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Education comes from the Latin word “Educo,” which means “to draw out, to develop from within, to bring forth from within.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Human beings are interested in learning when they have the intrinsic motivation to do so – something that brings them value. So why do education systems insist on shoveling content into students’ heads?

We have it all wrong! The starting point of any education system should be the student: their likes, dislikes, abilities, talents, and process of learning. Then expose them to knowledge and guide them into developing key learning abilities that will serve them for life.

We have been fortunate to travel the world to connect and experience how innovative learning systems work and how they impact students’ learning. Here are the five main points they have in common:


 1. The principle of Education: the education system adapts to the students

Thomas Edison, like Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein, would probably be diagnosed by today’s school system as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or alike. They didn’t fit the norm. Young Leo asked too many questions; Albert was told “he’d never amount for anything.” And little Thomas was labeled by one of his teachers as “unable to think clearly.”

Thomas Edison had only three months of schooling and yet he became the greatest American inventor. Who believed and motivated him to explore his potential? His mother, Nancy Edison, provided him with encouragement, confidence and high standards, and a “superb education in learning how to learn.” (Gelb, M., Caldicott, S., “Innovate Like Edison”). It would have been a great story if the education system had been responsible for it – but it wasn’t.

Take ADHD for instance. High intensity in short periods of time. What if the education system takes advantage of these high intensity moments to explore learning? Then let students rest when they are low intensity. In our current education system, if students do not adapt to a curriculum or time system, they have issues. Is the disorder the child, or the education system? We do try and change the child instead of changing the system. The latter is the right thing to do. In innovative education systems, if differences are not respected, then the system has issues, not the child.

A couple of months ago a parent shared with us how happy he was with his son, who has been expelled from four schools prior to getting to us. That child loved to play Minecraft. So we asked him to develop a strategy where someone who never played it could be successful. In two weeks he delivered a very compelling work that impressed all of us. Now everything he learns he relates to Minecraft. That’s the way his mind works and now he finds intrinsic motivation to learn anything!

2. The learning partnership: the role of educators

When we were students, if a teacher missed class it was play time. We were surely not interested on advancing whatever was left on the subject. When the teacher is absent, learning stops, doesn’t it?

In innovative learning systems, there is a non-stop relationship between students and the world where learning is continuous. Educators are “catalyzers” of the students’ relationship with the world. Catalysis is “an action between two or more persons or forces, initiated by an agent that itself remains unaffected by the action.”

It saddens us to hear that some parents insist on having someone to tell their child what to learn. They are preparing their children to be dependent on someone else’s knowledge and understanding to actually learn something, rather than themselves. Moreover, researchers concluded students learn just over 10% of what they are taught; 87% of the curriculum is lost. What’s worse in this reality is the students’ potential ignored. We must align the curriculum to students’ own nature, to highlight their potential. Like in the Minecraft story.

3. The learning process: purpose and meaning

The most successful approaches are when students find purpose and meaning in what they are learning. When we enable students to organize knowledge into practical use in their lives, it then becomes useful knowledge and brings them personal value. Knowledge is only a “potential power.” It becomes “power” to students when it is organized in a definite plan of action with a definite end. It is even more powerful when students develop the ability to define the plan and action themselves and consequently foster their potential.

What is students’ potential? By potential we understand as the “a group of abilities that make someone unique and bring them value” (Julio Fontan). Education must be personalized because each student is unique. Education must develop student learning autonomy.  Students are the only ones that will know how far they can go and how hard they can push themselves.

Each student has a unique approach to their learning process and once they have this practice, learning becomes relevant and enjoyable. No one is born not liking math! Students find meaning to what they learn because it has a real-world application to their lives. They learn to identify the unique contributions of others and seek help whenever they need it: collaboration is natural, not forced.

4. The assessment: constant quality, variable time

In today’s education, time is constant and quality is variable. After a school year, students end up with As, Cs, Fs or any other standardized qualification. Successful education systems have time as variable and quality of learning as constant. Students must always achieve excellence in everything they do.

So every student will be an “A” student? In our own minds, we associate excellence with “A” and it should not be the case. Each student has his/her own excellence level. And that is why successful schools are excluding the letter grades from their vocabulary with students, while yet complying with state requirements. Assessment is personalized to students and they reach their own excellent level. The main measurement of success is the effort that students apply to reach each milestone, regardless of the time they take, but ensuring the highest excellence of work. Read the book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth, where she shares decades of research on effort and excellence.

Reaching excellence in everything students do directly impacts their quality of life because it depends on their relationship with the world. They will have better relationships with themselves, their employers, with their significant others, with their children. Do you know anyone with no quality of life? That’s the meaning of poverty in its broader definition.

You may reflect: “if we allowed students to reach 100% excellence, we’d never finish a school year!”  Not even close. Let’s say you and I will drive from Miami to Tallahassee, an eight-hour drive. If we turn our car on for 15 minutes a day, which is usually how much students learn in a day, it would take 32 days. Now if we turn the car on for four hours per day, it will take us only two days to get to Tallahassee. Which one is more efficient? In our own experience working with public schools, students usually finish a full grade year in only 90% on average of the school year. In 2015, we had 37% of students finishing a full grade in seven months!

5. Obedience versus responsibility

Successful education systems clearly differentiate obedience and responsibility. Let’s use an example of going on vacation to illustrate this difference:

  • Step 1: Set Goal. You decide to go on vacation.
  • Step 2: Plan Execution. You decide when, where, with whom, for how long, etc.
  • Step 3: Take Action. You go on vacation to New Zealand, visit beautiful places, stay in nice hotels, eat great food, buy gifts to the entire family, and extend your vacation for another week. What a blast!
  • Step 4: Take Responsibility for your Action. You did not realize how much money you spent while there and now have to save extra to pay your debt with the credit card company.
  • Step 5: Transform Yourself. You change your decisions and behavior: you will set a limit to your budget for the next vacations and will not to have this same issue ever again.

Traditionally, we believe responsible students are the ones that sit all day without talking much, do everything teachers say, and do well on tests. But, if responsibility comes once you plan and act, when did these students ever plan or act? They are OBEDIENT students with no practice to transform themselves. They just sit down, wait for the next instruction, and execute to the likes of the teacher. What can we expect from these students as they reach adult lives?

Specific daily planning develops goal setting abilities, organization, work effectiveness, decision making through prioritizing, responsibility, and accountability. As students grow in autonomy, they start planning their week, month, year, and eventually their lives. Planning and having goals develop intrinsic motivation as students discover how hard they can push themselves and how far they can go.

In this ever-changing world, the best skill we can develop with students is the ability to transform themselves at the global pace.


Now What?

These five points define how successful education systems will directly impact students’ lives. They find meaning for their learning. They have recognition and respect for themselves and for others. They are happy today! There is no such a thing as bullying if students have high self-esteem. It starts from within.

Where to start from? Your school may not have technology, or provide professional development, or many not have the support of your district. There will always be excuses. So I invite you to focus on the whole purpose of your life dedicated to education: to transform lives, to enable students for better social and economic opportunities in the future. So just get started, like the meaning for the word education: it starts from within you.

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