27 March 2023
Human Restoration Project: If we start with humanity within the school, then we can expect to see humanity in the world outside
Interview with Nick Covington and Chris McNutt, co-founders of the Human Restoration Project, a non-profit organization promoting human-centered school education, based in the U.S. HRP at the same time is a grantee - both of the first and second phases - of the Holistic Think Tank program to create and implement the IDS (Interdisciplinary Subject) methodology into schools.
Let’s move back to your school days for a minute. What kind of students were you?
Nick Covington: I would have described myself as a disengaged student. In my seventh grade year, I was mostly truant. I didn’t like going to class very much, and the courses I struggled with were primarily math. In fact, even though I had a pretty high GPA (ed. note: Grade Point Average), I almost didn’t graduate high school because I didn’t have enough math credits. On the other hand, I excelled in the areas that I was engaged in, and those are the ones in which I continued to work after college, particularly my history classes and humanities courses.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Nick Covington: Indeed. So that was a struggle for me to connect to the meaning and purpose and see why I should apply to classes I didn’t like. So yeah, I would’ve liked to see, in my own school experience, a lot more emphasis on the “why?” of school. Why were we doing these things? I would really like to see its practical applicability.
Chris McNutt: Same here. I actually had exactly the same story. I equally felt disengaged. I felt like a lot of what I was doing was pointless. I would go home. I had almost straight A’s. I would do all the worksheets at home. And why bother going to school? I didn’t get to talk to my friends there, so there was no social component, and the content could easily be done at home. I was truant for two years to the point where I found one letter in the mail…
What was in the letter?
Chris McNutt: Information that if my parents do not take me to school, they face legal consequences, including jail imprisonment. It was pretty darn extreme.
Did your school experiences affect the choice of your life path? Is that why you got involved in education?
Chris McNutt: I think for both of us, that carried into our work as teachers and now part of the Human Restoration Project. That’s why we started talking about how to make those purposeful, engaging moments in schools with kids so that they are not only learning content – as we were – but also finding themselves in schools with a greater purpose and meaning.
And if you had to point to just one thing that concerns you in today’s school – what would it be?
Chris McNutt: That’s a hard question. I would say we’re most concerned with a general sense of looming dread alongside with cynicism, apathy, burnout, and unsustainability.
What do you mean by that?
Chris McNutt: Our culture, in many ways, is obsessed with dystopian futures, whether it be in pop culture through films like Blade Runner and The Matrix or in any other form of art or literature. We are obsessed with the idea that the world will end up under some terrible corporate control, or everybody will die, and there will be a nuclear war, whatever it might be.
Why is this so dangerous, also in the context of schools?
Chris McNutt: Because when we think about changing things, we assume it won’t happen. So we are all working together towards this bigger, brighter future, not believing we would succeed. That is incredibly scary. And we see this kind of thinking worldwide. And if that’s the case, we have the potential of giving up entirely, and we all progress towards a self-fulfilling prophecy. The world will become the thing that we are most fearful of.
You emphasize that the path to humanizing education, to better schools, is to give students more freedom, for instance, in choosing what they want to engage in. But what about core knowledge elements they should learn to fulfill requirements for the university and continue their learning careers?
Nick Covington: It’s difficult to say that the college and career readiness model actually works. We think that model of a classroom should be, in a sense, democratic. We’re preparing kids to live in a democratic world and a democratic workplace, but how much do schools mirror that? It’s not enough to tell kids what democratic values are. We need to show them what they are. Students should have a say in designing their learning conditions in school. We need to change the model for what that college and career readiness looks like. I’m not convinced that the way we’re teaching students is a very humane one, to begin with. So I think if we start with changing humanity within schools, then we can change the humanity of the world outside of it, too.
Chris McNutt: We know from research by Dr. William Damon that only about 20% of people, including young adults, actually feel like they have a purpose in their life. Many of us are completely disengaged, with no greater purpose. And I would attribute much of that to what happens in school. Who cares if students can memorize all these different things if they don’t have that element of purpose, care, and engagement in the content? If they’re going into their lives without well-being and sense?
But how do you convince educators to teach students in a way that keeps them engaged and with a sense of purpose?
Chris McNutt: One of the things we see over and over again in our work is someone coming in and telling the teacher what to do. As a teacher, you’re constantly presented with various iterations of different pedagogies, and you’re like, “Well, okay, great. Here’s another program that they’re going to sell me on. Everyone will give it up after a year, and that’ll end the conversation.” And as a result, a lot of folks don’t bother even trying it out. Or if they do, it doesn’t face widespread adoption. Instead of telling teachers about our method, we should show it. We have to provide tangible resources – like what’s in the IDS we’re working on with Holistic Think Tank – so that teachers can roll with it and see how it works for students.
Nick Covington: That’s why we are so eager to work with Holistic Think Tank.
Chris McNutt: We’re both former public school teachers. As a Human Restoration Project – with a core mission to inform, guide, and grow a human-centered education – we started in 2020. When we heard about HTT, we found our visions for humanizing education fully compatible, so we applied for the grant, which allowed us to do this work full-time. So we stepped out of the classroom to work to transform systems instead, hoping to humanize education for more people than just the kids in our classroom.
This cooperation will continue as the second phase of the program to create and implement IDS in schools is about to begin. What does this imply for Human Restoration Project?
Nick Covington: The ability to work on the IDS and continue our partnership with Holistic Think Tank allows us to provide educators with a tangible ability to build interdisciplinary lessons and also begin to think about what is a human-centered education. Yes, it’s just things that you could do in your class. But when you have these authentic discussions, it helps you think differently about the relationship in schools. That changes how you view the classroom generally, which is an incrementalist step to building better schools. The partnership with Holistic Think Tank also allows us to have more international connections, which – in a time of global uncertainty and different threats, but also a need for empathy and compassion – enable us to connect teachers and build a community of people who are not just in small pockets in the United States, but worldwide. So for us, the partnership with Holistic Think Tank is key to building something that endures and has lasting change.
What was most inspiring to you at HTT Summit 2023?
Nick Covington: I loved bringing these visions of holistic education together and see the ways that they intersect. Going forward, I think the real power in the IDS is actually emphasizing those commonalities and using those as the place to jump off from. I loved the speech given by a great educator, Pasi Sahlberg. He pointed out that the global education model it’s a failed one. It’s standardized, market-driven, largely dehumanizing, and de-professionalizing teachers. It’s a model that has both failed to raise test scores and has given us burnout rates among teachers and youth. It’s time to look for a different model. Pasi helped us understand it in the global context.
Chris McNutt: And when we’re speaking about these different forces of de-professionalization, standardization, testing, and all the various issues that teachers face, there is a question: “Why would I come to an event like HTT Summit 2023? What’s the purpose? What’s in it for me? If I’m so demoralized, will this present any kind of solution useful for me”?
Yet the teachers have arrived. There are still many committed, passionate educators. We can see them here.
Chris McNutt: And that gives hope. So we need to infect other teachers with it. And we need to ensure that folks have that hope, capability, and these tangible resources to start making school different. And it will take a small core group of people who make ripples out amongst a wide range of people, showing rather than telling that pedagogy for that transformation begin to occur. To quote Adrienne Maree Brown, educator, publicist, and activist: it will be simple but not easy. Everything we discuss here is widely accepted among students and adults. We conduct interviews with kids every couple of weeks, and they all tell us the exact same thing. “We want more hands-on stuff. We want more purposeful lessons. We want to be engaged.” As the film produced by Holistic Think Tank showcases, this is common sense. If you get kids more engaged, they’re going to be happier and healthier.