Empowering Students with the Human Restoration Project
A Q&A with two former teachers dedicated to making school better for the next generation
I don’t remember when I first heard of the Human Restoration Project (HRP), years ago now, but I do remember thinking that this was an organization that was looking at education in fresh and interesting ways and producing a tremendous amount of interesting content and resources. When I realized that HRP was the product of two high school teachers (Chris McNutt and Nick Covington) who were working full-time, I was even more impressed. When they asked me to join the board of the nonprofit, I didn’t hesitate, not only because I believed in their mission, but because I wanted to have an up front seat to what was to come.
I asked Chris and Nick a few questions to help others get to know the Human Restoration Project in more detail. – John Warner EE Staff Writer
Chris McNutt is a former public high school digital media & social studies educator who centered his practice on experiential learning, purpose-driven pathways and community involvement. As co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, he strives to create actionable resources for educators to promote human-centered, progressive education within their classrooms, spurring a grassroots movement for change.
Nick Covington is a former public high school social studies educator and teacher organizer. Nick stumbled into progressive education through his classroom efforts in ungrading and found himself needing to re-evaluate all his classroom practices. He came to find that the intellectual and historical tradition of progressive education provided a coherent, flexible, and research-backed framework for humanizing the experience of school for educators and students alike.
Educational Endeavors: Maybe we should start with the name, Human Restoration Project. What humans are you guys talking about, and what is it that needs restoring?
Human Restoration Project:
Chris: We incorporated Human Restoration Project as a nonprofit in 2020 because we firmly believe that equity-centered systemic change is needed within all schools. Despite decades of school reform (Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, A Nation at Risk), only 40% of students are engaged in high school and less than half of students feel their learning is relevant. Meanwhile, despite our focus on improving math and reading scores, stressing about test results, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists states we are “100 seconds from doomsday.”
In a time when boredom and disengagement in school are normalized, and the response is more standardized, test-driven initiatives, it makes us question… what about the actual people in these spaces? When did we lose our humanity? This is especially true when our young people are more anxious and depressed than they ever have been. We need to reimagine classrooms.
Creating human-centered schools means we value the backgrounds and perspectives of all learners, recognizing the need for social justice in education. As Linda Darling-Hammond writes in New Standards and Old Inequalities, the United States’ focus on solving inequity with reform through testing and charter schools is not working. Instead, HRP focuses its attention on systems-based change in education through grassroots, teacher-organized change.
Our priorities in education have moved toward the obvious answer: we’re all human beings, and we need to treat each other accordingly. We inform our work through hundreds of interviews with experts and students, our collective experience as educators, as well as the staggering amount of data suggesting that progressive systems-based change is needed. Simply stated, we want schools to have young people (and educators) exploring their path to purpose, being engaged, caring about one another and our planet, and all the while being mentally and physically well.
Nick: Chris nailed it. Schools exist as a microcosm of society and also in dialogue with society. We want to ask the fundamental question: what if we built a better world and it didn’t raise test scores? What would we look toward as evidence of improvement or achievement then? Does the world we live in reflect our ideals? The top-down ed reform movement of the last 20 years has given us a myopic, high-stakes focus on test scores as the sole measures of academic achievement that has not only failed to raise test scores, but has also come at the cost of every other value of schooling, including the professionalization of teaching. In its emphasis on grassroots organization, HRP seeks to empower a teacher-powered “dual revolution,” of both the conditions experienced by teachers and learners in schools as well as the conditions in communities students come from and the world they graduate into.
EE: Let’s face it, that sounds like a pretty big task. How are you going to do this? What actions get us closer to that goal?
Chris: In the United States, we’ve been in a constant cycle of reform movements: something new is tried out, it may or may not work, people see us “fall behind” in test scores versus the rest of the world, then we double down on standardized testing. These top-down reform measures don’t work because they assume that 1) classrooms are laboratories where learning works according to an input/output model ( in reality, learning is verymessy and complicated), 2) standardized testing is a valid measure of what students know and don’t know, and 3) that “back to basics” teaching causes any form of innovation.
We see the work of reimagining education as a grassroots movement. We supply individual educators with the tools needed to transform their spaces, giving them the tools to begin “restoring humanity” by changing assessment practices, promoting purpose-finding, eliminating homework, and doing more hands-on, self-directed lessons. In our view, the only way for these ideas to catch on won’t be by us highlighting the extensive research that supports them, but by individual educators showing what’s possible when students attend their classes. At the end of the day, students and educators thrive in these settings.
