3 reasons personal development is essential to 21st-century education

Guest contributor Letsie Khabele is co-founder and CEO of KọSchool, a unique high school in south-central Austin. He joins us on the blog today to share some of his expertise on personal development, one of the pillars of a KọSchool education.

Many high-performing athletes, entrepreneurs, and leaders stress the value of personal development. While there are variations on approaches, there is a lot of consensus on the goals: How does a person increase their performance in any area by becoming more responsible, more compassionate, creative, and present? Oddly enough, an emphasis on personal development is either missing or marginalized in traditional schools as it’s typically considered silly and unnecessary. However, rather than minimizing its role, 21st-century education requires personal development as the foundation for student growth and success.

1. Being an Effective Learner

Hard work and studying matter. But they’re no longer sufficient. To deal with the abundant and ubiquitous data and information of our times, learners increasingly require presence, focus, and an optimal mindset. Consider the different results when a student spends two hours on pre-algebra with the mental model “I’m horrible at math” versus the same amount of time on the exact same subject with the mental model “Math is a puzzle that’s fun to figure out.” A core practice in personal development is becoming aware of one’s attitude and mindset around a particular activity, taking full responsibility for it, and then embodying an attitude that’s more effective. Unless students are in control of their mindsets, they’re often resigned to drudgery and struggle to “just get through the classes,” which can color their educational and learning experiences for life.

2. Having Purpose

Getting through secondary school and graduating from college can be challenging. Without purpose, it’s often daunting, meaningless, and uninspiring. Students who have purpose, who have passion, who have a context for their experiences, are more likely to make the most of their time in any school. Developing an authentic purpose necessitates a level of personal responsibility, self-confidence, and self-awareness. When schools neglect to provide students opportunities to develop these characteristics, like anyone else, they are less likely to overcome challenges or connect with their inner fire of motivation. Worse, once structures of accountability disappear upon graduation, many young people are left rudderless, without a developed connection with their inner compass. On the other hand, when educational systems invest in teaching personal development practices, purpose and meaning naturally emerge. Students become increasingly likely to succeed on their educational path and even enjoy the process.

3. Embracing Change

There’s a saying that the only thing that is constant is change. I’d argue that even change is changing. What I mean is that the speed of change is accelerating. Driven by technology and demographics, there will be more disruption and change in 2017 than there was between 2000 and 2005. Successfully navigating change requires years of personal development work. Without ongoing practice, the vast majority of people automatically fear change, with many being prone to intense anxiety. With practice, not only can students learn how to stay centered and proactive during times of rapid change; they can also learn how to embrace it. While most are feeling overwhelmed and reactive, people who have been practicing personal development will create new ways of providing value, will discover new solutions, and will find ways to make a difference in the world.

At KọSchool, all members of the community engage in a sustained personal development practice. For our students we use group exercises, socratic inquiry, and personal coaching to expand their capacities of mindfulness, integrity, and self-awareness. Our mission is to develop “FutureAuthors”—students who continuously improve, can teach themselves anything, and are driven to make the world a better place. If you’re interested in learning more, please join us for a tour or our upcoming open house.

Letsie Khabele

Media Monday: For the pirate, the paleontologist, or the pianist in your girl—Magazines that empower

You may have seen some recent stories making the rounds on Facebook about the one-dimensional offerings in Girls’ Life vs. Boys’ Life magazines. And you may also have caught a mention here and there of Kazoo, a brand-new magazine for girls ages 5 to 10 that explicitly takes a feminist stance. Kazoo encourages girls to “make some noise” and features stories about science, exploration, sports, and other topics to engage young minds. There are no advertorials about fancy hairstyles or makeup here. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls website—a fountain of pro-girl information, says Kazoo is required reading, and I agree. The latest issue, focused on nature and the great outdoors, looks like it will be out in mid-October.

Kazoo is a labor of motherly love, created by Erin Bried and funded by a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. Bried just couldn’t find any magazines her daughter liked at the newsstand. “Every single title on the rack sends the message that there’s only one right way for a girl to look, dress, and act, and it’s usually like a princess. My daughter happens to prefer pirates, so we left empty-handed.”

