventional standards without doing much real thinking. It’s also much more demanding of teachers, who have to know their subject matter inside and out if they want their students to “make sense of biology or literature” as opposed to “simply memoriz[ing] the frog’s anatomy or the sentence’s structure.”[12] But progressive teachers also have to know a lot about pedagogy because no amount of content knowledge (say, expertise in science or English) can tell you how to facilitate learning. The belief that anyone who knows enough math can teach it is a corollary of the belief that learning is a process of passive absorption —a view that cognitive science has decisively debunked.

Progressive teachers also have to be comfortable with uncertainty, not only to abandon a predictable march toward the “right answer” but to let students play an active role in the quest for meaning that replaces it. That means a willingness to give up some control and let students take some ownership, which requires guts as well as talent. These characteristics appear not to be as common as we might like to think. Almost a decade ago, in an interview for this magazine, I recalled my own experience in high school classrooms with some chagrin: “I prided myself on being an entertaining lecturer, very knowledgeable, funny, charismatic, and so on. It took me years to realize [that my] classroom was all about me, not about the kids. It was about teaching, not about learning.”[13] The more we’re influenced by the insights of progressive education, the more we’re forced to rethink what it means to be a good teacher. That process will unavoidably ruffle some feathers, including our own.

And speaking of feather-ruffling, I’m frequently reminded that progressive education has an uphill journey because of the larger culture we live in. It’s an approach that is in some respects inherently subversive, and people in power do not always enjoy being subverted. As Vito Perrone has written, “The values of progressivism — including skepticism, questioning, challenging, openness, and seeking alternate possibilities — have long struggled for acceptance in American society. That they did not come to dominate the schools is not surprising.”[14]

There is pressure to raise standardized test scores, something that progressive education manages to do only sometimes and by accident — not only because that isn’t its purpose but also because such tests measure what matters least. (The recognition of that fact explains why progressive schools would never dream of using standardized tests as part of their admissions process.) More insidiously, though, we face pressure to standardize our practices in general. Thinking is messy, and deep thinking is really messy. This reality coexists uneasily with demands for order — in schools where the curriculum is supposed to be carefully coordinated across grade levels and planned well ahead of time, or in society at large.

And then (as my audiences invariably point out) there are parents who have never been invited to reconsider their assumptions about education. As a result, they may be impressed by the wrong things, reassured by signs of traditionalism — letter grades, spelling quizzes, heavy textbooks, a teacher in firm control of the classroom — and unnerved by their absence. Even if their children are obviously unhappy, parents may accept that as a fact of life. Instead of wanting the next generation to get better than we got, it’s as though their position was: “Listen, if it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for my kids.” Perhaps they subscribe to what might be called the Listerine theory of education, based on a famous ad campaign that sought to sell this particular brand of mouthwash on the theory that if it tasted vile, it obviously worked well. The converse proposition, of course, is that anything appealing is likely to be ineffective. If a child is lucky enough to be in a classroom featuring, say, student-designed project-based investigations, the parent may wonder, “But is she really learning anything? Where are the worksheets?” And so the teachers feel pressure to make the instruction worse.

All progressive schools experience a constant undertow, perhaps a request to reintroduce grades of some kind, to give special enrichments to the children of the “gifted” parents, to start up a competitive sports program (because American children evidently don’t get enough of winning and losing outside of school), to punish the kid who did that bad thing to my kid, to administer a standardized test or two (“just so we can see how they’re doing”), and, above all, to get the kids ready for what comes next — even if this amounts to teaching them badly so they’ll be prepared for the bad teaching to which they’ll be subjected later.[15]

This list doesn’t exhaust the reasons that progressive education is uncommon. However, the discussion that preceded it, of progressive education’s advantages, was also incomplete, which suggests that working to make it a little more common is a worthy pursuit. We may not be able to transform a whole school, or even a classroom, along all of these dimensions, at least not by the end of this year. But whatever progress we can make is likely to benefit our students. And doing what’s best for them is the reason all of us got into this line of work in the first place.



  1. The latter view is represented in both the Reggio Emilia approach to early-childhood education and the Foxfire tradition.

  2. James H. Nehring, “Progressive vs. Traditional: Reframing an Old Debate,” Education Week, February 1, 2006, p. 32.

  3. Mark Windschitl, “Why We Can’t Talk to One Another About Science Education Reform,” Phi Delta Kappan, January 2006, p. 352.