Then, that movement grows as more and more educators see what these cool folks are doing in the classroom next door. As an organization, we want to be there to support this by informing, guiding, and growing human-centered learning. We inform by hosting a podcast and writings to talk about the need for these changes; we guide by publishing resources on enacting those changes; and we grow by establishing a network of progressive educators working together to change the world.
Nick: Just as dehumanization often begins with imperceptible changes in language, action, and policy, so too can the process of humanization. We’re already seeing the educational mainstream recognize the need for reforms as schools nationwide implement an alphabet soup of standards-based grading (SBG) instead of traditional grading systems, and programs like PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports) and SEL (Social Emotional Learning) in place of traditional discipline. The primary issue with these reforms, however, is that they accept the underlying behaviorist premises of grading and discipline — the operant conditioning of Pavlov and Skinner — without providing any coherent structural critique or counter-narrative for the need for change. These surface-level changes offer nothing new to teachers and parents trying to understand different and well-established theories of motivation and agency rooted in autonomy, relevance, and connectedness. It’s the same iron fist but with the velvet glove or, as Alfie Kohn refers to standards-based grading, lipstick on a pig.
In practice, these types of reforms work like Mindfulness Booths on the floors of Amazon warehouses, offering the appearance of humanization while addressing nothing about the working conditions that lead to the need for mindfulness booths. So if we were to go in and address the working conditions of Amazon warehouses that lead to injury, burnout, and turnover — to humanize them — what would that look like? We’d need to talk to workers, gather their perspectives and input on the issues that govern their working life, give them a say and a stake in how to make a workplace work for them, and begin to implement those changes. So why would the processes of humanizing a school system for educators and students need to look any different? And would students-as-future-workers tolerate a workplace like Amazon’s after experiencing a humanized democratic education? It has never been enough to “prepare every learner for a lifetime of personal success,” as far as school mission statements go, but those platitudes and practices are particularly maladaptive when they reflect the inequities and injustices that rank and sort children as preparation for an inequitable and unjust world outside of school.
EE: What motivated you to start this work?
Chris: For me it was the simple frustration with feeling like the escaped prisoner in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. When I was in college I was exposed to hooks, Freire, Giroux, and the like, but that didn’t translate to how I taught. I started with extensive lecture-based and guided notes, making students pull from a list of “rigorous” activities to make sure they “learned.” After a year or two of this, I started to doubt myself — because those students I had worked so hard to educate were, a year later, not able to answer even fundamental questions about topics we’d discussed at length.
I had seriously considered quitting – I didn’t see the point to putting in all of this labor without any meaningful outcomes. But after looking back at especially Teaching to Transgress by bel hooks and The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn, I realized that I was pouring all of my energy into a system that simply wasn’t working. It wasn’t that my day-to-day actions were necessarily in bad form, it was that the overarching design of the system where I worked was flawed.
That made me really examine systems-based thinking and progressive education, and eventually wanting to find others doing the same work…and there just weren’t any! At least not that I could find easily. There are plenty of folks doing awesome work in very specific areas of progressive education, such as gradeless learning or play-based inquiry, and there are great things going on in charter spaces like Montessoris and Reggio Emilias, but I wanted to see a space that gave regular, public school educators the opportunity to find everything in one spot. Here, they can recognize that all of this work is connected. A modern progressive education system recognizes the need to counteract dehumanizing practices such as testing, grades, and traditional discipline, while simultaneously promoting a thriving public education and social justice.
Nick: As an early adopter of many of the programs I listed above, like SBG and PBIS, I thought I was doing everything “right.” I had prided myself on unpacking standards, planning engaging, performative lessons and units that were well-paced and tech savvy; putting together complicated, ambitious projects and writing prompts with standards-referenced, multiple-tiered rubrics and criteria for students to meet or exceed.
My journey to student voice and choice in the classroom — what I did not yet understand as progressive education — was born out of frustration that what I and my co-teacher were spending hours planning just wasn’t having the impact we were intending. Students frustrated with technology, bored with a topic, or just not feeling like learning about the Reformation for three weeks would do just about anything to get away from a classroom that, now, so obviously demanded that students care and think important and want to learn about what I cared and found important and demanded they learn about. So out of that frustration, I did what every tired parent has done in a moment of exhaustion and said, “Fine, what do YOU want to do?!” It turned out to be the most important decision of my teaching career.
“What do you want to do?” was followed by “How are you going to do it?” and “With whom?” which was then followed by “For whom?”, “What will the impact be?”, “What tools or resources will you need?”, and “How will you know when you’ve gotten there?”
I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding-versus meeting-versus-not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and were learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before. I went from being a micromanager of student behaviors directed at teacher-focused outcomes, to a learning partner, sharing in the joy of learning with students, talking openly with them about their learning with no evaluative agenda, and learning alongside and from them as a result. I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.
