Considering Higher Education?

12715823_1145288665504402_762337878648045399_oWhether you work in the education field or not, you have undoubtedly heard the constant buzz about higher education reform. People are asking questions like “is a college degree worth it in 2016?” and “is the amount of debt I’ll graduate with manageable?” Free tuition to public universities is one of the cornerstones of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Experts are diving into how exactly colleges set their prices and debating what “affordable” really means. New research indicates that our collective student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion dollars, yet it’s becoming increasingly harder for recent college grads to find employment. The “underemployment rate” for the highly educated millennial generation is believed to be around 44 percent – which means they are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not require the degree they have received.


Find your purpose.

So what are we to make of this crisis? How do we advise young people on the decision of whether or not the typical trajectory from high school to college is right for them? Having recently graduated with my Master’s in International Education from SIT Graduate Institute and a healthy amount of debt, I find myself feeling torn.

I believe the most important thing we can do is encourage students to make their decisions about higher education intentionally. A college education is not right for everyone, and even those who decide to pursue an advanced degree do not have to do it in the standard timeframe. Here is some food for thought if you or someone you know is considering a path to higher education.

  1. Consider taking a gap year between high school and college. Of the many benefits to taking a gap year, studies show that universities are “reporting an increase in GPA, greater engagement in campus life, and of course greater clarity with career ambitions” (American Gap Association).
  1. Ask yourself these 10 questions to start a college search. My favorite: “How have you done your best learning?” For me, an experiential approach to education was non-negotiable. I landed at Warren Wilson College for my undergraduate studies because of their unique Triad approach to education: a balance of academics, work, and service-learning. What type of environment will best support your learning style?
  1. Look into opportunities to really explore your passions before you decide. Sure, college is a time for exploration – but how are you supposed to decide on an area of study without taking your passions for a test drive? I love this video of Allan Watts’ “What if Money was no Object?” Ask yourself what you really love to do and seek out opportunities to explore those passions.
  1. Research alternative models. If you think a traditional college might not be right for you, you’re not the only one. New and innovative alternatives are popping up all the time. My friends and colleagues in Portland, Oregon, for example, are starting a new type of affordable college called the Wayfinding Academy. Students will be on an individualized quest to complete a comprehensive portfolio of experiences, not a set degree program. Similar innovations exist at the graduate level as well. Open Master’s is a community of self-directed learners who want to pursue higher-level studies without paying for graduate school. I highly recommend listening to Blake Boles’ Real Education Podcast in which he covers many ways in which we all can be self-directed learners.
The Wayfinding Academy Creed.

The Wayfinding Academy Creed.

The bottom line: do your research, then choose your own educational adventure. Despite the current system, there is no “one size fits all.”

What advice would you give young people considering higher education? Tell us in the comments below!

What If Money Was No Object ~ Alan Watts from Edgar Alves on Vimeo.

Most Likely to Succeed


Outdoor Preschool

When I think about innovation in education, on the one hand I am daunted by all that needs to be done to fix our broken systems. I often feel overwhelmed by the achievement gap, inequity and lack of access to quality programs.  On the other hand, I am inspired by what I see happening in pockets all around me, if I look hard enough. From programs that open access to a broader range of students in independent schools, to outdoor preschools like Tiny Trees (inspired by models in Scandinavia like this one), to public school students like this group setting up computer labs in the developing world even though their school no longer houses the program they created.


Most Likely to Succeed Film Poster

The latest school to catch my interest is called High Tech High. It’s a public charter school in San Diego that has retooled its academic program around project based learning. I had heard about the school before, but when I watched the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed, I became reinvigorated by what is happening there. Students work on team-based interdisciplinary projects, each taught by a pair of teachers for one semester at a time. The students stand firmly at the center of their learning, so the teachers have been trained on how to set up a learning environment to support that pedagogy. The film focused on a ninth grade class taught by a humanities and a physics teacher. They explored ancient civilizations from a literature, arts and science perspective. The guiding question was “What factors cause civilizations to rise, thrive, and/or fall?” Using ancient texts, modern political situations, and mechanics of gears and wheels, the students worked in groups to explore the question from multiple angles.

High Tech High

High Tech High

At the end of the term, they hosted a huge showcase for their parents, guardians, and community members. They demonstrated the theme dramatically through Greek tragedy (all parts played by boys as would have been in that time period) and the Malala story (all parts played by girls to emphasize the importance of girls education). Then they showed the technology through a giant puzzle mechanism made up of all of their gear boards put together. It’s hard to describe, but somehow they were able to capture the rise and fall of civilizations through these two means in a very compelling way. As they spoke about their work to the visitors who came to see it, their learning, pride, teamwork and perseverance were evident. It was clear during the course of the semester they were also learning interpersonal skills, public speaking, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-advocacy, referred to as “soft” skills, and perhaps the most necessary for success in the workplace.

