by Ben Koch
In his 2011 book, Poke the Box: What was the Last Time You Did Something for the First Time?, prolific marketing and business expert Seth Godin implores us to reclaim the curiosity that drives INITIATION. Simply put, initiation is the will, the habit, the discipline, and the audacity of starting things. New things. Risky, untested things with a pretty good chance of failure. His metaphor of “poking the box” invokes that unique mix of boldness and insatiable wonder that drives the doers of the new economy. When you poke the box, you are curious enough to want to manipulate, analyze, and maybe even reverse engineer it, despite the high risk of failure. How’s that thing work?! This, says Godin, is the true path to innovation.
While the book invigorated and inspired the entrepreneur in me, it was the educator and parent in me who began to mentally overlay Godin’s vision onto the world of schools and classrooms. I asked: are there not just opportunities, but in fact invitations to “poke the box” in the learning environments we create for students?
I asked: are there not just opportunities, but in fact invitations to “poke the box” in the learning environments we create for students?
Poking the box is so crucial, asserts Godin, because “without the ability to instigate and experiment, you are stuck, adrift, waiting to be shoved” (p.4). Hmmm. I think back to the hundreds of classrooms I’ve seen, and I realize I’d never thought of the classroom environment in quite that metaphorical light–how is a classroom that values compliance and linear, pre-ordained objectives like a BULLY that shoves students into submission?
Godin frames this desire to initiate in terms of types of capital. There can be financial, network, intellectual, physical, and prestige capital, for instance. All crucial to some degree for success. The most important capital, though, the one difference-maker, says Godin, is Instigation Capital: The desire to move forward. The ability and the guts to say yes. “The ability and the guts.” I like that his definition includes guts, because guts imply courage, and courage implies risk. Are our learning environments creating students willing to take risks? Because that’s the key stepping stone, the primal ingredient for developing students into adults who later possess instigation capital.
If set expectations and the fear of failure are the gravity that keep us in an orbit of the familiar, than I like to think of curiosity as the one force strong enough to break us free from that orbit. The rocket fuel to leave the atmosphere of Planet Status Quo. Indeed, in his mini chapter Where Did Curious Go? Godin laments the fade of true, insatiable curiosity, that hungry, hellbent drive to just KNOW: “Not the search for the right answer, as much as an insatiable desire to understand how something works and how it might work better.” (p. 24). He’s careful, though, to distinguish between the merely creative person, and the person with initiative: “The difference is that the creative person is satisfied once he sees how it’s done. The initiator won’t rest until he does it” (p. 24).
In the context of the business world, Godin highlights the contrast between that which is “allowed and not-allowed.” Invariably, employees can rattle off a running list of what’s not allowed at work. But who knows what IS allowed? Why not focus on that, on the realm of the possible? Godin feels we “might be afraid of how much freedom we actually have, and how much we’re expected to do with that freedom.” (p. 37) I immediately applied this filter on the classroom. Pick a random student and ask her to list off all the rules of what not to do to avoid getting in trouble. Now ask the same student what IS allowed. She’s likely to give you a most befuddled look. Classrooms are about constriction and control, not about expansion and possibility.
If set expectations and the fear of failure are the gravity that keep us in an orbit of the familiar, than I like to think of curiosity as the one force strong enough to break us free from that orbit. The rocket fuel to leave the atmosphere of Planet Status Quo.
Three years ago, after over a decade in the public school classroom, I walked away to launch my own education company with a friend and business partner. I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it at the time, but looking back now, I see the classroom as a box, slowly but surely becoming a hermetically sealed cube, not to be tampered with. The quest for correct answers driven by high-stakes testing has created a system which values conformity and douses curiosity like a dangerous torch. By upper elementary, most students have complacently accepted the “A, B, C or D world” and stopped wondering about the off-the-page option, let alone how to initiate it.
So, through our company, we started poking all kinds of boxes, seeing what OTHER ways we could enrich the students who needed it most. What types of programs and curriculum and learning environments, when “unshackled” from the constraints of mainstream schooling objectives, really work? Turns out, having the freedom, the curiosity, and the guts, to see education with new eyes, as a system to POKE, has been extremely fruitful.
Well, here are 4 well-wrought and tested pieces of experience-wisdom from these last 3 years of creating “alternative” learning spaces. Am I sharing these to get your kid into one of our programs? While that would be swell, my real motive for sharing is because I sincerely believe these lessons can be applied in virtually any learning environment. Whether you’re a radical unschooler or still teaching in a traditional classroom, there are degrees to which the following can spark up your learning environment to increase initiation capital for your students:
1 Create Mixed-age Learning Interactions
Research on asynchronous development tells us the arbitrary “date of birth” metaphorically stamped on your gifted child’s behind might just be the least important thing to consider (watch a thought-provoking animation of this from Sir. Ken Robinson’s Changing Paradigms talk), and yet our entire industrialized school system hardly wavers from that one organizing principle. We thought, “well, they say intellectual peers are key for gifted kids, so let’s open up the environment to let those connections happen organically.” Nearly all our programs, from our flagship summer camp to our after school enrichment courses, are mixed age, open to grades 1-8. Parents are encouraged to let students gravitate to a course based on their passion. Because where there’s passion, there’s curiosity, and where there’s curiosity, there’s…you guessed it, the drive to initiate!
2 Take Leaps of Failure
Some of the greatest moments of discovery over the last 3 years have taken place when I, as the teacher, stood at the brink of an unknown step right alongside a student. “Will this work? I don’t know! What’s gonna happen? No idea. But is it right? Who cares?!” True, sometimes these mystery steps ended up as face plants onto academic concrete. But many times these moments of unknowing revealed wildly unforeseen solutions and pathways that, had I been the “expert,” we never would have facilitated. Our notion of teacher as “sage on the stage” was so exploded, in fact, that we had to invent a new term to describe our role with students: inspirator. Part educator, part inspirer. An inspirator drives ahead with the same curiosity of his student, and willingly takes leaps of failure.
3 Remove the Burden of Grades
We create academically rigorous, interdisciplinary courses designed to push kids through their zone of proximal development. This ain’t fluff, folks. And we’ve never offered a single numerical/letter grade. Yet students carry through to the very end, digging deep, creating elaborate final projects, and beaming with excitement for the “next step.” How do we do it? Why do students even care? Turns out there’s life after the carrot and stick! Remember when you were 6 and you spent 5 solid hours building a LEGO universe, because your whole being was invested in it? When students meet authentic, passion-driven curriculum that aligns with their own curiosity, there’s a chemical reaction of which the by-product is intrinsic motivation. It’s a thing! And no it can’t be bottled!
4 Embrace Creative Play
Many of our programs are based on the concept of creative play–that students “open up their minds to what’s possible, take chances, solve problems, collaborate and become better creative thinkers and doers” (see the Imagination Foundation).
One event, for example, is inspired by the remarkable story of Caine, the (then) 9 year old boy who transformed his dad’s parts shop into a “maker” arcade of cardboard, tape, and trinkets. I’m still overcome with emotion every time I see it. We host an annual event (like many others around the world with the encouragement of the Imagination Foundation) called the Cardboard Challenge, in which students show up and are presented with one simple challenge: “Here’s a bunch of random stuff, mostly cardboard. By the end of the day, we need a functioning arcade game. Go!” In the beginning, we worried about perception. Would parents see value in this? On the surface it appears loose and unstructured–few see the hours and hours of prep that had gone into creating this open learning environment. Then, at that first event, we saw magic happen. Real, intense, mind-bending alchemy of extraordinary imagination, creativity and problem solving. By not placing boundaries with expectations, young INITIATORS searched for their own boundaries. My first thought, to be honest, was lamentation over the years of wasted opportunities in my classrooms when I’d had too little faith in the organic power of creative play.
You don’t have to be a zany “edupreneneur” like us to approach your gifted students’ learning in this way. Wherever you are–a homeschooling mom, a Middle School principal, a 3rd grade public school teacher–poke that box! Initiate a new learning situation. See what happens.
Godin, S. (2011). Poke the box: When was the last time you did something for the first time? Irvington, N.Y.?: Portfolio/Penguin.
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