Position – Getting to the WHY of our classrooms

Position Statement

Education in the United States of America is unique in because it mandates education for all citizens despite their personal investment; therefore, vast tribal expectations exist in our educational system and it must find ways to serve a variety of learners in order to produce a product that is acceptable by a societal standpoint. The system provides vague mission statements meant to blanket all our learners, Unfortunately with this generalized plan educators are expected to produce, with 100% satisfaction guaranteed, a specific model/product. Education continues to develop or cycle through various standards, policies, and tests, but all these practices address the “what” of the system – what it produces, and rarely gets to the “why” it produces – why America educates every citizen. Without a clear why, education continues to spin in these ineffective policies and procedures and perpetuates itself as a farce to the stockholders, its own products, our society. In order to curtail the spiral of decent education is on and in, it needs to reevaluate its reason for existence. It needs to revisit it’s why. One way to do this is by implementing successful business models and modes of thinking. These models break from an institutionalized way of thinking and compels each classroom cog in the system to consider his/her own “why” of the classroom within the bigger education system “why”. Though this is a huge undertaking, it is one worth starting. Educational reform is a catch phrase every election year, but when will there actually be reform? True reformation means reforming, modeling, and finding a new way of doing business. This proposal shows a new way of thinking when considering education in the United States of America by implementing the use of Lockwood’s Design Thinking, Sinek’s Why, Logan’s Tribal leadership, and the practices of CPSR companies in order to create an innovative setting gauged to involve the minds of 100% of the students who enter. The hope of this proposal is to start a conversation, see a possibility, and perhaps, at the end, ask the question – what if?

Ethics Statement

By facing our country’s “Educational Cancer” with a drive and vision to restructure instead of continually patching in the name of tradition or fear, education can free itself from the institution (tradition/unchanging) to a collaboration of systems (interactive/changing). Through a design thinking structured classroom (prototype), potentially we have a model and mode of operation that will be able to surpass the growing cynicism associated with the United States of America Educational System.

Experimental Treatment is a Known Necessity

Educational Cancer

“Oh, have you heard?” The questioner then glances over her shoulder to make sure no one else is listening, “she has cancer,” she continues in a harsh whisper. The listener, shocked, covers her mouth in horror, “Oh no,” she responds in a low whisper. Clearly, the doom is set. The fate is terminal. The onlookers, sympathetic and all knowing, send their friend the message of foreboding condemnation and the confirmation of death.

New treatments and research have countered the fateful whisper of cancer. It no longer carries with it known death. In fact, Cancer is now flared across our country and we have stopped the whispers and started the war cry. We walk, run, donate, and give to the possibility of a cure. We hold hands steady with our loved ones that are in the throes of treatment. We now rally around the patient instead of whisper and shun. However, our educational cancer has not yet shaken the myth encasing it. We throw around words like “reform” and “standard” which are steeped in the same data collecting models, but these words have no grounding in new research or progress. The growth of this tumor has become so large that we collectively have a hard time diving in with a known place to start cutting. The tendrils and mets of this cancer are so expansive that educational leaders and educators included, cover their mouths and mutter, “oh no.”

We must face it. We must raise our battle cry. We must fight back. We have an entire global community that looks at our current state and mocks it. We create tests, mandates, and standards to ensure a certain product, however, this product already thinks and has his or her own set of principles and values. The world shakes its head and wonders why we even bother educating our entire citizenship, but as educators, we know the whole story. We understand that everyone has a chance at making his or her own dreams come true, and that shot starts with education – the ability to read, write, think, communicate, adapt, and decipher. These are the skills we know each citizen needs. We continue to produce new systems and strategies to teach these skills, but the fact is, we are still working with what Sir Ken Robinson (2010), educational specialist, calls the industrial model. We have a one size fits all model for a vast and variety of cultural norms, which is not working, but is safe. Therefore, we maintain a broken, cancerous model out of tradition instead of changing with the face of our customers. We have not developed, what Simon Sinek, ethnographer and Columbia University Professor, calls our “Why.” Nor have we actually addressed that our products are our customers as well. Therefore, we cannot run exactly like a business, however, we are producing people who are going into the business world and understand that language —here is our cancerous paradox. How do we cure the idea of tradition, cynicism, and the age-old “rite-of-passage” ideology in order to create what Clay Shirky, NYU professor in Interactive Telecommunications, a system of systems that work together in order to grow our country? How do we start treating education with a sense of importance, not because we all have to, but because we all want and need to? How do we start addressing the cancer, treating the cancer, and ultimately beating the cancer, in order to be the phoenix rising?

