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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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Re-Thinking Learning and Development. Part 4: Do We Have it Backwards?


I invite you to check out the Khan Academy.  All of these learning modules are offered here and on You Tube for free.   I don’t know about you, but I think they are pretty good.  In his fascinating 20 minute TED talk, Salman Khan also argues that we are doing education backwards and it should be flipped.    We should, he argues, have students do the “classwork” at home.  (they can watch the video lectures by themselves in the intimacy of their own home, in their way, and as many times as they need.)  And then. . . they should do what USED to be thought of as HOMEWORK . . . IN CLASS!

So there is an idea, do the problem sets in class under the watchful eye of a teacher so that when they stumble or are confused, they can be redirected. Students can learn from each other in a much more humanized environment.

What a different idea about how to leverage e-learning not as a way to drive down the denominator of the ROI calculation, but to make the LIVE learning experience much more impactful!

Changing Educational Paradigms

To further this thought, watch this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson about how our education system – developed during the age of enlightenment and designed to support the needs of the industrial age – must be re thought in the 21st century.  (I would argue this is relevant to us as we seek to train our adult employees, because how we prepare professional training today flows from this educational tradition.)

All too often, our current mode of teaching does perhaps nothing better than kill creativity.  This 20 minute talk explores how our innate creativity is gradually squeezed out to us as how we move through the educational process:

(If you enjoyed Robinson’s views, you might also look at this TED talk about how he believes schools kill creativity.)

To me, I think these all point to the need to ABSOLUTELY restructure our approach to educating, not only at the K-12 level but for adults as well.

 GOOD LEARNING SHOULD

  •  BE A STRUGGLE (if the answers are given too easily, then it produces superficial knowledge. We appreciate things more when we have to work at them.)
  • LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY in a HUMANIZING WAY (not solely to reduce cost.)
  • RECOGNIZE THAT IT IS NOT SO MUCH ABOUT TEACHING AS IT IS ABOUT CREATING LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES (we are all born with the ability to learn.  Our goal as educators should not be so much about telling others what we have learned, but about creating environments within which our students can learn largely by their own labors.  That’s what makes it stick.)
  • START WITH THE IDEA THAT WE ALREADY HAVE TOO MUCH “EDUTAINMENT” OUT THERE (and there is absolutely no need to create more.)
  • START BY DEFINING NEW BEHAVIORS WE ARE SEEKING (you can’t design an effective learning strategy without considering first, how you want participants to think, feel or act differently as a result of the training.)

We (at XLC) may not have all the answers.  But this topic is vitally important to all of us who feel that we must continually to develop the abilities and patterns of thought among our workforce.

We believe that a constant spirit of experimentation is helpful if we are to create learning that sticks, and has lasting impact.

What about you? What training experiences were the most creatively engaging for you? And was the learning that resulted sustained?

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