  4. As I was preparing this article, a middle-school student of my acquaintance happened to tell me about a class she was taking that featured a scathing indictment of American imperialism – as well as fact-based quizzes and report cards that praised students for being “well behaved” and “on-task.”

  5. See Alfie Kohn, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), esp. Appendix A.

  6. I’ve tackled each of these issues in separate books. See the sources cited in, respectively, The Case Against Standardized Testing (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000), The Homework Myth (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006), Beyond Discipline, rev. ed. (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006), and No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986/1992). Still other research exists to challenge assumptions about the benefits of specific practices ranging from school uniforms to explicit instruction in grammar.

  7. See the addendum to “Early-Childhood Education: The Case Against Direct Instruction of Academic Skills” here.

  8. Harold Wenglinsky, “Facts or Critical Thinking Skills?”, Educational Leadership, September 2004, p. 33.

  9. Michael Klentschy, Leslie Garrison, and Olga Ameral’s four-year review of student achievement data is summarized in Olaf Jorgenson and Rick Vanosdall, “The Death of Science?” Phi Delta Kappan, April 2002, p. 604.

  10. Character Education Inquiry, Studies in the Nature of Character. Volume 1: Studies in Deceit (New York: Macmillan, 1928), Book 2, p. 184.

  11. Educational historian Larry Cuban’s review of “almost 7,000 different classroom accounts and results from studies in numerous settings revealed the persistent occurrence of teacher-centered practices since the turn of the century” (How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980 [New York: Longman, 1984]). John Goodlad, author of the classic study A Place Called School, revisited the subject in 1999 and concluded that “although progressive views have enjoyed sufficient visibility to bring down on them and their adherents' barrages of negative rhetoric, they have managed to create only isolated islands of practice…. Most teachers adhere closely to a view of school as they experienced it as students and so perpetuate the traditional” (“Flow, Eros, and Ethos in Educational Renewal,” Phi Delta Kappan, April 1999, p. 573). His assessment was corroborated as recently as last year by a national study of first, third, and fifth grade classrooms in more than 1,000 schools: “Children spent most of their time (91.2%) working in whole-group or individual-seatwork settings” and “the average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades” (Robert C. Pianta et al., “Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms,” Science, vol. 315, March 30, 2007, p. 1795). A study of 669 classrooms in Washington state, meanwhile, found that “strong constructivist teaching was observable in about 17% of the classroom lessons” (Martin L. Abbott and Jeffrey T. Fouts, “Constructivist Teaching and Student Achievement,” Washington School Research Center, Technical Report #5, February 2003, p. 1). For still more evidence, see Kohn, Schools, pp. 5-9.

  12. David K. Cohen and Carol A. Barnes, “Conclusion: A New Pedagogy for Policy?” in Teaching for Understanding, ed. by David K. Cohen et al. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993), p. 245. The relevance of this point for the largely unsuccessful efforts of progressive education to establish itself over time has been noted by many thinkers, including John Dewey, Lawrence Cremin, and Linda Darling-Hammond.

  13. Kitty Thuermer, “In Defense of the Progressive School: An Interview with Alfie Kohn,” Independent School, Fall 1999, p. 96. In their book Methods That Matter (York, ME: Stenhouse, 1998), Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar drove the point home: “Teachers probably wouldn’t have originally chosen their vocation if they didn’t crave the spotlight on some deep psychological level. The hunger to ‘really teach something’ has probably derailed more student-centered innovations than administrative cowardice and textbook company co-option combined” (p. 12).

  14. Vito Perrone, “Why Do We Need a Pedagogy of Understanding?” in Teaching for Understanding, ed. by Martha Stone Wiske (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 23.

  15. For more on this phenomenon, see my essay “Getting-Hit-on-the-Head Lessons,” Education Week, September 7, 2005, pp. 52, 46-47.

A Dozen Questions for Progressive Schools

Click/Tap to View Questions

Here are some pointed questions to spur collective reflection and, perhaps, positive action.

  1. Is our school committed to being educationally progressive, or is it content with an atmosphere that’s progressive only in the political or cultural sense of the word?

  2. Is a progressive vision being pursued unapologetically, or does a fear of alienating potential applicants lead to compromising that mission and trying to be all things to all people? (“We offer a nurturing environment . . . of rigorous college preparation.”)

  3. Is the education that the oldest students receive just as progressive as that offered to the youngest, or would a visitor conclude that those in the upper grades seem to attend a different school altogether?

