Last October, A.J. Juliani shared an idea for a book we should write together. After we had talked about student choice, voice, and ownership, he said, “I want to do a follow-up to Launch called Empower. Let’s make it a why book. Let’s make it a book about a big idea.”
We decided to make a different kind of book. It would be a book about ideas, a place where we both shared our journey of empowering students. It would be about paradigm shifts. It would be about the why in education. We would share practical ideas but it wouldn’t be an instruction manual offering step-by-step, explicit instructions on how to teach. And here’s why — because there is no instruction manual for teaching. There is no magical formula or secret elixir. There are no shortcuts that promise you will avoid mistakes.
Teaching is a craft. It’s both an art and a science and it can’t be accomplished by following a recipe. There is no guidebook or instruction manual or how-to video for how to be a great teacher. There is no secret formula or codified list of best practices that will guarantee success in your classroom.
This craft of teaching is often messy and confusing. You doubt yourself. You get frustrated. You make mistakes. Tons of them. And improvement is painfully slow.
And yet . . .
That’s the beauty of it. You get to explore like an astronaut, experiment like a scientist, design like an engineer, compose like a musician and create like an artist.
There’s no point where you “have arrived.” You are always arriving at new places and new ideas and new insights. As a creative teacher, you’re always exploring, always experimenting, always innovating. That’s what makes the journey so amazing.
We Need Roadmaps, Not Instruction Manuals
Right now, teachers all over the country are meeting in small groups, doing book studies to refine their practice. Without prompting from a district or a principal, they are are taking ownership of their learning. They own their learning.
Go to Twitter at any given moment and you’ll see teachers wrestling with big ideas, engaging in deep discussions about how to transform their practice. Some of these are formal chats. Others are doing it informally. They own their learning.
Meanwhile, teachers like Nick Provenzano are spending the summer making things. They are experimenting with new ideas, diving deep into the maker culture, and building new things. They own their learning.
These teachers are reading books and blog posts. They’re watching YouTube videos to get ideas. But they aren’t treating this as instruction manuals so much as road maps. There’s a key difference there. An instruction manual is about requiring, a road map is about inspiring. Instruction manuals demand compliance. Roadmaps inspire possibilities.
If you’re geeking out over design thinking frameworks (like Stanford d.school or LAUNCH) or if you’re getting into the BIE project-based learning framework, you’re using a road map. But you’re not using an instruction manual. Because design thinking and project-based learning aren’t about formulas. They can’t be distilled down into step-by-step directions. They are meant to be adjustable frameworks rather than packaged curriculum.
Instruction manuals fail because we are deeply human and messy. There are no average students. Every student is different. This is why formulas fail. There are simply too many variables at work. Teaching is inherently relational and that means it’s always changing. It’s why great teachers are always experimenting.
The best maps are the ones that inspire us to explore new places and set out on an epic journey.
But if this is true of teachers, isn’t this also true of students? What if we took our classrooms off-road? What if we allowed students to own the learning? So, here’s the challenge I would offer. Do a choice audit of your class and ask yourself, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?”
Your Invitation to Innovation
When I was a brand new teacher, my team leader Nancy created a “New Teacher Card” for me. It was a simple 3×5 card inviting me to experiment, make mistakes, try new things, and fail forward. It was an invitation to be different from day one.
I know that some people hate the word “innovative.” It has a business-y, high-tech, overused feel to it. But I’ve grown to love this word because I see it more as a chance to experiment and try new things and refine my craft.
You don’t always know if it’s going to work.
But that’s the beauty of it.
So, consider this blog post an invitation to a journey full of mistakes and scraped knees and moments of infuriating confusion.
Pretty glamorous, right?
Trust me, it’s totally worth it because epic things happen when you empower your students to own the learning.
Here’s the thing, when you accept the invitation to innovation, your students become innovators as well: