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Learning at its Best

Springtime in Education

Near the end of my mother’s 79th year, she fell and broke her hip.  As the surgeon readied for the operation, a physical exam revealed she had lung cancer. My mother would not consent to chemotherapy, but instead to a long series of radiation treatments.  She looked at me and said, “I don’t want my hair to fall out and if the radiation doesn’t work, well, then its time to go.” We did not know it at the time, but she had only ten months to live.

My brother lived in the same city with her (I was a seven hour drive away) and immediately went about setting up for her the very best care he could.  During the course of the next ten months, he put up a Herculean effort to help her heal. He drove her to her doctor’s appointments, assured she took her medicine, suggested new therapies, and spent many hours with her in her home.  It was a beautiful thing that he did.

I, on the other hand, made visits whenever my schedule allowed.  I called her frequently and every five or six weeks made a visit.  In about the eighth month of her illness, she looked at me and sadly said, “I am trying and trying, but I am not getting any better.” A few days later when we were talking, I became aware that something had happened within her and while she did not say it, she had decided to die. I knew it was time to help her prepare to die rather than help her stay alive.

My brother, on the other hand kept up his efforts to help her stay alive. I bless him now for his love and devotion. But there was also such an intensity to save her life that he did not see her wishes or the inevitability of her death.

Outside of her house sat a magnificent 100-foot maple.  Unable to bear losing it, my mother had ignored the signs and hired an arborist to keep it alive. It underwent all the possible treatments. Eventually, it had guy wires to keep the massive limbs from ripping away in heavy winds. It was patched and treated for diseases.  She spent thousands of dollars trying to prolong its life.

Still, it kept dropping its huge branches on the house, damaging the roof.  Steadfastly, she held to the vision of it in earlier days. While it was telling her that the time to die had come, she continued to repair the roof and pay the arborist. After she died, my brother and I continued trying to save the tree. Four years later, with it ever more weakened by age and disease, a major storm destroyed it.

I have been thinking of these things lately because I believe that the current educational system, in which most of our children are enrolled, is like an aged parent or a dying tree whose time has come.  Despite the warning signs, we continue to pour millions of dollars, and many more millions of hours of effort into saving it. Why? Everything has a life cycle. Why not accept that this system has lived its life most fully.

From its inception just prior to the industrial age to post WW II, the current system grew into a magnificent tree; one that fed us and helped our country grow strong.  As we became known as the land of opportunity, the education system served as the heart of possibility for millions of new Americans.  But as with any living system, our education system’s DNA does not allow for eternal life.  At well over 150 years old, the consciousness and the context for its creation is no longer.

Sadly, very sadly, our children are the branches falling on our roof.  The warning signs are everywhere: the drop out rates, low levels of engagement in the classroom, the cases of violence, depression, eating disorders, apathy.  These are their efforts to tell us we need to plant a new tree.   The current one is dying.

If we were to close our eyes and imagine a glorious spring day, we might imagine a lush meadow with flowers and a forest alive with green growth. We might see sunlight,  blossoms, feel the soft breezes, hear birds chirping, lambs bleating. Whatever our image of spring, it would be young and fresh, filled with an energy that renews the spirit and offers the promise of life to come.

I believe we are on the cusp of a new season.  It is time for Springtime in education.  We are being called by our children and by the times, to coalesce a completely different vision.  A vision that rises to meet the real needs of human life and all life on the planet now and into the future.

Let us take the dollars and the energy we have been spending on saving the “old tree “ and put it into co-creating a new seed.  Let us step outside of ourselves, admit the system is dying and build something with and for our children that will ignite passion in all of us. Let us plant a new tree whose fruit will nourish and sustain the natural curiosity and openness of our children.

Despite the immensity of the task, manifesting Springtime in education is not impossible.  We possess the creativity, the wisdom, skills and gifts to launch a new spirit and form in education.   It is time to stop blaming, repeating the same old patterns, and holding on to old territories, and for the sake of our children, join together and refuse to compromise.

Let us think the unthinkable together.  And most importantly, let us be inspired by the voices of our children, for they are the only future we have.


Charles Kouns is the Founding Steward of Imagining Learning, an educator and the father of three. Imagining Learning is creating a national portrait of young people’s wisdom on the reinvention of education. 



30 thoughts on “Springtime in Education

  1. Hi Charlie! It’s great to have you here! I’m with you on this poetic and metaphor-filled post; your vision and mine are very similar and I carry the same message with me in my work.