  4. Is the teaching organized around problems, projects, and questions? Is most of the instruction truly interdisciplinary, or is literature routinely separated from social studies – or even from spelling? Has acquiring skills (e.g., arithmetic, vocabulary) come to be over-emphasized rather than seen as a means to the end of understanding and communicating ideas?

  5. To what extent are students involved in designing the curriculum? Is it a learner-centered environment, or are lessons presented to the children as faits accomplis? How much are students involved in other decisions, such as room decoration, classroom management, assessment, and so on? Are teachers maintaining control over children, even in subtle ways, so that the classrooms are less democratic than they could be?

  6. Is assessment consistent with a progressive vision, or are students evaluated and rated with elaborate rubrics[1] and grade-substitutes? Do students end up, as in many traditional schools, spending so much time thinking about how well they’re doing that they’re no longer as engaged with what they’re doing?

  7. Do administrators respect teachers’ professionalism and need for autonomy – or is there a style of top-down control that’s inconsistent with how teachers are urged to treat students? Conversely, is it possible that teachers’ insistence on being left alone has permitted them to drift from genuinely progressive practice in some areas?

  8. Are educators acting like lifelong learners, always willing to question familiar ways – or do they sometimes fall back on tradition and justify practices on the grounds that something is just “the [name of school] way”? Are teachers encouraged to visit one another’s classrooms and offered opportunities to talk about pedagogy on a regular basis?

  9. Is cooperation emphasized throughout the school – or are there remnants of an adversarial approach? Do students typically make decisions by trying to reach consensus or do they simply vote? Do competitive games still dominate physical education and even show up in classrooms? Do most learning experiences take place in pairs and small groups, or does the default arrangement consist of having students do things on their own?

  10. Is homework assigned only when it’s absolutely necessary to extend and enrich a lesson, or is it assigned on a regular basis (as in a traditional school)? If homework is given, are the assignments predicated on – and justified by — a behaviorist model of “reinforcing” what they were taught – or do they truly deepen students’ understanding of, and engagement with, ideas? How much of a role do the students play in making decisions about homework?

  11. Does the question “How will this affect children’s interest in learning (and in the topic at hand)?” inform all choices about curriculum, instruction, and scheduling – or has a focus on right answers and “rigor” led some students to become less curious about, and excited by, what they’re doing?

  12. Is the school as progressive and collaborative in nonacademic (social, behavioral) matters as it is in the academic realm, or are there remnants of “consequence”-based control such that the focus is sometimes more on order and compliance than on fostering moral reasoning, social skills, and democratic dispositions?


1. See Maja Wilson, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006); or my article “The Trouble with Rubrics,” English Journal, March 2006, pp. 12-15.

Source: Alfie Kohn

What If....

Click/Tap to View

Tom Barrett (Dialogic Learning) shares a few 'what if' questions to help us reframe and reimagine the near future of education.

What if schools were better equipped to handle complexity?

Learning for one student is complex. We have to consider many aspects of their story and how they interact with their environment. Teachers are expected to know so much about each student that they can effectively plan and cater to their individual needs.

Multiply this by the number of students in a class, grade or cohort, and you can see how overwhelming it is for teachers to meet everyone's needs. It is baffling to think how any one teacher can adapt, cater and design for the complex needs of many students. And yet, this is what we expect of them.

Schools are containers for complexity. The trajectory of complexity seems to be set on an upward trend. So how do we help our teachers and school leaders with the tools, skills and dispositions they need to thrive in complexity?

What if teachers sharing knowledge and learning design were normal?

Over the last few weeks, I have been reminded of how isolating teaching can become. With high levels of complexity, pace, intensity, and pressure, the amount we can focus on reduces. This is a natural side effect of high stress. The more we have to focus on the here and now, the less time and energy we can expend on reflection, connection and learning.

But what if it was different? What if it was normal for us to share our designs, approaches and expertise with others? What if we saw this as a way to build knowledge and improve practice collectively? What if there was an expectation of creating efficiencies by connecting with teacher communities worldwide? What if we prioritised collaboration as a way to improve our practice? What if we saw collective or networked intelligence as a way to thrive in complexity? We are all trying to solve the same problems, design for the exact needs, or find an appropriate response to comparable situations. Whether that is Papua New Guinea, Shanghai, Nottingham, Tokyo, Boston or Cranbourne. There is isolation and inefficiency that we can attempt to resolve.

I can imagine a time in the future when collective knowledge and problem-solving networks create efficiency, reduce stress and alleviate pressure. I can imagine a time when a networked disposition is seen as an asset for all teachers.

What if schools were an accessible doorway?

If we saw schools as an accessible doorway for the wider community, what difference would that make?

  • What if schools facilitated family connections with the services and organisations that can support them?

  • What if learning was family centred, not just child-centred?

  • If we saw schools as a way to build social capital and create opportunities for all, what difference would that make?

Source: Dialogic Learning

You will notice that many of the following podcasts come from the Rethinking Education Community created by James Mannion. This is an amazing community based in the UK that explores ways to rethink education. Learn how to join the Rethinking Education Community

Sir Ken Robinson Wants an Education Revolution

[Sir Ken Robinson]

Run Time: 55:48- Dec. 18, 2018
Tap/Click for more information

Do schools kill creativity? Back in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson posed this question to the TED audience – and boy, did it touch a nerve. More than fifty million views and a decade later, Chris sits down with Sir Ken to dig into the changes and progress that have been made, and see if the answer now is any different. How are educators thinking about creativity these days? And why should creativity be a focus at all? With his characteristic verve, wit and sparkle, Sir Ken explains all.

Sir Ken Robinson Videos

  • Do Schools Kill Creativity | Run Time: 20:03 - Jan 6, 2007 | This is the 2006 TED video that touched a nerve.

  • Educating the Heart and Mind | Run Time: 48:58 - Nov 3, 2011 | Sir Ken Robinson speaks during the Dalai Lama Center's Educating the Heart Series. He discusses the importance of an education that educates not just the mind, but also the heart.

  • Bring On the Learning Revolution | Run Time: 17:41 - Feb 2010 | This is a follow-up to his 2006 talk. In this talk Sir Ken Robinson makes the case for a radical shift from standardized schools to personalized learning -- creating conditions where kids' natural talents can flourish.

  • Where Can Our Hunger for Discovery Take Us | Run Time: 20:09 - Oct 15, 2012

  • How to Escape Education's Death Valley | Run Time: 19:11 - ay 10, 2013 | Sir Ken Robinson outlines 3 principles crucial for the human mind to flourish -- and how current education culture works against them. He tells us how to get out of the educational "death valley" we now face, and how to nurture our youngest generations with a climate of possibility.

Source: The TED Interview

Learning To Learn

[Guy Claxton]

Run Time: 2:25:51 - Jan 1, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Professor Guy Claxton is a hugely influential academic, thinker and author of over 30 books on learning, intelligence and creativity, including Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Wise Up, What’s the point of school, Intelligence in the flesh, Educating Ruby and the Learning Power Approach.

Guy’s latest book, The future of teaching and the myths that hold it back, is a blistering critique of what is increasingly a neotraditional orthodoxy. In this episode, he talks about education, and teaching young people how to teach themselves.

Guy has an enviable knack for expressing ideas about Learning to Learn. Here are a couple of short excerpts from his recent book, The Learning Powered Approach:

“Schools should be preparing kids to flourish in a complicated and demanding world. Just trying to squeeze better test scores out of them is not enough. We know that, in the long run, character counts for more than examination results. To prosper – to live good lives – today’s students will need curiosity, determination, concentration, imagination, camaraderie, thoughtfulness and self-discipline as well as literacy, numeracy, general knowledge, and the best possible grades. These attributes contribute hugely to people’s success and fulfilment in life. And we also know that they are capable of being intentionally developed – or unintentionally stifled. The desire to cultivate them has to be at the heart of every school’s endeavour.”

And here is the second excerpt, in which Guy suggests that the question of how to develop these character traits is cultural rather than curricular:

“Such dispositions cannot be ‘taught’ directly. Of course, they can be made explicit and talked about, and that helps, but merely understanding the concept of ‘resilience’, say, and even being able to write an A-grade essay about it, does not by itself make you any more resilient. Character is a constellation of habits, and habits are tendencies that are built up over time. If you regularly find yourself in a culture – a family, for example – where the people you look up to continually model, value and expect politeness, honesty or curiosity, you are likely to grow towards those qualities, as a plant grows toward the sun. Such habits begin to become part of your natural way of being.”

Some Links

PODCAST: Guy Claxton on Neotraditional Myths - pluses and minuses between traditional and progressive model of education, neuroscience, memory, cognitive load theory, teaching thinking, what works in teaching.