To the naysayers worried this kind of learning is not rigorous enough, they don’t cover enough material, they can’t quantify their progress, I point to a recent study done at a prestigious east coast independent school where the highest scoring students on all test measures (finals, APs, SATs) took the same tests three months later and failed them. Given the amount of content that can be found in one’s smart phone these days, what is learned through these kinds of comprehensive projects seems much more relevant to life in the real world than learning how to take tests. Now if only colleges and universities will agree…


Place-Based Education


Welcome sign in giant hotel aquarium

Last week, I had the great privilege to attend the 11th annual institute run by the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN), of which I was recently elected chair of the board. ISEEN is doing some of the most innovative and exciting work in education today, and I have shared much of it in other posts. This time was no exception.

What made it so great? Well, yes, we were in Hawaii. In January. That helped.


ISEEN Educators on a Hike above Honolulu

We had chosen the theme of Place-Based Education a number of years ago, and Hawaii was the perfect place to explore that theme. The institute was hosted by Punahou School and Iolani School, both of which had exemplary programs to share. Participants heard inspiring talks by the Heads of each school focusing on innovation and change at every level. We learned how K-12 classes use their campus and immediate surroundings to teach a myriad of concepts through active learning. We also had the opportunity to spend an entire day at Kualoa Ranch, where their education staff taught us about flora and fauna, repurposing old fish ponds for oyster aquaculture, hiking through several ecosystems to get a better view of the island, and contributing to stream restoration. The ranch is an intriguing model of land use: the family who has owned the land for generations created an educational enterprise to serve the dual goals of economic viability and celebration of Native Hawaiian culture.


An ancient fishpond repurposed at Kualoa Ranch

Native Hawaiian culture was joyfully honored throughout our visit. We were welcomed with ceremony including ancient chants and contemporary songs; we took workshops in hula, lei and poi making; we learned about the worldwide voyage called Hokulea raising awareness and funds for the most vulnerable Hawaiians; and were invited to be full participants in everything we witnessed. It felt like a true blessing to be in the presence of people living out their spiritual traditions and connecting to the land in such meaningful ways.

In a more robust manner than ever, the ISEEN institute practiced the principles we so strongly believe in: learning by doing, staying connected to the real world, modeling Kolb’s Cycle of Experience/Reflect/Evaluate/Act (and even offering a workshop led by David and Alice Kolb themselves!), throughout the institute. These few days strengthened our commitment to experiential education. We believe this theory and the practices it embraces, including Design Thinking, Project-Based Learning, and Mindfulness in Education, are on the forefront of innovation in education. With so much content at our fingertips (literally), we must explore ways to make connections, think critically, and involve our whole selves in the learning process, or we just may cease to be relevant.


Round table sharing of school programs

All 120 educators from the US, Canada, Korea, Australia, and the UK went back to their homes and school communities ready to put what we learned to good use. Though it may not be as easy in our home communities to connect to the land and the first people who populated it as it was in Hawaii, we have pledged to do so. I invite you to ask yourself: who lived in your neighborhood before the colonizers? What relationship did they have to the land and what can you learn from them? Please consider joining us next year when Hawken School in Cleveland hosts the institute and we continue our exploration of Place-Based Education in an urban setting.  Aloha!

Experiential Education for Teachers


ISEEN’s Executive Director Jess Barrie and I

Last week, I had one of the most powerful and inspiring experiences of my professional life. For ten years the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) has been holding January institutes for practitioners in the fields of Outdoor and Adventure, Service Learning, Sustainability, Leadership and Global Education. We share stories, best practices, student transformations, joys, challenges and triumphs in our experiential programs. Over the years, we continue to learn from each other, confident that the work we are doing provides very meaningful experiences for students. We are excited by the changes afoot in education: the move toward innovations such as project-based learning, Maker spaces, and design thinking reinforce what we have been doing for years. We long for more coherence between experiences in the field and experiences in the classroom, where students spend the majority of their time.

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Teaching my Global Education specialty group

For years the ISEEN board has been planning an institute for teachers, to offer them the opportunity to use experiential education “pedagogy and practice” in the classroom. Well, this year, they pulled it off, and it was truly amazing. Forty two teachers, five facilitators and three board members met on the campus of Santa Fe Preparatory School for 4 days of teaching and learning, creating new lessons and new ways to deliver content. Together we reviewed the pedagogical framework described by the Kolb Cycle and then had the opportunity to work out what it looks like in practice. Three discipline-specific groups (English, History and World Languages) each met for two days with a teacher-facilitator who routinely uses experiential education in the classroom. Each participant chose either Global Education or Service Learning to explore during the next two days.


