Designing Schools for Human Flourishing & a Thriving Democracy

Design Principles for School Environments & Experiences within a Theory of Change

As a society, we are buying into an incredibly narrow and harmful view of what schools are for, and what is possible within them. Largely, we are taught to accept analyses of test scores, comparisons of attainment by race and class, and accept that the purpose of schooling was primarily social mobility. Our questions about equity seem largely limited to, “how can we make sure poor kids can compete with wealthy kids for an ever-decreasing number of jobs at the top?”

We are moving forward with good intentions — but we are asking the wrong questions and thus solving the wrong problems. When we focus on how to better move children through the system and measure their performance at each level we end up with a system that is chewing up children — children of all socioeconomic statuses. It’s not working for poor children, not for wealthy children, not for educators or administrators, and not for politicians, the economy, and *definitely* not for our democracy.

We have the opportunity to re-design…let’s do it from what we know about how humans flourish and how strong communities and democracies thrive.

This is a theory of change emerging from Why School?: A Systems Perspective on Creating Schooling for Flourishing Individuals & a Thriving Democratic Society. It starts with a discussion of what a good life is, the role of school in helping to create it, and what gets in the way. Then presents concrete design principles for school environments and experiences (pedagogy).

What is a “Good Life”?

Drawing on empirical research, philosophy, and social psychology, there are five key areas of a good life we make choices about:

  • Productive work (preferably that pays the bills and doesn’t kill your soul);
Image for post
Image for post

But here’s the thing. Exactly what these five look like in any given person’s life can appear dramatically different. For example, for productive work, some people are Olympic horseback riders, others drive trucks, others teach, or create art. Or, in rewarding relationships, some people want two close friends, while others want a large network. And we are all express ourselves and are engaged and involved in our community in different ways.

Life potentialities realized are thus the outcomes of the ways our choices interact with the options and paths available to us in our world.

This means that to live a good life that is right for us personally, we need to be able to make informed choices about the options available to us, aligned with our values and our unique constellation of personal preferences and strengths.

This aligns well with how Aristotle philosophized about a happy or “eudaimonic” life. He said a good life results when an individual able to take deliberative action, aligned with their values, strengths, interests. He argues this requires they live in a society in which they have both: 1) the freedom to make these choices, and 2) their basic needs met — because if your basic needs aren’t met, all of your choices are oriented toward meeting them and this is not freedom or flourishing.

We flourish when our core needs are met, we have the freedom to make choices about our lives, and we find our choices to be meaningful and fulfilling.

You could think of Martin Seligman’s model for flourishing — PERMA — Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement — as being most realized when we have made the choices that best work for us.

How do we make choices?

Deliberate choices are core to flourishing. All of our choices are based on our:

Image for post
Image for post
  • competencies (capacity & skill in reasoning & action);

Every time we make choices about how to behave or which path to take, they are an expression of these three parts of who we are. The process of making choices is also called, “agentive action”. Schools develop all three aspects of agentive action, whether they’re intentionally designed or not.

Equity: It’s not just “choice” that matters

Importantly, the options available to us also differ based on when and where we live and, often our race or socioeconomic status. For an obvious example, if you live in France in 1919, the options available to you to choose from for productive work are different than if you live in 2019 Silicon Valley. However, they also differ between a wealthy or middle-class white person living in the suburbs of New York and a low-income black person living in rural Alabama.

Furthermore, as above, we cannot be considered to be flourishing if our core needs are not met, even if we are making choices about our lives. First and foremost, equity is about ensuring all people in our society — and all children in our schools — have their core social psychological and physiological needs met.

Should the available options available to us not be what we want to choose, or if there are options that are unequally available or unjust, we need the key capacity of being able to work with others to change the distribution or create different options.

How do we ensure young people flourish in the future?

Current work with youth is fundamentally about developing the three aspects of agentive action (capacities, character, and beliefs) so that young people can make informed choices about how they want to live their lives — now and in the future. The connection between youth programs and adult flourishing is not direct — you don’t just learn content knowledge, graduate, then flourish — it’s through the interaction between people’s choices about their lives and the options they have available to them, that flourishing is achieved.

Three truths are essential to understand if we are to better foster both current and future flourishing in our schools:

1. Our future possible selves are developed out of the habits, actions, beliefs, and values we live today.

The word “identity” has ancient Latin roots — it means “repeated beingness.” Who you are, your sense of your self, is largely formed by what you do repeatedly. In other words, how we live our lives today is who we will become.

Work with youth cannot be about acquiring some “good” for future use, but rather it must be about practicing capacities daily. Students spend around 14,000 hours in school from K-12 in the U.S. — they become experts in the kinds of humans they practice being there. As Aristotle notes, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference”[2].

It’s through the practice of the character, beliefs, and capacities that allow for informed choices in childhood that adults are best prepared to take agentive action in the future. It’s by focusing on flourishing (or creativity/curiosity/relationships/agency, etc.) now that thriving in the future is most likely to happen.

2. The environment matters.

Our “self” is our core identity. It is constantly evolving and is developed in dialectic relationship with our physical and social environments. The individual as an organism is consistently striving to create a complex, stable sense of self. To do this, an individual must both integrate their experiences into a holistic, aligned sense of self, and also differentiate themselves as an individual[3].