BOOK: On becoming a person, by Carl Rogers

BOOKS by Guy Claxton

BOOK: Future Wise by David Perkins

VIDEO: The Scary Guy Combats Bullying on Teachers TV

VIDEO: EL (Expeditionary Learning) Education - Videos

VIDEO: Critique and Feedback - The Story of Austin's Butterfly - Ron Berger

** Also, check out Mary Helen Immordino-Yang's podcast (below) The Neurobiological Case for Progressive Education

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

The Neurobiological Case for Progressive Education

[Mary Helen Immordino-Yang]

Run Time: 2:00.00 - Oct. 15, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang's is an educational researcher trying to understand how young people learn and develop, what we should be doing in schools to help them, and what we should maybe stop doing as soon as is humanly possible.

Read First: To learn more about the three brain networks which are discussed at the 1:40:00 mark of the podcast, Mary Helen recently co-authored a paper with her colleague Doug Knecht, which explains these three brain networks and how they work and interact in lay terms. The paper is called Building Meaning Builds Teens' Brains’, and it’s well worth a read.

Mary Helen is a Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California and the Director of Candle: the Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education, which, among many notable achievements, is surely the most successful academic acronym of all time.

Mary Helen and her team study the psychological and neurobiological development of emotion and self-awareness. In particular, her work highlights the importance of emotions, sociality and culture in young people’s social, cognitive and moral development. She uses cross-cultural, interdisciplinary studies of stories and the feelings they induce to shine a light on the neural networks that underpin identity, intrinsic motivation, and deep, meaningful learning. Mary Helen’s work often features children and adolescents from disadvantaged communities, and she often involves young people from these communities as junior scientists who are participants, as well as subjects, in her research.

In 2016, Mary Helen published a book, Emotions, Learning and the Brain, which summarises the key findings from the previous decade of her work. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone with an interest in how children and adolescents learn. I really think it’s an incredibly important read, as is the work Mary Helen has done in the 5 years since the book was published.

Toward the end of the conversation, we talk about three networks of the brain - the default mode network, the salience network and the executive control network. Understanding what these three networks do, and how they interact, is absolutely central to understanding the importance of Mary Helen’s work.


CANDLE (The Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education)

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

The Purpose of Schools in a Changing World

[Amelia Peterson]

Run Time: 2:50:50 - July 9, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Dr is an LSE Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she teaches social policy, and she is soon to become a founding member of faculty at the London Interdisciplinary School. She completed her PhD in Education Policy and Program Evaluation at Harvard University, where she was an Inequality and Social Policy fellow. During her studies she was a junior visiting scholar at Nuffield College, Oxford and holds a masters degree in Human Development and Psychology, also from Harvard.

Amelia studies education and skills policies and their interactions with wider societal processes. Her dissertation traced the institutional changes associated with the de-vocationalization of upper secondary education, in the context of increased income inequality. She is interested in how political and social factors impact policy implementation and recently co-authored an absolutely brilliant book with Valerie Hannon, entitled: THRIVE - the purpose of schools in a changing world, which we discuss at length in this episode.

In this podcast learn about the 4 levels of Thrive: global – our place in the planet; societal – localities, communities, economies; interpersonal – our relationships; intrapersonal – the self, and much more.


Two brilliant Rethinking Assessment blogs by Amelia and more:

A recent Rethinking Education campfire conversation that involved Amelia on self-directed learning

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

Planet Earth, Paradox and the Power of Inquiry

[Kath Murdoch]

Run Time: 3:10:08- April 12, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Kath Murdoch is a well-known and hugely popular teacher, writer, university lecturer and consultant who has worked for many years with teachers and students in schools all over the planet. The author of 15 books and numerous articles for teachers – including the bestselling ‘The Power of Inquiry’ (2015) - Kath is widely respected for her work in the field of inquiry-based learning in which she has taught, researched and published for well over 30 years. In fact, so popular is Kath’s work in the field of inquiry learning that she was recently described to me by a teacher in an International School as the Beyonce of the PYP (the Primary Years Programme, the International Baccalaureate curriculum for 3 to 12 year olds).

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

Is Constructivist Teaching Empty?

[Patty Rice Doran]

Run Time: 1:09:23- Aug 7, 2022
Tap/Click for more information

Drew Perkins talks with Patty Rice Doran about her recently published piece in Quillette magazine, The Emptiness of Constructivist Teaching.

