Reflections of Astronaut as He Circled Around the Globe

By Allison Zmuda

As I read the next installment one of my favorite blogger’s writings (Shane Parrish of Farnam Street), he  shared a brief excerpt of an insight astronaut Chris Hadfield gained when he was in outerspace. I was intrigued by his comment: If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. Curious (and curiously late to the party as it may be old news for most of you), I spent much of the morning researching who he was, his perspective on life, and what he considers as worthy accomplishments.

Commander Chris Hadfield has done two spacewalks, which is the equivalent of being outside about 15 hours or ten times around the world. He had rockstar status because of how he engaged the world through social media — both creating YouTube clips as well as regular Twitter posts about his adventures.

Other insights from Commander Hadfield in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross:

  • “The contrast of your body and your mind inside a little one-person – essentially, a one-person spaceship, which is your little spacesuit, where you’re holding on for dear life to the shuttle or the station with one hand, and you are inexplicably in between what is just a poring glory of the world roaring by silently next to you, just a kaleidoscope of it. It’s just – you – it takes up your whole mind.”
  • “It’s like the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen just screaming at you on the right side. And when you look left, it’s the whole bottomless black of the universe. And it goes in all directions. It’s like a huge, yawning endlessness just on your left side. And you’re in between those two things and trying to rationalize it to yourself and trying to get some work done.”
  • “But when you look outside, when you look through your visor, you are standing on nothing, with 250 miles of emptiness between you and the world.”

And in a video clip where he answers questions from silly (being interviewed by Star Trek actors in character) to scientific advancement (overcoming osteoporosis for future space flights) to profound (insight when looking down at the Earth)

But it is leading up to this moment where he offers advice to anyone who is pursing a dream. Again, Chris Hanfield:  You need to honour the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life. … The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life. 

It gives clarity that how we all inhabit the earth — how we treat the environment, how we connect to one another, how we contribute to something of value — can be measured through daily actions. Working hard for a glorious moment (which may never come) is very different from working hard in the moment to pursue a passion, a calling, a meaningful existence.

Using Talent Management Ideas from Netflix As Inspiration in Schools

By Allison Zmuda

Netflix, the multi-billion dollar company, created a unique talent management philosophy grounded in performance, freedom, and responsibility. Here are some of the key values and skills managers at Netflix use when evaluating performance of their staff that have real promise for growing talent in our schools. I would advocate that these values and skills are as important to grow in our students as they are in our staff (with a little bit of tweaking based on context). What I appreciate about this set is the straightforward, simple, and inspired language. I also admire the balance between individual and working with others in pursuit of excellence.

1. Judgment. You make wise decisions despite ambiguity. You identify root causes, and get beyond treating symptoms. You think strategically,and can articulate what you are, and are not, trying to do. You smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later.

2. Communication. You listen well, instead of reacting fast, so you can better understand. You are concise and articulate in speech and writing. You treat people with respect independent of their status or disagreement with you. You maintain calm and poise in stressful situations.

3. Impact. You accomplish amazing amounts of important work. You demonstrate consistently strong performance so colleagues can rely upon you. You focus on great results rather than on process. You exhibit bias-to-action, and avoid analysis-paralysis.

4. Curiosity. You learn rapidly and eagerly. You seek to understand our strategy, market, customers, and suppliers. You are broadly knowledgeable about business, technology and entertainment. You contribute effectively outside of your specialty.

5. Innovation. You re-conceptualize issues to discover practical solutions to hard problems. You challenge prevailing assumptions when warranted, and suggest better approaches. You create new ideas that prove useful. You keep us nimble by minimizing complexity and finding time to simplify.

6. Courage. You say what you think even if it is controversial. You make tough decisions without agonizing. You take smart risks. You question actions inconsistent with our values.

7. Passion. You inspire others with your thirst for excellence. You care intensely about Netflix’s success. You celebrate wins. You are tenacious.

8. Honesty. You are known for candor and directness. You are non-political when you disagree with others. You only say things about fellow employees you will say to their face. You are quick to admit mistakes.

