What If We Tried “Radical Acts of Education”?

At a recent Big Questions Institute professional development workshop for educational leaders, one of the participants honestly reflected that she felt uncomfortable using the word “radical,” even if it was stated in the context of “radical kindness,” “radical acceptance,” or “radical empathy” at school. “The connotations seem too strong and polarizing,” she said.


We get it. Our media and political leaders have built massive audiences sparking fear of so many “radicals,” like “radical Islam,” or “radical fringe groups.” This weaponized language, however, has been deeply hurtful, whether you’re one of the millions of Muslims striving for peace and faith, or millions of Black families speaking out about crumbling schools, mass incarceration, lead in the water, and inadequate, unequal healthcare.


Our popular culture has used the adjective to polarize and instill fear, rather than solve the very problems that create the othering – and we have lost the meaning of the word.


As the corona virus rages on, and calls for social justice globally become louder, clearer, and more universal, why do we remain so afraid of being radical? Are the things that matter most to us mutually exclusive of radical acts, or might it be the reverse? In order to realize what’s vital: justice, equity, relationships, stewardship, community, creativity, joy – perhaps thinking radically is precisely what we need?


Radical: Grasping at the Root


In our work we are constantly looking to the etymology of words to get to the root of messages and excavate the stories. “Radical” is a good case in point. The Latin origin of the word “radical” refers to “proceeding from a root.” This reference continues in math, where radical, symbolized by √, denotes a square root, cube root, etc.


As UCLA’s Distinguished Professor Emerita, Angela Davis, who embodies “radical,” in whatever way you interpret the word, explained, “Radical simply means grasping at the root.” And: You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”


Thinking radically helps us imagine a new world, but if it’s overwhelming to begin imagining globally, then “radical” also helps us begin at the roots, or locally. And we get to do it over and over and over again (“do it all the time”), because iteration is a key to trying, adjusting, failing, starting again, taking a risk, and continuously learning.


Beginning at the roots allows us to construct a new foundation, so we are not building upon crumbling structures. If you could set aside all the add-ons and go to the root, or the heart of what mattered most, where would you begin?


This orientation makes us question efforts at reform and even re-imagining – they don’t go deep enough. Thanks to the scholarship of Dr. Bettina Love, we are questioning our use of the term “re-imagining,” as that term, like the word “empowerment,” seems nice enough, until they are looked at from an anti-racist, abolitionist lens. As Dr. Love explained: “I don’t want to re-imagine slavery.” So, we will use “radical imagination” to dream something new, just, and inclusive. And with empowerment – that implies you can empower someone else, that you have the power to give them. Nope – we/our students possess inherent powers and capacities and education’s job is to excavate, uncover and release. So before using “empowerment,” even with the best intent, pause to consider the impact, if you really want to talk about the power your students might unleash.


“Radical” As a Transformative Descriptor


Adding the word “radical” to terms like “kindness” and “hospitality” helps transform the meaning of an otherwise polite, nice or gentle idea. For example, going from hospitality, defined as “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers,” to radical hospitality turns that nice idea into one that can transform people and communities. Experiences of radical hospitality include former leading white nationalist Derek Black, who, after a few meals at a Jewish classmate’s apartment, experienced a complete transformation in his worldview, toward justice and equality; or Philadelphia’s Broad Street Ministry, where feeding the hungry is not seen as one-sided charity but as an act of reciprocity, a partnership that builds community and humanity.


So, imagine what it might be like to practice the following “radicals.” How does the meaning of each word get amplified or transformed? What might this look like in your personal life or in your school? What other “radicals” would you add to this growing list?


