A student in a classroom using augmented reality goggles
Leadership Skills and Implementation

Re-imagining What School Looks Like

By Jennifer Gunn

A growing number of schools are changing the education game by experimenting with new ideas, innovating and redesigning the ways in which students learn, what they learn, and how they demonstrate that learning. Let’s take a look at a few of these schools and consider ideas from education experts. Education is about growing, and how we look at our schools and analyze our current system helps shape how much we advance and what the future of education looks like.

The need for change

The education model in the United States hasn’t evolved all that much in the past 150 years. Even our 10-month school calendar with summers off is based on an agrarian model long outdated. The learners of the 1800s and 1900s were very different students from those who populate our classrooms today. The workplace is also vastly different. Our language has shifted. Science and technology have expanded exponentially. So isn’t it time to reimagine what education could be?

“We have to understand that the educational system as it was created was based on a ‘just in case’ model of learning,” says Jeff Utecht, CEO of Eduro Learning Inc. “We had to teach you everything you might need to know in life ‘just in case’ you might need to use it. So we made you memorize a bunch of facts and know a bunch of different stuff on different topics. Turn to 2018 and kids are growing up in a ‘just in time’ model of learning. We watch YouTube videos at the moment we want to learn something. We look stuff up the moment we wonder about it. We now live in a world of 24/7 learning with students who do not know any other world besides this one. We have to reimagine learning in a world of ‘just in time’ — not ‘just in case.'”

Science Leadership Academy

This small public school located in downtown Philadelphia was started by veteran educator and author of Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need, Chris Lehmann. “SLA is built on the notion that inquiry is the very first step in the process of learning,” according to their mission statement. “Developed in partnership with The Franklin Institute and its commitment to inquiry-based science, SLA provides a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics, and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection are emphasized in all classes.” With a 98% graduation rate and test scores well above the district and state averages, SLA’s small-school design, inquiry-driven learning model, and social-emotional learning focus have led to success. The SLA model was recently expanded to include a middle school and a second high school campus. And SLA’s second campus, SLA@Beeber, welcomed its first 5th-grade class this year. The school plans to expand to offer 5th – 12th grade by 2022.

Expert viewpoint: Demonstrations of learning and assessment

“There are many things that need to change systemically, but the way we assess students is at the top of the list,” says Starr Sackstein, Director of Humanities in West Hempstead UFSD in New York. “We must get away from standardized testing and grades and start looking at more comprehensive, personalized approaches that consider student voice like portfolio assessment coupled with project-based learning and reflective self-assessment. One thing we are currently working on is more project-based learning with an emphasis on student reflection to show an understanding of learning. As we shift away from the traditional, it allows students to take more risks and feel more competent in a variety of ways.”

High Tech High School

High Tech High School, in San Diego, began as a single charter school that has since expanded to a network of 14 schools serving K-12 students. Interdisciplinary learning, project- and passion-based demonstrations of learning, fieldwork — and incredibly modern school spaces — make HTH schools uniquely special. The hallways look like art galleries, positively full of impressive and next-generation student projects. Glass-enclosed classrooms communicate an air of community and transparency. Test scores are above district and state averages, and the school has a 93% graduation rate.

“High Tech High teachers practice a learner-centered, inclusive approach that supports and challenges each student,” according to its design principles. “Students pursue their passions through projects and reflect on their learning. Recognizing that identity development and personal growth occur in the context of community, our schools foster relationships of trust, caring, and mutual respect among students and adults through program design elements such as small school size, small classes, home visits, advisories, and student collaborative work.”

Expert viewpoint: Social-emotional learning

“I am very excited about the focus on social-emotional learning that is happening in many schools. As an early childhood educator, I spent most of my time with students supporting this growth and I see results constantly,” says Allison McDonald, author of Raising a Rock-Star Reader: 75 Quick Tips for Helping Your Child Develop a Lifelong Love for Reading and founder of No Time for Flashcards.

“I am pleased that more schools from elementary to high school are taking the time to develop programs and focus on this. We have spent so much time as a society looking at how our children can get ahead without looking at the cost to their mental health and growth as people. If we want to raise and educate whole beings we need to address both.”

Brooklyn Laboratory High School

Brooklyn Laboratory High School “prepares students with the academic foundation, digital literacy, and leadership skills necessary to excel in college and professional life as they grow as ethical leaders,” according to their mission. The school has an extended day from 8:30 am – 5:30 pm, except on Wednesdays when students are dismissed at 1:15 pm. The school touts that “between 6th and 12th grades, our longer school day adds up to over half a decade of learning.”

Students come back to school in August (not typical for New York schools) and there are summer programs available as well. The school also has a Next Generation Learning program, which is a college-prep curriculum with Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) to prepare students for the future of work.

Brooklyn Lab is one of 10 schools to receive $10 million grants from the XQ: The Super School Project, a competition inviting America to reimagine high school. People across the country self-assembled into teams and started a movement to transform high school education in their areas. The project was sponsored by XQ Institute and backed by Laurene Powell Jobs’ organization Emerson Collective. Data has not been published yet since the school received their funding, but this is undoubtedly exciting work.

Expert Viewpoint: Technology and future prep

“I work with many different school districts that are doing some incredibly innovative things when it comes to education,” says Jeff Utecht. “One school district turned their technology pull-out program into a coding program and now K-5 graders learn to code as part of their curriculum. That then leads into courses in middle school and high school that students can take if they so choose. Another school district is giving teachers four release days to work on changing units with deep technology integration. These teachers work in teams to create entire new units to use in their 1:1 classrooms.” Taking the lead when it comes to educational technology means providing students with in-depth learning experiences that incorporate technology in meaningful ways.

“We have to understand that there is no curriculum that a district can buy that is written for a 1:1 classroom,” Utecht says. “Educators have to do the hard work of thinking deeply about these changes in their classrooms and they need the time and space to do that. By giving these teachers time, they are rewriting their own curriculum focused on today’s students’ needs.”

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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