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Episode 32: A New Approach to Education: Learning with Compass Community Collaborative School Leaders



No Barriers Podcast Hosts, Dave Shurna and Jeff Evans, speak with school leaders Jan Harrison and Jason Malone of the Compass Community Collaborative School in Fort Collins, CO. The Compass School is a tuition-free charter school where students learn through active and engaging real-world projects, then go on to graduate with a plan, a portfolio, and the tools to make a positive impact. The Compass School was one of the first schools to partner with No Barriers based on their mission-driven curriculum and emphasis on student-focused, individualistic, purposeful learning that extends beyond the classroom.

Jan has an extensive background in education with three masters degrees, two in science and one in Educational Leadership, as well as a principal’s license. She has served for 15 years in public education as a high school classroom teacher, a department leader, a Dean of Students, and a district-wide high school interventions facilitator. She is highly qualified and committed to facilitate the work of a team of creative thoughtful, and energetic change agents who are committed to writing the next chapter in public education.

Jason also has two decades of experience in public education in Fort Collins. He previously worked as an International Baccalaureate Program Coordinator for 10 years and an IB Workshop Leader, Consultant and Program Evaluator working with schools all over North America. He believes teachers are lifelong learners and was drawn to the collaborative and innovative aspects of the Compass School. He says,

“The process of honoring of identity and the power of each individual student is at the center of my teaching philosophy and our work at Compass.”

To learn more beyond the conversation today, please visit the Compass website.

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Episode Transcript

Jason:

I think the first answer is you have to accept failure as part of the learning process. And right now our system does not. We have created an educational model that says failure is unacceptable and failure means you're not good. And unfortunately, I think we all know that you have to fail. You have to. Failure is what you learn from. That is something that we absolutely do not encourage. And that's a dangerous precedent to set for kids in general, that risks are not worth taking, because you're not going to learn from it and it's going to cause more harm than good.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Speaker 3:

Today we'll explore the future of public education in America with school leaders, Jan Harrison and Jason Malone, who have launched the Compass Community Collaborative School, a tuition free charter school located in Fort Collins, Colorado, where students learn through active and engaging real world projects and graduate with a plan, a portfolio, and the tools to make a positive impact on the world.

Dave:

Welcome to the No Barriers podcast. We are thrilled to have you join us today. We have myself, Dave Shurna, and Jeff Evans. Erik is off on a amazing expedition in Nepal trying to reach the top of a peak that he has failed to reach in the past and so he is not going to be around for the next several weeks, but we are pretty excited by today's guests. Today's podcast is going to start what we believe will be a series of podcasts that explores the idea of how do we teach our students, our kids, students in school to live purposeful and meaningful lives despite the barriers that will be apart of their lives, because we all struggle. And so how do we do that and how do we do it well? And we're pretty excited by today's guests. Jeff, pleasure to have you here. I hear you've got a big snow storm that just rolled through, huh?

Jeff:

Almost 20 inches in Evergreen, which is kind of strange that it would delineate itself and say, "Fort Collins, you get nothing. Evergreen, you get almost two feet." And that's the case we woke up. But yeah, speaking of education, my son woke up at six o'clock this morning and was like, "There's two feet of snow bro. We shouldn't be going to school, man," and throwing a big fit. And I'm like, it's important to learn even when it's snowing, buddy. That was how my day started today, so this is a perfect segue into experiential learning. I'm excited to have this conversation.

Dave:

Yeah. And I understand from knowing you for many years, Jeff, that part of your early years in school weren't very successful for you.

Jeff:

Yeah. And I was what you call perhaps a not super engaged learner as a kid / troublemaker and you fill in the blanks. I'm sure you could query my parents and they'd come up with all kinds of adjectives. But I don't think I'm abnormal. I think there's a lot of kids like that. And that's the whole premise behind this. And when it comes to the No Barriers community, Dave, my emphasis has always been with Erik and then ultimately with the Warriors Program. And so the part that I don't turn my head to as much is the youth component of No Barriers. And so that's why I'm also really fired up about the series and this compilation of podcasts. It's an opportunity for me to learn a lot more about this community, and the two guests we have today I think are going to open my eyes. And perhaps give me an opportunity to reflect back on being a kid and then growing into an adult, as well as being a parent now and raising a young child who's trying to find their way through this educational maze.

Dave:

Well, I wanted to start this podcast series with two extraordinary individuals, Jason and Jan, who have recently started a school. Their school was in a very prestigious national competition called the XQ competition. They became semifinalists.That XQ competition is a competition for new schools that want to change the way we prepare our students for the future. And as I was reviewing that competition that they became a semifinalist, and one of the quotes from a student, not in this school that we're going to talk about today, but from an XQ school was ... That stuck out for me and it was a graduate of a high school who said, "I always just hovered in the middle of a traditional school and my new school has changed my whole perspective. I'm more than a grade on paper. I'm smart enough, I'm good enough and I matter, and I'm doing more than I ever thought I was capable of."

