Innovation as a measure of school success

In 1983 the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report titled A Nation at Risk sounding an alarm that U.S. education was falling behind compared to international systems and our children were at risk of losing out to competitors throughout the world.  Thirty-five years and numerous education reform movements later, many still echo the same alarmist rhetoric that U.S. schools continue to lag behind international competitors and most are doing little to bring about meaningful change or produce measurable educational gains.

While schools can certainly improve and there are important shifts that need to be enacted to better meet the needs of students in the 21st Century, I think the doom and gloom has to be taken with a grain of salt and mitigated by a bit of perspective.  Having spent the past 7 years in Asia, an area often held up as academically superior, I have observed more impact from a cultural emphasis on education than any specific instructional practice or model of schooling.  Additionally, I think it is important to consider what data is being referenced to support the claim that other countries’ students are outperforming U.S. students, or more importantly, what data is not being referenced.  It may be true that many countries outperform the U.S. on standardized tests, but these tests only measure a finite set of academic skills and content.  It is no surprise that students working through school systems that place incredibly high value on passing standardized tests outperform students in school systems and cultures that value a more well-rounded approach to educating the whole child.

So how does the U.S. stack up in terms of actual progress and innovation compared to the rest of the world?  According to Patent Cooperation Treaty data, in 2017 the United States still ranked number one in the world in total new international patents filed.  While a number of other countries outrank the U.S. when figures are adjusted to indicate patents filed per capita, the fact remains that U.S schools are still producing a population of innovators who are creating more new things than any other country on the planet.  Likewise, the U.S. leads most of the world in research & development spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (see graphic below).  The USA also does well on scientists and engineers per capita and led the world in total research and development spending.

R and D graphic

When factoring multiple measures such as per capita patents, and the political, business and regulatory environment of a country, Switzerland, the UK, and Sweden have retained their positions as the top three most innovative countries for the past three years; however when it comes to innovation quality, which measures university performance, the reach of scholarly articles and the international dimension of patent applications, the US holds the top place within high-income groups, followed by the UK, Japan, Germany, and Switzerland.

Innovation graphic

So, what’s my point?  Education is a messy business.  As much as we would like to organize it, systematize it, and find a way to easily measure the outcome, no national or international testing data gives the whole picture.  After all, what is more important to an employer, your student’s test score or their ability to think critically and creatively to solve the real and complex problems they have hired your student to tackle?  Beyond this, have our educational institutions helped students develop ethics and the perseverance to stick with difficult jobs?  Are we graduating students who value others and are able to work well in teams?  It is only when we combine these soft skills with meaningful, rigorous academics that we provide our students the competitive advantage to succeed in an increasingly global workforce.

The University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute explores the necessary requirements to achieve a prosperous future for all.  They write:

As America loses its vast stable of routine high-paying manufacturing jobs, two worlds are emerging: the small faction of creative class workers whose work offers autonomy, creativity, and high wages and a much larger group of routine service-industry workers facing disruption, disengagement, and economic decline. To improve our existing system, we must turn routine, replaceable, and low-paid work into creative, engaging, secure, and well-paid “good jobs.” This shift benefits workers, the system and, notably, business. Sources once integral to success –access to financial resources, product and process technology, market regulation, and economies of scale – are no longer as influential as they once were. The employers who maximize the skills and creativity of their workers, while still achieving the scale and efficiency of the old model, will win.

If our schools are looking to improve, they shouldn’t place too much focus on test scores, but instead, need to develop instructional models that value deeper learning and the ability to creatively apply learning in meaningful contexts.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  We need students with strong academic skills, but we also need students who have the innovative spark to succeed in a global workforce that is continually and rapidly changing.  It is this creative spark that has fueled the U.S economy for the past 200 years, and if valued and encouraged, will continue to give our children a competitive edge.


Tech Boundaries for Healthier Kids

We live in a world of techno-media inundation.  There is no turning back the clock on this one, and to be honest, there are significant advantages and improvements to life that have been made possible by the break-neck pace of technological advances we are currently experiencing.  As an educator, there are so many tools available to help individualize instruction, facilitate collaboration, and streamline feedback.  Students have access to resources and information I could not have dreamed of as a child.  But as it is with all things, balance is important.  How do we help our children develop a healthy balance between the plugged and unplugged world?  The following article by Becky Mansfield provides a solid discussion on both the issues and some concrete things parents can do to help their children develop a healthy balance and avoid the negative impacts of becoming too emersed in the ever-increasing number of tech tools and gadgets they have access to today.

Click on the title below to give it a read:

Why Children are more entitled than generations before

Why Children are less patient & more lonely than ever before

Of Dinosaurs and Dioramas


Volcanoes and dinosaurs are pretty cool.  I remember learning about them in elementary school.  My dad helped me make a really cool diorama in an old apple box that had both.  The plastic dinosaurs grazed happily amidst the trees, but dangerously near the paper mache volcano looming in the background.  We had a piece of tubing that ran inside the volcano and out the back to a turkey baster filled with a gooey cornstarch and water mix dyed with red and orange food coloring to make it look like hot lava.  On one hand, my teacher certainly succeeded in capturing my attention and stimulating my creative side.  On the other hand, I’m not sure what I actually learned regarding either volcanoes or dinosaurs over the course of the project.  Likewise, I had a grand time building a sugar cube model of a California mission in 4th grade, but am not sure what I was supposed to take away from the experience.

The best project-based learning results in a product with purpose.  Project-based learning presses students beyond knowledge acquisition and requires critical thinking and application of learning in order to solve a problem that matters or to create something with real value outside the classroom.  In the process of solving the problem, students also meet required academic standards, but this work is integrated into the project, not separate from it.  The more we can connect academic content to activities or contexts students will actually use in life, the better.  Ioannis Mioulis, president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, and former dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University writes, “Students can spend weeks learning how a volcano works, and no time understanding how a car works.  How often will they find themselves in a volcano?”

At the same time, it is important that we do not ignore or neglect academic learning goals.  When I was a young teacher I can remember spending considerable time in our Social Studies department meetings trying to come up with a body of knowledge or “Intellectual Capital” we felt was truly important for our students to know in order to effectively think about and analyze the world.  Principal Richard Coote, of Birkdale Intermediate School in Auckland New Zealand, points out, “You can’t underestimate the content.  Knowledge is what we use to think with.  The thinking process is what students will take into the world.  So you have to do both at once – content and process.”

In a brief authored for The Southern Regional Education Board titled, Using Real-World Projects to Help Students Meet High Standards in Education and the Workplace, Jobs for the Future writes: “Project-based learning complements and connects two important trends in education:

  • the use of external standards to guide changes in curriculum, instruction and organization; and
  • the creation of community- and school-based opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the adult world of work and learning.

Adria Steinberg of Jobs for the Future suggests the following “Six A’s” criteria for quality project-based learning:

Authenticity — Projects use the context of the workplace and the community to teach academic and technical skills.

Academic rigor — Projects require higher-order thinking skills and research methods from academic and technical fields.

Applied learning — Projects require students to use academic and technical knowledge in acquiring the problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills they will need in the workplace.

Active exploration — Projects extend beyond the classroom to involve work-based learning, community-based activities and technical labs.

Adult relationships — Projects involve adult mentors from the school and the community.

Assessment — Projects include exhibitions and assessments of students’ work according to personal standards and performance standards set by the school and the community.

Steinberg writes: “The six A’s apply to all projects, regardless of whether they originate inside or outside the classroom. Projects that originate from academic content can extend into the workplace, the community and technical labs. Projects that originate from real-life problems can connect back to academic and technical studies and let students practice using these vital skills.”

My dinosaur diorama was still a nice art project with some cross-curricular connections.  I’m not suggesting we throw out such things completely.  I had fun making it, and probably enjoyed people ooing and ahhing over it on parent-teacher night, but if we never move beyond this sort of thing, we aren’t really implementing project-based learning – we just include some projects in our learning.  The emphasis in every subject has to be a blend of knowing and doing, learning and demonstrating.  It is through this application of knowledge that we best prepare our students for success, inside or outside of school.


