“We imagine a school in which students and teachers joyfully stretch themselves to their limits in search of projects built on their own visions, not one that merely succeeds in making apathetic students satisfy minimal standards. We imagine a school from which every student will come with vision.”

-Seymour Papert and Gaston Caperton

It was Piaget who first suggested that children think differently than adults, and while skeptics continue to treat his observations and the theories that emerged from them with criticism, it’s hard to find this particular revelation even mildly controversial.

It’s simple. So simple, in fact, that we seem to take it for granted.

Children don’t think like we do, and we don’t think like they do. Yet, they seem to have little control over their learning experiences once they enter our classrooms. Schools are built by grown-ups, and the children who inhabit them are often treated as house-guests. Teachers with a flair for hospitality know how to make them feel at home, assuming responsibility for each students’ needs, striving hard to satisfy their interests, and planning complex itineraries intended to educate, entertain, and with any luck, inspire a lifelong love of learning.

Even as we unpack standards and grapple with mandates delivered to us by state and national leaders, we choose what matters most inside of our classrooms. It’s our insight that guides implementation and ultimately, the success or failure of the initiatives we create, not that of the children who are most affected by the decisions we make.

This is why I’m so passionate about emergent curriculum design and why I advocate so often for shared visioning work: If we understand that children think and learn differently than we do, we also know that we can’t simply impart our knowledge, skills, or processes on them. Perhaps we need to access their voices and invite them to make their learning visible, in order to teach us how to teach them. Perhaps we need to find a way to make them co-collaborators in the curriculum creation process, too. 

What if our greatest visions for teaching and learning were inspired by the children we serve rather than the experts who theorize about them? What if  our students,  the ones who are most directly affected by our vision, played a far more significant role in creating it?

Earlier this week, I met a new team of teachers who are eager to begin designing an emergent writing workshop curriculum. Our conversation began with a bit of quiet brainstorming. These were our prompts:


Each teacher used the thinking that emerged from this process to shape an individual vision. Then, they added their responses to these charts, in order to study trends, notice commonalities, and begin to create a shared vision for their department.

Teachers may use the tools below to start this work with their own students. Adapted from the work of researchers at Franklin Covey and leadership coach Susanne Madsen, the first protocol serves as an initiation to individual visioning work for middle and high school learners. Adaptations for elementary and primary learners follow.



Once learners craft personal responses to the prompts provided, creating a display of these reflections prepares the group to begin the work of establishing a shared vision.

The second protocol that follows is appropriate for use with elementary, middle, and high school learners.

Those who teach primary learners may use it individually in order to ensure that their vision is heavily influenced by the learners they serve.  

  1. Prepare the space by creating one chart for each of the prompts in protocol one. Each prompt should be written at the top of one chart with space provided below for learners to share their replies. One additional chart should be created, and it should be titled Our Vision.
  2. Invite learners to place their responses to each prompt on the appropriate chart, creating a post-up that makes each student’s thinking about each prompt transparent to the entire group. Be sure to add the elements of your own vision to the appropriate charts as well.
  3. Divide middle and high school groups into teams of five and elementary groups into teams of seven. Distribute the charts evenly among them (two charts per middle and high school group and one per elementary group).
  4. Challenge each team to analyze the charts provided, one at a time, using the following process:

Each team should identify a facilitator whose role it is to lead and focus the group, ensure equitable contributions, and manage time (2 minutes).

Team member should examine the notes on the chart under review quietly, capturing their reflections about the following (15 minutes):

Look for trends and commonalities:

How would you cluster the sticky notes? Why?

What categories would you create for these clusters?

Look for outliers and distinctions:

Where do you notice unique ideas, interests, or needs that do not fit into a category?

How could our shared vision include them without compromising the interests of the others?

5. The facilitator should pose each of the questions above to the group aloud one at a time and invite members to share their reflections, using their notes to support them. Team members should speak one at a time as well, moving in rounds and sharing one idea at a time until the responses for each prompt are exhausted.

6. Once all ideas have been shared, the team should work together to craft a collective response to the prompt that includes as many of their classmates’ ideas as possible. As they consider distinct responses and the needs of outliers, they must work together to consider how their vision can be honored and included without compromising the interests of the group.

7. The facilitator should add the group’s written response to the chart titled Our Vision.

8. Once all groups have added their responses, teachers may work with the class to synthesize the group statements, finessing the text as needed in order to create a coherent shared vision.

I think it’s unrealistic to demand perfection of yourself or your students if this is your first time approaching this work. These activities make for a good beginning, but vision evolves over time as we consistently talk about it with one another. Vision isn’t achieved year by year or unit by unit. It’s achieved day by day, in the immediacy of each individual writing workshop experience. In order to realize it, we must align our daily learning targets accordingly, and look for evidence of growth.

I’ll share some strategies for approaching this next phase of the work in Tuesday’s post.


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