Tag Archives: education

The demise of textbooks as we know them.

I love books. I mean real books, the kind you can hold, dog-ear, smell, flip your fingers through, scribble notes in, and sit on to appear taller in important meetings. I’ve held strong to real books despite the rapid rise of the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, and every other eReader out there. Those gadgets are cool, but I want my books to smell like ink and coffee.

Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA

So today Apple shook me a bit when they announced a new approach to textbooks through a tablet application called iBooks 2. I actually think it’s pretty nifty. Who really likes conventional textbooks? Sure they are good at leveling out the short leg on the coffee table, and yes, they are better than most other books at pressing leaves and flowers, but they are also painfully stagnant learning tools in a world where the most up-to-date knowledge and information can be accessible at the click of a mouse.

Many years ago the textbook allied with initial-laden backpacks and deviant school administrators to infuse students with scoliosis and classrooms with an epidemic of textbook (pardon the pun) boredom. I’m not always a fan of technology, but I’m thrilled by this new opportunity to provide students with cheaper, lighter “textbooks” (though you do have to buy an iPad…) containing constantly updated information and interactive content. I think if I had yoga breakdance videos embedded in my physics book in high school, or could learn about birds by listening to their calls with a simple click, I might have been more engaged. Well, I’m not actually sure the Apple textbooks are that cool yet (but I invite the thousands of Apple programmers that follow this blog to steal the idea).

Here’s an article about the announcement.

As learning tools and information become more and more streamlined and accessible to all, how do you think schools and classrooms will change?

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How to bicycle through Argentina (or Norway).

Tinkering with the idea of embarking on your own pedal-powered adventure? We want you to know about a really goosebumpworthy opportunity to go on your first (or twenty-sixth) bike trip with a great organization, for (wait for it) a great cause.

We have a bike crush on Two Wheel View – a Canadian non-profit that runs bike trips for students in Canada, Argentina, and Norway and provides students with leadership, environmental, and cultural exchange opportunities along the way. In short, they’re nifty.

In order to keep down the costs of their trips for students, they also run charity support rides for adult adventurers with a few extra bucks to spare. Riders sign up for one of two 16 day tours this spring (argentina!) or summer (norway!), and commit to raising at least $1,500 to support Two Wheel View.

The founders – Rick and Tanya – are an incredible pair with many years of experience leading bike touring educational programs under their belt… and they got their start sort of like we did, on an epic bike trip that changed their lives – I can only imagine the trips they lead will be just as incredible.

If you’re interested, check ’em out here.

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Move, Learn & Eat : Short Films

“3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, an exploding volcano, 2 cameras and almost a terabyte of footage –  all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food into 3 beautiful and hopefully compelling short films…..”

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Why self-directed learning is the future of education

Hey, watch this:

Sal Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, is a brilliant dude and one of the most super education innovators of our day. A few sprinkles of wisdom that I love about this short video:

  • The future of education is one or two giant classrooms where information is available and learning is self-directed
  • In this classroom, everyone will work at their own pace, so when students want to take a break to pursue an idea (like building a robot for 6 months, or embarking on a bike adventure wink wink) it will be a-okay
  • “Teachers more than ever are fountains of knowledge, experience, mentorship, and humanity as opposed to fountains of a scripted lecture.” zing.
  • The best learning happens when the student demands knowledge, rather than having it preemptively delivered to them (how many times have you or your kids said, “I’m never going to need to know this!”?)

We can apply this idea to our every day lives pretty easily. Think about the last time you wanted to try cooking up a new dish for dinner. How did you figure out what to make? I’d venture to guess that you decided to look up a recipe online (maybe on epicurious.com), or perused one of your existing recipe books (genius!). And what did you do when you stumbled upon a cooking term you weren’t familiar with? You probably looked it up (brilliant!). If someone had narrated recipes to you sometime when you weren’t interested in actually cooking anything, you might have tuned out the lecture and ventured into the inner-depths of lala land. But when you had a practical and immediate demand for the information, you learned it quickly and relatively easily.

When we understand what our goal is – what it is that we want to create – figuring out the steps to get there is fun, relevant, and intuitive. If the steps aren’t intuitive, we can reach out to teachers and mentors for guidance. I think this simple idea is the key to unearthing our next education revolution.

Check out the Khan AcademyTED.com, OpenCourseware, P2PU, and Zero Tuition College for more free learning tools… these guys are spilling out knowledge and resources for whenever we decide we want to soak ’em up!

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Ten ‘Wise Routes’ to Self-Discovery without School

What if we prioritized self-discovery over academic achievement? What if every high school graduate was encouraged to spend a “gap year” soul searching – creating things, working, apprenticing, adventuring, exploring, risk-taking – in the real world before jumping head-first into college? In a recent post, I said that funneling high school students directly into college doesn’t just promote a one track definition of “success”, it also forgoes an opportunity for students to apply their ideas and explore their passions in a way that will benefit their future education (however extensive that ends up being).

So what could you do with, say, a year of self-directed learning on your own? Here’s a list of ten “wise routes” to self discovery without school, chock-full of links to my favorite organizations and ideas for your (or your kid’s) time away from the education system:

1. Become an education hacker. Whether you want to learn how to build a website, speak Spanish, start a garden, write a book, become an expert on the French Revolution, or double knot your shoe laces, there are oodles of ways to educate yourself about just about anything for free. Watch this video for a great intro. Then check out p2pu.org for free online collaborative courses, find a Free Skool in your area, create your own Citizen Circle, or join the Uncollege movement.

2. Go on a group roadtrip. Looking to see what’s “out there” far and away from your own “bubble”? Why not go on a roadtrip with Roadtrip Nation (in a big green RV) or The Otesha Project (a group bike trip!)?

3. Explore jobs, internships, and apprenticeships. What if you spent a year exploring 4 different jobs, internships, or apprenticeships for 3 months each (or 2 for 6 months each)? This is a cool way to ‘dip toes’ into a few different fields, make connections without committing to anything long-term, and potentially make a few bucks along the way.

4. Voyage abroad. There’s no doubt that traveling abroad and experiencing a different culture is one of the most life-changing things you can do. It’s usually not free, but there are some great gap year traveling programs that offer scholarships. Our faves?: OneWorld Now!, Carpe Diem, and The Traveling School.

5. Help your community thrive. You don’t have to travel around the world to discover new things. Why not invest yourself in helping your own community thrive? Learn from neighbors or volunteer at a community organization in  your area. Check out City Repair to get some ideas for reigniting community interaction.

6. Start your own venture. Is there something you want to change in your community (or world!) that isn’t being addressed? You can start your own venture and even get coaching and start up money to do it! Check out Ashoka’s Youth Venture or contribute your idea on Changemakers to win funding and recognition.

7. Build. Something. Big. At TEDxYouth last weekend, we heard the incredible story of Kendall Ronzano, a high school student that decided to build her own HOUSE and founded Nerd Girl Homes. If you like learning by doing, why not build something of your own? And hey – there are tons of great bike collectives all over the world where you can get free help building your own bike (coughsocoolcough).

8. Start a blog. Blogging is a great way to share your interests and ideas with a community of people interested in following along. I was inspired by my friend Rachel’s “Never-Have-I-Ever” blog, in which she tried a new thing every day for a year, and wrote about it online. To get tips on how to create a good blog, visit the WordPress support page, sign up for a class with Britt Bravo, or just read a bunch of blogs and get a sense of what you like!

9. Design your own Wise Route. If you don’t want to pay a program to have a cool travel experience, why not design your own? Whether its a backcountry hiking trip or a cross country bike tour, designing your own adventure is an incredible learning experience. Grab some friends, pack your bags, download an Adventure Cycling map, hop on a bike, and see what’s out there!

10. Embark on a quest for silence and inner peace. Sometimes in our search for ourselves, we forget to look inwards and focus on inner peace. The quest for less, not more, can often be the most challenging. Spend some time alone (perhaps in the wilderness). Meditate. Breathe. Be present. Prioritize you.

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College Shmollege: Re-routing the path to success

I am SO over all these programs that define success as getting more kids into college. Sure, I think we can all agree that college opens more doors for teenagers than, say, a four year stint flipping something falsely described as a “meat” in a fast food joint, but by promoting college as the only real path to success, we are doing today’s youth more harm than good.

Is the path to success a one-way train track to college or might it be a complex network of squiggly routes, different for each of us?

An empty promise

This article in GOOD about a nifty program called College Unbound reveals some chilling stats about our broken education system today:

Tuition’s doubled in the past decade, rising faster than any other item in the Consumer Price Index since 1978. Student loan default rates are increasing. Only 56 percent of students complete a four-year degree in six years. And a nationwide study last year, using a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, found that 36 percent of students demonstrate no gain in learning between freshman and senior year.

And how about this statistic from the same article?: first generation college students have an 11% chance of graduating from a four year college. Yep, for those that aren’t math-inclined, that’s an 89% dropout rate. Ouch. So much for social mobility.

College once promised an undeniable return on investment. It was generally assumed that the amount you paid for a degree would be dwarfed by the amount you’d make once you got out. Looking at the number of my highly educated friends that are now working in coffee shops, restaurants, and farms (respectable jobs that don’t actually require a debt-incurring degree), it’s not hard to see that this promise has lost its gut.

It once made sense to ‘discover yourself’ and find your passions in college. Today this idea has an irreconcilable price tag. It doesn’t make sense to go to college to ‘find your passion’ (eyes closed, fingers crossed!). It makes sense to explore yourself and find your passion first, in the real world, and then decide if college is the best way to get there.


Today’s parents, teachers, coaches and administrators somewhat unanimously preach that doing well in school and going to college is THE ONLY way to pave the path to success. Our society holds students to insanely high (sometimes even aggressive) standards of academic and extracurricular performance (if you have any doubt, or just want to watch an über-powerful film about this, check out Race to Nowhere).

This type of pressure can suck… the joy out of learning. By teaching students that they must meet these standards in order to be successful, students learn to prioritize compliance at the cost of their genuine curiosity and interest in learning. Is it just me, or is this totally barbaric?

Researching professor Peter Gray says (and I’d recommend reading the whole article)

Schools, as we generally know them, interfere with children’s abilities to educate themselves. When we confine children and adolescents to schools, where they are assigned to rooms by age and can’t choose their associates, where they can’t pursue their own interests but instead must conform to the dictates of the teacher and the time course of the bell, we interfere with their abilities to educate themselves.

What would happen if parents encouraged their kids to take a summer, semester, even year “off” to explore the world on their own (through travel, apprenticeships, work, taking a risk on a new idea, creating their own project, etc.)? What would happen if teacher were allowed to give students a week each semester (or a day each week) to learn whatever they want, in or out of the classroom, and share it with the class afterward for no grade? That would be a step in the right direction…

What if every parent, teacher, coach, guidance counselor, and school set just as high standards for their child’s self-discovery process as they did for their child’s success in the classroom?


We’re interested to hear your thoughts about this post in the comments section, and hope you’ll to stay tuned for our next post: Ten Wise Routes to Self-Discovery Without School.

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Portrait in Sound: Fredrick Lee Williams

 [Note: This recording contains some swearing… earmuffs kids!]

Sometimes picking up a box of Rice-A-Roni from the store can be a wild experience… at least it was for us back in Quinault, Washington. We’d nearly finished riding for the day when we realized we didn’t have any food to cook for dinner. After asking a few locals for suggestions, we learned there was just one place to grocery shop within 30 miles – a small mercantile perched crookedly off the side of highway 101. As we balanced our bikes precariously out front, an old man with tinted sunglasses busted through the front door. “Now what the hell are you doing with all that crap on top of your bi-cycles?”

An hour and a half later, we had moved precisely 4 feet from that front door. Seated comfortably on the wood bench outside the store’s entrance, we listened to Fred’s life stories and sage advice. We were enthralled by his wise ramblings (which almost always had a point at the end), eagerness to (quite literally) spell out his morals, and wild rants with passersby: a local truck driver, an old friend, a young native Quinault woman that worked at the mercantile, some slick, sharp-shooting cops.

I’ve posted 14 minutes of Fred Williams’ brilliance here for you to enjoy. I have left it raw on purpose. To someone that wasn’t with us in person, following his sweeping hand gestures (like the way he cups his mouth when he says COMMUNICATION) and theatrical facial expressions, it might feel confusing at times. Go with it. These moments of roadside banter are decidedly more illustrative of Fred’s character than any answers to the questions that invoked them.

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To thrive.

Matt Hern is a radical questioner. He’s the kind of questioner that picks apart the very question he is being asked before chewing it. You won’t find Matt Hern gulping down any questions. Matt is a leader in the de-schooling movement but he doesn’t particularly adhere to the word “education” or “school” or “learn” (“‘Learn’ seems inadequate to the task,” he’ll say. “It’s code… now you’re learning means now you’re doing what the school wants you to do. It seems mechanistic.”). He doesn’t even really adhere to the word “kids” (when asked how many kids he has, the answer is “depending on what you mean when you say ‘have’ and ‘kids’, somewhere between 2 and 12”).

Matt Hern is a character. If you expect a writer of multiple books about education to be dry, you haven’t met Matt Hern. Matt Hern will call you ‘champ’ before he’s met you and ‘dude’ once he has. Matt Hern will share mind-blowing wisdom about the world with you while he shoves heaps of scrap cardboard from a backlot dumpster into the trunk of his borrowed car so that he can help urban garden-ify a skinny plot of unused lawn between a random office building and its parking lot. Matt Hern spits wise words so fluidly that you’re more likely to run out of space in your notebook and start scribbling on your arm than find a sentence not worthy of writing in pretty little letters and framing on a wall.

This video is a four minute snippet from our evening at Matt’s house the night he invited us to eat dinner with this family in Vancouver and gave us the creative challenge of running wild in his backyard garden and coming back with something resembling a salad. The task was representative of Matt’s greater philosophy of change, which he likens to a potluck. 

Matt created the Purple Thistle Center – a democratically run “unschool” collective in Vancouver – with a bunch of teenagers using the potluck approach. Potlucks are better than dinner parties, he’ll tell you. When you have a dinner party, you can spend all day preparing all these different dishes for people and it’s a lot of work. But when you have a potluck, all you have to do is cook one dish – something you would do anyway – and provide the space. And what you come up with is a much more creative dinner party full of things you never would have thought to make. And everyone gets to delight in lots of dishes and only had to contribute the part they were enthusiastic about.

To Matt, a potluck approach to education means first finding out what the students want, what they get excited about (genius!). So eleven years ago he brought a group of teenagers attending the school where he used to work together around his kitchen table (at the same kitchen table, in fact, where we did this interview) and asked them a simple question that noone else was asking:

What do you need to thrive?

These teens wanted a space to do and make things, so that’s where they started. Matt found a space that they dubbed the Purple Thistle Center, and let the teens decide what they wanted that space to be so that each could contribute what they were most enthusiastic about doing. Now, eleven years later, the Purple Thistle Center is a thriving community space that thousands of young Vancouverites use for artistic, social, political and educational endeavors every year.

What do you need to thrive? is not an easy question to answer. But it’s a question that mainstream educational dialogues are missing (avoiding?), perhaps, as Matt suggests in this video, because its response could throw the entire system to shambles.

The conversations we had with Matt in Vancouver inspired us to ask this question to more people as we travel down the coast – from wide-eyed young kids to old folks with deep wrinkles, from those that society calls “successful” to those living on the fringe. Maybe what we hear will challenge the ways we think about creating a world where more people can thrive. Maybe it will mean rethinking school. Maybe we’ll have to rethink everything.

So we throw the question to you, blog reader. What do you need to thrive?

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