To be able to flourish — to learn, self-actualize, develop competencies, employ our values consistently, or reach our potential humans — we need a physical and social environment that fosters our growth. Just like plants need the right mix of sun, soil, and water, for humans to grow to our full potential, our physiological and four core social psychological needs (Autonomy, Competence, Connection, and Meaning[4]) must be filled.

Image for post
Image for post
  • Autonomy[5]: Autonomy is an individual’s perception of the origin or source of their behavior — internal or external (Deci & Ryan, 2002b). A person is considered to be acting autonomously when their behaviors are both volitional (they choose to engage in the behavior) and self-endeavored (the locus of initiation is within themselves not due to some kind of external control). This is different from agency. Agency is the capacity to act, but it does not necessarily require autonomy[6] (Deci & Ryan, 2002b). Non-autonomous behavior is controlled behavior. This can be through direct control or through external pressure.

These are fundamental core needs because when they are not filled an individual will: a) experience detrimental effects on their physical and mental well-being; b) consistently seek their fulfillment, often subconsciously; and, c) potentially risk physiological threat to fulfill them.

How we structure schools needs to create environments that provide ways to meet these needs and remove obstacles to their fulfillment. If we do not, there is no way student potential can be fulfilled. To be clear, I’m not saying that potential can be maximized if we do x and y, thing — I agree with Carol Dweck that potential is both unknown and unknowable. However, you could think of this as being analogous to when a plant is in too small of a pot or in too dark a corner — it’s not that the plant won’t stay alive or even grow some, but it won’t grow as much as it could have if it had its needs filled.

3. You cannot engineer humans, you have to cultivate them.

While knowing the outcomes (e.g. a graduate profile) we want to produce is important, gardening is a better metaphor than engineering when trying to achieve these outcomes.

You cannot “make” a human just like you cannot “make” a tomato.

The agency of people and the importance of environment in any person’s development results in three implications to keep in mind when designing and implementing interventions:

Growth is over the long-term and non-linear

What happens in a day or hour might contribute, but the real outcomes we care about happen slowly, over time, and there are dormant periods followed by spurts of growth.

What students need to grow is already inside them

In manufacturing or engineering you take discreet elements and make a new whole. In gardening the elements for successful maturation are already in the seed, the gardener provides the environment. If you place an acorn on concrete and it doesn’t become an oak tree it’s not because there’s something wrong with the acorn — nearly every acorn has the potential to grow into an oak tree — you just have to plant them in the right soil. The same is true of children.

You cannot control the outcomes directly

In manufacturing you can spot the defect and fix it with an intervention to come out with a perfect, defect-free product that is precisely the same as the last one, every time. But with gardening, as with humans, we want beautiful variation of outcome.

Adopting a gardening metaphor has important implications for measurement and evaluation — while measuring outcomes is important, knowing and being able to measure the process (experiences) and environmental aspects is at least if not more essential to understanding whether a program or school is doing everything under its control to promote the current and future thriving of youth.

How might we Design School Environments & Experiences for Flourishing?

Fundamentally then, it is by focusing on creating environments and experiences the foster flourishing now that youth are actually best prepared for future flourishing.[7]

Because our future selves develop out of who we practice being today, to design environments and experiences that lead to a particular set of capacities, character, and beliefs requires both an understanding of the future outcome goals, as well as the actual ways we practice those aspects of agentic action today. Environments and experiences that lead to this will share some common key aspects because they have to take into account the core needs of human beings outlined above.

As mentioned, creating an environment that fosters flourishing involves considering the physiological and social psychological core needs of humans. To do this well, a full analysis of channel factors is essential. Channel factors are situational circumstances that appear unimportant on the surface, but that may have significant consequences for behavior because they can facilitate, block, or guide behavior in a particular direction.[8]

From a design perspective, this means we have to think about how to actively “add” to the environment by increasing availability or access to core needs (i.e. creating an activity in which people interact meaningfully with others to increase practice building healthy relationships and thus increase the fulfillment of relatedness). AND, we also have to think about how we might remove or minimize negative external factors that block fulfillment of core needs.

First I’ll look at what stands in the way, then I’ll look at the positive design principles that emerge. One could always either reduce the “obstacles” or increase the “antidotes” in any given environment.

Designing Schooling Environments: What stands in the way of flourishing?

Social psychological factors that have been proven by research to inhibit learning growth include Alienation, Shame, Scarcity, Chronic Stress, and Identity Threat. They can be thought of as blocking our ability to fulfill our core social psychological needs (as in the image below). They are extremely present in our lives and in our schools, and can be at least partially addressed through targeted interventions.

Image for post
Image for post

Alienation / Anomie

Flourishing and empowered, agentive action require behaving from a sense of autonomous, authentic self. The sense of self evolves in a dialectical relationship with its environment.

When the self and the society are in alignment and developing in a healthy way, internalization occurs. Internalization is, a “proactive process in which the developing child transforms external prompts into internal prompts”[9]. Internalization can be thought of as healthy socialization from the individual’s perspective.

However, if the environment, or social field in which an individual is developing has either too lax (anomie) or too strict (alienation) of rules, it can thwart integration of the self and result in alienation from the authentic self[10]. This alienation could be drive by either of two interrelated levels: societal anomie/alienation, or individual level introjection. Here “Societal” can mean in an institutional setting (e.g. school) or society (e.g. city/country, etc.).

