Redefining Academic Rigor

There are two kinds of academic rigor. The standard kind is measured in number of hours spent; in the amount of predetermined information memorized and regurgitated. It involves running fast to jump through the hoops put before you. It involves being handed problems and showing you can follow prescribed pathways to solve them. It involves following orders. The message to students is: “Put your head down and slog through it. One day it will pay off.” This is not the rigor that leads to a sustainable world. We need so much more.

We need to think of rigor in a different way. Engagement and effort are indeed key indicators of rigor, but what you engage in and how you engage with it are equally important. What about learning to identify on your own what is important? What about being able to identify opportunities no one else has seen? Rigor, yes—but towards the goal of creating advanced learners, not just advanced rememberers; towards fostering advanced creators, not just advanced imitators.

Children are innate learners, and the key is to build on that strength. With them. As partners. Doing real things in the real world. Modeling for them what it means to be an advanced learner, and collaborator, and doer. And helping them engage rigorously with the world around them so that they gain not only the knowledge they need to thrive in it, but the skills, and the habits, and the attitudes that allow them to use that knowledge for the most meaningful impact possible.

Pedagogy vs. Curriculum – The How is the What

The How is the What

What (content) and how (pedagogy) cannot be separated. How we teach also teaches a what.

Example 1: Coercion has no place in education.

If we use coercion to get students to study what we want when we want, we are teaching them that how you get people to do the things in this world is by using a power imbalance. We should be teaching them that respect and empathy are the primary drivers of influence.

Example 2: Students need to define what is important

Telling students what is important to learn teaches them that their own interests are not of value.

It also removes from them the ability to evaluate what is important themselves. An illustration:

“Students: We are studying American History from the Civil War to World War II. Here are the important things to know about this period, and how we will engage with learning them. And the dates we will cover each.”

An alternative how would be: “You have chosen to study this period in history. How about we start by each looking into what might be important to know about form this time period, and we’ll come back together and build that list? If you are able to convince others of the importance of the items you pick, they will more likely make it on the list.” This helps them build the skill of determining what is important and understand why. They learn the “content” while they are learning these important skills (and they learn the content better).

Example 3: Instruction can be powerfully destructive

Being overly instructive is not only not very good for learning content, but it powerfully teaches several things. First, we know now that it reduces executive function. It also teaches something else that is very powerful and negative: It creates in people what is called an “external locus of control” wherein they lose a sense that they are in control of their lives. It also takes away their ability to identify and design solutions for problems.

Example 4: Students as apprentice learners. Make our learning visible.

How to learn is the most important thing we can teach. The current paradigm in education is that students learn, and teachers teach (usually hiding their learning.) Yet in this model we are never modeling the very thing we are needing to teach: how to be an advanced learner. It’s related to what’s called the Curse of Knowledge.

Our students should regularly be solving problems with advanced learners who do not yet know that answers to the problems, so that they can learn together.

Example 5: Students as apprentice collaborators. Making collaboration visible.

Same as above, but with collaboration. We often hide our decision making from the students, and then issue the results to them in a proclamation.

Example 6: Measuring can be dangerous

Constant measuring of children sends the signal that they are not yet good enough. That learning is not important in itself. This is a tough one, because we must measure, but must be very careful about how we do it. How we do it has important implications for how children think about and position themselves in the world.

Example 7: Accountability

Students are currently accountable to teachers. We should be accountable to each other. They should be accountable to themselves in their learning goals, and we should assist them in that accountability.

The above, in poetic form:
School to students—
“Here’s the problem.
Here’s how you solve it.
Don’t fail.
Do it, or else.”

And now that you are done with school—
“Please identify problems.
Figure out how to solve them.
Learn from your failures.
Oh, and BTW, use influence—not power—to get people to do things.
You’re welcome.”

