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What If Great Minds Designed Our Schools?



What If Great Minds Designed Our Schools?

contributed by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D, American Institute For Learning & Human Development

The long-awaited test results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in, and although there’s something there for any educator who wants to give their own personal spin to the statistics, overall, the United States has seen no fundamental change in its scores since the program began in 2000. 

In addition, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (‘The Nation’s Report Card’), recently released reading and math test scores for fourth and sixth graders and the results have been less than stellar. Showing declines in reading and little progress in math, these results are bound to stimulate calls for new education reforms.

The Miseducation of America

In digesting these results, we should keep in mind the historical context of U.S. efforts to raise achievement levels in our schools. This campaign for school reform arguably dates back to 1983, when the then U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, wrote in his seminal report ‘’A Nation at Risk’’ that American schools were being ‘’eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.’’ His paper unleashed what became a concerted attempt over the following thirty-five years to reform American schools.

The leaders in this effort were politicians (particularly state governors), CEOs of large corporations, and educational bureaucrats. They held summits, passed laws (including the infamous No Child Left Behind Act), instituted more ‘rigorous’ requirements for students, and promoted new forms of standardized testing and standards-based curricula. Yet as noted above, American academic achievement levels haven’t changed much, and in some cases have even declined a bit. 

In other words, this massive multi-billion-dollar push for improvement in America’s schools has failed in its aims to raise the level of academic achievement in our students.

Moreover, it has made the lives of many of our students more stressful as a result of the pressure to succeed. Doctors are increasingly seeing children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers, and many physicians see a clear connection to school performance pressure. A third of our adolescents report feeling depressed or overwhelmed because of stress, and their single biggest source of stress is school, according to the American Psychological Association. While policymakers are busy arguing about how to handle future efforts to advance academic achievement levels in our students, I suggest that we stop trying to push for higher test scores and move instead in an entirely new direction based upon a totally different set of educational expectations. 

Perhaps it wasn’t all that wise to entrust our nation’s educational welfare to a bunch of politicians, corporate executives, and educational bureaucrats. After all, these particular professions have their own hidden agendas determining education policy. Politicians are hoping to gain votes from their constituents, CEOs are looking to boost their companies’ financial bottom line, and educational bureaucrats are aiming to construct ever more exacting rules, regulations, and routines that are the veritable stuff of their trade. I’d like to suggest, instead, that we listen to another class of individuals who are motivated purely by their desire to envision the best that education has to offer to our schoolchildren.

I’m talking about the great thinkers and creators of our culture. 

Schooling By Design: What Einstein Said About Education

Consider, for example, this thought experiment. What if Albert Einstein ran our schools? He’s usually the first person that pops into one’s head when thinking about the world’s smartest individuals and his theories have literally changed the way we view the universe. As it turns out, Einstein had strong opinions about education and how it should be conducted which we could fruitfully apply to future reforms in our schools. (See Learning Lessons from Albert Einstein.)

First of all, if Einstein ran our schools, he most definitely would discourage the current focus on standardized testing and a standards-based curriculum. In an essay entitled ‘’On Education,’’ he wrote: ‘’A community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development.’’ 

Elsewhere he stated: ‘’I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.’’ Instead, Einstein most likely would place a lot of emphasis in our classrooms on unleashing students’ imagination. It was through his own imagination that he helped to create a totally new way of looking at reality. In high school, for example, he visualized himself racing alongside a beam of light, and in his young adulthood, he imagined what it would feel like to be in a closed elevator in outer space as it began to accelerate (the experience would be equivalent to gravity). These visual-kinesthetic images were the intellectual ‘seeds’ for his special and general theories of relativity.  

Another project that Einstein would most probably encourage in the schools is the promotion of students’ curiosity. Quoted in a 1955 Life Magazine article, he said, ‘’The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a sense of holy curiosity.’’ (See also Why Questions Are More Important Than Answers.)

Einstein’s attitude toward curiosity stands in stark contrast to today’s classrooms in the United States where students are required to make progress on hundreds of tasks that are a part of the standards-based approach implemented by the states as part of their educational reform efforts. The Common Core State Standards which are used by 41 states, for example, include such instructional outcomes as being able to ‘’form and use comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs, and choose between them depending on what is to be modified,’’ in language arts and ‘’solve word problems leading to equations of the form px +q = r, where p, q, and r are specific rational numbers’’ in math.

What Other Great Minds Have Said About Education

There’s not much room in these standards for curiosity. Einstein cautioned us to keep our priorities straight with respect to education when he wrote: ‘’It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he—with his specialized knowledge—more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.’’ If in our rush to raise test scores we ignore such guidelines from arguably the world’s smartest person, we do so at our own peril. 

