Let’s Learn from Innovative Schools

By Justin Testerman on December 20, 2016

innovative schools

What our country’s most forward thinking schools tell us about the future of learning

Every day across the country, a new generation of schools are offering innovative curriculums, programs and supports to their students. From a deeper emphasis on technology to project-based learning to innovative uses of time and place, these changes are preparing students to be successful in the 21st century.

We must seek out and learn from these innovative schools to allow us to better serve and prepare our students and get the results that families want to so urgently see.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to California with a group of inspiring leaders from New Orleans, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Memphis, Rochester, Boston and Denver. We visited four innovative schools, interspersed with sessions focused on innovative school design, building an education innovation ecosystem, due diligence for investing in innovative schools and extensive debriefs on our school visits.

We had the opportunity to visit Cristo Rey San Jose, Summit Tamalpais, Lighthouse Lodestar and Rocketship. While each of the schools had a unique model they all shared an emphasis on personalized learning. Personalized learning schools have several important design elements, all supported by a variety of structures (procedures, routines, etc) and data and technology:

  • Student agency – Students set and track learning goals and make significant decisions about their learning.
  • Pace – Students move at their own speed.
  • Path – Students have a variety of ways to learn objectives.
  • People – a mix of individual, group, and peer support
  • Place – Students can complete work in a variety of places and have freedom to move.

Seeing schools such as these for the first time is an exhilarating and disorienting experience. Many of the aspects of a traditional school are still there, but so much is different. At each of the schools we saw students working individually and in small groups with a great deal of freedom, taking ownership of their learning. Teachers rotated around the room, working one on one with students or pulling groups of students for mini-lessons, or refocusing those who stray off task. Though there is great deal of freedom, carefully constructed procedures and strong school culture create invisible guard rails that keep students working with great purpose and focus. Subjects are integrated to the greatest extent possible and students have opportunities to solve real-world problems that are multifaceted, combining subjects such as algebra, science and public policy.

These classrooms hummed with a kind of purposeful energy generated by students excited about what they were doing. In short, they felt like modern workplaces where both teamwork and individual effort are necessary, that require creative problem solving and thinking, and that require qualities such as persistence and self-regulation. As we think about how to improve educational outcomes in our city, these schools serve as valuable examples of what is possible and as reminders that schools should prepare our students for the future they will inherit.