"In teaching students that all knowledge is constructed through their own interactions, we fail to give them satisfying answers about the world and its meaning." (Patty Rice Doran)


Source: The Teachthought Podcast

Why Coercive Schooling is "Immoral & Unnecessary" - Play & Self-Directed Learning

[Peter Gray]

Run Time: 1:56:29 - July 3, 2022
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Peter Gray is a research professor at Boston College and the author of 'Free to Learn' and 'Psychology', a college textbook now in its 8th edition.

Here are some of the incredible things people have written about 'Free to Learn'::

“The modern educational system is like a wish made in a folk tale gone horribly wrong. Peter Gray's Free to Learn leads us out of the maze of unforeseen consequences to a more natural way of letting children educate themselves. Gray's message might seem too good to be true, but it rests upon a strong scientific foundation. Free to Learn can have an immediate impact on the children in your life.” (David Sloan Wilson)

“A compelling and most enjoyable read. Gray illustrates how removing play from childhood, in combination with increasing the pressures of modern-day schooling, paradoxically reduces the very skills we want our children to learn. The decline of play is serious business.” (Roberta Michnick Golinkoff)

“Peter Gray is one of the world's experts on the evolution of childhood play, and applies his encyclopedic knowledge of psychology, and his humane voice, to the pressing issue of educational reform. Though I am not sure I agree with all of his recommendations, he forces us all to rethink our convictions on how schools should be designed to accommodate the ways that children learn.” (Steven Pinker)


Peter's research and Psychology Today blog

Alliance for Self-Directed Education

Let Grow Website

American Journal of Play - Guest Editor Peter Gray

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

Self-Directed Learning & How Schools Can Do More Harm Than Good

[Dr Naomi Fisher]

Run Time: 2:52:54 - July 31, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Dr Naomi Fisher is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology and a PhD in Developmental Cognitive Psychology, focusing on autism. She is also the mother of two self-directed learners, having decided not to send her children to school.

Learn about self-directed learning, medicalizing education, concerns about how children are diagnosed for ADHD, dealing with social media, four key concepts why schools do not work for some students…control, power, context and anxiety and deschooling.

Naomi is the author of 'Changing our Minds: How children can take control of their own learning'. It's about self-directed learning and it's an absolutely brilliant read - I really can’t recommend it enough. We talk about the book in depth in this conversation.

Naomi also recently appeared in one of the Rethinking Education campfire conversations - a brilliant episode called Self-Directed Learning - Dare to give young people autonomy - which you can see here.


Some of Naomi's recent articles:

Naomi's brilliant book, Changing Our Minds

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

Collaborative Decision-Making (CDM) and why Coercion is Bad for Kids

[Geraldine Rowe]

Run Time: 2:35:10 - Jan. 7, 2022
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Geraldine Rowe is an educational psychologist and former teacher, and a specialist in Parent Partnership and Behaviour and Attendance. She has taught in Primary and Middle Schools and been a member of the Senior Leadership Team of an alternative provision secondary school. Her 30-year career has taken her into 100 schools, and Geraldine is a really good example of someone who is outside the teaching profession, but who has immense experience and insight to share.

Geraldine recently published an absolutely fascinating book called It’s Out School, It’s Our Time: A Companion Guide to Whole-School Collaborative Decision-Making. The book is a highly readable account of Geraldine’s doctoral study, which features three case studies of teachers in mainstream schools who make decisions with their pupils, rather than for them.

The importance of choice and agency and autonomy in human development comes up again and again in this podcast. It looks at what collaborative decision-making (CDM) can look like within mainstream settings - and there is no shortage of ways in which we can include children in making the decisions that affect their lives.

This is a conversation that goes right to the heart of the what James Mannion sees as the main problem with the mainstream model of education - coercion isn’t good for kids, even if it gets results in the short term - and Geraldine offers lots of practical advice for teachers who want to move in a more collaborative, consent-based direction.


Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

Reminder: Children Still Love Learning

Click/Tap to Read Article


Something I've been reminded of over and over again the last few weeks as I talk with my own children, and educators around the country working in K-12 classrooms: Children still love learning. They don't always like school, and therein lies the paradox, as school is supposed to be a place where we learn.

As I was wrestling with these two thoughts, Tim Smyth posted this on his @historycomics Instagram page:

What's so fascinating about this sentiment is that we all KNOW this intrinsically. I wonder what would happen if we stopped asking the question at school: Will this activity/lesson/assessment/content PREPARE children for ________?