Other great contemporary thinkers have likewise spoken out passionately about education, including Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson. Their educational ideas make no mention of testing, but do involve such qualities as imagination, curiosity, wonder, playfulness, creativity, compassion, love of learning, tolerance, and beauty. 

Environmentalist Rachel Carson would emphasize care for nature and developing a sense of wonder. She wrote: ‘’If I had influence with the good fairy . . . I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life . . . ‘’  The Dalai Lama would make social and emotional learning a priority in the schools, saying that ‘’[i]n addition to basic education, we need to encourage warm-heartedness, concern for others and compassion.’’

Martin Luther King Jr. was prescient in his concern for helping students distinguish fact from fiction in the news when he wrote, ‘’To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion is one of the chief aims of education.’’ 

Primatologist Jane Goodall told an audience of educators at New York University: ‘’Children I think are born with an immense desire to learn. . .. [They] are made to spend too long sitting in class and not enough time going out and learning the way that we learn best, which is by exploring. It’s by touching. It’s by feeling.’’  

Making Marvels Happen in Our K12 Classrooms

While recommendations like these might seem for many to be too lofty to serve as a practical foundation for American education, the fact is that there are schools across America that have already been implementing these ideas. Julie Mann, a high school teacher in Long Island City, New York, takes her students on ‘awe’ walks to connect nature with art. Blackwell, Oklahoma second-grade teacher Haley Curfman stimulates the creativity of her students by letting them draw, doodle, and color on a completely white dress that she wears to class.

High school students at Long Beach Unified School District created ‘curiosity cabinets,’ or exhibits containing found objects and other materials that intrigued them.  Education expert Molly Barker taught tolerance to primary school students by taking pairs of cast-off shoes and labeling them ‘poor,’ ‘rich,’ ‘boy,’ ‘girl,’ ‘homeless,’ ‘physically disabled,’ ‘old,’ ‘young,’ ‘sick,’ and then asking the kids to literally ‘walk in another person’s shoes.’’ High school seniors in Lima, Ohio work collaboratively to imagine and design figural sculptures using only recycled materials. 

It only requires an act of will on the part of education leaders to make the choice to transform our schools into places where students can fully realize their potential as passionate learners. The dismal test results on the PISA and National Assessment of Educational Progress should only serve as a wake-up call to the fact that we are traveling on the wrong road toward excellence and should instead be making a major commitment to the core learning principles subscribed to by our culture’s greatest minds. 


Abeles, A. (2016, January 2). Is the drive for success making our children sick? The New York Times.

Barshay, J. (2019, October 30). U.S. education achievement slides backwards. The Hechinger Report.

Bethune, S. (2014, April).  Teen stress rivals that of adults. Monitor on Psychology, 45 (4), 20. 

Callahan, C. (2018, February 23). Why this 2nd-grade teacher let her students draw all over her white dress. Today.

Carson, R. (1956). The Sense of Wonder, New York: Harper & Row.

Chan, A. (2014, March 3). Students make something of themselves. The Orange County Register.

Einstein, A. (1995).  Ideas and Opinions, New York: Broadway Books.

Goodall, J. (2013, September 21). Educating for a just, peaceful and sustainable future.  

Isaacson, W. (2008). Einstein:  His Life and Times.  New York:  Simon & Schuster. 

King Jr., M.L. (1947, January-February). The purpose of education. The Maroon Tiger.

Klemann, M. (2020, January 22). Lima Senior unveils ‘makerspace’ classroom.

Life Magazine. (1955, May 2). Death of a genius–-old man’s advice to youth: ‘Never lose a holy curiosity.’

Miller, K. (2012, August 28). Teaching compassion: Changing the world through empathy and education. ParentMap.

Plato, (n.d.) The Republic, Book VII.

Schopenhauer, A. (2015). Studies in Pessimism:  The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 

Simmons, E. (1968). Introduction to Tolstoy’s Writings, Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Spencer, P. (2016, October 7). Feeling awe may be the secret to health and happiness.  Parade Magazine. 

The Dalai Lama (2013, June 13). Education matters says His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Sydney.”

Viereck, S. (1929, October 26).  What life means to Einstein. Saturday Evening Post. 

Whitehead, A.N. (1967). The Aims of Education and Other Essays, New York: Free Press.


Thomas Armstrong is has been an educator for the past forty-seven years and the author of 19 books including his latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education (Praeger). Visit his website at and follow him on Twitter @Dr_Armstrong.

