Enacting Change by Listening

Chris McNutt
May 3, 2022
Pressing forward and armed with this knowledge, we need to bring about a grassroots movement toward change.

Last year, we co-created 100 Days of Conversations About School to inform our understanding of what students, educators, families, and community members think about the purpose of school. It’s evident after listening to 500+ voices within 100+ conversations that the research, theory, and practice of a progressive, human-centered education is needed. At Human Restoration Project, we take great pride in our ability to back up our practice with ample research. But it’s one thing to read data – it’s much more powerful to hear the impacts of schooling directly. We’ve organized our findings into our four values statements:

Learning is rooted in purpose finding and community relevance.

Overwhelmingly, participants shared that having the freedom to choose projects that had a real impact were their most empowering learning experiences. Whether it was working in a career program, tackling an art project, or being out in the community – young people wanted their learning to matter. And, they shared over and over that they desire choice.

Lea talks about student-led projects.
Caroline talks about independent projects.
Skylar talks about interest-driven projects.
Audrey talks about a year long passion project.
Sadie talks about community action.

Social justice is the cornerstone to educational success.

To have an empowering learning experience, one must recognize the impact that race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other marginalized identities conflict with our ability to create opportunities for all. Young people desire to stand up and make a difference, moving beyond their classrooms to advocacy, activism, and having an impact on society.

Semhar talks about being involved in a social justice organization.
Anna talks about the impact of African-American teachers.
JJ talks about organizing and activism.
Maddie talks about learning and identity.

Dehumanizing practices do not belong in schools.

In many scenarios, sadly but truthfully, participants spoke about how rejecting the education system was needed for them to learn. And for those who embraced academics, what kept them empowered were teachers who cared about them and their well-being. It was readily apparent that young people needed supportive teachers who advocated for them and taught them to overcome challenges and succeed.

Blake talks about the taxing impact of focusing on grades.
Michael talks about the issues with an "elite" education.
Tori talks about the impact of educators who encourage students.
Carlos talks about how educators should see students are people.
Rhama talks about educators standing up for students.

Learners are respectful toward each other’s innate human worth.

Young people and educators go through a lot. With constant turmoil in the news cycle, on social media, and in our daily lives, what was empowering was the recognition and advocacy of mental health. Participants noted the importance of therapy, educators considering mental health, and the ability for them to be helped and help others. Having an emotional connection in the classroom was frequently mentioned.

Sidney talks about openly discussing mental health.
Amelia talks about the power of rest and breaks.
Grace talks about recognizing the collective nature of mental health.
Dani talks about being seen after a mental health diagnosis.

What was not mentioned

Listening across all of these conversations, it’s clear that many assumed importances about school are not on the minds of young people or adults. Although these ideas may dominate discourse in educational politics or district mandates, it’s clear that they are not aligned with young peoples’ needs. No participants spoke about:

Of course, this is common sense for those who work with young people and listen to them. The reason why we curate research and listen to young people is that we want educators to realize that they’re not irrational. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance of enforcing traditional school policies and practices feels off: you know that something is wrong, but that’s just the way it is. When students tell you that school doesn’t work for them…it isn’t just your classroom!

Yet, there are pockets of educators and schools across the world making radical changes that recognize in order to create a human-driven education system, we need to examine the structures of the classroom. Pressing forward and armed with this knowledge, we need to bring about a grassroots movement toward change. We must embrace the same values we advocate for in the classroom, using our personal experience and relative social/political capital to advocate for purpose-finding, social justice, ending dehumanizing practices, and embracing mutual care for all.

Interested in learning more about our findings? Visit Then for assistance in bringing about change, visit

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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