How To Be An Edu-Pirate

5 Mar

There was a lot of talk about pirates in the early days of Apple Computers. Steve Jobs encouraged Apple’s development teams to be like pirates, to be rebellious and to “think different”. The Macintosh development group at “Bandley 3” famously worked under a pirate flag (with an Apple logo for the eye patch) while developing the breakthrough Macintosh Computer. It helped them to “…preserve our original (rebellious) spirit even as we were growing more like the Navy every day”.

Why pirates? In What Would Steve Jobs Do? author Peter Sanders explains that Apple teams that thought like pirates were “…more likely to embrace change and challenge convention.” Jobs wanted Apple to innovate and change the computer industry, and a key part of that was working outside the system, like “pirates”. This important element of Apple’s early rebellious culture was captured in the biopic “Pirates of Silicon Valley”.

There’s a growing emphasis on innovation in education. Educators are searching for new ideas and practices that will make a difference and push student learning to a new level. A key asset in this effort is the work of Edu-Pirates, educators who are willing to “embrace change and challenge convention” within our educational institutions.

The culture of education is famously resistant to change and local school boards and districts are much more “navy” than “Black Pearl”. To promote innovation in education we need to nurture and recruit “Edu-Pirates”. But first, we must agree what they are.

Portuguese buccaneer Bartolomeu Portuguê the first “Pirate’s Code” in the late 1660’s. In the same spirit I offer:

The Edu-Pirates Code

  1. Students First: No matter what education policy requires or dictates, student learning comes first. It may be something as small as choosing to connect with students rather than immediately taking attendance or something as big as refusing to administer a harmful standardized test. To an Edu-Pirate student welfare and learning matter most and they will gladly suffer ‘the slings and arrows of annoyed administrators’ to honor that.
  2. Be Passionate:Edu-Pirates are 100% committed to the idea that education matters. Education isn’t just a job, it’s a life or death mission. A quest. To borrow a phrase, Edu-Pirates teach like their hair’s on fire.
  3. Sail With a Crew: It takes a collective effort to hijack a large, slow-moving vessel like education. Edu-Pirates see the value of efforts to affect change in all areas and support them. They share ideas, discuss, move other projects along and look for common ground with others.
  4. Never, Ever Quit: Edu-Pirates are rarely appreciated within education and battles are often long and difficult. An Edu-Pirate abides. They remain committed and creative no matter what. Perseverance is all for an Edu-Pirate. They may lose the battle but remain focused on winning the war.
  5. Fortune Favours The Bold: Operating outside a bureaucracy is liberating. Problems are solved quickly. No need to stop and check the rules to see if you’re allowed to do something. An Edu-Pirate takes initiative, acts in the best interest of students and would always rather “ask for forgiveness than permission”.
  6. Discretion is the Better Part of Valour: It’s good to be bold but know your limits. You can’t help your crew if you get thrown in the brig. Take risks but carefully consider the consequences. Make sure you’re serving the bigger vision and the needs of your students. There’s a difference between being bold and foolhardy.
  7. Hide in Plain Sight: A good Edu-Pirate is practiced at operating ‘under the radar’. To a casual observer they may look and act like other educators. But a closer look shows that they think and act differently than those around them.
  8. Share Your Treasure: Steve Jobs believed that a good pirate needed to bring interests and experiences from other fields into their work. A wide range of other interests makes your work richer. His interest in Zen Buddhism, travel and calligraphy influenced how Jobs saw technology and gave him a unique perspective. Edu-Pirates have rich interests and good stories to tell. They bring those experiences and interests into their education work.

So what do you say mateys? Do you have what it takes to sail under a skull and crossed #2 pencils? Do you agree with Steve Jobs that “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy”? If so you may want to sign up for a tour of duty as an Edu-Pirate. There’s a crew setting sail every morning in classrooms everywhere. Welcome aboard!


3 Responses to “How To Be An Edu-Pirate”

  1. Tara Hutchinson March 5, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    Great article Andrew. I feel I have been a edu-pirate for a few years now. I like your idea of operating within plan sight. No one quite knows what you are doing; you explain and then they say…okay cool, and continue on. 🙂

  2. Sebastien Despres March 6, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

    A fellow pirate! The Canadian Anthropology Society published this story of mine in their newsletter last Fall (see below). While my story is on teaching in a university setting, the parallels between the two are beautiful, and they both get at the many of the same points!


    When first hired to teach Anthropology at the undergraduate level some years ago, I already trusted in my abilities as a pedagogue. I had previously taught everything from theatre and community engagement to writing, from guitar and band to wilderness survival. As the former owner of a large sailing school (Le Catamarin, in Bouctouche, NB), I
    had also taught sailing to hundreds – including my instructors.