Educators develop a solid why. We use Thomas Lockwood’s design thinking, a premise in which design becomes human centered instead of product centered, in order to gather information from our products/customers. We try a new application. We gather feedback with our why always at the forefront of our minds. We rework a new version and deliver it with room for feedback and revision. Moreover, we repeat with the understanding that every year, every classroom, every day will be different from the previous one. We continue to deliver our whys through solid, standard worthy practices. We recognize each of our systems must function independently and in conjunction with the others in order to fulfill and deliver our educational why.

Cancer untreated will kill. That is a fact. How long will we allow our educational cancer go untreated or with ineffective treatments? We know better. We have the research and prototypes. Together, educator and stockholder, need to implement with time and grace a system that empowers each educator to understand, know, and deliver their classroom why. Stockholders, too, have a system – a system of support. Just like a supporter of a cancer patient would not badmouth or knock the person down, a supporter of education must support change, fight, treatment, and above all, encourage. They must trust the professionals. As a googlized world with information at our fingertips it is easy to lose sight of collegiate level instruction, which teaches all citizens specialized subjects. I would not try to cure someone else’s disease based solely on my personal experience or hours of Google research. Just because someone has been a patient, the experience does not make him or her a doctor. Just because someone has been a student does not make him or her an educator. In the support system, it is the role of the supporter to trust the education professionals with the same regard as any other professional. Allow the educators to do their job – this is an experimental treatment, there are risks, calculated risks – so they can produce the positive results we are all hoping for: a cure.

Dissecting the Tumor:

Companies build loyalty and return customer bases by producing a quality brand and product. There is no reason why education should not do the same. It must build a loyal customer base that understands and recognizes its role within the system.

This system, according to Clay Shirky in his 2005 TED talk entitled Institutions versus Collaboration, challenges the idea that we must institutionalize any coordination of systems. Instead, he proposes that we coordinate the systems. If the educational institution has fallen into the traditional 80/20 model, it indicates that either only 20% of our resources are relevant to the consumer, or 80% of our products are not relevant to the other systems we are trying to work into. Therefore, we must restructure the model and allow the institution to fall away to reveal a relevant educational system that works within a larger social/global and economical/workforce model. Education then becomes its own system that now coordinates with the other systems. If this model is adopted, then the system becomes free of institutionalized thought processes and becomes more collaborative in nature. The traditional models of education will start to give way exposing the cancer underneath and educators can start looking at different treatments. When we start looking at education as a collaboration of different systems, it allows each system to see what its specific why is in regards to education. As the comments on local newspaper posts about education reveal, we have a whole system of community members who are ready to, “Fire the lot [educators]” (Magan, 2012). We also have a villainization of teacher unions and rights of public employees; all we need to do is look at Wisconsin politics and policies within the last year. This is what Sinek (2009) calls the split or fuzzy why. Clarity comes from revisiting the why at the core of our systems and revising. We can start this revision with what Bert Jacobs, co-founder of the company Life is good, (2010) calls “What If”.

Every great revolutionary idea starts with the question, “What if?” What if you could order books online instead of going to a bookstore? And Amazon.com was born in the garage of a Seattle native. What if you could actually spread optimism through capitalism? The face of Jake paired with the statement, “Life is good” and a new clothing line in Boston was born. What if segregation was no longer a social norm? A man with a dream rose to the top of the history books. Shirky (2005) states that “inventors do not know what the invention is,” they merely start with an idea. When paired with an infrastructure that is human centric, the results can be what Thomas Lockwood (2009) recognized as a design thinking principle guided by human needs and prototypes with user feedback. The fact is, good design is based in learning from failure. Unfortunately, the education system is failing, but is not given time or resources to do different design. Although the educational institution has been trying new standardized testing and delivery of education, it is focused on WHAT we are teaching and not on WHY we are teaching, therefore, the art of educating has been lost.

Unfortunately, our products are also consumers/customers. So how do we get our consumers to buy into what we are selling (education) and become what we are producing (educated citizens)? The fact is, young people are incredibly perceptive. If they do not believe our sales pitch, they will not buy in. If they do not buy in, we cannot produce our products and we go under as an institution. This is what Simon Sinek (2009) calls the why. Sinek produced what he called the golden circle in which he places the why in the center, the how in the next circle and the outer circle is the what. He claims that people do not buy our what, they buy our why” (Sinek, 2009). Most people articulate, easily, what they are doing, and maybe, how they are doing it, but it is much harder to clearly articulate why they do what they do (Sinek, 2009, 39). Therefore when the battle cry became, “No Child Left Behind!” teachers were equipped with the what – the end goal, but no believable why – mainly because the how is delivered in a standardized test. Where else in the global systems are standardized tests used? Where else do we take information and boil it down to five choices? It is the banality of the how that gave students the ability to balk – in fact, the test became the glass ceiling for many students. Once they reached proficiency, what else is there to propel them into advancing their own learning? Our products became trained to perform a certain task. Outside of the task, the actual learning was not present and our product (educated citizens) was falling behind and soon would be left behind – a complete polar opposite of the intended goal.

