Redefining Smart


Thom Markham

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    Praise for Redefining Smart

    An urgent call for redefining educational outcomes and a compelling argument for personalization of education. Markham convincingly explains why education is much more than developing cognitive skills and proposes practical ways to cultivate what matters for life.

    —Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair, Director
    Institute of Global and Online Education
    University of Oregon

    “Choose courage, not fear.” With these words Thom Markham begins his book Redefining Smart. He offers a research-based educational vision for changing our definition for student success in the 21st century. The book goes further to offer practical advice, tools, and reflective questions to assist teachers in choosing to have courage to change their practice and students’ lives.

    —Bob Lenz, Executive Director
    Buck Institute for Education
    CEO and Founder, Envision Schools

    For over twenty years it’s been known that intelligence is far more than one’s IQ, and that a powerful relationship exists between the heart and brain that affects one’s ability to self-regulate and navigate the complexities of life. By integrating the new science of heart intelligence into the conversation about deeper learning, inquiry, and 21st century skills, Thom Markham not only redefines intelligence, he shows that positive emotions hold the key to sustained optimal performance, sharper cognitive functioning, and the kind of heartfelt collaboration and mentoring that inspire young people to become resilient, capable, and open-minded adults. This book points the way to the future of education.

    —Rollin McCraty, Director of Research
    Institute of HeartMath
    Boulder Creek, CA

    In Redefining Smart, Thom Markham makes an urgent call for school change that will resonate with anyone who entered the teaching profession because they care about children. Joyful learning that engages both heart and brain is not a squishy, feel-good idea. Nor is it in opposition to today’s rigorous standards. Indeed, as Markham explains in detail, today’s students will not be prepared to tackle the challenges ahead unless we help them learn to think, collaborate, communicate, and feel. Speaking directly—and respectfully—to teachers, he outlines practical steps to create the culture of inquiry that all children deserve.

    —Suzie Boss
    Author of Bringing Innovation to School, and Edutopia blogger

    Dr. Markham offers up smart research and fresh thinking about our most powerful and human way of teaching: inquiry. Written as short, accessible chapters with reflection questions to guide the experience, the overall effect of this multi-course experience is, not surprisingly, a wide smile and full heart. One of the most accessible, thoroughly researched and empowering books on the transformative power of inquiry-based teaching that I’ve ever read.

    —Kimberly L. Mitchell, Founder and CEO
    Inquiry Partners

    It only took until 2015, but we finally have the book that provides the quintessential guide to 21st century learning. Redefining Smart offers a simple, yet complex, road map to transform our students’ educational experiences. While you read, throw out everything you think you know about determining students’ abilities, focus on authentic learning over time, and visualize your schools and what they could (and should) be. The book is a call for change in our instructional practices, but clearly defines the Why? behind making these essential changes and the impact they will have on students. I cannot wait to put it in the hands of all my instructional leaders! Markham nailed it!

    —Rob Thornell, Assistant Superintendent
    Northwest ISD
    Fort Worth, TX

    My work with Thom Markham began in 2005 as we embarked on a process of revising how learning looks at Olds High School. Teaching today requires personalization: connecting the heart and mind for both educators and learners; the fostering of personal rigor in project-based learning environments; and the ability to work in a team rather than a group. Thom has achieved in his book the same outcomes he achieves when working in schools face to face—that special ability to connect us to the sacred responsibility we have as educators in exposing our students to the skills they need. Markham has truly put his heart into the words of this book.

    —Tom Christenson, Principal
    Olds High School
    Olds, Alberta CA

    In a world that is struggling to figure out what 21st century teaching really means, Markham provides a clear path for moving forward. Redefining Smart reaches beyond a compartmentalized view of lesson design and curriculum by creating an exciting imperative for a new rigor. Markham sets a vision for classrooms that build relationships, embrace emotions, develop academic mastery, and ensure that students graduate with the ability to communicate and collaborate. I can’t wait to share Redefining Smart with our K–12 faculty.

