The Change Agent

Will Richardson
Co-Founder of Big Questions Institute

The Objective

To acknowledge the "unpleasant truths" in education and challenge the status quo to unlock what student learning could look like.

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Show Notes

How do we define ‘learning’ and how can educators support powerful learning in schools? Guest Will Richardson, former educator for 22 years and co-founder of the “Big Questions Institute”, examines these questions and how fearless inquiry can lead educators to transformative student outcomes.

Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.

Episode 17
Title: Creating Conditions For Powerful Learning: Answering the “Big Questions”
Subtitle: Releasing creativity and watching change unfold

VoiceOver (00:02):

ChangeAgents in K-12 is presented by SchoolMint and features top educators, practitioners, and leaders sharing research and experiences as well as stories of hope, opportunity, and student success.

Dr. Chris Balow (00:16):

Welcome to the podcast ChangeAgents in K-12 education. And today, everyone I'm just super, super excited to welcome Will Richardson to the podcast. And let me tell you a little bit about mr. Will Richardson. He's a former public school educator for 22 years and Will has spent the last 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently Will is co-founder of the big questions Institute. And we'll talk about that as we go on here, which was created to help educators use fearless inquiry to make sense of this complex moment and uncertain future in 2017 Will was named one of 100, uh, global Changemakers in education by the finished site ed a hundred and was named one of top five edpreneurs to follow by Forbes magazine Will has given keynote speeches lead breakout sessions provided coaching services in over 30 countries in six continents. He's authored six books given Ted talks in New York, Melbourne and Vancouver Will lives with his, uh, or will has two adult children tests and Tucker. And he lives in rural New Jersey lovely area with his wife. And I personally have attended a session hosted by Will, and I found his insights and future vision to be extraordinary. And so help me welcome Will Richardson.

Will Richardson (01:47):

Thanks so much for having me, Chris really appreciate it.

Dr. Chris Balow (01:49):

Oh, we appreciate you spending time with us here today. Well, there's just so many things we could dig in here today. Well, um, things are, are really, uh, uncertain on many different levels, but let's, let's just start with talking about online learning because that's been, you know, really, um, important these days with distance learning and hybrid learning and students being out of the classroom at home.

Will Richardson (02:15):

So yeah, not like there's a, uh, uh, a dearth of things to talk about today. Right now. There's a little bit going on in the world right now. Yeah. So let me, let me just start by saying, um, I, I pushed back actually against those terms that you just used, right? Because in many cases, when we talk about online learning or remote learning or distance learning, what we're really talking about is online schooling and distance schooling. And I think there's a really important distinction to make. And I think it's becoming pretty clear that what a lot of schools are trying to do is to take the school experience and kind of try to replicate it online. Um, I think that arguably that's not really learning, um, and that's not really the focus of, of what our, our work is now. I, you know, push people as well. And I kind of get in trouble with some circles. When I say that, I think learning is kind of suspect in schools to begin with. Um, I wonder the extent to which kids are really learning things for the long run. They are learning things to get a good grade on the test. They are learning things to, you know, advance through the system. But I mean, I don't know about you, Chris, but for me and for my two adult kids, when I've kind of watched them go through the system. And for many of my former students, when we talk about their school experience, it's, it's like, well, what did you really learn in school? And what, what stuck that you actually used in your life? And the honest answer is it's not a lot. I mean, um, you know, no one hardly uses the Pythagorean theorem or remembers the, you know, the Louisiana purchase or, um, I'll read Shakespeare ever again. And I was an English teacher, so I can throw Shakespeare under the bus. Right. I think the short answer is, or the short kind of version of all of this is that there's a difference between schooling and learning. And if we really want to do remote learning, if we really want to do online learning, then I think that is more about a shift in agency to the learner, just as it would be in physical space. Kids learn about things that they really care about and they're learning a whole bunch of stuff right now, by the way, most of it has nothing to do with school. Most of it has everything to do with the things that they really care about that they're really passionate about, whether that's, um, like my son home from Colgate university who learned how to do a podcast and now has 10 episodes under his belt and, uh, or it's kids who are in Minecraft learning how to create all sorts of interesting spaces and worlds or, um, kids who are just reading books that they're interested, whatever. Right? So anyway, I think that's a, that's a distinction that we have to make right now. And we ask people at the big questions Institute all the time, are you doing online schooling? Are you doing online learning? Which are you doing? And let's, let's really try to interrogate that.

Dr. Chris Balow (05:00):

So what I'm hearing is what you see happening. And, and frankly, I've, I've seen it too, is that we're trying to replicate a physical classroom via the online experience, which is falling woefully short. And, you know, there there's research on student engagement in the physical classroom, and that's a serious problem with, you know, two thirds of kids disengaged. What must it be in this online schooling environment?