Currently, Kazoo is only available in print and only published four times a year, at a fairly pricey $12.50 per issue or $50 per year.  But it’s possible the number of issues will go up, and the price will come down a little as it gets more established. I only wish Bried’s team would launch a companion magazine for girls ages 11 to 16, since we all know that those are the years when girls tend to lose their confidence and assertiveness, often retreating from their interest in pirates. You can follow Kazoo on Facebook to find out the latest info.

Seeing Kazoo and the great welcome it seems to have received among parents and the press inspired me to look around a little for other magazines for girls—and also by girls and boys. Here are a few I found that are worth looking at with your kids:

Shameless is a Canadian teen magazine aimed at girls and also trans youth. The topics tend toward culture and politics, and each issue usually includes profiles of cool women, a little sports, crafts, tech, and other on-trend topics. Unfortunately, it only comes out three times a year and is rare in U.S. bookstores, but the great thing is that you can download full issues from their site at only $5 each. The blog that goes with the magazine offers tons of unique articles, and the diversity of the bloggers is a major plus. Definitely worth a look if your kid likes music, the arts, politics, and Canadians—well, who doesn’t like Canadians? And they take art and story pitches from readers!

New Moon Girls is by and for girls ages 9 to 16 and has been around since the 1990s. The magazine takes a community focus, with an online component that connects girls and offers intellectual and emotional support during the tough tween and teen years. The magazine features an amazing variety of stories looking at girls’ lives worldwide, fiction, health, crafts, careers, science—and actively encourages submissions from young writers. It’s published six times a year, with a $40 subscription.

I also ran across an online news site called Teen Voices, which is an offshoot of the nonprofit Women’s eNews. Apparently, there used to be a print version, but it doesn’t seem to be published anymore. This site offers an opportunity for teen girls to write and report on stories they are passionate about and has an expansive global vision.

For girls and boys:

You’re probably familiar with the Cricket media empire for kids—they produce high-quality educational magazines for all ages. One I was not familiar with, but which is focused on the sciences, with a little history and archaeology thrown in for good measure sometimes, is MUSE, for kids ages 9 to 14. They offer a sample issue to check out with your kids and publish nine issues a year, with reasonably priced print and digital subscriptions.

And there’s a great Texas-based magazine, Creative Kids, for ages 8 to16, that includes art, essays, and stories submitted by kids and for kids. It’s a quarterly paper magazine, but there is a limited online version and a blog. I love the way this one encourages young writers and artists and takes them seriously as creators.

I’d like to do a full blog post soon about the wealth of opportunities out there for kids to publish their fiction and artwork, so please let me know if there are print or online magazine that you recommend!

Shelley Sperry

End homework! Or why the school day should end at 3pm

Stefany Bolaños is currently building Agora, an app built for teachers re-imagining the future of education. She teaches an economics course, has published three children’s books, and works with Junto Studio, a web development company. She is part of Startup Chile’s current batch. Startup Chile is Latin America’s leading accelerator, and the fourth biggest worldwide.

A quick Google search of the words “homework is bad” throws 31,700,000 results (“ban homework” yields a surprising 704,000). Clearly, homework is a controversial topic, and its opposition has gained force over the years. There’s a great deal of quantitative research (like this one from Stanford, or this from Penn State) that reflects how homework can have negative effects on kids. These are some of the reasons they give:

  • It imposes time pressures on children.
  • It leads to sleep disruption, indicating a negative relationship between the amount of homework, perceived stress, and physical health.
  • It interferes with time otherwise spent connecting with the family.
  • There isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.
  • Homework can be an improper tool to test a student’s abilities—it doesn’t necessarily show how well a student understands a concept.

These are all very straightforward facts, but there’s a reason that’s even more important: we should let kids be kids.

Picture a regular school day for your kid. She wakes up at 7:00 a.m., goes to school, and stays there for 5–7 hours. The bus picks her up at 3:30 p.m. to take her home. By the time she’s dropped off, it’s probably around 4:00 p.m. The average American high school student spends seven hours a week on homework, and almost 10 percent of fourth graders worldwide report spending multiple hours on homework each night.

