Pioneering Gratitude-Based Learning & Innovation | Steve Barkley

Pioneering Gratitude-Based Learning & Innovation

I have enjoyed several conversations with Adam Fishman around his work with gratitude-based curiosity conversations and was delighted when he agreed to share a blog. Enjoy and consider exploring the concept further with Adam.

Guest Blog by Adam Fishman, Co-Founder, Onora Global

Imagine what would happen if we approached learning and problem solving coming from a place of LOVE rather than fear.

Pioneering a new development approach

Right this moment, a movement is unfolding to pioneer a new approach to education and problem solving called gratitude-based learning & innovation. If the below speaks to you, we would love to invite you into joining this movement and co-creating a brighter future we can all smile at. Here’s what kids have to say about it:

This gratitude-based approach to learning & problem solving would be this cool shift into a more modern era. Everyone kind of says that our generation has to make all these changes in the world and fix our future and all of these pressures that our generation has. This new approach would create more opportunities and people would actually feel empowered to make a difference.” – 15 year old

With the school curriculum now, there’s kinda 1 right answer and 1 correct path. And with gratitude-based learning you kind of choose your path and all are correct.” – 15 year old

A discovery that changed everything

This gratitude-based approach was discovered thanks to a group of high school students who had joined our program to turn their climate anxiety into a local action project. In contrast to the gratitude-based approach our program now embodies, our program was then utilizing the traditional problem-based approach to help the students start a project.

We started by asking the students to list out the environmental problems in their community. Our intention with this approach was to ideate potential solutions around these problems, and we could use that list of ideas to find a project they were interested in driving forward.

But the most unexpected thing happened… when asked the student to identify issues in their community, not a single student could identify an environmental problem in their community.

Despite their macro anxieties about the state of the planet, not a single student could identify any issues in their community… nothing jumped out to them as “bad” or “broken” to be fixed.

As facilitators who grew up in a “problem-solving” learning environment, our initial inclination was to ask them to dig deeper, to find an aspect of their life to blame for their anxiety and then “fix”. However, before unconsciously passing along our own possibly unhelpful process, a moment of conscious grace reminded us of our lab’s guiding principle, “What would happen if we led with LOVE instead of fear?”

What would happen if we led with LOVE instead of fear

So instead of leading them down a path of materializing their internal angst, we asked ourselves: what would happen if we focused on what is GREAT about what currently exists rather than looking for problems?

Sit with that for a second – not looking for problems. But instead focus on what we love and appreciate about what exists today; giving less power to what we fear, and more to what we love.

…giving less power to what we fear, and more to what we love.”

For these students, that meant looking at what exists at their school and asking them to reflect on the fact that their school has food, heat in winter, green spaces, lights… We asked the students to reflect on the positive impact and positive ripple effects happening BECAUSE of what exists today (regardless of what it takes to make that goodness possible).

We began to recognize that we as facilitators were also now curious beginners in this approach. We joined the students and continued our curiosity. Who could we talk to in order to continue on this journey of gratitude? What if we could personally connect with the people actually doing the work to make what we love possible? What if we thanked them and asked THEM questions? What if we asked THEM what they wished was even better? After all, they’re the experts and any changes would be impacting their lives first and foremost! So the students started testing out this gratitude-based theory of change.

The first student to bring this reframed way of thinking back to their school surprised us all. Instead of listing all the cafeteria’s problems and then telling the cafeteria what they think should change, this student rallied their sustainability club around this new gratitude-based approach. During their club meeting, they asked everyone in the club to share what they love about the cafeteria and what they wish they could understand better. Then they set up a meeting with the cafeteria staff and leadership team. The cafeteria team certainly was NOT expecting the encounter that unfolded!

The meeting started with each student sharing something they love about the cafeteria. Then, the students shared their desire to build on the positive and wanted to learn more about how the cafeteria team is feeling. Everyone’s guards quickly went down, hearts were opened, curiosity ensued, and the information started to flow. The cafeteria team not only said this interaction was the highlight of their month, but this interaction laid the foundation for them to improve the cafeteria TOGETHER. Within a matter of months, the students, cafeteria team, and other key stakeholders co-created a plan to bring composting to their school and become a zero waste cafeteria.

Suffice to say, this reframing changed everything, and we’ve been working on putting this gratitude-based theory into practice ever since. Students have been starting school clubs with this gratitude-based approach, teachers have been starting new classes at their schools around it, coaches have been applying this to leadership & skill development, companies have been applying this toward innovation efforts, and much more.

We’re calling this gratitude-based learning & innovation, and we’re realizing that systems change really does start with a thank you.

My hope for you reading this

My hope is that you will bring gratitude-based learning into your classrooms, into your companies, and into your own life. I hope this spreads like the spores of a mushroom. Wide-ranging and uncontrolled. I hope you will find opportunities to apply gratitude-based curiosity conversations and discover ways to run with this concept that I couldn’t have even dreamed possible.

And then I hope you will join us for a global connection event in early 2023 to meet other amazing humans from around the world who have likewise become inspired by this different way of being. My hope is that, like the mycelium that connects all of life underground and shares nutrients/resources, we can convene and share how gratitude-based learning & innovation is unfolding in our ecosystems of life. Just imagine the ripple effects we’ll be creating together…

Join us in pioneering the future

Want to help pioneer this new movement?
Want to see how you can bring this more grounded way of being into your school? Into your family? Into your company?

Visit to learn more and get involved!

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