Why Radical? Why Learner?
Written by Jim Knight.

Look up radical at dictionary.com, and you will see that when used as an adjective the word refers to “going to the root,” “fundamental,” or “thorough or extreme especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms.” Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary describes radical as “going to the root or origin, touching or acting upon what is essential and fundamental … especially radical change.”

According to dictionary.com, as a noun radical can refer to “a person who holds or follows strong convictions or extreme principles,” or “a person who advocates fundamental … reforms by direct and often uncompromising methods.” These definitions, especially root and reform, help us understand the concept of a radical learner.

Root: So what then is the root, the origin, the fundamentals of a radical learner?  The root is learning.  The root is an uncompromising desire to create opportunities for students to learn.  The root is a deep recognition that learning is not just something we do as a means to an end; it is as central to living a healthy life as breathing, eating, and drinking. Learning is not what we do; learning is who we are.

More than two decades ago Peter Senge, talking about learning organizations, wrote the following:

Deep down, we are all learners. No one has to teach an infant how to learn.  In fact, no one has to teach infants anything. They are intrinsically inquisitive, masterful learners who learn to walk, speak and pretty much run their households all on their own … not only is it our nature to learn but we love to learn.

Radical learners know at their core that not only do their students’ lives depend on them becoming vibrant, growing learners, but their own lives depend on them being vibrant, growing learners. To learn each day is to live each day; it is as simple as that!

Reform: What then is the fundamental reform referred to in the definition of radical?  In this context, the reform is to transform our students’ learning experiences into ones where students are inspired to learn and not coerced into simply passing tests. The reform is to respect and excite students with possibilities rather than controlling and enforcing them so we stay in control.  The reform is to celebrate creativity, joy, and fun, not to enforce behaviors such as handing things in on time, being obedient in class, and following instructions.

But reform, too, means standing up for learning – fighting the dominant culture if it is against learning. More than anything else, to be a radical learner means to fight for learning by being learners ourselves.  By showing the power of learning through our own actions, we can inspire our students, our peers, and our leaders to realize how great our schools can be.  Are you a radical learner? If so, this site is for you.

You represent the potential every school holds to become an authentic home for learning. As such, you are the person who can help your school realize that potential.


  1. Brandon

    Well said Jim. The work of Frank Smith came to mind when I read your post – specifically his book about “Learning and Forgetting.”

    • admin

      Hi Brandon, Thanks so much for the suggestion. I’m ordering the book today! These gifts are great.

  2. Sue Woodruff

    Another really great post, Jim! I’m hoping that your blog will be an inspiration for teachers who have not yet developed their voice. Let’s help teachers who feel this energy of learning bond together and really transform our schools!

    I almost got chills when I read your comments about the joy of learning for learning’s sake. If we can light this fire in our students, we can truly have a revolution in education. So many districts are now about “passing a test.” The first month of school in some schools is devoted to test prep! Getting ready for the MEAP (state test in Michigan) seems to be the order of the day for the first month of school. We get so wrapped up in test prep and so much energy goes to creating test prep materials that I have to wonder what could be??? I’m curious if all of the test prep actually helps? Does anyone have any research on the impact of test prep?

    Thanks again for the great catalyst for thinking, Jim.

    • admin

      Hi Sue, You put you finger on a real issue. How can we be true to the need to do well on state tests and not forget about the importance of joyful learning. This maybe the most important question the modern day public school teacher faces.

    • Linda Edmonds

      I am unclear what this “Teaching to the test” means. Our state curriculum for grades 9 & 10 include the following topics – Energy, Chemistry & Polymers, Global Interdependence, Cells & Biochemistry, Genetics & Population Dynamics. I love it. These topics allow instruction of basic topics and building Science Literacy in this next generation of students who may or may not pursue careers in science. Learning how to learn and developing critical thinking skills on relevant current topics is the focus I take NOT “teaching to the test”.

      What does that really mean? Do we need a paradigm shift about our curriculums? I find the content is challenging, meaningful, relevant and respectful of my students – pushing them to a higher level of understanding.

      • admin

        Hi Linda, Great question and comments. I have a post coming in two weeks on this very topic, and your comments nicely bring focus to what I’ll write. I hope you’ll check back then.

      • Jennifer Sikes

        I think that if the standards and tests measure quality learning, teaching to the test is not a negative thing, but what we all seek anyway–students who learn the important aspects of a given subject. How we teach those understandings is how we keep learning fun!

  3. Rebecca Case

    This an inspiring topic to begin this new school year. As I am developing my personal goals for this school year, I set my site on rejuvenation for learning and teaching. Having started my special education teaching career in 1980, trained staff in the Hunter Model, and continued to learn and train in SIM after becoming a sped administrator, I have become mired in the daily requirements and have lost some of the radical enthusiasm I had. These articles are the shot in the arm I need to energize and refocus the next several years before retirement.

    I also have been a Love and Logic teacher to both teachers and parents for more than a dozen years. Being a role model is the only way an effective teacher inspires learning. Thank you so much for sowing these wonderful seeds. They are blooming already in Alaska!

