TGIF! Aug 4 2017


You know we’ve had a nice long run of warm summer weather when you forget to even look at the forecast – and are surprised by thunderstorms and cooler air!  With a little taste of Fall in the air, can you spare a few extra minutes for a longer read this morning?

DIY Scaffolding

No, we are not building houses today. J If you are not familiar with the term scaffolding in education, here’s a short intro (credit for much of this post to the Alliance for Self-Directed Education and author Je’anna Clements, writing from the perspective of self-directed homeschoolers):

We’re all familiar with scaffolding. Everywhere buildings are constructed or repaired, we see the network of platforms and poles that support the work crew, giving them access to their current work areas. Sometimes artists use scaffolding, too. Michelangelo needed scaffolding to get him to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He would have also needed scaffolding to support him as he climbed around and hacked into the enormous chunk of marble that became the statue of David. The advantage of using scaffolding is that it helps you climb higher than you can currently stand. It gives you support and access to expand on your previous achievements.

This brings us to the concept of ‘scaffolding’ in education. The idea is that a teacher or facilitator provides the learner with clues, cues, models and tools to extend their learning beyond current mastery into what Vygotsky termed the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’.  In conventional education, scaffolding is used in a way that closely parallels physical scaffolding: exact plans are in place. Scaffolding is created in advance and is carefully pre-designed. The teacher ‘knows’ exactly what the learner is ‘meant’ to achieve and provides standardized scaffolding that actively guides the learner to produce that precise result.

If instead, we take the approach of “follow the child”, we realize that scaffolding needs to have an “outside the box” approach.  Je’anna, again:

Conventional scaffolding limits and contains the process to that which can be reached by the pre-designed scaffold. When your whole scaffold is in place, that’s it. That’s where you can go. It is a very literal kind of ‘box’. Even if you don’t follow that exact plan, even if you decide to get creative, once your scaffolding is up, you can only build within the area contained by the scaffolding. Conventional scaffolding restricts what you can build, and how wide it can go.

When we build scaffolding around each learner, one step at a time, it “can become a more complex structure. It can go up, it can go down, and it can go upside-down… Self-evolved scaffolding can go sideways, taking learners into lateral zones of proximal development rather than only along vertical paths.”  Note she says, “self-evolved”, which is where the article really got interesting.  Because, as she notes, scaffolding doesn’t have to be something that is provided by another.  We are all capable of building scaffolding; in fact, we do it all the time.  Consider an infant cruising the along the furniture versus scurrying in a walker.

It can be fascinating to watch self-directed learners with scaffolding explicitly in mind. They have so many different ways to get what they need. Often, they use scaffolding in a completely conventional way. Self-directed learners do sign up for courses and classes, read textbooks, and follow recipes, tutorials, and all kinds of readily available instruction… They also use ad-hoc teachers or guides. Self-directed learners ask someone else, who they believe knows the terrain. Again, the difference here is that they choose their scaffolding supplier. Instead of having to rely on a designated teacher, they can go to the source that best fits their need in the moment. Often, a self-directed learner will get a few steps from one guide, then a few steps from another. Freedom of association is a critical resource in a self-education process. (This is also a key part of the value of a rich learning community as opposed to a socially limited learning environment.) In addition to seeking out an external guide and ‘borrowing’ the scaffolding they provide, the intact confidence of self-directed learners means they are able to use inner guidance, too.

Whether the infant cruising or the self-directed teen learning, if the role of the adult is not to build the scaffolding for them, what is it?  Two things: relationships, and environment.  A close and supportive mentoring relationship gives each teen a trusting adult to ask questions of and hear feedback and even challenges from.  And the environment needs to allow access to things that can be used as scaffolding.  Imagine the infant learning to walk again – what if there were no furniture in their space, nothing of the right size or shape to utilize to pull up or cruise on?  The same with our teens and our high school environment – we must provide what Maria Montessori called the “prepared environment” – ensuring the tools, resources, and access are available, from materials and spaces and technology to access to courses (college and others), connections to community members and organizations from theater troupes to makerspaces… in short all the people, places, and things students can use to build a personalized scaffold from their current capability to the next.  And, the process of self-directed learning – of “building your own scaffold” – itself is perhaps the most critical skill our kids will need in the future! Je’anna again:

This kind of organically evolving scaffolding itself displays “out of the box” thinking, but it also facilitates further “out of the box” thought. A highly creative approach to learning strengthens creative muscle, facilitating more creativity. There is no person alive today who can reliably predict what even the most common career options will be in 2050. In 2050, my son will be 45 years old — in the prime of his productive working life. Will he be clearing up space junk? Will he be mining asteroids? Will he grow micro-greens and slug protein three miles up on a skyfarm? Will he be an inter-species translator? Or interface with robotic gear operated by nuances of eye-blink, or conscious modulation of heart-rate variability? Or will the only remaining careers for humans, be in arts and entertainment? If so, what will that look like in 2050? Virtual-reality-dream engineering? Probably, he will be doing something I cannot even fantasize. Possibly, he may need to help invent what it is that he does.

It seems clear to me that the best I can do to help him prepare for that unimaginable future is to support his self-education capacity. Help keep intact his ability to evolve his own learning scaffolds. Flexible, organic, self-evolved learning scaffolds are what our children most need now. A rich environment with plenty of peers and a wide range of approachable adults. An environment of trust and respect, where children learn to honor their bliss and follow their intuition.

Boxes — limited scaffolds that teach our children to follow only safe, known paths — are no longer merely limiting. Given the rapid-change years that our children face ahead, they could be detrimental.


Learning Links

Please see our Facebook page for more learning links.  I think this TGIF is already long enough!!

In closing….

It should be absolutely beautiful for Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Saturday events tomorrow. Locals, enjoy the parade, fun, festivities, and fireworks!


TGIF! Jul 7 2017


My thoughts and prayers are with everyone in our area affected by last night’s severe storm.  We were lucky with no trees down and our power back on already, but many neighbors fared much worse. Be careful driving out there this morning, folks.

Next week, my family and I leave for our annual trek eastward, to spend a week in Bar Harbor hiking the trails of our daughter’s namesake, Acadia National Park, and eating seafood…. lots of seafood.  Please look for our next TGIF on Friday, July 28.

What is Personalized Learning?

I’ve noticed this term is started to get some flack of late, and rightly so – there are many conflicting definitions, it’s been heavily appropriated by educational software vendors, and it’s easily overused.  (Fad, anyone?)  I thought Education Week had a solid summary last week and since it’s behind a paywall, here are the highlights:

  • On the one hand, personalization is pretty fundamental.  “We all know what powerful learning feels like. It’s immersive and relevant. You know and feel that you are mastering something important. In a word, it’s profoundly personal.”
  • It’s kind of related to differentiation, but not quite. “Differentiation starts with academic goals that are the same for the group. Personalization builds on these common standards but also considers the personal learning goals that are especially meaningful to each student.”
  • Technology isn’t necessary. “We’ve seen manila folders serve as databases and wall posters serve as playlists. And the reality is that despite the wealth of edtech products marketed to support personalization, and the promise we see in the technologies behind Amazon and Netflix that customize for consumers, most current edtech systems are not flexible enough to support personalized learning plans, pathways, and assessments.”
  • It is most effective when students “become active agents involved in determining what they learn (content), how and how fast they learn (process and pace), and/or how they demonstrate their learning (work products).”
  • Likewise, the adult’s role changes too, as “teachers become group facilitators, personal coaches, and support specialists as children engage in authentic and deep learning experiences connected to both a set of standards and their own life goals.”
  • Each school is different, as “every personalized learning school should be tailored to what the youth within its community need.”
  • But schools share common themes, including “built-in student choice, ownership, and self-direction”, “experiential learning in which students engage in real, authentic, complex questions or problems for an extended period of time”, “strong teacher-student relationships… that build in time for teachers to work with students in small groups and even one-on-one on a regular basis”, and a “mastery-based progression… [where a] lesson not only starts with a student’s goals and current ability level taken into account, [but] ends only when the student shows they have mastered the learning goal.”

