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Difference Making at the Heart of Learning

Difference Making at the Heart of Learning
Students, Schools, and Communities Alive With Possibility

Foreword by Larry Rosenstock

October 2020 | 136 pages | Corwin

Your students will change the world!

Today’s learners know they face a complex future. They yearn to live in a world where people are working with purpose, leading with character and making a difference. Learning to identify problems and use smart tools to develop meaningful solutions will help them make a difference in their families, their communities and for society.

They need your help. This inspirational, yet practical guide shows educators how to build on students’ own talents and interests to develop their desire for a better world, entrepreneurial mindset and personal leadership skills. Features include:

  • New learning priorities centered around making a difference
  • A framework based on the 25 most important issues of our time
  • Examples and case studies from a diverse range of projects, people, and places 
Students learn more when they feel a sense of purpose. With adults like you to guide them, they’ll be ready to make a difference—and shape the world to come.

Thanks to Difference Makers
About the Authors
Part I: We’re All in This Together
Chapter 1: A New Mutuality
Dislocation and Concentration

Curbing the Misuse of Smart Machines

New and Different Challenges

The New Mutuality

No Better Time to Make a Difference

Chapter 2: We Thrive by Contributing
Contribution Is Ancient Wisdom

Teaching Civic Virtues

What If Impacting the World Was the Goal?

Difference Making Is Motivating

The Psychology Behind Making a Difference

Difference Making Is Easier Than Ever

The Coming Social Economy

Contribution Builds Communities

Chapter 3: Earth Owner’s Manual
Driving Questions

25 Most Important Issues of Our Time

How to Get Started

Part II: Everyone Has a Big Next Step
Chapter 4: Learning to Lead
New Priorities

Equity at the Heart of Leadership

Building Personal Effectiveness

Developing Agency

Cultivating Global Citizenship

Entrepreneurial Mindset

Exercising Collaboration

Design Thinking

New Priorities Power Community Change

Chapter 5: Purpose Powers Contribution
On Calling

Passion as a Skill

Chapter 6: Communities of Contribution
Leadership and Service

Technology and Design

Health, Food, and Nature


The Arts

The Emerging Social Economy

Part III: Difference Making: Schools Alive With Possibility
Chapter 7: A New History
A Return to Place and Purpose

Chapter 8: Contribution at the Core
Difference Making as the Priority

Time and Support for Difference Making

Community-Connected Contribution

Difference Making With an Equity Commitment

Educators as Difference Makers

Chapter 9: Colleges for Contribution
The College Identity Crisis

Enabling Contribution in Health Sciences

The Case for Contribution in College

The University of Difference Making

Engineering for Impact

Climate Action

Learn and Earn

New Roads to Contribution


A clarion call for helping students build purpose, passions, and how they will contribute into schooling, which is critical if we are to enable all children to fulfill their human potential--and our societal possibilities.

Michael B. Horn

Co-founder, Clayton Christenson Institute for Disruptive Innovation

Author, Choosing College and Blended

Michael B. Horn, Co-founder, Clayton Christenson Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and Author, Choosing College and Blended
Clayton Christenson Institute for Disruptive Innovation

Vander Ark and Liebtag prove that the future of learning already is with us. It just happens to be scattered. Read this compelling and inspiring account of how ‘difference making and learning’ is at the heart of human purpose, and ask yourself what you can do in your own community to make learning have new and deep meaning. There has never been a time where our combined effort to change the fundamental of learning is so urgently needed.

Michael Fullan

Professor Emeritus, OISE/University of Toronto

Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus, OISE/University of Toronto
OISE/University of Toronto

Difference Making at The Heart of Learning beautifully illustrates an educational vision that is simply common sense: If we want to improve the world, we must put that mission at the heart of the learning experience. When students are getting smart to do good for others, they care more, they work harder, and they become better human beings. This book shares inspiring examples from schools and systems all over the world that connect academic learning to civic contribution and the development of ethical character. What could be more important?

Ron Berger

Chief Academic Officer, EL Education

Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer, EL Education
EL Education

In a time crisis, Vander Ark and Liebtag’s latest book poses an urgent question: 'What if learning experiences were focused on making a difference in the world?' The book profiles more than 50 schools where students seek to find the difference they want to make and acquire the skills and knowledge they need along the way. Much more than a powerful call to action, this book represents a turning point in how we think about the purpose of education.

Tony Wagner

Best-selling author, The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators

Tony Wagner, Best-selling author, The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators

Education is on a journey of transformation and for the past decade Tom VanderArk and Emily Liebtag have been two of the very best guides. In their new book, they offer ‘creating difference makers’ as a meaningful vision for the future of education and in doing so not only provide a valuable roadmap but a powerful destination.
Ken Kay, Co-founder, P21 and Edleader21
Co-author, The Leaders Guide to 21st Century Education and Bold Moves for 21st Century Leaders 

Ken Kay, Co-founder, P21 and Edleader21; Co-author, The Leaders Guide to 21st Century Education and Bold Moves for 21st Century Leaders
P21 and Edleader21

From global pandemics to income inequality, the world faces unprecedented challenges. Today’s students may be ones to find a better way forward—but only if they develop their potential as problem solvers and change makers. In this book, Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag share a hopeful and timely message about what school can be when the focus shifts from content coverage to leadership, problem solving, and community connections. Plentiful examples from diverse contexts show young people learning by stepping up, taking action, making a difference.
Suzie Boss

Project-based learning advocate

Author, All Together Now: How to Engage Your Stakeholders in Reimagining School

Suzie Boss, Project-based learning advocate, Author, All Together Now: How to Engage Your Stakeholders in Reimagining School

We all know that the current way of doing school needs an overhaul. This book provides inspiring examples and a compelling vision to put student contribution at the heart of learning. What a refreshing read!

Julie H. Stern

Co-founder, Education to Save the World

Author, Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding and Visible Learning for Social Studies

Julie H. Stern, Co-founder, Education to Save the World; Author, Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding and Visible Learning for Social Studies
Education to Save the World

We too often focus solely on the what and hows of school; Difference Making at the Heart speaks to our collective WHY for school and community. It’s equal parts inspiration to effect change and an actionable playbook to make a difference. Even reading by myself, I felt connected and bonded; I felt the urgent call to action and I felt surrounded by others feeling the same.

Grant Knowles, Innovation Coordinator

Hamilton County Schools

Chattanooga, TN

Grant Knowles, Innovation Coordinator, Hamilton County Schools
Hamilton County Schools
Key features
This book will provide education leaders and teachers with a guide to:
  • Helping teachers and schools adjust to new educational priorities
  • Developing entrepreneurial skills in students
  • Helping students identify problems in society and develop meaningful solutions
  • Helping students recognize their gifts and talents, and what they can contribute to the world around them
  • Community Toolkit to help individual teachers and system leaders get started

For instructors

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ISBN: 9781071814833

ISBN: 9781071814857

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