    —Tim Fish, Associate Headmaster
    McDonough School
    Baltimore, MD

    Redefining Smart emphasizes the importance of unlocking a passion for learning within our students and guiding them to exercise their curiosity about the world inside of the classroom. Thom Markham provides resources, examples, and guided reflection questions to spark rich discussions about what it means to teach in the 21st century.

    —Julie Helber, Principal
    Saline High School
    Saline, MI

    This is a ground breaking book, and should be required for new and practicing teachers. Redefining Smart effectively introduces educators to the world of self-directed learning through the lens of how we ourselves must change as educators. Markham has captured the essence of contemporary neuroscience, pedagogy, and cultural shifts and woven them into a cohesive and compelling image of who each of us could become if we redefine “smart.”

    —Carol Spencer, Director of Curriculum
    Addison Northwest Supervisory Union
    Vergennes, VT

    Thom Markham passionately engages all students in a positive manner using individualized inquiry-based learning techniques. He includes rigor and relevance as well as extensive research.

    —Susan L. Harmon, Science and FACS Teacher
    Neodesha Junior/Senior High School
    Neodesha, KS

    Every idea in this book is critical for educators—from the idea of a classroom functioning as an ecosystem, to addressing creativity, to encouraging and learning from failure, to the ideas of collaboration.

    —Melissa Weatherwax, Elementary Teacher
    Poestenkill Elementary School
    Poestenkill, NY

    In Redefining Smart, Thom Markham reflects on the latest research in psychology, medicine, sociology, physics, social media, and business to articulate a clear vision for K–12 education. He synthesizes what we have learned in the past fifty years about human growth, productivity, and creativity to challenge educators at every level to break the mold of an outdated industrial paradigm and systematically rebuild the learning model for today’s and tomorrow’s students and world citizens. On every page he offers convincing evidence, cogent arguments, and actionable next steps for educators, parents, and community leaders who hear his clarion call for systemwide reinvention. This book should be read, discussed, argued about, and referenced by everyone who cares about our children enjoying full citizenship in an increasingly interconnected and dynamic global community. Put it on your short list of must-reads.

    —Frank Livoy, Associate Director
    Delaware Center for Teacher Education
    University of Delaware

    Preface Be the Change You Want to See Or, Why This Book Is Different

    Choose Courage, not Fear

    Those four words may not seem like an adequate guide to becoming an inquiry-based teacher, but they form the foundation for the advice in this book. So much of what lies ahead in education requires choice, character, and conviction. This marks a shift for educators. Throughout the last 30 years or so, the solutions to the challenge of transforming education into a system capable of inspiring students to become skillful, creative, knowledgeable problem solvers fell into familiar territory: What types of curricula, standards, skills, strategies, and adaptations to classroom teaching methods will be necessary to pull even with the 21st century? This approach to change persists—and will for some time. But as education crosses the divide between a transmission model built on industrial rules and an inquiry model, the teacher’s role changes dramatically.

    The move from “Lord of the Board” to “Guide on the Side” has entered the educational lexicon, so the issue already is in view. When a teacher comes out from behind the lectern, leaves the front of the room, kneels beside a student to coach him or her through a problem, offers feedback designed to promote confidence and perseverance, and becomes a true partner in the learning process, the relationship between teacher and student automatically shifts. It’s no longer about telling; it’s about listening, observing, and creating the channel of trust that opens up a personal connection between two individuals.

    Why Personality Matters

    The basics of good coaching can be learned, especially if it’s aimed at helping a student master a math problem, write a better essay, or give a more polished presentation. In fact, if that’s all the inquiry-based system of the future was expected to do, a natural evolution of teacher skill sets would easily take place, reinforced by a new course requirement in every credential program designed to teach effective coaching techniques.

    By itself, this would be a valuable step. In Chapters 7 and 8 on coaching, these techniques will be explored in detail. However, the future tells us that technique will be necessary, but not sufficient. Collaborative inquiry in pursuit of deeper learning, creativity, design thinking, and critical inquiry succeeds when fueled by persistence, resiliency, curiosity, and other intangible personal assets that can be elicited, but not easily taught.

