Jeff, Co-Founder of Transcend, Father of 2, NY
Jeff is Co-Founder of Transcend, a non-profit focused on accelerating innovation in the design of P-12 learning environments. Visit www.transcendeducation.org to learn more about their great work. Jeff lives in New York with his wife and two children, who constantly fuel his inspiration and urgency. Jeff is part of our Education Leaders series (#edleader) and was interviewed by RE-ENVISIONED founder, Erin.
Think for a moment about a child that you care about – it could be your child, a niece or nephew, or a child you taught. Take a minute to think about the child and tell me what makes them unique.
We can use my son, Jacob. He’s ten years old and just finished fourth grade so he’s going to start middle school next year. I just yesterday dropped him off for his first time at sleepaway camp – he’s going to a science and technology themed sleepaway camp for a week. It’s one of the things he’s excited about. He also loves karate. It’s one of his favorite things to do and he wants to be a karate instructor when he’s older.
Think about Jacob when he’s all grown up, when he’s out of school in his 30s – what would be a good or successful life?
I want, first and foremost, for him to be happy and fulfilled. And I want him to be himself and think about what is his passion, and what is his unique gift and contribution, and I want him to use those to make the world a better place.
What do you think it takes to be happy and fulfilled?
Some of it, I think, is good relationships. Finding love, finding people he cares about, building lasting friendships with them. That’s probably the most important thing. Then, finding good work that enables him to tap into his unique passions and talents and make a difference. Those are definitely two of the important ingredients.
Is there anything you worry about as you think about him trying to achieve that life?
I worry about how crazy the world is - this country is right now. Who knows how things are going to unfold. I worry about whether his education right now is really allowing him to tap into his full potential and tap into his curiosity. I do also worry if his education right now is helping him learn to make friendships across lines of difference. These are a few things I worry about.
When you think about him being happy and fulfilled and having good work, what is the ideal role school would play in getting him there.
It should play a few roles. First, it should enable him to amplify his curiosity. It’s a gift he has and it’s one of the most important things for him, both in relationships and in finding good work. I hope that it will help him discover himself and his passions. I hope he’ll find things he’s really good at and that he’ll build some relationships with friends and other adults that will be satisfying now and in the future. And then, of course, I hope it will give him some of the core skills he will need in terms of thinking and reading and writing and math and scientific discipline as well.
You started talking about this a little, but do you think that school for him will do all of those things?
He’s in a traditional public school and, no, I don’t think he and the school are on track for all of that to happen, no. I think he’ll get core academics, I think he’ll build some relationships, but they’ll be more by chance than intentional, and hopefully he’ll discover things that he loves. But I am myself trying to play many different roles to help fill in the gap.
Can you say more about what you see those gaps as being?
Some are just literally the gaps about what he has the opportunity to be exposed to. His school doesn’t do a lot of projects or hands-on or experiential learning. So, that’s why he’s going to science camp. We take him to the robotics club at the library and things like that to supplement that kind of learning.
I was earlier referring to a gap around the diversity of the school composition and what that doesn’t set him up to do in terms of understand the diversity of society and complexity of difference.
In terms of the core academic skills, I think he could be moving and soaring very quickly through content and material in ways that he won’t have the chance to do because he would go faster than his grade level. He’s bored in school a good portion of the day, but then there are certain things he needs to work on more, like his ability to express himself verbally and in writing - he could and should be pushed on these more and really dig in, but he’s able to just coast through. So he and I are doing extra assignments to deal with those gaps. But if I were not proactive about it he wouldn’t be doing those things. And this is all at a, quote, “good school”.
When you think about, ideally, what you wanted for schools – you said amplifying curiosity, discovering himself, relationships, and core content skills - this is a slightly awkward question because you said it’s not fully happening for Jacob - but do you think it’s happening for all children? And, if not, why not?
No, I think it’s barely happening for any kid. It’s happening in small pockets, particularly for kids who have access to a rare set of schools, often private schools or occasionally public schools that are extremely well-resourced and well-run, but the vast majority of kids are getting some version of Jacob’s experience or worse.
Why do you think that is? And I realize it’s a complicated question.
Oh my goodness. I think that…I’m trying to figure out where to start. I think as a country we have not valued this profession nearly as much as some other countries value it. So we haven’t created a teaching force that is set up for success. I think our schools are designed to conform to a model that is far outdated.
