By Thom Markham

The world’s top performing organizations achieve their goals by offering a rich blend of culture, work, and engagement that deeply enrolls employees in the mission and purpose of the organization, attracts highly motivated, committed individuals to join a rewarding social network, and infuses the journey to success with joy and passion. That results in innovation, creativity, and a personal desire to contribute to systematic improvement. Overall, employees become part of a ‘story’ that enrolls them in a cause and brings out their best talents.

This does not describe education in the U.S. Why?

Anyone who has read The Teacher Wars or similar books about the history of education knows the reasons. For well over 150 years, education has been stuck in an endless wash cycle that alternates between a ‘hands-on, better citizenship, student-oriented’ and a ‘scientific, strict outcomes, measurable results’ approach to children’s learning. The latest tension between inquiry and project based approaches versus testing and standards is simply the latest iteration of a long and unresolved debate.

Add in the historically confusing role of teachers themselves—initially as women focused on bettering the morals of children during the Common Schools period, then as blue-collar cogs in an industrial machine at the beginning of the 20th century, and today as under-empowered participants in a stagnant system designed to broadcast standardized information—and it’s easy to see why an undertone of resignation, cynicism, or even learned helplessness permeates too many conversations in hallways, staff rooms, and parking lots. Those emotions leak into the school culture, don’t fuel the creative parts of the brain, and lead to inertia, not innovation.

And right now, there’s no story that will lead educators out of this historical wilderness. Winning the global battle for jobs, higher standards, more ‘rigorous learning’, teacher evaluation, merit pay, and testing requirements are all themes drawn straight from the technocratic approach of the last 100 years. It’s not the future, and those initiatives, though useful for daily use, don’t inspire—not in a world that so obviously demands joy and genius.

 The New Story

Tapping the deepest energies of teachers, or any employees, requires a connection with big, meaningful themes that promise a significant, positive effect on the world. The themes contain simple, truthful, future-oriented plot lines—the elements of a story—that provide context for the daily work and help one refocus on larger goals. The more whole hearted the embrace of the goals, the more the hidden resources of the inner self are activated.

At a time of great transformation in the world, there are no shortages of themes to pick from. But teachers have special opportunities to tell a magnificent story about themselves and their profession:

Appreciate the power, beauty, and challenge of the present moment. If you’re a teacher, you have placed yourself in the most enviable, challenging, fulfilling role possible in the 21st century: You are responsible for co-creating a future that no one can imagine, and helping an untested generation of youth navigate unknown waters. Nothing—nothing—really prepares you for this role. But the future will be invented—and you will be part of it. Your passion, vision, and sense of mission will determine your level of contribution, but those qualities are liberated by appreciation and gratitude. The more grateful for your opportunity, the better the outcome and the more joyful the work. The same, by the way, applies to your students

 Contribute to a global vision. Thinking about test scores is important for job security and job satisfaction. But confining performance to your school or district, or even your country, is a small slice of reality. Instead, imagine how 300 million youth under the age of 18 world-wide will rise out of poverty, find decent jobs, seek fulfillment, and design a livable world. Know that a significant shift has taken place world-wide: The concerns of teachers everywhere have converged, and every forward-focused teacher can be not just a local teacher, but part of connected network of educators trying to rally the world on behalf of youth. It’s a noble effort.

Redefine smart. The image of success associated with the old model is breaking down. A college degree and technical mastery are enormously helpful, but they don’t capture the essential attitudes necessary to succeed in a global environment that teeters every day on uncertainty. Test scores may affect funding and hiring, but nearly every teacher recognizes the passivity that testing encourages. ‘Smart’ these days includes grit, resiliency, empathy, curiosity, openness, creativity, and evaluative thinking. Figuring out how to teach, instill, or elicit these strengths in children as they move through school is the most acute challenge education has ever faced. No one really knows how to design a system that leads to ‘better’ people—and yet that’s the task.

Live the collaborative reality. The level of stress reported in high-performing organizations is considerable, so it’s not all roses, even when driven by passion and commitment. The answer is to share, either in person or beyond. Just signing up for Twitter, for example, will alert every teacher to the daily flow of powerful, hopeful ideas about education that are flowing 24/7 across the globe. If you’re a teacher in the U.S., try posting a wonderful, inventive insight about your classroom and watch Australia light up. See yourself as a cyber-partner. Get your personal learning network Think of yourself as living in a peer-driven world, in which ideas and change come from within and below, not from the top, and you can make the difference. Be part of these amazing times.

Thom Markham is a psychologist, school redesign consultant, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. Find many more resources on his website, or tweet him @thommarkham.