    What do you think makes it hard for folks to see this? What makes us cling to a system that is largely dysfunctional and toxic, for those within it and many outside of it?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 16, 2012, 6:52 am
    • Hi Kirsten! Great to hear from you and thank you for your note. I feel that in answer to your questions, of course, there are a number of factors but here is one I feel is really at work.

      a) it is hard to let go of something when systemically it is all you have. Do you think anyone has put forth a radical, clear vision for the education of all of our children? I know that in the past in my life, I have clung to relationships that no longer served me, be they partners or jobs, etc, because I just did not know or even more strongly, did not believe it could be any better.

      I think there is a form a learned helplessness that overcomes us in desperate situations and we gradually lose our connectedness to our own magnificence. Plus with all the voices around us telling us we should be glad to have what we have, it makes it really tough to see clearly. This is reinforced by the poor state of the economy which places an even greater strain on our ability to take risks.

      The past four years I have spent more time looking into myself and how I could bring about the change I want on the outside by changing what is happening inside. I come down to this: if we believe any aspect of education is damaging to our children, we should not accept it. Their lights are too precious. If we work to change it, then our own light will brighten in the process. Healing occurs all the way around! I hope to see you soon!!!

      Posted by charles kouns | April 16, 2012, 10:08 pm
  2. You are SO correct with this! I homeschool my children because od the state of the education in our country. I’m not a teacher by any stretch of the imagine but, with the internet, it’s SO easy to teach at home.

    I’m blessed that I CAN homeschool but it DOES take sacrifice. Our home is not the best, we don’t own a car and we buy our clothing at thrift stores but the education we are givng our children is more important than any material things we could buy.

    Posted by I'm taking a nap | April 16, 2012, 8:37 am
    • Thank you for your courage and your commitment to your children. It is inspirational.

      Posted by charles kouns | April 16, 2012, 10:10 pm
      • More parents need to be committed to the education of their children. Homeschooling is definitely a beginning to give children a chance to inspire parents. Maria Montessori reminds us that “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment . . . through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to occur.” Montessori: Living the Good Life,

        Posted by Connie Lujan | June 3, 2012, 10:45 pm
  3. Beautifully stated. If educators cannot wrap their heads around the notion that the tree is beyond repair, honestly addressing issues at a lower level will lead to the same conclusions. The absolute requirement – for every person and every organization – is to self-assess and make changes based upon the outcomes. The irony is that while such a large portion of the K-12 “organization” dreams of keeping the tree alive, I learned of the important word / effort called METACOGNITION from reading / studying education materials!

    I’m hopeful as you are that needed changes are coming; a new season is at hand. Again, nicely stated!

    Posted by John Bennett | April 16, 2012, 8:43 am
    • It is sad that the assumption is that teachers are unwilling to change. The education de-formers have planted that seed in order to place the blame on teachers for unwillingness to embrace change. Meanwhile, for profit companies are attacking education with unproven practices that make children little robots that must respond to high stakes testing. These de-formers are looking to profit from canned lessons and curriculum, computer based testing for children as young as 4, on-line classess that eliminate face to face interactions, schools that have teachers that are under-trained and more. All of these things are designed to pull money from education so that these businesses can make a profit. Meanwhile there is clear research that what is “new” is not working better and in many cases worse. Innovative educators are working everyday in our schools but they are stifled by the new rules in place because of those in the business of making money from our children. So don’t place blame on the people in the classrooms that are trying to make education meaningful for children in most cases they have not even been invited to the table to discuss how to make the improvements.

      Posted by JanofMI | April 16, 2012, 1:01 pm
      • Hi,

        Thank you for your response. I don’t see this post as placing blame on teachers or even schools, but seeing the possibility for something renewed and re-imagined. De-formers are in my option are not asking or presenting new ideas or new innovations, but are the ones trying to make it hard to for the true change to happening.

        Teachers, parents, and students have been seeing asking for the transformation for a long time, they see and know education does not need to just about tests, memorization or seat time. Instead of being allowed to thrive by using their understanding and wisdom, they are asked to jump through more and more hoops. For me education is “constructed together by children and adults in a rich daily life”, one that helps to draw out the talents, and passions of all of us. It is about relationships, it about challenges, it is about questioning the knowledge and wisdom of the world and about transforming the knowledge of the world into praxis and goodwill. It is about interdependence and making the world a place where we all can live. It is about democracy. And much more…. but there are not the things that have been central to education or schools in our current era and yet I think there is a call to move towards these values and qualities. I think this is the spring that I and Charlie visions.

