The Path to Learning - An Introduction (John, Jay & Scott)

Season #1 Episode #1

In this episode we introduce our podcast and documentary series on education and how we hope to inspire change, hope and awareness on the world of education.


"The mark of any really awesome innovation is that it doesn't stay in one place. It just kind of permeates all over the place and goes in tons of different directions and makes change in so many different areas. So recognizing that this would— had that hallmark characteristic of just … it was so good. There was something so sweet there that it made me sit up and really take interest."

John Pottenger: Welcome to the Path To Learning podcast, where three ordinary guys explore the world of education.

Jay Irwin: What's working, what's broken ...

Scott Bultman: ... and what we can do to best advocate for children.

Scott: So just some quick introductions. My name is Scott Bultman. I've been a toymaker for over 30 years. I got a chance to meet John Pottenger, a local video production videographer here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and his partner, Jay Irwin at Match Frame Creative. And about five years ago now, we launched off on a project to do a documentary.

John: Yeah, we've got all these interviews that just sit on a hard drive and no one is able to really see them until we can put together, you know, a documentary to showcase some of this amazing material and some of these amazing insights that we've gathered. So we thought a podcast would be a great way to allow us to share that with people. So, Jay, why don't you talk about how we're doing that?

Jay: Yeah, so we have these amazing interviews, as John said, and they're shot for video. So we didn't have a microphone on the interviewer, who was Scott. So we thought, how can we turn this into a podcast? Well, we'll just go back and re-record the questions. So that's what you're gonna hear they were actually conversations. So we're not faking the fact that there are conversations, but we've re-recorded the questions to the interviewers so that you can hear the conversations. And John, who are these podcasts aimed at?

John: The audience that we're trying to reach are a combination of teachers, teacher-trainers and parents. And really, there's a wider audience even beyond that, people who are interested in art, design and architecture and history. There's a wide audience, but primarily, I would say teachers, teacher-trainers and parents.

Jay: And what are we trying to accomplish?

Scott: We want to stop the madness.

Jay: I love that.

Scott: If children truly are our future, then we have to focus on that first and everything else comes out of it. So ...

John: I don't know how we start ...

Scott: Why did you do this? At what point in this did you get serious about it, or did you think it was ... because I know personally, your kids were in a good school. You just had a bad situation.

John: Yeah, I had a similar situation growing up. I had great teachers and a great school. I was homeschooled and part of it. And I went to a private school after that. But my issue was that I just wasn't engaged with the learning process. I just wasn't centered on what I was interested in. So I sort of have a tender heart when it comes to school not working because, for me, I wasn't really engaged. And when I saw Max have a similar situation, I jumped all over it. So what happened was he was in prekindergarten — or 'Young Fives' I think they call it — a half-day all days of the week, but every time he was getting dropped off from — the teacher was dropping him off at the car — it was always "Well, today, Max had another thing and Max had another thing". And every single day he's getting in the car hearing about how he failed. And so we started asking questions and we're like, what's going on? And like, "Well, he wouldn't sit still, so we had to take his recess away." And I'm thinking, man, this is ... that's what boys need to do, is move around. So, you know, and I've talked with that teacher since and she feels locked into the system where she can't really do anything about it; it's a rule of the school, it's a district thing, it's just this what the system is these days. So I don't really blame the teacher, but we knew that something had to change. We had to find a different system of education. So, you know, when you take that background of my not really enjoying learning, and I see it happening again with my kid, I'm like, I've got to do something. So that's how I jumped into this project. So, Jay, what was your on-ramp to this project?

Jay: Good question. Both my grandparents were educators, and both my parents were educators, so it was kind of in my blood. But when Scott came into the office one day and presented this thing, I have no idea what he's talking about, sounds interesting ... I had ADD and dyslexia, and so I had a rough go at school and never enjoyed it. But I loved learning, super curious. Luckily, I had parents with masters and education degrees that were able to help me navigate all of that, which I very much realize isn't the case for ninety-nine percent of the people out there. So I feel extremely lucky for that. I watched one video clip of one of the early conferences that Scott had done where one of the instructors was leading some kids through an exercise with bubbles. And I was just like, yes, I totally see it. It's like I saw The Matrix and everything stopped. And, you know, it's like it became ... well, I think from that point on just kind of became a thing that I wanted for everybody. I mean, we all have stories about education, and we all know what we would want to be better. And so I think if you can really connect to that — and it felt like we had a chance to have a chance to at least make it better for some people. So how can you deny that mission?