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What Is Edcamp? An Overview For Teachers



What Is Edcamp? An Overview For Teachers

by TeachThought Staff

What is Edcamp? In summary, Edcamp is a low-cost, ‘bottom-up’ approach to teacher improvement where ‘conference’ participants gather, decide what’s going to be learned, then set out to teach one another in a laid-back, communal approach of sessions.

Obviously, the big idea is in the contrast to large conferences or formal professional development (which we also offer and believe has a role in education improvement) that is more ‘top down’ and pre-determined–that is, where a few people come and deliver content to a lot of people about a topic more or less out of their control. Edcamps are often called ‘unconferences’ and the video below explains why.

According to, in an Edcamp event, educators simply gather to learn:

EdCamps are ‘unconference’ events with a focus on education and learning. Most professional learning is done where participants listen to one person who shares their presentation with the audience. EdCamps on the other hand are meant to encourage conversation and participation among the attendees. Participants determine the topics for the day and take an active role in setting the direction of the conference. In the first hour of EdCamp NEPA, attendees will meet and interact over coffee and a light breakfast. An empty session board will be available for everyone to post session titles. From that, a session board will be constructed that will provide the schedule for the day.

Common Elements Of ‘An Edcamp’

A session board for day-of session planning

Participant-driven ‘PD’

Teacher collaboration

Food and ‘swag’

Sponsors (cheap doesn’t mean zero-cost)

Short 30-60 minute sessions

Use of social media to share learning and connect with teachers inside and beyond the Edcamp event using twitter and hashtags like #edcamp and #edcampusa, for example

Teacher-driven ‘promotion’ of Edcamp event that often includes blogs, digital/social ‘groups,’ and larger sign-up tools like Eventbrite

Why Edcamp?

In a previous post on TeachThought from 2014, Dawn Casey-Rowe offered her view on Edcamp:

EdCamp is the essence of collaboration–melding and sharing of ideas in the spirit of excitement. How many school professional development days have seen faculty disappointed that there wasn’t enough slots to do all the interesting professional development?

Now, imagine this. Imagine that your faculty meeting had no agenda. Imagine that there was simply a grid in the front of the room with a certain amount of empty spaces with corresponding rooms and participants could put “I’m going to present this!” Some rooms might have (academic) standards, others might have co-teaching, still others could have “physical fitness and student/teacher wellness.” It could be anything. People vote with their feet–the sessions that were the most helpful for people would be the ones that fill up. It might be that there were a couple of mandatory sessions. It might be the entire day could be up to the participants. But to really do it right, you’d have a nice table full of coffee and treats, and just let the day flow.

Consider having an Edcamp or Edcamp-style PD event at your school and getting your rock star faculty to take ownership of the subject material. You’ll save money, give respect to your on-staff experts, and have a day full of community building and interesting collaboration. Set up a twitter board and tweet between sessions. I give a guarantee this will be a PD format you’ll want to continue.

The Background Of Edcamp

According to their About Us, the story of how Edcamp got started is fairly simple: Educators got together to improve independent of a conference, local requirement, or large-scale training. They just gathered and grew.

The first Edcamp was organized in 2010 by a group of teachers in Philadelphia who met up for a computer science “un-conference.” At BarCamp, they collaborated with others to create discussion sessions based on the interests of the people in the room. There was no presenter; no boring slideshow. The entire day was personalized and learner driven with those in the room sharing their experience and expertise. At the end of the day, the teachers decided this model was too good to contain! They exchanged contact information, and within the next few months they used the “unconference” model of BarCamp to target educators.

We’ll have more on Edcamps soon. In the meantime, if you want to search for Edcamps near you, here you go.

If you’d like to see what they look like ‘ in real life,’ here are some pictures of previous Edcamps shared by participants.

What Is Edcamp? An Overview For Teachers

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Actors Theater Announces New Voices Young Playwrights Festival For Students



From a press release

LOUISVILLE, KYActors Theatre of Louisville is proud to announce the return of the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival. This year’s lineup will feature eight new plays by local high school students. The 15th annual festival will be sponsored by the LG&E and KU Energy Foundation. The New Voices Festival will run from April 27-29, 2020.

This year, 833 students submitted plays in consideration for the New Voices Festival. This includes students from 31 schools in 6 counties in Kentucky and Indiana. Selected plays for the festival were chosen by a group of 37 readers, made up of Actors Theatre staff and volunteers. The winning playwrights represent seven different high schools.

This year’s festival marks the first time a winner has been chosen from Central High School.