        This spring is not an utopia. If we move towards that is more human and humane, we will have to deal with the complex issues of human together.

        I hope you continue to follow this conversation and add your voice and vision. Thank you!

        -David Loitz

        Posted by dloitz | April 16, 2012, 1:29 pm
      • I am not placing any blame anywhere. I think judging and blaming others will not serve us. With the breakdown of the community around the schools, the conditions within many families, the lack of an elder base for wisdom, teachers (I could go on about the conditions in the schools) are asked to take on Herculean role in children’s lives. We must realize that the factory system you are describing is incredibly stifling to all who are involved. I feel the time has arrived to let it go without blame or judgment. Let’s just let it go. Then let’s put new energy in the room – an energy of vitality and life that is similar in feeling to Spring. There is a new vitality that comes from letting go and as we are much more conscious, we have all that we need within us to create a vibrant new system.

        Posted by charles kouns | April 16, 2012, 10:16 pm
  4. I am so excited to share this piece with the world. There is something so powerful about thinking about current state of education as a season, and thinking of the transformation to come as a rebirth, not reform. The long winter months have been tiring and draining, but the flowers are starting to come up and the air is getting warmer and the sky bluer. I see it everyday in all the schools that are pushing above the education reform cycle and are creating learning environment where people matter and learning matters.

    I hope this post will inspired others to write on this topic, if you are interested in doing a guest post around the theme of “Springtime in Education” please email us at

    “”Springtime in Education is, to me, a rallying cry. It is a moment in time when we
    collectively decide to build a new system for our young people that they will thrive
    within. It is a time to leave our egos, our entrenchments, our investment in the old
    system and begin a journey into the unknown together. It is a moment when we decide
    to commit our hearts, our energy, our experience and our talents to exploring
    completely new territory that reinvents education. It is an energy of trust and belief that
    the consciousness we now have as a people can create a new learning journey for our
    children that far exceeds anything we could have imagined alone.”


    Posted by dloitz | April 16, 2012, 12:55 pm
  5. I’m not sure I agree with your simile. I would be more inclined to believe our current education system has not improved or degenerated (overall) more since its inception. We reap what we sow. Your comparison leads me to believe that you think at one time the system was appropriate, a good system for public education. I’m getting the impression that maybe you feel it was appropriate for the people that went through it 30,40, 50 years ago, but not now. Obviously our environment has changed, our culture too. But are you suggesting at a biological level, that the way people learn, has changed? What part of our educational system has broken since its inception? Or has it always been broke and now we are just noticing it more? I think what you may be getting at is more related to issues of overall equity beyond just public education and maximizing our potential as a whole. Public K12 education has a part of how we go about “maximizing” our potential, but it also extends way beyond just public education.

    Posted by johnpat10 | April 16, 2012, 2:21 pm
    • Thanks for your comments! Very thought provoking. I am not saying that the system was a good or bad system in the past. It was what it was. And for the time, it certainly had an impact on all of us both positively and negatively. I think if we were to hold a discussion around the dna of the seed of education in the 1850’s, it would be fascinating to discuss the qualities that were designed into it. These, as you say, led us to reap what we sowed.

      I do feel that the old system cannot support the new consciousness that is dawning. I am asking myself and others, if we could create a new seed to plant, what would be the qualities we would embue it with now? What is the intention that was held in the 1850’s? What would be our intention now? Would we create a system that holds all our children? How would we define a school? A teacher? A student?

      Such an adventure before us if we let go of the old!

      Posted by charles kouns | April 17, 2012, 5:16 pm
  6. Hey Charlie,

    So great to see you posting here! I hope you’ll stay active with us. Your wisdom inspires.

    I guess reflecting initially on your post, I am thinking how incredibly difficult it is to know when the time is right to call it quits. My own mom has lung cancer right now (age 74), and has opted to fight it using chemo. Yes, her hair fell out, and she’s had damage to other body systems as a result of treatment. But, one year on, she still has many really good days and has a lot of tremendously positive influence on her grand kids as well as many others around her. She continues to learn and grow and enrich the world, even while an occasional branch is lost in a stiff breeze. Ultimately, I feel that it is her choice, and such an individual one, about making the trade offs regarding loss of quality of life. Right now she feels good about the choice. It sounds like perhaps it was a great gift to allow your mom the grace and dignity to honor her choice, but what if she hadn’t wanted to go?