Jay: And Scott being the one that came, you came to us with this project. You're in a unique position that over the last 20-plus years, you've been selling these blocks, and so, therefore, building a network kind of passively almost; it wasn't like you were setting out to do this. But you've come into contact with all these teacher-trainers, all these art and design people, so you're in a unique position to kind of connect all the dots.

Scott: Yeah, I'm the "hub of the wheel." So, you know, there's a lot of ways to connect with this subject, either through Frank Lloyd Wright or, you know, there's any number of ways that it comes there. But, you know, my story is that I kind of fell into the toy business: my dad started back in the early 80s manufacturing alphabet blocks, and he died unexpectedly, he had a heart attack, he was barely 48 years old. And so my younger brother and I took over, and we're running the company for a year or two when somebody came to us and said, will you make these Froebel blocks that Frank Lloyd Wright played with? And before I could even say no, my younger brother Pete jumped in and said, no, we'll do it.

Jay: And you had never heard the word Froebel until that point?

Scott: No, but, you know, my son Max was probably a year, year and a half old. And we were starting to think about, you know, preschool, you know, not for child care necessarily, but, you know, so it was on my mind. I didn't know anything about Froebel, never heard of him — decided to go to a bookstore, and as I was walking into the bookstore, there was the display case right next to the door with the light over, and in there was this big red cover book, Inventing Kindergarten.

Jay: And it's kind of like the 'angel's choir' sound kind of happened?

Scott: Well, yeah. And this whole journey that I've been on, it's been like that, it's been just a lot of really strange things have happened. So I walked into the store, and I said. Hey, I want to check out that book that's in the display case, and the clerk was really animated. She's like, oh, did you hear him on NPR today? Yeah, the author, they interviewed him, Norman Brosterman. You know, I read it cover to cover in a day. And then I called the publisher and said, I need to talk to this guy because I'm making the stuff now. And so I called Norman up, and he's like, oh, wow, that's really interesting that you're making this stuff. You know, it's like there's no market for this ... [laughter] ... I always love Norman, you know, he always cuts right to the heart of it, like, you know, you're an idiot, you shouldn't be doing this. And he's like, but I'm going to the Froebel School in Canada. Apparently, they celebrate for Froebel's birthday every April 21st, and they're having this big, big event. And I said, well, I want in on that. He's like, well, you know, you here's the number. Call the school. So ...

Jay: So then you visited the school.

Scott: Yeah, they let me come, they're like, well, you know, it's kind of a private thing ... so the whole thing really just — everything sort of fell in place from that moment where I go to the bookstore, and there's the book, and I called the author, and the author tells me about the school, and I go to the school. So I went back home, I told my brother, I said "I think I think this is going to go." And he was just totally dejected. He's like, "Now I'm going to have to make these things? No, that's not what I signed up for." But what was the most shocking to me was that the rest of the education community didn't know about this — that's what was so amazing to me, was I would go — I remember I went to an education conference and somebody came up to me and they said, well, what's this? And I said, Oh, well, this is the Froebel Blocks. You know, Froebel invented kindergarten. And this woman said to me — and she was a teacher trainer, she was a well-known professor of education. And she looked at me, and she said, "He did not." And I was just dumbfounded. I just couldn't get my mind around how a teacher in early childhood wouldn't know who had been responsible for their field. It's like not knowing who Einstein is if you're a physicist, you know ... So that I got that reaction a lot. And then there was the other side of it where there were people that would call me up who had read Inventing Kindergarten and then were happy to find out that they could buy these things. And they wanted to talk, they just wanted to talk. And they had a question for me that I couldn't answer, which was, "Why did this ever go away?" And I said I don't know. And they said, "Well, we really hope you find out and let us know." And I was like, OK. And so that's really what led to this idea of doing the documentary because, after a certain number of years of just thinking, oh, I just make this stuff available, I'll just keep these blocks on the market, I realized that that really wasn't that useful ... that what I really needed to do is to figure out why it went away because maybe then it could come back. And the more I learned about it, the more I realized what was keeping it from coming back was probably not going to change. Was probably not going to change. I think that's the mission here is, I think it's twofold: one is to show people that what they say that they want is exactly where we started, in early childhood education with a STEM/STEAM creative process, child-centered, play-based nature education, the whole thing was where we started. At some point in this subject with Froebel, and I know when that is, it's like people look at it and they're kind of polite, and then all of a sudden when it clicks, they have a million questions. They want to know why did this go away ... Where do you ... How do I ... Where can my kid go to this school? That's what I'm curious about, is when did you start to have a ton of questions? You know, what moment; was it a particular interview that we did? Or ...