And, if instead, we asked the question: Will this activity/lesson/assessment/content keep children loving learning?

We Know a Few Things to be True:

  1. Standardized assessments do NOT predict student success.

  2. Many decisions around curriculum and what/how we are teaching are tied to success on those assessments (ex: Common Core standards correlation to state tests, AP curriculum connected to AP assessments, etc)

  3. Student engagement drops steadily (and their view of having fun and doing interesting things in school) each year they are at school.

  4. Many teachers are forced into a tough spot between doing what they know works in learning (giving choice, inquiry, designing for creativity, project-based learning) and doing what they believe they have to do in order to "cover" the curriculum, meet standards, and prepare kids for tests.

In short, most of what we are doing in an "assessment-centric" education system is not working, has been proven to have no correlation to student success, leads to disengaged students, and teacher burnout.

But, our system remains unchanged in many places. And, the burden falls on school administrators, teachers, and support staff to try and make learning meaningful and relevant under these circumstances.

Here's the real kicker: In the midst of it all, children are still here in our schools every single day. They are with us in school for over 14,000 hours between Kindergarten and 12th Grade.

And, they still love learning, when the learning is meaningful.

There are too many people that want school to stay the same, even as many of us educators are shouting from the rooftops that things have to change.

Not for us (although that would be nice), but really for the children. Isn't that why we are doing this work in the first place?!?

There is so much we don't have control of or influence over. But, if you get the chance to make a decision for the children in your school or classroom, I hope we can ask the question: Will this activity/lesson/assessment/content keep children loving learning? And design based on that answer.

How to 'Backward Design' Educational Nirvana

[Jay McTighe]

Run Time: 3:59:53 - Feb 3, 2022
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion, who speaks with Jay McTighe about 'Leading Modern Learning: A blueprint for vision-driven schools', the 2015 book that Jay co-authored with Greg Curtis.

In this lengthy, but informative podcast you will learn about building on Jay’s previous work on Understanding by Design, to guide a school through the process of taking its vision/mission statements seriously, and then backwards planning in such a way that WILL produce the kinds of young people who will be able to thrive and flourish in this bewildering and rapidly changing world of ours.

Learn about Backward Design as it applies to a school's vision and mission.

A Few Links

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

Designing Backward to Move Forward

[Jay McTighe]

Run Time: 45:27 - Jan. 18, 2022
Tap/Click for more information

What is the goal of modern education, and are we designing our schools and practices properly to help us meet that goal? That’s the central question of this episode with Jay McTighe, who provides a detailed road map to help educators navigate the answers. What should a school’s mission statement actually include? What is the most productive and meaningful structure for “professional development” days? And what are we missing when we focus on covering content instead of designing our classrooms for deeper learning?

Some of the key questions explore din this interview include:

  • How can school leaders design backward for deeper learning in their schools, and what does deep learning really look like? How do we assess it and recognize it when we see it?

  • What are the challenges inherent in designing for deeper learning? What mindsets and practices might we need to change to allow for a cultural shift toward deeper learning in our schools?

  • What responsibilities do school leaders have to help shape a backward design process that includes all stakeholders—faculty, staff, parents, board members, and students? How does crafting the right school mission statement impact the way design functions in the planning process?

  • How can school leaders proactively communicate with teachers and parents to help bring everyone along on the journey of moving away from “more” learning to embrace “deeper” learning?

  • What does it look like to shift our understanding of teaching to a role that facilitates meaning-making among students, rather than primarily offering direct instruction in content?

A Few Links

Source: NAIS New View EDU Podcast

Climate Change, Neoliberalism and Making Children’s Brains Hurt

[Ian Gilbert]

Run Time: 2:56:36 - Mar 09, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: This is a fascinating conversation about 'thunks' - Ian Gilbert’s brilliant invention for making children’s brains hurt; neoliberalism, the ideology that underpins so many of our educational woes; and his love of philosophy for children, are discussed. To name just a few juicy morsels.

Ian Gilbert is a globally renowned educational thinker, innovator, entrepreneur, speaker and award-winning editor and writer, who was listed by the IB magazine as one of their top 15 ‘educational visionaries’.

Ian has authored many brilliant books including the Little Book of Thunks, Independent Thinking and Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got Google? - all three of which we discuss in this conversation. He is also a skilled editor and has curated and edited many more excellent tomes, including notably The Working Class: Poverty, Education and Alternative Voices.

