Tag Archives: Education Reform

Most Innovative Schools

“Innovation happens when people think big

Public education is facing enormous challenges.  Take your pick: Economic stress causing  pressure on education funding, more dual income families where parents can’t spend as much time with their kids, the continuing march of technology, pressure from the community,  state and federal level for achievement test progress, the growing rate of poverty, social changes related to bullying and childhood obesity, etc.   The need to respond to these issues in a proactive way seems obvious. It is exciting to report that there are some amazing school districts that are taking up the challenge with remarkably innovative and creative approaches.

Take for example, the Chafford Hundred School in Thurrock, UK.  Its campus contains nursery, primary and secondary schools and houses community services. It has a public library on site, and accommodation for community groups (e.g. mother and toddler groups). The campus entrance is designed to represent a shopping mall, and in this way presents a familiar and welcoming environment to the local community. Despite the high levels of technology (each student has a personal PC enabling access to the wireless network and learning plans and curriculum resources that are stored on the school intranet), the classrooms are laid out in a traditional manner.  Students are mainly home class-based, however there is a lot of individual movement between the library and resource areas. There is an emphasis on individual learning, with each student’s curriculum planned uniquely via learning plans and journals.  (Source:  21ST CENTURY SCHOOLS:  LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS OF THE FUTURE.)

Or, how about this one from the same report?  The Australian Science and Mathematics School in Adelaide, South Australia created an environment for interaction between educators, professional scientists and mathematicians. There are no ‘subject classes’ or ‘year groups’ at all. The school is ICT-rich, and focuses on inquiry-based project work and research, within different settings, including workplace and university-based learning. The school is situated on Flinders University campus and is designed with a strong sense of identity, giving a clear “home base” to the students who spend a considerable time learning elsewhere. Clear viewing angles, and a culture of “openness” are embedded in the design of the school, with glass walls and open alcoves used for different functions and activities. The school clearly illustrates how radical approaches to learning organization impacts upon every detail from the architecture to the school-parent relationships.

Microsoft’s Most Innovative Schools Program asks the important question “How can we INCREASE productivity AND maximize learning?   This seems an interesting call to arms in an emerging world of scarcer public funding and questionable student achievement.

What are some of the innovations that emerge from some of the top “pathfinder” schools?   Here are just some ideas that emerge:

  • Do more with less (like virtually everyone in the world)
  • Learning environments can enhance learning (architecture and design are a part of the learning system)
  • Teachers are not the only people who teach (students learning from students?  Why not? Or how about parents, or business community resources?)
  • Flipping classrooms (as advocated by the Khan Academy – doing what we thought of as school work at home and homework in class)
  • Smart use of technology ( How about having students posting their writing sample on a social media site where others comment on it to critique and praise?  How about Using Google Hangouts (video conferences) for in-class students to speak live to guests anywhere?)
  • Connect with outside groups, like universities, businesses  all over the world (not just seeking money, but to leverage external knowledge, content and people who can teach.)
  • Applied learning (inquiry-based hands-on learning like students doing projects to help close the learning-doing gap)
  • Re-thinking measurement (while there is a need to measure progress, tests are limited as they only measure one dimension of student ability)
  • Mentor-schools (Especially those who lead in curriculum innovation (experimentation)  and then teach the best practice ideas to other educators)
  • Not all teaching should be preparing people for college (teach professional and industry certifications in addition to traditional content aimed at the college-bound)
  • Serious thinking about teaching (recording in-class activities with a Lucy Camera to share events with other teachers so we can all learn and improve.)
  • Invest in teacher innovation (students have a half-day each Wednesday, allowing interaction time where teachers collaborate, work on their learning and develop new program ideas.)
  • Cross Disciplinary Learning (don’t teach in isolated pockets by subject, but integrate science, technology, and  language arts – helping students connect the dots through interdisciplinary projects)
  • School Turnaround Program (Intensive leadership development and intervention for problem schools with flexible approach to curriculum, schedule, teaching times and student support)
  • Student Empowerment (engage students in co-designing their learning journey incorporating projects, internships, shadowships, community service and multi-age learning.)

Many of us think about innovation in the context of an R&D function in a large company or university research center.   But Innovation is about implementing any idea that makes things better.  What more important place is there to do this than in our schools where we are preparing our youth for the future?

You may feel your own local district is already innovative and is changing in response to the world we live in.  If not, then forward this article and some of the links below to some of your neighbors, and start a conversation about what you would like your schools to be.


Microsoft Reveals the Most Innovative Schools in the U.S., from Microsoft

Innovation Schools, Massachusetts Executive Office of Education

Innovation Schools are Catching On, Boston.com

10 Major Challenges Facing Public Schools , from Public School Review

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Innovation at O’Maley Middle School

In past articles, I have not been an enthusiastic trumpeter of excellence in innovation within K-12 programs. For the most part the majority that I have seen seems anchored around the status quo, and trapped in a race to demonstrate improved student achievement mandated by No Child Left Behind. My teacher friends often bemoan the fact that they are under intense pressure to “teach to the test” because so much is at stake. Some of them feel this approach may create the illusion of achievement, without equipping students with crucial critical thinking and problem solving skills so vital in life.

In my article, Preparing Students for the Age of Innovation, I highlighted some interesting ideas coming out of California. There, educators are designing new approaches to integrate both left and right-brain learning activities across their curriculum.

Today, I want to bring your attention to another interesting effort coming out of Massachusetts. It is being piloted at 18 schools across the state, like O’Maley Middle School. In their articles, My View: O’Maley ‘innovation’ a big step into the future, and City eyes O’Maley innovation, Richard Safier and Steven Fletcher in the Gloucester Times chronicled the emerging new vision for education at this middle school in this small, once thriving seaport community north of Boston.   

Last year, among other things, O’Maley Middle School opened the Birdseye Hammond Science and Engineering Lab.

Now that lab, and the projects that students work on in it, have become a catalyst for steering the Gloucester School District’s only middle school toward being recognized as one of the state’s “innovation schools.”

The idea of project-based learning has caught the attention of the people at Edutopia as well. See this brief video based on work being done by teachers in Seattle.

So the idea is that a school-wide focus on project-based learning will unify significant elements of the curriculum so that different subject areas will reinforce the learning that is taking place in all subjects.

According to Gloucester’s Superintendent of schools, “Students should increasingly see the interrelationships between what they learn in each subject and the topics under investigation. In addition, we are looking at full-scale remediation strategies in mathematics. Attendance policies are also under review in the plan. And, gradually will be looking to incorporate more technology into instruction.”

The idea behind innovation schools is that they will allow for deeper engagement in core subjects (this includes the arts), more enrichment activities, particular instructional themes or areas of focus, and freedom from certain district rules.

Some of the elements of the O’Maley Middle School Innovation Plan include the following:

How teachers teach: One of the major elements of the Innovation Plan calls for establishing more extensive project-based learning across the entire school. Project-based learning calls upon teachers to facilitate active work from students to a greater degree than more traditional, direct methods of instruction.

How the curriculum is directed: The school created two interdisciplinary themes per grade. The different subject areas will, by choice, either create one project, or a series of smaller, related projects that reinforce a central idea or theme that is the basis for each of the interdisciplinary projects.

What’s expected of students: With the concerted effort on project-based learning across the subject areas, the school hopes to develop in students a greater involvement in the work that they do. Projects do not just call upon students to provide a simple correct answer. Rather, they must demonstrate that they can develop and implement an idea or a plan well.

School governance: The innovation plan calls for a Teachers Advisory Committee to actively work alongside administration. This committee will meet periodically to openly discuss and decide upon the important issues that affect the school. Minutes of the meetings will be recorded and shared with the entire faculty so that the net effect will be an increase in policy determination, communication and implementation.

How did this all happen? The credit goes to the State of Massachusetts. The state legislature passed the An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap that Governor Patrick signed in January 2010. It challenged educational innovators in their state to submit proposals to the State, with the expressed purpose of creating new in-district and charter-like schools that can implement creative and inventive strategies, increase student achievement, and reduce achievement gaps while keeping school funding within districts. Sound revolutionary?

These unique schools operate with increased autonomy and flexibility in six key areas: curriculum; budget; school schedule and calendar; staffing (including waivers from or exemptions to collective bargaining agreements); professional development; and school district policies.

In Massachusetts, these Innovation Schools can be established by teachers, school and district administrators, superintendents, union leaders, school committees, parents, parent-teacher organizations, colleges and universities, non-profit community-based organizations, non-profit businesses or corporations . . . basically anyone who has a good idea to bring forward.

Who knows how many of these new innovation schools will prove to build a new educational model for the 21st century? But we have to give credit to the good people of the Bay State who are at least trying something new. The willingness to experiment, (and dare I say – even to fail) is crucial to any innovation-based strategy.

We should all stay tuned.

What is your local school board talking about? Maybe it is time for you to get involved.

Other resources – from the State of Massachusetts Website.

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Re-thinking Learning Part 5: Flaws in the Learning Model

Every one of us who teaches tends to pattern ourselves after teachers or professors we had in our own life, drawing on (hopefully) their best attributes and techniques.

This is natural to us, and we are all experts about learning and teaching.  We all have had 12, 16, 20 or more years of FIRST-HAND experience with this. Our own education is something that runs deep in us.

While it is natural to draw upon our own our own personal educational experiences, it would be nice to know if that foundation upon which we draw is sound.   I think there is evidence this is open to question.

Many of you are aware of the studies that compare American students against those from other nations in math and science reported in the Trends in International Math and Science Study.   The data seem consistent.   At the 4th grade, American students rank in the top 3 or 4 globally.  By 8th grade we are about in the middle of the pack, and by 12th grade, we rank 3rd from the bottom!  Yikes.   How can it be that the longer we stay in our educational system, the less proficient we become?

Reason 1:  Curriculum too Broad, and Shallow

So what’s behind the decline?  Two key factors (I think).  One is that in the US, our curriculum has 30-40% more learning objectives in it than do some of our overseas competitors.  We also teach more content in fewer days than is common overseas (the Korean school year for example is 220 days long).  As a consequence, our curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep.  It is superficial.

The other issue, I think, is in the teaching process we use (see the graphic above).  You are all familiar with this.  We assign Pre-work (like reading a chapter in a textbook), then we are exposed to some Teaching (generally a lecture in class), then there is a Practice element – generally in-class work assignments or possibly homework, followed by an Assessment (quiz, paper or exam).  While this seems logical on the surface, let’s consider this more deeply.

Reason 2: Practice is Too Abstract for Most People

The problem is in the Practice element.   When the practice experience is sufficiently abstract that we can’t associate them with something tangible in our world, we tend to abandon the learning.   Here is an example.  I learned differential calculus in school – well enough to pass the exams and get a good grade.   Since then I can’t remember a time when I actually applied that math on the job, and today if you asked me to solve some differential equations, I’d be lost.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Here’s another example.  I took and passed courses in physics, fluid dynamics, and fluid mechanics in college.  My first job out of school had me working in peanut butter manufacturing for P&G.   My job was to redesign the pumping systems used to deliver hot peanut butter slurry into fast-moving jars to improve line reliability. As I walked around the finishing department, I could read temperature in one place, pump motor RPM, and motor current.  Unfortunately, these were not variables that fit any of the equations I had learned.  I was clueless.  Once I concluded I was unable to successfully apply my prior learning, I had to come up with a new strategy.

Here again, I abandoned the learning, and developed instead a problem solving approach that involved empirical data collection, some trial and error, and consulting with suppliers of valves and pumps to help me devise a solution.

Isn’t the problem the same in Adult Professional Education and Development?  Superficial learning is not what we should be aiming at.  If you look at the learning model above (see the graphic) from what I observe, too often we do not have pre-work at all, and post program assessments focus more on did you enjoy the workshop than whether you acquired the intended learning points.

When we restrict our teaching to the classroom, we are limited to the kinds of practice we can devise.  We can do a case, a role play, or even a simulation.  I am not saying there is no learning benefit to such things, but the classroom has its limitations.

So why not choose a real world problem to solve, and then design training and coaching around that?

Wouldn’t that be more impactful?

Reason 3:  Focus on Learning Behaviors not Outcomes

A common concept in the field of education is called learning outcomes.  When we design a class or a lecture we start with a list of what we want you to “KNOW” as a consequence of the class.   Then we build backwards from there.  We ask how we would assess your knowledge (i.e. with a quiz) and then how we would teach to deliver the intended content.

I think it is not sufficient to think about learning outcomes alone.   In the world of professional learning and development, what should matter more is not what you know, but what you do as a consequence.  So instead of learning outcomes, we should focus on behavior outcomes, and then design learning to reach them.

If you prefer a more authoritative source

If you feel the need to read about this from the vantage point of some academic experts, you might check out this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education –  Harvard Conference Seeks To Jolt University TeachingI think these researchers are trying to grapple with the same questions I have been discussing.

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