John: For me, I think it was a slow unwinding. And then the amazing thing about the Froebel story is it just goes, it branches off into so many different places and you can, you know, spend a million years trying to chase down all those different places. But seeing that web form of how it just — I think the mark of any really awesome innovation is that it doesn't stay in one place, it just kind of permeates all over the place and goes in tons of different directions and makes change in so many different areas. So recognizing that this had that hallmark characteristic of just ... it was so good. There was something so sweet there that it affected the women's movement and affected art and affected design. And it just trailed through all of these spiderwebs ... made me sit up and really take interest. And then it becomes this journey of trying to figure out how to bottle the lightning. You've kind of given away part of the story of we're not we're not trying to bring Froebel back, at least not in its historic sense. So then the next part of the journey is, well, what are we going to take from it? Because there's something amazing here, which I think is what this podcast is going to be all about, and what our journey has been all about. We've had the benefit of sitting through how many interviews now ...

Jay: Over or close to one hundred.

John: ... close to a hundred interviews of some of the most passionate, amazing people in this field, and they all have a little hint of the Froebel story in what they're saying. And so you've been on this journey that we all ended up on this journey and we've all been through this process, this arc of like trying to recreate Froebel and then being like, no, that's not it, but there's still a magic in the Froebel. So then you enter this period in the journey of distilling what is the magic? And then we're trying to now figure out how to take those magic beans and plant a new thing.

Scott: We still have child-centered, play-based education, just not on a mass scale. And I've been watching this enthusiasm with the world of teachers and the Reggio teachers and they kind of silo off into their own little camps and everything, which is unfortunate because by doing that, it's too easy for them to be marginalized. And that's what happens with the quality early childhood education; they're like, well, okay, you're very enthusiastic about this, I think you really belong in a Reggio program, or maybe you should teach Montessori — and they kind of move them off into this little area because they're like, we have this plan for controlling education ... you know, we're moving towards online preschool. We just don't have the money to do this. And, you know, early childhood teachers were highly respected 100 years ago. So I wanted you to finish the story about Max. So the teacher told you about this policy and then you told me and I recommended that maybe you should look at other schools. And so did you? Did you shop around or did you go ... what happened, I guess, is what I want to know.

John: Well, you know, one of the things you asked earlier was when did you really get hooked? When did you know, was there a moment? Was there an interview? I think you asked ... And for me, once we started the journey, I remember just being a sponge and asking you and Tiffeni, what is Montessori, what is Reggio? What is Waldorf? I didn't even know those things existed, you know, or if I did, I, you know, maybe knew of one of them, but I didn't know what it was or how it worked. So, you know, for us, it was like, well, what's available? Like what's in our area? And thankfully, we're one of the few cities in the United States that has a public — low-cost because it's public — access to a Montessori school. It's not a perfect Montessori model, but at least it is a much better fit. So the journey for us was like, well, what else can we do? Are we locked into this? We can't afford a private school. But I didn't even know learning looked different. I thought learning only was sitting at desks in a row. Everyone has to do it this way because that's what I grew up with and I didn't even know these other models existed. So to hear that there are other models and that they all have roots in what Froebel came up with, it was like, you mean school cannot suck for other people because it sucked for me, you know? So that's when I'm like, I'm on board. I want to make school not suck for other people, for other kids, for other teachers. And that's when I was hooked. I'm like, there's gotta be something to this that we can spread the good news.

Scott: Absolutely.