    The emergence of those assets (or, as I will term them, intelligent behaviors) relies on establishing a coherent, caring relationship with students—a bond that science is now beginning to reveal as deeply non-verbal and calibrated by the relationship between teacher and student. Sincere care, authentic communication, and an orientation to potential rather than problems shift thinking, affect clarity, and stimulate imagination. The brain changes, and behavior follows.

    The connecting link is emotion. For this reason alone, we must reengage education and emotions. Experts usually cite technology and the shifting nature of knowledge as core drivers for a new model of education. But those changes simply surface the deeper challenge. As young people focus less on recall and regurgitating information, they have to get better at solving problems, asking questions, making critical judgments, and persisting at finding solutions—the staples of inquiry. Those qualities can’t be directly taught; instead, they draw from a deeper well of personality attributes intimately tied to emotional life.

    Fortunately, there is a grand shift underway in our understanding of emotions, with deep implications for helping young people become creative, resilient individuals. Emotions communicate, and when sitting beside a student in an inquiry-based classroom, personality matters a great deal. As you might guess, not just any personality, but one focused on the positive side of life. Thus, the further we advance into the 21st century, the more the personality traits of the teacher will matter. Rather than the usual focus—what subjects are taught, what’s the latest and best strategy, or which textbook or curriculum has been adopted this year—educational planners and administrators will ask, How do we identify, attract, nurture, and train teachers who have an inquiry-friendly personality?

    The Personal Journey

    For you, however, the reader of this book, I will pose the question differently. The very word trainer needs to be removed from your vocabulary. No amount of passive listening, in the form of stand-in-front-of-the-room-and-talk-at-you workshops, will fill the inquiry-based skills gap. Nor will the latest initiative or program adopted by your district provide you more than a vague road map. And no book, this one included, can provide more than a starting point of ideas, tips, and useful information.

    In some ways, this is not news. All of us know, either as students or from our experience as teachers, that the ultimate skill of teaching is driven by personality. Search your own history in school and recall the teacher who mattered most to you. Usually, a smiling face pops into view—someone who cared or took time with you. Or, just as often, it’s a teacher who taught you important knowledge, but conveyed it with a passion and sense of wonder that lit that same flame within you.

    But it’s time to make this a new standard for effective teaching, not an irregular occurrence. Inquiry draws on deeper aspects of self—from both student and teacher—than has been customary in the past. Using personality and positive relationships to drive learning is now central to education.

    The primary lesson is hard, but essential: Education doesn’t qualify any longer as a thing. You don’t lob information at students like a beach ball and hope they bat it back. Instead of a transitive verb with an object, to learn denotes a process of engaging a vast flow of information, with teachers giving that flow of facts and concepts meaning and purpose through connected dialogue. The process mandates a critical connection between you and the learner—and relationships always put the psyche in play. In the same way that employees in high-performing industries are urged to reflect inwardly and develop an agile, communicative, collaborative, and creative self as a means to work with and influence others, you will need to do similar internal research. To become a future-ready teacher, the conversation turns personal, increasingly spun more in the direction of Gandhi: How do you be the change you wish to see? The shift requires emotional balance and attention to personality factors that enhance or diminish relationships and attitudes. It refocuses professional growth onto the self rather than improved methods for delivering information.

    Developing Your Inquiry-Based Skill Set: What You Can Expect From This Book

    Now, for some frank admissions. No one is an expert on a system that has not yet been invented. The blue-collar philosopher Eric Hoffer said it well over 60 years ago: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

    So welcome to the club in a time of drastic change. As temporary leader of the club for next 180 pages or so, I will offer practical advice for teachers of all grade levels (and professors!) that follows a logical pattern. However, if you are used to reading educational books that begin with strategies, it may not feel so logical. I believe that a mindshift is necessary—a leap in imaginative powers that pushes us past conventional boundaries and beliefs about intelligence and emotions. So I’ll start there. From that point, I’ll move on to Monday morning and ways to implement the vision of teaching students to be smarter in ways more consistent with 21st century life.

