Blog Posts

How to Connect Student Passion to a Purpose

What happens when we provide time for students to pursue their passions and connect them to a deeper purpose through projects they design? This has been a big question behind our Capstone Program at Hawaii Preparatory Academy.

This learner-centered initiative affords students time every week throughout their 5th, 8th, and 12th-grade years to develop meaningful projects.

A while back I had the opportunity to be on Kyle Wagner’s podcast to share more about our Capstone Program and dive into how we, as edu-transformers, can:

  • Help our students discover their passions and connect them to a greater purpose.
  • Scaffold and support the project process using the six ‘P’s’.
  • Shift from being a teacher to a project mentor by adopting a growth mindset.
  • Start a similar initiative in our classrooms or schools.

Enjoy this shortened interview in which I share valuable insights and practical advice for implementing a capstone program. You can listen to the full interview here.


Kyle: Hey, Edu Transformer and Learner Center practitioner. I want you to imagine this. Imagine your learners, from as young as five through post-secondary, discovering their passions, connecting to a sense of purpose, and self-directing their projects to connect that purpose to the community.

That is the capstone program taking root worldwide to create self-directed learners. I have the privilege of sitting down with Dagan Bernstein, the coordinator of a capstone program at Hawaii Preparatory Academy. We’re going to learn how to start a similar program at our school, help students discover their passions, connect to a sense of purpose, scaffold the process through the six magical P’s, learn why failure is an option, and how students can learn from that. Finally, we’ll explore how to shift from being a teacher at the front of the classroom to being a project mentor on the side. Here’s my conversation with Dagan. I hope you get a lot out of it.

Hey, everyone tuning in globally. I have the privilege of sitting down with Dagan, who’s going to tell you about himself and the capstone program. Welcome to the podcast, Dagan.

Dagan: Aloha, Kyle. It’s great to be here.

Kyle: Aloha. I love that greeting. Which part of Hawaii are you in?

Dagan: I’m on Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island, in Waimea, up in the hills.

Kyle: Is Waimea similar to Waimea Bay, with beaches and white sand?

Dagan: No, it’s very different. I see green rolling hills, windy clouds, and big mountains around me. It’s a unique, special environment near two 14,000-foot mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. It’s a beautiful, small mountain community.

Kyle: Nice. Are those hikeable mountains?

Dagan: They’re not hikable in the sense of throwing on a backpack and hiking up them. They’re pretty big mountains and, by volume, some of the largest in the world.

Kyle: Wow. Let’s dig into the capstone program. You first reached out regarding a post I had written about designing learning around bigger experiences. Can you give us the evolution of the capstone program at your school?

Dagan: It started about six or seven years ago when our dean of academics pitched the capstone initiative. The goal was for every student in grades 5, 8, and 12 to complete a year-long capstone project as a culminating assessment of their skills. It was tied to broader initiatives around 21st-century skills, like soft skills or future-ready skills. It was an opportunity for students to do something driven by inquiry from their own interests, design a project, see it through, and be assessed on it.

We phased it in, starting with grade five, which had a pre-existing project around honey bees and pollination. Then we phased in grade eight, where I was teaching algebra and music. I took on a capstone course where students built ukuleles and did projects around music and culture. Finally, we phased in the twelfth-grade program. Last year’s graduating class was the first to go through all three capstone projects.

The program has evolved. One major change was having a coordinator at each campus. Another was integrating our school-wide sustainability model, Malama Kaiāulu, into the capstone projects.

Kyle: That’s wonderful. It sounds like the program evolved from being teacher-interest-driven to student-interest-driven. Can you share one of the most successful capstones you’ve witnessed?

Dagan: One project that stands out is from the 2020-21 school year. A student pitched a project about addressing wild pigs hit by cars. It lacked passion, so I pushed the student to explore their deeper interests. Eventually, they focused on creating a middle school advocacy group for LGBTQ+ students. This project changed the dynamics and discussions at school. The student did thorough research, met with the principal, counselor, and others, and created a space for LGBTQ+ students and allies. It became a model for other schools in our area. The project culminated in a guidebook on creating a middle school group for LGBTQ+ students. It was impactful and meaningful, transforming the student’s view of themselves and building their confidence.