Additionally, there are many kids in our country who are facing a large set of challenges that go beyond what schools are traditionally set up and resourced to deal with – trauma, poverty, health, housing, or any number of other issues – so we’re not fully serving our students. Arne Duncan said recently that, as a country we’re not valuing kids enough. The realities of racism and sexism are rampant in our society and our schools are largely not set up to combat those but rather to perpetuate them. I could go on, we could have a long discussion, but these are some of the main ones.
Thinking about those different levels, in terms of what a good life is, the ideal role of schooling in getting there, and whether that’s doing that for your child/all children. Where do you think people might agree or disagree with you? We can start with the "good life" question.
I don’t think what I’m saying about elements of a good life are particularly controversial. I think people might give different answers or additional answers – I think there’s a level of privilege in my answers. For instance, I wasn’t saying, I hope he walks around in the world and not get shot by police. I wasn’t saying I hope he can just survive in the middle class. I think there’s probably a category of other answers that I have the privilege to take for granted. I also wasn’t saying I hope he finds God and has a good spiritual life, which I think would be in many people’s answers. And I wasn’t really talking about him being a good citizen of this democracy and the world, which I think people would probably bring in as well. Those are some places where people might give other answers, but I don’t know that they would disagree with me – just that there’s many dimensions to that question.
Yes, what about what you would love for schools to be able to do for him? Do you think people agree? You had said amplify curiosity, discover himself, relationships, and develop the content skills he needs.
I think that I hope people would agree. I think some people might say, “I hope schools teach him to behave and develop self-discipline.” People might also say, “I just want him to learn the basics so he can read and write and get into college”. I think that people wouldn’t disagree with what I said but might say different things are important to them.
How about the “if not why not” question – if schools aren’t doing what people want them to be doing, why they might not be?
I think this might be the one where there’s the biggest amount of controversy. Some people would blame the teachers, some people would blame poverty, some would blame our values as a country, some people would blame unions, some would blame the “corporate reformers,” or charter schools, etcetera. The “why not” is the space where there’s a tremendous amount of controversy.
My main feeling is that everyone’s right in some respects, but all of our views are also incomplete. In our field, we’ve had so much focus on ‘why not’ that I think we’re better off working on how we all can think differently about what’s possible for the future.
When you think about your own learning experiences throughout life, this can be in school or not in school, is there one you can think of that was empowering for you?
I think probably it happened in college. The most empowering one – I went to a college that had no core curriculum, so I was challenged to think really hard about what mattered to me in my education and then live with the consequences of my choices. I really appreciated that; although I regret some of my course selection choices, I don’t regret having to grapple with those choices. For instance, I never took a history course in college – which is a problem – but I’d still rather have that trade-off than having to have followed someone else’s prescription of what they think I needed. So that to me was really empowering.
Is there a particular teacher you think of, in college or beforehand, who was your favorite teacher – and what was it about their teaching that struck you as particularly powerful?
Two, or maybe three, stick out for me. One was in college, I studied with Ted Sizer. I took several classes with him and with Nancy Sizer. One of them was a chance to design a high school. He basically gave us all the inputs and debates, and our job was to integrate all of that and actually design a school. It was by far my favorite class. I really appreciated the pedagogy of the class.
I also took another class with Ted and Nancy, which was a very involved class, where we visited schools around the Northeast and observed specifically for what they called “moral moments”: moments when students have the opportunity to derive moral lessons from what is going on around them. It was an ethnographic approach, and it was amazing too
I majored in psychology and I also had a professor, Kari Edwards, who was also my thesis advisor, who taught a big social psychology survey course. I was always motivated to design different and better learning experiences, and she gave me the opportunity to redesign that class. So I worked with her to redesign the class and make it more hands-on and reflective, based on constructivist principles. It was a great experience and I appreciated her so much that she gave me the chance and then going through with implementing the new design.
I also had a teacher in high school, Mr. Perkins, my chemistry teacher, who started a program for students to take chemistry and teach it to elementary school kids. That was one of my favorite things to do in high school. I started a program based on that in college. I got so much out of the teaching, I understood the science so much more deeply, and it gave me the opportunity to learn to build an organization as well. I’m very indebted to him too.
That’s awesome. I had a Mr. Perkins too but he was my A.P. European History teacher.
That’s funny, maybe they were brothers.
Ha, maybe, you never know!
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