Are You A Radical Learner?
Written by Jim Knight.

The people who will save our schools are not the policy makers, the educational researchers, the textbook developers, the consultants, or anyone else who works outside of a school.  Our schools will be saved by the teachers, principals, superintendents, and other educators who live to learn.  This new group, people I call radical learners, is emerging in schools all across the world.  They are people who are driven by learning, people who get up in the morning fired up to try something new, to make a difference, to teach and learn.

Radical learners are everywhere.  Often alone, they stand up for kids in board meetings, the principal’s office, and the staff lounge, but mostly they stand up for kids in their own classrooms. They are creating PLNs, grabbing good ideas off of Twitter, writing, reading, and sharing good blogs, reading new thinkers like Godin, Gladwell, and Pink, and old thinkers like Friere, Dewey, and Mason. Radical learners are loving people who will not let schools let kids down. They work the system to make it better, and kinder, more loving, more equitable, more challenging, and more supportive. They work hard because they know how much learning matters.

Who are the radical learners?

Radical learners:

  • believe we are here on earth to learn, so they are turned on by every chance they get to discover something new
  • use technology to learn, to teach, or lead (and because it’s cool)
  • have hope because they know that to teach without hope is to damage but to teach with hope can save the world
  • love the members of their PLN
  • have mentors and coaches
  • mentor and coach others
  • are witnesses to the good
  • are brutally honest about what is really happening in their classroom and welcome any visitor who could help them improve
  • don’t blame others but accept personal responsibility for whatever task they take on
  • infect everybody with their love of learning; most important, the children they teach
  • make a difference

Are you a radical learner?


  1. Sean Nash

    Am I a radical learner? Interesting notion for sure. I’d certainly say most of those things seem to apply. I’d even say that it would make a good starting point for a conversation. The only sliver that leaves me out a bit is the technology part. Not the part about using it to learn, teach, or lead… but the part about because it is cool.

    In the deepest truth, I’d almost always rather be without even a phone. Usually beside some body of water… fishing or snorkeling. Or perhaps on my bike going about as fast as I can down a mountain path. That fact is rather strange to some folks upon first hearing it. Funny how a professional embrace of technological tools can look exactly like a love of gadgets from afar. I mean, most wouldn’t brand the chef a “knife geek” or a “lover of gas ranges.” I think perhaps that is because most folks have used kitchen technologies to get a job done. Most folks even realize that better tools in the kitchen can make the process more effective or even perhaps inspire innovation.

    Do some folks buy the cool tools because they are just that… cool? Probably. But to me, a tool provides leverage against a problem or task and little more. It’s a fine line between giggling at the feel of an iPhone4 in the palm of your hand… and superfluous uses of technology that aren’t well-matched to one’s goals. That’s certainly something I’ve seen a time or two.

    Anyway- good list. What might be the toughest one in that list? What is probably the rarest of all presented? In my opinion, it’s this one:

    “are brutally honest about what is really happening in their classroom and welcome any visitor who could help them improve”

    The words “brutally,” and “any” here combine to make this one the rarest of rare in our field. If a person can look in the mirror and say that one with a straight face, then the rest will fall in line given adequate support. I really do believe that.

    Looking forward to the new blog…

    • Jennifer Sikes

      I am also a fan of function when it comes to my tools. But then again, I am also a “lover of gas ranges” so much so that I used my MacBook to show it off to one of my cooking friends via Skype. I am not a geek and also prefer to spend my time away from it all–but with the best that outdoor technology has to offer–my tent should be the lightest weight possible and most items in my pack should be multifunctional. I guess it depends on the technologies we are talking about–we each may have our own niche cool tools!