The Happy Garden, Interdisciplinary Learning results in beautiful growth

Our tour of “The Happy Garden,” began with K-4th grade students performing a song titled, Let Your Garden Grow.  Our kindergarten tour guide then walked a group of 8 adults through the garden gate and over to a triangular area planted with herbs and other aromatic flowers.  She straightened the note cards in her little hands and launched into a polished presentation explaining the design elements she and her classmates had chosen including plant and ground cover selection, the construction of mosaic stepping stones and a beautiful wooden bench.  She explained that they wanted this section of the garden to be a peaceful place for people to sit and relax.  She talked about the science of planting and caring for the garden, the importance of including flowers to attract pollinators and building up healthy soil through composting and mulching.  From there, she then led us through a series of stations and presented with the same poise on a variety of topics ranging from books she had read on gardening to measurement and time, to vegetables and nutrition.  It was an amazing demonstration of the depth of learning our kindergarten tour guide was able to demonstrate as a result of applying her learning in an interdisciplinary, high interest project.


Interdisciplinary, project-based learning gives a purpose to study far beyond the traditional memorization and evaluation information narrowly confined to one subject area.  Interdisciplinary projects that matter to students naturally propel them toward deeper thinking and the ability to make comparisons that bridge disciplines, and encourage the application of knowledge.

I have often referenced Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, in my writing.  In this work, Pink argues that we are transitioning from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age. One important skill people will need to have in this new economy, pink suggests, is the ability to exercise “Symphony.”  According to Pink, symphony “is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”

Real-world problems are complex, so no single discipline can adequately describe and resolve these issues.  We serve our students best when we help them discover the connections between disciplines and guide them to the synthesis Daniel Pink suggests is so important.  It’s not that we completely do away with targeted instruction in any given subject, but that targeted instruction becomes more powerful when it is then connected to a real-world project where students can readily observe the relationships of their learning to the bigger picture and must develop the capacity to synthesize.  Humans are meaning-making beings.  We naturally seek out patterns and connections. Being able to recognize patterns is what gave humans their evolutionary edge over animals.  Developing instructional units like our “Happy Garden project” taps into this pattern seeking nature and gives students the opportunity to apply their learning across disciplines in patterns that are meaningful, and this helps the learning stick.

ES Project expo

We could have asked our kindergarten students to present their math worksheets on time and measurement, and how plants grow.  We could have asked our kindergarten students to tell us about the lessons they went through in class on nutrition and how vegetables are a part of a healthy diet.  I imagine they still would have been able to tell me something about their learning, but I am convinced that the depth of understanding and the long-term impact of this learning would pale in comparison to what we observed on our garden tour.  This is the power of connected learning through interdisciplinary, projects.

Garden Project Authors: Madison Enos, Christine Kuhl, Grace Martinelli, Victoria Vierstra                                                                           Grades: K, 1, 2, 3, 4,  Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Language Arts, Writing, Timeline: 10 Weeks

Learn more about this and other amazing projects at:

Preparing for College & Life

GUEST POST BY: Robert Kuhl, Principal, APIS Hawaii

I often get questions about college preparation at APIS.  Some families wonder how students can prepare for college without taking AP classes.  The high school I attended, the Illinois Math and Science Academy, did not offer AP classes, yet almost every alumnus attended college and many became well-known for creating or co-creating such companies as Paypal, YouTube, Yelp, Sparknotes, and OkCupid.  Others became federal judges, scientists, doctors, famous movie directors, teachers, surgeons, business leaders, diplomats, and exceptional parents.  The last school I worked at, High Tech High, also did not offer AP classes, yet nearly all of the alumni attended college.  Here is the story of one of those alumni

If not AP, then what?

Preparing for college at APIS begins the moment a student steps into their first class.  Students collaborate, problem solve, create, analyze, communicate and develop grit and self-efficacy by working with other students on real problems and real questions, much like adults would do.

More acutely at APIS in high school, college prep has three major prongs.

