A Sabbatical, A Fellowship, & a New Book Project

I am excited to publicly announce that my request for a sabbatical during the spring of 2017 (January – May) was approved. I have been granted and accepted the Jonathan D. Harber Fellowship in Education and Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University (in Middletown, CT) for that semester. This means that my family and I will be relocating to Connecticut for about five months in 2017. I will dive into teaching, researching and writing during that time; and we will also be taking advantage of the location to design a custom learning experience for the kids (and family) that taps into the many historic sites, rich natural world, and the other wonderful experiences available in both New England and the Mid Atlantic states.

[Quick aside: If any of my students or advisees are reading this, no worries, I will still be available to work with you during this time.]

If you are interested in the fellowship or Wesleyan University, you can learn more through the link above, but I’ve also included a bit more about my plans below.

The Harber Fellow will be in residence at Wesleyan’s Allbritton Center for the Spring semester of 2017, and will teach a course that may incorporate outside speakers, drawing on Wesleyan alumni and others involved in innovative, entrepreneurial educational ventures in the profit and nonprofit sectors. The fellow is also expected to deliver an all-campus lecture.

In addition to these responsibilities, I hope to use my sabbatical to complete a full book/manuscript based upon the topics in the course that I plan to design design/teach. As part of this work, I will be interviewing leaders involved in educational entrepreneurship and observing some of their organizations as time permits.

Project Goals & Objectives

  • Design and teach a course entitled Education Moonshots & Social Entrepreneurship
  • Complete a full manuscript/book on the topic of futures in education and educational entrepreneurship.
  • Deepen my understanding and networks around educational entrepreneurship.

The Course

Regarding the course that I will be designing and the book that I will be writing, I already shared a post about this course back in April, but I’ve included the tentative topics again below. While this is more than we could adequately address in a semester course, I plan to have a chapter in the book dedicated to each of these.

  1. The Education “Moonshot”
  2. A Survey of Prominent Leaders & Voices in Educational Entrepreneurship
  3. The Educational Entrepreneur’s Code: Ethics, Missions and Motives
  4. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Personalized & Adaptive Learning
  5. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Open Education
  6. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Access & Opportunity
  7. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Self-directed & Informal Learning
  8. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Non-cognitive & 21st Century Skills
  9. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Unbundled Education
  10. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: The New Digital Divide
  11. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Blended & Online Learning
  12. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Competency-based Education
  13. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Alternative Learning Pathways
  14. Education as Social Entrepreneurship: Credentialism and Workforce Development
  15. Visions and Rationales for Post-Industrial Education
  16. Emerging and Experimental Models of K-12 Education
  17. Emerging and Experimental Higher Education Models
  18. Intrapreneurs & Educational Innovation
  19. The Role and Impact of Foundations on Educational Innovation & Entrepreneurship
  20. Corporate Interests in Educational Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  21. Regulations, Government Policy & Educational Entrepreneurship: Muzzles and Megaphones
  22. Exploring Roles and Opportunities in Educational Innovation & Entrepreneurship

I’ve also been pondering how I might be able to extend these learning opportunities beyond the students at Wesleyan, perhaps as some sort of MOOC or online game-like experience. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

My 20 Mile March Toward Missional Innovation in Education

Listening to Jim Collins at a recent conference prompted me to spend more time reviewing and reflecting on some of the key ideas from his books. For a primer, you can read my Notes & Quotes from Jim Collins. I’ve been thinking about the twelve questions that he suggests we use as leaders in pursuit of great organizations. As such, I’m also spending time thinking about this question:

“How can we accelerate clicks on the Flywheel by committing to a 20 Mile March?”

This is a great question for the organization where I work, but I also find it powerful on the personal level. As such, I thought I would give a quick glimpse into my 20 mile march as a writer, author, and long-time student of educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’ve become convinced that I am wired to discover and share ideas about educational innovation that matter…ideas that make a difference in the education ecosystem. I help people and organizations consider the affordances, limitations and possibilities for life and learning in a connected world. As such, as much as I am probably naturally more of an undisciplined creative, some are surprised to find that I am also a relentless creature of habit. I read, study, and think about educational innovation every day…with a perpetual list of new books, new experiences, new interviews, new experiments, and articles to scan and review. And because writing is both a tool for communicating ideas to others and refining my thinking, I commit to the daily habit of refining my thinking through the written word. As Isaac Asimov is quoted as saying, “Writing, to me, is just thinking with my fingers.”

Writing is a way for me to share ideas with others, but just as much a means of refining my thinking and solidifying my learning. As such, I write every day. Every day. I write a minimum of 500 words each day. At the same time, I am careful not to write so much that I experience exhaustion or burnout. Writing itself is a great passion. It is painful and enjoyable at the same time. I look forward to it very much like spending time with a good friend. On occasion, it is a chore to get started, but once I feel my fingers on the keyboard and hear the clicking sound of the keys, I’m there.

Writing a consistent 500+ words a day gives me steady progress toward my writing goals. It helps me capture ideas before exploring the next thing. For example, I’ve been blogging and working on smaller writing projects like articles, book chapters, and monographs for years. At the same time, I’ve been consistently reading, researching and writing….day after day. Then some were surprised to find that I suddenly announced a long list of book projects, with Missional Moonshots being my first single-author book, released on April 1, 2016, and two others with the publishers at the moment, awaiting release in summer or early fall. In addition, I have several other books in the works, and I hope to have them finished this year and early next year. That is because I’ve been working on chapters in these books for years. I’ve been mulling over the ideas, jotting them down in informal writing, testing them out in presentations, testing them out on my blog, etc. Publishing books was not an overnight shift in focus for me. It was just drawing on 500+ words a day, day after day for years. Now I’m at a stage to refine that writing and put more of it into book and other emerging formats.

Consider that book publishing wasn’t just a new project for me. It was just a natural extension of my longstanding habit of writing. I have over 800,000 words on this blog. I have a collection of 50+ idea books. Then there are all of the articles, guest blogs, whitepapers, and other unpublished briefs. All of this just came from writing day after day after day.

As I see it, this is part of my 20 mile march. It might not seem carefully planned, methodical or consistent. Yet, my study and writing are the most consistent practices in my life. I’ve been doing them for decades with relentless consistency. While publishing 5-8 books in 2 years seems like an aggressive goal to some, it is just another phase. It is not starting 5-8 books from scratch as much as moving a growing body of writing and ideas to the next stage by working with publishers.

Over the years, I’ve read about how some people throughout history have formally or informally divided their lives into phrases. There is a learning phase and then one that starts producing based upon that learning. I see myself as making that shift right now. I can’t ever imagine slowing down on the learning, but having devoted so much time and energy to learning over the years, I’m 45-years-old and just starting to have some of the most fascinating blends of ideas and experiences of my life. It is truly exhilarating, and I find myself more energized than ever to sharing these ideas with others, test them, refine them, turn them into resources, products, and potentially even new organizations in the future.

I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, but it is wonderful to see how these different pieces are coming together in sometimes unexpected ways, revealing insights and possibilities that I would have likely overlooked in past years. I don’t claim expertise, but I will admit that my confidence and the level of conviction is growing as I’m seeing these ideas come together and watching to see how they work and help people/organizations achieve their goals.

Collins lays out seven traits of a 20 mile march that might provide a little more explanation.

  1. Clear performance markers – For me, my baseline is approximately 100 books a year and at least 500 words of writing each day. I don’t keep careful track of the 100 books a year but when I check, it tends to be right around that number…averaging about 2 books a week.
  2. Self-imposed constraints – I don’t have a cap, but the previous items trump other efforts. I might dabble with MOOCs and other learning experiences, but in the end, I keep it pretty simple with my initial reading and writing goals. I also tend to keep things under control as I could pretty easily slip into every waking hour in a book or keyboard, but that would eventually detract from the larger goals.
  3. Appropriate to the enterprise [or individual] – I write many of my initial ideas in blog form, testing them out with a small readership before refining them. This works for me and keeps me motivated. I love the quick to “publish” style and it keeps me engaged in this process, sharing my ideas with the world and using people’s feedback to learn.
  4. Largely within your control – These are my goals. They have become a way of life for me and are largely within my control. I choose the books. I choose what to write.
  5. A proper timeframe — Long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth. This is where I might benefit from adjusting things. I just study every week and write every day. I don’t think in terms of timeframes very much, but the moment that I started to do more of that, setting publishing goal dates, those years of writing quickly started to take shape as books. Timeframes are powerful and I plan to use them more moving forward.
  6. Designed and self-imposed by the enterprise [or individual] – Again, this is a ritual of my personal design.
  7. Achieved with high consistency – Sick or healthy, busy or full of free time, I read and write. I study and put my ideas into a written format. This is as much of my routine as brushing my teeth or shaving.