EE: Here’s something I sometimes struggle with. How do you stay motivated to keep doing this work. Obviously there are a lot of obstacles, and it’s sometimes difficult to see progress. What helps you keep the faith?
Chris: There’s a lot of pushback to these ideas (especially by those who have almost all the resources, like testing companies) and this battle has been waged for over a century. Not to mention the fact that…the “other side” usually wins. Thinking back to the debates of Dewey vs. Thorndike, Thorndike’s multiple-choice, standardized model quickly became the norm, edging out the experiential, reflective ideas of Dewey. There have been slivers of progressive education, especially in the ‘60s, but it has never taken a firm hold on mainstream education. However, it’s my hope that as we move further into a digital age where one has the power to spread huge ideas as well as form communities on the Internet, that progressive education can reemerge as the obvious choice for our future.
I think there’s a lot of power in the idea of “joyful struggle” — that the power in movement building isn’t solely hard work and pushing the needle ever-so-slightly in one direction, but in taking ownership of one’s life and having fun in times of sorrow. I constantly am reminded by those in our network of just how many fantastic learning communities already exist, and I firmly believe that public schools are a social good. (And yes, there’s cognitive dissonance every day when we also recognize how much damage schools are doing.)
We just can’t lose hope. The second that educators stop fighting, the school reform movement will win and they’ll leave no spoils. We’ll end up with a standardized, privatized education system that exacerbates inequity and further divides us, and it will be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced to this point. One of the best ways to have hope is recognizing that our ability to think of a different system means that an alternative can exist. And it isn’t even entirely theoretical! We see these practices happening at public and private schools across the country. We can do better.
Nick: In an environment of pervasive cynicism and pessimism, sometimes hope is the most radical position you can take. Hope can be the platform for future action. And what’s the alternative? I keep coming back to the keynote address that Henry Giroux gave at our inaugural Conference to Restore Humanity in which he closed with a challenge for listeners:
At stake here is the courage to take on the challenge of what kind of world we want. What kind of future do we want to build for our children? The great philosopher Ernst Bloch insisted that hope taps into our deepest experiences and that without it reason and justice cannot prevail. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin…adds a call for compassion and social responsibility to this notion of hope, one that is indebted to those who follow us. He writes, “Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them. The moment we break with one another, the sea engulfs us and the lights go out.”
I also find the practice of solidarity incredibly empowering. We live in a time where conflict, division, and othering is the currency of our entire media ecosystem. To reject the narratives favored by the algorithm and the grievance-industrial complex, to focus on collaboration and generation instead of isolation and destruction, is a practice in constant need of deliberate maintenance. Let’s build a movement on hope and solidarity.That sounds pretty nice to me.
EE: Let’s play “In Your Wildest Dreams.” In your wildest dreams, where is HRP in 10 years?
Chris: I really want Human Restoration Project to develop into a network that encompasses all elements of the progressive education community. Specifically, I want that movement to not only include educators and schools who have signed onto this movement and transformed their spaces to be human-centered, but young people who are resisting and acting on these ideas in their spaces. In the same way that climate and union activists are organizing and making waves, HRP wants to be the same. Similar to “Red for Ed,” except on pedagogy and practice in addition to educator rights, pay, and professionalism.
In the coming years, we’re going to massively push for more volunteers to help us out with these endeavors, including those from nontraditional movement building backgrounds such as artists, designers, infographic makers, Twitch streamers, podcasters, and more. We want to reach educators and community members while creating a space for young people to recognize that school can be better.
Nick: In the short-term, I’d love to see youth-led HRP chapters in schools and communities around the world as platforms for grassroots organizing and action on issues in education. We have had an idea for an extensive “Street Team” in the works for a while — hoping to launch the first phase this fall.
Chris and I are also constantly referring to schools we learn about and school leaders we talk with that sound like “HRP Schools” in their values and practices. These are public, private, and charter schools all over the country that are already doing this work in whole or in part: they have students as voting members on school boards and stakeholder committees; they have outdoor classrooms, on-site farms and student-curated spaces for art and music; they run student-led restorative justice programs; they are project- and problem-based; they function as community hubs for families and students; etc. The awesome part of progressive education is how flexible and contextual it is — it’s not an out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all program — like democratic practice itself, it needs to be remade anew in the image of the people it is meant to serve. It’s why we want to bring these schools into our Human Centered Schools Network, to share resources, perspectives, and practices that support individual and systemic progressive change despite geographical boundaries and contextual differences.