Dave:

And as I reflected on what I knew about Compass and looked at their own literature about trying to teach kids to live good, purposeful and happy lives, I felt like why not start with a school who's right on the cutting edge of how do we teach our kids to live purposeful, meaningful lives despite the barriers in their way. And so Jason and Jan, welcome.

Jan:

Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

Jason:

Thanks for having us.

Dave:

I'd like to start with, I know we've got lots of questions today, but I'd like to start with a question to the two of you. What's wrong with the way we are teaching our kids in the standard school system today?

Jason:

That's a big question.

Dave:

Yeah, start right at the heart of it all.

Jeff:

That's the whole podcast.

Jason:

[inaudible 00:06:38], really. I ... Go ahead Jan.

Jan:

Well, I was going to say there's, I guess it really, what's wrong? Well, it kind of depends on what we're trying to get to, right? What's our final outcome that we're looking for? If we're trying to train people to be compliant and able to take in information and give it back at set points and evaluate how they're doing based on external feedback solely, I feel like, and in a very kind of concrete way then the system's working pretty well. But if we are trying to create really creative thinkers and problem solvers and intrinsically motivated, curious human beings, I think we're struggling to meet that mark by the way that our system is designed. And listening to you introduce it too, Dave, I think about we're two people who are in the heart of it, but we're really at the beginning of it.

Jan:

Our school has only been open for a year and a few months. So yes, we're on the cutting edge and we're at the bleeding edge, right? I mean it's hard work starting a new school when you're trying to blow everything up and do it all differently and we're all from that system. I grew up in that system and I was successful in that system. And I think all of our teachers are experienced teachers who were successful in that system. All the students who came to our schools as sixth through 10th graders were in that system. They were trained in that system. There's so much unlearning that has to happen as much as learning too.

Dave:

What do you think, Jason? Tell us your perspective. Thanks Jan.

Jason:

I agree with Jan in the sense when you start talking about what's wrong with the system. Again, I agree with you Jan that you have to really think about what the intended outcome is. For me, a big part of it was just, the system is built to look at every kid as being similar or at least holding them all to the exact same standards. And the reality is, is that's not who kids are. They're not ... They are individuals. And I don't think as a system we honestly honor their individuality. And I think you see that when you see high school kids, which is where my area of expertise was, that I think a lot of them see themselves as individual in elementary school when they are kind of honored to be who they are, but as they get to high school they kind of feel that they're supposed to fit in a certain box. And those boxes are built by this school system itself. And we put different kids in different boxes sometimes, but it's still a box.

Jason:

I still think that there's a lot of kids that just, they go through the system and play the game of sorts. And the reality is, is that it's built for kind of one kind of kid and that's not who we serve. We serve lots of different kids with lots of different backgrounds and lots of different experiences and perspectives, and I don't think we look for those in the building in traditional schools. And I also think that the way this system is built, I think there's a couple issues. I think one is that it's still a system built on content and it's still a system built on getting kids information, but we live in a world today where information is available to you any minute of the day with your phone and Google. The idea that you need to go learn a bunch of content in a school so that you can move forward in a career or in a degree program is not the same as it was when I went in school.

Jason:

I need to know things when I was in school to move forward, but nowadays information, it's different. It's a commodity, but everybody's got access to it in a way that they used to not have access to it. And so I think our world is changing and I don't know that our system has really kept up with that on the simplest level. Those are the big things that jump out at me initially.

Jan:

I would also say having now being running this small business, I can totally see why, not only that they were looking for a certain outcome that was different 50 years ago and a hundred years ago at all, and even 20 years ago, they were looking for a different outcome than we need to be looking for now, but it's also financially the most efficient way to run a school, right? And schools are chronically underfunded. Public education is criminally underfunded. And if you have very little resources with which to do this really, really difficult and very, very critically important job, of course you have to cut corners and you have to make it so that it's the most economically lean and efficient process you can. And how you do that is with the least number of adults and the most number of kids in buildings that are very simple and easy to control. And that's not what's best for kids. And we all know that, but that's what's funded for kids.

Jeff:

So Jan, I have a question for you that when you went into your, when you were describing the impetus behind you going through school and then coming into this situation and this creative process, and you mentioned that you were successful in the old guard of education and how it was presented. And I feel like probably all four of us probably found a way, and as I'm listening to you say that, I'm realizing that I feel like I was too. I ended up going to medical school, right? And even though I was that punk kid that couldn't learn, didn't want to learn, is it a matter of some kids figure out how to play the system and how to manipulate it and get through it to be able to advance themselves? Or is it just a few fortunate ones that somehow sort of squeak through? I mean, I guess that one of the skillsets that some people have is evaluating landscape and saying, "I can, I know how to work these pieces. I'm not necessarily smarter than that kid, but I know how to work it." Do you feel like that's the case?

Jan:

I guess, when we were talking before or what I told you was that I feel like kind of the three key factors that made me successful in my educational career were a supportive, a family that expected it of me. And so that kind of context matters from the start. And then I had a few key relationships with teachers that I really loved and cared about and who I know loved and cared about me. And that motivated me a lot. And then I also had the purpose, which was to get out from underneath the thumb of the man, right? I wanted choice in my life and I, as a teenager, I felt entirely oppressed by my parents and the system and everything and everything. And so I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do, and I knew the best way to do that was to play the game to some extent. So yeah, I had ... I could see what the game was and I could make a choice to play it, and I had that purpose, was to give myself freedom, which is what I really wanted.

Jan:

I think all three of those things were kind of key puzzle pieces that helped me get to where I was. And then I will say this too, and I've said this to my students lots of times, I grew up in a world where what learning was, was school. And so I have three master's degrees, which is ridiculous. I've just like spent so much money getting degrees because I only knew that learn ... I love to learn. And the only way I knew that learning counted was as a degree program. And I think what's really exciting in our world now is that kids have the opportunity A) to know that and to experience that you don't have to be in school to learn. You don't have to get a degree to demonstrate learning. There's lots of credentials that are not four year or two year or Masters or PhDs. So there's so many more options to demonstrate your learning now and so many other ways to learn. It's like the whole door is so wide open, and as well education keeps getting more and more expensive.

Jan:

The flip side of that is also there are so many more opportunities to learn. My son who he did do the degree route, but he also has been listening to lectures on human biology from Stanford. And really digging it, and so there's just so much out there, so much rich material, whether it's kind of that kind of format of university lectures or experiential learning or kind of the galvanize, go get a credential in coding kind of thing that will then open the door to a well paying job. I just feel like there's so much more opportunity now that I didn't have as I was going through with the system.

Dave:

And I think as you think about, if you're listening to this, you're probably thinking, yeah, this all makes sense, right? The the world is changing. How we get knowledge is different. How accessible new classes are that you can take about any topic online. It's all different, right? And Jason, I think you described that well too. So Jason, what ... In that new world, what should school look like?

Jason:

I think that's literally the question we're trying to answer right now and we, I don't know that we've come up with a definitive one, but I think the biggest thing for me, the biggest difference and the factor that I think is non-negotiable is really number one is to really try to help ourselves as a system and as a school get to know these kids as people first. They need to be ... We need to get to know them as people before we get to know them as students. And I think when we even call them students, it's all about data and test scores and grades and things like that, but they're people and they carry really great experiences and sometimes really traumatic experiences, and all of those pieces play a role when they walk in a school's door. Earlier in this podcast we were talking about what are those things that kind of get in the way in some sense, but they do come in with other factors and we often still treat them as if those things don't exist.

Jason:

I think number one, I think we have to get to know kids individually, and in doing so, I think kids need more voice in what education looks like and what their education looks like. The problem with that is, and I know we are dealing with it, and I know that of the hundreds and hundreds of innovative schools that are popping up all over the country, they're all dealing with it too, is it's such a paradigm shift, asking kids to be autonomous and to take more risks in their learning and to take more responsibility. And they want it. They say they want it, parents say they want it, but they don't always know what to do with it when they get it. And I think that that's part of them being raised in a system that's never really asked them to do that.

Jason:

And so I think getting their voice back into it and giving them some say, but also recognizing it's going to take time and it's going to take a lot of scaffolding for students to really start to be able to utilize those skills and build those behaviors. So I think that's where schools have to start. I do think we have to get away from content, as I was talking about earlier. I think even as a new school who is adamant about content not driving it, at the end of the day we still have to meet state standards and we still have to meet common core and we still have to meet test scores and all the other things that go with that. But until we can shift our thinking away from, "Hey, does this kid or do all our kids know the structure of DNA," and more to, "Can kids approach new material with creative and critical thinking and be able to apply their knowledge to a new situation," Those are the skills that are going to make a difference in their worlds, career or college. And I don't think we focus on those things in schools enough. I think we focus too much on the content that, as we all know in five years, could change and ... Or could be revised.

Jeff:

I see my, I'm going to keep referring back to my one case study that I live with who's in middle school and I see his frustration, because he's a really smart kid. He's very intuitive and he likes experiential learning and he comes back frustrated almost every day. And so I feel that, because I feel like I was the same kind of kid and I needed my hands to be busy and I needed to be outside. But I see his frustration and what I'm hearing from both of you is that we can acknowledge what our public school system, where its shortcomings are because it's sort of antiquated to a certain extent. Do you feel like, either one of you, do you feel like the continuation and growth of these innovative schools such as yours is going to eventually break the system? Does it eventually just say, there's just enough momentum in our country to say, "Let's just stop everything and just reevaluate it?" Or is it going to be this slow, 20 more year process of realizing and all of a sudden over 50 years saying, "We're not doing it quite right. We're not up to speed," but do you feel like your school is setting the template in a way, and schools like yours, to be able to say, "Enough. Let's put barriers on this and then let's kind of figure how to do this differently?"

Jason:

[crosstalk 00:20:48].

Jan:

I think that's great question.