9. Selflessness. You seek what is best for Netflix, rather than best for yourself or your group. You are ego-less when searching for the best ideas. You make time to help colleagues. You share information openly and proactively.

I fully understand that some educators may take offense to using a model from a for-profit company to inspire education policy and practice. At the same time, innovation can come from playing outside of your speciality and tailoring the idea to suit your own culture and context. What are the values and skills that govern your classroom or school? Do the values and skills reflect key priorities within and beyond school? Are the values and skills integrated into performance evaluation? What feedback do you receive around the values and skills? How do you continue to improve the quality of your work and the contribution you make to the learning organization?

To see the complete Netflix slide set, you can peruse it here.

The New Narrative for Teaching and Learning


By Allison Zmuda

How can we paint a picture for the stakeholders of our school community of what schooling must do for the students we serve? How do we put it into action?

As technology continues to push into our schools and classrooms, our children are becoming more empowered to take action using their growing networks, skill sets, and ideas. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, envisions that the abundance of technology in the hands of the learner will disrupt traditional pedagogy. “The virtual will create a very different type of disruption. We should not aim to replace the physical classroom. Instead we have an opportunity to blend the virtual with the physical and reimagine education entirely.”

Canadian researcher Stephen Downes calls for a seismic shift from “an education is something that is provided for us” to “the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves.” Will Richardson echoes this sentiment and calls for a narrative that focuses on training students to be accomplished learners. “It’s a kind of schooling that prepares students for the world they will live in, not the one in which most of us grew up. In this new narrative, learning ceases to focus on consuming information or knowledge that is no longer scarce. Instead, it’s about asking questions, working with others to find the answers, doing real work for real audiences, and adding to, not simply taking from, the storehouse of knowledge that the Web is becoming. It’s developing the kinds of habits and dispositions that deep, lifelong learners need to succeed in a world rife with information and connections.”

The learner now has truly  become the heart of the classroom, three key principles underlie this new narrative: personalization, feedback, and sharing.

Personalization. To personalize learning for every child, teachers shift from their role of instructor to one of collaborators with students. From Growing Success, “How students feel about themselves as learners and whether they enjoy learning and strive for excellence are closely related to their teachers’ professional skills both in differentiating instruction and assessment and in helping students understand how they can improve.” Every student is encouraged to pursue challenges, problems, questions, and tasks that are driven by a larger concept, wonder, or hope. To handle the structural messiness of this, some staff are playing with “genius hour” where students are in charge of their own learning. Other staff are co-creating projects or problems with the students and then conferencing either one on one or with the whole class as to what standards it is measuring. Another possible approach would be for teachers to create the general parameters of the task and then the task is personalized by students for content, communication product (i.e. illustration, model, newspaper article), process (i.e. individual or collaborative, library research, interviews, investigation).

Feedback. Teachers guide less and observe more. Whether it is a traditional, flipped or blended classroom environment, teachers provide specific, descriptive feedback to students to inform students of their progress as well as recalibrate instruction based on what the students need. Outside of school, students are accustomed to receiving immediate feedback through gaming and other forms of social media. Judy Willis, a neurologist and educator, describes the power of video games as a model for instruction. “Games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product…When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed.” Incremental progress can also be done in a classroom setting as well by describing the learning targets and having students and teachers examine work together to determine immediate next steps.

Sharing. Students want to make a difference in the world right now rather than waiting around for someday when they are older. Their ideas, innovations, and service can be harnessed through community projects that demonstrate growth in conceptual understanding, skill development, and ability to improve upon their work based on results. When University of Calgary researchers Sharon Friesen and David Jardine investigated what 21st century learners want, some of the highlights from the study were:

  • “We want to do work that makes a difference to us and to our world.
  • We want to learn with the media of our times.
  • We want to do work that is relevant, meaningful, and authentic.
  • We want to be engaged intellectually.”

If we leverage technological tools in service to clarity of purpose and authenticity of task, students are more likely to invest in the work because it means something. Imagine if young students determined how much food a local animal shelter needed for one month. Then, students might determine an action plan of how to raise number of dollars, cans, or bags to supply the shelter. They can estimate how long it might take to fundraise, set targets, develop media to solicit contributions. Imagine the pride of students when they see gratitude as they share the results of their efforts. Not only is this a rich multi-disciplinary, problem-solving, collaborative, communicative task but it also demonstrates the power of groups of individuals to change their environment.