    Overall, here is what to expect from the book—and what I believe is necessary to craft an inquiry-based skill set.

    • Learn why your attitude matters. I’ll start with reflections on the evolutionary trends of the world today. I promise nothing too deep or philosophical, but the inquiry-based direction for education is no accident; it’s fueled by core shifts in technology and demand information, forcing us to move from recall and retention to application and creativity. How we support the deeper learning necessary in this environment is the challenge, but one powerful trend stands out: increasing evidence from positive psychology and neuroscience demonstrating that care and connectivity affect brain function and emotional readiness. That’s the key research link showing us how teacher personality and an inquiry-based ecosystem activate higher order thinking and intelligent behaviors—and it is a theme underlying every chapter.
    • Rethink intelligence. If we want young people to think and behave in ways that help them succeed in today’s world, then I believe we have to let go of old notions of intelligence that focus exclusively on cognitive achievement. The 21st century requires a new mental model of “smart” that integrates emotions, intellect, and culture—and helps us understand how to set up the right conditions for critical thinking, persistence, resilience, curiosity, and empathy to flourish.
    • Know the tools of inquiry. From there, in Chapters 5 through 10, I’ll introduce the tools that make up an inquiry-based skill set. These include tools for thinking, methods for giving learning a powerful context (a necessity in an inquiry-based classroom), insights into eliciting creativity from students, and tools for making teamwork and collaboration the norm in school. During these chapters, I’ll refer often to the Common Core State Standards. The new standards, regardless of how many states adopt them or if they fade with time, grow out of the shared recognition that problem solving and application trump retention and recall in the new world. They will be a useful guide. But our goal will be to learn how to “teach above the standards”—a terrific phrase that a very enthusiastic and thoughtful middle school teacher shared with me recently.
    • Contribute to the conversation. A solid, enduring, high-quality, inquiry-based educational system that serves the needs of global youth in a challenging world will not be built by a team of experts. It will be created and crafted by an assembly of caring educators, perhaps 10 million strong, who offer a constant stream of ideas and insights through the digital biosphere. That’s the million-teacher march that’s required, and the ranks are forming. Join in. In the Appendix, I’ll provide links, addresses, and sites. It’s time to get active.

    Finally, I’ll work hard to keep this book light. This matter of inquiry is too serious to be constantly frowning, besides which the research tells us that when we frown, our brain starts to think in terms of survival instead of a joyful future. Keep smiling.

    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Melissa Miller
    • Science/History Instructor
    • Randall G. Lynch Middle School
    • Farmington, AR
    • Lisa Graham
    • NBCT, Director, Special Education
    • Berkeley Unified School District
    • Berkeley, CA
    • David Vernot
    • Curriculum Consultant
    • Hamilton, OH
    • Melissa Weatherwax
    • Elementary Teacher
    • Poestenkill Elementary
    • Poestenkill, NY

    About the Author

    Thom Markham, is a psychologist, author, speaker, educator, thought leader, and internationally recognized consultant to schools and districts focused on project-based inquiry, 21st century skills, innovation, school redesign, and student empowerment. As founder and CEO of PBL Global, he has worked with over 250 schools and districts, and conducted workshops for nearly 6,000 teachers across five continents, providing proven methods and resources for designing high-quality, challenging, and authentic projects. His previous books include several best-selling books on project-based learning, including the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert Tools for Innovation and Inquiry for K–12 Educators, as well as numerous articles on school transformation. He can be contacted through his website,

  • Afterword Become an Agent of Change Twelve Easy Ways to Contribute to the Conversation

    I’ve used a large-scale lens to present ideas on redefining intelligence and inquiry-based learning, and to help forecast what I hope will become a new and dramatically improved system for youth growing up in the 21st century. But deep change will not come because of books, government mandates, pronouncements from a consortium of business leaders, or another well-funded, well-publicized study of the gaps in today’s education.

    The principles of inquiry and a vision of a more connected, caring, and brilliant system can only be fleshed out and given life through the work of teachers. Yes, details remain as to how the new world of learning will look, but you, as a teacher, play the lead role. And don’t underestimate the moment. Few in history have been placed in position to contribute to such an important evolution of ideas. How do you prepare yourself for this historical opportunity?

    1. Never be cynical.

    It starts with attitude. Be kind, but assertive. Believe in change and progress. Get off your “buts.” Even on bad days, trust that the 3 billion youth worldwide will figure out their destiny and improve the world.

    2. Be autonomous.

    Nothing will happen without teachers taking charge of their own destiny. The government, teacher unions, or your local elected school board may be interested in reform, but institutions move too slowly to keep pace with the tornado of change. This is a job for high-level knowledge individuals joining together in common cause and bringing about “hundredth monkey” change. Work toward professional autonomy. Know and carry out best teaching practices, but don’t be a slave to the latest fad or directive.

    3. Rethink scarcity.

    In the networked, on-demand world, personalized learning is available to every student. There are abundant resources, courses, and helpful sites. Have a student who can’t do math? Have them use the Khan Academy. This is one of hundreds of examples. Teach students to use a “click-through” mentality to develop their own program of study or supplement their course work at your school.

    4. Think globally.

    How long it will take to transform schools is a complete unknown. From my experience, only one thing is certain: most educators around the globe are focused on the same causes because they observe similar habits of youth worldwide. Something in the water or air or curriculum is causing them to zone out, burn out, or simply resist the conventions and traditions of normal school. A good first step is to recognize that you are not alone. Cadres of teachers in all countries share your desire for transformation and hold a keen sense of responsibility to the young generation. They understand the urgency.

    A second step is to pay attention to schooling around the world. There’s a tendency to become country specific, but there are advances in education throughout the world. In fact, we’re beginning to learn from one another. But knowledge and responsibility must be shared, whether with colleagues in your school or across several international time zones. It’s time to act.

    5. Understand international trends and test results.

    If you’re a U.S. educator, don’t let yourself feel bad because others tout Asian education or the test scores from Finland. If you’re an Asian educator, don’t think that the West has all the answers for creativity and innovation. Instead, let’s learn from one another. Every system is trying to get better and has something to offer. One way to keep up to date? Track PISA scores and insightful commentary on international trends.

    6. Collaborate.

    Professional collaboration is a must. Press for changes in the teaching day that allow time for conferencing and conferring with colleagues. Share teaching duties and observe colleagues. Open the door. Invite anyone into the classroom. Work hard at making Professional Learning Communities more than just a half-hearted district initiative.

    7. Stay current.

    Read list serves, blogs, and daily newsletters. On the recommended list for inquiry-based teachers:

    8. Bookmark the resources for deeper learning and 21st century skills.

    9. Become skilled at project-based inquiry.

    Project-based learning is not a fad or strategy; it’s a way to implement best practices in inquiry-based education by combining intellectual rigor, intelligent behaviors, 21st century skills, visible thinking, and high-quality collaboration into one package. It allows for authentic, purposeful, real-world work by students. When done well, project-based learning just doesn’t teach students; it matures them. Learn how it’s done and enjoy the results. Also, look at, download, and use all the rubrics for 21st century skills mentioned in the book. Your best resources:

    10. Put positive emotions to work.

    An intentional shift of focus to the physical area of the heart, along with the generation of a positive emotional state (such as care or appreciation), quickly increases heart rhythm coherence, resulting in a positive emotional shift that sharpens our thinking processes. Children and adults can easily learn this technique, and these simple heart-based tools help create learning environments that are safer, more emotionally stable, more productive and ultimately more enjoyable for teachers and students. It works.

    11. Look outside of education to learn about education.

    It’s amazing how disconnected education and psychology remain. Close the gap. Learn about youth development, resiliency, stress, and social-emotional learning. Keep up on basic psychological research; much of it has direct implications for educators.

    12. Think whole child.

    You’ve heard enough about this throughout the book. Let go of the cognitive model and focus on bringing education back to its roots.


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