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? 

Related categories: ,
  • BriannaCrowley

    A Sign?

    Between your post here, Cheryl’s recent invitation about a CTQ school, and Laurie Nazareno’s Call to Warriorship, I’m feeling my ever-present-but-somewhat-marginalized tug to reimagine my own ideal school. 

    I absolutetly agree and LOVE what you’ve posted here. This year, I’ve tried to focus more on that deconstructing-the-classroom idea. It’s been exhausting and rewarding…in fact I have a blog post of my own rolling around my head about the complexity of authentic assessment and “outside” experts within the current (aka ridiculous) bell and content segregation system. I too saw VanderArk’s list and it sent me dreaming of the “what ifs”

    It’s incredible that you have the viable opportunity to submit your own innovative design. I need to hunt down such an opportunity….Please keep us updated on what you find! 

    I see a lot of the “genius hour” concept reflected in your suggested study hour. Challenge: how do you help students understand how to take advantage of that differently than say a study hall in tradtional school where most students I see use it to socialize, listen to music or sleep? 

    I love the idea of the community meal–for MANY reasons only some of which are authentic assessment for family consumer science, marketing, business management (i.e. the “real world” structures of providing food to a large group of people), enculturing healthy food habits and behaviors, and building community with face-to-face interactions. 

    Challenge: How do you meet federal standards of food safety and “sanitary certified” required in that space? 

    Ok, enough nit-picking challenges. I’d like to add one more idea to this “ideal school.” Embed the faculty in the community and the afternoon projects to that line between “teacher” and “real world career person” are no longer clear. Students often don’t view us a multi-dimensional because we work in a system that slaps a content label on us, puts us in a four-wall room, and tells us to teach students a segmented curriculum around one topic. This is really a sneaky way of embedding the idea of teacherpreneurs into this ideal school. That afternoon segment would allow teachers to BE the master gardeners or the nonprofit coordinators or the published writers. The teachers could either be working with kids in that multidiscplinary capacity or working with colleagues to further the overall learning of the community. 

    What a beautiful idea!

    • LoriNazareno

      Go For It!!!

      Love the ideas shared here by both of you. I see a lot of my own core values and interests reflected here. And, by the way, they are all connected to what we already know about how kids learn best.

      I would love to challenge you both to actually begin investigating how you might begin to actualize these visions for better schooling in your own district or school. The climate has never been more ripe for “real” innovative thinking and school redesign. The pressures on the current system are unrealistic and unsustainable at this point and those who have a vision for the future will actually be the ones who create it.

      I am curious about the leadership structures that you envision for these schools. How will the leadership strucutures model for kids? What opportunities are there for teachers to engage in authhentic knowldge work on behalf of kids. How might you attract the types of teachers that this school will need?

      And, I am definitely interested in learning more about what the student and teacher day mgith look like.

  • BrendanBreault

    real change

    Thanks for sharing your vision of an ideal school.  As a physical education teacher, it’s great to see you understand the importance of daily physical activity.  It’s essential to provide both structured and unstructured time for students to “play.”  This provides a healthy outlet for all students to release built up energy and encourage active lifestyles.  Currently at my school, PE is only offered for 30 minutes, three times a week.

    I love your student-centered approach – offering choices, collaborating with parents and the community, and experiential learning will positively impact student learning.  When re-designing schedules, it’s important to include common plan times for teachers.  These structured opportunities for teachers to meet as grade level teams/PLCs will be a critical support to carry out the vision of the school.