At the societal level, anomie, occurs when there are too few rules or social norms constraining behavior: there are not clear guidelines for how one should comport oneself. This could happen when the environment is chaotic, unpredictable and threatening, but it also could happen when there’s a transition in the norms of behavior that makes the rules unclear[11]. When societal values and consequences are unclear, individuals’ behavior can become erratic or feel meaningless and this can cause anxiety. Considering the core human needs, it’s likely that, without behavior contingencies, a sense of self-efficacy needed for competence is undermined, and it may also affect individuals’ ability to develop a coherent sense of meaning.

Returning to the societal level, alienation occurs when the self is too constrained by social rules. It’s a situation where the physical self may be under threat if the rules are broken, or it could also be when societal acceptance — and thus our need for connection — is contingent upon strict rules of behavior.

When the excessive rules are internalized but not integrated with the sense of self, a situation of introjection occurs. Introjection is another form of alienation from our authentic self, but it occurs when an individual adopts the “shoulds” and “musts” of their social environment, even when they are not aligned with the individual’s goals and needs — this is not a dichotomy, but rather on a continuum from non-regulation to intrinsic regulation[12].

Alienation’s effect on core needs: Introjection is likely the result of an individual striving to attain their needs of relatedness and competence in a situation that requires they forfeit autonomy to do so[13]. Introjection can result in the formation of a type of “false self” who has a rigid sense of identity and is strict in their rule following. The extreme of alienation comes from social or personal oppression or abuse. This can result in widespread fear, hopelessness, despair, and/or introjection.

The antidotes to alienation:A stable, consistent, autonomy-supportive environment, that has clear rules, norms and behavior contingencies.


Brene Brown defines shame as the, “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”[14]. Shame works directly on our powerful need for connection in our lives by bringing into doubt our worthiness for connection. It is not the same as a lack of connection, which would be something closer to loneliness, but rather when our relationships or environment send messages about unworthiness for connection. Shame is different from guilt: guilt is, “I did something bad,” whereas shame says, “I am bad”.

Shame is something everyone experiences, unless an individual has a form of sociopathy and lacks the capacity for empathy and connection. Shame frequently arises from feeling like one is not fulfilling the expected societal norms, or that one might be judged. For instance, body appearance, being stereotyped or judged, and money or work, all are included in the top list of shame issues.

Shame is an internal and subjective experience, but can be induced by the environment. Environments that promote shame include those that link acceptance and esteem with performance or competition, use humiliation as a motivating technique, or demand perfectionism. It is often evidenced by a sense of insecurity, gossip, favoritism, and harassment.

Shame’s effect on our core needs: The experience of shame makes us feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. It affects our prefrontal cortex and limits our ability to think about other things, to connect with others. Consistent feelings of shame affect our well-being by increasing anxiety, depression, and can result in expressions of anger and violence[15].

Antidotes to shame:The antidotes to shame include cultivating caring relationships that prioritize empathy and non-conditional regard.


Scarcity is simply, “having less than you feel you need”[16].

While poverty, or a scarcity of money, might be the first form of scarcity to come to mind, scarcity mindset can be about any resource that is scarce: time, money, calories, friendships, or space[17]. The important factor is that regardless of which resource is scarce, scarcity creates a similar mindset and set of psychological and behavioral reactions. Scarcity as a mindset can be induced by the environment and objective situation, but is distinct from its physical reality. One can be wealthy and still feel money is scarce, for instance.

On the positive side, in the short term, we become more focused, efficient, and attentive to the scarce resource. Deadlines are a way to induce scarcity. When an important deadline looms, it’s likely an individual becomes incredibly focused on meeting it.

On the negative side, scarcity affects our ability to process information, to accurately read our surroundings, to focus on other important areas of our life. It makes us more forgetful, affects our ability to sleep well, and decreases our cognitive bandwidth. Bandwidth is a term Mullainathan and Shafir use to describe a combination of fluid intelligence, cognitive capacity, and executive control. Scarcity decreases bandwidth through four main psychological effects:

· “Tunneling” or focus completely on the goal at hand and undermines our ability to see anything outside of the tunnel. This affects our ability to plan long-term or attend to other important areas of our life.

· Mental internal disruption — scarcity constantly calls our mind back to the scarce resource, interrupting our ability to focus on other things.

· Attentional blink — scarcity causes us to only see what’s related to the scarce resource and can literally blind one to what is in front of them because the mind is still concentrated on the scarce resource.

· Increased cognitive load — when a resource is scarce, it forces constant trade-off thinking. An individual constantly has to calculate the cost of spending a resource one way rather than the other. Furthermore, it taxes executive control by requiring constant vigilance of how the scarce resource is spent: “Escaping the scarcity trap does not merely require an occasional act of vigilance. It requires constant, everlasting vigilance; almost all temptations must be resisted almost all the time”[18].

When our bandwidth is taxed it limits our mental processing power. It’s not that our actual intelligence is decreased, but rather that we have limited ability to access it.

