West Ada teacher wants to shake things up in Idaho

Josh Kern thought he had mastered the art of teaching. He developed a killer curriculum and all of his students were successful.

Mission accomplished. Boredom set in.

“I was bored — and needed something new in my life,” he said.

So to shake things up, Kern took off for a two-year stint in Bangkok, Thailand.

That’s when humility set in.

“I thought I had it figured out, but when you go to work with the smartest teachers in the world, things go into perspective for you,” Kern said.

Kern was humbled. He also was motivated to study teaching and learning while abroad and bring best practices back to Idaho.

He’s back. He’s innovative. And he’s disruptive.

Student choice and voice

The photography students in Kern’s class at Meridian High don’t have to follow assignments. They can choose what they want to do. They are encouraged to have a voice in their own education. Students are required to think critically and document this creative process with notes, sketches, comparative studies, and trial and errors.

Kaylee Hansen is working on her introduction to digital photography final exam. Kaylee’s project will showcase what she learned during the semester through creating a video tutorial. She has to define, explain and demonstrate her knowledge.

Her video must answer these questions: How do photographers use the shutter and its various speeds to make a picture? Why the different speeds? What creative effects can be achieved? How do you go about creating them? By you adjusting the shutter, what is the camera adjusting? And what is potentially compromised?

“I enjoy this project because I feel involved and responsible for my learning,” said the Meridian High sophomore. “Kern is trying to break the school system and I’m into that.”

Kern teaches on eight concepts by author George Couros:

  1. Voice: Students should learn from others and then share their learning.
  2. Choice: Strength-based learning, give students a choice.
  3. Time for reflection: Everyone (teachers, administrators, students) should write and reflect on what is being learned.
  4. Opportunities for innovation: Use technology.
  5. Critical thinkers: Ask questions and challenge what you see.
  6. Problem solvers/finders: Give students tough challenges and let them find innovative solutions.
  7. Self-assessment: Use portfolios.
  8. Connected learning: Bring experts into your classroom via social media and video.

Are students compliant? engaged? empowered? This is Kern’s mantra.

“Most learners need the teacher assigned project because they haven’t had choice in all their years of school,” he said. “School has killed their creativity by telling them how to think.”

Kern no longer teaches students on a compliant level and instead his focus is on engagement. He wants students to feel empowered in their own learning so he’s moving away from traditional lesson plans and tests and to an environment that promotes the eight concepts of learning.

“I don’t know what that looks like yet,” he said. “I think innovation is hard. What you did today isn’t what you’re going to do tomorrow.”

What he learned in Bangkok

Kern disrupted his own career and left his job at Eagle High School in 2015 to teach abroad. His perspective on teaching changed after a two-year stint in Bangkok.

“I thought what I was doing was good enough and correct … I was wrong,” he said. “I realized I was behind.”

Kern worked with educators from around the world, which led him to realize he had room to improve as a teacher.

“I was living in the Idaho bubble,” he said.


Kern attended education conferences in Asia, read innovative education books and became a weekly podcast fan. He learned how to use social media for professional development. His experience taught him to allow students to be hands-on and showcase work rather than memorizing content and taking exams.

Every day on his way to work Kern will listen to his favorite education podcast: “Ted Radio Hour”, “How I built This” and “Note to Self”.

“I feel inspired and I’m a completely different teacher than two years ago,” he said.

Josh Kern using Instagram to feature student work. Instagram account: joshstudentart

Kern is planning a weekly professional development workshop for the staff at Meridian High on how to think differently while teaching.

“Kern is taking a risk,” said Jill Lilienkamp, the principal at Meridian High School. “He builds lasting relationships with students and is choosing to encourage staff to collaborate new ideas with each other. I couldn’t be more excited for this change.”


Andrew Reed

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