Kyle: That’s incredible. It shows the power of a capstone. Now, let’s talk about potential challenges. Are all capstone projects successful, or do you face challenges?

Dagan: Not all projects are successful. I use a 20-60-20 rule: 20% are amazing, 60% are solid, and 20% may not produce the desired outcome. However, we structure the capstone program where failure is an option. For example, a student wanted to visit elderly homes to play games during the COVID pandemic but struggled to pivot when this wasn’t possible. Despite the setbacks, the student learned valuable lessons about effective communication, resilience, and taking action. Even if a project doesn’t come to fruition, the reflective piece and self-assessment provide tangible evidence of what they need to work on.

Kyle: How do you scaffold the capstone process for students?

Dagan: We start by identifying who the students are and their interests. Then, we connect their interests to a community issue. Once they identify a community need, they build a proposal with an essential question to guide the project. After submitting the proposal, they conduct research, ask questions, and build out a project plan with four or five main steps. We provide materials and support throughout the process. We have check-ins, peer feedback, and a final presentation where students share their projects with the community. Finally, there’s a reflection piece and an archive of project summaries.

Kyle: It’s a great scaffold. How do you equip teachers to support students in this process?

Dagan: I owe a lot to the National Capstone Consortium, a network of teachers who share knowledge and resources. One key takeaway is that capstone programs should align with the school’s mission, culture, structure, and resources. Capstone is about the art of what is possible, and it requires flexibility and openness to change. Teachers need to be curious, communicate, and calibrate with their colleagues. It’s a mindset shift from delivering a set curriculum to guiding students in their projects.

Kyle: How do you form partnerships with the community for these projects?

Dagan: We have established relationships with community groups that support our program. Sometimes students identify a community need and we help them find a partner. This involves teaching them how to initiate contact, ensuring safety, and discussing real-world skills. For example, a student wanted to do a project on premature births but couldn’t find a mentor. They pivoted to create a blog about their experience with a younger sibling who was born premature, finding a mentor in writing and blogging. This failure-is-an-option mantra helps keep projects moving forward.

Kyle: Great. Where can people find more resources or support for capstone programs?

Dagan: I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn as Dagan Bernstein, and my website is dagan.education. The National Capstone Consortium at capstoneconsortium.org is also a great resource. I’m happy to connect with anyone interested in starting a capstone program.

Kyle: Thanks for the conversation, Dagan. How do you say goodbye in Hawaii?

Dagan: Aloha or my favorite, “a hui hou”, which means until next time.

Kyle: A hui hou, Dagan.

Dagan: A hui hou, Kyle. Mahalo.

AI and the New Digital Curriculum: Empowering Students with Data Rights

As the technological advancements of artificial intelligence rapidly transform our world, educators face the crucial task of preparing young learners to thrive while navigating these changes.

I have advocated for the use of technology to engage students in deep learning experiences, while also considering its ethical implementations.

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Empathy for the Future

Image by Stanford d.School

In our continued exploration of the Five Approaches to Futures Thinking by Stanford d.School, let’s delve into the next approach: “Empathy for the Future.” As educators, every pedagogical choice we make is rooted in our assumptions about what the future holds. But what if, instead of just predicting or projecting the future, we also deeply felt and empathized with those who will inhabit it?

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Worldbuilding

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is worldbuilding-1-1.png
Image by Stanford d.School

As we journey through the Five Approaches to Futures Thinking by Stanford d.School, let’s step into the captivating space of “Worldbuilding.” The previous approach, “Tracing Change Across Time” encouraged us to break away from linear perceptions and cultivate an understanding of patterns and shifts over time. Worldbuilding takes us further by allowing us to envision the future in rich, imaginative detail.

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MonoNeon: The Unsung Futurist of Music

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

Futures thinking is often associated with technologists, economists, and thought leaders. However, Lisa Kay Solomon’s recent article discussing Taylor Swift as a futurist got me thinking. What musical artists inspire me that operate with a futurist mindset?

An artist like MonoNeon, a Memphis-based musician known for his fluorescent fashion sense and his inventive bass guitar playing immediately came to mind.