In Contrast

Old – what. content
New – how. to learn, do, be

Old: education is a get
New: Education is a give

Old – teacher is apart
New – teacher is in it with you

Old – correcting deficient adults
New – strengths. Value interest

Old – learn for doing later
New – learn by doing now

Old – teacher knows and teaches. Hides thinking.
New – teacher learns with, and models advanced learning

Old – adults plan separately and then tell
New – planning process is visible and inclusive

Old – adults hide their collaboration
New – make it visible. Model advanced collaboration

Old – students receive information from teacher
New – students apprentice with teacher

Old – teachers teach, students learn
New – we are all learners

Old – students accountable to teacher
New – students accountable to themselves, with support for teacher

Old – student profile
New – community profile

Old – everything is planned
New – emergent

Old – coercion, power differential emphasized
New – cooperation, influence, mutual-respect

Old – everything is directed
New – self direction

Old – we primarily give them problems and steps to solutions. Algorithmic solutions.
New – train to identify problems

Old – students develop feeling of external locus of control
New – internal

Old – “in the classroom”
New – “as part of our learning”

Old – design instruction
New – design learning experiences

Old – we tell them what is valuable to know
New – we help them learn how to tell what is valuable to know

Old – relevant
New – real

Concentrated Endeavor

I often get asked about the learning environments that support entrepreneurial learning/21st century skills development. There are many practices that weave together to create proper conditions, informed by guiding principles and paradigms such as:

  1. Education must be real.
  2. Primary focus should be creating advanced learners (see my Teaching Without Knowing post for more on this)
  3. We must scaffold our students towards identifying problems and architecting solutions.
  4. We need to approach education by building on strengths, instead of correcting deficiencies.

One of the most important practices is how we structure our learning experiences in time. I’ve already spoken in my post on The Entrepreneurial Learner about how endeavor relates to learning, how students should not be given an education—they should endeavor to build one (with expert support). But what is concentrated endeavor? I’ll start by illustrating it’s opposite, distributed endeavor.

Distributed endeavor is when you engage with a learning theme or project in a distributed fashion relative to time. The normal class structure in a normal school illustrates this perfectly (at least the distributed part. Whether the students in it are endeavoring to build their own education is another matter). In the normal fashion, there are four or five or six focus areas (classes) that students engage with on a daily basis (usually totally unrelated), and they engage with each a bit at a time, slowly building understanding of multiple entrance points into the world of knowledge. An example that actually does include the kind of endeavor I am talking about, which is student-driven and inquiry-based, would be something similar to 20Time projects. 20Time projects are inquiry-driven projects where students own the learning, and the work on the projects happens in one class per week (thus 20% time) and is carried forward in a distributed fashion. My friend and colleague, Kevin Brookhouser, wrote a wonderful guidebook for running 20Time projects, and his website is a great resource.

While inquiry-driven, student directed learning is great, it’s difficult to get much momentum with only one hour per week. For students that dive fully into their 20Time projects, for instance, and put in many hours per week outside of school, they are doing it all as “extra” work, and often finding it difficult to put as much in energy as they would like because of the time demands of much less effective learning experiences in normal classes.

If we drop, at least for periods of time or for say half of each day or week, the inherited dictates of how school is normally perceived in terms of structure—one hour periods, knowledge domains artificially separated from each other—we begin to see what concentrated endeavor looks like. Well, it looks like how most people who work in the real world work: their schedule is driven by the projects they are working on, not by arbitrary contact points within a project.

An example of fully concentrated endeavor is a program I co-founded in California called iLead+Design.

In iLead+Design, groups of five student and one coach work with community partners to design solutions for real problems the partners bring to the program. The program lasts two weeks, and each day is built around the problem at hand. That’s not to say we don’t do other things, but all activities are desinged to support the overall goal we are working towards.

There are other ways to do concentrated endeavor. There is expeditionary learning in programs such as Raleigh International. There are outsource learning programs such as NuVu Studio School in Massachusetts (a wonderful program. I’m not sure “outsource” has the best connotation here, but that’s one way to describe how their program relates to the schools that send students there). Many graduate schools have practicum components that approximate concentrated endeavor. But the problem is, for most students, they never contact a problem in the real world in a concentrated manner until they leave university. Without that concentrated contact, it is very difficult to develop the skills, habits, and attitudes that are needed to be able to function in that manner, and let’s face it, that’s the time environment that we ultimately need people to be able to function in and to guide their own actions in. If their only experience operating in concentrated endeavor is after they leave college, I’m afraid building the necessary skills, habits, and attitudes is going to be exceptionally difficult.

I believe a substantial portion of our learning experiences should be build around concentrated endeavor. Yes, it has significant implications in how we structure our schools, who leads the learning, how they are trained. But it’s necessary, and we need to find more opportunities for it within our programs, not always as an extra.

