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.


Innovation: “This Must Be the Place”

When I was barely in 9th grade, I first encountered the music of Talking Heads.  It was the summer of 1983, and Speaking in Tounges was on heavy rotation on my Sony Walkman as I sat on a rusting, red Wheel Horse tractor cutting acres of grass for my house and my neighbor’s.

Hours of idle passes over a baseball-sized swath of backyard were filled with sounds I’d never heard.  Drums from foreign lands, rhythms that challenged the common tempos of rock music, and a heavy funk that would lead me straight into Parliament and the mysteries of that genre’s dank goodness.

But more than anything, that summer began my life-long love of Talking Heads and their enigmatic frontman, David Byrne.  It wasn’t long before the brilliance of Stop Making Sense assailed the ears and eyes, and I was convinced that if I never saw this band live I would die.

College brought deeper dives into the entire discography.   From their early work in the mid-’70s, to a pilgrimage to CBGB’s, from Byrne’s solo work with the dancer Twyla Tharp to the seminal samplings of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts...if it was related to the Heads, I was in on it.

Several years later, after the band broke up, I followed David’s work as he explored more deeply the rhythms of Latin America.  Rei Momo‘s cadences still fill my house.  And even the dark atmospheres of Byrne’s The Forest lurk in the recesses of my playlists.

This is not a paean to the band or to Bryne, who continues to make music and inspire younger bands.  Rather, this is a peek into why, when we think about INNOVATION we must look to artists. Admittedly, there is no genius in that insight.  And yet, in the rush of businesses to innovate, they often look solely to the gurus, the keynote speakers, the entrepreneurs with the swagger.

But artists had it figured out long ago.  They have tapped the wellsprings of creativity for 1101861027_400self-expression, and, like those waters, are infinitely adept at reinventing themselves and extending their art beyond the limitations of genres.  And while the business world has certainly attempted to appropriate even those most sacred of human waters, the real reason to look at the lives of people like David Byrne is that they never stop inventing and innovating (see image to left or this great interview on CBS Sunday Morning).  We people who seek to bring the fresh, the vibrant, the new to whatever space–education, corporate America, or our own homes–we need not do so in a frantic chase of some elusive “it”–the next big video game, the next great sneaker.  Rather, we ought to seek out the mindsets and actions that help us experience our lives in new ways.

Others have written better and with more academic acumen about David Byrne’s aesthetic.  Even I, years ago, wrote a senior thesis for a film class at Temple University on the topic.  Seek those out if you desire a more academic view…some sense of the gestalt that is David Bryne. Here, I simply recognize that Byrne is still pushing boundaries (Playing the Building), still crossing genres (How Music Works), still making us all think more about how innovating even within the fields to which we have devoted our lives, to which our own muses call us, is “never for money, always for love” (to quote Byrne’s own lyrics on “This Must Be the Place”).  Don’t believe me?  Look at this innovative riff by some NYC public school students.  Or this choir in Detroit, Michigan.  Oh, sure, in the economic ring of corporate America, innovation is about the profit margin.  But personally, socially…?  Innovation is about the joy of living well and in a way that spreads joy and well-being to others, in a way that recognizes, as one of my 7th-grade students once commented, that “Joy is like all WOW inside!”

It is impossible for me to watch David Byrne today and not think of the work we’re doing in our inNOVAtion Lab.  For most of my students, the engagement level is rising.  What’s more, I can hear in their interactions the kind of prosperous, collaborative discussion that only grows out of meaningful, purposeful, creative work.  These are the kinds of discussions the students engaged in during our trip to the B.Phl Innovation Festival.  They are the discussions born of curious humans pursuing their interests.

true_stories_03_ppWhat I love about David Byrne is how he never stops working.  As well, unlike many artists who try to capitalize on what is popular, changing their shape and color like so many flavors of pop-tarts, Byrne is working out of a consistent weltanschauung, iterating and innovating out of a deep intelligence about music itself, and doing so with a professionalism and reverence  for the creative process that is matched by very few performers today.

What I love about inNOVAtion Lab as a class is similar.  There is a growing respect for the rituals of the space and the time we have together, and for the understanding that we “make it up as we go along.”   This respect is reflected in the professionalism I sense building in these students and the belief that they have the ability to act upon their creative agency to make the world a better place.  In that, perhaps, they’ve come to respect themselves as artists, for there is an art to learning this way.