    So, with a dying system such as public education, even one that is racked with disease and dysfunction, but that still clings desperately to life, who has the right to euthanize? There are still many transformative learning moments buried within the system. There are still powerful and positive encounters. So when do we pull the plug? And who decides?

    Interestingly, I think had you left out the cancer metaphor, I would have been all for “slay the beast” and start anew. I am often the one calling for revolution within my community, but the analogy of a dying person, has actually given me pause. Hmmm. I’ll be thinking about this for a while.

    Thank you so much for the provocation.

    My very best to you and yours, Charlie.

    Posted by holisticdancingmonkey | April 17, 2012, 12:07 am
    • Paul, thank you for your thoughtful post and I wish your mom and you every moment of life you can have together.

      I will think long and hard about your question about who has the right to euthanize? My initial reaction is that we are not talking about humans, but a system that is a machine that takes care of our children. Perhaps the usage of my mother does weaken the case, as you suggest (I took it out of the article at one point, but felt it just was too weak a story after that, so I put it back in), but what I was trying to make the point of was that despite the deep sense of connection and the long history we have with someone or a system, there does come a point when it cannot function any longer.

      In the case of humans, that is such a deep ethical question, I can only share what my actions were with my mother. But in the case of the education system, don’t you think it is more like an old jalopy that is carrying our kids around, filling them with exhaust gases and trying to go 15 miles an hour on a 70 mile an hour super highway? We do have a right as a collective community to band together and say enough is enough! Yes, there are brilliant moments hidden within the system… but couldn’t we build a new system that doesn’t count the brillance on one hand but instead offers an abundant number of moments so our children are awash in wonder, magic, love, compassion, and eagerly learning at a rate that exceeds their own expectations?

      I think ultimately I am standing in a place of deepest love for what is most nourishing for our children. A place where – with love – I will help the old system die gracefully in order to protect the children enrolled there now. AND – with love – I will pour as much energy as I have into creating a bold new idea on their behalf. When I listen to that intuitive voice within me, I see the qualities of the current system versus what is possible in a new one and there is no doubt in my heart that we can collectively create an offering for our children that is stunning.

      Thanks for your thoughtfulness on this. I wish you all the best with your mom.


      Posted by charles kouns | April 17, 2012, 5:38 pm
      • Hi Charlie,

        I love your last paragraph above. I am with you 100% here. As Ron Miller said, it’s all about “caring for new life.” As you know, I’ve fully committed myself to pouring all the energy I have to give into creating something beautiful and new that works as well as I can possibly achieve to nourish children’s holistic growth. This is where I choose to focus my attention. It gives me hope and sustains me while I strive to do transformative work. For me, not only did putting time, heart and soul into fixing a dying system seem futile, it also drained me emotionally and spiritually, such that I was not an effective change-agent and was ultimately helping no one. For those who can stomach it, though, I do think that working for radical change from within the belly of the beast is very much needed as well.

        Strategically, I love to use metaphors as I communicate and teach. They can help to illuminate otherwise unseen or shadowed phenomena. I think which metaphors we choose is very important and each offers potential insights, but all of course are simultaneously illusions or exaggerations of reality. So is the dying system of education more like an aged tree, a broken down jalopy or a human cancer-patient? Does it matter? I think so. None of these metaphors is “the truth.” Each suggests different connections and implications. (Much easier for me to say “throw it in the junk yard for parts, if any aren’t totally rusted through” when speaking of a jalopy. But the human analogy evokes a much deeper sense of compassion in me, for example.) Or am I just nit-picking? What do you think?


        Posted by holisticdancingmonkey | April 18, 2012, 2:09 am
        • Paul- from all accounts Salmonberry is a glorious flower in the garden.Samara and Stephanie as well as others I met at the conference all said the same. It is a testament to what a loving heart, a passion for the whole child, experience and expertise and the wondrous help of the community can create. Salmonberry is Springtime for those who get to be involved. It is an energy that is new and fresh and nourishing.

          But Springtime in Education is a new season in which ALL of our children would get to experience what you have created on Orcas. Not only in their early years, but all the way through their learning experience while they are at home. Your experience multiplied community by community, where all of its/our children will have this type of nourishment and learning experience. Then there would be no need any longer for anyone to stay within the old system. Those who are so deeply committed within the belly of the beast (a journey I have taken myself in order to change business and honor most deeply anyone who would stay and work within) would find their energies and beliefs now welcomed in such a way there would be no need to be within the beast. It would be obsolete almost overnight!