Learning Links

Stay tuned to our Facebook feed throughout the month of July – I have two weeks of learning links all cued up to post while I’m away, including more Most Likely To Succeed clips; perspectives on our amazingly rapidly changing world; and a deeper dive on assessment, the meaning of learning, and the purpose of school.

In closing….

Get out and enjoy your little piece of our natural world, wherever you may be!



TGIF! Jun 23 2017


Happy third day of summer… yes, the days are now officially getting shorter! (But hopefully that helps those with younger kids get them to bed a bit earlier.)

Can high school be more than the sum of its programming?

You may have seen the paper on Tuesday announcing a new partnership for manufacturing education at Grand Haven High School.  There was a quote near the end of the article which said “the P.R.I.M.E. partnership will provide students with another opportunity to succeed and find their passion.”  At Imagine!, we talk a lot about students finding their path in life, and on the surface this sounds similar to GHHS’s goals.  But the difference between our educational models isn’t in the “What” that we respectively offer, it’s in the “Why” and the “How” we each do it.  Grand Haven has an internship program, a co-op program, an early-college program, a CTE program, and now a manufacturing program (not to mention the “regular” college prep program and for good measure, a credit-recovery program.)  What a menu!  But there are three gaps in how these are implemented that prevent these learning opportunities from truly allowing students to find their path.  The first is that these programs “dabble”.  In most cases, they don’t begin until 11th grade; in most cases, they are a limited part of the school day (one or two periods or perhaps a half day at best).   Why do they merely dabble?  Because of the second reason – these programs add, but never subtract.  All (or nearly all) of the traditionally taught classes must still be taken.  The clear majority of time is dedicated to the traditional model; only when the traditional credits earned in the traditional way are met, is there time to do other things.  The third and final gap is the lack of personal guidance and feedback.  Attending an information night on a specialized program and then signing up for it at course selection time, or perhaps having a 15-minute advising session with a guidance counselor to whom you are one of a 400+ student caseload, is minimally helpful to figuring out who you are and what you want to do in life.

At Imagine!, our vision is to support students as they gain the knowledge and experience to construct (for themselves!) a life of meaning and purpose.  It’s all based on design thinking – a supportive, iterative process of trying things out, reflecting on them, and then deciding how to adjust course and what experiences, development, and learning are needed next.  When you then align your educational model to that vision, everything about the school experience changes.  And the prominence of relationships, the use of time, and the commitment to putting each student at the center of their own learning change everything for the learner.

Other schools in our area are innovating by adding to the menu. (It’s the Golden Corral, now with unlimited shrimp!)

We’re aiming for a wholly different dining experience. 😉

Learning Links

I posted the first of several “learning spark” videos on our Facebook page this week.  Head on over there to check out a video from High Tech High on how they change the classroom and expectations that students think for themselves – starting on Day 1 of ninth grade.  Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts!  (Not a Facebook user? You can access the video directly here.)

In closing….

Thanks – as always – for taking time in your day to read this newsletter.  Are there any topics you’d like to see covered over the next few weeks? Drop me a line and let me know!


TGIF! Jun 16 2017


It’s been a good news / bad news kind of week.  I’m happy to share we had an excellent interview for the $10k 4.0 Schools’ Tiny Fellowship – we’ll learn end of June if we are accepted.  Unfortunately, with summer vacations and the like starting up, the Chamber of Commerce wasn’t able to pull together sufficient numbers to hold our CEO roundtable next week. We’ll reach out personally to all the companies who expressed interest but had a conflict, to set up conversations with their leaders one-on-one. Building a school is not a straight path, but a winding road of two steps forward, one step back.  We’ll get there!

Proficiency-based learning

This is something I have not written a lot about, but it’s important – I saw my recent Facebook post on this topic generated a lot of interest!  When we talk about doing personalized, interest-based, real-world learning at the high school level in a public school, you have to ask how students will still meet the standards.  And if you just take all these wonderful, learner-centered practices and sort of glom them onto a traditional performance system (subjects, grades, report cards) you are creating an inherent conflict for both teachers and students.  (And which side wins that conflict? The grade monster ALWAYS wins.)

Proficiency-based or mastery-based learning is a completely different approach to meeting standards. It requires mastery (hence the name), it separates the assessment of “habits of work” (participation, punctuality, etc.) from the assessment of the acquisition of skills and knowledge (do you know it), and it makes time the variable instead of learning.  To use the language with which we are all familiar, you can’t get an F, only an incomplete.  It’s replacing “no” with “not yet”.

In a traditional system, a “C” in Algebra could mean the student can only do each skill at a 75% level of proficiency, or maybe it means that the student could do 75% of the skills completely but can’t do 25% of the skills at all.  Or, for that matter, it could mean that the student can only do 50% of the skills or less, but earned enough points for extra credit work, class participation, or homework completion to “pass”.  And what happens when that student moves on to Algebra II?

Sal Kahn explained it this way: “So the idea of mastery learning is to do the exact opposite. Instead of artificially constraining, fixing when and how long you work on something, pretty much ensuring that variable outcome, the A, B, C, D, F — do it the other way around. What’s variable is when and how long a student actually has to work on something, and what’s fixed is that they actually master the material. And it’s important to realize that not only will this make the student learn their exponents better, but it’ll reinforce the right mindset muscles. It makes them realize that if you got 20 percent wrong on something, it doesn’t mean that you have a C branded in your DNA somehow. It means that you should just keep working on it.”

Learning Links

Check out this great series of learning sparks, short videos from the filmmakers at Most Likely to Succeed.  I’ll be sharing some of these on Facebook over the next few weeks but if you missed our movie last year and want to indulge, check them out!

In closing….

For my Grand Haven schools’ readers wrapping up the school year today, happy Summer! (SLPH, FCS, WMAAA, WGM, St. Mary’s and WMC families have been warming up the beaches for you! J)


TGIF! May 19 2017


Happy Friday morning!

I hope to see you THIS Wednesday (May 24) at Loutit District Library in Grand Haven, 6:30pm in Program Room A, to share more about our school with you and to hear your feedback!  Please contact me with any questions about this event.

Help Promote!

If you belong to any parent, school, or social groups please share our Facebook event! We would love to see some new faces next week as well as our loyal TGIF supporters. J

Why to How: Part IV

To recap: Part 1 – Becoming an adult entails physical maturity, the ability to live independently, and the development of own’s own identity as a person.  Part 2 – The way teenagers construct their adult selves is by trial and error; testing the world and getting feedback. Part 3 – Modern schools ought to recognize this, and provide supportive environments that allow teens to gain this kind of accurate, real-world feedback.

So how do we plan to do this?

The first key is student ownership.  If independence is a goal, then we need to foster it.  That means pushing decisions closer to students and engaging them in the process of how people within organizations make decisions.  Did you read the article last year about the interns who submitted a petition to their employer to change the dress code?  Perfect example of not having any context or experience on how to engage appropriately and as expected in the “real world”.

The second key is related to the first, and that’s the personalization of learning.  The most important decisions young people need to make are those that relate to the forming of their identities – who am I, what do I want to be?  Within the broad graduation requirements (set by the state and required of all public schools), students will have the maximum flexibility to design their Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) to meet their academic and vocational interests and needs.

We’ll unpack the last two keys next week.