Jason:

Yeah. I mean, I think on some level, yes, I do believe that we and other schools are helping create that template. I think what's interesting about the question is that I think if you talk to people in the traditional school system, the vast majority of them will tell you all of the same struggles that Jan and I are talking about. And I think a lot of them, at least a lot of teachers that I have felt and worked with have felt like they didn't have control or didn't have the ability to make that change, because the system had become so big that one teacher or a few teachers out of 120 staff members at a large school were going to be able to really shift that thinking. And I think the reason we even started this schools is that we were just actually a bunch of teachers and educators in town that all were having the same struggles, and we found each other and as a result said, "Well, let's try this."

Jason:

But the reality too is, is that we all took some huge risks to both leave cushy jobs and jobs that we loved and were hard, working with great people and working with great students, to try something different. I don't know that we have a larger system and outside of education that really supports that risk taking, to allow people to say how, if we're going to change this, how do we do it? I do feel like we're getting closer to a tipping point in education. I feel like that there's more and more of this happening and I hope that we do get to an actual tipping point where the larger system starts to ask some really big questions. I don't know if that's going to happen, but I hope that it happens, I guess is the simplest way of saying it.

Jan:

I guess I'm going to kind of come back to the financial piece again, because I got to ... I have ... I mean, our ... Starting our school was really expensive. It was expensive personally for us to take the risk and we could not have opened it without the gift of an anonymous benefactor that helped us get open. I think that it will not change radically, on a full scale, national scale, school's really changing to meet the needs of the future. It's ... I don't think it's going to happen with individual gifts and foundations. I think what it's going to take is it's going to take corporations and employers and universities saying, "The normal systems are producing students that ..." Literally only 52% of kids who enter university graduate with a diploma in six years. If you ask any kid, if I give you a 52% on a test, you failed it. Why do we think our current system is actually producing successful young adults? It's not. I mean, it's so ... I mean, our inequity in our culture is growing. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. I mean, it's not working and we all can see that, but there's a lot of vested interests in keeping it the same way, and there's also a lot of money constraints that keep it the same way.

Jan:

Until those money constraints go away and colleges and employers start demanding that we produce students who can think and can act and be agents of their own learning and can take learning to another level and be creative problem solvers, I don't see how it can change on a massive level. Not everybody is going to be fortunate enough like we were to find a benefactor to help us get it open or a team of people who are willing to take the risk to start something like this.

Jason:

Simply put, it's really hard. [crosstalk 00:24:40] ...

Jeff:

Would take like a Googleish or a NASA, somebody to say, look, let's just invest in our youth education in a different format. Let's take half a billion dollars and restructure it all, right? Because I mean, what I'm hearing from you is, I mean you have this anonymous benefactor that really planted the seed for you to be able to do this fortunate thing in a wonderful community. And is that going to happen in inner city settings, in an urban setting? Probably no. I can't see how. So I mean, once again, it's like without ... That inequity could continue to happen unless these seeds get planted on a national level and maybe you're not in a privatization in a way, right?

Jan:

No, almost. And also the ... Jason had referred to before, I mean the pole to still teach kids to take the SAT and do all these things from the colleges, unless that changes as well. But the other thing I want to say is, the Gates Foundation had invested really heavily in education for awhile and I had the opportunity to sit next to a woman who worked for them in that field of educational reform on an airplane one time. I'm not usually the kind of person who talks to people on an airplane. I'm like, oh thank God, I have a few moments to not talk to people. That'd be so great.

Jeff:

I can relate.

Jan:

But for some reason we started talking and she had so many interesting things to say about her work with the Gates Foundation. And one of the things that she said was that Gates was getting out of educational reform investment, because it took too long, right? The payback isn't next year. It's a slow process to change the teachers, to change the kids, to change the parents, to change the expectations, to change the metrics of success. It's not like I'm going to give $500,000 to this school today and tomorrow we're going to produce these amazing radical thinkers and creative problem solvers. It doesn't work like that. So you have to be patient.

Jeff:

[crosstalk 00:26:54]. I mean, of course it's takes a long time. It's most like a generation.

Jan:

Yeah.

Jeff:

Right? It will take a generation. So I mean, I can't imagine. Bill Gates was really like, "Oh, this isn't happening in five years [crosstalk 00:27:06]?"

Jan:

Right. I mean, because you can't see the data. The data doesn't show that it's working fast enough, right? Why am I investing this?

Jeff:

Right. And I know from our work at No Barriers that we've been advised by some individuals who have lots of money that they would rather invest in afterschool activities, other things that aren't in the school system to teach the kinds of things that we teach around risk and overcoming adversity, because it happens faster and it's just as impactful and it's so hard to get through the school system. Why not just do it outside the system?

Jan:

That's true too.

Jason:

You talk about barriers and the reality is, is starting a school has a lot of barriers and changing, making change in a traditional school system has enormous barriers, because there's so much institutional knowledge and these buildings and traditional schools, who by the way have amazing, thoughtful, just as motivated staff members as we have at Compass, that the ... I know so many teachers that want to make change and want to push and give better to their students, but they're swimming upstream. And when ... I used to always say, being in a big, traditional school that's been open for years and years and years, I'm not going to turn the Titanic. I'm not. I can't. But in a small school where possibly I can build my own rowboat and head off on the direction that I think is worth it.

