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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.

References

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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Preparing Students for the Age of Innovation


Education was a luxury of the aristocracy, but in the 18th century the revolutionary idea that education should be offered to the masses began to take hold, leading to a rapid growth of schools colleges and universities.   While education has been a fact of life for most of us for the past three centuries, our concepts of intelligence and of intellectual success (in school) have not undergone a major transformation since then. However, the world has.

Our education system has its roots in the age of enlightenment.  The goal was to create an egalitarian society by educating citizens to reason for themselves. This was a pretty big idea, and must have been threatening notion to the nobles and Church leaders of the time who up until that period were the main disseminators of “truth.”   Knowledge really IS power.

So, our modern college curriculum evolved from this period of thought.  Later, with the dawn of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, concepts like problem solving skills, business acumen, and innovation (which came from people like Henry Ford) were introduced to help support the evolving industrial market.

If you think about what your children are being taught in school today, they are all taught the core fundamentals: mathematics, science, literature, language, vocabulary, composition, and history.   Art, music and foreign languages have been around, but usually rank secondary in importance.  And these non-core subjects have become increasingly under scrutiny in today’s time of budget cutting.   So it seems that our curriculum is decidedly aimed at the LEFT side of our brains.  This is what we measure on the SAT and ACT tests, and how we mainly define success for students across the land.

The priorities, reflected in our education system, match our value systems as a society, too.   The jobs that rely on these analytic skills pay the most money.   (Just check out this list of the 15 highest paying jobs in 2011.)   Dancers, actors, musicians, and artists do not make the list.   While we all want our kids to pursue their dreams . . . whatever they are . . . don’t most of us cringe a little when our kids say they want to pursue an artistic career path?

However, in spite of our LEFT BRAIN bias in our schools, the evidence suggests that at least US kids in the US do not perform well.   In the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparison, American students ranked 21st out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed countries and 25th out of 30 in math literacy. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests, 4th graders showed no signs of progress for the first time in many years, and 8th graders tallied only modest evidence of progress.

In response, there seems to be a renewed call for more and better focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  The White House calls the initiative Educate to Innovate.

As a person with multiple degrees in engineering, I certainly appreciate the ideas behind this new call for education reform, but I wonder if something else is missing?

Today, more is being written about the need for more innovation, and why innovation and creativity are suppressed in our schools and our society.   If we truly want an age of innovation, then don’t we want to educate the RIGHT side of our kid’s brains as well (where creativity is thought to reside)?

That’s exactly the conclusion the State of California may be coming to.   In his article It’s All About  Creativity, San Diego State University professor John Eger describes new initiatives in California intended to transform classrooms by incorporating the arts and creative education.

Eger reports that there is currently a bill before the State Senate (number 789) which calls for the Governor to create a school “creativity index” on the premise that if you can’t measure it, you can’t tell if you are making progress.

The thinking in California is not about adding more arts classes to the curriculum, but about integrating arts into the remainder of the curriculum.  This seems a revolutionary idea, and California does not seem to be alone.

Professor Eger writes,  “This movement by California matches the legislation signed by the governor of Massachusetts last spring, and is much like a bill working its way through the state legislature in Oklahoma to also establish a creativity index. Equally significant, Maine, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Colorado and Wisconsin are beginning similar discussions and Nebraska is getting itself organized, according to CreativeChallenge, Inc., which monitors creativity discussions worldwide. The group notes that Seoul, Korea, and Alberta and Edmonton in Canada — and probably other cities and nations around the world — are following these efforts closely.”

Perhaps this makes sense.   Some of you may recall reading the book called The Jobs Revolution: Changing How America Works, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley predicts, “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

It seems like time to rethink what and how we teach.

Other related articles:

Opening the arts to children

The New Children’s museum is a model of fostering creativity

Students get hold of augmented reality

Educating for the Knowledge Age

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