Tending to education systems change

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Many educators agree that radical changes in the education system is long overdue. However, in the day-to-day lives inside schools, educators often run up against the machinery of the system making fundamental changes difficult. Targets, goals and standards in the system limit the space for experimentation thus leading to few examples and imaginative scenarios of the future of learning. In this note, I hope to share a few radical examples and possible future scenarios that can bring inspiration to fellow educators around the world. In addition, I will include resources of how to facilitate the process towards the future that best support your local community. By investing in our own capacity to lead change locally, through our behavior and the questions we ask, can we inspire those around us find a shared vision to work towards.

A difference that make a difference.

The Educator

When working in schools, the educator is often walking from class to class. From meeting to meeting. From grading to planning the next lesson. In my five years as an educator, I have found the time spent reflecting on myself and my education practice to have lead to my biggest breakthroughs and insights. However, it can be difficult to fit in sufficient time for reflection unless the school or learning institution truly value the growth of the educator.

In the book that have assisted some of my deeper reflection, Jiddu Krishnamurti provoke by stating that "the real problem in education is the educator." I can't help to share Krishnamurti's words when relevant, so brace yourself for a series of quotes. From this quote, I have reflected that as a product molded for over 20 years in the education system, it is to be expected that I naturally will perpetuate the assumptions in education today unless making a conscious effort to break the cycle. This is both frightening and encouraging. By reflecting and taking responsibility for our understanding about learning, and to constantly challenging it, there is an opportunity to consciously be a part of the change. Below is a list of books that have provide me with inspiration and reflection as to my assumptions about learning. I personally get the most from reading and discussing the content with peers.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Peter O. Gray

Free to Learn bookcover

In this book, Peter Gray discusses the role of play in learning and include powerful observations from the Sudbury Valley School just outside Boston. It made me reflect on my own learning as a child in the context of play. It especially made a stark contrast between the depth of learning in play outside school, as compared to the curriculum-driven learning inside school. Even within the limitations of the classrooms, how can we learn by playing together with our students?

A few quotes:

In paired comparisons with specific other activities, 89 percent said they preferred outdoor play with friends to watching television, and 86 percent said they preferred it to computer play.12 Perhaps kids today play on the computer as much as they do partly because that is one place where they can play freely, without adult intervention and direction.

The Baining lived by a philosophy that seems to be deliberately the opposite of that of hunter-gatherers: the rejection of nature. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, so it is no surprise that the Baining have the reputation of being perhaps the dullest culture that anthropologists have ever turned up. The famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson tried to study them early in his career, for fourteen months in the late 1920s, but found them so uninteresting that he abandoned that study and wrote later that they lived a “drab and colorless existence.” They seemed to him, and to some observers after him, to be lacking in curiosity, imagination, and playfulness in adulthood and, unlike most cultures, they had no tradition of mart. Their conversation was almost entirely about work and the necessities of daily life.

It is possible to ruin play by focusing attention too strongly on rewards and outcomes. This happens in competitive games when the goal of winning overtakes that of simply enjoying the game. When a game becomes primarily a means of proving oneself to be better than someone else, or of supporting the team's felt “need” to win, it becomes something other than play. All sorts of play can be ruined when rewards are made to appear to be the main reason for engaging in the activity. I suspect that many more of us would play in the realms of history, mathematics, science, and foreign languages were it not for our schools' attempts to encourage them through rewards and punishments, turning those potentially enjoyable activities into work.

Lifelong Kindergarten

Mitchel Resnick

Lifelong Kindergarten bookcover

Mitchel Resnick draws on his experience in the MIT Media Lab and especially the Scratch team while discussing how to facilitate creativity in the next generation. He structures the book according to his 4 P's: Projects, Passion, Peers and Play.

In our graduate program at the MIT Media Lab, focused on creative uses of new technologies, we've adopted a kindergarten-like approach. Media Lab graduate students spend very little time in the classroom. Instead, they're constantly working on projects, guided by the Creative Learning Spiral. Students work on many different types of projects: Some design interactive musical instruments to support new forms of musical expression, while others develop prosthetic devices for people who lost their limbs. But the design process is similar in all cases. Students rapidly build prototypes, play with them, share their prototypes with other students, and reflect on what they've learned. Then, it's time to imagine the next version of the prototype, and they go through the spiral again—and again and again. Of course, Media Lab students use very different tools and technologies than children in kindergarten. Media Lab students use microcontrollers and laser cutters more than finger paints and wooden blocks, but the Creative Learning Spiral is the same. The Media Lab is recognized around the world for its creativity and innovation, and I have no doubt that our project-based learning approach, based on the Creative Learning Spiral, provides the underpinning for this creativity.

"Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character

Richard. P. Feynman

Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman! bookcover

Not necessarily a book on education, but getting inside the head of a person driven by their curiosity is fascinating. I see Feynman as a master at learning, and believe experiencing someone else's thinking process leads to a lot of insight.

A few quotes:

I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it's two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, “Feynman, that's pretty interesting, but what's the importance of it? Why are you doing it?” “Hah!” I say. “There's no importance whatsoever. I'm just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn't discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there's the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing”—working, really—with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things. It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education

Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge

Triple Focus bookcover

In this book, Daniel Goleman discusses the importance of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) while Peter Senge explains how Systems Thinking empower children to understand the relationships around them and to deal with complex challenges. Although a short book, it give us a peak on what might be the most important skills in today's society in contrast with the memorization of subject-related information.

A quote:

We actually walked into an eighth grade science class that day and immediately noticed something odd—there was no teacher in the room. As it turned out, a couple of the students were having some trouble with some library research (yes, these were the days when you walked to the library to do your research!) and the teacher had gone off to help them. The first thing that surprised us was what we didn't see. We're talking about eighth grade here—a room of thirty or so 14-year olds and no teacher. What would you expect to see? Chaos, right? But the students hardly seemed aware of there being no teacher. Clarification: This eigth grade science class were taught using the tools of Systems Thinking to solve the problem at hand. As we learned, they were all working on a year-long project to help design a new county park being built north of the city. What we saw wherever we looked were students sitting in twos and threes in front of their new Macintosh computers, working with a program their teacher had designed. This wasn't an extra-curricular activity. It was their eighth grade science curriculum. All their eighth grade science, as well as a whole lot more, was woven into a real-life project, which would culminate when they reported their recommendations to the county park commissioners at the end of the year. Clearly, the whole process was very engaging for the students.

Education and the Significance of Life

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Education and the Significance of Life bookcover

Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, Krishnamurti writes about the right kind of education and the integration of humans to fully understand the process of themselves. The makes the argument that only then can we achieve a peaceful world. I think his thoughts and ideas are as relevant today in the context of environmental crises rather than wars.

A few quotes:

"Systems, whether educational or political, are not changed mysteriously; they are transformed when there is a fundamental change in ourselves. The individual is of first importance, not the system; and as long as the individual does not understand the total process of himself, no system, whether of the left or the right, can bring order and peace to the world"

"There is radical transformation only when we understand our own conditioning and are free of it. To discuss what should be the right kind of education while we ourselves are conditioned is utterly futile."

"Teaching should not become a specialist's profession. When it does, as is so often the case, love fades away; and love is essential to the process of integration [of human beings]. To be integrated there must be freedom from fear. Fearlessness brings independence without ruthlessness, without contempt for another, and this is the most essential factor in life. Without love we cannot work out our many conflicting problems; without love the acquisition of knowledge only increases confusion and leads to self-destruction."

The School

In this section you will find a few cases which reimagine the school with a new set of assumptions. Some cases are practiced in the real world while others are works of speculative design. Speculative design often involve the process of designing future scenarios to inform a public debate in the present of where we want to go, and don't want to go. I believe radical experimentation is relatively rare in the education sector, hence speculative design can help us to facilitate this discussion.

People (aka. Human Resources)

In the quote above, Krishnamurti warns against teaching becoming a profession of specialists. To work with children in schools, people would have to either fit into the role of a teacher, administrator or principal. But what if we involved a more diverse range of people in schools to interact with and design experiences for children? In their Exploring the Future Education Workforce: New Roles for an Expanding Learning Ecosystem report, KnowledgeWorks aims "to help education stakeholders imagine what kinds of educator roles might contribute to flexible and rigorous learning ecosystems that enable both learners and the adults supporting them to thrive, this paper explores seven possible educator roles."

Graphic to show the relationship between the 7 future education roles as speculated by KnowledgeWorks
  1. Learning Pathway Designer - Works with students, parents, and learning journey mentors to set learning goals, track students' progress and pacing, and model potential sequences of activities that support learning experiences aligned with competencies.
  2. Competency Tracker - Tags and maps community-based learning opportunities by the competencies they address in order to support the development of reconfigurable personalized learning pathways and school formats.
  3. Pop-Up Reality Producer - Works with educators, subject matter experts, story developers, and game designers to produce pervasive learning extravaganzas that engage learners in flow states and help them develop relevant skills, academic competencies, and knowhow.
  4. Social Innovation Portfolio Director - Builds networks in support of meaningful service-based learning and community impact by linking student action-learning groups seeking to develop core skills and knowledge with organizations seeking creative solutions.
  5. Learning Naturalist - Designs and deploys assessment protocols that capture evidence of learning in students' diverse learning environments and contexts.
  6. Micro-Credential Analyst - Provides trusted, research-based evaluations and audits of microcredential options and digital portfolio platforms in order to provide learners and institutions with comparative quality assurance metrics.
  7. Data Steward - Acts as a third-party information trustee to ensure responsible and ethical use of personal data and to maintain broader education data system integrity and effective application through purposeful analytics.