The festival is produced by the Learning & Creative Engagement team at Actors Theatre. Each piece is assigned a director, dramaturg, design team, and group of actors from the Professional Training Company (PTC), who work in conjunction with the playwrights to bring these pieces to life. Together, each team participates in workshops, production meetings, and a full rehearsal process before the festival in April. Each year, the plays produced in the festival are also published in the New Voices Young Playwrights Anthology.

To reserve tickets to review, to request images or for any other press inquiries, please contact Elizabeth Greenfield, Director of Communications, [email protected].

Actors Theatre’s Professional Training Company is generously supported by a significant grant from The Roy Cockrum Foundation. The $1.2 million award supports grants over a ten-year period for each apprentice during the nine-month program, and enables year-round employment for the program’s leadership. Founded by Roy Cockrum, the Foundation supports world-class performing arts projects in not-for-profit professional theatres throughout the United States. The Foundation considers grants by invitation only and is dedicated to helping non-profit theatres reach beyond their normal scope of activities and undertake ambitious and creative productions. 

The selections for this year’s 15th Annual New Voices Young Playwrights Festival

Once Upon a Breakroom
by Alexandra Rapp (Mercy High School)

The Bow and Its Arrow
by Jocelynn Pry (Brown High School)

Posthumous Mishaps
by J.C. Hyde (Floyd Central High School)

His Lesson
by Lita Van (Atherton High School)

Sister Shook
by Skylar Wooden (Central High School)

Waffle Angel
by Aiden Kash (St. Francis High School)

by Katie Dobson (Ballard High School)

Postmodern Dad
by Ethan Bower (Salem High School)

Honorable Mentions:
A Bite of Strange Fruit
by Olivia Benford (Moore High School)

by Islan F (Brooklawn)    

Listing Information


15th New Voices Young Playwrights Festival
An Evening of New Work
Written by local high school students
Sponsored by the LG&E and KU Energy Foundation.
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Bingham Theatre

Press Opening
Tuesday, April 27
7:00 p.m.
Bingham Theatre

April 27, 28, 29 at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets are $5.
Tickets will be available starting in April.

Call the Box Office at 502.584.1205 or visit

To reserve tickets to review, to request images or for any other press inquiries, please contact Elizabeth Greenfield, Director of Communications, [email protected]About Learning & Creative Engagement at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Erica Denise, Director of Learning & Creative Engagement
Janelle Renee Dunn, Learning & Creative Engagement Associate 
Abigail Miskowiec, Learning & Creative Engagement Associate

As the home of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville is world-renowned for developing new work by playwrights with varying styles, interests, opinions and innovative approaches to making plays. Learning & Creative Engagement shares this energy and passion for playmaking by venturing into classrooms and teaching the art and craft of playwriting in fun, collaborative and differentiated ways.

By harnessing the wildly creative resources under its roof, the Learning & Creative Engagement department at Actors Theatre of Louisville aims to create outstanding artistic and learning experiences, where young people of all backgrounds, from elementary school to college, are invited to see plays and make theatre happen.

About the New Voices Playwriting Residency

Since its inception in 2003, the New Voices Playwriting Residency has introduced thousands of students from around the region to the basics of playwriting. Over the course of nine sessions, character development, conflict, dramatic structure and stakes are explored, as every student completes a ten-minute play. The Residency has inspired an annual New Voices Play Contest, a New Voices Young Playwrights Festival—fully produced by Learning & Creative Engagement and the Professional Training Company—and published New Voices anthologies of student-written work.

About the Professional Training Company
Jonathan Ruiz, Professional Training Company Producer

Now in its 48thyear, the Professional Training Company (PTC) is the cornerstone of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s commitment to education. One of the nation’s oldest pre-professional training programs, the PTC is a one-of-a-kind immersive program designed to elevate early-career practitioners in the American theatre industry by teaching the business and art of being a theatre professional. Members of the Company work directly with Actors Theatre artistic, administrative and production staff leaders as well as visiting guest artists, to receive hands-on training in their respective fields. The PTC is a diverse ensemble comprised of 39 talented individuals who are the next generation of American theatre. 

About Actors Theatre of Louisville
Robert Barry Fleming, Artistic Director

Now in its 56th Season, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the State Theatre of Kentucky, is the flagship arts organization in the Louisville community. Actors Theatre serves to unlock human potential, build community, and enrich quality of life by engaging people in theatre that reflects the wonder and complexity of our time.

Actors Theatre presents almost 350 performances annually and delivers a broad range of programming, including classics and contemporary work through the Brown-Forman Series, holiday plays, a series of theatrical events produced by the Professional Training Company, and the Humana Festival of New American Plays—the premier new play festival in the nation, which has introduced more than 450 plays into the American theatre repertoire over the past 43 years. In addition, Actors Theatre provides over 15,000 arts experiences each year to students across the region through its Learning & Creative Engagement Department, and boasts one of the nation’s most prestigious continuing pre-professional resident training companies, now in its 48th year.