Jason:

And the problem is that there's so many barriers to starting a new program or even building a new program within a traditional school, there are so many barriers. And just like any industry, there are unfortunately aspects of that system that they take it as a challenge and it's not always seen as positive, because somehow it's seen as a slight on what they're doing. And there's a lot of social pieces in there too that just like ...

Jan:

[crosstalk 00:28:53].

Jason:

Yeah, political pieces and bureaucracy. And unfortunately it is a huge bureaucratic system, just like we have all over the country in various industries. But it's a tough one to fight against.

Dave:

Yeah. And I'd love to talk about, you guys are talking about the risk that you took and how hard it is to take risks even in traditional systems. And I think Jason, you point out that this ... We work with a lot of big companies and they have these problems too of how do you encourage risk and encourage people to embrace the adversity? Let's transition a little bit to this idea of in many ways I feel like Jason and Jan, you're trying to build a school of kids who are willing to take on risk and push their comfort zones and learn through it and embrace the adversity that that might entail, because you think it'll help them learn. How do you do that? I think we've got a lot of listeners who are parents, I'm a parent, Jeff's a parent. I think people are curious about how do you teach kids to take on risk and brace adversity and work through the tough stuff?

Jason:

I think the first answer is you have to accept failure as part of the learning process.

Jan:

Right. I was going to say that same thing.

Jason:

And right now our system does not. Yeah. Our system right now, if you get an F, those kids see that as a brand that they'll never get rid of and they get an F on a test, they'll never get an A in the class, because that F on the test will always be part of their final grade calculation. And we have created an educational model that says failure is unacceptable and failure means you're not good. And unfortunately I think we all know, especially as entrepreneurs, because we all are entrepreneurs in different ways, that you have to fail. You have to. Failure is what you learn from. And I think one of the most difficult paradigm shift for students and parents is this idea of, well I failed. What do I do? That's great. Failure was actually a good thing. But they don't ... That is something that we absolutely do not encourage, and I think we need to start encouraging failure, because you can't get a kid to take a risk if they think that they're going to pay for the mistakes for the rest of their educational career and maybe have an impact on college. I work with high school students that need a 4.0, and that's all they think of is a 4.0.

Jason:

Well, I know kids that will take easier classes to make sure that they get a 4.0 then to take challenging courses that they're going to learn more, they're going to build greater skills, but they might get a B and that's not a risk they're willing to take, because of the longterm impact that potentially could have. And that's a dangerous to me, a danger of precedent to set for kids in general, in society in general that risks are not worth taking, because you're not going to learn from it and it's going to cause more harm than good.

Jan:

I think back to your point too Dave, how do we do this? I think of two things come to my mind. One is by modeling it as the adults in the building. We are modeling, and that means being really metacognitive with the kids. Talking about what we're doing. We are building a school together. You are part of it. We are part of it. We are all learning. While we tried this one thing, it didn't really work out very well. We are going to try something else. What do you think? Here's what we're thinking. Give us some feedback on that. Like really giving the students voice and being really clear, this is what ... We don't know if this is going to work. We want to try it and oh this was good. How could we make it better, right? And having them, I mean, we talk about the humanity center design process. That's kind of one of the baselines of our school model, and we use it and we talk about it and we think about it and when we as the adult community run into problems, we talk about it with the kids and we use those tools to do that problem solving. We're really trying to change the paradigm of the adult is in charge and the adult knows everything and now we're going to impart that to you child.

Jan:

And more just bringing them in as like we're all in this messy business of learning together. And it's, I mean, the kids really that matters to them. And I feel like one of the best things about our school experience so far has that the kids feel part of creating something that they never felt a part of creating in a traditional school. So, there is that.

Jeff:

Jason, you were talking about the failure thing and it's just, I didn't think of it in the educational sense. I was just thinking in the life sense. And last night I was finishing a chapter in a book that I'm writing and I wrote, "When you fail, your body learns on an innate biological level what it needs to do differently. Failure sets off a cascade of changes that help you evolve so you can meet a greater challenge next time. In other words, your body can't really grow unless it fails. This principle holds true far beyond when we develop our muscles as well. It's true for everything. Along any lasting and meaningful journey, you are bound to fail, so long as you use the failures as informative opportunities to grow, that's good." And so, I mean, I hadn't even really transposed it in its educational sense, but I just wrote that last night and I see my kid afraid of what the implications are even in eighth grade of what's going to happen as he progressed his forward, because he knows how much it's weighted and what this process is.

Jeff:

And I'm hearing this now and in a way of realizing I got to kind of maybe change a little bit of how I'm parenting him to a certain degree when it comes to him getting a D every once in a while, a C. So for parents, how do you suggest ... This is going to be a good one. How do you suggest altering or paradigm shifting parenting when it comes to your kid maybe not performing as the way that society says they should in an educational framework?