The bells, hour-blocks and grades are often referred to as the legacy of the industrial factory model applied to education. Work, life and projects in today's society have moved on while schools haven't. In Boston, NuVu High School have taken inspiration from the education in design and art thus having all students working on projects uninterrupted for two weeks at a time.

NuVu high school space


9 years ago, the design-studio 00 (zero zero) published a speculative design case regarding the architecture of schools and present the idea of Scale-Free Schools. Rather than embedding all the facilities needed in one single school building, what if school in its physical sense was spread and integrated within the city?


Back in 2014, Stanford d.school created a speculative design fiction to look back at Stanford in 2025 from year 2100. Instead of a major, students would declare a mission to guide their studies. From undergraduate and postgraduate studies to an open loop university supporting students throughout their life. Five years later in 2019, they published a follow-up report titled Uncharted Territory: A Guide to Reimagining Higher Education with real-world examples that have to some extent implemented these ideas today.

Picture of a booklet from Uncharted Territory

Purpose and Meta-message

In the Swedish national curriculum under "Fundamental values and tasks of the school", the first paragraph on fundamental values reads:

The national school system is based on democratic foundations. The Education Act (2010:800) stipulates that education in the school system aims at pupils acquiring and developing knowledge and values. It should promote the development and learning of all pupils, and a lifelong desire to learn. Education should impart and establish respect for human rights and the fundamental democratic values on which Swedish society is based. Each and everyone working in the school should also encourage respect for the intrinsic value of each person and the environment we all share.

There are obviously many ways to achieve such a goal. However, sometimes the industrial-era assumptions about learning can distort the meta-message being sent to the children. With a national standard curriculum and strict grading standards, do we transmit a message of a desire for lifelong learning? Or perhaps a message that external rewards in the form of grades are more important that the intrinsic value of learning for each individual?

Regarding the aspect of the democratic values, students in Swedish school have the opportunity to organize in the Student council. However, the council is an organization separate from the school itself. What might it look like if the democratic process was itself integrated into the daily life of the school, have children practice citizenship every day?

Summerhill is a democratic, self-governing school in which the adults and children have equal status. The daily life of the school is governed by the school Meetings, usually held twice a week in which everybody has an equal vote. The school's philosophy is to allow freedom for the individual - each child being able take their own path in life, and following their own interests to develop into the person that they personally feel that they are meant to be. This leads to an inner self-confidence and real acceptance of themselves as individuals.

Summerhill School in England will celebrate its one hundred year anniversary in 2021. Founded by A. S. Neil in 1921 with the purpose to have children by in control of their life and agency. By having all decisions made within the community, one vote per child and adult, it sends the message that everyone is valued by also have to live up to the responsibility of their decisions. As the school faced problems with school inspectors from the British government, the students and teachers wrote and later produced film about the process.

Although few, there are still similar schools around the world, such as Sudbury Valley School just outside Boston. The beauty of these schools is in the meta-message. Since there are no grades, mandatory classes or age segregation, the students are implicitly expected to figure things out for themselves. They are trusted to be responsible, even though they are not yet considered adults by society. When given this trust and responsibility, the experiences from these schools make it clear children will rarely disappoint.

Facilitating Change

The two previous sections have focused on reflecting on the beliefs of the educator (or parent, administrator, policymaker) as well as imagining what the future in education might look and feel like. What, then, are some concrete steps or tools that can help us towards a shared vision of education? In this section, you will find books and other resources for how to facilitate change locally.

The Education Changemaker's Guidebook to Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is one of the most powerful methods to intervene in complex problems. This guide does a fantastic job in summarizing a lot of literature and practice into the format of a handbook. You will learn to frame the problem you are facing, visualize the system structure causing the problem and finally look for leverage to create effective change.

Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education

To continue on the track of Systems Thinking, Peter Senge with many other practitioners go into depth in theory and practices for creating effective change in classrooms, schools and the education system as a whole. Rather than a cover-to-cover read, think of it as a companion to visit when you face certain problems in your daily work.

Transformative Innovation in Education: A Playbook for Pragmatic Visionaries

This book give many concrete examples of schools and learning institutions that set goals for the future and used the Three Horizons approach to take concrete steps forward. It is a brilliant and inspiriting resource to discuss together with people in your local learning institution.

Education Reimagined

A diverse group of education practitioners, scholars, business and union leaders, parents, and advocates came together to create a new vision of education (read their story step-by-step here). It is a great example of what can happen when applying the methods mentioned in the resources above and manage to scale it to include more initiatives, as you can see on the map of initiatives in the U.S. practicing the principles outlined in their vision.

Jonathan Nylander © 2020