Value-based Learning: From Bake-sale to Brilliant

Schools all over are trying to figure out how to provide real-world learning for their students and many are beginning to realize how much a regular school schedule gets in the way of curating authentic learning experiences. Part of “real-world” is rethinking how we structure our time. I have previously written about the importance of “concentrated endeavor ” and wanted to share some of my experience creating and supporting off-time-table learning experiences through the lens of value creation. For examples of programs I have created, see iLead+Design (California) and GreenLEAP (Green School Bali).

Value-based Learning

I recently advised on the development of an exciting new program at Chinese International School (CIS). CIS is a day school based in Hong Kong but several years ago they spun up a residential program in Hangzhou, China, which most of their Grade 9 students attend. The aim is to build independence and provide language and cultural immersion by “…taking students away from the remote ‘classroom world’ and immersing them in the real one.”

“Coach” Ting on my “talk show” as we explore concepts of value and how to design for it

Known as HZCIS, the Hangzhou program is gearing up to run an 18 day concentrated endeavor program they are calling “Beyond.” Beyond is powered by student passion-projects similar to the 20Time concept I’ve referenced before, but with the difference that it is done through concentrated endeavor, with less of a classroom feel and more of a curated experience feel. The goal is student-owned, place-based, authentic learning—to take learning beyond what it can be in the rigid time structures of normal school with its attendant artificial separation of knowledge into subjects and the focus on information over context. In this program the students pick an exploration style they are interested in (e.g. observation, expression, measurement/observation, fabrication) and decide on an endeavor of their own choosing to pursue within that exploration style. As part of their exploration, each style group will make a journey to a different location in China to use as inspiration for their endeavor.

I ran a two-day workshop at HZCIS where we worked on developing the program framework and on preparing to leverage the unique opportunities concentrated endeavor provides for development of entrepreneurial learners. There were three key components we focused on to maximize the effectiveness of the program:

  1. Curating the tempo of the experience
  2. Flipping the accountability model
  3. Using value generation as a means to increase engagement and learning

In this post I will talk about value creation. I’ve addressed flipping the accountability model before, and will speak more of curating the tempo of an experience in the near future.

There is controversy over the idea of creating real world value as part of learning design (Yong Zhao is a strong proponent, calling it product-oriented learning, but we see mixed feelings from Jonathan Martin, both educators I respect). My quick interjection here before diving into specifics of how to do it (beyond what I have already discussed in reference to developing entrepreneurial learners), is that value does not have to mean money. Finding ways to create value for others is one of the most important skills we can possibly help foster in our students, not to mention the notion that learning should not be a selfish act. Asking how we can generate value for others from what we know and learn is a valuable exercise on many levels, and one we do not get nearly enough practice in. It also frames learning in a way that I think actually leads to deeper understanding of what many would think of as academic subject areas. Okay, on to examples of taking real world learning from “bake-sale to brilliant”.

Projects and how to make them place-based and value-driven

Projects students had initially picked for Beyond contained the full range you would expect—some undershoot and others overshoot on scope; some are mundane, some extravagant, and they run from obvious to surprising. Many, though, as the students had framed them, did not have obvious ways to draw from the richness of a particular place, and very few seemed to be set up to take full advantage of the opportunities this type of program provides. Overall, most proposed endeavors didn’t seem like they would have a story to tell at the end that would meet the hopes of what the program could deliver in terms of learning for the students beyond that which normal school could. The problems seemed framed within familiar bounds. Being the job of the coaches and mentors present to help leverage the potential of this program, we worked on how to help the students rethink their project scopes and framings.


Making the most of a particular location in the projects was the easier of the two problems, but still had some framing needed to get the most out of the “place” opportunity. For most of the projects, the location was chosen based on the interests of the “style team” members, so there was at least some relationship to the inquiry. For instance, some students were interested in the legendary business tycoon Jack Ma, and chose to visit an area in China that was known for its business activity. The students wanted to find out more about the legend of Jack Ma and thought this would be a place to go about that discovery.

In another case, as in many, the place relationship was less obvious if there at all, as if the students were just going to be along for the ride. In this case, a team of two students planned to go to a famous region, buy some ingredients to make a dessert, concoct something that tasted good out of them, and then upon returning to school, make and sell their desserts to raise money for charity. I called this the “bake-sale” project.

So, both of these projects are “oh, isn’t that cool” interesting, and could be thought of as somewhat real-world, but as framed are not likely to fully leverage the opportunities the visited places will provide. You could see the Jack Ma team doing a book-report style biography, maybe with a few quotes from local business people on what they think of Jack Ma, etc. The bake-sale team of course could be praised for wanting to support a charity, for their creative spirit in coming up with a new dessert, and for their entrepreneurial spirit in wanting to sell something. And again, simply having students explore new places while they follow their own inquiry is going to give them opportunities regular school is not, especially when they have coaches as resources to help them make the most of things along the way.

But, to go “Beyond…”?

To frame the problem in a way that will be transformative we can simply begin to think of generating value for others—of identifying a genuine need in the word and seeing how we can fill it through our line of inquiry. This in itself can be transformative to learning, and is how we go from “bake-sale to brilliant”.

In the Jack Ma case, what problem could we solve, or what need could we fill as a result of our learning about Jack Ma? How can we create something new that is of value? I would argue the answer to that question is far more valuable than whatever information we can find out about Jack Ma, and the beauty is you can’t not learn about Jack Ma while you answer it. How about using the entry point of Jack Ma to find out about the state of business in China as told through the people of this locality, and answer questions such as: could there be another Jack Ma in today’s China, and why or why not? What resources could aspiring entrepreneurs use to help them along their path, and what obstacles do they face. What is at stake for them and for China? Or what about using an approach of contrast, as talked about in Dan Pink’s latest book, To Sell is Human. With the framing of contrast, you could look at the people who are having a very hard time in China in comparison to the very successful, and how can we balance that out? Using the stories of people in this particular place, and the industries they work in as a backdrop, this story told by students could easily find a publisher in the real world and be of value to the future of China and other economies.

And this is where we take it Beyond beyond. The intention to provide value is one thing, but how do you form the learning container to provide even more realness, of a kind that can boost output quality, engagement, and learning? Find a customer. In this case a publisher. Beforehand. So the students can pitch the story, get feedback all along the way on angle, quality, etc. Will they get published in the Economist? Maybe, though I guess not likely. Should they shoot for it? Heck yes. Or a major newspaper business section that has interest in Chinese business and economy? I would almost guarantee it. At the very least, somebody that blogs about those topics would take the free content. In either case, get an editor/mentor to help it be the best it can be, for a real audience, and then go through the steps of shopping it around.

And the bake-sale case? How about researching the local desert delicacies of the destination and talk to local people to find the best home cook in the area. Sell the idea of making their provincial dessert famous by having a well-known restaurant in the students’ larger home town add it to their menu for a month under great fanfare, giving all proceeds to a charity in the home town of the cook.

Going to a region with bamboo and want to make personalized chopsticks and sell them? How about partnering with a deforestation initiative to try to make disposable chopsticks a shameful product and offer reusable chopsticks as the smart person’s choice? Or even just make it cool to have reusable personalized chopsticks and have the saved trees be a side benefit. But start with a partner who can give feedback along the way and who has interest in the same goal you do.

So how do these ways of framing the student endeavors help go beyond what you can get just by giving them more time, ability to follow their interest, and the ability go to a new place? (And I don’t mean to imply by “just” that those things are not amazing in themselves. For goodness sakes, do just that as part of learning and you are adding tons! But, to go Beyond….)

Think of the activities the students will engage in and what skills they will be developing as part of that engagement when they are working to create value for others from their learning:

  • Finding a partner
  • Working with a partner
  • Creating for real audiences
  • Finding the unique value in a place that is particular to its history and people
  • Convincing others of the value of your endeavor so they will help you
  • Interacting with them on something real, that means something to them too. The value of this cannot be overstated.

How value for others is not always best
I have to note here that saying value-creation for others is hugely important does not imply that learning for the joy of learning on its own is not important. In fact, a very astute (and contrarian, in a good way 🙂 student at HZCIS raised this issue, and Richard Pratt (the director of HZCIS) and I had a good discussion about this balance. We know, for instance, that many of the greatest breakthroughs in science came from theoretical work and that we would not want everyone only doing applied science. And it is okay to do things just for the pleasure it brings us. But we need to balance that out with activities that help us develop the habit and mindset of learning to bring value to the broader world. Opportunity finding and value generation are some of the most valuable and marketable skills one could develop in today’s world. (See Dan Pink’s books A Whole New Mind and To Sell is Human, among others, for more on the importance of these skills). Dan Kinzer, one of the architects of Beyond and a good friend, provided an example to this student of where personal passion and value creation co-mingle to help us shape the lives we want for ourselves. A surfer friend of his began using surfing as a way to help war veterans with PTSD and ended up being able to turn that into a business where he gets to do what he loves and helps others at the same time.  

So, in the real-world learning realm, should we be aiming towards Project Based Learning (PBL)? or Product Oriented Learning? or Value Based/Oriented Learning? I prefer the latter. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I hope those examples and thoughts are helpful. Huge thanks to everyone at HZCIS for having me over to play, and especially to Dan and Richard (mentioned above) and Eric Vallone and Wang Lu, two other passionate architects of the program.

Published by Aaron Eden

What's your Give? I think that is a critical question in everything we do. What value are we creating? The core of my work is educating for a sustainable future. Value-oriented learning. Community-integrated learning. Social entrepreneurship. Emergent, inquiry-driven, entrepreneurial learning. I've spent the last 20 years designing and facilitating face-to-face and online learning experiences and co-creative processes that help individuals and organizations develop the skills and attributes to transform themselves and the world. I have extensive experience in instructional and learning experience design, innovation, and technology spaces.

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