  1. Authentic projects.  When students collaborate to create work for authentic audiences, students step up.  Students might study local watersheds and make policy recommendations to government officials, or plant and maintain a sustainable garden, or bring the community together to celebrate stories of immigration, or plan a future colony on Mars.  In doing so, students must research deeply, unpack complex texts, and write clearly and compellingly.  Ultimately seniors complete a deep capstone project in an area of their own passion and interest.
  2. Academic Internships.  If college prepares students to work in the adult-world, why not have students work in the adult world as high school students?  This does not mean that internship is solely about career exploration, though this can be a secondary benefit. The real benefit of internship is that a student has college educated adults as peers and begins to behave more and more like these college educated adults.  Students who complete internships are equipped to work among college educated adults. At APIS, eleventh grade students spend a month working alongside a college-educated mentor and completing a project of meaning to both the student and the host organization.
  3. College Classes – What more authentic college experience could we offer than actual college classes?  At APIS we have an agreement with Windward Community College through which eleventh and twelfth grade students take two college courses each semester.  This gives students an opportunity to earn credit that transfers almost anywhere, to learn to navigate challenging curriculum in a supportive setting, and to explore possible pathways.  Building on a solid and broad project-based background in grades nine and ten, in grade eleven and twelve students may choose to explore many possible college classes, or develop a more focused pathway in Creative Media, Psycho-Social DevelopmentSustainable Agriculture, or Agripharmatech.

Through this approach all APIS students will graduate not only ready for college, but with college success already under their belts, and ready to take on the world.

Robert-KuhlRobert Kuhl is currently the K-12 principal at Asia Pacific International School, Hawaii.  After graduating with a B.S. from the University of Illinois he first taught via a Fulbright Fellowship in a comprehensive grade 5-12 school in Vienna, Austria, then in a large comprehensive high school in Austin, Texas, and then in an international school in Caracas, Venezuela. He most recently has served as director of one of the High Tech High schools in San Diego. Along this journey he earned an MA from the College of New Jersey and an MEd from the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. 

Education is Not a Spectator Sport

I believe education is not a spectator sport, and students learn best when what they are learning has purpose outside the classroom.  Project-based learning takes students beyond the classroom and provides them the opportunity to experience and interact with the world around them in a meaningful way.  Through project-based learning at APIS our students are gaining an understanding of how the academic content and skills they are expected to master during their school day actually connect with life outside of school.  As a result, we are experiencing students who are genuinely engaged in their learning, and growing in their understanding of how they can make a difference, rather than simply filling a seat or consuming information.  

Here are three short overviews of projects APIS students participated in this past November as part of our New Pacific Century Academy.  Each project below was an intensive, three-week project designed by teachers on our faculty and conducted in collaboration with students from our Seoul Korea campus who came to join us for the month.  (Project descriptions written by APIS faculty)

From Seed to Citizen

Essential Question:  How can we rely on ourselves and one another to live when systems fail us & resources are limited? How do our daily decisions about the food that we eat impact the world?

Project Description: Students developed and shared their insights on what makes a more sustainable community by a variety of hands-on cooking and farming activities as well as several expeditions around the island to local farmers, markets, and an ancient Hawaiian fishpond. The students learning culminated in cooking a sustainable meal for over 100 members of our community and exhibiting projects that address everyday obstacles to living more sustainably. Students’ families and peers all sat down to enjoy a homemade four-course meal. Guests explored all the ingredients used in the meal using interactive menus students created. Over the course of the entire project students developed an appreciation for the land through farming, camping, and hiking.


Culture and Identity

Essential Questions:

​How does where you live affect how you live?

How do we learn about cultures in a deep way?

What does it mean to be Hawaiian?

Project Description:  ​6th graders sought to share their cultures with each other as they explored Hawaiian culture together. Over the course of this project, students sought to look beyond the surface of their own culture and in their experience of Hawaii. Student work included collaborative mural pieces, Hawaiian music (traditional and student-composed), written artist statements, and legend narratives. Students also presented their art, music, and written pieces formally at a community exhibition event. Our students found an authentic audience for their murals and artist statements by contacting Oahu community organizations asking to display their work. We have installed two of our murals at the Hau’ula Civic Center on public display. Students were also encouraged to apply their cross-cultural learning to real-world situations in social and business situations. We found a further connection to the community by doing in-depth interviews with Native Hawaiians and engaging in cultural activities outside of school such as taro (kalo) farming and outrigger canoe paddling.


Outriggers to Internet

Essential Question:  How do innovations in communication and transportation transform a society from isolation to globalization?

Project Description:  During this three-week program, students explore a variety of innovations in communication and transportation to better understand how these advancements impact society, contribute to pace of change, and, in turn, globalize our world. Students create seven immersive experiences to allow for the community to build an understanding of their essential questions and enduring understandings. These immersive experiences include posters, presentations, and interactive activities.  These stations have included: Airplane innovating, Boat creation and racing, Virtual Reality, Postcard Making, Drone flying, Reading Choose Your Own Adventures made by the students, and listening to Student Podcasts.  


Throughout the rest of the Fall semester students engaged in a variety of projects that integrated academic standards from Science, Social Studies, and English Language Arts.  From simulated colonization of mars, to watershed and reef studies, to connecting aesthetics and environmental science in the creation of an elementary garden, students got their hands dirty and ignited their minds around real, meaningful work.  I can’t wait to see what our kids accomplish next.

For more examples of awesome Project-based Learning Units see our Project Site:


The Times They Are a Changing

quote bob dylan

Last night I was watching a program on the television and an economist was predicting up to 30 % of current jobs in the U.S. to be replaced by automation, artificial intelligence, and globalization over the next ten years.  If he is correct, this means 30% of jobs currently in existence won’t exist when our 3rd grade students graduate high school.

As I pondered this, I considered the steady march of technological breakthroughs that have been significantly changing the labor market since the Industrial Revolution.  Throughout history, people have worried that such technological advances would result in widespread unemployment and economic doom.  Textile workers in the early 1800’s England destroyed industrial equipment in response to the threat it posed skilled textile workers.  In the 1920’s rural workers in the U.S. experienced significant job losses displaced by improved agricultural technology, such as the tractor.  The entry of robotics to the automotive assembly lines replaced routine assembly jobs once held by assembly line workers.

Despite the worry over technology threatening jobs, throughout the 20th century mechanization and automation did not result in apocalyptic unemployment, it shifted how and where people worked and actually stoked economic growth.  Manual labor jobs did not disappear completely, but the rise of knowledge workers fueled an economy where the white-collar worker became more important.  These white-collar occupations were not easily susceptible to mechanization and automation.  Urban centers grew, and possessing a college degree was viewed as the pathway to a brighter future. From 1965 to 2015, total college enrollment increased by roughly 240 percent in the U.S.

Rapid globalization and the ability to outsource white-collar jobs to lower paid workers in other countries has steadily challenged the knowledge worker economy over the past 20 – 30 years.  Once again, a variety of voices have sounded the alarm bell warning of impending economic doom as once safe, prosperous jobs shifted offshore.  As we near the 3rd decade of the 21st century, the new worry is that advances in computerized artificial intelligence will soon threaten even the jobs previously impervious to technological advances due to the need for human intelligence.  In a 2013 Oxford University study, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that approximately 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential loss due to computerization.

So, how do we educate our 3rd grade students today if estimates are correct and somewhere between 30 – 50 % of the jobs in existence now will not exist when these students graduate high school?  I think the answer lies in meeting the anxiety over loss of predictable career paths with the optimism that technological changes have historically resulted in shifting labor in new directions rather than eliminating jobs altogether.  Companies and governments will need to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills and switch jobs as needed.  Likewise, educators need to help students develop the ability to adapt, and to hone emotional intelligence skills.

No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, jobs involving empathy or social interaction are likely to be done better by humans. Winners in the 21st century economy will not be those who can memorize the most facts, or even those who hone the ability to analyze complex data better than others.  Computers can do this much more efficiently than humans.  In the medical field, for example, computer software solutions are increasingly more accurate at diagnosing medical conditions and identifying the most effective treatment protocols than doctors.  Computers cannot, however, provide the empathy and emotional support that are so important in managing a patient’s emotional well being throughout the course of treatment.  Schools need to strategically address the development of emotional intelligence in our students.

Winners in the 21st century economy will also need to be able to adapt, anticipate people’s needs, and think in creative ways.  Schools will best prepare students for the challenges of the 21st Century by building their capacity to deal with change in positive ways.  Students need to understand how they can actively look ahead to leverage innovation to their advantage instead of waiting to respond as innovations make previously valued skill sets obsolete.  Dr. Bruce Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design writes: “It is about more than thinking, it is about learning by doing and learning how to do the new in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex space–our lives today.”

As we look to the future for our students, our biggest challenge may be in letting go of the past.  As teachers, we have to move beyond doing school the way we experienced it, focusing the majority of our time regurgitating facts that students can now easily access on their smartphone.  We need to help students develop an aptitude in what Daniel Pink refers to as Symphony: “Symphony, as I call this aptitude, is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”

To do this, we have to let go of the traditional approach of single-subject, content heavy instruction and challenge students to apply learning from multiple disciplines in connection to issues or opportunities in the real world.  Project-based or problem-based learning gives students the chance to do this.  As students identify local needs or global issues of interest to them, we have the ability to connect a variety of disciplinary learning around meaningful projects that require students to hone the skills for success in the 21st century.

APIS Middle School Students and Teachers working with  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to survey and track data on the Hauula Reef

Reef Survey

Lifeworthy Learning

This past summer I received an email from one of our parents that read:

“Please let the staff know that we took our daughter to China and Thailand this summer and she didn’t go more than a day or two without saying ‘I miss my school!’ Whatever you guys are doing, keep it up. And thanks!!”

Building a school community that becomes a place teachers and students “want to be,” instead of just a place they “have to be” creates the healthy environment needed to promote deeper learning.  At APIS we are striving to accomplish this in many ways.  In the past, I have written about the importance of positive relationships to learning.  It is through the safety of caring interpersonal relationships that we form the foundational environment for learning.  This is a critical first step, but what we build on this foundation is equally important.

While I am certain, the student referred to in the email above missed school because of the relationships formed here between students and teachers, I am equally confident that the student missed school during the summer break because our school is a place filled with meaningful exploration and learning.  Make no mistake, this is not an easy goal to reach, and at times we fall short.  There is a constant tendency to revert to the same old teacher-oriented instructional style, but school doesn’t exist in the service of teachers, it exists in the service of students.  So, we must constantly strive to provide what Dr. David Perkins from the Harvard Graduate School of Education has termed, “Lifeworthy Learning.”

Professor Perkins Writes:

Historically, the first 12 or so years of schooling have focused on educating for the known, “the tried and true, the established canon,” he writes. “This made very good sense in the many periods and places where most children’s lives were likely to be more or less like their parents’ lives. However, wagering that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday does not seem to be a very good bet today. Perhaps we need a different vision of education, a vision that foregrounds educating for the unknown as much as for the known.

To do that, Perkins says we need to rethink what’s worth learning and what’s worth letting go of — in a radical way.

At APIS, we are passionately pursuing such “Lifeworthy” curricula, understanding that our instructional activities and student projects must be embedded with interdisciplinary thinking and 21st century skills.  It is not sufficient for students to just collect information, they must think with that information and apply their thinking to lifeworthy projects. To think with information, students use academic content knowledge to solve problems, weigh options, make decisions, and better understand their world.  When we provide students consistent opportunities to engage with lifeworthy educational activities, we create a place that is meaningful, exciting, and fun to be.  We create a place our students miss coming while they are on vacation.  Oh yeah, and we create a place where we are preparing students for their future instead of our past.

