Available March 21, 2023
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Trust kids. That’s the takeaway from public school educator-turned nonprofit founder Chris McNutt, whose work at the Human Restoration Project aims to revolutionize teacher and student well-being. What would schools look like if we designed an educational system around trust? How could student agency and teacher creativity become pillars of a progressive, future-focused education? And how do we get there?
Chris joins host Tim Fish for an in-depth conversation about his journey from teacher to changemaker, and why he believes all schools—public and independent—could benefit from a little bit of “chaos.” His nonprofit organization offers resources, writings, tools, and training to help educators break free of the restrictive mindsets they may have about curriculum and classroom management.
Chris says his transformation began with an “existential crisis” after realizing that his students were unable to recall even the most basic facts about a curricular module they’d focused on for months. Once the classroom unit was over and they no longer needed to remember the material, the students didn’t retain what he and his fellow teachers had worked hard to deliver. That realization led him to examine his teaching practices, return to foundational pedagogical ideas he’d left behind in college, and explore how to create a curriculum that would be meaningful enough to students for the material to stick.
Throughout the conversation, Tim and Chris delve into the nuances of educational ideas like constructivism and the work of renowned thought leaders from Bell Hooks to Jay McTighe. Chris describes his experiences with turning curricular control over to his ninth-grade classroom, and what relinquishing his tightly curated lesson plans did for both culture and content. At the heart of the discussion is a deeply rooted belief in student agency and choice, which Chris places at the center of restorative educational practices.
With any model that relies on student agency, there are questions about the role of the teacher. Chris and Tim enthusiastically agree that teachers are professionals whose meaning and value too often are left out of conversations about “improving” education. As Chris enumerates the value propositions upheld at Human Restoration Project, he maintains that students learn to respect the worth of their classmates and teachers through the model of teachers respecting the worth of the community. And for the community to thrive, Human Restoration Project believes there are four pillars that must exist:
But all of those propositions, Chris reminds us, come back to the need to trust kids. In too many schools, authoritarian and punitive practices are the norm, rising from a general distrust of students. Silent hallways, assigned lunchroom seating, lack of student choice, and many other common practices are symptoms of distrust and dehumanization—not effective strategies for discipline or community-building. And, Chris and Tim agree, fundamental lack of trust in kids also contributes to teacher burnout, as educators constantly strive for complete oversight and control of each moment of a student’s school day, beyond what’s reasonable or necessary for learning to take place.
- Learning is driven by purpose-finding community relevance;
- Social justice is the cornerstone to educational success;
- Dehumanizing practices don’t belong;
- Learners are respectful toward one another’s innate human worth.
Ultimately, Chris says, “no one is coming to save us.” He critiques top-down educational “reforms” that overburden teachers and overwhelm systems to the detriment of student engagement and learning. Too much focus on standardized assessments and prescriptive curricular models have led, he maintains, to a view of teachers as “technicians,” rather than as professionals with a deep relational role to fulfill in the lives of young people. The solution, he says, begins with listening. We must listen to kids, to teachers, to one another, and to our own instincts as human beings. Schools cannot be effective if they’re built around treating students in ways that most adults would resent. In the end, restoring trust to our schools and our relationships with learners is the foundation of building an educational system that can carry us into the future rather than deeper into the mistakes of the past.
Some of the key questions Tim and Chris explore in this episode include:
- What is the relationship between agency-rich, student-centered learning and rigor? Do you have to sacrifice one for the other?
- What does research show about the role of student choice and engagement in learning? How do we design classrooms that balance the need to get through a certain curricular sequence, and the brain science that demonstrates kids’ need for greater autonomy?
- Is a more student-centered, agency-rich education only available to independent schools right now? Are there examples of public and charter schools successfully implementing more student choice and restorative practices in classrooms?
- What are the levers of change available to educators, parents, and communities right now?
- How can educators access more positivity and hope for the future amidst a culture that relies on negativity, fear, and distrust?
- “So much of teaching the teacher has become seeing teachers as technicians. It's become, how can I tell teachers exactly what to do and keep firm control over the sequential pace of the curriculum? And as a result, that's how many teachers see their own classrooms…many teachers and teaching curriculums look at cognitive science and they go, oh, well it says right here that if you give kids X number of questions and talk to them for X amount of time, that is like, the perfect amount of time to talk to them about this concept. Therefore, let's do that over and over again until they improve their test scores.” (14:23)
- “No one's coming to save us. That top-down reforms from government organizations or from districts rarely lead to any type of solution. In fact, they often lead to more problems than they attempt to solve. For example, someone might come in and offer a new set of standards for us to look at and analyze and incorporate into our classrooms, which has happened, I felt like when I was teaching, every two years, there was some kind of new initiative to push for. And ultimately nothing changed, and it burnt a lot of people out.” (24:49)
- “To go into environments in which people believe that if the solution that you're proposing does not solve every single problem—I mentioned earlier that idea of a magic potion—and what that does, is when we think about every possible solution with some kind of challenge to it as being disaffective, we never will do anything to change anything that we're doing. We'll tinker around the edges and we'll go like, well, maybe if I just do this little tiny thing, cause that's nice and safe, that that will solve the problem.” (36:33)
- “If I walk into the room and think that kids are going to try to get away with something, I'm going to start pushing toward more carceral practices. I'm going to ban things. I'm going to tell kids what they can and can't do. And that's what leads us to schools where kids aren't allowed to talk in the hallway, or they're not allowed to have water bottles in classrooms, and these ridiculous things that I would never want to subject another person to at all.” (45:08)
- Read the full transcript here.
About Our Guest
Chris McNutt is a former public high school digital media and social studies educator who centered his practice on experiential learning, purpose-driven pathways and community involvement. As co-founder and executive director of the Human Restoration Project, he strives to create actionable resources for educators to promote human-centered, progressive education within their classrooms, spurring a grassroots movement for change.