Seeking Real Innovation In School Design

I’m no longer excited when I hear the words “reform” and “innovation” in the context of improving public schools. During ten years in the classroom, I’ve seen too many initiatives deemed innovative, but student experience isn’t fundamentally changed.

Giving all students an iPad, but sticking to the same teacher-centric and high-stakes testing paradigm, isn’t innovation. Coming up with data systems to meticulously collect information about student learning isn’t innovation. It’s more of the same quantifiable-data obsession, introduced on a wide-scale by NCLB. Providing extended school days isn’t innovation. Do any of these ideas bring to mind transformation, upheaval, or breakthrough?

Right now, we’ve got about twenty high schools in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). Besides the difference in the students who walk through the door, they’re all the same except for variation in magnet program offerings. Rigid bell structure and course requirements. High-stakes testing. Learning mostly confined to the classroom.

This list, complied by Tom Vander Ark last year at Education Week, provides links to a number of models around the world of schools that are truly different.

Our district currently has a open competition for an innovative school design, and I’ve been thinking about what my ideal high school would look like. I want to eradicate traditional course requirements, redesign rigid bell schedules, and take a sledgehammer to the classroom walls.

Here are some characteristics of my ideal school, a small learning community with 100-or-so students and six to seven educators, which could be housed in its own building or contained within an existing school:

1.  Three hours of academic work and seminars in the morning, including two fifteen minute breaks.  Our fixation on maximizing instructional time at the expense of a more balanced education is troubling. Check out this teacher’s reflection on the use of breaks in Finnish schools.

2.  Longer lunch periods and a weekly community meal, prepared and sourced by students and faculty. This will not only build community, but it will help teach students life skills.

3.  One hour of independent study or reading. Many kids don’t have quiet time to slow down outside of school to let ideas and imagination percolate. Learning doesn’t sink in without time for quiet reflection.

3.  Physical activity every day. Minimum 30 minutes.   

4.  Curricular connections to what matters to students’ lives now. No more “you’ll need to know this down the line.”  Each afternoon, after lunch, students work on self-designed projects, which will extend out into the community. Building community gardens, studying local health policy, creating human-interest digital stories, and interning with nonprofits come to mind.  

5.  Open access to technology tools. While we must teach students mindful technology use, it’s pure foolishness to not equip our students with the digital tools and time to allow them to connect, create, collaborate, and research online.

6.  Transportation flexibility. Smaller learning communities should be equipped with vans or busses that are on-call, ready to use, helping to extend the classroom outside the school grounds.

7.  Business and nonprofit partnerships to allow for internship possibilities, guest speakers–expanding the general student understanding of what’s possible out there in the world.

Over the course of the next six months, JCPS will decide on their innovative school design winner. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the selected project will be truly transformative, providing all of us with another model of what school could be like.

Perhaps you work in a truly innovative school, or perhaps you’re like me, ready to share ideas about what school could look like. What are the characteristics of your ideal learning environment? What would your daily schedule be? Regarding my proposal, what would you add or subtract? 

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