Those are the numbers. But that which is unseen is important as well. What about the children’s life-long interests? What about free time? What about running outside, learning how to fold a blouse, or helping mom or dad bake some cookies? Free time plays a key role in fostering both creativity and emotional development.

Without homework, kids might not have as much structure to their day. But that’s exactly the point! Traditional schools are sufficiently structured already.

So why should the school day—and school work—end at 3pm?

Because spending too much time in a school with structured activities won’t teach children critical life-coping skills. Autonomy is one of those. Mark Barnes makes an important point when he writes: “Responsibility implies autonomy, and homework offers none of this. Students are told what to do, when to do it, and when it must be returned. Where does responsibility come into play?”

Homework has another important deficiency: when students have already mastered a specific skill, they are likely to lose interest in repeating it. On the other hand, those who are struggling won’t necessarily improve by doing homework on something they don’t even understand. And we’re not even mentioning test scores, which don’t prepare children for the real world. Still, in case you were curious: the amount of homework completed has no effect on scores.

Not only do kids live less stressed with less homework; they also have the chance to pursue little passions, things that they enjoy doing—and enjoy learning. The alternative to homework is giving kids the chance to play, to rest, and to have fun. So much of their creative power relies on those little steps.

As Tommy Schnurmacher says: “Good teachers can get the job done in class. Those who can’t just assign more homework.”

 Is all homework bad?

It depends. My personal opinion is that if you treat homework as an extracurricular activity (or something that’s not mandatory), then students can voluntarily choose to do it, and by extension, learning takes a whole new meaning. For example, they can film interviews, conduct a field study in the park, or visit the aquarium during the weekend. The key difference is that this work is not graded, and the logic behind it is that learning can and will happen naturally at home or elsewhere in a child’s world.

Although there’s some research that suggests that as students age (especially during 7th through 12th grade), the positive effect of homework on achievement becomes more pronounced, other experts suggest caution against viewing the grade-level effect as fact. And even if it were true that the correlation between homework and achievement is direct for middle schoolers, there are diminishing marginal returns. For high schoolers, for example, two hours of homework appear optimal. So, in the final analysis, less is often more.

Stefany Bolaños

Hack to School: Making the transition easier for the whole family (part 2)

Back to nature.jpg

If you missed the first installment of back-to-school hacks from Shelley Sperry and Mari Frost, which addressed tips and tricks in the food, shelter, and clothing categories, you can catch up here. All photos are by Mari Frost, a 15-year-old who attends high school in northern Virginia.

Our second set of back-to-school hacks is about easing into the school routine in ways that will make the transition better for your mind and body. For lots of kids that means moving from thinking of your computer, tablet, and phone as entertainment (Find those Pokemon!) to thinking of them as learning tools.

Tech Prep: Your Digital Health

We suggest taking an hour or two several days before school starts to set your family up on all computers, phones, and tablets for the school year:

When you get your school schedules (including extracurricular activities), put them on everyone’s phone (the easiest way is to just snap a photo of a paper schedule) and put paper copies in a spot that’s easy to find (a bulletin board, the front hallway, the good old fridge). And at the same time, make sure everyone has all important contact numbers updated, including the school office phone numbers.

If your kid is heading to a brand-new school, make the schedule or an annotated map his or her lock screen shot, so it’s always immediately available to glance at. And it doesn’t hurt to practice asking for help finding your way around the school—that’s not always easy for shy kids.

Students! Set up the bookmarks in your browser so you can easily get to Google Scholar, Google Books, and the public library’s search pages. Those are all better places to start than an ordinary Google search, if you’re doing research. And never forget to check .gov sites for information—you’ll often find terrific resources there. Use sites like the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, and the USGS for trustworthy information.