Over the past half-century, Actors Theatre has also emerged as one of America’s most consistently innovative professional theatre companies, with an annual attendance of 140,000. Actors Theatre has been the recipient of some of the most prestigious awards bestowed on a regional theatre, including a Tony Award for Distinguished Achievement, the James N. Vaughan Memorial Award for Exceptional Achievement and Contribution to the Development of Professional Theatre, and the Margo Jones Award for the Encouragement of New Plays. Actors Theatre has toured to 29 cities and 15 countries worldwide, totaling more than 1,400 appearances internationally.

Currently, there are more than 50 published books of plays and criticism from Actors Theatre in circulation—including anthologies of Humana Festival plays, volumes of ten-minute plays, monologues, essays, scripts, and lectures from the Brown-Forman Classics in Context Festival. Numerous plays first produced at Actors Theatre have also been published as individual acting editions, and have been printed in many other anthologies, magazines, and journals—making an enduring contribution to American dramatic literature.

You can find more information at

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Survey: High School Students Are Tired, Bored, And Stressed



image attribution flickr user Tulane Public Relations

by TeachThought Staff

Researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center surveyed 21,678 American high school students and found that nearly 75% of the students’ emotions about school were negative.

Yale News published recently the results from the survey–with co-author and research scientist Zorana Ivcevic admitting that the percentage was surprising.

“It was higher than we expected,” Ivcevic explained. “We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.”

The article continued to break down the gist: High school students are tried–and not just tired, but stressed and bored:

“They are on the positive side of zero,” Ivcevic said, “but they are not energized or enthusiastic.” Feeling “interested” or “curious,” she noted, would reveal a high level of engagement that is predictive of deeper and more enduring learning.”

It continued, “In the open-ended responses, the most common emotion students reported was tired (58%). The next most-reported emotions — all just under 50% — were stressed, bored, calm, and happy. The ratings scale supported the findings, with students reporting feeling stressed (79.83%) and bored (69.51%) the most. When those feelings are examined with more granularity, said Ivcevic, they reveal something interesting. The most-cited positive descriptions–calm and happy–are vague.”

We investigated students’ feelings at high school in a nation-wide survey of 21,678 US students (study 1), and in a four-week study using experience sampling methodology (ESM) with 472 students across 5 high schools (study 2).

Abstract Excerpt

Study Highlights

75% of all feelings students reported in their open-ended responses were negative.

Feeling tired was the most prominent feeling, across measures and samples.

Negative feelings about school prevailed across all demographic groups.

Survey Takeaways

We’ve explored emotion as a cause and effect of learning for years–even going as far as to suggest that emotion is more important than understanding. when Terry Heick explained, “While you look for your students’ attention and try to cause engagement, it’s their emotion you need to skillfully identify, navigate and masterfully manipulate.”

In general, the survey is data that reports what most teachers already know: Students are tired and, mostly, bored. And stressed. The conclusions we take away from this data are more critical–and we might consider answering some of the following questions:

Why exactly are students bored? Content? Learning models? Pacing? Their expectations? Pressure? Agency and ownership (or lack thereof)? The survey looked at demographic data. Are there any co-relations with learning models, teacher experience, content areas, letter grades, and said boredom/tiredness/stress?

What are the primary causes of the ‘tiredness’? Mental health? Engagemet? Sleep quality? Sleep duration? (The former could be psychological while the latter more behaviorial.)

What is the impact of negative emotions not just on academic performance but the long-term quality of life for ‘students’ (i.e., young human beings)?

And maybe most critically and broadly, in the face of this data, how should we respond?


“We investigated students’ feelings at high school in a nation-wide survey of 21,678 US students (study 1), and in a four-week study using experience sampling methodology (ESM) with 472 students across 5 high schools (study 2). Both studies combined mixed methods, including open-ended questions and rating scales (e.g., PANAS). In study 1, seventy-five percent of the feelings students reported in their responses to open-ended questions were negative. The three most frequently mentioned feelings were tired, stressed, and bored. Similar findings emerged with rated items, The prevalence of negative feelings was largely similar across demographic groups. Study 2 largely corroborated the findings from study 1. Although the retrospective measures showed similar results to study 1, the in-the-moment measures also showed frequent positive feelings. We discuss the findings in light of the ‘sleep deprivation epidemic,’ the achievement motivation literature, and implications for the validity of state- and trait measures of academic emotions.”

To analyze the data and methodology, you can download the full survey results here.

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