Will Richardson (05:28):

Well, I think it's, again, I don't think that there's a difference in terms of what it should be, whether it's online or physical or physical space or whatever else. I think that first, you know, when we work with schools, we say, what are your commitments to kids first and foremost? What are you committed to in terms of the work that you do with children? What are your values and what are your beliefs? What do you believe learning is? How do you define success? How do you, how do you have a coherent language, you know, around the things that you're trying to accomplish. And if you start with commitments, values, and beliefs, then it really doesn't matter what school looks like. Whether it's online, whether it's face to face, you know, whatever it is, blended, whatever you want to call it. So I think that's the first step, right? Are you living your commitments, whether you're in face-to-face or not. And most of us would say our commitments to kids are that we want them to be healthy. We want them to be, well, we want them to love learning. We want them to, um, really have fun in the learning environment, you know, and, and all of those types of things. So let's make those are priorities, right? That's number one. Number two, though, I think it's arguable again, that's the traditional way that we approach pedagogy in the classroom is not a great precursor to learning. We do this little exercise all the time where we say, what are the conditions for deep and powerful learning to happen? Right? And if I asked you that, I've asked that to literally thousands of people over the last four or five years, all over the world. And they always say things like, well, it has to be relevant. It has to be based on people's passion and they have to have agency around it. It's not constrained by like 45 minute blocks. Um, you don't always do it with kids in your own age groups, you know, all that kind of stuff, right. It's pretty obvious what the conditions are for, for powerful learning. So that's the work. How do we create those conditions, whether we're in physical space or whether we're online? No one ever says, by the way, when I asked that question, well, the conditions for deep and powerful learning are putting kids in rows and making sure that we're really motivating them by grades and you know, and all sorts of that stuff over their heads. Nobody ever says that. So why wouldn't online learning be about kid selected, problem solving. Um, why wouldn't it be about allowing kids to pursue things, um, in their own ways, on their own terms with us as a support to develop their learning dispositions, to develop their learning literacies and skills. I mean, that's what we want. Everybody says, we want that. We want kids to be lifelong learners. We want kids to be able to learn their way through the world. Well, we don't do that by sitting them down for 45 minutes and throwing curriculum at them that they find no relevance in that they find no real interest in. That's not how we do it. So online learning and face-to-face learning. I mean, why wouldn't it be inquiry-based why wouldn't it be? Problem-based why wouldn't we create those conditions to the extent that we can, that really make powerful learning happen, because we all know what those conditions are. The really interesting thing is why don't we do that? Why, why aren't we doing that anyway, regardless of what school looks like.

Dr. Chris Balow (08:25):

Could it be this notion of control that we we've been kind of conditioned as educators that we have to control?

Will Richardson (08:34):

Right. And the thing is too, you know, let's be honest about it. Those conditions don't exist for teachers by the way, right? Don't those, those conditions that we talk about that lead to really powerful learning agency and relevance and all that kind of stuff, those don't really exist for the adults in the buildings either. Interesting. So that's, yeah, sure. It's an absolute, um, kind of dissonance that occurs when we try to talk about learning in the natural sense and then move that natural sense of learning into a very unnatural space called the school. I mean, you know, schools don't exist in nature. Schools are constructs, they are, they are things that we have created. And we have created the efficiencies under which we run and operate schools, the systems, the grammars of school. But those systems in those grammars are very, very difficult to argue that they lead to powerful learning, to learning that sticks over the longterm. We don't want to go there because that makes us really uncomfortable. But to be honest with you, I think this is an opportunity in this moment is complex and exhausting and you know, all those other things that it is right now to engage in those conversations, what, what is this about? What are we doing in school? What is the purpose of school? And, um, if we can engage in those conversations, I think they're really interesting right now.

Dr. Chris Balow (09:49):

Yeah. That's so interesting. Um, when, when we think about the online learning experience that teachers and students are going through right now, that control is obviously not there that, that they would have. And so this is the , seems like the opportunity to really increase that student agency. I have to mention, I did a podcast interview earlier with Dr. Elliott Washor who runs a group of schools called Big Picture Learning.

Will Richardson (10:16):

Yeah, absolutely. They're wonderful.

Dr. Chris Balow (10:18):

Yeah. That's what I, I felt too. And there, the Genesis of that is that they, they do exactly as you described around students and their passions and interests, but they also, um, on top of that, the kids spend time out in the field and internships, working with people in the real world that is just, yeah.

Will Richardson (10:39):

Again, no one is shocked by the fact that kids really are engaged in those learning environments. And I say to teachers all the time, you know, two things, first of all, forever, I've been saying teachers, where have you learned most of what you've learned that makes you teach the way you teach. And everyone says on the job, on the job, on the job, you don't learn it in pre-service pre services is like you get in the classroom first day. And every, all of that goes out of your head. Right. Because it just right. But then what I say to teachers, what I've been saying, asking them recently is so, and especially we've been doing a lot of work with, um, international school heads, um, from around the world. And that's been fascinating. Right. So, but we'll always ask them, so reflect on your learning right now. How's that going? What's that like? And they'll say, Oh, it's just profound. I mean, it's like one problem after the next. I mean, I just, you know, I'm just constantly trying to problem solve and trying to figure out where I have to go. And I'll say pretty powerful how, and they'll go. Absolutely. In fact, I think most people would tell you, this is probably one of the most powerful learning moments educators have ever had trying to get through these months and trying to figure out what comes next and all that kind of stuff. But then I'll say, so what does, how does that learning map to the learning that your kids are in classrooms? And it's like, yeah, no, it doesn't, it doesn't map. That's not what learning looks like in classrooms. And I'll go, why not? Why not? If this is so profound and powerful and you are totally engaged and you are, you know what I'm saying? Why wouldn't we try to create not, I mean, not the, obviously the problematic, you know, Corona virus kind of scenario in classrooms, but, but to create, to create opportunities for kids to solve problems that they care about and that they want to pursue. And because we're all going, yeah, that's what learning is about. That's what it looks like right now. Well, let's do that in classrooms. The only reason we can't do that in classrooms is because of our imaginations right now, you know, I mean, we can do that stuff. People are doing that stuff. Elliot Washer is doing that stuff. Right. You know, people are, and those kids are okay by the way, Chris, you know, they go to college, they go to college, they end up being good human beings, you know, and you know, I mean, it's just, I think it's just the paucity of our imagination. And also, you know, acknowledging that this moment is hugely stressful and hugely exhausting. And I get that. I'm not, you know, I'm not throwing people under the bus for, you know, an inability to kind of think out of the box right now, but I think we need to.

Dr. Chris Balow (13:08):

Yeah. And, you know, problem solving that really is the genesis of creative thinking and engagement. I think, you know, we've talked about 21st century learning a lot that, that notion and, you know, problem solving now we're one fifth of the way through the 20, 21st century. And, um, you know, what's changed. Do you think? And what are some of those? And I think you've mentioned this, some of these unpleasant truths that are happening or not happening in education.

Will Richardson (13:36):

Well, I don't think anything's changed about learning at all over. I don't, I don't think we're S we still learn the same way we did a thousand years ago. We learn things that we need to learn when we need to learn them, because we have a reason to learn them, you know, or because we want to learn them. So learning hasn't changed, learning, learning doesn't change. It's a, it's a natural human thing that we do really, really well left our own devices. Right. We, we, we learn all the time in really powerful way. So learning hasn't changed, but the ways we can learn certainly have changed. Look what you and I are doing right now. Right. We're talking to one another, you're in Wisconsin, I'm in New Jersey that couldn't have happened 20 years ago. It couldn't have happened even 10 years ago, um, in some form, right? So the ways we can learn, I can connect to experts from around the world. Right now I can read articles and books that I never had access to before I can create things and publish them to the world in ways that didn't exist even five, six years ago, so that the affordances of technology and the internet in particular are amazing when it comes to amplifying the learning that we can do. But it still doesn't change. The fact that learning happens, because we care about the things that we're learning about, because we want to learn more about whatever it is that we're interested in. That's not going to change either.

Dr. Chris Balow (14:57):

Right. And what you just described, you know, the teachers are the Sage on the stage and, you know, they're the dispenser of information and what you described that should not be their role anymore. They should be the facilitator.

Will Richardson (15:12):

Right. And, and, you know, so here's, um, probably make some people mad at me. Right. But, um, I, I really question the curriculum that we try to teach kids. I th I just think a lot of it is just irrelevant and it's we teach it because we're supposed to teach it, or because somebody up on high is testing us on it or whatever else. But again, the reality of it is, is that most kids, most of us quickly forget most of the curriculum that they quote unquote, learn in schools. That's just a fact go ask any a lot, go ask any graduate, two years down the road, what they remember about, you know, calculus class, if, if they're not a math major, hardly anything, they never use it, or, you know, substitute your subject here. Right. I don't want to just pick on math teachers, but, um, but so, you know, we're trying to force feed kids curriculum that has been around forever, even though they don't really care about it. They don't find any, it's not, you know, it's not tacit learning, it's explicit. We're trying to, you know, and it just, if you can step back from it and look at it, it's, it's mindbogglingly senseless. It doesn't make any sense at all that we do this, but we still feel like we have to do it. And, and whatever else, I, I do think that the larger narratives around education and that kind of story that we tell about how kids get educated is absolutely breaking right now. I think the Corona virus is, is accelerating that breakage. And I do think that we are seeing more and more like Elliott and others who are now innovating around what learning and schools look like. And by the way, I know I'm droning on here, but I just want to make it clear. I love schools. I want schools to be in communities. I want kids to be with teachers in classrooms. Absolutely. I just don't want them to be doing this stuff that they're currently doing. I think it absolutely needs to change like what Elliot talks about and what many, many others now are doing in terms of changing the experience of school for you.

Dr. Chris Balow (17:08):

Right. And, you know, I, when you talk about the relevance and, and teaching things that aren't really that important to kids, I hear the bromide from folks. Well, it's about teaching them how to think and learn. It's not about the actual content. And as you described that may not be the right thought process here.

Will Richardson (17:26):

Well, if that's true, then why do we have disciplines right. In real life, in real life, we learn to think through all sorts of cross disciplinary issues and problems that we're trying to deal with, or, you know what I'm saying, right. No one ever, no one ever learns chemistry for 45 minutes then goes and does French for 45 minutes then goes and does something else. It's all, you know what I'm saying? So, yeah, but You learn how to think when you are, when you are up against problems that you really, really want to solve. Or when you're trying to learn some about something that you're really, really interested in, that's when you learn how to be a critical thinker, that's when you learn how to be a critical consumer of information, and also a critical creator of information, you don't do it when you're writing a seven, you know, 700 word or a 7,000 word report that someone has assigned you. All, all you're doing then is trying to figure out how do I get this done? You know? And, and so, right, because it's just, I have to do this to get through this so I can advance to the next thing that I have to do and get through.

Dr. Chris Balow (18:31):

So what I'm hearing is, you know, real learning is not in these boxes that we have around certain courses, but it's about correlating all that information. And I, you know, I've been an educational for 35 years and years ago. We talked about interdisciplinary units where the math teacher, the socials, they'd all work together and we'd have workshops on it, but it never actually seemed to work or happen.

Will Richardson (18:56):

No, because again, you have the wrong starting point. You don't start inter interdisciplinary units with teachers. You start them with kids. You know, you have a kid who wants to, you want to, you have a kid I'll never forget. One of the most powerful examples of that was a school out in Colorado that I worked with where these three kids wanted to build a skate park. And the school said, go for it. That was there. That was kind of the work that they were doing. You don't think that then that became interdisciplinary, Oh my goodness, math, science, you know, the history piece of it. They had to communicate to the local planning board, you know, where this park was going to go. They had to design it. I mean, the kids said we want to do this. And then the teachers came when needed to help the kids solve the problem in the moment that they were trying to work through. That's interdisciplinary, right? It's not saying to kids, well, now we're going to merge history in English or merge science and Shakespeare. You know, it's like, come on. It's a good, it's a nice, I get the intent, but we need to start with kids. We need to start where the learner is, because if we don't start with where the learner is, then I think it becomes much more difficult to help them develop as learners and to pursue those again, skills and literacies and dispositions that are going to see them through what everyone would agree. I think now is a very complex, uncertain future.

Dr. Chris Balow (20:19):

Yeah, absolutely. I know a young man who played the game and education got good grades, went to college and was never really passionate about the, the learning until he got into computer programming. And he, you know, it's, it's amazing what, uh, what folks can do when they're just totally energized and want to learn. And boy, you've given, you've given us some, some really great roadmaps, I think, along lines. Um, so tell us about the, the, the big questions Institute.

Will Richardson (20:53):

Well, so, um, my, uh, my colleague [inaudible] and I, uh, had done some work over the last year or so, but what we, what we found was really interesting was the fact that people were starting with questions that were pretty logistical or practical or whatever else. So we, we fought, let's ask bigger questions. Let's really try to get to a higher level and, and pull back the layers on some of the very, um, big questions for lack of a better word that, that we need to be asking. And then, and then the coronavirus hit, and now the questions are huge questions. We should probably rename it, the huge questions institute because there's just a ton of them. Right. But, um, so we, we're working with schools and working with individual leaders and teachers on, on helping them develop fearless inquiry, the willingness to take a look at everything that they do and ask contextual questions that are around, what does the world look like today? And are these practices still relevant? Are the things that we're doing today still, you know, working or, or successful, or however you want to define that. So we've, we've done a lot of everything we're doing right now obviously is online, right? So we have a lot of online cohorts that are going through, um, workshops on new lenses for leaders, right? So we, we talk a lot about how we have to think about the world differently. We have to be, because we're all in this together right now, we have to think about power differently, um, in the way that it's, it kind of plays out in schools. We have to think about what our purpose is, all those types of things, right. And then, um, we're also doing a lot around racial literacy and racial justice, um, which is obviously the other pandemic that's been kind of exposed in the last few months and has become, uh, I think, uh, an equally important conversation that we have to have in, in education right now. So it is trying to situate people, uh, to be a little bit more comfortable in that, in that higher kind of, uh, higher Headspace where you grapple with, with, uh, the foundational questions, the existential questions almost about what education is and what the purpose, what our purposes are in classrooms, and then take those conversations, take those discussions and then move toward, okay. So if we believe this, or if this is the way the world operates right now, then those are lenses through which we can look at our practice. We can look at our budgets, we can look at it, the people we hire, we can look at the curriculum that we employ, all that kind of stuff with a new, with a new, um, kind of, uh, orientation, right? Because that's the other word we use a lot, right? Because this moment is really disorienting. And, and, um, so, uh, we need a different orientation to kind of, uh, look at the world right now.

Dr. Chris Balow (23:46):

That would just be a fascinating endeavor to embark upon.

Will Richardson (23:49):

It's really interesting because obviously the big, the big questions don't have answers, right? They don't have one answer. Um, all the answers are, are contextual and that's good though, right? I mean, it, it does mean that, um, we're not going to come to a one size fits all solution for the future of education. It's going to be the Elliot washer doing his thing over here, and it's going to be, you know, somebody else doing something different over there, but it's going to be at least done through a very, um, kind of relevant thinking process for this particular moment and what the future holds. We do a lot of scenario planning for the future as well with educators.

Dr. Chris Balow (24:25):

I mean, that that's really the personification of, of innovation, uh, as he described. And I find it interesting about 10 years ago, school districts started creating title, job titles for people with the word innovation in the title. And D did they really innovate? Uh, maybe not.

Will Richardson (24:43):

No. I mean, the standard for innovation is really high right now. Um, and I, again, I think that what's happened over the last four or five months of just raised that bar even more. Um, and, uh, I, it is about now, um, the extent to which we can kind of release our imaginations because in education, I think we've been in this box for a long, long time, the mental models that we have around what school is supposed to be and how it's supposed to operate and what the outcomes are, those mental models need to change right now, we need to think very differently about what that experience is and what the outcomes are. And so it's, it's about how do we release our creativity and imagination in ways that can, can help us paint or create different models about, you know, what those expectations are, which is really, really hard work by the way. But I think it's fascinating on a lot of levels when people finally kind of take a deep breath and they say, Oh, yeah, let's think really expansively about this. What could we do? What if there's some really interesting things that people that people start talking about in terms of the changes they'd like to see?

Dr. Chris Balow (25:50):

Yeah, really what I'm hearing is taking sort of an experimental approach to some of these problems, collecting data, see what works, see what doesn't. Um, when I was in education, there was a fear of, of being of taking that experimental approach. Maybe it was because we have to worry about test scores. And, and if, if, if we experiment and our test scores, don't improve, we're in trouble, sort of a thing.

Will Richardson (26:16):

Right. And that still holds true today. Um, to a large extent, there are still a lot of people in education who are driven by that outcome, but it's interesting, you know, you said, um, trying to figure out what works. And that to me is always a question. How do you define that? How do you define what works, you know, and how do you define success? And like I said before, if you don't have some coherence around those things, right. Again, your beliefs around how kids learn and, and the outcomes and those things it's really difficult to make change happen. Change is reliant on coherence in large measure, uh, in terms of language, practice, vision, all of that kind of stuff. So we work, we work with that a lot.

Dr. Chris Balow (26:57):

Yeah. Yeah. Really. Um, how do you measure that improvement? I spent, you know, a lot of my career in the world of assessment and it, and, you know, I was always interested in it, but always seems so limiting in terms of what we were measuring for students, because there's so much more there that we're just ignoring.

Will Richardson (27:15):

We, we, uh, we've started talking about the word radical too. And, um, putting that word in front of a lot of nouns that maybe don't usually get it right. So one of them is like radical, radical kindness, radical empathy, radical imagination, all those types of things. And we were actually talking in a session yesterday about what if, what if you applied radical kindness to assessment? That's just, isn't that, that's just a, it's just a very interesting way of thinking, you know, and the question isn't, how do we become more kind? The first question is always, are we kind are our assessments kind. If we want a, again, one of our core values and commitments is always, you know, we want to be kind to children. I mean, no one was going to argue with that. Anyone going to say, yeah, we want to be unkind. So then we look at, through that lens and say, well, our assessments kind to kids?

Dr. Chris Balow (28:07):

They are anxiety provoking for most kids.

Will Richardson (28:09):

Absolutely. They're not very kind assessments. Aren't, aren't very kind at all, really the way that they're currently structured. So that idea of thinking radically about some of those things, um, radical candor with parents, you know, radical imagination when it comes to your budget, all of that kind of stuff is just a very interesting space to live in, in terms of when you're thinking about, um, how things are going to have to change. And, and that is part of our, our case, obviously, isn't, that is that what's happening right now is just accelerating, um, this, this idea that schools are going to have to change. Um, and I don't mean just by putting them online, but by fundamentally kind of rethinking the work

Dr. Chris Balow (28:49):

Yeah. Fantastic. One of the things, um, I know you're doing our work and ours, uh, you call them not a webinar, but a workinar, um, around leadership. Tell us about that.

Will Richardson (29:01):

Well, so, um, you know, zoom or Skype, whichever one you use or Google meet, whatever, you know, your tool of choice, basically, there are some really interesting affordances in there. You don't just have to make it a video call, right? You can do breakout rooms, you can do all sorts of design sprints. You can use other tools while you're on zoom and all that kind of stuff. So, um, the workinar is really, are just combination between webinars and workshop. Um, and so, um, the idea is, yeah, we'll talk a little bit, but we're gonna really be active in those contexts. And we're going to do a lot of the things that we used to do in face-to-face, but now that we are using many different tools, we can begin to do those things as well. And what's really cool actually about the online thing is that we can bring people from around the world into those spaces, right? So we just finished a five work on our weeks, five Mondays of two hours sessions work in ours around these lenses. But we had people from like five different continents and independent schools, public schools, you know, heads, principals, teachers. And it was just really fascinating when you can get those different types of perspectives, different types of roles, different types of experiences together, because then again, it just expands your ability to get out of your box. Um, it expands this creativity imagination piece in powerful ways. So, um, very little of what we do is just talking at people. Um, we'll do some webinars and things like that that are pretty short that we want to do overviews on, but most of our work is, is in these kind of, uh, actual let's do some stuff, let's design some stuff and let's, let's, uh, let's create some stuff space.

Dr. Chris Balow (30:39):

I was really, um, interested in one of the workinars, around the notion of power relationships in schools. Yeah.

Will Richardson (30:47):

Yeah. Power is something that we don't talk about very much in schools. We really don't. And yet, um, I'm a big fan of a author and a thinker named Seymour Sarason who was up at Yale. And he in one of his books says that, um, existing power relationships in schools will never be part of the solution moving forward. But we realize that we really have to step back and ask ourselves, you know, how does power, how does it impact the relationships we have with kids, with parents, with administrators, and there's all sorts of relationships going on there, right? But that we, we have to begin to interrogate those relationships now, especially in a world where individuals are accruing more power than they have in the past, again, primarily because of the technologies that we have, but you can see it with the whole black lives matter thing. You can see it with Gretta, Thunberg, and the climate change thing. I mean, here's a 16 year old kid who has literally millions and millions and millions of followers around the world who are listening. You know what I'm saying? Right. So, yeah. So there are all sorts now of, of kind of more horizontal power relationships that are happening in the world. And, uh, if we don't begin to interrogate power in our schools, which are still highly vertical in terms of, you know, power rests at the top and kind of get some beaded out as you go down the chain, um, we're not preparing kids very well for the power that they're, that they have in their hands right now, or the potential use of their power to do really great things in the world. And, um, you know, that's an opportunity loss, but the striking thing is we always ask people, when's the last time you had a conversation about power in your schools. And there's usually like crickets. I mean, nobody ever said hardly anybody ever talks about how those relationships impact the work.

Dr. Chris Balow (32:31):

But that's such a critical human need about having self your own control over your own environment. And you know, those of us adults in the working world, we, we crave that in our own jobs that, you know, it's almost more important than money is to have some sense of control over your work and what you're doing.

Will Richardson (32:51):

And I mean, one good thing about it. And the one kind of side conversation about power that's been happening in schools is around agency, right? Yeah. We want to give kids more freedom and choice, but even then it ends up being like a genius hour. Won't like one hour a week, which I'm not, I'm not disparaging genius hour. I think it's great. If you can carve out an hour and give kids more power to choose the things. I think one of the striking things about genius hour though, is everywhere I go and I ask people who are doing genius hour, how's that going for you? And they all go, Oh my gosh, it's amazing. Kids are doing these beautiful things are solving these great problems. Which always makes me wonder, well, if it's so good, then why don't we have curriculum hour and make the rest of it genius, right? I mean, that would seem to be the logical thing to do, but even in that agency conversation, a lot of people are saying, well, we want to give kids more voice and choice, right. Which if you really pull back the kind of layers on voice and choice, really what that is, we're going to give you three ways of getting to our outcomes, right? You can choose one path to get to our outcomes. So that's really not a big shift around power either. I mean, it's still that, you know, the teachers and the adults are, are pretty much, um, in control of all of that. So agency is huge for us when we are working and learning. Uh, why wouldn't we give kids more agency slash power in classrooms as well?

Dr. Chris Balow (34:11):

Sure. Um, let's take a few minutes. Talk about a couple of your books, uh, freedom to learn. Tell us about that.

Will Richardson (34:18):

That's that's about agency, right? It's about, uh, you know, um, trying to create the conditions where kids can pursue things that they really care about on their own terms. And, um, it's a very scary thing for a lot of us in education. You know, it just doesn't look like what we experienced and it seems like it's going to be chaos and, you know, the control piece of it and all of that type of stuff. But, um, I think Elliot would tell you, or he probably did tell you and, and others again, who have created these spaces where kids have a lot of freedom. Uh, they do amazing things and they are engaged at levels that, um, most kids aren't in school, to be honest. So freedom to learn is basically the, the thesis that we have to open up space for kids to pursue things that they care about because that's the way they develop as, as real powerful learners. If we don't give them those options, then they're just trying to play the game of school and trying to figure out how to succeed on our, by our rules.

Dr. Chris Balow (35:15):

So many of the things we've been talking about that book could be very helpful if, if schools and districts want to embark on that journey.

Will Richardson (35:23):

Yeah, I think so, because I think it paints a very different picture of what could be, um, and that it's very possible, even in the context of schools that need to do well on the test and, you know, States where you need to have certain scores or whatever else, those, those things aren't mutually exclusive, right. It's just, there's a different way of getting to those things. And, um, basically what a lot of places are beginning to find is that kids who are learners, you know, they do, they just do fine on those tests and they get into really great schools and, um, you know, they go down those paths in ways that even traditional kids do.

Dr. Chris Balow (35:57):

Sure. Another book that was fascinating to me is from master teacher to master learner. Describe that.

Will Richardson (36:05):

Well, it's just this shift that, um, it's really not any longer about teaching. As we know it, it's about modeling, great learning for our kids. We have to be the learning experts now in our classrooms. And we have to, we have to model powerful learning. We have to show what that looks like. We have to be able to, um, share with kids where, you know, what our passions are, what our interests are, um, the things that we're creating, the problems we're solving. So it's a cultural shift in schools. Um, and it's one that actually, I, I was on a call this morning with a bunch of again, international school heads and they were talking about, um, this kind of shift from leadership to really learnership. Um, and I think that's kind of an interesting phrase, right? I'm not to, you know, uh, the, the cute language doesn't really last that long, but I think that that's an interesting way of thinking about it because to me leading right now means learning, um, teaching right now, it means learning. You have to be a learner right now, if you're resting on the things that you've done for five, 10, 15, 20 years, forget it, you know, culturally, you're going to be totally out of touch. Knowledge base is gonna be totally out of touch, right? So it is about being a learner first and a teacher second, and, and teaching in the moment when kids need to be taught, not teaching kids, just in case they need this particular concept or idea or skill, you know, 20 years from now or whatever. Um, but like I said, that's a culture shift and it's something that, uh, is not easy because we are teachers, uh, understandably. So I have built up a lot of their value systems based on their conception of what a teacher is and what a good teacher does. And, you know, a good teacher can see, you know, is able to make learning fun or controls classrooms or whatever else. Yeah, that's true. But right now what kids need, they need to see people learning in really interesting, powerful ways. And I don't think they have a lot of models.

Dr. Chris Balow (38:00):

Sure, sure. I work in private industry now and the CEO of my company, we were talking the other day. And one of the things we look for in hiring people is the ability to collaborate and work in teams. And I'm not sure if teachers are equipped right now to really build those skill sets for kids,

Will Richardson (38:21):

There was a great piece. Actually, I think it was in the Hechinger report last week about how companies are not so concerned as to where kids went to college, they don't really care that much anymore. What they're doing. They're putting them, they're bringing of people together, potential employees, and they're putting them in these like hackathons and basically just throwing problems at them and seeing how well they can solve problems and think, and what a concept, right? I mean, why wouldn't that would, that would seem to me to be the, unless obviously, unless you're going to be like a surgeon or, you know, something that requires this very complex degree, but if you're going to be, um, you know, employed in a business, that's constantly iterating and is creative and saw, you know, you need to be able to do those particular things. And we just, because of the ways in which we think about curriculum and assessment and outcomes, we just don't give kids a lot of opportunities to do that at a high level. And we really need to.

Dr. Chris Balow (39:14):

Yeah, absolutely. Let's kind of wrap up here. And if, if you could have will one recommendation where, where would a school start? We talked about some of these really big concepts. Where, where, where should they go to start?

Will Richardson (39:29):

Well, I don't know that they need to go anywhere in particular, but I do think that you're going to be shocked, right. That they need to ask some, get together their school communities and ask some big questions. Um, and the first one I think is what do we believe about how kids learn most powerfully? I just think that's the starting point, right? Everything kind of flows from there because, um, if you have that conversation, um, and you know, this, Chris, you'll be shocked to hear no, one's going to say kids learn most powerfully and deeply when they're preparing for standardized tests, kids learn most powerfully and deeply when they have no choice about what the curriculum is. Right. No, one's going to say that stuff. They're going to say things like kids learn most powerfully when they have choice when they have agency, when they're doing things like, so if you can start with that and create a belief system around learning, I think then everything has to be seen through that lens. And you can just go back to that over and over and over again and say, okay, if we do this, does that map to what we believe? And if it doesn't map to what you believe, then don't do it. Don't do it, you know, stay true. Live your beliefs, live your commitments to kids. That's the first part after you've done that after you've articulated that, then a lot of places go and do find help. Um, you know, with either, you know, people like Houma and me, or, or others who will come in or who will now virtually come in and just lead some conversations as to, okay. So how do you make that change happen? How do you make that shift happen? What has to, what has to be in place in order for that to begin to scale out in the classroom? So I think that's the starting point. To be honest with you, you got to be clear, you know, just get that foundational question, asked and, and discussed and answered with parents, students, teachers, leaders, everybody in your school community, and then begin to really use that as the lens for your work moving forward.

Dr. Chris Balow (41:11):

Great advice. And I would recommend that people go to Will and engage you in a conversation, uh, around this in, in, in a way that can really be transformative for schools.

Will Richardson (41:24):

You can find me just, just so you know, you can find me too, at big questions dot Institute that's our other site too, as well, but yeah.

Dr. Chris Balow (41:30):

Awesome. Awesome. Well, we'll thank you so much, but before you go, you have to play our game for a minute on this or that.

Will Richardson (41:39):

Here we go.

Dr. Chris Balow (41:40):

Oh yeah. That's right. So dog or cat?

Will Richardson (41:43):

A dog.

Dr. Chris Balow (41:44):

You're a dog person. Cake or pie?

Will Richardson (41:47):

A pie.

Dr. Chris Balow (41:48):

You're A pie person. Okay. Facebook or Twitter?

Will Richardson (41:50):


Dr. Chris Balow (41:50):

Twitter, big party or small gathering?

Will Richardson (41:54):

Small gathering.

Dr. Chris Balow (41:56):

Small gathering. That's been pretty, pretty standard for the folks I've been talking to. Um, okay. How about a football or basketball?

Will Richardson (42:05):

Basketball. My, my, my whole family is basketball. My kid plays basketball at Colgate, so.

Dr. Chris Balow (42:10):

Oh, fantastic. Yeah. Well let's hope we have a season. I'm a big basketball fan. Jogging or hiking?

Will Richardson (42:18):


Dr. Chris Balow (42:18):

Hiking. Online shopping, or going to a store?

Will Richardson (42:25):

Uh, probably. Oh man, that's a tough, that's the toughest one that doesn't sound like a tough choice. Right? They feel bad if I say online shopping because there's a lot of stores in my little town here that are suffering right now. So let me make the, I'll make the responsible choice and say small, small business, you know, going to a store.

Dr. Chris Balow (42:43):

There you go. Car or truck?

Will Richardson (42:45):

A car.

Dr. Chris Balow (42:46):

You're a car person. Okay. Um, TV or book?

Will Richardson (42:50):

A book.

Dr. Chris Balow (42:51):

Okay. Meat or vegetables?

Will Richardson (42:54):

Vegetables. I'm a vegetarian.

Dr. Chris Balow (42:56):

Yeah. Okay. Uh, how about iOS or Android?

Will Richardson (43:01):

Um, so, uh, I have an Android phone, but I have a Mac book, so I'm kind of like in the middle there.

Dr. Chris Balow (43:06):

You're in between. Okay. You're, you're flexible. And our last question, toilet paper over or under?

Will Richardson (43:15):

I'll say, uh, under.

Dr. Chris Balow (43:17):

Under, okay. Well you're, you're in the minority there. Okay. Awesome. Well again, Will Richardson. Thank you so much for sharing your fantastic insights with us.

Will Richardson (43:30):

My pleasure, Chris. Thanks for having me.

VoiceOver (43:31):

You've been listening to the ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Be sure to subscribe, so you never miss a show and follow us on social media. Remember our brightest years are still ahead. See you next time.