15 Provocative “What Ifs” to Challenge Our Thinking About Teaching & Learning

If you want to capture my attention for hours/days/weeks on end, just share a question with me that starts with “What if…?” or “Would it be possible to…?” These questions almost always draw me in because, at then end of the day, I see myself as a designer. As much as I immerse myself in data and research, my greatest passions in education reside with creative and imaginative pursuits. So, when I first read Thinkertoys: A Handbook for Creative Thinking Techniques, I felt as if I’d been introduced to a new universe! I found myself using the techniques and exercises all the time. I would wake up in the middle of the night with an insatiable craving to apply one of the techniques to a question, challenge or possibility in my work or life. One of the simple techniques that I continue to use is SCAMPER, an acronym for substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, and reverse. You can learn more about how this tool works at any number of helpful web sites.

Flying home yesterday, I found myself using parts of SCAMPER to develop a list of provocative question about teaching and learning. These questions are brainstorms to help me/us consider alternatives and possibilities to how we are currently doing things. They are not statements are assertions that are intended to drive one toward a specific action. Instead, I use them to shift paradigms in my thinking, look at education from a different angle with the hope of discovering something new and potentially helpful, and to challenge my existing assumptions and practices (which I try to do often). I try to bracket my biases and assumptions to some extent, allowing myself to engage in thought experiments and imaginative exercises that might help me refine, improve, adjust, abandon, or affirm what I am already believe or my current practice.

Remember that the questioned brainstormed in this exercise are not necessarily intended to be taken literally or as a suggested practice. This is about looking at teaching and learning with fresh eyes, leveraging a creative exercise to help us see promising possibilities that were otherwise invisible to us.

With this long introduction, here are the 15 provocative “what ifs.”

1. What if schools celebrated failed efforts instead of successful ones?

2. What if the best and most senior teachers opted to use their seniority or privileged position to teach the most challenging and struggling students…and to work in the introductory courses?

3. What if students graded teachers more than teachers graded students?

4. What if the measure of a great school was when students were teaching most of the time and teachers were learning most of the time?

5. What if students wrote national standards for government and different workplace environments instead of the other way around?

6. What if new units were started by students testing the teacher’s background knowledge and skill in the subject?

7. What if students and parents led search committees for new teachers and school leaders?

8. What if students were the primary voters for school board members?

9. What if struggling students were put in “honors classes”?

10. What if students were responsible for assessing their own learning and aligning it to some set of standards?

11. What if school policy mandated that teacher speaking never exceeded 20% of the overall conversation in a classroom?

12. What if teachers needed student permission to speak in class?

13. What if each teacher had a board of directors (consisting entirely of students) to whom they reported and gained input for their work as an educator?

14. What if students had the chance to give teachers and administrators relevant “homework” and assignments in a similar measure to the homework they received from teachers?

15. What if students and teachers co-wrote the textbooks instead of buying and reading textbooks written by others?








Risk-Taking as a 21st Century Skill

I love serendipitous learning experiences! You hear about an idea in one place, and it increases your awareness of the topic. Then you discover it in other places over the upcoming days and weeks.  Each new experience amplifies the impact of the idea, leading you to consider life implications and applications. That happened to me this week.

It started with a pre-conference keynote that I presented at the Learning Revolution conference. I presented on 8 Laws of the Self-Directed Learner, a series of principles that I’ve pulled together from study of self-directed learning over the past couple of years, but I framed them similarly to John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching (1888). Essentially, I revised his seven laws (and added one) to better reflect the distinctives of self-directed learning. The presentation was great fun with some excellent comments and feedback from the participants.

Steve Hargadon served as a moderator, and he pointed out a couple of excellent and important principles that seemed to be missing from my proposed list. One that stuck with me was the idea of risk-taking. The willingness to take risks is a critical part of self-directed living and learning. Without it, one misses out on many high-impact learning experiences. It takes courage to reach out and connect with other people. It takes courage to try something new. It takes courage to work on a new skill, making your current limited ability evident to those around (remembering my last time at an ice-skating rink, tripping my way around the rink as ten year old kids zoom past me). Steve is right. Risk-taking is such a fundamental part of self-directed learning that it certainly warrants a dedicated spot in any list of laws or principles on the topic. 

Then I started reading a book on the airplane yesterday. It is one of those books that I read every year or two. It is a book called Holy Sweat by Tim Hansel. While I don’t agree with some of his points, he writes with rich and powerful analogies and illustrations that always lead me into new ways of thinking about life and learning. Tim has an amazing life story that he shares in another book called, You Gotta Keep Dancin’. He fell fifty feet in a mountain climbing accident and suffered from daily chronic back pain for the rest of his life. Each morning was a battle to get out of bed, to fight through the pain. Tim passed away in 2009, and I’m certain that those who knew him well would say that he lived a courageous life.

As I see it, courage and risk-taking are close relatives, and both are required to embrace and act upon a life of self-directed learning. In Holy Sweat, Tim tells the story of Desert Pete. It is about a person hiking through the desert, badly dehydrated, potentially close to death. The person comes upon a well and well pump with a message attached. The message explains that the well has plenty of water, but to get the pump working, it requires priming it with a little water. The letter explained that a small corked bottle of water was hidden beneath a nearby rock. The hiker is left with a choice. Drink the small bottle of water and ignore the letter, which would likely be not enough water to sustain him. Or, he could trust the author of the letter, take a risk, and prime the pump with the water, resulting in all the water he wanted. Tim uses this story to expound upon the role of courage in a person’s life. He wrote, “Like a heart, courage pumps life into all other virtues.” He compares lives without out courage to nice-looking cars without motors.

It is courage that allows one to take the next step as a learner. It takes courage to be transparent about our limited knowledge and skill, to build new learning connections with others, to fuel our learning goals with action. As such, courage and calculated risk-taking is among the more fundamental skills of the self-directed learner. So, it seems like my list of self-directed learner principles has just grown by one.

Questions for Reflection

  • When has a lack of courage prevented you from learning something new?
  • What role has courage played in your learning something new?
  • How do we help ourselves and others develop a healthy measure of calculated risk-taking as learners?
  • How do we value and encourage risk-taking in our learning organizations?
  • Or, what can we do to create learning organizations that are safe places for risk-taking?
  • To what extent do teachers play a role in helping others gain the confidence and courage to take risks as learners?
  • How can we design feedback and assessment plans that celebrate risk-taking rather than making people risk averse?
  • In what ways have we inadvertently discouraged risk-taking in the learning process?
  • What needs to stay and what needs to go for us to embrace the role of courage and risk-taking as we embrace and encourage self-directed learning?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Feedback & Assessment?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes from a 1943 paper that Abraham Maslow published in the Psychological Review, but he fleshed out the idea in the 1950s, when he published Motivation and Personality. In some ways, Maslow was a positive psychologist before there was such a thing. His research on motivation was based on studying people who were widely recognized as exceptional. While it doesn’t get as much attention in the contemporary discourse about motivation, his hierarchy, especially as represented in the well-known pyramid, remains a useful tool for thinking about the needs that informs the motivation of learners.

Recently, as I was working on some book chapters for what I hope to be a forthcoming text on assessment and learning pathways, I found myself reflecting on the connection between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and what takes place in the assessment exchange between teacher and learners. From the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy, failing to have more basic needs met may inhibit one’s ability to have motivation or interest in seeking other needs. For example, if one is not getting adequate air, food and sleep; it risks diminishing the perceived need for getting lost in a rich and engaging creative or problem-solving learning experience. Similarly, if one does not experience safety, that may well overwhelm a person’s attention so much that there is little room for experiencing the rewards of other academic pursuits. Of course, there are ample exceptions to this, cases where people lacking food and safety somehow flourish in academic and intellectual pursuits, which is partly why other theories of motivation have largely replaced Malsow’s hierarchy.