The group on a hike up Sally’s Hill behind the school.

I had the privilege of facilitating the Global Education group, and it was exciting, challenging, exhausting and exhilarating! We began by investigating such questions as “What is global education?” “Why is it important?” “What is the relationship of global to local?” and “What daily classroom practices can I use to develop my students’ perspective of the world?” We discovered through our own experience how grounded students would feel if we use opening and closing activities to frame a class period.  We remembered the importance of physical movement to engage student learning. And laughter. Lots of laughter. By the end of our sessions, each teacher had new classroom practices in their “educator toolbox.” In addition, they returned home with a plan for either a lesson, a unit, a course, or a way to work with their department or school using experiential education. Bonus: we made new friends, ate delicious food, spent time hiking in the hills and walking around the town, and committed to supporting each other during the school year by sharing resources and holding each other accountable.

We all agreed it was one of the most exciting and inspiring professional development opportunities we have experienced. As an advisory board member to ISEEN, I am especially pleased that this institute, long in the making, was so successful. I dream of the day when experiential education pedagogy and practice are routine in all aspects of education, and these four days brought us a few steps closer to that vision.

Global Education: A Roadmap to Program Development

I just returned from attending the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference, held this year where the temperatures were low and the snow drifts were high. This in stark contrast to the warm temperatures, lack of snow (even in the mountains) and early spring in Seattle.  Global climate destabilization indeed.
















Along with listening to inspiring speakers, attending edifying workshops, and networking with colleagues from all over the country and many parts of the world, I had the opportunity to share a new IMG_6789resource with the NAIS community. My colleague Willy Fluharty from Cape Henry Collegiate School and I introduced a book we co-edited over the past two years. Willy and I are both founding members of the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG) and have been active in the organization since its inception in 2008. At that time, four schools (Cape Henry, Lakeside, Providence Day and Charlotte Country Day) met and then at the behest of NAIS, invited 15 other schools to join us. We embarked upon a mission of benchmarking, sharing, and collaboration that has served individual schools, and also helped define and develop global education in all independent schools.

With Willy

Over the years, we have collected data to benchmark what GEBG schools are doing in their programs, created a Wiki page to share information, become a 501c3 entity with a Board (on which Willy and I both serve), and organized an annual Global Educators Conference. A couple of years ago, we realized we had learned so much through collaboration that would be useful to others outside of GEBG. We gathered resources from 24 different global educators representing 12 schools and 12 outside organizations, and compiled it into a handbook that GEBG published as an iBook available for $20 on iTunes.

Global Education: A Roadmap to Program Development


The first section of the book concerns itself with Why We Should Be Global, the philosophy behind the work including a compelling essay by Father Steve Sundborg, President of Seattle University who gave the keynote address at the first GEBG conference at Lakeside School. Next we created a chapter outlining a number of different ways to become global at all levels of K-12 education. Subsequent chapters deal with curriculum, collaboration, competencies, finances, and risk management. Finally, we included sample data charts from our annual survey and resources to help people develop their own programs.

Our hope is that people will examine the book as a whole, and then use it, like the title suggests, as a roadmap for global program development. Rather than a rigid “how to” manual, we want it to be a guide to help clarify program goals and identify appropriate paths to those goals. Some readers may spend more time investigating the big picture questions of philosophy and pedagogy; others will dive right into specific sections on risk management and curriculum; still others will use the data to support their own desired outcomes. The book highlights a few trends such as the rise of global diploma programs, the need for better risk management practices, and the push to integrate global experience and classroom practice. Because the field of global education is relatively new and constantly changing, we plan to provide periodic updates. We are currently preparing it for publication on PC-compatible platforms and Kindle as well.

IMG_6782A couple of talks I heard at the NAIS conference this year were particularly relevant to our experience editing the book. John Maeda talked about the importance of creativity, thinking outside of the box, and making bold choices without bowing to public opinion. We certainly dove into this project with no prior publishing knowledge, and we learned a great deal through trial and error.  Sarah Lewis, who wrote The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery described the difference between success (a single accomplishment) and mastery (consistent excellence) that comes only through continual examination of failure and subsequent adjustments. Willy and I encountered many obstacles, and while I make no claims about mastery, we did approach the process with curiosity and the belief that we could overcome any obstacle through persistent effort. It was a fascinating collaborative undertaking, and we hope it serves as a useful and enjoyable tool.