Here are some of the books we talked about in this podcast:

Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

2500 Years of Learning Theory - From the Greeks to the Geeks

[Donald Clark]

Run Time: 3:06:10 - Dec. 24, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Donald Clark is a man of many hats. He’s an EdTech entrepreneur who was formerly the CEO and one of the original founders of Epic Group, a pioneering company in online learning, and he is now the CEO of Wildfire Learning, an AI company. He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Derby. And he is the author of at least two books - Artificial Intelligence for Learning, and Learning Experience Design.

In this podcast, James speaks with Donald about a different writing project. Over the last 20 years or so - and gathering pace in recent months - Donald has been collecting learning theorists. He has written an incredible series of blogs on 2500 years of learning theory - from the Greeks to the Geeks.

Helpfully, Donald has created an index, where you can see a list of all 200 learning theorists grouped under different headings - the behaviourists, the assessors, the vocationalists and so on. There’s a link to this index below - you may find it useful to refer to it now and then as you listen to our conversation.

This is an episode that will make you think harder than you've had to do in a long time.


Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

Rosenshine, Behaviour and Why We Should Stop Grading Schools

[Tom Sherrington]

Run Time: 2:59:58 - May 31, 2021
Tap/Click for more information

Hosted by James Manion: Among other things, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, the importance of effective behaviour management systems and why we need to stop grading schools were discussed in this podcast.

Tom Sherrington is one of those guests who probably needs no introduction, but in case his prolific output has somehow passed you by these last few years, here’s a quick one. A former teacher and school leader for over 30 years, more recently Tom has become a hugely popular blogger, author and training provider. His blog ( has had approaching 7 million hits, and his recent books Rosenshine’s Principles in Action and the Teaching Walkthru series, co-authored with Oliver Caviglioli, are pretty much permanent fixtures at the top of the educational book charts. Tom also previous authored ‘The Learning Rainforest’, in which he set out his philosophy and vision for education.


Source: Rethinking Education Podcast

School Should Be Like A Video Game, Not A Movie

Click/Tap to Read Article


My daughter came home in January one day after school, very excited. She is in 7th grade and it was the first time in her schooling experience that she had some choice in her courses for the following year.

“We get to pick our classes for next year”, she said to my wife and me. “I don’t know what to choose. Should I do…”, and she rattled off all her various choices.

As she started to go down the path of making these choices, she eventually became bogged down in “what she was supposed to do”. Was she supposed to take an advanced science class instead of another special? Was she supposed to leave room for advisory/study hall or jam pack her schedule?

We said it was up to her what she wanted to do, but she was looking for input during our conversation on what she was supposed to do.

School As A Movie

This was not the first time I had this conversation. I had it countless times before as a middle school and high school teacher. Students asked what they were supposed to do, instead of making the choice that they really wanted. Whether it was a middle school student asking about classes that would help as they went to high school, or a high school student asking about decisions that would impact their future resumes or college applications.

Many students believed that school was like a movie and they were just playing a role. In a movie there is a set beginning, middle and ending. We know how most movies go, we understand that there will be a character that struggles, finds what they want, loses what they want, and ultimately either gets it back (or never does).

They believe that school follows the same plot. And to succeed at school the easiest way is to look at how others are playing out these roles and follow what you are supposed to do.

The problem, as most of us can attest to, is that is not how life works. If there was a set path that led to success for everyone, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. There are multiple paths, multiple choices, many opportunities, many challenges, and ultimately an individual path for a variety of outcomes.

School As A Video Game

Imagine if students believed school was more like a video game than a movie.

In a movie, there is a set beginning, middle, and ending, but in a video game you get to chose where to go, what to do, and how the story unfolds.

Movies are often watched alone and in silence. Video games are much better when you play with someone else, talking and enjoying the journey.

In a video game when you are struggling it’s not over, you restart and get another chance.

In a video game, you are going to make mistakes, have ups and downs, and learn every time you play together. In fact, it’s the act of continued playing of the game that makes you improve and get better.

  • Now imagine if we changed our system of school to support this shift:

  • Students with more opportunities for classes that connected to their interests

  • Students with more chances at success after struggling

  • Students with more collaborative challenges and quests they could work on together to accomplish

Students with more options for what to learn in their classes, more options for how to demonstrate their learning, and more options for showcasing their work with a real audience

How would kids respond if schools were more like a video game and less like a movie?

How can we make this shift?

Download Resources