    Because of this broad background in teaching, I was confident enough to use a variety of experiential and unconventional approaches in the classroom. I was much less adventuresome with evaluation methods during my first semester: pop quizzes, a
    mid-term, and a final exam. Though my students clearly enjoyed my “lectures,” I was
    painfully aware that I was not getting them to plumb the depths of the ideas we were exploring together and that my assessment strategy took the wind out of their sails. I felt like the sphinx of mythology, denying students access to good marks if they could not fathom the answers to my riddles.

    As I sought out alternatives for coming semesters, I discovered a maritime immensity of academic literature on student assessment. This literature highlights how evaluation and assessment allow us to provide certification of achievement and serve as gatekeeping mechanisms by measuring some facets of students’ knowledge of course content and their meeting of the goals we set for them as learners and for ourselves as pedagogues. None of this was news to me, but it helped me realize that I had allowed myself to equate assessment straightforwardly with the process of allocating grades. The earth-shattering revelation came in the form of a McLuhannian albatross: my medium of assessment is a message to my students. Using tests as the only medium by which they would be evaluated suggested that what I recognized as important is knowledge of content (the flotsam-and-jetsam of anthropology). I instead yearned to help them delve more deeply into the material, to develop an ability to think creatively and analytically about the content, to appreciate the philosophies underlying schools of thought, and to engage in applying what they learn to real-life settings. In other words, while I was teaching students the ropes, I was doing so from land, failing to equip them to be at the helm and to weather a storm.

    With this revelation came my rediscovery of the integral value of “deep play” – and “playing in the deep” – with assessments (if you will permit this purloining from Geertz). The usefulness of “playing in the deep” had been so much more obvious to me in the context of my sailing school, where evaluations normally took place on the water and where students’ ability to sail (or not!) was measured according to their abilities and comfort levels, in terms of knots and nautical miles travelled, or failed tacks and capsizes incurred. At Le Catamarin, it had always been clear to me that overturning a catmaran was much more productive in terms of learning than managing a perfect beam reach. The mechanism by which this operates on the water is straight-forward, since being projected into the water while travelling at speeds of ten knots sends a clear message: “You shouldn’t have done whatever you just did, and you’re likely to not do it again.” The lesson is learned swiftly, often while the student is still betwixt wind and water. Few of my students ever pitch-poled a catamaran twice.

    While few landsmen learn to sail without ingesting one or two gulps of sea-water, upsets are perceived as being much more difficult to swallow in the context of university life. In undergraduate assessment, trials-by-ordeal are typically perceived as simply not being an option. Though it is admittedly more difficult to fully harness the potential of “playing in the deep” in assessment, it is far from impossible and very much worth the effort. One very workable method that I have developed for this purpose is the “Choose-your-own-adventure” evaluation, which allows students to take the risks they feel comfortable taking. Students can choose how they will be marked from a variety of inputs, according to their abilities, talents, preferences, and comfort levels. The landlubbers opt for standard assessments (such as papers and exams), while more venturesome mariners tend toward group projects (such as delivering mini-lectures, or joining the course’s house band or theatre troupe). The real hearties elect to become class discussants, write lecture critiques, or participate in the discussion group. Because students self-select the inputs they complete, there is no need for “watering them down” in order to make them innocuous or anodyne …and therefore accessible to all. Much to the contrary, the students who select the more byzantine inputs appreciate the higher stakes, the stimulating challenges, the leeway, the need for boldness and bravado, and even the opportunity to go overboard.

    For this technique to work, the classroom must of course be a safe haven. Students must feel that they are together in the same boat and can show their true colours. The instructor must be on his toes to avoid the course’s running aground and ensure that students are supported and not left adrift and directionless. Harnessing the potential of audaciously “playing in the deep” with assessment and as pedagogical tools can help moor student learning to the objectives of the course, teach them to mind their P’s and Q’s, and serve as tell-tales of student progress. When combined with prompt, frank, and constructive feedback, involved and dramatic deep play assessment strategies act as ballast and carry weight with students. They can empower students, allowing them to claim ownership of their work and to take pride in the fruits of their labour and learning. The result is a deep self-investment and a profound engagement which can make the difference between students’ foundering in a sea of increasingly meaningless academe or their staunchly setting out into the billowing surf with a weather eye open and colours flying.



  1. How To Be An Edu-Pirate | edbean - March 6, 2013

    […] This post originally appeared on my personal blog here: […]

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