New View EDU Episode 54: Full Transcript

Read the full transcript of Episode 54 of the NAIS New View EDU podcast, which features Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, returning to the show. She joins host Tim Fish for a discussion on how to create climates of care in our classrooms while also upholding academic standards.

Tim Fish: If you’re a frequent listener, you know that this season, we’ve been digging into the concept of mattering, as it was introduced by Jennie Wallace and Debra Wilson in the first episode. You know, we’ve also been exploring the concept of excellence and rigor and challenge and productive struggle. We’ve talked about the imperative to create schools filled with healthy strivers—students and staff who are alive with ideas, curious, productive, ambitious, and engaged.

Yet, we also know that as we strive to get there, we don’t want all the soul-crushing anxiety, worry, and depression that often accompany the push of school. We want schools filled with students like Mackenzie and Ella from One Stone School, who we interviewed at the end of Season 4. Well, today, friends, we’re going to continue our exploration into this topic with one of the nation's leading experts on healthy challenge and success. I am so excited to welcome Dr. Denise Pope: back into the studio.

Denise is a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and co-founder and strategic advisor at Challenge Success, a nonprofit that focuses on improving well-being, engagement, and belonging for K-12 students nationwide. Denise is also the author of a few of my favorite books: Doing School, and Overloaded and Unprepared. This is going to be a fun conversation. Let’s get to it.

Denise, thank you so much for coming back into the studio. It is so great to see you again.

Denise Pope: Thanks for having me again, Tim. I'm so excited!

Tim Fish: Well, you know, I'll tell you, our first episode was almost 30 episodes ago. And I listen to it, still, all the time. I just thought that conversation for me, as you and I have said many times before, we just seem to see the world the same way. And so I want to talk today about what's been going on in your world. What world are we both seeing? And how do we help schools navigate through a whole lot of stuff that's changed?

Denise Pope: Oh my gosh, so many things, so many things, Tim. We are still working with a lot of schools who are trying really hard to kind of come out of pandemic world. So a lot of things happened during the pandemic that you and I know. We have students who are still feeling very anxious, who are still struggling with mental health issues. We have students who are still trying to navigate learning loss, or things that happened during the pandemic that may have set them back. We have schools who are struggling to figure out, now, the world of AI, and what does that mean for how they teach, how they can use it for their own teachers and administrators, right, and efficiency, but also a huge worry about student cheating and academic integrity issues. And then the students are saying things like, Well, if AI can write for us, why do we need to learn how to write? And that led to a conversation of a student panel where the next question was, well, yeah, and if AI can do all these other things, what's the purpose of school? And you know, for like a nerd like me, that was like, yes, kids, this is exactly what we want to be talking about! 

Tim Fish: Oh man, oh man, right, right. Yeah, how did people answer that in the panel? What is the purpose of school? 

Denise Pope: As good educators, we threw it right back to the kids, right? And said, if you could think about the ideal purpose of school, what would it be, right?

Tim Fish: And what did they say?

Denise Pope: This was a while ago, but the sentiment was basically, and this was at a very progressive school, I should say, was like a chance for us to learn the skills that we'll really need when we get out. So the idea of sort of banning AI sounded absolutely ridiculous to them, because AI exists in the world. And when you get out, if you come out of a banned AI existence into a world where you're supposed to use it as a tool, they will have no idea how to use it. 

But they also just wanted school to really allow them to do the things that they're excited to do, to think about concepts that matter to them, that they feel are really important, as opposed to the kind of stuff that you get when you open up a textbook, let's say, or have to do a worksheet at 1 a.m. that you don't feel relates to you or your world in any way. And that's when they want to turn to AI and say, if it's meaningless, please chatbot, just do it for me.

Tim Fish: Yes! If I don’t care, if it doesn't matter to me, then why don’t I just have someone else or something else do it for me?

Denise Pope: Yeah, so lots going on.

Tim Fish: It’s so interesting. You know, I did this article that you and I had talked about for Independent School magazine called “Strand Theory,” where I was thinking about like, how do you design for transformation? And talked a lot about this. Strand one which is kinda teacher centered, teacher controlled, teacher designed, curricular learning. Strand two is flow, strand three is this interdependence, working in a team. And strand four is this like, notion of community, living for others, putting others before myself, right? Being in a, living in a more selfless environment. And the thing that I really find interesting is that really the key difference, I think school's too much strand one, and I think we don't do enough two, three, and four. 

And the real, one of the key differences between one and the others is this idea of who controls what I'm doing, right? It gets to the central piece we've been talking about on this podcast forever, agency, right? It's like, it's amazing. I just keep coming back to it. I just, I go wandering out to explore what the future should look like, and I keep finding my way back to agency. I mean, what do you, does that make sense to you?

Denise Pope: Well, yeah, I mean, and as you said at the very beginning of this podcast, I always agree with you, Tim, it absolutely makes sense. I love that concept of strand theory and that we need more flow, we need more interdependent learning, we need more community-based learning. 

At Challenge Success, we have what we call the trifecta, which is well-being, engagement, and belonging. And I think it basically says the same thing that your strand theory weaving is saying, which is, Well, first of all, at base, if you're not well, if you don't feel healthy enough to get up every day and come to school, if you're really struggling with debilitating anxiety or depression, you can't learn. So we have to solve that problem at base. But you also can't learn if you don't feel a sense of belonging to your community, whether that's your school community, your family community, your peers, you know, in your strand four, it's the larger community.

And I think people know this, but they don't think about, how do I then design for belonging in a classroom, right?

Tim Fish: I think we also assume it. When I talk to schools, I say, what makes you, what's your secret sauce? What do you do really, really well? And the number one answer I hear with schools across the country is community. We do community really well. And I don't disagree. I think that largely independent schools, the ones I've been in, are great communities. But we don't design enough intentionally to be really good at it. And I don't think we're anywhere near as good at it as we could be.

Denise Pope: Right, I agree with you. And I think teachers are not necessarily taught how to do this. And kids are not necessarily taught how to do this. So a school that will say, we do community well, might mean that, yeah, for the most part, people treat each other pretty nicely in the community, which, hey, I will take that, because look at what's going on around us in the world today. People are not treating each other nicely, right? 

But beyond that, I think you have to teach them. As an example, one of the things we know that helps build community is having kids work together often and with instruction on how best to do that. Because when you get out in the real world, and school is the real world, I don't like making that difference, but a lot of times kids don't think school is the real world because of the kinds of activities they're doing. You are put on teams with a wide variety of people with different personalities and interests and strengths. And you need to know how to work well with a wide variety of people. 

And when you throw kids into groups for group learning, I think there's an assumption that they know how to do that well, and they don't. And, you know, even my kids will say, Oh my gosh, don't tell people to do more group work! I get stuck with the slackers, or I hate that because, you know, this person's not pulling their weight and I have to do all the work, or whatever. Right. We have to actively teach how to work in community.

Tim Fish: Absolutely. And when you see it happen, when schools are doing this work, do you find that it also addresses areas that you talked about at the beginning? Depression, anxiety, not feeling like I belong, et cetera.

Denise Pope: Yes, so here's the beauty of the trifecta. I didn't even say the third part, did I? So the first part is well-being. The second part is well-being. And the third part is engagement, which encompasses agency that you and I talked about, right? We talk about effective engagement. You have to like what you're doing, enjoy it, be interested in it. Behavioral engagement. You want to do it. You want to get up every day and put forth the effort. And also cognitive engagement.

It means something to you, right? It has purpose, like those kids were wanting at the beginning of the podcast. So when you strengthen any of those three parts of that trifecta, you strengthen the other two parts as well. So when you are promoting belonging in the classroom and you're teaching kids how to work well with others, you are actually strengthening their well-being, right? It correlates with their well-being. They're going to feel better about themselves because they're needed as part of the group.

Because they now feel like they get along with others and they're not being teased or mocked or, they feel like they have value, right? So that's going to strengthen their well-being, but it's also going to strengthen their engagement. All of a sudden they say, oh, I'm part of this team and we're doing something meaningful. We're doing something that I'm interested in and excited about, and I'm working with others to do it. That's your strand two, three and four all together.