Jason:

Yeah, I mean I think part of it is, is that ... I'm a parent too and I have two small children under eight and these are the conversations that I have with my wife all the time, about how do we ... At the end of the day we can encourage failure. We can honor failure and say, "Hey, that's a good experience and you've got something from that." But at the end of the day, they're still being assessed in a different system. And I mean they're young right now so they don't see it at the same level, but I think number one, having conversations, really open, honest conversations with kids and treating them like adults and talking about the concept of failure and talking about those sorts of things and giving them chances to take risks. And I also think what Jan said that teachers need to, in schools, need to model that design process and designing means that you try something and it doesn't work.

Jason:

I also think parents need to be open to those same experiences with their kids and to talk about how in their own lives failure has played a positive role, because it really has in all of our lives if we look at it the right way. I don't know that there's one answer to this is how you should parent your kids, but I think number one, having very real conversations with them about these things, honoring failure and honoring their struggles and helping them understand that struggles are good. They literally are good for you. It's about coming out that other end. What you said about it, Jeff, about the, what your statement was out of your book is like the way you say that, I wish we would teach that in schools. I wish we would say those words to kids and help kids really instill that model of what failure is. But that's not what kids coming out of both their homes and into schools are really hearing.

Jason:

What's fascinating to me is that the kids actually are much more malleable than their parents often. The kids react much quicker. Some of them struggle into a new paradigm, especially our upper school students that came from other high schools into our model, are fearful of grades and are still thinking GPA and are still thinking college entrance. But what's fascinating is they can let go of that stuff often sooner than parents can. And I think that parents, because we were raised in that system and that's what made us successful, and I put that in quotation marks depending on how you're measuring it. And I also think as part of that, I think schools need to do a better job, and this includes us of educating parents and helping parents understand how they can support our model and support our kids within that model. But I do think there's a lot of little things that can make a difference.

Jan:

I think too that we need to also really be transparent, and like Jason was talking about, and I've been talking about, we have to be metacognitive with them and be empathetic with them, because I'll tell you what, failure is uncomfortable, and not knowing what you're doing is really uncomfortable. And we have this conversation with our staff every week, because we took professional superstar teachers out of classrooms that they were the masters of and put them in a system where we're like, "Oh yeah, how are we going to really assess these kids on skills?" And we're trying to figure out what is that really?" And they're like, "Ah, how am I supposed to teach if I don't even know what I'm going to assess them on? Or if I were talking about assessing them on the human centered design process, what are you talking about? How do we do that? Oh well we don't really know how we do that. We're going to have to figure it out."

Jan:

We're building the plane while we're flying it and it sounds sexy and it sounds adventurous and it sounds really great, and it is in so many ways, and it's also really uncomfortable and really hard and really painful in a lot of ways. And I think we ask kids to be in that space all the time and we have to understand and empathize with them and talk to them about how uncomfortable it is. And it's still important, right? I mean, literally yesterday I was talking to a girl who she wants to drop out of her algebra two Precalc class, because it's too hard. It's too hard. I'm not going to do well. Yeah, it is hard. And when you get into something hard, you have to work harder and you know what? You might not do well and then what would happen, right? I mean, it's not the end of the world and it's not the end of your transcript and it's not the end of college and it's not the end of anything. It's the beginning of something.

Jeff:

Is that a difficult sell though, when kids do ...

Jan:

Sure.

Jeff:

Are quite aware of the fact that their buddy is going to go to Johns Hopkins and they're going to go to CSU, because Go Buffs, right?

Jan:

Right. Now you're going to just like throw us under the bus there. No, I mean ...

Jeff:

Did you ever mean ... Are they going to just say like, "Listen, I know how the system works and I can't take precalc, because I'm [crosstalk 00:39:46]?"

Jan:

No. That's not our system. So that's like ... I mean, really, I feel like that's one of the key differences in our system and I think Jason will be better at talking about this than me. But it's really, it's not about like, "Oh you got this grade in precalc and that's what's going on your transcript." We have a different way of assessing kids and building to the end not, it's not that you get the F on the one test and that's what kills your grade for the whole semester and that's what stays on your transcript. Do you want to talk about that a little bit more, Jason?

Jason:

Yeah, I mean this is a model that is not exclusive to us. I mean there are a lot of large scale programs in the schools that are really working towards trying to look at giving kids formal assessment marks based on how they leave the classroom, not how they enter and perform on a daily basis. Because I think one of the things that we miss, and this is what I was alluding to in the beginning when I was talking about the boxes, is that we assume that every kid will learn at the same pace. We assume that every kid should be able to, in a given unit, understand all the material and then test and get an A and move on. But we all know we learn differently. We learn different paces, we learn different material in different ways. We have different preferred learning styles.

