Mistakes, empathy, and serendipity

Everywhere I turn I see people telling teachers to “get out of the way.” Even this week’s TED prize winner, Sugata Mitra, is envisioning a future of learning that involves grannies more than teachers. So how do I justify myself as an educator at an expensive bricks-and-mortar independent school?

Because I  believe that the progressive independent school experience is greater than the sum of its parts. We aim to graduate students who are more than skilled and knowledgeable. We think that our educational experience offers something else. How do we put our finger on that factor? What do we offer that no digital experience can? I want to throw in a few ideas, stir the pot, and try to figure out how to do the math that proves that 2 + 2 = 5. 

I have heard a few basic considerations when trying to identify what makes independent schools worth their tuition. From the institutional perspective, things like:

  • safety (physical & emotional),
  • socialization (with peer groups & with experienced, caring adults), and
  • emphasis on nurturing moral development (sometimes spiritual development)

seem to top the list. All of these things are important, and for many people they justify the cost of tuition. But all of that is about the institution, not the teacher. I need more to know why I am burning the midnight oil for my job.

Sugata Mitra’s TED talk will leave many people thinking that teachers will soon be obsolete. But what is going to linger with me the longest was the way he dismissed one of his biggest points as a side note, saying that we need “a curriculum of Big Questions.” I love this idea, and I see the opportunity here to reach into the places where MOOC’s and disruptive technology cannot.

I think that the future of machine learning will have a tremendous effect on human learning. The thought of having a digital personal trainer to help you achieve proficiency in all sorts of skills is a riveting idea. But if this opportunity ends up monopolizing learning — that everyone becomes “educated” by following the path that has been algorithmically personalized just for them — I see a dystopian future. Because who defines “proficiency?” What really is the destination of the perfectly adjusted paths on which our students will progress? Teachers bemoan the barely-human bureaucratic bodies that set standards for learning and proficiency. So what happens if machines are allowed to take the reins of our education and suggest the “best path forward” for all of our students? I have visions of:

Instead I believe that bricks-and-mortar teachers have a unique opportunity to help students make mistakes. To a computer, a mistake is a mistake; the next digital lesson or problem set will account for that mistake and help guide the student back on track. But to a teacher, a mistake is an opportunity. The brilliance of the elementary school art teacher is to see every slip of the brush stroke not as a mistake but as a chance for something new. When teachers at every level and every discipline approach teaching in this way, we will have something that an online education can never touch.


The world does not just need students who are proficient in a handful of subjects. The world also needs us to develop students who are capable of empathizing with others. Senator Obama started talking about the need to address the “empathy deficit” in 2006:

When all teachers engage this call, bricks-and-mortar schools have a chance to claim one more piece of the puzzle that e-learning will never reach. And why can e-learning never reach this critical piece of education? Haven’t MOOC’s moved into courses in the humanities and arts?* Doesn’t that mean that some day the world of digital education will find a way to teach empathy too?

No, they won’t. And that’s because…

Empathy cannot be taught. But it can be learned.
Empathy is not imposed. It is uncovered.
Empathy is impossible without diversity. Diversity and inclusiveness pave the way to empathy.

Those are the words of my junior year Latin students from a conversation about empathy in November. And I believe that only a personal — and in-person — education can uncover that very kind of empathy which the world so badly needs.


Being in the same place at the same time is a powerful thing. Even the tech world understands this: the coworking movement, which I find intriguing, has been growing for a number of years and this past week Yahoo! made a policy change to ban telecommuting from home. The idea is not just that working together increases productivity and decreases loneliness; it’s that working together provides room for serendipity. The connections we make — connections between people, projects, ideas, passions — is what sparks inspiration and innovation. I love the idea that the role of the teacher is to create this space for their students.

I think this is part of why I am so enthusiastically a disciple of the pedagogical vision of Prima Lingua: it molds students into language learners by structuring opportunities for serendipity. Through activities that can only happen in person, students discover connections for themselves. The vision of Prima Lingua is one of joyful linguistic exploration. The result is that students do not just acquire proficiency in one particular language but become language learners who are inspired and capable of learning any language. Teach a student to fish, and he will speak one language. Teach a student how languages work, and his ability to communicate in his native language and all others will blossom. (That’s how the saying goes, right?)

Structuring opportunities for serendipity in the context of middle schoolers learning languages looks different from high schoolers in a S.T.E.A.M. program. But one thing remains the same: they are joyful pursuits that cannot be replicated online.

But Quakers knew this all along

I like the three things I’ve been able to identify so far: mistakes, empathy, and serendipity. I look forward to hearing from friends and colleagues what makes their list.

But I can’t write this and make the claim that any of it is original thought. So much of this — so much of what I understand to be the movement of progressive education — is just good old Quaker pedagogy. How? The idea of uncovering empathy should be ringing true with the Quaker belief of continuing revelation. Read more about the values of coworking and look for the Quaker testimony of Community to jump off of the page.

I am ready for Quaker educators to make an assertive move to reclaim what has been ours all along: that inquiry-driven education is innovative, yes, but was ours first; that the teacher being the lead learner and not the sage on the stage has been ours longer than it has been a catchphrase.

We still have a lot of work to do in order to identify exactly what makes our educational experience worthwhile. But once we do, I hope we can let everyone know that its nothing new at all.

* MOOC’s are now offering courses from poetry to design and everything in between. But I can’t help myself from pointing out the irony that it was Standford’s machine learning class that attracted over 100,000 students a few years ago and triggered the wave of higher ed exploring MOOC’s in the first place!

11 thoughts on “Mistakes, empathy, and serendipity

  1. BC, I am reading your thoughts with the background of having been a routine, if incidental observer of your Latin course for the past two years by working in my office adjacent to your classroom. If anyone needs evidence that, as CNS said to me, ours is a relational business, they need only to visit your Latin class. Wonderful as computers are at handling information, I will only accept that they can be sufficient to 
    replace good teachers when they show me a machine/tool that can build an equivalent experience for kids.

  2. BC, I’m enjoying your blog! I saw Cathy Davidson speak at NAIS last Friday, and her last slide said “If we (teachers) can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” Her point was that teachers shouldn’t be replaced; instead, they should work to be irreplaceable.

    • What an exciting time to be a teacher. I’m up for the challenge!
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Alexa.

  3. Colin, I just took the time to re-read your post and I am so glad that I did. This post needs to become required reading by the FCS faculty. Motivating, inspiring, affirming. It is the perfect response the the questions and challenges presented by MOOC’s and automated content delivery systems. You absolutely (and beautifully) have put into words what I have been thinking about the challenges and opportunities presented by educational technology. Teachers need to leverage what technology offers AND more importantly deliver what it can not- “joyful pursuits” of learning.

    • Wow, Dan. Thank you so much. It’s challenging to write these posts and send them off into the void, not sure if anyone is reading. So thank you for reading, and thank you for commenting. Your support means a lot!

  4. Pingback: Let’s write a cookbook | They Call Me BC

    • Wow! So many cool things happening in here. Thanks for sharing. It’ll be fascinating to see where this goes next. Two thoughts for now:
      – The short write-up made me think back to PeaceMaker https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PeaceMaker_(video_game), a “serious game” that came out a number of years ago and was used primarily for educational purposes. One of the problems that I ran into with it was that the simulation was inauthentic and made the interaction feel like human vs algorithm instead of really understanding the human perspective on all sides. Can this empathy simulation get beyond that? And if it does, at what point is the safe sandbox of a simulation an inappropriate/ unnecessary replacement for real human interaction? At the very least, it’s really cool to see a real, ernest attempt like this.
      – At the end of the article they said the simulation is made with Unity. CS2’s final project right now is that students are working on a virtual reality simulation with Unity, the Kinect, and an Oculus Rift VR headset… reminds me that I need to have you come down to FCC125 and geek out with us sometime soon!
      Thanks again for the link. Will be curious to revisit this again in the future and see when it’s time to change up my list!

  5. Pingback: Disruptive technology in education, Part II | They Call Me BC

  6. Hello Colin, I met you back in the Fall, and I wished I had kept in better touch. I truly enjoy reading your blog, and it’s evident that you really take the time to think through all of these interesting topics and explore them deeply. It’s weird being in the work world now and out of an organized educational- system, and you have made me missed my Quaker education a lot. However, you have also reminded me that learning is on going, and that one’s education doesn’t stop. It’s not easy, but it’s all around us, to constantly explore, question, and collaborate with others. I miss Meeting for Worship a lot, for me it was a time out of the week to be still, reflect, think, meditate – but what made it so special was that it was a group agreement. A whole community decided to be a part of this time in the week to be still together, which is what I think you got at in some of your other articles. The Quakers were visionary, and expanding on what you discussed here with empathy, their non-violent approach to conflict resolution affected my education in a large way. I wrote my college essay on non-violence and the power empathy and compassion have for breaking down barriers and bringing people together, or at least creating the space for peace, and my experience in discovering this. I know you wrote this over a year ago, but I hope you see this comment! And keep up the good work. We need more teachers like you, your colleagues and other teachers out there, public and private that are thinking about and practicing these essential life skills.

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