Maslow HNNonetheless, I’m curious how Maslow’s early work might inform our approach to assessment. For assessment (and I am referring mostly to the formative sort) to be helpful to a learner, the learn must see a need for it. So, what is the value of an assessment plan that ignores the craving for basic physiological needs, the need to be and feel safe, the need to belong, and the need for confidence and respect from others? All of those needs are likely to dominate one’s attention and motivation. And yet, many of our goals in education are about that which shows up in Maslow’s final stage of needs, that of self-actualization. That is where one recognizes a need and pursues a desire for creative experiences, the ability to solve increasingly complex problems, even the need to learn and accept declarative knowledge. If we are going to create assessment plans that benefit students, perhaps we need to design plans that first takes into account the more fundamental human needs .

Consider how some assessment plans critique learner’s performance without recognizing that a person’s need for confidence precedes the need for feedback on solving a problem. So, how will an assessment plan help a learner if it decreases confidence? Or, consider the idea that a learner is likely more able to benefit from rich feedback on work after there is a trusting community and relationship with the teacher.

These are rough draft thoughts, even rougher than many of my other musings on this blog, but I remained convinced that there is something critical to this line of thinking. Even if Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not the most useful vehicle for this exploration, it at least gets us going in a positive direction, thinking about and recognizing that assessment plans must take into account a broader understanding of human needs and the human condition.

Education is a deeply human endeavor that calls for our attention to the many facets of a person’s lived experience. To overly mechanize assessment plans risks moving away from this humanness. It is why I’ve more recently considered not only the benefits of rubrics, but also the limitations. If there is any consistent message in my blog, it is about the importance of reflecting on both the affordances and limitations of technological systems, including things like assessment systems. With each system, there is something gained and something lost. There are winners and losers. There are values that are amplified and those that are muffled. From that perspective, perhaps there is some value in reflecting on the intersection of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and systems for assessment. What do you think?


The Only Way Through the Common Core Debate

Debates continue about the Common Core State Standards. Proponents and advocates write and speak with equal passion and conviction, and both sides offer important points as we reconsider the purpose of schooling in the 21st century. However, few debates about the CCSS actually discuss the purpose of schooling explicitly, which is a mistake. Few also address a second critical discussion about the role of purpose of standards in a school. Without a clear understanding of what we believe about the purpose of education and the proper role of standards; schools, parents, and educators will continue to be swayed back and forth, often taking a position on CCSS that is founded in conjecture. How can we agree upon which standards to use for a given school (or if we should use any standards) unless we are clear on the purpose of education?

Regarding Purpose

With this in mind, what is the purpose of the Common Core State Standards?  From the CCSS main web site, they state:

High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live. These standards are aligned to the expectations of colleges, workforce training programs, and employers. – from Why are the Common Core Standards Important?

These are standards based upon the belief that school exists to help young people, “succeed in college, career, and life.” Or, if we look further into the documentation about the standards, this is one of the only places where “life” is emphasized.  Notice the latter part of the quote. The CCSS are tied to skills important for college and certain jobs (I write “certain jobs” because there are clearly hundreds or thousands of jobs that can be fulfilled without one meeting the CCSS.). If CCSS is also about preparing young people for life beyond college and career, what data did the developers of CCSS use for this part of the stated purpose? For example, what math and language arts knowledge and skills best help one to “succeed in life”?

If we reduce life to little more than going to college and getting a good job, the answer is clear. However, what else is there in life? What about life with family and friends, hobbies and interests, financial life, community life, spiritual life, the moral life, and more? Many will point out that nothing in the CCSS is against these parts of life, but that is much different from being designed to help people thrive in these ares of life. For example, the Council for Economic Education and similar organizations have aligned their curriculum on financial literacy to the CCSS. They likely did so to survive. If a curriculum provider does not align to CCSS, that reduces the provider’s ability to sell products to schools. The Common Core Math Standards only explicitly reference a concept tied to financial literacy once (in second grade). Proponents might note two reasons for this. First, financial literacy is not usually part of the math curriculum. Instead, it belongs in social studies, consumer education, or high school economics. Second, it could be argued that the underlying math skills for financial literacy are all over the place in the CCSS.

These are valid points, but it is equally true that it would be possible to meet all the CCSS math standards and still lack the ability to apply those math concepts to one’s financial life. So, the math standards may help prepare one for the demands of college, but are they also going to help students figure out how to use those concepts to address the challenges of college loans, credit card companies selling them “amazing deals”, and life skills related to budgeting and saving? It can be argued that financial life is one of the areas where most adults are in the greatest need of math skills, but nothing in the common core explicitly leads toward such an outcome.

Many independent schools are also grappling with what to do with the CCSS. As they look at new curricular resources, most of the high-quality resources they find are aligned to these standards now. Yet, many private schools have stated purposes that will be undermined if they did nothing more than design a curriculum that carefully aligned to the CCSS. For example, the language arts standards in CCSS have little or nothing to say about reading religious texts for spiritual edification, or how to read a text and compare/contrast it to one’s religious belief system.

This is because the CCSS is not a curriculum. A curriculum is the entire learning experience provided by a school. The CCSS is a set of standards that one can use as a resource when designing a school curriculum. In fact, CCSS is only two sets of standards: one for language arts and another for math.

A school based solely on the CCSS would be, in most people’s judgment, a sub par education. It is possible that some schools are building a curriculum that has the primary goal of helping students score well on tests aligned to the CCSS, and that is one of the problems with how standards are being used or abused. There is nothing inherently in the idea of using the CCSS that demands this type of flawed thinking.

Rather, thoughtful schools reference many sets of standards in the design and redesign of a school curriculum. The CCSS is not adequate. Giving the example of independent schools tied to a religious organization, the CCSS says nothing about the educational goals and values that align with that religious tradition. Yet, such a school is obligated by their stated reason for existence to design a curriculum that is aligned to more than these standards. It has religious goals and desired outcomes that have implications for college, work, and the rest of life. Such schools must be able to articular how their curriculum is not only informed by something like CCSS, but also by the other standards and sources of guidance. I come from the tradition of Lutheran education. If a language arts teachers in such a school could say nothing more about her curriculum than how it aligns to CCSS, that person would fail to meet the standard and expectation for teaching in a Lutheran school. They must also be able to articulate how the specific knowledge and skills emphasized in their language arts curriculum aids learners in their spiritual life. The same would be true for a math teacher in such a context.

This is not specific to faith-based schools. Public schools often have stated school or district goals for learners that will not be met by simply teaching a curriculum aligned to the CCSS. For example, the district in which I live has the following vision statement:

The vision of the Mequon-Thiensville School District is to be an exemplary educational leader that supports and challenges all students to achieve their full potential. – http://www.mtsd.k12.wi.us/

This vision calls for a curriculum that is focused upon helping students, “achieve their full potential.” If taken seriously, this demands a drastically different type of school curriculum. Since each student’s potential is different and focused upon varying areas of strength, interest, and ability, I would expect to see a curriculum that is highly personalized. It would be a curriculum that allows learners to spend significant parts of their school day building knowledge and skills specific to their distinct gifts, interests, goals and abilities. I would expect that every teacher could articulate this vision and how their work and efforts are focused upon this main goal of helping students reach their full potential. The CCSS does nothing to make sure this vision will become a reality for the students in the district. CCSS is just a list of benchmarks for language arts and math. It based upon nothing more than basic research on what it takes to succeed in college and and some workplace environments (and only as it relates to math and language arts). It isn’t an adequate guide for the larger and more significant purposes of schools or an overall curriculum. It is just one potentially useful resource.

The more I follow debates and conversations about the CSSS and standards in general, the more I realize that part of our struggle in these conversations is that parents and educators have an inadequate understanding of the vocabulary associated with the conversation (curriculum, standards, goals, outcomes, objectives, competencies, assessments, etc.). Most have an even more inadequate understanding of curriculum design and development. For many, you send your kids to school to get an education. Educators, school leaders, parents, students and community members need to unpack this.


  • What kind of education?
  • What is the purpose of this education?
  • What are the goals and desired outcomes for this education?
  • What is the vision for learners who get this education?
  • What standards and resources can we use to help us design a school learning experience that leads toward these goals and outcomes?


These are the types of questions that we must take seriously if we are going to make progress in the conversations about the proper role of CCSS in education. In fact, these are the questions we must explore if we are going to provide schools high-impact 21st and 22nd century schools.