Tim Fish: Yeah. Well, that notion that it matters to me, right? I always say like, one of the things I've always wondered about is if you boil your educational philosophy down to a tweet, essentially, right? What, if you squeeze it, what is it? Mine had always been a diverse group, diverse community of learners doing meaningful work that matters.

Denise Pope: Right. I remember when I first met you, you wanted to put that on a t-shirt, and I was like, let's do it. 

Tim Fish: Let's do it! I think back on all the time I was teaching, there was a lot of time I walked in the room and spent an hour with young people. And I know that what we were doing that day, whether it was math or history or science or English, didn't actually matter that much to them, right? It mattered to me, but it mattered to me because I thought they needed it, right? And that was the key.

Denise Pope: That's the key, that's the key. So you think they need it, and here's the difference now, right? Sometimes you're right, they do need it, but we forget to tell them and show them and explain that and be transparent. But a lot of times we think they need it, not really. 

We think they need it because next year, when they go into Algebra 2, it's going to come back to haunt us that we didn't teach XYZ in Algebra 1. Or we think they need it because they're going to take the SAT, or we think they need it because of, they're going to have to know this when they get to college. And, and the world is changing so quickly right now in terms of information technology, in terms of the kinds of skills that people need. I don't think we can say with really great certainty, take your medicine. I know this is going to sound yucky or taste yucky, but you're going to need this later. I don't think that we know that enough now.

Tim Fish: I think you're right.

Denise Pope: We're going to have to really double down on some other stuff.

Tim Fish: Especially when it comes to content. There used to be this thing like, oh content, well you can find it on your iPhone anyway and blah, blah. And yes, but also now it's just, we don't even actually know what content you're really going to need. 

I was working with a school the other day, and they're spending the next six months as a school doing all these meetings and all this conversation, everything, because they feel like, you know what? We really need to coordinate our K through 12 curriculum. So we know what everyone's learning and when they're learning it, right? The scope and sequence, the “what” side of the house, right? And I don't disagree. Like, yes, you, should you have some type of thinking about what, the student experience and what are they learning about as they go through? Yes, I do think that.

And they were spending so much time on the what, this idea of like, OK, here's where they learned about the War of 1812. And they learned about the War of 1812 again in three years. Like that, I'm like, well, I don't know. And they weren't spending any time mapping your trifecta. What if instead, they had been mapping the trifecta experiences and saying, what does belonging look like in kindergarten? What does engagement look like in kindergarten? How do we build on that engagement in first grade and second grade? And the curriculum, the 1812 stuff is kind of irrelevant, right?

Denise Pope: It's so interesting, Tim. So I teach, this semester, curriculum construction, right? And in curriculum construction, the basis of curriculum theory is what should be taught, why should we teach it, and how should we teach it? The why, what, and how, OK? And if you go to the what before you go to the why, you have a problem.

Tim Fish: There it is. That was it. That's it. You said it so much better than me, Denise. That was the problem. The whole six months was what focused, not why focused.

Denise Pope: And in the grand scheme of things, and I want you to think back to how people used to learn things, right? We didn't have classrooms with desks and chairs and this knowledge-holding person imparting it at the front. We used to have an apprenticeship model, right? Where you learned from watching and being and doing meaningful work in the company of others, right?

We used to have a model where, for better or worse, you were taught morals and values of a community. Now, to be fair, those were rather insular back then. But we're missing some of the basic things that were learned long ago about what people need to be part of a society, and particularly a just society.

Tim Fish: Yeah.

Denise Pope: So I, if, if a school said to me, and I don't…look, I think there's problems right now with people who don't know history, as we hear sort of this fighting about different sides on different political subjects and what, there is a scary lack of knowledge of history. The reason you learn history is to not repeat it, but that doesn't mean you have to know dates and places and names, as much as you have to understand sort of chronology and themes, so that we don't let them happen again.