Scarcity’s effect on core needs: Scarcity undermines our need for autonomy because an individual can feel compelled by external forces to address the goal at hand rather than attend to deeper needs. When we are limited in our ability to handle either the scarce resource or attend to other needs it can be particularly damaging. Scarcity may also affect our ability to fulfill our need for relatedness — we become so focused on the scarce resource that we are unable to see or connect with others meaningfully.

The “antidotes” to scarcity: There are two main antidotes to the effects of scarcity: 1) slack — creating room to spare, enough of the resource to sufficiently allow for even unanticipated demands; and, 2) time reserved for reflection and long-term planning, which allows us to effectively move out of tunneling.

Chronic Stress

Fear is a physiological and psychological response to something that feels threatening — this could by either physically threatening, or threatening to our sense of self. It is considered to be an acute (rather than chronic) stressor. It results in the release of adrenaline and cortisol to the body and, in the brain, the amygdala (center for emotions, memory, and survival instincts) takes over cognitive function. This leads to what is often commonly termed the “fight or flight” response (more recently expanded to include “freeze” and “fright”)[19]. When our brain is controlled by the amygdala, the limbic system of the brain shuts down connection to the neo-cortex, the parts of the brain responsible for rational thinking. Fear directly affects our sense of safety, the precondition for any of our social psychological needs to be met.

Chronic stress occurs when an individual is exposed to a threatening or stressful situation — physical or emotional — for a prolonged period AND the individual feels they do not have control in the situation. This kind of stress results in continual release of corticosteroids and can disrupt nearly every bodily function from the immune system, to the heart, to the endocrine and other hormonal systems[20]. It can speed up the aging process, is linked to higher risk of strokes and heart disease, and is suspected to be linked to many other aspects of ill-health. Chronic stress is both a result of, and affects, our need for autonomy. It also affects our need to feel competent and connect with others.

Particularly intense stressors can lead to trauma. Trauma, through post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder, can cause an extended perception of threat in the environment and can lead to the same (and additional) physical and mental symptoms as chronic stress[21].

Identity Threat

While it is clear that physical threat or forms of emotional or psychological abuse would be in direct contravention of the pre-conditional need for security, threats do not have to be physical in nature, they can also be related to our core sense of self or identity.

Steele’s stereotype threat theory is a form of identity threat[22]. In its most basic form, stereotype threat argues that we as individuals know the narrative about how we are expected to perform based on societal stereotypes about the ‘kind’ of person we are (gender, race, SES, etc.) and, if we care about the task we are performing, knowledge of negative stereotypes can unconsciously stress and distract us to the point that it suppresses our ability to perform well on the task. Similar to the effect of scarcity mindset, differences in performance or achievement do not necessarily stem from differences in innate ability, or even levels of knowledge. In fact, ironically, it tends to most impede the strongest performers in a certain area, those who care most about performing well and/or those who had high expectations about how they should perform.

How do chronic stress and psychological threat affect our core needs?: Both chronic stress and psychological threat affects our sense of competence by directly reducing performance on tasks an individual would be able to complete in other settings, as well as our ability to connect with others by raising doubts about worthiness or being seen accurately by others.

“Antidotes”: Antidotes to chronic stress and identity threat are environments that are physically safe, calm, consistent, and warm relationships of non-conditional regard. Additionally, fostering positive relationships with others: oxytocin, the connection hormone, has been found to help diminish the fear or stress reaction[23].

Five Design Principles for Fostering Flourishing & Democracy in Schools & Classrooms

From the core needs and inhibiting factors emerge five key design principles for designing environments for current and future flourishing. These design principles are necessary if not sufficient.

1. Safety: Rules, Boundaries and Consequences

Creating a safe environment is the first and foremost design principle. This seems obvious, but it is a precondition that not all schools are able to meet. Safety includes both physical safety and psychological safety, which means there are both objective and subjective components: it must actually be safe and feel safe.

For an environment to feel safe, there need to be clear behavior-outcome contingencies. Environments that support development protect against anomie by having clear rules, norms, and consequences. When there are too few rules or consequences, beyond feeling unsafe, students cannot develop a sense of competence in navigating their world and don’t have the opportunity to internalize social norms. This affects their sense of competence, their ability to interact and connect with others in healthy ways.

2. Slack: Sufficient Time & Space for Flow, Reflection, Planning & Being Responsive

The antidote to scarcity is slack (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013). Slack is having more than you need of a certain resource. It is not “savings,” something you put away for use later, neither is it time left deliberately unused — rather, it is the by-product of operating in an environment where there is plenty. From a time perspective, this means having sufficient time to absorb unanticipated demands, detours, or delays without causing panic and still being able to meet your deadlines. For this to happen, slack has to be built into the schedule at the school and the classroom level (and, while I focus on time, this is applicable for all resources).

Slack at a school level means educators and administrators have sufficient time to plan, to reflect individually and together, to try new things and evaluate their effects, and to deal with the frequent unanticipated minor and major crises that students and school communities are certain to experience over the course of a year. Sufficient time, or slack, is required for getting out of the scarcity mindset, for planning and executing long-term visions, for seeing and connecting with one another in meaningful ways, for reflecting and changing a pedagogical practice, and for interacting mindfully when there are discipline issues.

