Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
Who is transforming education?

By Catherine O'Brien • January 31, 2016

During my university sabbatical last year I spent the first four months just reading and mulling over everything I read about transforming education. Books by ‘thought leaders’ discussed creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, 21st century learning, integrating technology, and so on. Very few of those books drew connections to student and teacher well-being, the importance of spending time in natural environments, or the broader perspective of sustainability.

As I read, my mind was filled with questions like: Is it possible that a focus on innovation, in the absence of sustainability, could lead to innovators who accelerate the development of products that deplete non-renewable resources? If children and youth continue to be disconnected from the natural environment, how will they develop a profound desire to safeguard the ecosystems that sustain us? Why aren’t we talking about the fact that how we teach is impacting student and teacher well-being?

Every one of us who has been schooled in formal education has developed countless assumptions about it and I knew that as I pondered what is needed to transform education I would have to challenge my own assumptions about its purpose. If Michael Fullan (2013) is right that education needs a complete ‘makeover’ does that mean that education, as we know it, needs to be entirely dismantled? Should we embrace unschooling, or just draw lessons from it? Should we look to the social innovators like Khan Academy to understand how to bring a world class education (Khan, 2012) to everyone? I interviewed social innovator, Michael Furdyk, one of the co-founders of TakingITGlobal to discover more about their truly extraordinary initiatives. What could we learn from the Green School Bali? How could I apply what I had learned from my doctoral research at the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India where more than forty years ago they had challenged their assumptions about education in rural communities and created internationally recognized and award winning education programs that were ahead of their time?

My intention was to disrupt myself as my assumptions were challenged, teased apart, considered critically, and combined with times of deep reflection. Quite frankly this led to an uncomfortable feeling of being ‘discombobulated’ – unclear of the way forward but that also told me that I was on the right track. In the process I found myself consistently returning to a conviction that education should be contributing to well-being for all, sustainably (Hopkins, 2013). It should help us to meet our global learning needs individually and collectively. From this starting point, we can see that creativity, innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset need to be part of a coherent well-being for all vision for education that enables people and ecosystems to flourish.

As I continued to explore these ideas it became evident to me that we can transform ourselves and education when we notice that who is teaching, what we teach, when we teach, where we teach, why we teach, and how we teach play a significant role in shaping education. Focusing on the ‘how’ part of this, I have been particularly inspired by the educators who are engaging in new pedagogies, challenging themselves to discover what happens when they try Genius Hour, flipped learning, real-world project-based learning, and New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL). As I engage with this worldwide movement of innovative educators I’m feeling heartened by the generosity of teachers who are sharing resources, collaborating with colleagues, celebrating their students, taking risks, and openly inviting others to join them. They are enabling students to be choice-makes and change-makers. As Don Wettrick says, “innovation in education is education. You can and should be innovative in any classroom, whether you have a chunk of time called Genius Hour, or just a willingness to integrate new approaches to learning” (Wettrick, 2014, p. 15).

I began my sabbatical wondering how I could contribute to transforming education and along the way I’ve discovered that there are teachers and students across the globe who are already leading the way. The makeover is already in progress and everyone’s voice is needed. As Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi say about Genius Hour:

We need you dear friends. As you set out to create Genius Hour in your classrooms, please add your voice to the global conversation about Genius Hour. We need you to become resources for others because together we are smarter. It is time for you to share your genius in your own schools and with the world. Use all the social media you love and celebrate by posting all the wonderful projects and work of your students. However, we want you to dare to do more than that. That is, to tell your own story. Share how your own learning and teaching craft are being honed through the process and products of Genius Hour. We want to hear about your journey. (Krebs & Zvi, 2016, p. 87).

These days, my teaching practice is being influenced by educators like this. When I connect with Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr), Peter Cameron (@cherandpete), AJ Juliani (@ajjuliani), Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher), Hugh McDonald (@hughtheteacher), Angela Maiers (@angelamaiers), Denise Krebs (@mrsdkrebs), and Gallit Zvi (@gallit_z) I feel an urgent desire to share this learning with the pre-service and in-service teachers who are my students, inviting them to join the conversation. Together, all of us, with our students, are transforming education.

Coming soon!…Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being


Fullan, M. (2013). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Hopkins, C. (2013). Educating for sustainability: An emerging purpose of education. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49(3), 122-125.

Krebs, D. & Zvi, G. (2016). The genius hour guidebook: Fostering passion, wonder, and inquiry in the classroom. New York: Routledge.

Wettrick, D. (2014). Pure genius: Building a culture of innovation and taking 20% time to the next level. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting.

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