Tim Fish: Yes. Yeah, so it, right, to the war of 1812 thing, it's not that I don't think that kids should never know that that war happened or whatever, but it was the way, it was the context in which we were considering it, as this box of stuff that we needed to deliver to kids, right?

You know, it's also, I get to this idea of like, how we start thinking about designing for the trifecta. What does that look like as a third grade team or an eighth grade team as we start thinking about our work, and our work together with the eighth graders? What are the things you would recommend they think about?

Denise Pope: Well, I think that goes to the point you make about strand number one in the article, is that it's completely teacher centered, or often teacher centered. And I would say the first step in design is the students. And so you have to bring the students into the conversation from the get-go. 

And I know that there's lots of different ways to do this. You can actually have students help design the curriculum. That takes a long time. That is hard. That is what we see happening at schools around the country in sort of create your own project-based learning and work together on it. Whereas teacher is really a coach and not so much an imparter of curriculum. 

But there's lots of different ways to do it where you design a curriculum with the flexibility to allow for really deep student voice and choice. And again, that's not easy either, right? But it's certainly different from turn to page 12, open the textbook, we're going to do this lab that's on page 30, right? Like, bleah.

Tim Fish: Yeah, you know what's so interesting though, the way you're describing this. So I was listening to some politicians talking a couple of weeks ago, and there was this whole thing about education and there was this, as you might imagine, this kind of like, you know what, we need to get back to just doing math and English and history, we need to get back to the basics. We need our kids to understand blah blah blah, right? All that kind of stuff. And what I'm hearing from you in your whole apprenticeship model is like, yeah. We need to get back to basics, but not the old basics, not the early educational model, desks in rows, teacher standing in front of the row basics, but the apprenticeship basics, right? The basics of me working in concert with others to learn by doing, about something I care deeply about. 

My daughter is dating a wonderful young man right now who went to college and got through college and just wasn't fully engaged in the work. And now is doing an apprenticeship as a plumber, and he loves it. And he's all in and he's doing things. And every day he's working with a new challenge. And there's someone who comes by and gives him real feedback. And he can learn from that feedback and get better at a craft. And I was wondering, how could we make school feel like apprenticeships? What would that look like?

Denise Pope: Think of the knowledge that he is gaining, the deep knowledge of working in concert with someone else, of approaching problems with curiosity, of experimentation, and of the pride you get when you actually solve a problem that means so much to someone else, right? They can flush their toilet, they have hot water, right?

Tim Fish: Yes. Yes, yes.

Denise Pope: All of that is missing in school right now. So when I say the apprenticeship model, I don't mean like, you know, you're a slave to a master. I don't mean that at all. I mean, you really find that engagement of doing something purposeful and of having that kind of knowledge be privileged, because right now that kind of knowledge is not privileged in school, and it's often not privileged in society, right?

Although I will say plumbers make a lot more money than teachers. 

Tim Fish: That's right. That's absolutely true. I know from having just paid one and was happy to pay it after when I saw how the problem was solved. And, and, you know, it also makes me think. You referenced the podcast from One Stone School and, and in that community, one of the things I find so interesting about One Stone is not only is it a small school, but it's also, some people would say, is a bit radical, right? 

Majority of the board members are students. Students sit on the hiring committee. Students sit on and are a majority part of the admissions committee, right? All these elements. And when I said to you, how do you actually get to bring in the trifecta in eighth grade, your first response was, you gotta get the students in. And I wonder, as we think about what made One Stone work, how did it make these Mackenzies and Ellas, these amazing young people, I think a big part of it is they put the student, truly put the student at the center.

Denise Pope: 100%. And here's the thing, we undervalue students, we underestimate students, and we infantilize them. And then we're surprised when they get out that they can't do things, right? That's on us. That is on us. So we know, we know that schools are for students. And so you want students to have absolutely a say in the policies that guide them.

You want them to have a say in what they're doing and why they're doing. The other thing that's amazing about that school is they have real world internships. They do in-depth year-long projects of their choosing and they don't have grades. Oh my gosh, Tim. Do we even want to go there? Do we want to go there?  

Tim Fish: Let's go there. Let's go there. I mean, and even the way Ella talked about, she said, I used, my grades used to define me. I thought I was awesome if my grades were awesome. And if they weren't, I wasn't. That notion of my, how I matter to myself and others is conditional upon what those grades look like. Come on, come bring it on Denise. Tell me what should we, how should we be thinking about this?

Denise Pope: OK. And I know, look, in the real world, there's not grades. That plumber does not get grades. Now, there might be a Yelp review. That's a totally different thing, right? That's feedback, right? There's feedback. We are not anti-feedback. We want the assessment of learning to actually help to further the learning. 

And in so many cases, a grade will actually send a message to a student that they can't. They are used as motivators, in a way that when you then are not put with a carrot in front of you, why would you do something, right? So grades, I mean, they really distort what we're talking about in the trifecta, right? 

Grades can make you anxious, grades can make you feel like crap about yourself, grades can be used for comparison. So now you are pitting people against one another who you want to be actually working together, right? Particularly where grades, there are still schools that have certain numbers of kids can get A's, certain number of kids can get B's. Oh my gosh, Tim, right?

My colleague is now my enemy and my biggest competitor. And what if everybody deserves the, you know, what if everybody gets to mastery? Isn't that kind of what we're supposed to be doing, is helping everybody get to mastery? So there's so many ways that, and grades, so they work against well-being, they work against belonging, and they work against engagement, right? Because, and kids will say this to me all the time, even if I have this really exciting, innovative idea, I'm too scared to even do it because I'm going to get a bad grade. Right?

And so, grades can work to really depress creativity and innovation, the exact opposite of what we want, or actually work to stimulate cheating. So let's go to this AI thing for a second here, because everybody's worried about AI and cheating. Folks, cheating rates have been at 70 to 80% in the schools that we have been surveying for years and years and years. 

Tim Fish: Before AI!

Denise Pope: Well before AI.

Tim Fish: Cheating has been out there. Oh man, AI didn't bring cheating. AI just made cheating faster, if you think about it that way, right?

Denise Pope: And grades are heavily related to cheating, right? You don't cheat when you're doing a project that you're really excited about. When you're putting on a play, when you're putting out a yearbook edition, when you are studying a new move in a dance class or on a football team, you're not thinking about a grade.

Tim Fish: Nope.

Denise Pope: This is not why people do things. And yet this is, it's all backwards. How we've got schools set up.

Tim Fish: Yeah, and no wonder we don't get the trifecta. We don't have a feeling of belonging. We don't have well-being. We don't have engagement, right? Because the system that we're putting them in is actually discouraging it. We're having to swim up current, right? And we made the current. We sent the water flowing, right? And so we got at, this, for me…

I think you're a hundred percent right. Mackenzie and Ella. When they were in that context, right, they felt very engaged.

Denise Pope: They felt supported.

Tim Fish: They also felt like they belonged. They felt supported by their peers and by their teachers. They also felt, and this is the other thing I want to jump in on, is this idea of sort of, we talked about this in the last podcast, rigor, excellence, achievement, moving forward. I want kids who are, as Ella said, the weight of ambition weighs heavy on my shoulders. Yes, we want that. So how do you get healthy achievers, right?

Because we want achievers, we want kids who are pushing themselves to go after becoming the best plumber I can possibly be. We want that, but we also want healthy. So, you know, because I think sometimes whenever we think about this notion of achievement, we think that anxiety and depression travels with it. It's a necessary condition. And I don't think that at all.

Denise Pope: Right. And let's go back to Dewey. I always go back to Dewey. So you need to feel some disequilibrium, right? You need an itch. You need something that motivates you. That might feel scary. It might feel unknown. There is going to be some stress, if you want to think about it that way, but it's not the bad kind of stress. It's not distress. It's eustress, E-U-S-T-R-E-S-S.

Eustress is a healthy kind of stress that helps us. A little butterflies in our stomach, actually, if we know that we're supported, if we know that we're going to be OK and kind of held through that, right? It actually propels us to do good things. So when she said the weight of ambition weighs on me, you could have that as a negative. Oh my gosh, the weight of ambition, you know, ugh, yeah.

Tim Fish: You absolutely could.

Denise Pope: It's too heavy and I can't carry it and I don't feel supported and I'm just going to say no way. And I think that's what a lot of kids feel when they look at sort of the college admissions stuff and APs and honors and grades. Oh my God, the weight of ambition weighs heavily. 

We're not talking about that. We're talking about, wait, I want to do something really good and that matters and that I believe in and I know I've got the support around me so I don't want to let myself down or others down, I've got the weight of ambition that's like, weighing heavily on me, right? Do you see the difference?

Tim Fish: Yes, but it's, and it was so true with Ella. It's the way she said it, right? She said it with that same energy that you just brought, right? Like, I gotta go. I don't want to waste any time getting to the thing I'm excited about.

Denise Pope: Exactly. It's like what, this is what I tell people. Think like, you know, when kids are excited to go do something that, like they're going to Disneyland, they're so excited. Oh my God. They're in the car before mom and dad are in the car. Right? They’re, they want to go. They want to do this. They want to bring their A game to the next game or the next dance recital. They might be a little nervous. They might be a little worried, but they are like, they're all in. 

School should be like that. And I often talk with people, I was just talking with a head of school, where all the stuff that makes their school so cool, the debate team and the arts and the kind of really amazing student leadership and all that, a lot of times schools see that as the fringe, the extra curricular, right? That's the curriculum, folks.

Tim Fish: That's it. That's the curriculum. 

Denise Pope: That's the curriculum. They are learning to think, to act, to do, to behave, to engage, they are thinking deeply and critically. The weight of ambition is on them, all for good. And so it's how to make the sort of extracurricular become the center of the curriculum. And then, I'm not saying we shouldn't teach math or history or whatever, you do it in the service of those weighty, ambitious things that kids want to do.

Tim Fish: Yes. So the thing is, right, a couple of weeks ago I was up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, doing some work with a school and I had the privilege of going to Zingerman's Deli. Now, if anyone's ever been to Ann Arbor and gone to Zingerman's Deli, it is an institution in Ann Arbor, and it's this incredible deli and they know exactly who they are, right? And from the fonts on the walls, it's got this fun whimsy to it. Their food is amazing.

Denise Pope: I'm so jealous.

Tim Fish: I know, and their sandwich is $18 for a sandwich, right? And you go, wait, how can you charge $18 for a turkey sandwich, right? And they say their logo, or their motto, is that you can taste the difference, right? But the part that was so interesting is they also produce their own newspaper. When I picked up their newspaper and I opened it up, the founder had an article about why Zingerman’s is Zingerman’s. And what he talked about was the radical pursuit of amazement.

And when you read the article, he didn't say anything about sandwiches, right? He talked about the culture they were trying to build and the work they were trying to do. It's like this thing we're saying about the curriculum. It's not about the curriculum, right? You can use the curriculum as a mechanism to deliver on these things, but the curriculum is, it's like the sandwich. It's not about the sandwich, right? It's about amazement, you know? 

And so I wonder, as schools look to design, have you seen schools that have been able to move from a grade centered, teacher centered, curricular centered, “what” concept? And actually over time move more to “why” thinking and to trifecta thinking?

Denise Pope: Yeah, yeah. And it's not easy. Look, it's not easy. This is hard. 

Tim Fish: It's not easy. This is really hard. There's no, there's absolutely no question.

Denise Pope: And you don't turn an ocean liner in a day, right? You have to do things very slowly and thoughtfully. And this is truly what we help schools do at Challenge Success, right? You come to us and you say, we want to work towards radical amazement, right? We want to work towards

the why, and we'll help you think about, OK, let's bring the stakeholders into the conversation. Because every school is different and should be, right? There's not a one size fits all. Let's talk about what's getting in the way of you reaching your why. What are the obstacles? What's getting in the way? How can we, within what we can do in our little school, because we can't control college admissions or the world, what can we do to kind of knock down some of those obstacles, or at least mitigate, and start getting you closer to your why?