Jason:

And I know there's a lot of interesting research out there about that, but we use the language of jagged learners alot. And this is not our language, but the idea that they're all just really different, and so what we really try to emphasize in our assessment model is that what we care about is how you leave. If you're not doing well at the beginning of the year on certain content or certain skills, you may struggle, you may get some feedback about where your weaknesses are and how you can improve, but if you're willing to to address those and you're willing to show that learning over time, all we're going to do, the only thing that's going to show up on your transcript is what it looks like when it's over. And if that means you take the class and you don't do well or you take a unit and don't do well, you have the ability to come back and in a sense revise that and go back and say, "Well, I didn't get it at this point, but maybe I should approach it in a different way." And by approaching it in a different way, if they can come back later, whether it be a week later or three months later and be able to say, "You know what? I get it now. It took me a little time, but I get it now," that's what should matter.

Jason:

And so what we do is we have the ability to say, "Well, cool. Whatever that Mark was early on is gone now. We're going to put in a new way to look at that and a new mark that is more indicative of where you are today." And like I said, we're not, a lot of schools do this in different ways, but again, it's still fighting upstream, because the system that we've always been in and the kids have grown up in is that if they get a D on a test, the chances of them getting an A in the class are pretty much zero. I mean, you don't have the ability to do that if you just go with this straight point system. And so we have a lot of kids still that are first quarters over and they're like, "Well, what are my grades?"

Jason:

And we're trying to say, "Well, all we're really measuring is whether or not you are showing growth and understanding of the content and whether or not you're showing growth in your skills." And we give them that feedback, but it's still, like you said, it's still a little bit of a paradigm shift. And I think we also have to get back to this idea that, and this is all about defining what success is and really what does learning even mean for kids, but I think that's where we also have to go back to the growth mindset, which is a big buzz statement right now in education. But it's funny to me when traditional schools talk about growth mindset, but yet their assessment models don't honor growth mindset. They completely say, "Well great, you need to grow, but sorry, that grade will stay there forever." I think we really have to revisit kind of our assessment models and we're seeing glimpses of that even with the SAT schools, such as the University of Chicago who are starting to say, "Yeah, why does this test matter all that much?"

Jason:

And those ... When I say we're close to a tipping point, I hope those are the sorts of things we'll start to make a difference, because I do agree with Jan that until there is a push from outside of the larger educational system, from whether that be industry or universities, until there is a push on that end to make change, there's no motivation to make change, really. We can talk about ...

Jan:

[crosstalk 00:44:07] not to actually.

Jason:

Yeah. And so I think that there's, that really does. As long as it's internal, it's such a large system that the change is so difficult to make, that it's hard to maintain any momentum until there's an outside force that really does say we need something different. And we're all starting to see glimpses of that, so we'll see where it goes.

Dave:

So we're going to wrap up here. I did have one sort of final point of reflection that I'd like you guys to maybe finish with, because I loved the conversation that we've had so far about where the system is going and also very practical, kike how do we do this as parents? What is the purpose of school? In your literature and what you talk about in your school, you talk about teaching kids to live good, purposeful and happy lives as part of your goal. And on this podcast we hear from a lot of people who've gone through great adversity in their lives. They talk about how they get through it with some of the things you mentioned around dealing with failure and taking the risk and getting used to failure, but they also talk a lot about purpose and how in great times of strife, like being clear on your purpose can help you. You two having started a school and I know all the struggles that you go through in that process are living that now, right? You've got this purpose driven mission of a school that you believe in, but there's a lot of crap going on too that has to get navigated through idea. I deal with that starting No Barriers. Jeff deals with that in his career. How do we as schools and/or as parents help our kids find purpose?

Jan:

One of the ways that I feel like we have settled on at Compass is really through community partnerships. We want kids to have exposure to lots of different things that aren't just about in a school building with caring, loving teachers, but to be out in the world whether that's riding on our buses, because that's how we move around the community. We get kids out on our public transportation system every day. We take them to businesses. We have lots of different CSU and industry and business and entrepreneurs and artists coming into our building every day. So part of it for us is giving them a lot of exposure to different people doing different things that they're passionate about to help the kids discover what sparks and resonates with them. And then we are also doing some more kind of intentional work with some of our students with something called YouScience. That is a way to assess kids competencies, but just having kids do some real self-awareness exercises and social emotional learning, and really working on social emotional intelligence explicitly and embedded in everything we do.

Jan:

Talking about skills and practicing skill development in everything we do and then connecting them to the larger communities so that they have exposure to things that ... We can't offer them everything. It's just like going back to the parenting thing. You can raise your kids and if you keep total control over raising them, then they are going to be exposed to what you are and what you have to offer and what you're into and if you want your kids to find what they're into, you need to broaden that reach a little bit and give them exposure to things that are both adverse and really happy and supportive to where they find themselves.

Jason:

The piece that I would add to that is that I think, and this is really a big part of our social emotional intelligence component of our school, is that this goes back to something I said earlier, is that we often look at them as students and not as people. I think we have to help kids get to know themselves. I don't think you can have purpose in life if you don't understand what your own motivations are, if you don't understand what drives you, if you don't understand how your own experiences impact what you do today. And it doesn't mean just letting kids choose and do anything that they want all the time, though there is a place for giving kids a chance to play and be creative. I think in middle school and high school, we lose the concept of play.

Jason:

We lose that. Elementary school we have it and we're motivated by play and play to me is about failing. It's about building something and going that didn't work. And I think one, getting kids to both be open to that play, but also as part of that is figuring out who they are. And that's a big ask. It's a big ask of anybody at this age, because I know adults, including myself that are still trying to figure that one out. But I think helping them start to explore some of that helps them figure out what really does matter to them, and then when they really start to figure out what matters to them, knowing that this will change over time, I think that's where some of the purpose comes to, or comes from. I mean, the concept of relevancy in classrooms has been, I mean that's been talked about forever.

Jason:

Make your content relevant, make your class relevant. The problem is is that making it relevant just to the outside world doesn't necessarily mean it's relevant to the individual students. And I think helping students make those internal connections makes the biggest difference. And one of the things that I teach at Compass right now is an epistemology course and part of what we do in epistemology, because it's really just the study of knowing, is you really can't know anything about your world, you really can't learn anything about other people, you really can't understand and empathize with others if you don't know yourself. And so we spend a lot of time exploring that and getting kids to reflect on who they are and how their experiences impact them and how that stuff works. Knowing that it's all going to change and evolve and it's confusing and it's hard, but at the same time, I think a lot of our purpose comes from that.

Jason:

And I think that that's true of all of us as adults. We may not have found it until later in life, but we find who we are and then that helps us figure out what path we want to be on. And I think too often we ask kids to pick a path and they don't really even know who they are or what they care about, and we don't talk about that in schools traditionally. And so I think it's hard to match those up.So to me, that's the other big piece.

Jeff:

You're nurturing early on the desire to explore yourself and continuing that process from adolescence through adulthood. And I think there's a lot of people who just kind of get stunted, right? And they're like, this is who I am, this is who I'm going to be, and then I'm stuck, as opposed to who [crosstalk 00:50:48].

Jason:

Told to be.

Jeff:

Yeah. Who I'm told to be, right. The construct that's like put on me. So yeah, that's fascinating stuff. Dave, let's not be done. Let's keep going.

Dave:

I think we got to wrap up. These guys probably have a class that they're late to go teach or some crisis that they're trying to manage in the middle of the school day. But I love that we end with this sort of very ancient Greek philosophy that's inscribed at the temple of Apollo, "Know thyself," and the route to purpose and meaning and taking on adversity starts with the looking inward to know thyself. So guys, thank you so much for the work you've done to start this school. Thank you for being partners with No Barriers. Good luck with all that you guys are trying to accomplish.

Jeff:

And really you're the heroes. You're really, truly heroes and I just value you so much just in this brief time in knowing what you've done and what you're doing and the chances that you're taking. And I just honor that and appreciate it and so continued success to you both.

Jan:

Thank you so much. We really appreciate the opportunity to share.

Dave:

And if you are listening and these are topics that really fascinate you, how do we teach our kids principles for living purposeful, meaningful lives to face adversity, as we mentioned at the outset of this show, Jeff and Eric and I are very interested in exploring this over a series of conversations with experts in this area who are exploring these very concepts of how do we bring this to our kids? So Jeff, what did you hear from today that resonated?

Jeff:

I mean, so much. Part of it is kind of a frightening retrospective on how we grew up and how we absorbed information and the antiquated system that existed and that still currently exists. The thing that I can hope and that I do have hope for in listening to Jason and Jan was that maybe, as all powerful grassroots movements happen with regards to restructuring and reformatting education, would be that all of the new educators as they are being taught how to teach that perhaps this sort of strategies, these strategies, these approaches, these structures are instilled into the new educating the educators methodology, right? Like, hopefully it will happen and then maybe by the time my grandkid is born, there is a way for that young person to learn in a different way than we all did. And that's what I can hope. And then based on what I'm seeing and hearing from these two, it's a real possibility.

Dave:

Yeah. And I think for me so much resonated and one thing that stood out was something that was said around we all want our kids to have autonomy and take on risks, but even we as parents don't know what that looks like and what it means. And we started this podcast just you and I talking about what you were doing with your son and taking him on a big trip coming up here in a few weeks to help him do service-related work, and I think a lot about what do you teach your kids? How do you teach your kids the principles that are talked about in this podcast? It's not easy to figure out. And we are both apart of the solution and apart of the problem as parents, and that's a good thing to recognize, right? Well, if you enjoyed this podcast, the best thing you can do to help No Barriers is to share it with someone else, so please do that. Share this podcast with others, check for future podcasts around this topic area of how do we bring our kids, how do we teach kids, the future generation to take on risks, to live with purpose, and to handle adversity? You'll be seeing more of this to come, so thank you so much for listening.

Jeff:

Thanks a lot. See you next time.

Dave:

Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Shafer, sound design, editing and mixing by Tyler Cottman, graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.



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