      About the brutally honest. That criterion caused me to pause too! Am I a fan of others being truly brutally honest about what they see in my classroom? On the surface no, my feelings, pride, and yes I’ll admit it, my ego get injured. On a deeper level, though I have to say yes. It is only through recognition that I can reflect and change. If I go along oblivious of my actions and interactions, I may not take time to reflect and change if necessary. The second part of the statement did not cause as much pause because I do like just about any and all visitors to my classroom some just make me a little more cognizant than others–but hey isn’t cognition all about learning anyway? If I’m truly a radical learner I should be hyper-cognizant at all times!

      • admin

        Hi Jennifer, you made me think and clarified my own understanding, brutal honesty doesn’t have to be communicated in a brutal way. We can’t lose sight of the importance of tact, empathy, and kindness as a part of transparent communication.

  2. admin

    Hi Sean, I love what you have written, and at my core I know what you’re saying is true. Let me share a story. Two of my sons Ben and Cameron and I were out having dinner one night. We are geeks for sure, and each conversation ends up circling back to technology. That night Ben said, “I think people sometimes buy Apple stuff just because it is cool.” Cam looked up and said, “what’s wrong with that?”

    I thought it was funny, and still do, and I admit I think there is a magic in beautiful design. But to buy just to buy is certainly not the right approach, and I’m grateful for you reminder. It is also always good to keep the message of the story of stuff in mind:

    • Sean Nash

      Yeah well… all that said, I probably own one of each Apple product made.

      I think you’re right in this case. The key word IS “design.” I have always been a fan of that I suppose. Aesthetics and ease of use. A also love a good toaster… a good coffeepot. I don’t want my kitchen to look like an industrial kitchen. I also don’t want to think about toast. Nor coffee.

      I like my digital technology to be the same way. Look like a bare chunk of metal. Act like a toaster. I want to DO THINGS with computers. I don’t have time to think about them.

      I’d argue that Apple isn’t as much of a computer company as it is a design house. And one of the best on the planet. And so to bring this full circle, perhaps that is “cool.” Perhaps I just shot down my first post. Maybe not. Fun to think about…

  3. Sue Woodruff

    I think I am really going to enjoy this blog, Jim. And…it comes at such a perfect time with the beginning of school. This time of year makes me think about new beginnings, new possibilities. I hope I am a radical learner. I only wish I could turn the clock back 25 years and have these wonderful tools that are now available to me, available back when I taught every day. Ah, that is not to be, but I do hope to be the best mentor on the planet! I’m going to forward this link to all of my teaching colleagues!

    • admin

      Hi Sue, in my mind, if anyone is committed to learning it is you. I’m so glad to see you here!

    • Rayna Blackburn

      I love the thoughts and insights I have seen on the blog. Thanks Jim and Sue for inviting us, and I agree it is perfect timing. The national interest in education should and has given us an oppportunity to turn the tide. If we can’t do whatever it takes to make these changes, then we loose the battle. I, personally, am not willing to do that! I guess that puts me in the radical catagory! Sue, you are a fantastic educator and I am privileged to have an opportunity to learn from you.

      • Jim Knight

        THanks Rayna, I totally agree with what you are saying about Sue!

  4. Nanette

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Jim. I have always appreciated your perspective and find much value in what you say. As a former teacher and current university faculty member, I like to think I am a “radical”, because it’s what I encourage in my students. It requires action, humility, consideration, and appreciation in many things (hope too!!!!). I will share this blog with my students (future educators) and begin a dialogue about it. Thank you and looking forward to participating in the future!!!! All my best!

    • admin

      Thanks Nanette. I would be thrilled if your students would comment here. The more perspectives the better. I’m grateful, too, for your university perspective. I think there as radical learners teaching preschool or graduate school.

  5. Michelle Grant-Groves

    Thank you so much for your thoughts Jim. I love the idea of Radical Learners… especially for our district right now (San Francisco Unified). As we take on the fundamental issues of Social Justice, race, class, language, socio-economics, family structures, and self reflection – we are ourselves taking the risks of becoming Radical Learners. We are taking calculated risks of interrupting the status quo and business as usual in our Early Childhood Education classrooms. We are investigating new ways of teaching and learning for ourselves so that we can then provoke new paradigms of inquiry in our classrooms. I’m excited to see where this blog goes in the Instructional Coaching community. Woot woot!

  6. admin

    Great to hear from you Michelle, and I think you’re right, part of doing this work is always about assessing risk. If we are perceived as crazies, no one will listen. If silence ourselves, no one will know what we think. We walk a tight rope of sorts, but I would say, and I know you’d agree, that when in doubt, err in whatever is best for kids.

  7. Molly Edelen

    This is going to be one of my favorite blogs to follow. I’m pretty sure I’m a radical learner and am currently surrounded by others who are incredibly passionate about their work and are committed to continuing to “learn like our hair’s on fire” as we try to make a difference for some of the most at risk youth…those in institutional schools. Thanks for providing yet another place for us to learn together!

    • admin

      I love your last statement–“for us to learn together.” That is my hope here, that some of the people who love to learn and love to teach will come here to share their thoughts. I’ve already learned a lot today.

  8. Jenny


  9. Joellen Killion

    Jim’s blog gets my thinking. I am delighted that this place exists and that we can join a community of radicals. It won’t be the first time in my life, but them I am at that age when I can legitimately declare that I have been radical before. I wonder about the name of this blog though. What makes learning radical, especially since we are education professionals? As Jim says, radical learners use learning to make a difference. Like the concept of tempered radicals as described in a book by the same name, what makes me a radical is not my desire to learn or that I am learning, but rather that I commit to use what I learn together with my voice and actions to engage others to make a difference within my community. As a radical learner, I commit to engage in collaborative learning, learning that transforms both me and others. I challenge those who declare that they are radical learners to add to Jim’s list of attributes the commitment to engage in learning with others. Collective learning moves results outside a single classroom down a hallway of classrooms or from one school to another. Radicals reach out rather than in. They learn together with others to change whole systems to benefit all students within the system, not just a few. Congratulations to those who have already weighed on on being radical learners! What will be truly radical is our report a year from now about the differences we have made collectively with our colleagues.

    • admin

      Thanks Joellen. Like you, I’m impressed by the ideas in Tempered Radicals. I’ve always loved the fact that it was written for people who “want to rock the boat but stay in it.” The big question is how much rocking can we get away with without falling out of the boat.

      I also love what you say about reaching out. There are at least two reasons why this is important. First, by reaching out, we share the learning that we experience–we help others learn and share the wealth so to speak. But also, by reaching out, we built a community of support. Sometimes it can be lonely fighting for learning and children. If we belong to a community of learners, it can help us stay committed to fighting the good fight.

  10. Aaron Sumner

    Great post, Jim. I’d add Sir Ken Robinson to that reading list (or at least watch his two TED talks online). His ideas have shaped my thinking on learning and instruction more in 2 years than my 15 years of working in academia and graduate study in education combined.


    • admin

      Hi Aaron, Thanks so much! I have certainly had Sir Ken in mind while creating this blog. My goal is we can do that the work for which he so passionately advocates.

  11. Kirsten Olson

    Hey! Fabulous! In my work I am encouraging people all the time to stand up to Old School Culture and get radical. About learning.

    That’s where the revolution starts.

    We are blogging about this over at Cooperative Catalyst.

    Rock on revolutionaries!

    author of Wounded By School (Teachers College Press)

    • admin

      Thanks Kirsten, and thanks for the link to your blog and book. Keep up the great work fighting for our students!

  12. Sam

    I can appreciate this post about being a “radical learner.” I am currently pursuing my degree in School Psychology and feel that it is necessary for me to become as much of a radical learner as possible. By integrating this into part of who I am, I can become a better school psychologist and further the development of my field. I find it extremely important to be willing to take on constructive criticism while in return giving it to others. I want to make a difference in my career and by following the “radical learner” ideals, I may better be able to pursue this. I think it is a great perspective that not only my future profession should undertake, but anyone who seeks to enhance school environments.