 Learning Links

“Finding purpose in life is more challenging today than for previous generations of young people… Just some 20 percent of high school kids can be categorized as purposeful, the rest vary between being motivated but lacking a plan, being active but lacking direction, and being neither active nor forward-thinking.”  [But,] “You can’t write the script of life for your child.”

“Suppose that, instead of just providing personalized pacing, we fully personalized the learning. We abandon the traditional linear curriculum entirely in favor of projects and problems that are meaningful, authentic and interesting to our specific students. Further, we let the students figure out the solutions largely on their own with peers, working in a safe and supportive environment we create.”

In closing….

See you Wednesday evening at 6:30!!


TGIF! Apr 28 2017


The first draft of our application to become a charter school has been written, minus a couple of appendices I’m wrapping up.  Woot woot! Now we get as much feedback from our trusted advisors as possible before submitting.  But things are coming together!

Back to the beginning

After writing up the school’s charter application, I feel like all the parts and pieces that have been jumbling together over the past 18 months are a bit clearer now, especially on how they fit together.  Sticking to the philosophy that “why” you do anything is the most important question, I’d like to take the next few newsletters to build up a coherent answer to that for all of you, from why to how.

Part 1:  What’s the Goal of High School?

Well, that’s a big question.  And it’s not a question that has a single, clear answer. But if you start with the very simple observation that high school wraps up at precisely 18 years old, the age of adulthood in our society, then it follows pretty naturally that the goals of high school ought to have something to do with the goal of become an adult.

What is adulthood? Part of it is physical maturity, but time has a way of taking care of that with little intervention on our part.  The other big piece, for humans as well as all mammals, is achieving independence to meet one’s own needs, rather than having those needs met by one’s parents.  But unlike all other mammals, humans have a hugely diverse range of possibilities as to what form that independence might take!  So in addition to growing into their adult bodies, and finding a way to become independent, people have a third element to figure out, and that is what sort of person you want to be and what sort of life you want to have.  So adulthood = physically mature, socially and economically independent, and self-aware.  How does this happen, and what role does school have in this process? Stay tuned.

Learning Links

24 credits and a D-minus average aren’t good enough, Washington Monthly on the transformation of a Connecticut high school from traditional learning and grades to mastery (aka competency) education.

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice, Chalkbeat on trust and responsibility, starting with one’s most basic needs.

In closing….

Thanks for reading, especially since our TGIF came out so late this week!  Glad I still got your eyeballs. Have a great weekend!


TGIF! Mar 24 2017


Happy first Friday of Spring – and finally feels that way!

“I didn’t assign any of that!”

Great piece came out this week (did you see it on our Facebook page?) about efforts to personalize learning statewide in Vermont.  The kinds of student-centered education I’ve been telling you about are NOT just happening in big cities, or in out of the way independent schools.  Here is an entire state which has said “we need to do something different” to prepare kids for life in today’s world.


Shout out

Thank you to all those who offered to share their time and talents, in response to my request last week.  We should be all set with photographers, but if you know a teen who might want to be in our photo shoot, please share!  Also continuing to look for folks to help with copyediting and for parents, teens, and educators to participate in research interviews.  Email me!

Learning Links

Interested in going deeper, and learning more about the ideas presented in this newsletter?  Consider the following – for your Spring Break, or for the evenings in between the March Madness game days!

The book “Most Likely To Succeed”

Today more than ever, we prize academic achievement, pressuring our children to get into the “right” colleges, have the highest GPAs, and pursue advanced degrees. But while students may graduate with credentials, by and large they lack the competencies needed to be thoughtful, engaged citizens and to get good jobs in our rapidly evolving economy. Our school system was engineered a century ago to produce a work force for a world that no longer exists. Alarmingly, our methods of schooling crush the creativity and initiative young people need to thrive in the twenty-first century.  Amazon.

The film, “Race to Nowhere”



In closing….

Suggestions for our newsletter?  Topics you’d like more information on?  Let us know!

Have a great weekend,