When there is not sufficient slack, administrators spend their days, “putting out fires” instead of thoughtfully designing their environment and experience. At a classroom level, without slack educators become isolated from one another, are less able to either plan properly or reflect on their practice, and are stressed by the impossibility of fitting everything in that “should” be taught. Without slack, it’s likely students are moved through a curriculum instead of a learning experience that adapts to their meaning making process, teachers interact with time “infractions” or interruptions more harshly, and there are fewer opportunities to explore ideas or build relationships and collaboration. In other words, when there is scarcity, teachers and students are thwarted from fulfilling the needs for connection, autonomy, competence, or purpose.

3. Connectedness: Positivity Resonance

People in a school environment need time and space to truly connect with one another: to know one another as whole human beings and to react to, and interact with, one another in intentional ways. This is fundamental for healthy development and for healthy communities.

One way to think about designing for connection would be as designing for positivity resonance. Fredrickson defines positivity resonance as when a trio of tightly interwoven events between people: 1) a sharing of positive emotions between two or more people; 2) synchrony in biochemistry and behaviors that happens when people truly “see” one another and mirror their internal state; and, 3) an intention and reflected motive for mutual care and investment in each other’s well-being (Fredrickson, 2013, p. 17).

Designing for positive moments of connection would provide several important benefits. First of all, when we connect and share positive emotions, we are happier. Positivity resonance contributes to health and to learning through its effects on your brain, oxytocin (the “happiness hormone”); and the vagus nerve, which connects the brain with the heart, lungs, and other internal organs (Eckstein et al., 2015; Fredrickson, 2013). The release of oxytocin is essential for creating healthy relationships and a culture that fosters learning[24]. Because positivity resonance also allows people to feel seen and to truly see others, it combats shame through promoting a sense of belonging. While it may seem irrelevant to traditional ideas about learning, oxytocin has also been found to expand awareness, and improve cognition, ability to learn, and memory (Sandi et al., 2005).

Designing for positivity resonance looks like creating time and space for authentic connection — between students and between adults (and between students and adults). Positivity resonance is likely to be fostered during open playtime, during teacher meetings that allow for creativity and open conversation, in school rituals that actively foster relationships. For instance, some schools have rituals that require all students to dance with one another when they first arrive at school (NBC, 2017), while other schools have re-organized recess for more connection, some teachers greet each child with a hug or high five at the door, and other schools require all adults to smile and greet one another, or cheer, anytime they are within five feet of each other.

4. Autonomy Support: Freedom, Self Direction, & Choice

At the most basic level, “autonomy support” means taking the perspective of the other person in a deep way, and considering all interactions and demands on that person from their perspective. Deep perspective taking means being able to consider, “why they want what they want and why they do what they do” (Deci & Flaste, 1996, p. 142).

From a student perspective, this is likely more important in terms of pedagogy — ensuring there’s “choice and voice” and ability to pursue things that are of interest to them. At the school structure and management level, it’s important for educators as well as students. If teachers are not empowered, if they don’t have their own core needs met, then it is nearly impossible for them to create empowering learning environments for students. This means the school structures and management need to be autonomy supportive of teachers — providing them the opportunity to evaluate options and make their own decisions, take initiative, contribute to important group decisions, and be self-directed. Autonomy support combats alienation and obviously supports people’s fulfillment of their core need for autonomy.

5. Democratic Voice & Practice

The aims for our schooling in the United States today include both fostering empowering learning experiences for individuals, and also fostering a thriving democratic society. School is a microcosm of the larger society and is the place where students (and educators) learn how to interact with one another and as a group. How this happens in school affects how students will think about their rights and responsibilities in society as adults. For this to be effective, educators and students should have a meaningful role in all aspects of how the school is run — the governance, rule development, discipline, and maintenance. It also has implications for pedagogy in that students need spaces that support autonomy, connection, and the additional aim of democratic, civic responsibility.

Designing Student Experiences: Nine Design Principles for Empowering Pedagogy

There have been an abundance of approaches to designing learning and/or growth experiences for young people over the years and many of them are empowering. These include everything from Montessori, to design thinking, to culturally sustaining pedagogy, to restorative justice, to dialogically organized classrooms, and beyond.

While numerous approaches have been developed, what’s not often recognized is that the practices that are fundamentally empowering share a number of core tenets. I’ve come to think of this as the why/how/what of experience design — the core tenets or principles / the approach / and the set of activities or curriculum.

What really matters are the core tenets — the why an experience is empowering — and approaches are just different ways of putting those tenets into practice. This work is still in progress, but to-date I’ve identified nine core tenets of empowering approaches.

Image for post
Image for post

[[**While the environment design principles are pretty solidly developed, the experience design principles are still being investigated and will likely change somewhat with more research.**]]

What matters for experiences of students is not the “how” or the “what” — the curriculum or the specific approach, what matters is that they incorporate these core tenets.

For an example, design thinking and Montessori are “hows” or approaches. Both incorporate these core tenets, but when they are implemented they look different at the “what” level. Empathy in design thinking involves empathy interviews or observations and knowing your “user”, while in Montessori it involves a set of practices undertaken by teachers to deeply understand each child. Autonomy in design thinking involves decisions around the problem to pursue, how to define it, and how to test and iterate solutions. Autonomy in Montessori involves students being able to choose the activity you want to undertake at any given time without adult intervention. Each tenet looks different in practice, but the approach is really a way of enacting these tenets.

Facilitating Change and/or Scaling

Most attempts at facilitating change or scaling a program fail for two design-related reasons (we will ignore the operations-related reasons scaling could fail):

1. They focus solely on trying to change individuals and ignore the environments and systems within which individuals are behaving.

- For instance, incentives or threats are implemented without exploring the root causes in the environment for widespread behavior.

2. They try to scale or change on the “what” or “how”– they control the activity level or define the process without defining the “why”.

- For instance, a curriculum or set of activities is required without a shared pedagogical philosophy or orientation.

These mistakes are frequent partly because most research and evaluation focuses on the individual — their capacities, character and beliefs, and/or the “what” — the activities, actions, or curriculum. These are the most easily measurable and quantifiable.

Trying to make change or scale when you’re only measuring individual outcomes won’t be effective because, often, what drives individual behavior and development lies in the environment and experiences they have.

And you cannot create change or scale by focusing on the “what” or “how” effectively because it’s not the “what” or the “how” that matters. While most research looks at the “what”, sometimes research or evaluation might look at the “how” (e.g. comparing Montessori and culturally sustaining pedagogy). However, when you try to scale the “how” without understanding the core tenets, you end up actually just defining a set of activities.

For concrete examples:

· As design thinking has scaled, “empathy” has often become simply conducting some user interviews — the point is not the interview, it’s the deep understanding and empathy for the user — but this gets lost when a process is turned into a set of activities without a full understanding of the core tenets — the “why” these activities are important.

· Carol Dweck researches the notion of growth mindset[25] — the actual research focused on particular expressions (e.g. praising children for how smart they were vs. praising them for effort). She found that praising for effort led children to try harder on the next task. While Dweck discusses that growth mindset is developed through numerous complex environmental and experiential factors (the “how”), including teacher and parent attitudes, formative vs. summative assessment practices, etc., when it has been scaled growth mindset is often turned into a “what” level of praising for effort instead of for intelligence. And has thus run into difficulties achieving the same effects as it did in the tightly controlled studies.

Rarely acknowledged or discussed is that the “why” here is related to the core tenet of “separating performance from identity” — the idea that how we perform or behave today is not a signal of our core worth as humans. Growth mindset is one way of enacting that tenet, but there are many ways. And, if adults actually don’t hold this believe, no amount of the “what” — praising for effort — will overcome the lack of the core tenet.

To effectively scale, or to facilitate change in a given institution, requires a process for the adults involved that mirrors the environmental and experiential design principles needed for empowering experiences for students. This process should include the following elements (notice it incorporates the core tenets!):

1. Continuous Learning

Deep Ongoing Learning of Mechanisms (not just Strategies): To enable educators to creatively adapt to the students in front of them, they must have a deep understanding and intuition about the mechanisms (the WHY something works and to what end), not just the strategies (the how) or the activities (the what) of a practice. Evidence-based practice requires they understand the evidence as well as what is essential and what is adaptable.

Firsthand experience: This includes two different elements: i.) the training/management team modeling the interactions, strategies, and processes we hope to see (which is the most powerful way to “teach” students or teachers or coaches…or dream directors); ii) ensuring the trainings themselves include the strategies and practices in ways educators can experience their own “a-ha” moment of why it’s effective for themselves, and reflect on how to adapt it for their students.

Stories (not just Studies): Research suggests we learn principles better, understand more deeply, and remember better what we learn through stories. For working with educators this might mean both translating studies into stories, and using “best practice” stories from other educators to show the power inherent in particular strategies.

2. Build on Strengths

Work with educators, as with their work with students, needs to be grounded in the strengths of each DD. Considerable research has show that focusing on opportunities for positive growth that is grounded in strengths is more powerful than analysis of weaknesses.

3. Facilitate Connection & Relationships

We learn, act, and change better when we are connected in supportive relationships with others — when we can celebrate our achievements, share and reflect on our missteps and failures, and hear about others’ experiences. Educators will adopt new strategies and improve more quickly when there is connection and reflection and attention paid to the relationships with other Educators, with the R&E team, and with their students.

4. Allow to act with Choice & Support

In an organization that depends on the “front line” people being able to adapt and be creative — when the situations are unique and ever-changing and involve other humans — front line people need to be able to make informed, thoughtful choices, and feel supported in both making those choices and evaluating the consequences. The same kind can be said of students in their lives. This draws on self-determination theory and underlies the idea that no dictated strategy is likely to be either effective or empowering.

5. Listen. Listen. Listen

This is a core principle of good leadership more broadly, but is particularly important when you’re trying to encourage change and adaptation, and extremely important when you’re asking for change that you’re not involved in firsthand. This process would involve multiple formal and informal ways for educators to be and feel heard (and seen).

6. Ask Better (Positive) Questions

People grow in the direction of the questions they ask most persistently.

Related to listening, to building on strengths, and to growing connection, the questions we ask of Educators (and ourselves!) should be oriented toward the positive future. When we go to promote growth and change, are the questions we are asking as leaders strengthening our relationships? Are they valuing and appreciating the humans involved? Are they focused on the positive outcomes and behaviors we want to see (rather than trying to stamp out “undesirable” behaviors or strategies)? Do they highlight the vision and the dream? Our positive images of the future lead our positive actions and we want educators to imagine themselves, their students, and their work in beautiful, positive, affirming ways that lead to ever better practices.