Noticing and Wondering: Kicking off and supporting enquiry


Noticing and Wondering

(Special thanks to colleague Sara Soulier who helped me workshop this at a recent conference)

Could there be any more important skills than the skills to notice and to wonder?

The normal paradigm in school is to train students that what other people notice and wonder about is more important than their own observation and enquiry. Example: “Students, today we are studying American history from the industrial revolution to the present. Here is the syllabus of important topics, and when and how we will engage with them.”

The assumption is that what’s important here is the information and lessons we can learn from this period in history. Those are important things to know. But what about the ability to determine what is important and how to learn it? I would argue that is the more important “lesson” to be learned.

It’s possible to learn information without gaining the skills to determine what’s important and how to learn it. It’s not possible to learn what’s important and how to learn it without actually learning content. Content is a byproduct of learning to learn. The opposite is not necessarily true.

Recent research is showing that overly scheduled children have reduced executive function. We have growing anecdotal evidence from every sector that hiring “A” students from top universities guarantees mostly that you will get people who can follow directions very well, but who often cannot identify problems or architect and implement solutions. What can we change in how we approach education to alter our course?

Focus on learning how to learn as the primary purpose of education with content as a byproduct. But what does that look like?

In Luz Rothstein and Dan Rothstein’s book If You Make Just One Change, they argue that teaching children how to ask questions is paramount. I agree that learning how to ask questions is critically important (and I use their technique—and recommend their book and trainings), but the questions must be surrounded by an ecosystem that supports student enquiry. Asking questions is great, but what about the process of how you answer them? If we are too prescriptive in how students do that, we miss the full package.

Here is one example of how to initiate inquiry, and then to support development of entrepreneurial learners through how you frame the pursuit of the answers.

Noticing and Wondering
An exploration in enquiring and emergent learning

Invite students on a walk – around school, community, in nature. Invite them to quietly notice all that is around them.

After a bit, ask what people noticed. Share.
Examples might be: “I notice that the sky is blue” or “I notice that vines climb the trees”

Then invite participants to notice—and to wonder about what they are noticing.
Wonderings might include: “I wonder why the sky is blue” or “I wonder how vines climb trees”

Now, the questions leading from these questions could keep a lifelong learner occupied until the grave. And the learning would probably encompass most content domains in intricate and integrated ways.

But how might this turn into a learning endeavor (or unit, if you prefer to call it that…) in a school setting?

An individual conversation might go like this:
Facilitator: “So, what else do you wonder about the vines? Do you know why they climb trees?”

Wonderer: “I think they climb to get more sunlight.”

F: So why do vines need light? Trees do to, right?”

W: “Don’t they eat light?”

F: “Well, sort of. They use the energy from light to make food for themselves.“

W: “Wow, how do they do that?”

F: “I’m not totally sure, but I know that when we eat plants, we then get that energy from them. So we’re kicking off this inquiry unit right now, and you get to choose what you investigate. Would you like to start by investigating how plants make food from sunlight? Or how vines climb trees? You might be able to do both if there is enough time. “

W: “I think I’ll start with how plants make food from sunlight. But how do I find out?“

F: “It turns out knowing how to find out is just as important as the stuff we find out. Maybe even moreso. So, what are some thoughts you have on how you might begin looking into your question? What are some sources of information like that that you know of?”

W: “Pak Noan probably knows the answer to that question. I could ask him”

F: “I bet he would know. So people are a good source of information. And it looks like you know how to identify an expert. Where else can we go to find information like that?”

W: “I know, the internet…”

F: “That’s true. But how do we know if the information we are finding is correct?

And the lessons can go on and on. That last one shows a segue into how to find and evaluate information. The point being, you can get everywhere from everywhere.

So that showed how to get one individual to a kickoff question to look into. How do you get a whole class to that point? And how do you structure the unit from there? What are the outcomes, and how do you measure them?

I’m sure you all have some great ideas on those wonderings. Please share!

So that showed how to get one individual to a kickoff question to look into. How do you get a whole class to that point? And how do you structure the unit from there? What are the outcomes, and how do you measure them?

I’m sure you all have some great ideas on those wonderings. Please share!

Why Graduate Profiles Feel Wrong

Let’s face it. Every school’s graduate profile sounds the same these days.

“Lifelong learner”

“Global citizen”

“Able and willing to make a difference”


You know the drill. All worthy aspirations for our students, and for what we want to help them become. All schools engage in conversations about these end goals, the programs and pedagogy that will get them there, what measures if any will provide feedback on whether the goals have been met, and how the school is doing over time at producing its product. That’s standard, responsible practice, right?

I’ve been involved in creating graduate profiles several times, and while it feels like a worthy exercise, it always feels like something is missing.

We ask: Do we not have the right descriptors? Have we worded them optimally? Do we have the right graphic to convey them? Are they in the right order? We fuss over the minutiae searching for perfection, because it is such an important thing to describe who we want our students to become. These are lives we are dealing with, after all.

So why does it never feel right? Because it’s the wrong paradigm.

It’s a deficiency mindset.

There are two ways of looking at education. The standard lens is that our children are missing something, that they need to acquire it, and that we need to give it to them—that they need to be shaped and molded to our vision of what they should become. Most education operates within this paradigm.

The other is that the job of education is to support the unique strengths and gifts of each child, and to support them in growing from there. This isn’t to say that there is nothing adults can offer to children. We can help them become the best versions of themselves, and we can do that thoughtfully and skillfully, by structuring our efforts and our environment around that sacred duty.

So if you have been struggling with your graduate profile, the problem may not be in the details. It may be with the paradigm itself. If that’s the case, I encourage you to build it from the other direction, and talk about who your students are, not who they will become. Focus your attention to the present, and trust that it’s just what it needs to be to move to a bright future.

Our students are…Exactly who they need to be at this moment

Build your program around that.

By the way, this is the latest installment of my Changing Education Paradigms series. The tally currently stands at:

  1. Education must be real.
  2. Primary focus should be creating advanced learners (see my Teaching Without Knowing post for more on this)
  3. We must scaffold our students towards identifying problems and architecting solutions.
  4. We need to approach education by building on strengths, instead of correcting deficiencies.

Special thanks to Jenifer Fox and Yong Zhao for their excellent work on strength-based and emergent education. I don’t know if either have specifically addressed graduate profiles, and should note the views above may not represent their views on the subject. Thanks also to colleagues Glenn Chickering and Dan Kinzer for insightful conversation on why graduate profiles feel hollow.

Further reading:

Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers by Jenifer Fox

World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao

The Entrepreneurial Learner’m currently directing a program at Green School in Bali on Entrepreneurial & Enterprise Education. My experience building and describing this program has given me some new language to talk about the paradigm shifts I have been advocating in education, heretofore enumerated as:

  1. Education must be real.
  2. Primary focus should be creating advanced learners (see my Teaching Without Knowing post for more on this)
  3. We must scaffold our students towards identifying problems and architecting solutions.

I’ve started to talk about these paradigm shifts merged together as Entrepreneurial Learning, because 1) the concept crucially includes the learner as part of the equation, and 2) it describes an attitude and approach that both learner and educator can use to keep focused on the three paradigm shifts outlined above. So why the Entrepreneurial Learner, given that many may misinterpret it as advocating a focus on money and business exclusively? My application of the term to learning is very intentional here, and is meant to conjure what is conveyed by a common synonym for the term: enterprising “having or showing initiative and resourcefulness”

Those are the characteristics of an entrepreneur, and they are ones that I think most of our schooling paradigms do not currently promote—in fact actively counteract. I think we should be training learners to bring forth initiative and resourcefulness in everything they endeavor towards, including their own learning.

The definition of “entrepreneur” that I am working off of is:

“characterized by the taking of financial risks in the hope of profit”

But I’m using the French word origin, “entreprendre,” meaning “to undertake” as a mandate for latitude to apply the characteristics of entrepreneurship—indeed the habits, skills, and attitudes that help one be successful at goals of one’s own choosing—to learning. I think it’s critical that we do so. Education is so often seen as something that is done to students. I don’t think students should “receive” an education. I think they should undertake one—and take risks doing so—for their own profit and the profit of the world they live in.  As I look around, I’m also seeing this language used by Yong Zhao, among others. Here are a couple of articles for further reading:

Can Schools Cultivate a Student’s Ability to Think Differently

Why Realizing the Full Promise of Education Requires a Fresh Approach