Make the positives so loud that the negatives are almost impossible to hear

One of my favorite conferences is the 5 Sigma EDU hosted at the Anastasis Academy in Littleton, Colorado. School founder Kelly Tenkely and her collaborators have built something special and their willingness to so generously share the work is a gift to educators, education, and the world.

This year’s keynote was George Couros, Edufamous Educator, thought leader and author of The Innovator’s Mindset. He gave an entertaining and inspiring talk that began with a surprising story:

“I didn’t plan to go into education. I ended up teaching Kindergarten because of the movie Billy Madison.”

What is your story?

The entire talk was more of a narrative than a lecture. Through his own story and the stories he shared, George excited a group of educators about our agency in changing the world.

One thing I realized is that we probably all have a story we tie back to education that involves an Uber. Something that George pointed out that I never considered is just how amazing this is, being that just ten or fifteen years ago, it would be culturally unacceptable to get in strangers’ cars, much less to actually hail the strangers from our phones.

“We hear so much about innovation not because of how much change is happening but because of how quickly change is happening.”

What is school?

Early in his talk, he raised an important elephant in the room. “We always tell kids, ‘If you do well in school, you’ll do well in life.’ This isn’t true.”

Beyond the familiar conversations in a lot of schools about Knowledge vs. Skills and the arguments about the importance of grades, what he said took my mind to a much greater dichotomy: what are we doing for the people who will go on to do well in life yet don’t do well in school?

I think about the handful of people I keep up from high school and how they didn’t do well in school yet are doing well in life. One friend wasn’t allowed to graduate because of a late grade on his research paper causing him to not pass Senior English. He had to get a GED. Today, he is married with two amazing children and owns a successful small business. Another friend recently shared with me that he left high school functionally illiterate, passed on each year mostly because he’s a nice guy. He’s also married with two lovely children and running one of the most successful and fastest growing restaurants in his community.

Without the kids, there is no school. Who serves who?

“If you think a picture’s worth a 1000 words, what do you think a video’s worth?”

Throughout the talk, George shared slides with animations, GIFs, and videos. While many videos were clever devices he’d pulled off the internet, others were personal videos from his own family and childhood. These served to drive home his point as they were indeed valuable.

Another aspect of this that I think is worth a healthy conversation is the elevated importance of documenting and sharing in today’s society. A common mindset is that, “Kids these days don’t know how to be present. They are always on their phones.” I think this opinion needs to be pushed a bit. Is it that today’s youth don’t know how to be present or is it possible that what it means to be present has been redefined? With the value of video and of real-time sharing, might the inherent value of presence today be impacted (for some users) by how it is shared with others whose virtual participation allows them to be present as well.

Culture of “Don’t”

Likely the most controversial comment George made was related to school and district leadership prioritizing negative reinforcement. What do we focus on? Is it about what kids should do or what they shouldn’t do? During the Q&A, there was push back about the dangers of screen time, the realities of cyber bullying and viral threat of social media to harm learning communities.

George was pretty clear on his stance that rule-breaking and negative behaviors aren’t new. People are people and will be imperfect. It’s not about embracing negative behaviors but rather about empowering positive behaviors and not making reactive policies for the many that respond to the transgressions of the few.

“Is this going to be on the test?” is not a question of curiosity, it’s one of compliance.

George suggests that the difference between whether or not kids are happy to be in school is rooted in the culture that drives this distinction.

Are our schools places that kids go to check a box that’s assigned to them or to explore the intriguing whims of their own interests?

Do kids spend their day learning what they need to prepare for a successful future or preparing for a successful test?

If kids had a choice, would they still be in our class tomorrow?

It’s not simple engagement, it’s empowerment. (shared a bunch of powerful examples of leveraging tech for change)

“If you’re standing still, you’re falling behind”

We are all learners. Once the learning stops, it’s over. We’re done. While George is known for his thought leadership about Innovation, I really got the sense that his greater passion is Life-Long Learning and Continuous Human Improvement.

One place this mentality seemed to really emerge was on the ruminations he shared about the ways schools use data. He will pull his kid from your school if you say you’re “Data-driven” because he wants their school to be Student-driven.

It’s not about ignoring data, it’s about prioritizing the humans over the numbers and letters. It’s about ensuring that we aren’t limiting ourselves to traditional data points and seeking out the data that helps us understand and discover where every students’ genius emerges.

For George, it’s all about asking, “How do we people from their “Point A” to their “Point B”?


If you’ve been following my thinking over the last few months, you know I’ve really been focused on the emerging trend of Meaningfulness. As simple a concept as it is, it’s not the easiest thing to notice, name and certainly not to implement. George’s presentation was heavy on exemplars that reinforced Meaningfulness.

In summarizing some of what he shared, George offered this simple quote that was my greatest takeaway from his talk:

It’s not simple engagement, it’s empowerment.

I’m not the only one who had reactions. What resonated with others:



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Noah Geisel

Noah Geisel

Singing along with the chorus is the easy part. The meat and potatoes are in the Verses. Educator, speaker, connector and risk-taker. @SenorG on the Twitter