7. Facilitate & Encourage Ongoing Reflection

All change requires intention and attention. Reflection by each person doing the work is essential, as well as each level of the organization. Here I imagine there will be some more typical data analysis and feedback, as well as ongoing reflective tools that incorporate intention (values, desired outcomes) and attention (how are my choices working for me/my students?).

The most effective reflection doesn’t just look at outcomes: it examines pre-conditions, the environment, behaviors, subjective experience, and key facets that lead to the outcome desired.

As an example, Daniel Kahneman has developed a tool called the “Day Reconstruction Method” that was then adapted by Barbara Fredrickson to look at positive resonance — which research has shown to increase physiological and psychological well-being, resilience, and relationships, among other benefits. The questions ask you to review and evaluate daily habits and the questions look at the pre-requisites for positivity resonance (safety, physical presence & meaningful focus on others) as well as the felt sense of connection and the three key facets — shared emotions, biobehavioral synchrony, and mutual care. When approached this way, the vision/intention of increasing positive resonance is clear through the questions and it builds on where these are happening, while making clear where other opportunities to develop might exist.

These notes were adapted from:

Raab, E. L. (2017). Why School?: A Systems Perspective on Creating Schooling for Flourishing Individuals and a Thriving Democratic Society (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University).

Full Text Available at:


Erin Lynn Raab, Ph.D., is passionate about creating a more just, equitable society through a schooling system organized for human flourishing and a thriving democracy.

Dr. Raab earned her doctorate in Education at Stanford University, where her dissertation was entitled “Why School?: A Systems Perspective on Creating Schooling for Individual Flourishing and a Thriving Democratic Society”. She is currently Co-Founder and Executive Director of REENVISIONED ( and consults with education organizations and schools to usable theories of change and design empowering education programs and evaluation systems.

Previously, Dr. Raab was Vice President of Research & Evaluation at The Future Project (, Founder & Executive Director of the KwaNdengezi Education Centre in South Africa, and a Senior Researcher at MIET Africa with the National Department of Basic Education.


Email: Medium:


Facebook & Instagram: @reenvisioned

Twitter: @erinlynnraab | @reenvisioned


** = Highly recommended reading for educators & administrators

Abelson, R. P. (1986). Beliefs are like possessions. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16(3), 223–250.

Acheson, D. T., & Risbrough, V. B. (2015). Oxytocin enhancement of fear extinction: A new target for facilitating exposure-based treatments? Biological Psychiatry, 78(3), 154–155.

Adolphs, R. (2008). Fear, faces, and the human amygdala. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 18(2), 166–172.

Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, C. H., Perry, B. D., … Giles, W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 256(3), 174–186.

Asch, S. E. (1952). Social psychology. Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215.

Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122–147.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

Bracha, H. S., Ralston, T. C., Matsukawa, J. M., Williams, A. E., & Bracha, A. S. (2004). Does “fight or flight” need updating? Psychosomatics, 45(5), 448–449.

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are (1 edition). Center City, Minn: Hazelden Publishing.

**Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead (Reprint edition). Avery.

Cordova, D. I., & Lepper, M. R. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning: Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(4), 715–730.

**Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (1 edition). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Damon, W. (2008). Path to purpose: Helping our children find their calling in life (1St Edition edition). Free Press.

Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). “ From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100.

Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105.

**Deci, E. L., & Flaste, R. (1996). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation (Reprint edition). London: Penguin Books.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Duckworth, A., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Self-control and grit: Related but separable determinants of success. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 319–325.

Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087.

**Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256.

Eckstein, M., Becker, B., Scheele, D., Scholz, C., Preckel, K., Schlaepfer, T. E., … Hurlemann, R. (2015). Oxytocin facilitates the extinction of conditioned fear in humans. Biological Psychiatry, 78(3), 194–202.

Felitti, V., & Anda, R. (2009). The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Medicatl Disease, Psychiatric Disorders, and Sexual Behavior: Implications for Healthcare. In R. Lanius & E. Vermtten (Eds.), The Hidden Epidemic: The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease. Cambridge University Press.

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning (1 edition). Beacon Press.

Fredrickson, B. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. Hudson st Press.

Gardner, J. (1933, April). The road to self renewal. Presented at the Hawaii Executive Conference, Kona, Hawaii. Retrieved from

Gray, P. (2015, September 22). Declining student resilience: A serious problem for colleges. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., & Aslin, R. N. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition, 126(1), 109–114.

Lepper, M. R., & Henderlong, J. (2000). Turning” play” into” work” and” work” into” play”: 25 years of research on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Retrieved from

Maslow, A. H. (2013). A theory of human motivation. Martino Fine Books.

McIntyre, R. B., Paulson, R. M., & Lord, C. G. (2003). Alleviating women’s mathematics stereotype threat through salience of group achievements. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(1), 83–90.

McLean, K. C., Pasupathi, M., & Pals, J. L. (2007). Selves creating stories creating selves: A process model of self-development. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(3), 262–278.