Learning for Life


Summer was a mixture of long, hot days working in the vineyards and cool nights under the stars by the river when I was a kid.  School let out in June, and my buddies and I turned our thoughts and our hands to work.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mind remained engaged in the geometry of carpentry, the science of irrigation, and the cultural studies that presented themselves in the interactions I had with immigrant fieldworkers I labored beside each day. I wrote some of my best poetry rumbling back and forth through the vineyard rows on a tractor.   Evenings, my friends and I plumbed the depths of philosophy as we sat around campfires or lay out on smooth rocks by the river and deconstructed the world as we knew it.  Our hands were worn, but our hearts were full.

Looking back on these summers I realize now just how important they were to my growth as both a student and a human being.  It wasn’t just that I had the chance to apply the academic knowledge I had been developing throughout the school-year, it was also that I was learning the value of hard work, perseverance, and the ability to solve problems.  I had the opportunity to step back from the academic world of school and let my mind wander and ponder the wonder of the world around me.

I could have spent my evenings and summers taking extra courses at the local community college or attending SAT prep courses, but instead I studied life, and in the process, developed a lot of the skills they couldn’t teach me in school.  In his book, “Most Likely to Succeed,” Ted Dintersmith writes, “When you fill up every waking hour of a teenager’s life with these drills, you don’t have time for what really counts.  And you produce disengaged kids doing the most mind-numbing tasks, rather than developing the skills they’ll really need to take on life’s biggest challenges.”

I’m not advocating there is never a place for additional academic study in the evening, over the summer, or to improve a specialized interest such as music or art, but I hope that our students will choose not to completely fill their time with academia at the expense of getting out there and experiencing life.  In the end, it won’t be the extra 50 points on an SAT that helps them succeed at university or in their career or marriage.  It will be the time they spent learning to put their hands and head to work, the time they dedicated to nurturing relationships.  These are the things that transcend the academic and prepare us for life.

Empowering Independent thinkers

When I went to school in the 1980’s, almost everything was designed by and orchestrated by my teachers, from what learning activities I was assigned each day to where I sat in class.  When the bell rang, I moved from one subject to the next, and waited to be told what to do again.

It was mostly outside of school that I experienced the need to think for myself and make decisions without someone telling me what to do each step of the way.  In my part-time job on a local ranch, I had general tasks assigned to me, but a lot of the time I had to figure out what needed to be done on my own.  I learned building skills helping my father on projects at home, and then experimented as my friends and I constructed tree forts and a variety of contraptions in the woods behind my house.  But during school hours, my friends and I mostly waited to be told what to do.

While this didn’t relegate me to a lifetime of drudgery in some mindless factory job, I had to develop a lot of independent thinking skills during college and on the job later in life.  Wouldn’t it be great if our students today were empowered to think for themselves before they complete elementary and high school?  George Couros writes:

“I think the best educators have always tried to empower their students.  They know that if you are truly good at your job as an educator, the students will learn to not need you eventually.2 That is why “lifelong learning” has been a goal in education forever.  If we truly want our students to be “compliant” when they walk out of schools, they will always need someone else’s rules to follow.  To develop the “leaders of tomorrow”, we need to develop them as leaders today.
Focusing on “empowering” students is seen by some as “fluffy”; students just show up to school to do whatever they want.  This is not my belief at all.  Empowering students teaches them to have their own voice and follow their own direction, but if they are going to be successful, they will need to truly have the discipline (using the definition, “train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way”), to make it happen.  “Empowerment” and “hard work” are not mutually exclusive; in fact, both elements are needed to make a true difference in our world.”

Schools of the past focused on looking for answers – Learning for the future promotes starting with great questions.  Schools of the past were about consuming information – Learning for the future is about creating.  Schools of the past were highly standardized – Learning for the future is personalized.  Schools of the past promoted surface level thinking – Learning for the future is about deep exploration.  At APIS, we are striving to provide our students more and more opportunities to go beyond the traditional, spoon-fed education of centuries past, and learn to think for themselves, problem solve, and develop the ability to direct their own learning.  We will know we are nearing our goal when our students look to teachers to guide them as they learn and discover, rather than wait for teachers to tell them what to do.

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