Practical Steps in Vision and Action

Define what you are aiming for.

Tony Wagner offers seven highly valued skills based on conversations with employers from around the globe. Below are each skill and an illustrative quotation. (This set of skills is one of many similar sets that can be used to start a local conversation. See Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Michael Fullan’s agenda for Ontario.

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

The idea that a company’s senior leaders have all the answers and can solve problems by themselves has gone completely by the wayside…The person who’s close to the work has to have strong analytic skills.  You have to be rigorous: test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value, don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.” Ellen Kumata, consultant to Fortune 200 companies

2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence

“The biggest problem we have in the company as a whole is finding people capable of exerting leadership across the board…Our mantra is that you lead by influence, rather than authority.” – Mark Chandler, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Cisco

3. Agility and Adaptability

“I’ve been here four years, and we’ve done fundamental reorganization every year because of changes in the business…I can guarantee the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.” Clay Parker, President of Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship

“For our production and crafts staff, the hourly workers, we need self-directed people…who can find creative solutions to some very tough, challenging problems.” Mark Maddox, Human Resources Manager at Unilever Foods North America

5. Effective Oral and Written Communication

“The biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations.  It’s a huge problem for us.” – Annmarie Neal, Vice President for Talent Management at Cisco Systems

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information

“There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively, it almost freezes them in their steps.” Mike Summers, Vice President for Global Talent Management at Dell

7. Curiosity and Imagination

“Our old idea is that work is defined by employers and that employees have to do whatever the employer wants…but actually, you would like him to come up with an interpretation that you like-he’s adding something personal-a creative element.” -Michael Jung, Senior Consultant


The skills identified are powerful and the quotations helpful, but they need to make sense to local stakeholders. Clarity, simplicity, and multidisciplinary language help describe what it is that school is designed to develop the capacity of every student over time. This set of skills can be embedded in the PK-12 curriculum in conjunction with the larger discipline-specific concepts and skills to frame what we expect from our learners.


Tell your collective story. A lot.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to connect with others. Share the ideas by painting a picture of what can be using description as well as illustrative examples. For example, what does creativity look like in a 1st grade math classroom? How does it become more sophisticated in spite of the fact that students may become more focused on a right answer? What does collaboration look like both in and out of school? How are we encouraging it through our policies and our practices?

  • Incentivize staff innovation and sharing. In Growing Success, the policy states, “Teachers create environments in which all students feel valued and confident and have the courage to take risks and make mistakes.” The same must be true for our staff. While each district and school may have specific initiatives, consider the notion of the “genius hour” for staff — a place where individuals or a team of teachers pursue fascinating in service to at least one of the initiatives or something new altogether. With freedom comes responsibility as staff should share the goal(s) that drove the inquiry/project/topic, the learning path, as well as the outcomes and next steps.
  •  Create a portfolio of accomplishments. While course grades and test scores are a useful tool to communicate with students and parents, create a repository for every student to house their accomplishments to travel with them throughout his or her schooling. These portfolios are truly owned by the learner and are encouraged to populate the portfolio with in-school and out-of-school tasks that demonstrate growth in service of identified skills. Students then can examine evidence in their portfolio to set goals and monitor progress, lead conferences with teachers and parents, or cull examples for interviews or college applications.


The more the story is shared, the more likely individuals and groups of folks put their thumbprints on it as they are making sense of the vision. They will pose questions, provide illustrative examples of their own, and wonder aloud about the possibilities. This active sense-making grows the power of the story as it becomes more reflective of the aspirations of the community in service to a new pedagogical narrative where students and staff co-create the learning experience together.



Works Cited

Downes, Stephen. A World to Change (18 October 2010). Huffington Post:

Friesen, Sharon and David Jardine, 21st Century Learning and Learners

Khan, Salman. The Founder of Khan Academy on How to Blend the Virtual with the Physical (26 July 2013). Scientific American:

Richardson, Will. Why School? TED Conferences (2012).