We started with our what and not our why.

Our products/consumers buy our why. Have we considered our why as a system? A building? A department? A teacher? A class? We have such a variety of systems working within the bigger system, we need clear and believable whys for our students to buy if we want to beat this illness and contribute to the bigger world economic system.

Educators must solidify their classroom why. As a building, start to ask what if, and then put out some prototypes. Gather initial feedback and go at it again. Gone are the pendulum swings in education. Instead, hone in on a believable why and deliver the curriculum through a variety of believable modes. Once the institutionalized thought process is severed, the blood supply to the cancer in turn is cut off, now education will be able to pull out the tumor and redistribute the circulation systems in order to maintain the healthy parts of the system. This is well on the way to a cure.

Alternative medication

A New Why:

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos! Shoe company, shifted the company from very few sales to over a billion sales per year. He had no magical marketing plan, he did not spend millions on advertising, instead, he had a clear WHY. He was not interested in selling shoes; he was interested in building a culture that valued the human experience. He was interested in creating a culture that cared more about the service they were providing than the money they were earning. The focus was no longer on completing a job; it was about honoring the core values, the family core values, of the company.

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service

  2. Embrace and Drive Change

  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness

  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

  5. Pursue Growth and Learning

  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication

  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

  8. Do More With Less

  9. Be Passionate and Determined

  10. Be Humble

For each of the listed values, there is a thorough description page linked. For each prospective candidate, Zappos (2009-2012) asks that he or she read each value first before sending in their resume. They also project their values by requesting a cover video instead of a letter. To create a video requires two qualities of the candidate, 1. he or she must create something unique, instead of producing a canned letter, and 2. he or she must show they can utilize technology. On top of having transparency in what the company expects from the candidate, this request also allows the WHY of the company to be clear so the candidate can see what he or she can expect in this work environment. In 1999 founder of zappos.com, Nick Swinmurn, decided this company would have the best selection of shoes, brands, and sizes online. When Hsieh joined the Zappos team, he transformed the vision from just having a good selection to having a great company vibe that people wanted to work for and buy from. He built a culture that was clearly selling more than shoes – he was selling a philosophy (Zappos.com, 2009-2012). Much like Hsieh, Jacobs, from Life is good, also has a clear Why.


photocredit: lifeisgood.com/aboutus

photocredit: lifeisgood.com/aboutus

Bert and John Jacobs put their last $74.00 into printing 48 t-shirts with Jake’s face and the phrase, “Life is good”, they knew it was all or nothing for these Boston native entrepreneurs (Life is good, 2012).They sold out at a street fair by noon and they realized there were people looking for what they could offer through Jake: optimism. Although both Jacobs brothers were in the business of selling t-shirts, their why, quickly solidified with the creation of Jake. Jake became the face of goodness, happiness, optimism. Both brothers knew they wanted to share that message, one learned from their mother of six, and t-shirts were a perfect avenue. Centered in design thinking principles, in which prototypes are produced and feedback gathered quickly, Bert Jacobs says in his March 2011 interview with Experience L!fe Magazine, “You draw something, put it on a shirt, get in the street, and immediately you get a reaction from people.” The reaction to Jake was favorable, “Our culture is inundated with negative messages. It’s fun to celebrate what’s right with the world rather than what’s wrong with it. More than that, it’s healthy and it’s really powerful” (Bergeson, 2011). It is this why that drives the Jacobs brothers to continue spreading optimism through their nonprofit organization Playmakers. This organization trains daycare providers with a curriculum aimed to help children of trauma to cope and learn, first hand, that, though there is tragedy, the heart of life is good. Through various partnering and fundraising activities, Life is good has raised over eight million dollars for kids in need. In his 2010 commencement speech at University of New Hampshire, Bert Jacobs calls on the graduates to see opportunity instead of obstacles, simplify, and remember the little things matter. He then encouraged all the people in the audience to remember “Takers eat well, but givers sleep well” (Jacobs, 2010). Jacobs lives his why, and his company thrives because it too, lives this why. Applicants are asked to have optimism in order to work for the company. Clearly, they cannot create great vibes if the people are not on board. This positive company is creating social change through capitalism, and asking other optimists to join in, to create good vibes, and give of themselves, whether through time or finances, to something bigger than themselves. When people buy a Life is good shirt, it is an investment. One cannot wear that shirt with a grimace on their face and be taken as authentic. This company charges its customers to truly, “do what you like, and like what you do” (Jacobs 2012). It is this charge that REI outfitter’s has been working under the entirety of their existence as a co-op.

REI, established in 1938 by a group of friends that wanted to bring quality, affordable outdoor gear to those in their area. They remain the largest co-op in North America, returning the majority of their profits to their members. Their why was never about financial gain, it was about helping people enjoy the outdoors through human powered endeavors. They maintain this passion and position by establishing their why in nature conservation and education. Not only do they train their employees but they put their new hires in community outreach projects within the first month. They offer grants to fund employees who want to better their outdoor experience resume.  REI takes their commitment of sustainability seriously as they work to get each of their 100+ stores as environment friendly as possible. It is this Why, this core purpose that has gained REI a spot on Fortune’s 100 top businesses since the rankings began in 1998 (REI, 2012). The REI about page states, “Our core purpose guides everything we do: we all work to inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship” (REI, 2012). Tim Smith, manager of business systems, said in his interview with Apparel Magazine, “I think that’s a telling mission statement from the standpoint that ‘outfit’ is not the first part that’s mentioned — it’s the last. We’re a retailer and we’re in business to sell our customers products but our main focus is on inspiring people to get outside and to live healthier lifestyles” (Cole, 2010).

REI values work condition quality. This company understands happy employees, healthy employees, hard-working employees are dedicated and loyal to their employer. REI has an adoption credit, full coverage benefits for the worker and his or her partner, and multiple ways to increase one’s educational and outdoor pursuits (REI 2012). These employees feel valued by their employer and needed by their community, which builds a sense of confidence in the workers to ensure they are serving both vested members well. At the center of  this company is the beating heart of their why.

Whether through creating core values, community culture, or a cooperative effort, all three of these companies understand their why. They are not just suppliers of shirts, shoes, and gear; they are selling their optimism, service, and love for the outdoors. Because they, collective community of workers, buy in, so do the consumers. What these companies have produced in addition to a product is a tribe, a group of people working for a collective cause.

By taking the idea of the why and transferring it to the classroom we can start to build a new kind of system in which all parties involved in the education system are asked to develop their own personal why as well as a classroom why. It ties in nicely with the daily targets that ask the teachers to be transparent about how the tasks and agenda of the day link to specific learning standards, but now it becomes part of the classroom culture and environment. It allows for the why to dictate the lesson instead of the what. It allows a more meaningful and enriching conversation to emerge and start to develop into the tribal community of each individual class dynamic.

Developing the Tribe:

David Logan, professor at University of Southern California and co-founder of the business consultant company Culturesync, studies how people communicate in group settings. Logan notes that all humans develop tribes in his 2009 TED talk entitled Tribal Leadership. In the classroom, the same premise holds. A teacher may teach two different sections of the same class, but the class dynamic is vastly different, and therefore the way in which a teacher delivers a lesson must be different depending on the tribal culture of the class. According to Logan, there are five levels of tribes:

  1. Life sucks – this is a systematic break from other tribes in order to form one with people who think as they do. This is the culture of gangs and prisons

  2. My Life Sucks – This is the DMV ideology. All parties involved, whether working there or waiting in line, feel this intense sense of “dumbness” surrounding them. It is the culture of cynics and pessimism – we all suffer together.

  3. I’m great!…and you’re not – this is the culture of braggarts, smart and exceptional people. It is incredibly hard to move from this stage to stage four because the person must give up his or her hubris.

  4. We’re great – this culture can accomplish remarkable things because they give up individual greatness for the group greatness.

  5. Life is great – this is where remarkable leaders who have a powerful and positive why live. These leaders can bring peace to South Africa, a group of USA citizens to march together for civil rights, and peace to India.