Mellor, D., Stokes, M., Firth, L., Hayashi, Y., & Cummins, R. (2008). Need for belonging, relationship satisfaction, loneliness, and life satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(3), 213–218.

Mischel, W. (1974). Processes in delay of gratification. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 7, pp. 249–292). Academic Press.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. I. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science (New York, N.Y.), 244(4907), 933–938.

Morrison, G. M., & Allen, M. R. (2007). Promoting student resilience in school contexts. Theory into Practice, 46(2), 162–169.

**Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Times Books.

NBC. (2017, March 18). At this Montana school, the morning dance ritual is king. NBC News. Retrieved from

Noddings, N. (2013). Caring: A relational approach to ethics and moral education (2 edition). University of California Press.

Osterman, K. F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70(3), 323–367.

Phelps, E. A., & LeDoux, J. E. (2005). Contributions of the amygdala to emotion processing: From animal models to human behavior. Neuron, 48(2), 175–187.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1991). Narrative and self-concept. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 1(2), 135–153.

**Raab, E. L. (2017). Why School?: A Systems Perspective on Creating Schooling for Flourishing Individuals and a Thriving Democratic Society (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University). Available at:

Sandi, C., Merino, J. J., Cordero, M. I., Touyarot, K., & Venero, C. (2001). Effects of chronic stress on contextual fear conditioning and the hippocampal expression of the neural cell adhesion molecule, its polysialylation, and L1. Neuroscience, 102(2), 329–339.

Sandi, C., Woodson, J. C., Haynes, V. F., Park, C. R., Touyarot, K., Lopez-Fernandez, M. A., … Diamond, D. M. (2005). Acute stress-induced impairment of spatial memory is associated with decreased expression of neural cell adhesion molecule in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Biological Psychiatry, 57(8), 856–864.

Seligman, M. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407–412.

**Seligman, M. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being (Reprint edition). New York, NY: Atria Books.

Smith, A. (1759). The theory of moral sentiments.

Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 4–28.

**Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us (issues of our time). WW Norton & Company.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1998). Stereotype threat and the test performance of academically successful African Americans. The Black-White Test Score Gap, 401–427.

Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of experience (1 edition). Harvard University Press.

Venero, C., Tilling, T., Hermans-Borgmeyer, I., Schmidt, R., Schachner, M., & Sandi, C. (2002). Chronic stress induces opposite changes in the mRNA expression of the cell adhesion molecules NCAM and L1. Neuroscience, 115(4), 1211–1219.

[1] Aristotle. (2012); Curren, R. (2014)

[2] Aristotle. (2012).

[3] This understanding of self that is greatly influenced by Deci and Ryan’s work in Self Determination Theory, Asch’s groundbreaking work in social psychology, Maslow’s humanist psychology, and more recent work in positive psychology by Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, and others (Asch, 1952; Csikszentmihalyi, 2008; Deci & Ryan, 2000, 2002a; Maslow, 2013; Seligman, 2012). This is primarily a psychological view of self, though one that considers the self to be in dialectical relationship of mutual creation with the environment and culture.

[4] Deci & Ryan, 2002a, 2000; Deci & Flaste, 1996; Damon, 2008; Frankl, 2006

[5] Etymologically, the word “autonomy” comes from the greek “auto”, which means “self”, and “-nomy,” which means “management” or “arrangement” — in full, it derives from the idea of self-governance.

[6] Deci and Ryan also contrast autonomy with the idea of independence or individualism, which they define as not needing to rely on external sources.

[7] As Dewey says so wisely, “when preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted” Dewey 2011, Democracy & Education

[8] Lewin 1952

[9] Deci & Flaste, 1996, p. 93)

[10] Csikszentmihalyi, 2008; Deci & Flaste, 1996

[11] Csikszentmihalyi, 2008

[12] (Deci & Ryan, 2002b).

[13] (Deci & Flaste 1996).

[14] (Brown, 2015, p. 69)

[15] (Brown, 2010, 2015)

[16] (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013, p. 4)

[17] Money is a particularly strong source of scarcity, however, because it underlies our entire economic system and possessing it can provide a buffer against other forms of scarcity (e.g. one could hire a babysitter or line editor when time scarce).

[18] (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013, p. 131)

[19] (Bracha, Ralston, Matsukawa, Williams, & Bracha, 2004)

[20] (Sandi, Merino, Cordero, Touyarot, & Venero, 2001; Venero et al., 2002)

[21] (Felitti & Anda, 2009; Sandi et al., 2001)

[22] (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, 2011)

[23] (Acheson & Risbrough, 2015; Eckstein et al., 2015)

[24] Oxytocin had been found to modulate aggression, anxiety, and improve social behavior, and to improve people’s ability to read other’s emotions (Adolphs, 2008; Phelps & LeDoux, 2005). Furthermore, oxytocin is a primary defense against stress and fear reactions. Recent research has found it plays a key facilitative role in allowing our body to recover from moments of fear or stress (Acheson & Risbrough, 2015; Eckstein et al., 2015).

[25] Individuals who believe intelligence, talents, or character can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) are considered to have a growth mindset. While a fixed mindset is defined as those who believe intelligence, talents, or character are innate gifts.

Written by

Solving systemic problems to create a more just, loving world. Transforming education for human flourishing and thriving democracy. Co-Founder @ REENVISIONED.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store