Few classes have felt so right to me in 27 years of teaching, and I seem to know that inNOVAtion Lab will be a home for my mind and countless others for years to come.

Put simply, after 27 years in the classroom, “This Must Be The Place.

naive Melody

Empathy: The Museum

Museums come in all shapes and sizes.  This one, which I found through @tombarrett ‘s “dialogical learning” e-mails, offers a look at Empathy, and it does so in a rather ingenious way.

We talk so much about empathy as the key to design thinking, but the concept is far deeper than the utilitarian implications spurred by its necessity to the DT mindset.  Anyway, this seems really interesting.

It’s also a phenomenal example of how an idea can take wing.

The Opening Act

This past week I’ve asked the students in inNOVAtion Lab to reflect on their journey so far (1st Marking Period).   And because this is a course wherein we, the students and I, are writing the story together, I, too, have to write about this first marking period.  In doing so, I’m bound to come clean.  There are some hidden secrets, some ideas I never tried, some thoughts I had that I kept to myself, and some small revelations–some little earthquakes that I’m just now feeling.  And because the first value on our list of class values is “honesty,” I have to state them, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Hang on….


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

NOVA Lab is premised upon the belief that all students should, at some point in their high school careers, have the chance to engage in self-determined learning.  They should be able to define projects that are purposeful (that is, which are “driven by an intention to accomplish something that is at once significant to the self and meaningful to a larger community.”  See the work of Prof. Bill Damon), and pursue those projects to impactful ends.

And while the premise is solid, the background/preparatory work has been somewhat slow but prosperous, we’ve nonetheless hit upon some fundamental opportunities for growth that have the students engaged and ready to spring on their projects.

Our first opportunity was our trip to the B.Phl Innovation festival.  The opportunity for students to see how design thinking and creative, innovative mindsets have immense value for corporations large and small was eye-opening.  But even more important was the way the students were treated.  As the only students in attendance at our venue (the Independence Blue Cross Center), we could have been tolerated or shuttled aside.  Instead, we were included in all the events of the day, and worked as equals with the adults in attendance.  Nothing is more validating than being treated as an equal, as someone whose ideas are important.  IMG_1466

Through these past 9 weeks we’ve also had the opportunity to use visit with a group of teachers from across the United States–The Modern Learners–to listen to a local designer talk to us about the importance of branding and telling our story in compelling ways, and to listen to a 20-year-old Jerremy Miller talk about how finding a purpose in serving others helped him go from a lost, suicidal young adult to a powerful self-driven, serial entrepreneur.

Along the way we’ve also started our own journey to discover a purpose through our work with Project Wayfinder (@projectwayfinder).  I’ll be writing more about Wayfinder in my next post.


We’ve ended the marking period as I had wanted to: We’ve begun our self-determined, purpose-driven projects.  Some students are developing a music festival for local talent, some are working on a voter registration drive for older high-school students, and some are pursuing the development of a youtube channel extolling the benefits of dropping getting outdoors more.  I’m excited to see what these students will produce given the vast amount of time they will have.  Following the model of Don Wettrick’s Innovation and Open-Source Learning classes in Noblesville, IN, we’ll be cycling through all the students’ projects every two weeks, checking on progress and holding each other accountable for the work and goals they set in the previous cycle.  Stay tuned for the great things that are sure to ensue from this work.


In the upcoming weeks we’ll be visiting Fluxspace in Norristown, PA to engage in a design thinking workshop and explore what spaces designed for the fluid, creative work necessitated by our projects feel like, and just how the intentional design of space can help everyone be more productive and creative.  We’ll also be visited by the father of a student who will help us learn better project and time management skills.  Also on our plate–more Wayfinder experiences, a virtual visit with a former English major (a man after my own heart), Ken Gordon (@quickmuse) who works for a major Boston design firm (continuum), a work session on sustainability with the Nierenberg Chair of Design at Carnegie-Mellon University, Dr. Peter Scupelli, and much more.

I entered this year wondering if I even knew enough to reboot this class in a year-long version.   There’s still much I have to learn, but the excitement that enters this room twice every day…this is what teachers live for.  I’m privileged to be part of the ideas and energy these students have.