Insights and Conversations with Anya

On Thursday we had the chance to Skype with Anya Smith. If you don’t know Anya, you should take a look at our Voices page and head over to her blog at  Sharing passions for design, education transformation, and theater, we feel like she’s a kindred spirit.

Now a senior at Mount Vernon Presbyterian High School, Anya has been able to seize the most out of her learning. Mount Vernon Presbyterian School has wholeheartedly embraced design thinking and makes it a central facet of their students’ mindset and education.  They boast curiosity and passion being the drive behind education at their school. With MVIFI (the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation), Mount Vernon focuses on education transformation through people-centered design. Students work through the design process to explore, create, and innovate.

During Anya’s freshman year in high school, she was assigned a project in a history class called the Big History project. Anya quickly realized that she wanted to do more than present a project in which she was simply presenting facts her peers could easily look up on their own. She wanted the project to have a more meaningful purpose. After discussing how she felt with a teacher, her teacher turned her towards a different path. Her project became a design challenge with the focus being centered on the HMW question “How might we redesign projects?”. This turned into a much bigger project than she anticipated. Eventually culminating into a MoVe talk, (Mount Vernon calls these TED Talk like talks by this acronym which stands for “Moment of Visible Empathy”) in which faculty and students from every school were visiting to hear her talk.

Anya is also involved in a program at Mount Vernon called Innovation Diploma (ID).  Consisting of teachers and students who are passionate about learning and desire to create change and innovate, Innovation Diploma is a 3-4 year program in which students work together to solve real world problems in their school, community, and the world through the design process.

After talking with Anya and hearing about her passions, projects, and how she handles being in the “dark night of the soul” of projects, we’ve noticed a trend among those who are successful self-directed learners and innovators:


Characteristics of Successful Self-Directed Learners and Innovators

  1. Fearless – Take Risks
  2. Make Connections
  3. Practice of Continually Trying
  4. Makers


  1. Successful self-directed learners and innovators are often fearless. They are unafraid to take risks. Innovation Diploma students pursue “ventures”, not projects. ID intentionally refers to  student design projects as ventures because the word “venture” in the words of ID, implies “risky undertaking or a daring journey; the word has an implicit sense of exploration and excitement”. To take the first steps in design and innovation, one must be unafraid to try something new, something that abandons traditional practices. One must also be unafraid of failure, because this is where growing and learning occur.

2. Successful self directed learners and innovators make connections. They network, reach out for help, and collaborate. Often, many projects can not be done alone. Successful self directed learners and innovators seek insight, advice, and collaboration from others to help improve their projects and bring them to life.

3. Successful self directed learners and innovators practice continually trying. Mr. Heidt, George Couros, and Anya all advocate student blogging. Blogging provides a place for students to reflect and share their thoughts on their learning and everyday experiences. It also provides a platform for students to simply write, write, write. When students are given a place to freely and continually write without constraint, they become better writers. Anya shared that she is much more of a STEM focused learner and does not always feel like a strong English student. However, she says continually blogging has significantly improved her writing. She said that even if what you want to say in your blogpost isn’t entirely polished, the practice of continually trying results in improvement and progress.

4. Successful self directed learners and innovators are makers. Along with their sense of curiosity and passion, they have a bias towards action. They continually try and create to reflect, learn, and take steps forward. Anya discussed ID’s “The Innovator’s DNA” which consists of verbs that make up the DNA of an innovator: Associate, Question, Observe, Network, Experiment. In her MoVe talk on thinking like a designer, Anya says these are all verbs because they are “…something that’s driving us into action. Making us want to do something, not just ideate, but actually go out and make a difference”. By continually making, successful self directed learners and innovators make progress and make a tangible difference.

We hope to continually try to incorporate these characteristics into our lives to become more curious, fearless, connected, persistent, and active self-directed learners and innovators.

Thanks for your insight Anya.


4 thoughts on “Insights and Conversations with Anya

  1. Wow I’m amazed by your ability to synthesize all of this information into a well organized dialogue! It’s kind of funny to see your own story written out from someone else’s perspective, but I think you guys did a great job at it. The insights you pulled out about successful self-directed learners is also really intriguing to me. I loved talking with you, and can’t wait to continue to see the awesome work you’re doing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Anya! We really appreciated listening to your story and learning about your own experiences in self directed learning (especially self directed learning involving design thinking). Wading through so much unknown, your insights have helped fuel our own confidence and passion in where we want to go and what we want to do moving forward. We would love to talk with you again sometime!


  2. Reblogged this on Only Connect and commented:
    Two students who are working on an Independent Study with me. Fearless? Indeed! We all must be so if we are to take on the challenges the world presents to us. If all we ever do is what the system tells us to do, we’ll only get what the system wants: obedient, compliant, widgets. Ain’t no one I know who wants to be just a widget…though it is far simpler and more comfortable to just do what you’re told.

    Hmmm reminds me of the Peter Gabriel Song: “We do what we’re told (Millgram’s 37)”


  3. Great entry and a great discussion with an amazing learner.

    You might think about the difference between calling learning “self-directed” and “self-determined.” Maybe that’s the next step here? or one of the next (thousands!) steps to take, but there’s plenty of literature out there on that semantic shift.


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