Book Excerpt: Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, Unleash Genius

Katie Martin is one of BIE’s Directors of District Leadership, and she’s also a blogger, speaker, and author. Her new book, being released today, is Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, Unleash Genius. As you can tell from this excerpt, it’s got a great message for PBL practitioners and for the whole field of education:


My 7 and 8 year old children are curious about everything. Almost every night, they work on making something, and they ask regularly to do experiments. Whether it is homemade gummy bears, various iterations of slime, a pumpkin to explode with rubber bands, or a few bowls of unidentifiable concoctions, they are always creating, mixing, or taking apart something. They wonder about the world and their place in it.

My husband and I see and encourage our children’s natural curiosity, driving a constant desire and excitement to learn and discover at home, so we were surprised when we went in for my daughter’s parent-teacher conference and learned she was marked “needs improvement” in science. We looked at each other and said in unison, “I thought she loved science!” In reviewing her work, we quickly recognized that she hadn’t finished copying the sentences from the board to complete her assignment. Her teacher indicated that her “needs improvement” mark was due to a lack of following directions rather than her actual lack of achievement in science or application of the concepts they were learning. I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast in Abby’s interest and motivation for learning when the focus was on compliance rather than creating and the wonder it inspired. I just asked her recently what she thought about science, and although she continues to love to mix and create, she insists that doesn’t like science.

Ironically, authentic learning is often at odds with the expectations placed on many teachers to cover, assess, and document achievement based on the standards and accountability systems. The necessity for evidence and a grade for the report card overrides the desire for actual growth and learning. To be clear, I’m not laying the blame for this imbalance on the teachers; we all contribute to this problem. Many parents focus on the grades; school leaders are held accountable for grades and test results, and students learn how to play the game because the larger education system is built for points, grades, and rankings.

As a middle school teacher, I was certainly guilty at times of creating experiences that were more about the rules of school than learning. I know I could have focused more on how to ask better questions rather than simply finding the answers. At times, I had tightly scheduled classes based on my objectives and not as much as I should have on my students’ questions and goals. At times, I know I squashed their “what ifs” to focus on what I, the adult in the room, thought was crucial. When I had these moments, I was often brought back to my experiences as a student. I recalled feeling like my voice rarely mattered and that what I was learning was disconnected from the world and opportunities beyond school. I learned to play the game but felt the potential to do so much more in school. I became a teacher because I wanted students to know that they matter and to empower them to explore their interests and passions, not just complete assignments. This same drive continues to inspire me to ensure that all learners (students, teachers, administrators) are inspired to learn and empowered to build on their strengths and passions to do meaningful and relevant work. Throughout my work as a classroom and graduate course teacher, instructional coach, or in professional learning, my drive continues to be changing how we learn in school to create experiences that I wanted and now, more than ever as a parent, I want for my children and all of our children.

In an article in Educational Leadership, Carol Ann Tomlinson describes her viewpoint on learning in schools:

If we actually believe it doesn’t matter whether learners care about what we ask them to learn, we’ve lost our way. At the university, I teach many bright young adults who intend to learn anything that’s put in front of them—as long as all they have to do is commit it to memory and for the purpose of a grade. Sad as that is, they are likely better off than the multitude of K–12 students who halfheartedly poke at the plates full of disconnected and distant information we serve up each day—and the multitude who simply push those plates away. To create real learners, teachers have to reach the hearts, souls, and minds of students. Teaching a list of standards won’t get us there.

I completely agree with her that teaching standards will not get us to where we need to be. If we going to inspire children of any age to be learners, we must all look at how we can, as she says, “reach the hearts, souls, and minds of students, not just teach and assess the standards.” If we fail to do so, we will continue to move kids through the system and on to college with the focus on getting good grades and jumping through hoops rather than learning and finding their place in the world. At the same time, we will see even more students (and teachers) disengage from school. When curiosity and exploration is stifled, a child is likely to lose the motivation to study, and his or her work may become less imaginative. But the world demands citizens who are more creative, imaginative, and innovative than ever before, which means we need to ignite curiosity and passions, not extinguish them.

Prioritizing Deeper Learning in Education
Some days my daughter wants to be a scientist, other days she wants to be a chef. I have no idea what she will end up doing, but I know that she loves to mix and remix and create new things — at least for now. What will we miss out on if her what if questions subside and she begins to settle for what is? What if her concoctions could someday cure cancer? What if she could open a restaurant where she could happily cook and care for people? What if she stops seeing the value of her creativity and questions and settles for a path that fails to inspire her to lead a fulfilling and successful life as she defines it? Like other children her age, she is developing her self-concept as she interacts with people and ponders her surroundings. She is learning to find her place in this world. The reality of our current system is that grades and academic achievement will increasingly play a role in how she perceives her abilities and trajectory in life. I wonder if she will continue to love learning and exploration as much as she does now if her experience in school is focused on compliance rather than developing skills and knowledge that she can use to be more creative and innovative. I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

If we really value the creation of new ideas, we must model and support inquiry and project based learning in our schools. We can’t say we want creative thinkers and problem solvers while stifling those opportunities in school to ensure that we get through the curriculum or make sure students are prepared for a test. When we tell learners to complete an assignment, we get compliance. When we empower learners to investigate how to make an impact on the world, we inspire problem solvers and innovators.

I don’t know a teacher or parent who doesn’t want to see students thrive and be competitive in both their local and global communities. Even though we say we want kids to excel in today’s world, too often the teaching tactics we rely on are stuck in the nostalgia of how we learned. Our changing world demands creative thinkers and collaborative problem solvers, but too often, schools stifle growth and discovery in favor of getting through the curriculum or preparing for “the test.” Learning opportunities and teaching methods must evolve to match the ever-changing needs of today’s learners.

Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, Unleash Genius by Katie Martin is available here.