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