Education as a Gift Economy

The Gift

This is a cross-posting from my other blog Only Connect I am adding it to this class blog because I’ve realized that the nature of what we are creating in NOVA Lab so closely models the kind of economy Hyde describes in his book, and which I wrote about almost a decade ago. Ideas, like viruses, come to infect our thinking. Of some, we are never cured. This is one I will suffer gloriously until I die….

I originally posted this piece in 2012 to the group blog “Cooperative Catalyst” (a wonderful site where I first met David Loitz, John Spencer, Paul Freedman (of the Salmonberry School) and other amazing educators.  Having just read another amazing article by Arthur Chiaravalli on his journey to gradelessness, I was reminded of the notion of teaching and learning as a type of economy.  I’m reviving this article here as I’d like to think it might spark some discussion regarding the “economies” of education, especially given all the recent and growing criticisms of the “neoliberal agenda” in the realm of education.  (See here, here, and, most importantly in our Trumpian world, here for more on this interesting critique.)

Einstein Teaching

In a monthly meeting at my middle school, we were discussing the issue of grades and homework.  I thought this bit from Prof. Einstein might offer some way of illuminating part of the discussion we were having, but it has led me even further down a wondrous rabbit hole, so far it demanded a blog post of me.

I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore.  We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grown into good people.  Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”

As regards Einstein’s observation, the assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.”  Too often students do see study as a duty and only that.  It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light:  light for ourselves, but also light for the community.  Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world.

You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing teaching as a gift.  Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?”  Which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing.  The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  

The Gift

Hyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy.  Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation):  For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the “paradox of the gift”: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.

“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….”  Tell me that’s not teaching.  I don’t impart knowledge.  No.  It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.”  Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience.  Teaching is a strange gift, though, in that I feel no sense of loss, nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing.  I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening the genius, if you will.  And it is that sense of genius that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.

Back to Einstein, then:  “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….”  It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.”  When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity.  But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”

I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy–that one need not ever accept a gift.  Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model where a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift.  But oh!  How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.


Purpose and the Story We Tell Ourselves: Wayfinding our own Oceans.

In 1995, the prolific warbler Neil Young (and members of Pearl Jam) released Mirror Ball.  The album featured one of Young’s iconic cries of independence, “I’m the Ocean.”  With a chorus declaring the title’s metaphysical conceit and lyrics probing smaller, stranger metaphysical comparisons (eg. “I’m an accident/I was driving way too fast), Young contrasts being a trivial, single thing (“I’m an aeorstar/I’m a Cutlass Supreme”) with being something as expansive, deep and meaning-full as the ocean itself.

Young’s song is, perhaps, a meditation on the 90s as the decade where meaning and attention began to seriously fracture. But more so, it is an exercise defining the utter necessity of always writing our selves into the present in ways that both extend our individuality and acknowledge the reality that we are part of something much larger.

This recognition, that we are all part of an ocean of humanity and that we all have a tidal power to extend ourselves out and back again, this is one of the great mysteries of existence: That our individual self floats and drifts and surges amidst all other selves in the world.  We are solitary as well as a part of the main. It makes us humble but also allows us to know the great power each of us has to change the world–that a slight change in our own direction has implications for all the selves in our immediate sphere and, therefore, beyond.

However, as Young’s lyrics reveal, developing a sense of ourself in this way is not an easy task.  Such wisdom is hard-won, the process of struggle, of loss as well as success, and of many, many hours spent reflecting, talking to/with ourself…a silent, internal sounding of our own depths.

And for as important as such knowledge is to our own mental health and sense of well-being, there is little in most students’ school careers that helps them meet the self by itself and the self within our larger communities.

For most of my career as a teacher, be it in middle or high school, I’d always known that students hungered to better understand themselves.  After all, what else is education for if not to better understand the self?   For years I addressed this through stories, through philosophy, and through metacognitive exercises, and while all those had some meaningful effect, they never felt focused or cohesive.

Image result for Students polynesian wayfinder

And then, two years ago, I wandered into Project Wayfinder.  The focus of this unique curriculum on understanding the self at the individual and community level has been instrumental in helping me to provide deeper meaning to the purpose projects that drive the way we learn in NOVA Lab.  But more important, it has provided key experiences to recognize the critical role of community in our classroom.  When students are provided with an open and understanding environment in which the entire community is driving towards a common but unique goal (to better know ourselves), they learn how to develop empathy and communication flourishes.

Oh, I realize I am only seven lessons into this unique curriculum, but I know enough to know when the tenor of a classroom changes.  And even if some of the lessons in the year-long curriculum don’t work for all students, their belief in the importance of the overall goal of the project is, I think, strong enough to keep them focused on the need for others in the community to engage more deeply.

I’ve asked students to write blog posts reflecting on their work with Project Wayfinder so far.  Below I’ve culled a number of quotations from their writing so that their own words might speak to the power of the project itself.

“WayFinder has proved to be more beneficial than simply planning out my career path. I have learned more about my personality and strengths, and thus more about myself. By obtaining this knowledge, I believe it will help me in my future career and relationships.  —Emma C.

“[Wayfinder] Mondays are one of the best parts of our inNOVAtion Lab class, as they give me a time that I would not have otherwise had to think about my own desires and goals in life.  Especially as I’m now applying to college, recognizing my own strengths and goals in life gives me such a good foundation upon which to base my essays and interviews.” –Andrew D

“The idea of living beyond the simplicity of school work and the all-too-familiar monotony of the workweek has been planted in our minds.  The only way to really have direction in one’s life is to define what makes us tick–our purpose(s) and how we want to leave our mark.  Wayfinder has done this for me.” –Ethan F.

“Project Wayfinder has slowly shifted my attention to parts of myself that before I wouldn’t share with people I didn’t know very well or even people I am very close with. It’s reinvigorated my passion in things that had been overtaken by other aspects of my life and brought them to the surface as bold as ever.” —Jane H.

“Project Wayfinder been a unique experience unrivaled by any other in my high school career. In school, we’re always working for a grade, molding ourselves to the machine in order to get to college and beyond. [In Wayfinder], we’ve had the ability to not only shape our minds and opinions but adapt our personalities and go on a path of self-discovery. Most teenagers don’t even consider who they want to be as a character in their story, but Wayfinder asks us to stare our future in the face and affords us the time to mold ourselves to our own personal goals. It’s been really inspiring to not only go through these activities but see how others have been impacted and adapted from the knowledge they gained during Wayfinder activities.”  –Glen R.

“Project Wayfinder offers us learning not covered in any other aspect of the school system. At times this can be challenging but overall it is a very beneficial process. This allows me to take time and reflect on what I have done, what I want to do, and why these things matter to me. I personally do not do these things on a frequent basis, but this course brings a healthy cleanse of my pent up mental strain. Focusing on my goals and feelings is a foreign concept to me but has proven important. The course could not have come at a better time due to how now is the time where so many, literally, life-changing events are coming up. Whether this be college or academic prospects.
–Ethan S.

“Project Wayfinder is less about the specific answers it provides than the process. Instead of blindly doing things because I’ve always done them that way, I now regularly consider what brings me joy, what kind of person I am, and more. The power of Wayfinder, at least the early portion of the curriculum, is not to define one’s lifelong purpose, but to encourage the careful consideration that will one day result in one.” –Matt T.

“Students everywhere will tell you that the idea of curriculum is killing any sense of purpose they have, and Wayfinder knows this. So instead of trying to give you a book as a surefire method to find your purpose, they use the best tool available to anyone, other people. All the book does is give them better questions to ask. For example, instead of asking you for a definite answer to what you’d like to do, another person is prompted to ask you to tell a story about a time you’ve enjoyed doing something. Humans aren’t meant to spit out correct answers and know ourselves perfectly, we find ourselves through the stories we tell and the people we tell them to.” –Miles C.