Tim Fish: And are schools able to see often what those obstacles are, or are we as school folk too close to even see it sometimes?

Denise Pope: Well, that's a great question, because we start with student voice and student data. So the adults often can't see it because they're in it. It's like the fish/water thing, right? And sometimes even the kids can't see it. But once you start the dialogue of like, what do you want and what's standing in the way? Oh my gosh. It's like the words just come tumbling out, right, from the kids. 

And then we also have them do things like shadow students. So you get a substitute, you give the adult a backpack, and you send them from the bus stop, you know, all the way through the day. You start living and seeing things through the eyes of a student. You will start to see what's getting in the way of the trifecta, of the kind of school that you want to be. And then you start realizing, there's some crazy things.

Like, if you have an idea and you want to pursue something, but the bell rings and then you have to go to your next class, right? Like we've put, like, these boxes around learning. We have other crazy things where like, even though you're really excited about what you're doing on this physics project, you have two other things that you have to do by tomorrow because you get penalized for turning in something late. There's just things that just don't make sense. 

A student needs to talk to a teacher, but there's no time or place to do that in a confidential way. We just start to see these obstacles that get in the way. And then you say, does that have to be that way? Could you change your late policies? I mean, we do it like little baby things like that. Do you have to have homework due every day? What would happen if we didn't? Can you change how you think about the curriculum? What would happen if you cut out two units, or dropped four books and went deeper and spent more time instead of just moving on when half the class still doesn't even get it. Right? 

But we do it in a way that really, I mean, this sounds a little bit pie in the sky. It's very concrete. It's very like, let's try this. Let's pilot something. Let's try a new schedule where kids only go to two or three classes a day. So they've got more time to interact with peers. They've got time built in to talk to teachers. Let's try it where advisory happens, not just 10 minutes, you know, and it's sort of like a homeroom, but let's try an hour and a half advisory. What would happen in that, right? What kind of curriculum would we want to teach in advisory? Well, let's ask the students, you know, what do you need? What do you want to see done with this time? Oh, you want extra time to do this and this? Let's build it in.

So you've gotta bring the stakeholders together. You've got to think outside the box. Just because it's always been done that way doesn't mean we should, particularly given the changes that we're seeing now in technology and in the needs that people are going to have throughout their lifetime.

Tim Fish: Yeah, you know, so that for me makes me think about, I like this notion of like, what if, like these structures that we think are immovable, what if we took them away? What if we took away grades? What if we took away some of the content? What if we took away a few of the books? What if we took away some of the time hurdles that are getting in the way?

And I think the thing that I'm wondering is, if you just take them away, but you don't put in that notion that students have the space and time to be working on things that they find really interesting. And you don't create the context and the right structures to help students discover that purpose and passion, the things they want to work on, the things they're curious in. It doesn't get better by just taking away. You've got to refill with that student agency, drive, curiosity, like all that stuff, right? Otherwise, it actually might get a lot worse, almost, because now we just have kids that are just disengaged and not doing anything, right?

Denise Pope: Exactly, exactly. Do you remember the old experiment that there were schools where it was like, the people who were fighting against the John Deweys were like, there should be no plan. It should be planless, because they were against the over planning, right, and the unschooling and the not and no curriculum and let's just like let the kids do what they want.

Tim Fish: Un-schooling, yeah, that's it, that's it.

Denise Pope: You have to actually have some structure, and kids want structure. And this is where, you know, Ella and Mackenzie come in and talk about the structure. There were days, they said, where they would come in and they really were burnt out and they didn't feel like doing anything and they're having a bad day. Gosh, that's normal. That happens to all of us, right? But there was a structure built in to help when that happens. 

And I've got, I was just talking to a leader of a school that doesn't have grades. But for a lot of these kids coming in, they went all the way through elementary school and middle school with grades, and they get to the school, and grades used to be the motivator, and now they don't quite get how to do this thing without grades, or why should we, right? And so yeah, you need to actually talk about this and discuss it and teach and have a structure for what's going to happen when that happens, because if you are only motivated by grades, and you come into this new space, you don't know what you're doing.

Tim Fish: Exactly. Well, it also says, it goes back to systems thinking in my mind, right? That what we're, we're not just talking about changing the pieces. We're talking about changing the system. And if you only pull out a couple pieces of the system and leave the rest of the system alone, it's not going to get any better. Right. You have to really think about it at a bit of a systems level. Right? And if you pull out teacher control and arbitrary curriculum as a core driver of the one system, and you put the trifecta in as a core driver of the other system, it's going to affect the way you think about time, assessment, communication, teacher-student relationship, all that stuff.

Denise Pope: Right. And I know that that can sound overwhelming to an individual teacher. And so what we say is, you don't have to do it all at once. Try four no homework weekends. Just try that. Try dropping one unit. Try changing your grading policy. Instead of averaging the grades that someone got at the beginning of the semester when they didn't know the thing, and they're showing real improvement over time. Why don't you allow them to drop some grades or use a different kind of grading schema? 

So it feels very scary when you say to someone, we have to change the whole system all at once. So we piecemeal it, but we do it in a way that no, even if it's a bandaid, what I always say to my team at Challenge Success is, OK, but a bandaid stops the bleeding. So let's do the bandaid. I was getting a little bit depressed. I'll tell you this story, that we had worked with one

school and I felt like they hadn't moved the needle enough to where I wanted them to be. 

And a mom from the school, who happens to be an author who I respect, said to me, I know that you think that those no homework weekends are just kind of like little band-aids or baby steps, but let me tell you that those weekends are life-changing for our family. We plan family events around those weekends. We know that we get our kids for the full weekend and they're not going to be stressed out or worried or burdened by this homework that they don't feel is useful. She said, so I know it's not like the be all, end all that you're after for the school, but I just want you to know that even though that's kind of all they did for these first couple of months, it made a huge difference to us. And I thought, OK, all right, good to hear.

Tim Fish: I love it. So the notion is that the modification of the system can happen in lots of little steps, right? I'm curious as we, as we step away and we start thinking about this notion of, of healthy achievers, is there a couple things that you just, on your sort of quick list, that you would say, if I'm a head of a school and I'm walking around or I'm a leader in a school or I'm a teacher in a school and I'm walking around and I'm just looking at our environment, what are a couple things I can be looking for that help me quickly say, are we in the business of developing healthy achievers here? Right?

Denise Pope: That's such a good question, Tim. OK, when you're walking around, what do you want to see? You want to see joy. Let's really think about that, joy, right? Too often we walk through schools and kids are slumped over their desk or they're highly stressed or it's sort of dog-eat-dog competitive, or it's a person standing in the front of the room, droning on. You want to see joy, participation. You want to see sort of creativity and meaning making in action. You want to see kids, I know there's going to be joy in schools around like, whatever, recess and seeing friends. I mean, joy in the intellectual pursuit. 

Tim Fish: Joy in the work.

Denise Pope: Joy in the work. It goes back to that t-shirt, right? Joy in the work. And you also want to see real respectful interaction between adults and kids and kids and kids in a way that you would want to see out in society, that you would want like the, you know, like if the people in Congress could come into this school today and see how we work out problems and differences, that's what we want because we are educating the future leaders. So let's see that kind of behavior. You know, what is it, be the change you want to model in the world? Yes. So those are some, I think, key ways like healthy achievement. That's what that looks like.

Tim Fish: Yeah, so walk around. And the thing is, this doesn't take a ton of money. There's a lot of things we can do to improve education that actually does require a lot of money. This one, maybe not as much. This is just about how we look at that. How do I walk around the school and look at those things? 

Denise, thank you. Man, I could talk to you every day. It's so empowering to me to have these conversations and think together about what school needs to look like. And I know we're kicking around ideas that might sound radical to some. And the more I go down the road, the more I sometimes think, yeah, I'm kind of getting a little more radical in how we got to think about what school is all about.

Denise Pope: Tim, it's always so much fun. I, you know, I'll do it again and again and again. I love it. 

Tim Fish: I love it, I love it. Well, be well. Thanks, Denise. Take care.