Shifting Education Model Would ‘Change the World’

Shifting Education Model Would ‘Change the World’

Sam Chaltain shares strengths of subject-centred, democratic learning environments

The most exciting learning is happening in places where the adults responsible for the school culture are very clear on what they want to equip their children with when they graduate, says Sam Chaltain.

Chaltain, writer and education activist, says we’re at a point in time where “we know a lot more than we think we do” about how to create optimal learning experiences.

Through his work, Chaltain has discovered the attributes that create powerful learning experiences are challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive and experiential.

“The schools that recognize what the foundations of a powerful learning environment are and proactively evaluate themselves against that standard are schools that are aligned to give kids what they need to be successful,” he says.

There aren’t many schools to provide as examples of where this is happening “because we are not yet asking the right questions,” he says, noting a lot of schools have pieces of the puzzle.

“A lot of educators feel so pressured to confine themselves to the existing system that space for innovation, creativity, more strategic thinking gets suffocated out, but I feel that as a profession we just have to refuse to accept that anymore,” he tells Axiom News.

Chaltain says the best school he has taught at is a public charter school in New Hampshire. The school’s mission statement is, “Empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his/her unique voice effectively and with integrity in co-creating our common public world.”

The school’s evaluation is based on the skills people in today’s society need such as communication, curiosity, collaboration, leadership, creativity and critical thinking.

Another innovative school is High Tech High, a public charter high school in California launched by business leaders and educators that has morphed into an integrated network of schools. It is designed to give students more experiential, integrated learning opportunities in a supportive environment, notes Chaltain.

For more schools and educators to start providing optimal learning experiences Chaltain says the first step is to get as many people as possible to have a deeper, more personal understanding and connection to what powerful learning looks like and requires.

The education paradigm needs to shift from the industrial era to the not-yet-realized democratic era of schooling and have purposeful, actionable and collaborative conversations about how to create those types of environments in different communities, he says.

“The second step is to develop the skills to create schools that not only function democratically but that themselves are born democratically, and there’s a lot of different factors that have to come into being.

“In order to have a really healthy, thriving democracy you need a society of individuals with the skills that are required of participating in democracy,” he says, adding this includes intelligence, empathy, clarity of thought, and willingness to respectfully discuss differences.

He references the book The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, which identifies a form of teaching called subject-centred learning, where the subject is symbolically placed in the middle of the room and a conversation is facilitated where everyone inquires into a deeper understanding of it.

Chaltain says the subject-centred learning model has equity and democracy built into the process of inquiry, with the teacher assuming his or her primary responsibility for creating the best possible conditions for powerful learning to happen.

“I think it would change the world,” says Chaltain when asked what would happen if freedom in education and optimal learning environments became the norm.

“We would be investing in and graduating new generations of people that were more empathic, more insightful, more comfortable in their own skin, more passionate and inquiry-driven, more capable of collaboration and problem-solving, more capable of problem finding, and more capable of envisioning a world that does not yet exist and understanding how to bring it into being.”

Related Stories:
Changing the Education Paradigm from the Industrial to Democratic Era

The 5 Attributes of Powerful Learning Experiences


Writer Bio

Jennifer Neutel's picture
Jennifer Neutel

Jennifer Neutel is a Story Advocate and Generative Journalist at Axiom News. She completed her Bachelor of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa in 2006, and joined Axiom News in 2007. She has taken on a variety of roles at Axiom including new social media intiatives and has a passion for creating strengths-based questions that can lead to positive change.

Contact Jennifer:, or 705-741-4421 ext. 26.

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