Avoid disaster now by making sure that your word processing software is automatically backing up anything you’re writing at least every couple of minutes. For real peace of mind, set up a cloud account where you keep all your papers and notes. Something like iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, or similar services are usually free for small amounts of storage, which is all you need for your school projects—unless you’re making a lot of videos or taking a lot of photos. Trust us—there will be a panicky moment when you’ll be extremely happy you have old drafts of a paper or notes saved in the cloud.

If you take notes mostly by hand, consider taking photos of the most important pages. You can then study anytime—on the way to pottery class or grandma’s house. You’ll always have them with you. Even if you much prefer to read paper books, it doesn’t hurt to invest in a few digital versions (or better yet, check digital copies out of the library) so that you can read a few pages of Catcher in the Rye while waiting for your Dad to get through the line at HEB.

Put a label with your name and school on your calculator and any other gadget you use regularly outside your house. If someone finds it, there will be no doubt it’s yours, and they can return it to the school. It should go without saying: Don’t put your home address or phone number on the label.

Wait until everyone is in a great mood, and then start a family discussion of the contentious subject of limits on screen time for the coming school year. Serve ice cream and cookies. Good luck.

Body Prep: Exercise and Sleep

A few days before school starts, try to get into the best falling-asleep-and-waking-up pattern for you. If you’re a kid or teen, eight hours is really the minimum you need to function well. We all love to cuddle with our phones and tablets, but try getting a regular alarm clock and putting the gaming, video-watching, texting, Instagraming device as far from your bed as possible so you’re not tempted to look at it at 3 a.m.

If you have superhuman self-control, and can have the device near your bed, you could try a sleep-cycle app that monitors your sleep and helps you determine the best time to wake up—but really, an old-fashioned simple alarm clock, your parents, or a pet that wants breakfast is the best alarm.

One thing that may help you de-stress and get a good night’s sleep AND will help the morning go more smoothly is taking a relaxing bath or shower the night before.

Consider making it a rule to eat a healthy snack and get some sort of exercise before starting homework. Kids often need a period of transition and relaxation when they get home from school. If they start immediately on homework or jump into fun screen time, they may not be at their most alert and efficient for the rest of the afternoon and evening. A routine of skateboarding, basketball, or biking outdoors—or dancing or yoga indoors—whatever gets them moving a little—will help energize them and make homework time easier.

Low Tech Prep: Handmade Fun

For young kids who are walking or taking a bus to and from school for the first time, spend a morning or afternoon creating a cool, illustrated map of the route and walking or driving it a couple of times so it becomes familiar. Find a friend in the neighborhood who will be your kid’s bus buddy or walking buddy as they get used to the new route. They may find other friends to walk and ride with later, but it’s great to start out with someone they know.

Walk around a new school, play on the playground or sports fields a few times, and look at photos of teachers online so that the school doesn’t feel strange on Day One.

Sometimes it’s non-academic things that stress us out the most, so spend a few hours at lunch or dinner brainstorming about the kind of extracurricular clubs and teams you might want to try and the service projects you want to do, if your school includes service as a requirement.

Make a COOL IDEAS folder for all the kids and hang up in their rooms or a common family area. Anyone in the family can toss in photos, articles from magazines, or random notes whenever they find something that might be helpful for school or extracurricular projects. For example, if you know your son likes getting outdoors in the mud and needs a community service project, clip out the calendar of watershed clean-up days and put it in the folder. If your daughter has to write and illustrate a paper on the Odyssey, jot down information about an art exhibit on ancient Greece you saw in a magazine. Set a time each week to sort through the folders and choose the ideas you’ll act on.

DIY Day: Think of something you know you’ll need when October, November, and December roll around and do a family craft night now, when you’re more relaxed than you’re likely to be in the middle of the fall. Make cute scarves and hand-warmers for cold morning walks to school out of fleece and rice. Get started on Halloween costumes. Make pennants you can wave at school football or basketball games. Create a place to display photos, playbills, and memories on kids’ bedroom walls using fishing line and clothespins or a DIY bulletin board out of an old picture frame.

Ahhhh, now we’re ready for the learning to start!