It might not sound that flash, but daily reading and writing are a key part of my 20 mile march in the pursuit of mission-minded innovation in education.

A Culture of Learning Starts in the Home

The other day I arrived home, went upstairs, and my 11-year-old daughter came up to me, excited to share an idea. “Dad, I have an idea for a summer family activity. How about if each of us choose a science experiment over the next two months and then we have our own little family science fair where we report our findings and present to each other?” I was delighted with the idea. It sounds like great fun. Yet, I was also excited because of what this indicates about how my daughter thinks of science and experiments. My daughter sees science experiments as something that you do for fun and to learn, not to earn a grade or meet a requirement. And she sees learning as something that is part of family and life, not just school. My eight-year-old son is the same way. I just asked him about it and he explained, “I do science for fun and I learn along the way.” This is very much what I’ve talked about in the past when I’ve argued for creating learning communities that have a true culture of learning instead of a culture of earning.

I’m not claiming that we’ve done things perfectly or that my children do not experience moments where “school” feels like a chore. They do. Yet, what I love about their schooling experience is that it really is much more about learning. They talk about what they are learning with interest. It bleeds over into their imaginative play, our informal family conversations, their personal goals, and their bedtime musings. They go to the library weekly and always have a stack of books nearby that they are reading, not because it is required for some class. They read because they like to read.

I’m sure that they will have their share of learning challenges and gaps in their education…that they already do. We all have both. At the same time, what is more important to me is that they develop a growing love of learning, that they discover how to fuel their learning by tapping into an ever-growing curiosity, their passions, and their convictions. For this to happen, we are wise to resist a school experience that is more focused upon testing, compliance, and earning the grade. High stakes tests, letter grades and compliance and relates issues are not designed to cultivate a love of learning, and I’ve yet to see a single study that shows how any of these three help people cultivate a lifelong learning mindset.

Yet, schools can’t do this on their own. The best place to start nurturing this is in the home. It starts with models by parents, the types of activities that the family shares with one another. It grows out of what and how they have conversations with one another, and the values that are evident in those conversations.

While my wife and I homeschool our children, I am not convinced that is necessarily the reason why this culture of learning exists in our home. I’ve seen homeschool families that treat homeschooling pretty much like it was a school. They use textbooks, worksheets, grades, and try to replicate the very practices in school that risk drawing students away from a mindset of curiosity and a love of learning. At the same time, I’ve seen schools that do an excellent job minimizing the role of these common trappings, instead opting for cultures that value experimentation, curiosity, deep practice, inquiry, deep and deliberate practice, mastery, and engaging learning discourse.

Whether students are homeschooling or in traditional schools, we have plenty of research to show that the culture and community in the home impacts how young people think about learning. In the ideal world, the message and mindset at home aligns with the messages and mindset at school, communicating a shared vision for deep and meaningful learning, not simple compliance and checking off that you met the requirements.

As such, while I don’t claim to have it all figured out, here are ten ways for families to take the lead in nurturing young people who are curious and love learning:

  1. Love book together. Talk about what you are reading. Have scheduled times where the family goes to the library, selects books and shares what they are reading with one another. Make reading something fun, not forced. Make it an embedded part of who you are as a family.
  2. Be curious together. This might involve checking out the cool wildlife in the backyard, working through some random question that comes to mind, doing experiments together (Can you really make an egg stand on its end on that special day each year?), or countless other activities. The point is that we are curious about life and the world, and it shows up in our conversations and activities.
  3. Model a love of learning. Let your curiosity and love of learning impact what you do. Talk about it with your kids. Let them see your excitement. Life is more than work and vacations. Live, love and learn together.
  4. Be proud geeks. Talk about how you are proud to be different, a bit geeky or nerdy, and celebrate the other people like that in the world. I’m proud to wear my new t-shirt that says, “Dinosaurs didn’t read. Now they’re extinct” or the other one that says, “I like to party and by party I mean read books.”
  5. Don’t celebrate test scores, grades and honor roll as much as curiosity, deep practice, a love of learning, and real world application of their learning. I don’t mean ignore these elements but making grades and rankings central is a Trojan horse that allows the culture of earning army to invade your family and children’s lives.
  6. Celebrate growth mindsets over fixed mindsets. Don’t talk about how smart your kids are, how they are so much more intelligent than others and the like. Celebrate their hard work, persistence, curiosity, and their growing capacity for deep and deliberate practice. If you have not already read it, check out Dweck’s book Mindset. Consider her suggestions for how and why to nurture a growth mindset instead of a fixed one.
  7. Have interesting experiences together. Experience life and the world together. Talk about it. Enjoy the incredible gift of life and the world in which we live.
  8. Talk about the how of learning. Too many see learning as magical or mysterious. There is a wealth of great research about our wonderfully designed brains, how they work, and how we best learn. Explore and discuss these together as tools to even better enjoy a life of learning. Use the vocabulary in this literature within your family.
  9. Avoid the temptation to make performance in school the ultimate goal. Yes, I am suggesting that we don’t make learning just about school. Talk about the difference between learning, schooling and education. Recognize that schooling is just a small part of the other two, that life is full of learning and we never graduate from our education. As such, beware of the temptation to make it all about doing well in school so that you are ready for the next school. Yes, those are realities and we can help our children prepare for them, but don’t let them take center stage. Let the larger vision for learning remain the more important focus.
  10. Similarly, don’t let the compliance and grading elements of schooling destroy the joy of some of the great things that do happen in school. School doesn’t have a monopoly on experiments; a love of reading; having great conversations about history, science, philosophy, theology; or anything else. Redeem these as independently valuable and worthy of time outside of school, as fun for individuals in the family or the entire family.