          No matter the metaphors I have used, your heart has spoken in the first paragraph with a fervency that echoes your journey into Springtime. I am saying the season is now upon us where we all must walk more boldly in that direction, not accepting anything less than that which would nourish and celebrate the inner light of all of our children in every community.

          Posted by charles kouns | April 21, 2012, 11:00 am
  7. What are our collective and individual takes on ideas like “connected learning” from DML, which has the potential to network some out-of-school learning spaces with funding? What about innovative schools like those recognized by IDEA or “free schools?” Is this Springtime work – even if Springtime charges tuition? If enough of any such work goes on, will the kids participating in it today lead more spaces like these or demand more changes in school for their children?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 17, 2012, 12:59 pm
  8. Great piece, Charlie. You know I’m right there with you!

    Posted by Dawn Griffin | April 17, 2012, 9:38 pm
  9. Beautiful writing Charlie! Thank you for incorporating such personal reflections. I do agree that we are being called by our children to create a new way of being in all areas of life, education included. If we are truly present with our children, I hear them calling us to meet them in new ways. We need to DEEPLY LISTEN to the voices of our children by being truly present with them: instead of forcing them into boxes, rules, and roles we think they should have, we simply need to hold space for their emerging being and keep them safe and healthy. I believe all children and all people have a unique gift we are here to share but most of us are not in touch with our gifts because of the roles and societal norms we automatically follow. Our children ARE the future and the gifts they hold will shape our society in new and exciting ways; I see that if we hold our children with love and presence, the old dysfunctional systems will simply fall away and the new springtime will emerge.

    Posted by avalon | April 20, 2012, 10:51 pm
  10. Fabulous thoughts on a critical topic. Now how do we get those who are trying to tell us what to do to listen to what you just said? Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Katie Dial | April 23, 2012, 3:04 pm
    • Thanks Katie. It is wonderful to hear your interest in engaging in this question you pose. I think holding the question in our hearts and seeing opportunities to engage others in it, at any level we can, will make a difference. Springtime is a bountiful time, filled with abundant opportunities. Let us see this energy and hold it for others to encounter!

      Posted by charles kouns | April 23, 2012, 5:58 pm
  11. This is a powerful and poetic piece. As a teacher, I didn’t read blame but rather a call to arms. We need to be willing to take the risk, approach the unknown and see where the path takes us. I sometimes think that public education would rather stick with mediocrity than challenge itself to try something new. I tell my students that I would rather continue to take risks and occasionally fail spectacularly, than never try new things. We must lay the old tree to rest, give it a respectful farewell and embrace a new vision – understanding that there may be some moments of spectacular failure. But that can’t dissuade us. The current system is failing spectularly on a massive, rooted scale. New species may need more nuturing, more care, more time and help — but think of all the wonderful things they can offer, given time.

    Posted by sngrlittle | April 27, 2012, 3:14 pm
  12. Charles,

    This is just what I needed to read today. I taught elementary art for 5 years in Ohio. I chose to leave and move to Austin in order to attend UT’s M of AED program. Last year Texas suffered one of its worst droughts in history. From October of 2010 to November of 2011 we saw two rains… the parched earth was ripe for fires. Bastrop– a small town an hour east of Austin, lost 3000 homes and thousands of national park/ pine forested acres to nearly 3 weeks of ongoing blazes.

    Much of the national park that was destroyed was part of 30 mile stretch I enjoyed road biking. It had become a sacred place for me here in Texas, and it nothing short of broke my heart to learn my beautiful happy place was scorched and barren. Yet in all my sadness, I’m excited for the rebirth that can now happen in that park. The ash and decaying plant life will become fertile ground for strong new life.

    I wrote a post once comparing the education system to a forest that needed to burn… a forest we won’t let burn. For these reasons, your post really spoke to my heart. When I think of a Springtime in education, I think of an education system that speaks to the minds AND hearts of children, much in the way this post did for me. Thanks 🙂

    Posted by brazenteacher | May 3, 2012, 1:38 pm
  13. Charlie, I so loved reading your piece. I’m constantly impressed by the encouraging, loving spirit that you bring to your determined effort to create change. That’s not easy to do. I commend you.

    Posted by jaimerwood | June 22, 2012, 4:36 pm
  14. Just a year ago I returned to Mexico after three years at my mom’s place after she could no longer live safely alone due to progressive dementia. She too broke a hip during her last year and we too worked to recover from it to no avail. Because of that experience I can appreciate the point of what you say, and even more so the way you have channeled the emotion of that event in such a positive way. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Posted by Steve Wood | May 19, 2013, 10:33 pm

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