Yes on Teaching Like a PIRATE. How About learning like a PIRATE too?

Teach or Learn Like a PIRATEI participate in a Twitter chat where we vote on the topics each week. The last I looked, the topic might just focus on teaching like a pirate. So, I thought it was time that I bought and read David Burgess’s book, Teach Like a Pirate. Within the first couple of pages, he had my attention when he wrote:

“Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee to success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel to the ends other earth for that which they value. Although fiercely independent, they travel with and embrace a diverse crew. If you’re willing to live by the code, commit to the voyage, and pull your share of the load, then you’re free to set sail. Pirates don’t much care about public perception; they proudly fly their flags in defiance” (Burgress, paragraph 5).

I was inspired and engaged by this paragraph, but not for the reason that most readers are likely inspired. This book is written for educators, and the rest of the text is about how teaches can embrace teachinh that is creative, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, and adventurous. He calls for “mavericks and renegades who are willing to use unorthodox tactics to spark and kindle the flame of creativity and imagination in the minds of the young” (paragraph 6). I found myself thinking that this is exactly what we need in education…but we can’t stop at the teachers. I get why we want risk-taking, inspiring, unorthodox teachers; but it seems to me that the ultimate goal is for students to learn like pirates.

I am on a quest to figure out how these pirate learners develop. It doesn’t just happen by having pirate teachers. It has to be about more than teacher-led, powerful and engaging presentations. It has to be something that helps the student who goes from a Mr. Burgress-led class to a Mr. Boring-led class, or even a Mr. Boring-led company. It has to be something that works when the student is alone, when work is challenging and close to overwhelming, when there is little direction, when the sources of content are less than engaging and inspiring by themselves. While there seem to be some fixed personality traits that lend some people toward such a mindset, I see people with almost the same personality profile who are far from pirate-like in their commitment to the life of the learner. So, how do we do it? How to be nurture a generation of pirate learners?

PIRATE is an acronym in Burgess’s book.

  • Passion about your teaching. Be passionate, whether it is about the content, your commitment to being a great teacher, or something else.
  • Immersion “in the moment.” Get lost in it so that it is the only thing you’re thinking about.
  • Rapport with the students. By this, he is talking about building rapport between the students and the content, finding connections between the content and what is important to them, what interests them. He is also taking about building rapport between the teacher and the students, and showing the students that you are genuinely interested in them.
  • Ask and Analyze is about asking great questions to get at ideas that will engage and inspire students, and also analyzing those ideas to see if they will work with a given group of learners. Amid this section, he has a compelling part about learning to ask great questions that will drive you to more outrageous, creative and engaging teaching.
  • Transformation is about “reframing” what you are teaching. He uses the Seth Godin analogy of a Purple Cow, making your class stand out, be memorable, and interesting.
  • Enthusiasm is what he describes as “being ‘on’ every period of the day.” Be enthusiastic in your words, actions, even your body language.

It seems to me that these same traits are powerful levers for learners.


How can I, as a learner, surface or tap into a passion that will drive me to outrageous, unorthodox, creative tactics to answer the most perplexing questions, tackle and solve some of the world’s greatest problems, develop high-impact skills, achieve my personal goals, and acquire high levels of knowledge and expertise?


How do I get lost in learning, losing track of time, setting aside all else in an immersed pursuit for new knowledge and skills? I can’t help but think about Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow.


How can I find and nurture connections between my greatest passions and interests and what I need or want to learn? How can I build rapport with even the PIRATE-less teacher to help me achieve my learning goals? How can I build rapport and meaningful relationships with people and groups locally, online and around the world that will help me reach my learning goals?

Ask and Analyze

How can I cultivate the art and skill of asking ground-breaking, thought-provoking, perspective-changing, aha-generating questions about what I am studying or learning? How can I use these questions to analyze the situation and adjust my strategies for learning accordingly?


How do I make what I am learning stand out, become a personal “purple cow”, be memorable…sticky? How can I do this in a way that I benefit, and I don’t depend upon having a PIRATE teacher in every class? While that would be great, there is a hidden power behind learning from a brilliant and boring person from time to time (not that I suggest we do more to institutionalize that). Years ago I started to search for the most brilliant and ground-breaking minds in areas of interest. I didn’t care if they were great presenters. I would listen, read, learn, and take great pride in translating what they were saying or writing into words, stories, analogies, and illustrations that were striking, memorable, and more engaging for me. This strikes me as a strategy worth developing as a learner. It gives me access to some of the greatest and most important ideas, many of which are not beautifully packaged.


How can I nurture and embrace personal enthusiasm about what I am learning, even when I don’t feel like it? How can I “be on” as a learner? How can I infuse a jolt of energy and enthusiasm into whatever learning community I find myself? How can I leave the learning space better than when I first arrived? How can I help the enthusiasm spread to those around me?

Burgess’s book is very good. It is an inspiring and imformative read for teachers who want to step up their game, especially those who are in positions that call for more teacher-led and presentation-orientated teaching and learning. I also see many ways to transfer his ideas to more student-centered, project-based and peer-to-peer learning environments by not just applying the ideas to the role of the teacher as presenter, but by thinking about how to infuse these same characteristics into the design of the learning space or learning experience. However, what is really exciting to me is taking these same ideas, this PIRATE system, and instead applying it to what it means to be a self-directed PIRATE learner. As such, I’ll finish with the opening quote from the blog (and his book). However, this time I invite you to read it not as traits of a teacher, but those of a new breed of learner.

“Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee to success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel to the ends other earth for that which they value. Although fiercely independent, they travel with and embrace a diverse crew. If you’re willing to live by the code, commit to the voyage, and pull your share of the load, then you’re free to set sail. Pirates don’t much care about public perception; they proudly fly their flags in defiance” (Burgress, paragraph 5).

4 Replies to “Yes on Teaching Like a PIRATE. How About learning like a PIRATE too?”

  1. Dr. Pyrate @DrPyrate

    Separate from Burgess, I believe and instate a version of Piratical Pedagogy ( Piracy is all about perception, and it is contextually savvy. Not superhuman, just aware of critical dispersion, or the supposed legitimacy that we automatically assign to anything that has simply survived diachronically. It volleys at an untested authority, and it marks mistakes as moments of learning. It provides the room for the body to become uncomfortable, which triggers an autonomic response to make changes. That is a marked moment of learning, especially in crisis. This isn’t a higher level of action at all- it is also a trusting of instinct at the gut level.

    Now, there are overly romanticized notions in Burgess’ book, especially given the historic re-appropriation of the icon, but it does have a valid place in instruction. Teaching to Transgress, by bell hooks, and/or Paolo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed permit the rapport to build within a classroom; however, it’s also possible to admit that the traditional mode of education just isn’t right for some people because it does test educational ideologies relative to an individual’s needs. After all, who knows better when the stakes, odds, and prize trifecta have only resulted in mediocre prizes again and again than the learner. We need to stop punishing fish for not being able to climb trees.

    There is no such thing as needing to be perfect forever. That was never the point. And most pirates didn’t end up in the gallows historically, since piracy as a concept has been around as long as people have been traveling on water and is a global phenomenon. The Golden Age is such a small sliver of truth. The most famous and successful was a Southeast Asian woman who had a fleet of 80,000 sailors and retired on good terms with the government, only dying after she was a successful matron of a gambling house.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for comment! I appreciate your calling out the parallels with Pedagogy of the Oppressed, especially if we apply the concepts to not only the role of teacher, but also learner.

  2. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment and contribution to the discussion. You make a fair critique. The author has a wonderful couple of pages where he tries to dispel the claim that he is proposing something superhuman. He even includes a long list of things that he does not do very well as a teacher, like giving timely feedback. However, the book uses strong language as did I in casting a vision for the benefits of nurturing competence and confidence as a self-directed learner; and that makes both especially susceptible to valid critiques like what I read in your comment.

    There is usually danger in taking anything to a certain extreme, and this is no exception. Much of my work has been looking at examples of educational innovation on the edges, extracting some lessons and ideas, and then sharing them with more traditional organizations as opportunities for smaller scale innovations. I’ve received great feedback from doing this, and I’ve seen some promising developments…often on the micro-innovation level. For example, I’ve received many emails from K-12 and higher education teachers in response this post and similar ones (most seem to prefer private emails instead of public comments for some reason), where the post sparked their interest in doing something like adding a self-directed learning project to their otherwise traditional classes. I’ve also heard from people who resonate with the idea(s) more broadly, and want to share about their success with them. One example of a school that seems to embody ideas like what you read in this post is Acton Academy – . I’ve visited plenty of learning organizations where the spirit of “learning like a PIRATE” is much more the norm. A Montessori middle school that I visited earlier in 2014 is a prime example: .

    I will say that “always on” is a bit too strong for me as well. That is indeed superhuman, and sets one up for disappointment.

    Please feel free to take such posts as a buffet-style meal and not an all-or-nothing. Keep what works and throw out the rest :-).

  3. DrEvel1

    It’s an interesting metaphor. However, to “…they proudly fly their flags in defiance”, he ought to have added, “…but most of them wound up drowned or on the gallows anyway.” While capital punishment is unlikely, few of these behaviors will endear one to the management of the educational enterprise within which the teacher is of necessity embedded. The same goes for the student, with perhaps even more consequences. Society has a habit of ridding itself of those who flout its customs and standards of behavior too long or too much. This is hardly a plea for or endorsement of conformity to the status quo in current education; I’m as strongly in favor of change as the author is, and you are. I’ve been a subversive and a thorn in the side of almost every institution I’ve been part of, usually to its benefit. But there is a pretty fine line between challenging current procedures, encouraging higher performance, and innovating on the one hand, and on the other simply pissing everyone off. A keen attention to that line and an awareness of possible consequences is essential, particularly since those consequences are likely to affect not only your own future but that of the reforms you put in place.

    The other concern I have with this exhortation to higher levels of action is similar to that I’ve had to almost all of these calls to mighty new levels of activity, be it intrapreneuring or self-employment or creating and marketing your own brand or whatever – they sound a lot like religions. All religious standards deliberately set up their followers for a fall, since human energy and engagement can be extended only so far. When they eventually falter, as they will in almost every case, then the responsibility can be attributed to the sinner, while the religion maintains its position of purity. “Too bad about old Chris,” they’d say, “But if s/he just kept on behaving like a pirate (or insert any other movement here), things would have been great!” The same could easily be said about the followers of Great Marduk, or Kukulcan, or any other god whose priests preach the need for an unsustainable level of effort to achieve or maintain goodness.

    Again, I’m not against goodness – just against standards of behavior that call for inhuman levels of continuous effort and thus can be maintained only so far. I can’t imagine “…’being ‘on’ every period of the day” forever – can you? I don’t want us to create a society that requires everyone to keep pushing those rocks up to the top of the hill and leaves us tired all the time from maintaining Red Queen-like levels of effort. Superhumanity without superpowers is very difficult, although preaching it is relatively easy.

Comments are closed.