  13. Kendrick Knupke

    Looking forward to reading more. Great blog post.Thanks Again. Really Cool.

    • Jim Knight

      Thanks Kendrick. Great to hear from you!

  14. Joyce


    I can guarantee you were a radical coach. Some of the discussions we’ve had, and the knowledge you’ve brought to me have opened doors and windows!!

    I have always read, learned, experimented…you helped me to put it all together!! I remember my “ah ha” when you introduced me to “I do it, we do it, you do it” and all the steps in between to use as needed. Such a simple phrase really changed the way I teach.

    • Jim Knight

      I agree Joyce. Sue is a superstar.

  15. JSB

    As a current graduate student who has spent some time teaching in a program that recruits many teachers straight out of ungrad, I am fascinated by this idea of the “radical learner.” I would say as a rule 90% of the teachers I met through this program starting out as a radical learner to some degree but by the end of there time at the program had become more of a “realist.” This rule had one particular exception, a friend of mine by the name Shawn.

    Shawn combined his unending energy and positivity with his seeking of and enthusiasm for the new. He was constantly think and finding new ways to interact with and teach his students. But I think the real secret to his success is an extensions of brutally honesty and personal responsibility- he was honest and responsible to his needs as well those of others. This lended to a stability so that he not only came out of school a radical but was able to maintain it even when gravity tried to pull him in.

    So am I a radical learner? Not yet, but I am working on it! And I think I have a pretty good role model to work from.

  16. Melissa M

    I completely agree with everything you said! I believe that it will be the educators within the schools that will save the schools. They are the ones who have the power, some just need to realize that they are the ones with the power.
    After reading your blog, I think that I am 100% a radical learner. I love to help people with their learning, and once I become a school psychologist, I look forward to helping out the children every day!
    Thanks for the blog! I look forward to reading more about being a radical learner every day!

  17. Jaimie I

    Thank you for this post – I can’t agree more with everything you’ve said! Being a radical learner and encouraging our students to be radical learners is something that I think all educators should strive for. Both teachers and children in school need to be reminded that learning is not about repeating information from memory on a test. Learning is a lifelong, hands on process that everyone is involved in. It isn’t just about grades or results. Learning is the process to acquiring the knowledge, and it should be fun! Only by making learning a fun process will you instill that love of learning in students.

    I can definitely say that I’ve caught the love-to-learn bug (I just started my 18th year of school!), but I’m not sure if I’m a radical learner. I’d like to think that I am, and sometimes I definitely show characteristics of radical learners like my enjoyment of learning and my hope to make a difference in schools and instill a love of learning in children. However, being a radical learner is not easy. It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. I don’t think I can really call myself a radical learner until I am faced with challenges and still hold those beliefs that everyone can develop a love of learning and that I have the ability to make a difference. I think becoming a radical learner is a process that we can get better at over time by remembering what learning is about and continuing to hold those beliefs despite the challenges that we come across as educators.

  18. Melissa L.

    I totally agree with this blog! I honestly believe that I, myself, am a radical learner. Ever since I was young, I have always had a passion for learning. I work hard in school to make excellent grades and I have always strived to do better. I had a teacher in 3rd grade that got me so excited about learning, and now I carry that feeling with me. I currently am only teaching sunday school, but I LOVE to see children have a passion for learning.

  19. Joanne Romano

    Radical Learner Logo
    Okay, so…while some have mentioned the title of this blog, I am okay with that, but what about the logo—the raised fist? Just wondering…how “radical” it is and what it evokes when viewed? For me…it is tied to power and struggle. So, I will continue to work on my comfort level with this image…as we are in a struggle to ensure all may have accessibility to learning opportunities. This is powerful.

    I think of Seymour Papert ( who called for a “revolution” not evolution in education in order to meet the learning needs of all…Radical Learners are very much needed!



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