We can be in different levels for the different tribes we belong to. For example, a student may have a fifth hour class that collectively is in stage two and unable to learn collaboratively, and because she is only one voice in thirty, she may give up the battle and succumb to the culture of that class because she knows in one more hour she gets to go to band which works as a stage four tribe. Throughout their day, students encounter seven different class tribes, a lunch tribe, before and after school tribe, extracurricular tribe, work tribe, friend tribe, and family tribe. A student may fluctuate between all these different tribes, but when in the tribe, the student can only hear one stage above or below the tribal stage she is engaged in at the time (Logan, 2009). The percentage of the population within each stage is as follows: stage 1 = 2%, stage 2 = 25%, stage 3 = 48%, stage 4 = 22%, and 5 = 2%. In order to change the dynamic of the group, a leader needs to be “fluent in all five stages in order to understand and affect every human. Leaders nudge people and the tribe to the next level” (Logan, 2009). This process takes time and diligence. We can move people from stage one, it takes introducing them to other tribes and helping establish trusting ties there before severing ties with the destructive path they were on. One way in which leaders introduce others is through triadic relationships (Logan, 2009). If these well-versed leaders introduce people from different tribes, they are able to build something new based on a new set of values – here is where tribal shift can happen (Logan, 2009). Seth Godin, major marketer, entrepreneur, and author, said in his 2009 TED talk, On the Tribes we Lead, “We try to change everything but the way to make change is through leading [tribes].” Godin continues to say that, “tribes can change our world because they are driven by the want to connect” (2009). Whether that connection is to world hunger, jazz music, or women’s rights, there is a tribe for the cause, and it is within the way this tribe is lead is how effective the tribe can be.

How are we leading our educational tribes? How will a student buy my why if, when in a staff meeting, I have shifted from a stage four to a stage two tribe? How do we maintain the integrity of our classroom tribal culture within a building? We change the building culture. Godin says it is a simple formula to create movement and change, “Challenge the status quo, build a culture in which people create and connect authentic relationships, have charisma (this is natural to being a leader), and commit to the cause, tribe, and people who are there” (Godin, 2009). It takes 24 hours to create a movement, and a solid why to sustain it. The next question is how.

Design Thinking:

The innovative ideas that Bert says starts with “What if”, Sinek says thrives with a clear why, Thomas Lockwood, designer and co-founder of the design company fastcodesign, says are initiated and maintained with human centered design (Lockwood et. al., Kindle, location 204, 2009). Essentially, we look at what our consumers need. Often, the gathering of this data is through observation instead of interview because, “the role of design thinking is to guide the research process to focus on desired outcomes, and identify unarticulated (and unmet) needs” (Lockwood et. al., Kindle, location 2373, 2009). For educators, this means that we observe what is happening in each of our tribes, see what needs are satisfied, and those that are not. This can come from hard data, like quizzes and tests, but also from observations of behavior. One easy way to get this observational data is to invite a colleague in to observe the students while they are engaged (or not) in a lesson. What this will take for the educator is an open mind and a clear why. Then, no matter what the results of the observations, that data can be applied to designing a curriculum, culture or community that is conducive to learning the subject. Flexibility in delivery of lessons is needed in order to meet the needs of individual courses and individual classroom tribes, fulfill the bigger educational model why, and to be an effective educator.

This requires the building culture to shift from traditional modes of thinking to an open minded model. Designer Julian Jenkins says in his chapter, Creating the Right Environment for Design, in Design Thinking, “Organizations must be willing to move from their cults of thought to a culture of openness” (Lockwood et. al., Kindle, location 879, 2009).  The last cult/culture listed is to move from the cult of rigorous process as salvation to a culture of heuristics and agility. This suggests that some of the learning must facilitate wonder and ownership for the student. In order to foster a sense of imagination and innovation, we must help students foster this in their own educational journey. What is asked of the educational system is the ability to be adaptable and grounded in their why. On a localized level, these design principles recognizes that we are in a precarious place where our consumers are also our products, and the ability to work with that idea and have the freedom to deliver curriculum differently (our hows) yet staying grounded in our why is exciting and freeing. This is a sustainable system as long as each of the working systems in our overarching educational system stay grounded in their why. It starts in the heart of the educator. It starts with why the teacher opens the door to his or her classroom on the first day. It starts local.


There is no need to whisper about this tumor any longer. It is time to take out the traditional model that stands merely for tradition sake, and start from the inside out. Educators need to revisit their why for teaching, administering, constructing, testing, and, most importantly, for leading. Why are we leading the people we are leading? How are we doing this in a way that aligns and coordinates all the invested systems? Once we embrace change and communication, we can start the exciting process of, “What if?” It is here we will not just find some possible answers, but a cure. We are on the cusp of big changes in our global presence, let’s show up for the conversation with a glint in our eye and a why that begins real conversations about creative, positive, socially responsible partnerships we can make across the oceans. Let us be part of a treatment that matters. Let us be the change we want to see, no, inspire, in the world.


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