Shelley Sperry, with Mari Frost


Hack to School: Making the transition easier for the whole family (part 1)

Photo by Mari Frost

Staff writer Shelley Sperry enlisted her teenage daughter, Mari Frost, to contribute photos and expert tips for this special back-to-school post. It’s full of useful ideas for both parents and kids, so pick out some favorites to share with your family.

Some kids and parents get wistful when summer ends, and some can’t wait to get back to the routine of books, friends, and after-school activities. We’ve had a quiet, laissez faire summer at our place, so we’re all pretty excited to begin the more structured school schedule again. But there are bound to be anxieties, no matter how eager you are for the learning to start.

My teen daughter and I decided to collect some back-to-school “hacks” we thought might help everyone transition gracefully. There’s no shortage of ideas in magazines, on YouTube, and, of course, Pinterest and Instagram right now, so you can have fun making your own lists—and please share ideas in the comments. Here we’ve selected the ideas we think are especially helpful for the week right before the madness begins, to relieve potential flailing and stress. We’ve broken them down into a few key categories: Food, Shelter, and Clothing. In part 2, we’ll share Mind and Body health hacks.


If you have room in your fridge and pantry, designate a particular shelf or space as the lunch station—and if you have even more room, create a breakfast station too. Get a few cheap bins or baskets and use them to corral the fruit, cheeses, sandwiches, and salty and sweet snacks kids will be putting into their lunchboxes. We like the idea of using a small corkboard—or better still, a magnetic blackboard or dry erase board on the inside of the cabinet door. That’s where kids can leave messages for Mom and Dad, like, “We’re out of peanut butter!” and “Can I have Oreos next week????”

Walk kids through the process of washing their lunch containers or putting them into the dishwasher. Create the expectation that they’ll do this right when they get home—before snacks and homework—to make sure they’re ready for the next day. This is the hack designed to relieve Mom and Dad’s “Why are there 26 dirty containers in the sink?” stress.

Don’t forget after-school snacks and on-the-go breakfasts, especially for constantly hungry teens. Keep it simple. Ask each kid to name two snacks and two breakfasts they like, and then put a week’s worth of those in the fridge, freezer, or cabinet. We love having all the ingredients for smoothies in individual freezer bags so all you need to do is pop them into the blender.

Keep things cold in lunchboxes the easy way: use frozen water bottles or drink pouches or frozen grapes (a yummy, nutritious treat) to keep the rest of the lunch cold.

During a family dinner about a week before school starts, ask everyone to write down a couple of favorite quick and easy (15-minute) dinners. Break out the recipe apps and websites for ideas. Make a shopping list based on those dinners and try to make sure you always have most of the items on hand. Make a card with each item, including the recipe, and put into a paper bag that you clip to the refrigerator or pantry door. When you get stuck with no plan and no inspiration 30 minutes before it’s time to go to soccer practice, reach into the bag and make whatever you pick.   

Helpful stuff to put on your shopping list: cups with lids and straws for on-the-go smoothies or other breakfast drinks; magnetic dry erase or blackboard (or blackboard paint), magnets or cork board with push-pins for inside cabinet door; a case of freezer bags and zip-top plastic bags!


What every house or apartment with kids needs is a designated school stuff area that is not the dining table or kitchen counter or middle of the front hallway. Get your kids involved in creating a spot in your house for backpacks and a small school paperwork center. Unfortunately, it’s easiest if the spot is in plain view, and not hidden away in a closet. It will be used morning and night!

Create a system that meets your needs, but at minimum, try to have plenty of hooks for backpacks and any additional gear bags (for sports, ballet, etc.). A table with a few baskets or a small set of cheap drawers (plastic drawers work just fine!) that you can label: PAPERS TO SIGN; IMPORTANT ASSIGNMENTS; and ARTWORK.

Put a family school calendar on the wall—a paper one or a dry-erase board—and make sure kids can reach it to add their own events, if they’re old enough. They can draw pictures or use stickers too.

Helpful stuff to put on your shopping list: hooks of all kinds—heavy duty, preferably—to hold backpacks, hoodies, umbrellas, whatever your family wants to keep out of the closet and in plain sight.  Over-the-door hooks for our front hallway closet have been a game-changer in our house because they are the perfect spot for all our raincoats and Mom’s purse. Efficiency sometimes has to trump style.


There are three shoe tricks we learned recently, and we love them all!

  1. We all know we’re supposed to lay out clothes and schoolwork the night before so it’s all ready to go, but sometimes there’s that little extra item you REALLY don’t want to forget—your new locker combination, the extra keys, the bus pass you only need on Wednesdays, the calculator that’s required for the big test. Put those things inside your shoes. You can’t walk out the door without remembering them!
  2. Do your kids leave stinky gym shoes and clothes in a locker for days or weeks at a time? Give them a few herbal teabags and shove them inside the shoes to absorb some of the odor and leave a hint of lemon ginger or chamomile scent in the locker.
  3. New shoes? Wear them around the house for at least two or three days—or have a new shoe dance party with friends to make sure they’re worn in and won’t create blisters or be too slippery on the first day of school.

School clothes shopping is not usually much fun, but maybe a family pizza night that includes some school clothes prep could be?

  • If your kids need labels in some of their clothes, make them together with colorful permanent markers.
  • Roll tops and bottoms into outfits and tie up with a ribbon or twine and stack in an easy-to-reach drawer.
  • Let kids help pick out a few cute dollar-store bins and baskets, label, and put them in the closet or dresser so they can put away their own underwear, socks, and pajamas. Forget about folding—just getting things put away in roughly the right place is enough!

Don’t wait until after you have the emergency to put together your emergency clothes kit. The littlest kids may need to have this ready to go on Day 1. For older kids, it’s just a good idea to have an extra shirt and shorts or pants rolled up and available in a locker—or even in your car, if you are often rushing from event to event, eating and spilling. Put the items into a small plastic bag and squeeze out as much air as possible to reduce the size.

Other items that might be helpful to have in a very small backpack emergency kit: ibuprofen (if allowed at your school), pads or tampons, extra pencil and pen, travel deodorant and hand wipes, dental floss for kids with braces, a tiny roll of tape and/or glasses repair kit—or for kids who play sports, a whole extra pair of glasses, an extra reed or violin string for orchestra, a few dollars for the inevitable “I forgot my lunch” day.

In making this list, we discovered we have a lot more tips related to prepping not only your family’s kitchen and closets but also your kids’ minds and bodies for the transition to school. We’ll do that in the next post!

Shelley Sperry, with Mari Frost

Media Monday: Brighten and enlighten your mind with videos from KQED

In these final days of summer vacation, here’s a quick Media Monday recommendation from the Left Coast: some websites from KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in northern California. I’m recommending their KQED Education site, and in particular the new KQED Teach site. I’m also recommending the KQED Art School site. These sites, with most of their materials also available on YouTube, are just overflowing with intriguing videos aimed at both educators and students. Watch out—once you and your kids start exploring, you may find yourselves awash in video goodness from which there’s no escape!

KQED Education on YouTube and online has a lot of helpful information on art, politics, race, science, and media. Every time I look at it I find something pretty cool that I want to share with my daughter.

New this summer: a separate site called KQED Teach that has online, self-paced courses to help educators develop media literacy. I think many of the lessons would be useful for middle and high school students who want to create innovative multi-media projects, but the assumption when you sign up is that you’re an educator, not a student.  The courses are designed to help participants:

  • participate in online communities
  • learn to decipher and manipulate digital imagery
  • gain competence in making and sharing original media

Courses are free, and the introductory material for each module is available on YouTube, as well as through the KQED website. But you can’t fully participate in the learning without signing up and logging in.

KQED Art School has an inspiring number and variety of videos for kids—and many made by kids. In the videos, you can find how-tos related to the arts, interviews with adult and young artists, and a lot more. The arts represented include painting, animation, photography, dance, fashion, sound recording, ceramics, puppetry, printmaking, quilting, political activism through art, and more. I really cannot get enough of these videos, most of which are 5–8 minutes long. Here are a few recent examples to brighten and enlighten:


Shelley Sperry