Wagner, Tony. Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do About It (2010). New York: Basic Books.

Willis, Judy. A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool (14 April 2011).


Allison Zmuda is an author and education consultant whose focus is creating dynamic learning environments for like-minded educators, parents, and kids. She has authored six books and her latest book, Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning, (ASCD, 2010) inspired the development of her new website Just Start! Kids and Schools. Allison serves as co-founder and curator of the site devoted to re-imagining what schooling looks like through the exchange of ideas and examples. Allison can be contacted via email:







How “Kid Talk” Can Change Student Understanding


By Kathleen Cushman

The teachers I know are always talking about kids in informal ways. They do it at the copy machine, at home, at social gatherings—anywhere they relax enough to answer the question “How’s it going?” And, like anyone whose vocation is to work with other people, their talk is full of stories. They tell of frustrating moments and of triumphant ones, of hilarious moments and heartbreaking ones. Listening, it’s so clear how much most teachers care what happens to their students, both inside and outside of the classroom.

But very few teachers have the time structured into their workday to turn that “kid talk” into a collaborative and productive professional discourse, which advances not only the teacher’s understanding but also that of students.


Kids’ stories matter to learning

Neuroscience tells us that all students come to us with existing knowledge, in the form of neuronal networks built up through their individual experiences. The information in those networks affects everything they know, think, feel, or do. So “what’s going on” with particular students matters enormously to their teachers on a biological level. It necessarily affects their learning process—their understandings or misunderstandings, their partial ideas, their developing skills, everything.

“We must let our students use the neuronal networks they already have,” writes James Zull in his wonderful 2002 book The Art of Changing the Brain:

We cannot create new ones out of thin air or by putting them on a blackboard. And we cannot excise old ones. . . . Even the most focused of brains finds itself bouncing from neuronal network to neuronal network in a lecture or during a lesson. And the connections are totally unpredictable. A single word can send a mind off through a tangle of neuronal network underbrush.

Designing a science unit on combustion in a Colorado middle school, John McKinney, a teacher-contributor to my book The Motivation Equation, asked his eighth graders about their own personal experiences of fire. Many brought up the terrifying wildfires that had recently raged through their state. ”I knew someone who’d been on fire before,” one kid said. Another called himself a “pyrotechnic,” saying, “The danger yet calmness of the flame interests me.” On the day that Mr. McKinney ignited a “turkey pan forest fire” in controlled conditions out on the school’s asphalt driveway, reactions from his class ranged from “Ooohh, you rock!” to cautious fascination.

Five months later, every single student could still explain with exceptional accuracy the central scientific concepts of combustion McKinney had targeted in his unit. No doubt the networks had altered for each student in very individual ways—but all had come away with substantive understanding built on the old ones.


How to use the stories

In schools that schedule regular “kid talk,” I have seen teachers working together in ways that acknowledge and make use of the individual experiences and mental models of their students. Together they look for ways to start their lessons with genuine inquiry. They don’t begin with what the teacher knows but rather with what learners already “know.” What personal stories, metaphors, images does each learner bring to his or her understanding of the world? The more teachers know about that, the better they can design lessons that race through their students’ neuronal networks’ underbrush and set their minds on fire.

Like McKinney, they may start with a powerful attention-grabber, then ask a question like “What does this make you think of?” What students come up with may be incorrect, but the artful teacher draws it out and builds on it, creating new concrete experiences that fill in the gaps, enriching and completing the ideas that kids arrive with.

Teachers cannot accomplish that without knowing their students: their histories and their hopes, their issues and their interests, the stories they carry inside their heads. That kind of knowing can’t just be shared with colleagues at the water-cooler. It deserves at least one schedule block a week in which teachers who share the same students (such as a grade-level team) come together to enrich each other’s understanding of who those learners really are. When thoughtfully put to use in lesson planning, the resulting information is worth its weight in gold.


What might this look like in your everyday practice?

Step 1. In class, ask pairs of students to take turns explaining to each other their previous experiences and ideas about the subject you’ll be teaching. (For example, “What do you already know or think about the rights that a citizen has under the U.S. Constitution?”) If possible, have them record each other’s responses on video or audio. Even in their roughest form, such clips provide valuable material—first for you in designing your lessons, and later for students as they reflect on how their understanding has grown.

Step 2. With colleagues, review what you’ve learned. What stories are your students carrying within their heads? What prior experiences or associations do they have with your material, either positive or negative? This tool (Tool,PlanningForMotivation) can help you make notes on both the value that students may already place on the material and their expectation of success in working with it further.

Step 3. Conduct a lesson study that focuses on designing tasks with student motivation in mind. Using this collegial protocol, Protocol_Designing for Motivation & Mastery, one teacher can describe to the group a lesson or unit in which students seemed especially motivated (or not). What were its learning goals? How did the teacher connect the task to what individual students valued? How did the teacher make sure that every student could expect to succeed at the goals? What input from students did the teacher have available?



For examples of what students are thinking about teaching and learning, check out these one-minute videos from the Just Listen series at What Kids Can Do.

WKCD’s 6-minute animated “Insider’s Guide to the Teenager’s Brain” now appears on Zaption in a self-paced guided video discussion version for teachers (free signup required).

Kathleen Cushman is co-founder of What Kids Can Do, a nonprofit that documents the experiences and insights of youth to increase equity, opportunity, and powerful learning for all. Her new multimedia e-book The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids Minds on Fire is available free to educators on any web browser or iOS device; contact


What Motivates Students to Meet a Challenge? Student Answers and Teacher Actions


By Kathleen Cushman and Allison Zmuda

When we question our students about “what it takes to get really good at something” and give them the space to respond, it is amazing how insightful they can be—and how much of it lines up with the neuroscience of learning. Here are nine answers that students gave in the book Fires in the Mind, along with related teacher actions to consider incorporating into your regular practice.

1.  Let us see what we are aiming for

  • Show models of exemplary work
  • Show real-world connections to questions, problems, challenges that experts are facing in various fields

2Break down what we need to learn

  • Identify the knowledge and skills needed
  • Set realistic goals to create an achievable challenge

3.  Give us lots of ways to understand

  • Present concepts and skills in different ways to help students find a foothold

4.  Teach us to critique and revise everything we do

  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to make changes as they learn from mistakes
  • Keep good records of student progress on key concepts and skills

5.  Assess us all the time, not just in high-stakes ways

  • Use diagnostic and formative assessment to monitor learners’ progress
  • Focus less on the grade and more on the information you receive about your teaching from looking at student work

6.  Chart our small successes

  • Make sure all students know their individual goals—and acknowledge their progress towards them

7.  Ask us to work as an expert team

  • Teach key skills of collaboration (how to come to consensus on a plan, how to manage time, how to make sure everyone pulls their weight)
  • Evaluate collaboration skills when assessing a group project, presentation, or performance

8.  Help us extend our knowledge through using it

  • Build meaningful applications of concepts and skills into daily instruction and larger projects

9.  Use performances to assess our academic understanding

  • Seek out audiences for student work so as to underline its authenticity and relevance
  • Make time for students to rehearse, critique, and revise before their presentations


Two more suggestions to make this come alive in your classroom or school:

  • Give your students the list above (minus teacher actions) and ask for their input. What would they change about it, and why?
  • Have your students create their own list of advice. You might use this free publication by What Kids Can Do: “First Ask, Then Listen: How to Get Your Students to Help You Teach Them Better.”

Finally, don’t forget your part. Make your own contract to the students in support of their motivation to learn.


Kathleen Cushman is co-founder of What Kids Can Do, a nonprofit that documents the experiences and insights of youth to increase equity, opportunity, and powerful learning for all. Her new multimedia e-book The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids Minds on Fire is available free to educators on any web browser or iOS device; contact

Allison Zmuda is an author and education consultant whose focus is creating dynamic learning environments for like-minded educators, parents, and kids. She has authored six books and her latest book, Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning, (ASCD, 2010) inspired the development of her new website Just Start! Kids and Schools. Allison serves as co-founder and curator of the site devoted to re-imagining what schooling looks like through the exchange of ideas and examples. Allison can be contacted via email: