Agency and Contextualization in Learning

Jim Holub

My journey to appreciating and cultivating wiser ways to develop and activate an individual's maximum capacity started with my formative experience with Jesuit Brother Jim Holub at Homeboyz Interactive of Milwaukee, WI. 

Homeboyz was a non-profit with a slogan of 'Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.'  We provided free training to have-not urban youth of Milwaukee in a unique project-based community.

Trainees would enter the program and work with our training coordinator (kind of like an advisor) to figure out their interests and get building or doing something with those interests— most often by coding software, designing something, or building a computer.  These personal projects we're supported by a smorgasbord to video tutorials we build along side exercises we found through the interwebs. Similar to Khan Academy and prgorams like CodeAcademy or devCodeCamp, only 10 years earlier!

In any event, these things came together with 2-3 time a week social justice circles, job shadowing, peer and self assessment, as well as personalized learning plans. Here's the inside of our brochure describing the training program:

Inside of Homeboyz Training Brochure

Within one to three months, the trainees could join the apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship program essentially meant working on real projects from real organizations paying us to do them. These projects included, building websites, designing branding, and setting up as well as supporting IT infrastructure.  We also paid the apprentices a pretty good hourly wage for the work they completed.


Homeboyz began my journey into becoming a passionate PBL practitioner. I realized how this methodology was an exponentially better way to build a more inclusive and agile workforce for the global marketplace (less fancy— how do we get the best from everyone). However, this methodology was hard to manage and definitely not easy to scale.  Inherently, we built Project Foundry for our internal use at Homeboyz. Soon after it's development, we at Homeboyz got involved in a number of charter school initiatives and networks. After our the founder of Homeboyz moved on, my co-founder Kevin Kirkland and I purchased Project Foundry and began our adventure as a new entity.

In the process of founding Project Foundry, I found an accompanying wave of other like-minded innovative people, including an investor, teachers, school administrators, and school board members. Project Foundry is a SaaS platform students and teachers use to manage the workflows, account for what was learned, and showcase real products created in the process.  However, Project Foundry became something bigger than just software, it became a catalyst for a movement and a cohort of some impressively dedicated innovators. That experience taught me the extreme relevance of a learner's agency and critical element of context in the learning process.  

Working with one school in 2006 to eventually having worked with 300+ schools across 29 states totaling 40,000+ students and teachers in 450,000+ learning experiences

I believe creating entrepreneurial lifelong learners involves recognizing that:

  • Everyone learns differently
  • Creativity and problem-solving are top priority
  • Depth leads to breadth
  • Intrinsic motivation matters a lot

I believe the most effective approaches to accomplishing these include:

  • Learning through projects, inquiries, and expeditions
  • A commitment to relinquishing the responsibility of the learner to the learner
  • An integrated curriculum all the time
  • Being brave enough to abandon the old bell schedule

These principles have and continue to drive what I do and support. I'm enthused and encouraged that more conversations incorporate these ideals in places that years ago did not even exist as concepts, let alone practice, including:

  • Mass Customized Learning
  • Deeper Learning
  • Authentic Personal Learning Plans

I feel like I'm just rambling now, but I need to mention how much I've learned from the founders and members of the following organizations: