September 18, 2023

Risk-taking: A secret ingredient to learning

Our team takes a 2-week collective pause in July to rest and recharge. In past years, I’ve spent this time practicing Spanish in Oaxaca and spending quality time with my parents in Montana. But this year, I stayed local and set an intention to soak up time in the mountains and tap into the beauty that is close to home. 

More specifically, I set an intention to take a new-ish hobby — road biking — up a notch. While I’ve been a bike commuter for my entire adult life, I only got into more serious road biking seven years ago when my husband convinced me we should ride 300 miles down the coast of Sardinia on our honeymoon. That trip was 95% exhilarating and 5% grueling (I only cried once, but I took daily naps because I was so exhausted at the end of each day’s adventure). 

But that was seven years ago. I’m a stronger biker now and our July break gave me an opportunity to step it up — this time I took a 5-day road trip with my bike. I navigated the Rockies solo, researched and rode my own routes, and climbed peaks that were higher than anything else I had ridden before. 

As I transitioned back to work after those two weeks, I couldn’t help but notice that my solo adventure mirrors something we believe in our work:

Taking on a new and unfamiliar challenge is one of the most powerful catalysts for growth.

The research agrees. Learning & growth is one of the most important ingredients for individual and team success. James McKenna made the case recently in Harvard Business Review “...people with the will to learn, the skill to do it effectively, and the ability to apply that learning in ways that positively impact their performance and that of their teams.”1

And yet, it’s rare that professional learning experiences live up to their potential. McKenna’s research suggests that professional learning is often too abstract or too generalized. He calls this the “one-size-fits-none” phenomenon. Similarly, learning at work often happens in a vacuum via courses instead of in-the-flow of real work and therefore requiring practice, feedback and iteration.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Unfamiliar experiences, and the discomfort or challenge they invite, can unlock new possibilities at work. Mary Slaughter and David Rock wrote about the “just right” amount of challenge or discomfort in professional learning. “Quality learning requires what brain scientists call “desirable difficulty”. To be effective, learning needs to be effortful. The same way you feel a muscle “burn” when it's being strengthened, the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning.”2

We see the same thing play out with our partners. Liloni Ramos, who leads the Piton Fellowhsip at Gary Philanthropy shared her reflections on taking a group of Denver-based leaders to New Orleans in May.

“We make a point to take leaders out of their daily routines, work environments, and comfort zones to immerse them in learning in a new city. Introducing them to fresh experiences alongside others, we aim to sow the seeds of innovative ideas and connections that can enrich their work and communities back home. These initial seeds of inspiration take root during their time away from the usual routine, but they truly flourish and evolve when our leaders return to their respective roles, ultimately bringing about positive change.”

Mark Gabriel who leads adult learning experiences at Embark reflected on the wonder and curiosity that newness brings.

“Only when we get out of our comfort zone and engage with new and diverse experiences can our minds (and thus body) be fully engaged. New experiences allow us to lead with curiosity and have a sense of wonder. They activate new parts of our brain, so that when we go back to our comfort zone, we bring a new perspective and ultimately new ideas and solutions.”

This fall, we’re excited to share more about how we design experiences that are ripe for learning in a short series of Kith posts. In the meantime, we hope you’ll find opportunities — big and small — to immerse yourself in something unfamiliar or take on a new challenge. Notice how it pushes you. Where discomfort arises. And ultimately how you grow as a result.

1 McKenna, J. (2023). Build a Strong Learning Culture on Your Team. Harvard Business Review.

2 Rock, D., Slaughter, M. (2018). No Pain, No Brain Gain: Why Learning Demands (A Little) Discomfort. Fast Company.

June 9, 2023

A case study for reimagining school

How might we redesign schools to be responsive to learners' needs and aspirations?

For the last 100 years, schools have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to student learning. But we know that one-size-fits-all does not address the diverse needs and interests of our kids. We often look to academics or politicians to propose changes to transform our outdated education system. But what if we trusted our students as the experts of their own learning experiences? 

We’re working with Maureen Joy Charter School, a preK - 8th grade school in Durham, NC to redesign how students learn (and teachers teach), so that 8th graders who walk out of Joy's doors are motivated and empowered to shape their own futures. We spoke with Meen Cho and Kim Bowen, teachers at Joy, to discuss how they’re thinking about the ambitious work they’re taking on.

Marielle: From your perspective, has anything changed about the role that teachers play at school since when you first started teaching?

Meen: When I first started teaching, I believed my only role was to ensure students learn. I kept a distance between me and my students. Now, I see teaching less as delivering information, and more about having an experience alongside the young people I work with.

Kim: I found out after my first year teaching that we are not just teachers. We are parents, we are counselors, and sometimes we're nurses. Sometimes we're social workers when we need to be. I wish people would see these other roles we take on because, to some, we are just babysitters, and that’s just not true.

Marielle: We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented pace, yet schools basically look the same and function the same as they did a hundred years ago. As you embark on this redesign journey at Joy, what are some initial ideas that you have to bring your students into the future? 

Meen: First, getting input from students about their learning is so important. When they're given a choice, you can see that students take great responsibility for that choice. From a student’s perspective, the journey they’re experiencing is more important than what comes at the end. When I ask myself, ‘what’s the point of school?’ it's about the students’ journey of exploring their interests and the interests of their peers. Our role is to provide a safe and guided environment for them to make these discoveries.

Marielle: What mindsets and skills do you believe students need to be successful in the future?

Kim: A growth mindset. I've heard a lot of my students say, ‘I can't do this.’ They don’t believe that it's okay to get things wrong. When they make a mistake, it's like the end of the world. I feel like school needs to be a space where students can connect things that happen here to what happens out there in the real world. When school seems irrelevant, my students stop learning because they think, “well, we're not gonna use this in the real world anyway.”

Marielle: When you talk with your students, what do you hear from them about the kinds of learning experiences they most crave? 

Kim: I feel like students want that responsibility back over their own education. They want more fun. The number one thing I hear is that they're bored. To kids, we do the same thing all the time and I think they're looking for more relevant experiences. For example, they’re so tech savvy, so we could bring more technology into our lessons. They could use their phones as a positive tool, to share ideas, to integrate tech into our lessons in a positive way. 

Meen: Students want to pursue their interests. I have students that want to do more drawing in math class or that want to learn how to make an origami box. I think one of my kids is really obsessed with axolotls. And all these different things they want to learn inspires other kids to say, “oh that's interesting to me too!” They'll center around the idea of their peers, learn together, and then we move on to the next kid’s idea. But they all have ideas about what they want to learn.

Marielle: In April, we visited schools and organizations throughout Durham who think about learning in different ways than a traditional school might. What did you see that made you think differently about your work at Joy?

Kim: At Central Park, students were roaming free. I saw one student on an exercise bike getting his notes done, there were some sitting on the floor, the room had a coffee table, etc. Kids had more ownership. This made me think that learning doesn't have to look uniform. Kids can have independence and still focus. School can be a place where kids feel like they're at home. 

Meen: Watching the teacher give everyone a voice was really refreshing to see. She asked questions like “Is it okay if we do this now? What's going to happen next?” Seeing that kind of democracy is something I would like to try here because I think it shows students that their opinion actually does matter and their teacher is a facilitator, not a tyrant. 

Marielle: What makes Durham unique? What experiences do you want your kids to have outside the classroom in their city? 

Kim: I went to The Inspiration Project’s session on Museum’s and Libraries and it reminded me of all the untapped places that we could bring students to here in Durham. We could invite folks to come and talk to the kids about the different things they’re interested in, like podcasts, and talk shows, and music. Knowing these people and organizations exist here could help students explore their passions.

Meen: Durham has grown so exponentially within the last 10 years. And it's going to continue growing, though I feel like sometimes the kids feel like there's nothing special here and so therefore they're not special. But it is a unique place and so are my students. If they see that uniqueness of Durham, they might see that uniqueness in themselves. Once they start to love where they're from, they can start to love who they are and love their fellow community members too.

Kim Bowen

Teacher, Maureen Joy

Meen Cho

Teacher, Maureen Joy

April 24, 2023

What can Trash Art teach us about curiosity?

It is time to pause, to listen. 

My name is Alison Kerr and I've worked in education for over twenty years in various educator and leadership roles. I know how to go hard, grind, and hustle. My ultimate purpose of transforming what schooling can look like and disrupting our inequitable system has never wavered — I mean, it’s what has gotten me out of bed for the last two decades!

As a leader, I want to thrive. I want to grow. I want to expand. I want to imagine what's possible in my work and in the world. 

So, it’s no surprise that I’ve frequently sought out many ‘professional’ learning experiences. From a learners’ perspective, these experiences have predictably focused on technical strategies or used overly-complex leadership frameworks. To me, these experiences were like eating a tasteless meal of boiled vegetables on repeat, simply because I was told they would be ‘good for me’. 

What impact did they have? A feeling of overwhelm, the shame of ‘not doing enough’, loneliness, and a pit in my stomach as I considered how I was going to start implementing ten new things tomorrow.

In January, I experienced a learning experience that actually fueled my appetite; I joined the Inspired Leader Cohort with a group of fellow courageous leaders from across the country. Over ten weeks, in five sessions, we explored the relevant topics of curiosity, focus, disruption, sustainability, and creativity — but with a very out-of-the-box flavor. We sourced our inspiration from non-educational spaces and people. I left each session satisfied (emotionally and cognitively), energized, and still hungry to apply my new insights in my own context. 

After our first session of inspiration, I was left thinking: Who knew that I could learn so much about curiosity from a trash artist?

In this session with trash art activist Benjamin Von Wong, I was struck by this idea that he posed: ‘curiosity starts a conversation and ignites the desire for people to learn more’. 

"In this session with trash art activist Benjamin Von Wong, I was struck by this idea that he posed: ‘curiosity starts a conversation and ignites the desire for people to learn more’. "

48 hours after this session, in my day-to-day at a team meeting, I offered a new idea about how we could better support educators. Instead of dreading the anticipated conflict and roadblocks from the team, I actually leveraged the divergent viewpoints to engage them more deeply in curiosity. The team, now fired up in all the best ways, reengaged with the topic via something relevant (the unique needs of educators they work with). This allowed us to think bigger and arrive at a bolder idea that we believe will profoundly impact educators and ultimately, young people.

We spent only 90 minutes with a trash art activist considering curiosity. Within two days, I translated a learning insight into an action that was deeply relevant to my work. And the best part? It was engaging, simple enough to try on and joyful! 

Throughout the cohort experience, I had additional aha leadership moments from provocations from a ceramicist, a nun, and a breakdancer. I got the rare chance to hear brutally honest and compelling storytelling. I was given permission to slow down, glean my own takeaways, and collectively make meaning of my learning within a community of peers. 

We strive towards cultivating transformative learning experiences for young people but it makes me wonder — why do we rarely have access to these transformative learning experiences as adults and as leaders in the field?

The ten weeks in this fellowship have been the disruptive and immersive experience I didn’t know I needed. It has provided me with nourishing ways to stay focused, inspired, and sustained in the work that I do. It has also created a clearing, where I have found new courage to shift patterns in my leadership that I’ve held for so long. 

So, pause, listen, learn. Inspiration can live in the most unexpected places.

Alison Kerr

Partner, Network Learning & Development at Transcend

March 29, 2023

Learning from learners

At Franklin Street, we've created a design brief to help us understand who our learners are and what they need (and don’t need!) to engage in an inspiring learning experience.

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February 22, 2023

On Inspiration

How often do you feel inspired? Marielle shares how her personal journey to find inspiration led to designing inspirational experiences in her work today.

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December 12, 2022

What happens when young people are in charge?

Youth leader and college student Yodit Ghebrezgabiher shares what it takes for adults to let go and trust young people to take the lead.

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November 28, 2022

On Focus

Last week, Brittany and Marielle traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico with 24 education entrepreneurs. We spent the week in search of inspiration from incredible leaders and organizations based in New Mexico, like the Native American Community Academy, Explora, The Indiginous Farm Hub, and New Mexico United. 

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October 12, 2022

On Coaching

What does the word #coaching mean to you? When have you been #coached into success? Yvonne Delbanco, Franklin Street’s Head of Teams, finds that the challenges of pre-school drop-off and a team’s strategy retreat aren’t so different.

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September 9, 2022

Putting learners in the driver’s seat

After years teaching middle school, Miguel stepped out of the classroom to found Embark, a micro-middle school in Denver. Miguel is also the founder of Iterative Space, a paid fellowship for educators to exchange ideas about innovative learning and bring passion projects to life.

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September 9, 2022

Welcome to the Franklin Street blog!

I’m Britt Erickson, the founder of Franklin Street Studio.  As we come up on our two year anniversary, we’re launching a blog to be more intentional about staying in touch with our community—that’s you!

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