    • admin

      Thanks Rebecca, I’m thrilled to think that this book might bring you some energy in Alaska! I’m hoping all of us can inspire each other! We all sow wonderful seeds!

  4. Molly Edelen

    Reading this tonight is very meaningful after spending time today with a 16 year old young man who loves to learn for learning’s sake and has a number of interests that he passionately pursues…but the way school is for him makes it in his words “wretched…a place I feel lost and alone…a miserable experience.”

    He feels that his teachers dismiss him and don’t want to be challenged to think outside their boxes yet constantly tell him to think outside his.

    I wonder…Will he graduate from high school? Will anyone at his school be willing to hear what I heard? Will they take action or will they let him be further damaged by being told he’s the one who needs to change?

    Are there any radical enough learners on the faculty to take a stand with him? I hope so.

    • admin

      HI Molly, it sounds like your conversation with him might be one of those positive events that might keep him in school. You connecting with him could make a big difference.

      • Molly Edelen

        Thanks Jim
        I hope so…since he’s my son.

    • Denise Lambert

      I wish someone like you had been around for my daughter!
      Keep being an advocate for all learners!

  5. Denise Lambert

    I am tickled about the thought of radical learning.
    We are all learning continuously. Every sensory experience is teaching us something. We can’t help it.
    It seems to me, that to be a radical learner, one needs to be aware of ones own learning and take control of what is being learned!
    I have been teaching for over 20 years. Most of that time I have followed mandates – whether I agreed with them or not. I did what I was told to do like a good soldier.
    Now I am standing up and speaking out. I finished a M.Ed. about 18 months ago and now I want to do what is best for kids. My need for learning about my profession, my passion, is insatiable! I am sharing my views and my learning with others. I am amazed at the resistance! I am not claiming to be Super Teacher. I am amazed at how much more there is to learn! (I enrolled in grad school to become an expert in one area. Ha!) However, I am shocked at how uninterested many of my colleagues are in learning themselves.
    The most important thing to do is to get in touch with other teacher-learners. Encourage and support each other and thus influence and inspire others to think about what they are doing and how it affects the learning that takes place in their classrooms.
    The minute I think I know it all, it is time to hang it up and leave the school!

    • Molly Edelen

      This is such a great comment Denise “I am shocked at how uninterested many of my colleagues are in learning themselves.” It always shocks me too when I hear comments like “I’ve got my professional certification and I’m only gonna do the bare minimum to re-certify until I can retire…no more classes, no more conferences to attend, I’m done learning.” That’s a direct quote from my first year coaching journal. I remember thinking So how soon can you retire?

      i also say that there are two things that will let me know it’s time to get out of the education profession. If I have a year where I feel that not one students life has been changed for the better by the work I do or if I have a year where I don’t learn as much or more as the teachers I coach.

      So far, I’m still going to work every morning 🙂

  6. Johnny Gutierrez

    Wow, that’s interesting. I would search on Google to find other similar information. Actually, I came across your blog on Google Blog Search. I’m going to add your RSS feed to my reader. Continue posting please!

  7. Joanne Romano

    There is so much discussion about what needs to change in public education it has become cacophonous. To whom does one listen?

    Jim’s reference to the word “Reform” in the context of radical learners equating to “Transform” reveals a problem existing in our current usage of the word “Reform.” Calling oneself a Reformer may tie one too closely to those who see only issues with public education and who provide nothing more than rhetoric as a solution.

    Looking at the word Transform(er), I am taken back to the memory of those toys and the cartoon in which the characters could become something other, something very different from the original. There is something not so comforting in making this connection, though. If the Transformer could become something other, it also could revert to the original. Attempts at real transformation can revert to the original when the champion of the transformation moves on…So, now what?

    As I reflect on reform and transformation, I think of the call to advocacy by educators that Deb Meier http://www.deborahmeier.com/ spoke about on October 4 during a Learn Central webinar—archived session link: http://www.learncentral.org/event/106358 During teacher preparation was there ever a need to focus on developing teachers as advocates for learning? Surely it is inherent, implied and comes with the very real need to communicate effectively with parents and the school community, but going outside the school, district to the legislators…that was not something I was prepared for…until now.

    If one takes the “reform” as Jim defines it “The reform is to respect and excite students with possibilities rather than controlling and enforcing them so we stay in control. The reform is to celebrate creativity, joy, and fun…” what is needed now, is the need to Inform—letting the public know using as many avenues as are available that what is needed is a focus on the context of learning and the system that enhances or detracts from this experience on any given day for every child. Making sure the local, state, and Washington hear the voices of teachers and students. Make the discussion more than one-sided.

    Okay, so reality check needed here. If teachers are teaching, then where is the time and the energy to rally for what works and what should be changed within the system? As educators we sometimes put our heads down and move on because our primary responsibility is to our students. We can no longer keep our heads down. The time and energy come from within. The radical learner/teacher/educator must be the Informer, Transformer, Reformer—only the positive connotations tied to each! From your radical, learning classroom to Washington’s ears!

  8. pilotonline

    Hi Linda, Great question and comments. I have a post coming in two weeks on this very topic, and your comments nicely bring focus to what I’ll write. I hope you’ll check back then.


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