Jay: I like that. Maybe that should be our subtitle 'Making School Not Suck'.

John: And yeah, I think teachers want that desperately. And even Max's teacher, she's in Facebook groups, and she's like teachers are quitting because they can't take it anymore because you have good teachers who are fighting the good fight, as you've said, Scott. And they just can't do it anymore. So our hope maybe through the podcast is to encourage, is to give some hope, to give some inspiration and to also shed light on some different ways of bringing some of these philosophies and methodologies that Froebel came up with in any setting. It doesn't have to be a private or a Montessori. It could be a public school. We have a great interview coming up with Juanita Copley, who created the Common Core or was part of that team that did the standards, and she's using Froebel. So, you know, you can do this. It can be done.

Scott: When these teachers get isolated, or they're told that they're just one person, they will make the decision that's best for them and their family. And it's usually to leave the profession. But when they work together — and it doesn't have to be a union, it just — when we all work together and just say this is what we need to do, what it really comes down to is the information is just knowing what your options are. If one of these teachers that's not happy in one of these schools knew about another school, that there was an opening, they might stay in the profession like, oh, I didn't know that it could be this good for them, you know? So I think it works for parents and it works for teachers just to do. That's when I realized that it wasn't about the stuff. It was about the story of helping people to get in it. It gets fragmented, not only just the way that the Froebel story is kind of woven through our society, you know, there's we could do ... many hours on standardized testing, but it definitely deserves one episode. Or just understanding what is child-centered or what is play-based. You know, what is Montessori? What is Waldorf? Each one of those deserves its own episode ...

John: Or multiple episodes.

Scott: Yeah. And come back to it. And so we know that we can do that through a series. We know that we can extend the information through a podcast and other things ...

John: ... and to kind of bring it to the future. You know, it's this thing in the past that we had. But why is this relevant today? I mean, Jane, you talked to me about that a lot when we're together. What are the ramifications if we don't do something?

Jay: The way things are changing? Obviously, the way that we're educating is based on a system that was created for a very specific time-frame when we were creating the Industrial Revolution. It was created to make really good workers, and it did it really well. And now that model has shifted to — we don't need workers doing things in factories like we did, and eventually we may need almost none of that. So what is it that we need for the future, and how can we educate in accordance with that? And so I think what's cool is a lot of the things that were happening in Froebel's original class were to create creators. And that's obviously the answer going forward. So it is interesting that people — we get pushback from people saying, wait a minute, you want to change education for the future by embracing a model from the past. And it's like, well, yeah, sort of. Because what we were that the endgame from the model, from the past, was creating creators. We switched it up, and it worked really well for a while, but now we need to change again, and we need to create creators again.

Scott: The interesting thing about it is ... why go back? It's because the cycle has returned. And the reason why kindergarten took hold in this country during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is because we had an agrarian society, and we were moving to industrial. And so people were leaving the farms and moving to the cities. People were coming from other countries. And so the kindergarten provided a whole number of different things that were necessary; one was childcare, one was the acculturation of different people with different languages coming together ... at an early age these children were able to pick up English and be the interpreters for their families. But ultimately, when you're talking about an industrial economy, you're talking about, you know, offices and factories and that kind of thing. There was a need to change the type of education. So kindergarten coming along again now — this whole idea of Froebel returning with this cycle — is that we have to shift away from the things that we have machines doing now, with AI and all that. And it's interesting how many aspects of this shift are reoccurring. For instance, during the kindergarten movement in the industrial revolution, women's circumstances were changing. So this was one of the first careers for women. Well, women's circumstances are in a shift again right now. But ultimately what happened to me — and I think is where the three of us relate — is I had my first child, and we were looking around, and we all ultimately went with Montessori because Montessori has a strong presence here. But we weren't locked into any particular methodology. We were looking for what people are we going to trust with our child? Who do we feel has the right attitude, the right approach? And we went with the Montessori school. It worked. It worked fine. You gave them the perfect head start, you know, they're all in college now, and they're doing well ... And it just amazes me. I guess the thing that really makes me the angriest is the three of us had the same experience. We were minding our own business, we weren't thinking about education, we didn't particularly like our own education — you know, we all had complaints ... and then we had children. And it was like, now it meant something. Now it's real. And we knew that that was a major shift, that there's nothing more important to me than my children. And then you start looking around for where you're going to put your child. And there are all these rundown strip mall, church-based ... it's like, well, wait a minute now. Am I the only one that loves my child? Because it seems like we don't really particularly value children.

Jay: Right. Or there's the other extreme where the people who do you can't afford to have your kid go there.

Scott: Well, that's it, you know. But so what was so interesting in this country was the billionaires of the time wanted to build a system because they recognized — they were social reformers, they were trying to, and it was for their own protection — they're like, look, if we if we allow the disparity between the haves and the have-nots to get wide enough, we're really just asking for trouble. It's kind of like leaving crumbs on the floor, you know, the mice are going to come. And so they really wanted society to kind of head in a positive direction as a whole. It's just unfortunate that as the economy has changed and moved into this, we haven't really changed the baseline. It's still about the three Rs. It's still about literacy. And, you know, that's kind of where academic preschool is. My smartphone takes dictation now, corrects my spelling. You know, has access to — it's a different world. And yet we're not moving quickly in education ... Is it because we don't value children, is it because we don't understand? So what do we have to do? And that's, I think, where the project, the Garden of Children series and where Path to Learning are headed, is we want to get this out there. We don't necessarily need the experts, but we have them. But what it's real for the three of us is we've had as consumers make decisions for our children. And we had to go out and educate ourselves, which is why I come back one more time to you, John, which is: what is different about the academic preschool that Max was in versus the Montessori school. What do you notice is really different between the two?

John: I think the biggest difference is just that there's much more freedom for the child to move, for them to pick what they want to learn. They can — we call it child-centered or child-focused — and so I think that, you know, and it's not — because it is a public Montessori, it's not what I would consider to be the full-blown kind of purest form of Montessori — so there are still testing and there's still some things that have to be taught and instructed in a kind of a didactic, traditional way. But that is probably the biggest thing I've seen. And I mean, the first day he came home from the first day of — it was kindergarten when he joined the new school — and he's like he came home and he said, Mom, I got to play with circles and triangles today. He'd never talked about anything positive with school. So he got to do what he wanted to do, and it was something he was interested in. So I think that child-centered, that really is the core of the difference in what we're missing today. It's not this 'ducks in a row', everyone following kind of a marching line.

Scott: So now that you're focused on it and you're watching, and this is what happens, you know, I would make much better decisions with my kids now that they've all gone off to college. Going back over through again, I would, you know, I've learned; unfortunately, I didn't know anything. I don't know how many years Max has been in Montessori now, but —

John: Four years.

Scott: How does it seem to you now? I mean, because you're much more knowledgeable, but you're a much more educated consumer know.

John: So it's something you have to know about. I would say any child-centered methodology — Montessori, Reggio, Waldorf, or any other, you know, hybrid or whatever — is that academia looks different. Testing looks different. He is not a good test taker. So we continually get results that show that he is not testing well. However, I trust my teacher. I trust what she tells me. And I see my son. He's literally spelling sentences all the time, you know, d-a-d, c-a-n I h-a-v-e a drink. You know, he spells all of the sentences constantly. He's reading, you know what, when we're watching a movie, and there's a subtitle. He reads it fast. But, you know, there's a law in Michigan that passed this year that says if you're not reading by third grade, which is the grade he's in, then you can't go to fourth grade. Well, he's testing horribly that he's not reading. But I see he's reading. My teacher says he's reading. So one of the things that I notice now is that, you know, in this and some of these alternative styles of education, testing becomes a part of the conversation. And we're gonna cover some of those topics in this podcast is to say, well, what's the role of testing? What's it actually testing? You know, just how you take a test. And so I do see now that there is some trust that you have to have that learning is happening. It looks different. And that's scary for people, scary for teachers, because they're worried they're going to lose their job. It's scary for parents because you're worried, your kids not learning. So you have to kind of jump into that fear and embrace that learning is happening and just trust that I see it happening every day.

Jay: So listening to you over the four years, talk about Max's journey ... you know, we tell the story about the recess getting taken away because he was moving.