“While Project Wayfinder is still a young product, I thoroughly enjoy it and think that it should be applied wherever it can. Not just innovation classes – other classes, other schools, workspaces; there is never a wrong time or place to find your North Star.” Valencia C.

“Project Wayfinder helps us succeed in the world rather than merely in the classroom. It shows us that no matter how different we are and how separated we are that we have a purpose and that our purpose is consequential to the world.” –Nicholette D.

“Project Wayfinder is a way to ask questions to yourself and find out who you are. Completing the exercises with integrity and wholeheartedness is vital to really discovering oneself and peeling back the layers to become more open and vulnerable. I thoroughly enjoy Project Wayfinder every week and figuring out more about who I am, little nuances about my personality, and how I can find my purpose.”–Aleesha P.

“Being only seventeen years old, most of my life has been dominated by my time in school. Because of this, when I think of my identity, I think “student,” but Wayfinder purposely tries to leave school out of the activities. I’m interested to see what the next lessons will bring, and how I will think of my identity outside of being a student.”
–Brandon S.

The Most Amazing Day(s): Teaching as Experience Design

For the past few days, ever since inNOVAtion Lab’s phenomenal trip to Corbett Inc.’s Fluxspace, I’ve been trying to figure out what has been happening in class.  The trip to Flux was a highlight of a very young year, and it comes on the heels of another highlight, our trip to the B.Phl Innovation Festival  (see here, and here, and here), which followed a few other key moments–our google Hangout session with Designer Phil Holcombe and a Zoom chat with serial entrepreneur Jeremy Miller.

In each of these instances, but especially in our trips to Philadelphia and Norristown, there has been a perceptible feeling that something unique is happening.  We’re all learning, but I’m not teaching…at least not in the sense that I’m delivering information they must know for a future performance (test, quiz, whatever) as evidence of attaining knowledge.

And yet evidence exists.  Both trips yielded deeply emotional responses from many of the students.  At B.Phl’s Innovation festival, students explored sessions geared for adults working in the business or social sector and came away with an understanding of just how important creativity and innovation is to all sectors of the workforce.  As well, as they were put into spaces with adults attending the festival, they were exposed to just how difficult it can be to get adults who have been in the workforce for a long time to understand, accept, and adjust to change. For many, it was unlike any field trip ever.

Our trip to Corbett’s Fluxspace revealed an even deeper response.  Between the presentation from Independence Blue Cross’s Michelle Histand on Design Thinking, owner Bill Corbett’s inspirational life story and the time he gladly spent talking to students (you have to watch this video!), and the project presentations students did for panels of adults who volunteered their time, the experience opened doors to new opportunities for their projects, validating the type of learning we are doing in NOVA Lab. (Read this post by “Living Now.”

With Director of Innovation Ryne Anthony (@MrRyneAnthony) I organized time, planned action, provided opportunities, but teaching?  Not much.

So what is happening?

In my car this morning, I was replaying the words of Bill Corbett in his presentation to the students.  He noted that while Corbett, Inc. does sell furniture; and while, yes, they design office, school, and other institutional spaces, those aspects of their work are parts of the larger enterprise of experience design–The intentional orchestration of time and space to create moments that are memorable, meaningful, and transcendent.  Corbett, Inc is about experience design.


In their book, The Power of Moments Chip and Dan Heath make the case that moments that are well designed are more likely than not “peak experiences.”  That is they “boost sensory appeal…raise the stakes…and break the script*” (see * below).  Looking back at our field trips to Flux and the B.Phl Innovation festival, it is clear that these peak experiences were, in the Heath’s terms, “Defining Moments…a short experience that is memorable and meaningful.”  (Take a look at the website “Visual Synopsis” for a great sketchnote of the book)

As it has for so many of my most impactful learnings as a teacher, design offers a resolution to my teaching/learning conundrum:  All good experience design is human-centred and focused on changing us in the same way education changes us. 

This is the kind of learning experience I’ve sought to design for my whole life.  This is the center of gravity at the core of all the work we do at Form and Faculty where I am the Director of Learning.  And this is, so far as I can tell, the driving force behind the ongoing creation and expansion of opportunity at Corbett, Inc. and Flux.  

As we move through the rest of this year, we have even more defining moments ahead of us.  In January students and I will host a conversation at Philadelphia’s “Educon 2020.”  (Come see us and talk with us about:  In the Brilliant Light of Authentic Ideas: Students as Innovators ).  Later in the year we’ll be hosting a TEDx event at which students will be presenting their projects to the community.  And, yes, we’ll be returning to Flux…many times.

So what are the students and I learning?  Driven by purpose to question, connect, empathize, experiment, and, yes, “fail,” we’re learning to embody the values that drive the work of inNOVAtion Lab network:  Honesty, Teamwork, Communication, Feedback, and Creation.

I’ll take that learning any day.

Photo on 8-23-19 at 12.15 PM
Our first value…”Honesty.”

*Breaking the script is one way design peak experiences, but there’s so much else.  I thank Corbett, Inc.; Fluxspace Director of Innovation Ryne Anthony for providing the vision and space that is Flux; the administrators in my district for believing in my vision; Art Dept. Chair Tom Komp for his help, his graphic design students, his witness and counsel; and the students and parents of NOVA lab for taking the risk to experience this class.

Learning in Flux: The Joy of Purpose-Based Education

At the beginning of the year, I discovered that a local design firm in my neighborhood was opening an incubator/maker/presentation/learning space in a turn of the 20th-century woollen mill.

Dubbed Flux, the space was exactly what I have been trying to create in my own school, only about 7 times bigger!   So I had to check it out.

That’s where I met Ryne Anthony, their Director of Innovation.  A whirlwind of ideas and effort, Ryne and the company‘s owner, Bill Corbett, are making connections and making things happen at Flux that have the potential to open new avenues of education for countless students in the districts in and around Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Today, with 50 NOVA Lab students and 4 Graphic Design students, art department chair Tom K. and I made a pilgrimage to Flux.  To say that the vast majority of the students came back converted is not hyperbole nor mere appropriation of religious symbolism.  The students were changed.

From the start, during a design thinking workshop led by Michelle Histand of Independence Blue Cross’s Innovation Center (with huge thanks to Patrick Dudley, IBX’s Director of Innovation) the students were engaged and focused.  Most all of them had no idea that they’d been working for 90 minutes by the time it was over.  And while all of them had had a working familiarity with design thinking via NOVA Lab, as one student remarked, “Even though I’ve heard those terms and seen the process a number of times, it really helped to see it again.”

After lunch, the students were treated to an inspirational speech by company owner, Bill Corbett.  His insights into design, innovation, work, and the necessities of building meaningful experiences moved all the students and energized them for the afternoon.

And it was during the afternoon sessions, where most all the students presented the projects they were working on, that they discovered the value of putting their ideas out into the world in real (not merely virtual) ways.  The panel of adults every team presented to provided valuable insight and constructive criticism to help move projects forward.  In some cases, the feedback lit even bigger fires in students, in others, it illuminated their progress, and in still others, it helped them discover new ways through problems.

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In the end, our time at Flux went so fast that the students couldn’t believe that we’d been there for almost 5 hours.  What’s more, they left with a feeling, not just an academic notion, but a deep feeling that something about the learning they just engaged in was different.  Maybe it felt more real, more validating, more genuine.  Or maybe it was the recognition that when you’ve invested deeply in work that moves you, and you share it with others and ask for their help, well…you might experience, for the first time in a long time, the utter joy associated with learning.