Again, I certainly do not claim to have this figured out perfectly, but these are the sorts of activities that can help us at least strive for helping our children value learning more than earning and compliance.

Squirrels, Tomatoes & The Education Assumption

Beware of the education assumption. A colleague was recently telling me about his past gardening difficulties, namely the squirrel problem. Squirrels would take a bite out of a tomato and then move on to the next. Before long there was a single squirrel bite in almost every tomato in the garden. He explained that he didn’t have a problem with squirrels eating a few of the tomatoes, but one bite out of each? What is the solution?

Given that I was in a room full of University administrators and faculty, I jokingly explained that this is clearly an education problem. If only we could teach the squirrels to act differently. If we could simply create a section of the garden dedicated for squirrel feasting, put a sign up indicating as much, and finally teach the squirrels to read the sign, then our gardening problem would be solved! Maybe my response was strange more than it was funny, but it was my way of poking fun at myself and many of us in the education system while also pointing out a couple of important truths.

My first point is that those of us in education are often too quick to assume and seek out an education solution to every problem. There may well be an education solution to my friend’s squirrel problem. There are indeed examples of people training squirrels or modifying their behaviors. That might work. Yet, there are plenty of potential non-education solutions to the problem too. Perhaps there are fencing or cage/cover options along with other means of deterring squirrels from coming into the garden at all. The same thing is true in life. Training is not the only solution. Sometimes there are design solutions, relational solutions, technological solutions, and more. Perhaps we would be wise to stay open to a broader range of possibilities before we jump right to the assumption that education is the best solution to our many problems in society.

The second point is about the specific educational approach that I described in this unusual example. If we want to educate the squirrels, we should create a separate section, put up a sign and teach them to read the sign. Of course, teaching a squirrel to read is much more challenging than teaching squirrels not to go into the garden by finding some creative way to modify their behavior. Yet, this is what we do in education. We often jump to the method or approach with which we are more familiar, even if it is not a great fit for a given learning context, goal or audience. We draw from a limited set of options and then we find ourselves frustrated when the results are not what we had hoped. Even once we have decided that an educational solution is the best route, we want to be open to exploring many possibilities, including the ones that we don’t know about at the moment. That requires us to be constantly learning from others and deepening our knowledge.

I’m saddened when I sometimes meet teachers who are burnt out and cynical. They are quick to give you the list of things that they have tried without success. They come to believe in a few set ideas about students, their attitudes, how to “deal” with them, and what will or will not work. They get frustrated when you push them to consider new options because it conjures fear or they are truly convinced that anything new is not really new or worth their attention. If you’ve been in enough schools, you’ve come across people who have fallen into this mental and emotional trap. What is unfortunate is that there are sometimes simple (in the broad scope of things) solutions. They just need an open mind, some good exemplars, maybe seeing a promising practice in action, and perhaps a little coaching.

As such, even in school, perhaps we are wise to consider these two important points. First, education is not always the best solution to a problem. Second, even when education is a viable solution, our preferred methods or the ones with which we are more familiar may not be the best. In the end, this is a simple remind to bracket our assumptions, or at least to look beyond them.