Redefining Teachers with a 21st Century Education ‘Story’ 11 February,2015MindShift

  • Gary Burjank

    Is there room enough for the dreamers and poets, not just STEM advocates entrusted with the future of education?

    • John Guthro

      Gary, your question hit like a ton of bricks, the world needs poets and dreamers, the creative people. I read this story as part of my job with Zulama Modern Learning, one of the people who most influenced our program is Don Marinelli, Drama Professor at Carnegie Mellon. Who was instrumental in creating STEAM that’s STEM with an A. Just wanted to let you know, we are trying.

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  • Ameelia Brown

    Hi Thom Markham, very nice post,


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  • Philip Rolt

    Interesting post. It’s also important that when research has been done and validated that it is heeded.

    I get frustrated when we know how to make things better but teacher opinion and politicians meddling take us down a different path.

    • Frontiergirl

      It’s important to note that “teacher opinion” is the MOST important aspect. After all, they are the ones in the trenches who actually know what they’re talking about. Research means pretty much zilch. Teachers often give the powers that be the data that is being looked for just so they can be left alone to do what needs to be done in their classrooms. If the education paradigm was overseen by teachers vs. politicians and psychomatricians, we would start seeing real progress. After all, when you go to the doctor, do you want him/her to use their knowledge and skill to treat you, or the president’s wife’s so-called knowledge? It is totally frustrating as a teacher when people who don’t know what they’re talking about determine what will be taught and how it will be taught. When ex-librarians (oh, excuse me, a president’s wife) decided to instate “No Child Left Behind”, no one listened to the teachers who cried, “BULL-****” Now we are dealing with this fallout. The “different path” that “teacher opinion” would take us down would be educating students to take their place in society as fully functioning and equipped individuals. Teachers get frustrated when they know how to make things better but meddlers with vested interests and little to no classroom experience meddle and take education spiraling downwards….and then say it’s the teachers’ faults. Hogwash.

  • Garreth Heidt

    I enjoy Thom’s posts and just bought his PBL handbook. Here, as with most of what he’s written, I’m on board…except when he gets to the paragraph on redefining smart and writes: “Figuring out how to teach, instill, or elicit these strengths in children as they move through school is the most acute challenge education has ever faced. No one really knows how to design a system that leads to ‘better’ people—and yet that’s the task.” I’d argue that we do know how, and it’s couched in an educational tradition that goes back to the times of Plato…namely, a focus on a liberal education.

    A scan through the literature on “liberal education” in the past decade or so will reveal not only the laments about the abuses the liberal arts have taken in the face of the professionalization of our institutions of higher education (and, I’d even argue, our high schools), but will also reveal a growing number of articles on a liberal education and liberal arts approach as being crucial to success in the ever changing world.

    I’ve championed the liberal arts since I started teaching a middle school humanities course over two decades ago. The curriculum I helped to create is guided by two questions culled from the world of design: “Why are things the way they are?” and “How can we make them better?” The first question guides inquiry, the second empowers students (and all human beings) with agency.

    For a look at how that curriculum develops and why as well as the books and authors who served as a foundation for this approach (and Gary Burjank, there’s plenty in my curriculum for the dreamers, the poets, and all the arts–The “A” that John Maeda (among others), President of Rhode Island School of Design, helped insert into the STEM acronym to turn it to STEAM), take a look at this– — a paper I published through the Industrial Designers Society of America for their 2012 Education Symposium in Boston.

  • Interesting post. Thank you for sharing this. It’s totally valuable and incredible info!


  • Jaimin

    Nice post. Enjoyed reading it.

    We are providing the tools to bring the new dimensions to the traditional teaching with tuvalabs to support the same, its just one drop in the ocean, but there are so many possibilities to diverse the education and break the boundaries of traditional education. Its a long way to go, I am sure we will get there one day.

  • Larryalobo

    How to create a system to make ‘better people’ is not the same as creating a system that helps or trains people to succeed and for success. If teachers mainly listen to other teachers, is not that an echo chamber of a sounding board of improving an existing system rather than reinventing things to go from teaching to learning? Lots of efforts and impulses in k-12 are around issues of fairness, equality, making up for past wrongs in history, tolerance, diversity, tolerance yet not offending, anti-religion, sameness between the sexes, everyone wins so no focus on competition (not even how to best cooperate), etc. and not as much on how to increase intelligence, academic understanding and performance, etc. Why do I say this? because there is little to no emphasis on study skills, critical thinking skills, skills to get organized, learning to learn skills, etc. New research puts focus on growth mindset, grit, perseverance, resiliency, etc. but you need a change in the system not just an improvement (more of the same but better) for this pivot to happen

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