Wondermill Powered Schools

Over the last few years, I’ve started to re-organize my thoughts to better communicate concerns about the modern education system, and what I see as a better and more hopeful way forward. This comes down to recognizing that we have built much of the modern education system upon the persistent values of the industrial revolution:

  • standardization and uniformity,
  • mass production (and products in general),
  • efficiency,
  • quantification,
  • centralized power / authoritarianism, 
  • mechanization,
  • and applied scientific knowledge (also referred to as technology).

I don’t argue that these are bad. In fact, they bring about much good in the world. As good and useful as they might be, they make for a poor foundation upon which to build a deeply human and meaning-rich learning community. As such, I began to propose that we consider replacing these 7 priorities with alternatives:

  • adventure,
  • agency,
  • compassion,
  • experimentation,
  • mastery,
  • meaning,
  • and wonder.

There is nothing definitive about this list of 7. There are plenty of other worthy, meaning-rich, and more deeply human options. Yet as I seek to offer an alternative to the 7 priorities of industrial education, I’ve come to believe these these are a promising starting point, and each one has particular power in transforming the way that we design learning communities and learning experiences.

Consider the last of these seven words. To experience “wonder” is to have this combination of surprise and admiration. It also has a way of leading to any number of positive thoughts and experiences: humility, delight, curiosity, heightened attention, long-term memory, and even a propensity toward generosity. Now that is a powerful experience in a learning community. That is something upon which to build a rich, robust, vibrant learning experience.

Driving past a windmill recently while thinking about the power of wonder in schools, I made the connection with wonder. Wind is necessary for the windmill to accomplish its purpose. We are harnessing the power of the wind, converting it into something else. That is precisely what could happen if we sought to re-imagine our schools around an ideal like wonder. A Wondermill powered school is one that harnesses the natural energy in wonder, converting it into curiosity, interest, and learning. It is readily available to any person, school, or learning community, and it has the potential to generate better results than so many of the compliance-fueled practices of the modern education system.

In this sense, wonder, while currently considered a nicety but not a core ingredient, is all around us, but rarely harnessed to its full capacity.

Yet, the 7 priorities of the Industrial Age persist and demand our attention. I’m not suggesting that we remove them, only that we move then down the list a bit, starting with something more appropriate to a deeply human endeavor.

With this in mind, consider an experiment. Choose the most seemingly boring and mundane topic that you had to learn in the last year or two. Now challenge yourself to turn it into a wonder-filled experience. What would it look like?

Once you try that experiment, consider doing the same thing with an important but monotonous part of a modern school curriculum.

Then take it to the next level. What would it look like for “wonder” to be a basic part of lesson planning or learning experience design? Just as many educators are asked to begin with a set of learning objectives, what if every lesson or learning experience design started with a plan for how wonder might be conjured?

Now go another level. What would it take for students to learn how to conjure their own wonder?

Finally, imagine an entire school powered by wonder.

Educating Hope

For scholars on hope (yes, there are actually scholars who study wonderful topics like this), they sometimes make a distinction between hope and optimism. Optimism is a more general sense that everything will work out, where scholars sometimes describe hope as a more goal-oriented optimism. I love how this article describes hope as necessary to stretch yourself and grow.

According to researchers, if you don’t have hope, you are more likely to employ “mastery goals,” i.e. choosing simple, attainable tasks that aren’t challenging and don’t help you grow.

When I was a classroom teacher for the first decade of my career, it was easy to recognize the presence and absence of hope in a student. I could not always tell why it was present, but when it was there, students persisted through challenges. Their effort was fueled by their hope, allowing them to keep working through the messy and challenging parts of the learning experience.

How do we create the conditions where people are more likely to develop hope? One thing is certain. It isn’t enough for people to want to achieve something. Hope grows when a learner wants to accomplish something, establishes a goal, and sees that she is making progress toward achieving the goal. The more this happens, the more a person’s sense of agency and hopefulness begins to grow.

“We Measure What we Value and We Value What we Measure” – Maybe Not

Scan the business and education books about assessment and metrics, and you will find countless people use a phrase similar to what you see in the title of this article. Measurement is a sign of what we actually value. Or, is it that measuring something has a way of making us value it?

