Mia Christopher
Mia Christopher

Some big education issues have been making headlines, including how many and what kind of standardized tests should be used in education, implementation of Common Core State Standards and the Vergara ruling in California challenging teacher tenure. But many educators continue to focus on the more personal issues behind these headlines: how to improve their craft, serve students better, nurture well-rounded, emotionally intelligent students and make educational change in more fundamental ways.


Teachers have long known that struggles in the classroom are often a reflection of society as much as of academic ability. And beyond the many challenges related to rising poverty rates, there is the uniquely confusing moment in which society finds itself. Around the globe, economies are shifting away from machine-focused industries and toward human-powered creative industries. Many adults are caught in the middle of this awkward shift, educated for the industrial age but trying to make a living in the information age. In an uncertain moment, they can be nervous about letting young people find their own way forward.

John Abbott, director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, has thought a lot about these issues and surmises that society must decide what it wants to be: interconnected individuals responsible to a community or a world filled with “consumers,” dependent on products, services and authority figures. Shifting to an education model that produces people who thrive on interconnectivity will take a dramatic revisioning of society. But that type of shift might be just what is required to ensure that the education children receive in the future meets that dramatically different end goal.

Changing the direction of society sounds like a daunting proposition, but examples of forward-thinking teaching and communities abound, often in isolation. As difficult as it can be for teachers to give up control over their classrooms, great things can happen when students step up and boldly take charge of their learning.

At Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts, educators responded when students came forward with an idea for an entirely student-led approach to school. In one independent-study-type course, students set their own learning goals, work collaboratively and seek help from mentors when it’s needed. They study math, science, social science and literature topics that interest them through a driving question each week, presenting their findings to a group. Their teachers were impressed with the rigor of their work and the motivation students displayed when they drove the agenda.

Saying students should drive their own learning is much easier than helping them do it. Former teacher-turned-lecturer Alan November has done some deep thinking about how teachers can help students gain the skills they’ll need to be independent learners. He emphasizes that teachers should help students ask the right questions and use the technology tools available to them to find credible information. He recommends teachers give students the ability to work on long-term projects that meaningfully contribute to the world, helping to provide the motivation for independent learning.

While some schools are finding ways to let students take up the reins of their education, many are still beholden to the regimented public system that includes lots of standardized testing for assessment and accountability purposes. The increasing focus on testing has driven some families away from the education system entirely, and the number of home-schooled students has grown.

One particular strain of home schooling, known as unschooling, has caught the imagination of many MindShift readers. Unschoolers follow no set curriculum, but rather let their children explore the world on their own terms and at their own speed. The focus is on curiosity, inquiry and projects, with the belief that kids will ask for help and learn in all disciplines when acquiring the necessary knowledge to achieve something with which they are absorbed.

Readers continue to debate whether students can really learn what they’ll need to be functioning adults without the intervention of a teacher or parent, but several people who have been unschooled themselves say they’re doing well in the world. Dr. Peter Gray has studied what unschoolers go on to do, and whether they face discrimination or other obstacles as they apply to colleges and enter the workforce.


Much of the disaffection with the school system stems from a pervasive feeling that the intense focus on formal academics has inadvertently neglected the rest of a child’s personality and humanity. While employers, psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly noted that social and emotional skills like empathy are some of the most important ones for success, many schools still lag in developing effective programs to nurture those soft skills.

Societal norms posit girls as being more emotionally intelligent than boys, but the subtle ways that teachers and parents reinforce that gender stereotype can harm boys, who need to learn empathy as an important life skill for connecting with others, problem-solving and developing moral courage. Many of these interpersonal skills develop naturally when children have the opportunity to play together in unstructured environments, but free play is on the decline both in schools and at home. Researchers are now even questioning if lack of free play in students’ lives could be partly responsible for rising rates of depression among youth.

One way to help students develop social and emotional skills is by helping them develop the part of their brain that governs self-regulation — the prefrontal cortex. A few schools working with some of the most traumatized and disadvantaged students are finding that practicing mindfulness — centering activities like focused breathing that keep the mind in the here and now — can help students build the focus, decision-making and ability to think ahead that many students lack. One elementary school in Richmond, California, with a mindfulness program found behavior problems diminished and academic achievement increased with just a few minutes of mindfulness every week.


There’s a lot of research about how people learn best, but not all of that information has made it into mainstream classrooms. While many educators spend their free time brushing up on the new (and sometimes not so new) research, others are content to continue doing what has been done before. And students are just as susceptible to the inertia as the adults around them.

Students who have grown up in the current school system are used to being told exactly what they need to do in order to succeed. But the emphasis on grades and college can sometimes have the unintended consequence of making learning all about achieving an external goal and not about the learning itself.

Increasingly, teachers are working to change that dynamic by moving to standards-based grading, allowing students to receive credit for demonstrating understanding even if that realization comes after the class has moved onto a new topic. Removing the stress of grades can help focus students back on learning together, especially if the teacher makes a special emphasis to build a culture of trust in the classroom.

“We know how kids learn. We know what classes should look like. And yet our classes look almost the opposite,” said Adam Holman, a Texas educator who worked hard to “deprogram” his kids from the traditional way of learning by teaching them about how their brains work and why the dominant teaching style is incompatible. When Holman treated his students like adults who could understand the system in which they played, he earned their trust and their hard work.

Sometimes the teaching and studying strategies thought to work best actively contradict brain-based learning. New York Times writer Benedict Carey devoted an entire book to describing counter-intuitive study strategies based in cognitive science about memory and learning. For example, students tend to spend hours cramming for a test the next day, only to promptly forget everything they learned. They’d be better served to chunk study time over several days, taking breaks, sleeping more and quizzing themselves along the way. Many students don’t know any strategies to improve their own study skills and end up wasting a lot of time and effort.


Educators are always interested in peer-recommended tech products proven to be simple and effective in the classroom. When New Canaan High School (Connecticut) librarian Michelle Luhtala invited several of her colleagues to combine their favorite apps and share a list with the world, educators loved it. And it can be particularly helpful to find a great tool for subjects that don’t get a lot of attention, like physics.

MindShift readers consistently enjoy reading about ideas that push the dominant thinking and challenge educators to bring the strategies and tools that inspire them into the classroom. It doesn’t have to happen all at once, but if every teacher pinpoints one way to make his or her classroom more dynamic, these grand ideas might slowly become a reality for more schools, educators and kids.

Unexpected Tools That are Influencing the Future of Education 23 December,2015Katrina Schwartz

  • John J. Coveyou

    Great article Katrina! I loved how you focused so much on the “Whole” child and not just a brain that needs to learn content. I feel like sometimes I am playing crowd control in my classroom so often that default to these subconscious arbitrary goal of content regurgitation and forget that my students are actually people who will themselves shape our future.

  • OregonSean

    Definitely a good idea to emphasize interconnectedness and community responsibility. The social politics we live with today are the result of the disciplinary model learning and eventually working where authority is more important than outcomes. This is not a natural way of behaving. It is created and it can be reversed and replaced what we know to be better.

  • Using the Wii system in classrooms encourages interaction amongst students and teachers.

  • MontessoriDiva

    One word. Montessori.

    • bKL

      As a certified Montessori teacher, I can tell you that in pure Montessori, the ‘teacher’ is more of a facilitator or director. The main goals are assisting young persons to discover the love of learning and what they are most passionate about. Lots of family involvement, more focus on the natural world, less focus on consumerism. We help nurture and develop their natural talents to share with and contribute to the world in which they live. This fosters individuality rather than cookie cutter robots. There are some public school systems who do what I call ‘watered down Montessori’ since the focus remains largely on testing and strict adherence to core curriculum policy. But at least it is an attempt.

      • Diane Orehek

        Hard to understand how we always forget that we’ve figured out the same problems numerous times, and feel the need to pat ourselves on our backs when we figure them out ‘again’. Maybe we just can’t stay with what’s effective, and need to always try something new without consideration of possible consequences….(i.e. effects on electronics addiction on our youngest learners: love the way some schools have gone to adding technology only in higher grades)

      • RC

        I’m sure you like Reggio Emelia schools, too. As an art teacher, I likened myself to a “tour guide.” With that said, I was reprimanded often for not having all the kids to the same crap all day long. I often called what I did a hybrid of art therapy, Montessori, and Waldorf approaches. The problem still remains: anything done correctly (or in the sincere best interest of a child) will not be found the way public schools instruct. I have worked with “at risk” youth for more than 25 years and the best approach is promoted via critical thinking. Check out: http://www.teachingforartisticbehavior.org I think you will like it, too. Thank you for making me feel sane.

    • Cyvaris

      Work, but only for the students they are designed for. Looking at the students I teach, some of them world certainly excel in such a setting, but the majority would simply not perform. It’s a delicate balance and one that seems so often ignored. Some students simply cannot be trusted with “free learning”.

      • Ultima Thule

        I don’t agree. I think that free learning is better for ALL. But of course not everybody will achieve the same performance.

  • Jennieves

    Montessori school already do this. Why are they always left out of the discussion??

  • Ben

    Big fan of the flipped classroom and using companies like 3Play Media to caption video content and use their interactive transcripts to make learning that much easier.

  • Barb MacEachern

    Nice article. Interconnectedness, care for self within a community, empathy and mindful learning. All of these outcomes are important for society as a whole…Black, white, brown, yellow, poor, rich, middle class, urban, rural, suburban. I see so many of these “unexpected tools” being used quite skillfully day in and day out in the majority of Cambridge, MA Out of School Time programs. These are expected tools for us.

  • Meves

    Angers me to no end when an entire article is written about this with not one mention of Maria Montessori.

    • Sarah Collins

      Or democratic schools.

    • Ultima Thule

      You are wrong. Maria Montessori is not the only one who discovered how to teach. Actually all specific courses and trainings for businesses, all trainings for professionals are following the same route as Montessori. Even in traditional public schools you will find a lot of good examples. People are not stupid and Montessori is not the only one who discovered the truth.

      Montessori is one of the few who make a business out of the education. And it is good. But not enough to claim the uniqueness.

  • I know some stuff too.

    pissed and resigned. How many more times will this wheel spin? The best thing for education is this! No, that is inimically bad and useless, this is the best way, not only to educate, but to improve society as a whole! Forget about all of that – can’t we see this system is creating a generation of __________? It’s time to get to the bottom of society’s ills – and it’s education! No, it’s teachers! Anyone can see teachers are _______! Don’t you remember how awful Ms. / Mr. / Mrs. / Miss. ________ was? H/She poisoned learning for hundreds of students. Well, “the wind behind my wings” was Ms./Mr./Mrs/Ms. ___________ who told me a) I could achieve my dreams b) that life wasn’t always going to be live this, c) she had to report my abusive ______, but this was the best thing, d) that I was too good to waste by ________ or e) all of the above. The best thing for education is …

  • Bryan Chambers

    Edu babble babble babble.

  • John Moyer

    Don’t forget the mistakes made in the 60’s with the Open Classroom experiments. Some kids need more structure and guidance than others. You’ll need a test to differentiate the levels of adult support required or not. Some kids could work from home, others need the rigor of a structured classrooms on a regular basis. Good luck with sorting all that out when there’s no money to do it.

    • Vanessa Hiser

      Open classrooms and similar approaches only work if the facilitators are on board. Many things fail or only half work because out-dated or stubborn individuals refuse to embrace change. Leaders should not thrust change upon these people but select the innovators and practitioners who will take the best bits and make them work, and examine the failing parts and amend them: action research. The world is changing and education must change ahead of it, and yet we are decades behind.

  • Frustrated in Eduland

    That’s all great, but parents want a grade and everyone else wants a score. Teachers know that the whole child counts and that learning is a process, etc…but the whole darn society has forced education to become a number game and doesn’t actually trust teachers to teach.

  • Mrs. Edu

    Why all this discussion is always around public education? Why all these “mindful ideas” are about “low income schools”? How about we start “unschooling” those kids in very private schools whose tuition is more than one at an expensive university? Why we don’t take the models developed for very posh kids and implement them into low income schools? How about we start looking at what are the differences between them and find out the real reason of a “failing” education system. We may employ whatever exotic called system, nothing will be improved until parents will start parenting. Your kids’ teacher cannot and should not replace you dear parent! We transformed our schools in “nurseries” and our teachers in babysitters.
    Food for thought!

    • MrsHall_2u

      The idea of unschooling children in private schools left an unsettling feeling in my heart, but you fixed that with your next solution. Take the models developed for posh kids who can afford expensive strategies and implement them into low income schools. That fact that someone realizes and recognizes there is a difference in the how the students are taught and how they learn speaks volume. Now that you have put that out into the world wide web, what needs to be done for others to recognize it? What must be done to correct it? The low income students deserve the same learning opportunities as the “posh” kids!

  • Ann Henry

    I love the part about “Moral courage” and “free play time”. So important. But science and other classes are bring compromised by the un-schooling approach. Do you really expect your child to re-toil and re-invent the periodic table, understand photosynthesis by trying to grow plants in sugar water..and salt water ? This is hands on learning in the absence of teaching. It’s an anti-biologist approach – keep um dim and down. The central theme of all alternative education programs. Is to hate biology.

    • Christy

      Unschooling doesn’t mean never having any teachers. It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t learn things from books and have to reinvent the wheel in order to use one!
      It means that when there are teachers or stacks of library books on a particular topic, it’s because a child has expressed an interest in the topic and actively wants to learn about it.
      I know many unschooling families where the children are homeschooled in the elementary grades. Typical school science topics for this age range are pretty adaptable to doing at home, and without the time constraints of school, kids can do more frequent & longer experiments, and can spend whole days at the science museum. By middle school and high school, many of these children will decide they want to see what school is about and switch to full time school attendance. Many others will be primarily homeschooled, but seek out more advanced courses in a few subjects at the community college.
      It’s possible that some unschooled kids would end up with little knowledge of biology. But others will end up with a very deep understanding of the subject – if that’s where their interest lies.

  • Paul Smith

    Private or religion based, public schools are indoctrination centers for the liberals…..

    • Jay

      I agree! We should hand our schools over to the titans of industry and commerce so they can reap the profits they deserve and better train these young minds to be productive consumers and followers. Then education will finally start to produce conservatives.

    • Jens Peter de Pedro

      Paul, what would a non-indoctrinating school look like?

  • walkingrock

    This article is a rehash of edspeak that has been swirling around for a decade or more. I am a teacher who started out at the post secondary level and then moved to high school because the raw material coming in to the university was students clearly not prepared for college. To successfully create a project that is worthy of a high school chemistry class, for example, the students must have first and foremost internal motivation. Even students who are interested in a topic struggle to manage themselves and their time. Very few students can do this well even with expert facilitation. Most know the information only for as long as it is on the computer screen. I am all for project based learning…I have multiple graduate degrees, after all. But until the students can maintain focus from an internal motivation, the students who are taught solely this way will continue to be less prepared than students from other countries where everyone is less sympathetic about the fact that school feels like work.

  • David Lynch Topitzer

    This article is does not present anything new at all. This is old. Most kids most of the time will not engage in academic learning on their own. Education schools have been pushing student-centered, project-based, group work with the teacher as a guide-on-the-side for generations. In 1928, progressive education professor William Kilpatrick suggested that
    students do not need to memorize and know things as we were moving into a
    modern age and students should instead work collaboratively in groups
    and construct their own understanding. In fact, much of the lower academic achievement today is due to this approach, coupled with an overemphasis on technology. This mix of
    technology and student-centered work is particularly ineffective with less-motivated students. Nonsense.

  • On the day that this blog entry was published, the Big Picture Learning Leadership conference was in process just across the bridge from KQED in Oakland, CA – check it out – http://www.bigpicture.org/2014/08/2014-15-leadership-conference-formerly-principals-retreat/

  • DeLynn

    OMGosh, I am so excited to see the shift of Unschooling being a thought for schools. I am a teacher and an unschooler of my own children, it really works! My oldest is in college at 16 (totally his choice) and I have two more children that have learned mostly on their own with my husband and myself there to guide them. I hope people can embrace less tests and more child led learning. Children are wired to learn!

  • New Voice Strategies

    We have teachers chatting about Common Core implementation right now, but I wonder if it won’t be an obsolete issue in a couple of years with alternate options like blended learning and other ed tech resources.

    We know that tracking student achievement is a must, but I think we’re arguing the short-term rather than bigger picture of what big data possibilities are.

    Let’s bring teachers fully up to speed on how easy and effective #edtech options could be.

    Here’s what teachers are saying: http://vivacommoncore.mysocialsphere.com/

  • Brian Silberberg

    I think practicing mindfulness in the classroom has some useful potential. I’ve been involved in a few classroom situations that experimented with it, and worked once with a researcher exploring in particular how minfulness affected the education experience, and it seemed to have definite correlations to attention, reducing anxiety, and encouraging students to be on topic (dropping any “baggage” they were carrying with them before classtime). Would definitely be interested to see how well it’s worked for others.

  • Alana

    Paulo Freire is a socialization theorist best known for his work in, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.Freire bring up a concept in education called “banking”. This is where
    the, “students are viewed as an empty account to be filled by the
    teacher. It attempts to control the thinking and action, leading men and
    women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.”

    I believe that education is based majority on this type of controlled
    learning. I am currently a graduate student and from Kindergarten and
    even today in my graduate studies I have teachers that do majority of
    the speaking and lecturing in class. The teachers are more talking at
    us, not to us. This stifles our learning and makes us feel we are
    imprisoned in our own education. I am still weary of the concept of
    “unschooling”discussed in this article, however if there are cases where
    the child is receiving the type of learning they desire, how can I
    really judge. Considering my feelings towards my own education.’

    Currently as an educator, the first day of every class I always let my students
    create their own rules. I also have them each write down and share
    personal objectives for the class. This provides me with an
    understanding of what each student wants to take away from the class.
    Understanding what they want, and having them feel they have a say in
    their learning, will only enrich the environment.

  • subras3d

    Glad to know about the welcome shift in approach to education itself .Congrats ! The focus should be on imparting both Knowledge & Skills right from the start -from home to schools & till Post Doctorate !!


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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