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Tracing Change Across Time

Image by Stanford d.School

Our journey through the Five Approaches to Futures Thinking by Stanford d.School brings us to “Tracing Change Across Time.” This approach invites us to see our present moment as a part of an ever-evolving narrative, where both subtle shifts and disruptive events shape our collective future.

We often perceive the future as an extension of the present, visualizing it as something similar to today, only marginally different. This linear perception of time restricts our understanding. Time is much more complex and dynamic than a straight line stretching out before us. Change isn’t always a slow, predictable crawl nor is it a consistent speedy progression; sometimes, it’s an exponential leap that disrupts our expectations.

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Seeing in Multiples

Image by Stanford d.School

In the ever-changing landscape of the future, it is essential for educators to equip young learners with the skills of “seeing in multiples.” This concept, part of the Futures Thinking Approaches developed at the Stanford d.School, emphasizes the need to embrace the dynamic and pluralistic nature of the future, where multiple trajectories, scenarios, and possibilities coexist.

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Five Approaches to Futures

Design Credit: Avanear Studios

My journey into futures thinking began in early 2021 when I came across the FutureVersary project from Stanford d.School ‘s K12 Lab. This led me to discover an enlightening Medium article by Ariel Raz, Head of Learning Collaborations at the K12 Lab Network. All this resulted in the realization of the importance of teaching futures thinking in K-12 classrooms.

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Web3 Learning at My Middle School

How an NFT club provided an opportunity for middle schoolers to explore web3

In January 2022, at the height of the crypto and NFT buzz, I decided to do something radical at my middle school. I started an NFT club. At our assembly, nestled between the chess club, yoga flow, and “Sew Awesome,” I put up this slide to pitch this club to our 100 middle school students.

Afterward, I anxiously waited for the sign-ups or the possible lack of them. My initial fear was that none of the students would be interested in doing this. I knew there were a few students who knew of crypto from my investing club in the fall. I had also overheard a couple of students mention the “right-click save” phenomenon. I still wondered to myself if there were enough middle schoolers interested in spending a half hour every week talking about jpegs.

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Teaching with Miss Ann

Improvising Versus Experimenting

In a previous blog post, I wrote about experimenting in education. This was based on ideas I discovered in the book Two Beats Ahead. In this book, the authors describe experimenting as the act of “daring to suck.”

As a musician turned educator I am very comfortable trying new things and then seeing what works, iterating, and discarding the elements that aren’t benefitting student learning. I have discovered that this “relentless commitment” is a key skill in teaching. However, it can also go against the natural instincts of many teachers to backward plan in order to design perfectly constructed learning experiences.

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Fireflies, Education, and the Future

What do fireflies have to do with education, society, and the future?

The Firefly Problem

In a recent episode of “People I (Mostly) Admire,” host Steven Levitt interviewed applied mathematician Steven Strogatz. Strogatz was explaining the phenomenon of the pteroptyx, a Southeast Asian firefly that will synchronously light up along the mangrove forests throughout the year.

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Robots x Humans

The future of education will be humans partnering with artificial intelligence to co-create. I prototyped this partnership by building a multi-day lesson plan using a chatbot. Through this collaboration I was able to address the following needs that are common to many education professionals:

  1. Using time more efficiently
  2. Incorporating problem-solving and creative thinking
  3. Building scaffolded instruction
  4. Real-world application
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The Magic of the Hidden

By the Way

As a musician and educator, I source a lot of insights about my craft from the world of music. One recent insight came from an interview with John Frusciante guitarist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He discussed how his guitar playing on the album “By the Way” was influenced by Eddie Van Halen.

I had a key insight from this idea. We lose the magic of what is hidden when we focus instruction on content.

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Happy Web 3 Birthday to Me

This week marks my 1 year anniversary in web3. My web3 birth was on 11/10/21 when I became the owner of the ENS domain dagan.eth. Unless you count the ethereum I purchased to exchange for the domain, it’s the first token I ever purchased on the blockchain. The transaction hash is:

0xd74948b90bf7d85d6b88d934594f6e49901e992a8c964c070eff9ddd62715a57

Since then, I have reached a number of important personal milestones:

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