John: And it just occurred to me now that I remember hearing a story from you recently about his teachers realizing he needed to move when he was doing his desk work. So they recommended a special chair, that wobble-chair. So there's a difference. I mean, they're observing him in a different way instead of, you know ... they're evaluating what he actually needs. Yeah. Instead of having to impose a rule on him because he's not in lockstep with all the kids around him — child-centered — it's child-centered at the core.

Scott: And this is what bothers me. So in the late 70s, I watched an episode of the show "The White Shadow," and it was the story of a coach whose mission was to help the students that were on his team. And one of the best players on the team was in danger of flunking out and wasn't going to be able to play in the championship game. So the coach determined that he needed to move in order for his brain to kind of get — so what he arranged was for the proctor, the test observer, to come into the gym while the guy was shooting free throws and the proctor would throw out the question, and he would answer it while he was making — and of course, he made every free throw because he was the best player on the team — but I knew that, when I wasn't even probably even a teenager yet. So we know, we know that every person is unique. They all have different learning strategies, learning styles, all that kind of thing. But the system says, no, you all have to be the same. You all have to handle standardized testing and this amount of time, you can't take any more time. It's just mind-boggling. And everybody knows it. Everybody knows that it's this thing and they kind of shrug their shoulders and they go, well, what do you want us to do? Do you have any idea how much time it would take or how much money? And my response is, well, I get it. That's fine. It's a business. But these are human beings that have something to share, to offer, you know, and what happens is kind of what happened to you, which is you say, I didn't really like school, I didn't have good, positive experiences. But that doesn't mean you're not intelligent, that you just decided, oh, I'm going to apply it in this way. I'm going to go be creative or whatever it is that, you know, that you do ... you just kind of rebel against it. But I don't know — how many kids are out there that don't. They just simply accept the narrative where all these other people that are able to take tests well, those are the smart people — and the people that don't take tests well ... I guess we work for those people. I just think that there's — and we know, we've known forever. If it's out on a network show in the mid-70s, you know that everybody knows about it. As my kids have gotten older, I've said to them, you know, I don't care what grades you get. But — if you don't get the grades, if you don't have this, then it's going to limit the jobs you're going to get, the kind of life you're going to lead. So it doesn't matter to me, I love you just as much, and you're just as good a person ... but you might want to consider studying and getting good grades on that test because that's the game that we all play.

Jay: And then multiply that by our entire society.

Scott: Absolutely.

Jay: So, John, what would you say we're trying to accomplish with this series of podcasts?

John: It's my hope, and I think it's all of our hopes that this is going to be a place where teachers and parents can come for renewal, for hope, for encouragement, for insights on how to think about education, maybe how education should look or could look — if it doesn't already in their situation — it's going to hopefully give them just that motivation to keep going. You know, for teachers to keep going and, you know, keep trucking. And like Scott said earlier, they're not alone. So I hope that there's a community that's borne out of this. And ultimately, we are trying to tell the story, so I do hope that people will come alongside us as we try to tell the story and support what we're doing through the podcast and through our documentary series and different things that we're doing. That would be my hope. Jay, do you want to jump on as well? What are your thoughts?

Jay: I agree totally. I mean, we're all on this journey together. We've hit on some of the reasons why we feel like it's incredibly important and we just want to use all of the amazing resources we've garnered to bolster other people's toolboxes to advocate for their kids, whether it's teachers inspiring teachers or informing parents to know how to fight for their kids in the right way.

Scott: Well, on that note, with the podcast, there will be links, but we might as well say so: the series is at

John: Yeah, that's the best place to go to find out what we're doing with the documentary.

Scott: And there are ways to connect with us, there are links to social media —

John: Yeah, lots of great ways to connect with us. We just really want to connect with all of you out there. And we've just got so much material that we're so excited to share.

Jay: Yeah, I'm absolutely pumped. I think you're going to be inspired. I think you're going to have new ways to think about issues you probably wrestled with. There's so much richness ... I can't wait to share.

John: Absolutely. And if you want to support what we're doing, there's a number of ways to do that, but one of the easiest ways is through our Patreon page, and we would love to connect with you. And we hope you'll enjoy this podcast that we put together for you. Yeah.

Jay: Thanks, everybody.

Scott: We'll see you next time.

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