Rarely do we venture into the correlation versus causation question. In most cases, people simply argue that a survey of what someone measures is a good indication of what they value in life or their organization. People who value money likely measure and monitor the status of their investments. Runners often track their distance, pace, and related numbers. Bloggers measure the number of unique visitors to their site and how many people read viewed a given article. The last 150 years has been a time of mass quantification, with people striving to measure or put a number on everything from intelligence to fitness levels, student learning to school quality, the return on financial investment to the return on mission investment, chances of surviving a disease to the risk of dying in a car accident. We strive to count money, people, performance, weather, crime, learning, happiness, attention, the quality of relationships, accomplishments, and most everything else.

This ability to measure brings with it obvious affordances in many aspects of our lives. Measurements help us establish goals and monitor our progress. They allow us to identify important and less important factors that lead to desired outcomes in countless areas of life and society. Yet, there is a limitation to the claim that “we measure what we value.” It is not a universal truth.

We measure some of the things that we value, but there are many things in our lives that we hold in high regard, but we do not find it necessary to quantify and measure. In addition, there is a persistent danger that our focus upon measuring can detract or distract from something more valuable. Furthermore, sometimes our fixation on a specific approach to measuring blinds us from the bigger picture. Each of these have important implications for our schools and learning communities.

For decades I obsessed with tracking the number of books that I read. Scan past articles and you will find me referencing the fact that I read 100+ books a year. There were times when the number started to take over. When I read something that inspired me and I wanted to spend more time re-reading and pondering, I found myself ignoring that desire because I had to get started on that next book. This was not always conscious. It was just that I started to talk about this 100+ books a year number and soon found myself feeling obligated to make sure that I was indeed meeting or exceeding that number as if it were some key performance indicator in my life and learning. It is not. That is why I eventually stopped measuring. Who cares how many books that I read? I value reading and learning from the writing of others. I invest significant time in this endeavor. Sometimes I read a great volume, but other times I can enjoy a long, slow, deep reading of a given text. It might take days, weeks, or months. Has my value for reading decreased because I stopped counting the number of books that I read?

There is much about learning that is valuable. Some argue that we should then insist on measuring those things as well or else they will be lost in the mass of everything that we do measure. The other option is for us to slow down on our obsession with measuring, instead seeking new ways to deepen our commitments to what we value most. We do this in many areas of our lives, and there is nothing inherently superior to insisting upon more quantification in education.

An Invitation

As many of you have been following my journey to Goddard College, I realized that I’ve never invited you to be part of it, and I’m sorry for that. We just launched an aggressive fundraising and friend-raising campaign, and I would love for you to consider supporting it

I went to Goddard for a number of reasons.

1. It is one of the most inspiring models of a learner-driven higher education community that I’ve ever come across, and I believe that it is an incredibly important option for people. Learner voice matters. Learner choice matters. Learner (and human agency) matters. Each of these three are contributing factors to people who live with courage and conviction in the world. One size does not fit all in higher education, and Goddard gets that, taking it to the level of inviting students into co-creating their learning pathways.

2. Goddard has the potential to be a model for radical hospitality and inclusivity in a time of incredible division in our country. Going to Goddard was largely inspired by my desire to lean into and learn about living with and honoring diverse people, while remaining true to one’s own convictions.

3. Goddard is experiencing a challenging time, having been put on probation with the regional accreditor for concerns about governance and long-term financial viability. If Goddard were not in such a situation, it would have been easier for me to pass on the option, at least knowing that such a beautiful higher education model was out there and doing well. I put many of my personal goals on hold for this, and I consider it an honor to have done so. In addition, I’ve never stepped this far out of my comfort zone. It is incredibly challenging, but even more exhilarating. I wake up and fall asleep each day with gratitude. 

4. I saw (and now see even more) the incredible potential for Goddard College to step into a role as a leader for deeply human-centered higher education, a truly distinct alternative to the dominant models. Some of Goddard’s greatest higher education experiments are almost within our reach. Granted that we make it through the immediate risk and challenge, I am ready to join the Goddard community in establishing this College as an internationally known hub for educational innovation. 

If any of this resonates with you, the types of issues that are important to you, the type of legacy that you want to leave, I welcome your partnership. I’ve included a video message about the current appeal, but you can learn or give by going to this link as well