  •       Radical Kindness
  •       Radical Candor
  •       Radical Inquiry
  •       Radical Empathy
  •       Radical Inclusion
  •       Radical Belonging
  •       Radical Hope
  •       Radical Wellness
  •       Radical Self-care
  •       Radical Hospitality
  •       Radical Collaboration
  •       Radical Imagination


A Radical Lens


Imagine applying a radical lens to each priority on our school-making agendas. For example, if we went line-by-line on the budget from a lens of radical inclusion or radical belonging, how might critical financial decisions be impacted? In the altered state of school during pandemic, if we radically imagine the school’s partnership with parents, how might parents’ role be re-assessed from a lens of radical wellness or radical kindness?


Applying the “radical” lens can start off as an exercise in unsticking our minds, as we imagine new approaches to replace tired, expired structures. Try it with your colleagues. If you could dream, where would your dreams go? If you could remove one element of incoherence, what might it be and what could result? You will learn a lot about each other, and once you start to imagine, you can begin to construct reality from your thoughts.


This table offers a starting point on some of the big considerations for a school, mapped against some Radical Acts of Education. You don’t need to fill in every row and column square. Start with one that appeals to you and dream where it can take you. It might leave you with bigger questions than clean answers, but a radically imagined future that’s healthy, inclusive, just and kind deserves thinking that’s messy and outside the box. This is the sort of radical inquiry our world – and our children – deserve.


Our BIG Question: What would it take for you to practice radical acts of education?


Homa and Will

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  1. Joel Backon says

    The chart is great, yet maybe we need to be even more radical by answering the big question: Is education a public good? Everything we’ve seen over the past hundred years would indicate that it is, but only in an altruistic sense. When one peels back the layers of altruism, we discover that education is still designed for the elite, and is then offered to every child. Some kids succeed in school and others do not. That “natural selection” process reinforces the notion of elitism.

      • Sascha says

        This is not a new concept. Paolo Freire wrote about this in the 1970’s in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is as relevant today as it was at the time of initial publishing. Education has and continues to be used to teach compliance, construct social order, and normalize the population toward acceptable norms.


    Suggest you look into the Sudbury Valley School http://www.sudval.org Is this “radical” enough for you? No curriculum; no “classrooms”; democratic governance with one person-one vote where a 4 year old has the same vote as a staff member; staff hired on annual contracts by the democratic body; etc, etc. Established in 1968 and operating continuously since them. Graduates in every walk of life; scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, clerks, accountants, farmers, ….Check it out.

    • Sascha says

      Radical – quite. But also private and selective. I work at a private school as well, and I am always conscious of our selectivity bias. Would this model work in inter-city Chicago where defacto segregation, unequal funding, and many societal challenges abound? When I think radical – I am thinking about universal access to equity. Ensuring that every child is provided with the support and guidance to succeed in life. That the probability of your success is not a ratio based on your parent’s socio-economic status. That is radical. Sudbury looks like a great model – but does it travel?

      • Bruce Knox says

        Sascha, I’m wondering if something that works somewhere should somehow be questioned if it does not work somewhere else? Maybe it is like wondering if a Ferrari is any good because it doesn’t drive well on sand dunes. Radical in a private and selective setting will necessarily be different from radical in the setting you describe. Maybe we are beginning to discuss a “spectrum of radical”. I lead a school in Lebanon and have visited High Tech High in San Diego. My school in Lebanon would consider High Tech High radical, but High Tech High has to look elsewhere for their own embodiment of radical. I’m beginning to think that radical is very greatly contextual.

  3. Cabby Tennis says

    I resonate with your comment, Bruce. Understanding and then acting within one’s context seems to be an essential starting point for those in our calling. I like the image of grasping the roots of something as a way to define radical. These covid times have done so much to unify and awaken us all to the many similarities of the challenges we face. What I think I hear you saying is that reaching into the soil of context reveals that our roots and indeed even the soil itself hold vital differences across geographies and cultures. I believe the reach out / bold / big leap aspects of ‘radical’, spawned in this time of crisis, will serve us well for years to come. May we, as a community in conversation, gain a measure of confidence to reach for our respective top ‘radical shelves’ for answers, answers that work in our particular gardens.

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