New school models in the US: 10 things we have learned

blog | 18 Dec 2018

Innovation Unit has been visiting and working with innovative schools in the United States for the past decade. Here are some important things we have learned.

This blog was originally published by Education Week. You can see the original version here.

We were a programme design partner to New York City’s iZone360 initiative for three years,  designing new school models to deliver personalised learning, supported by New Tech Network and Big Picture Learning among others.

We worked closely with High Tech High and seconded six of their spectacular teachers to introduce project based learning to a group of UK schools.

We engaged with Ron Berger and Expeditionary Learning Schools and formed a partnership with XP School in the UK to develop Expeditionary Learning principles.  

We have a close relationship with two of the XQ school design challenge winners and have mindfully and intentionally visited and studied innovative new schools across the States.

We have taken some important things from all this global learning endeavour and are now applying them in the UK. In January we are supporting the opening of a new kind of school in the UK and in so doing we are adapting and adopting the approaches we’ve admired.

Here are 10 things we’ve learned from some of the new school models in the US:

  1. Engagement precedes content learning – it doesn’t happen the other way around

Who, in truth, would imagine it being other than this? The deferred gratification model of engagement – “You will need good results to get a good job in the real world” – doesn’t work for most learners from socio-economically challenging backgrounds, those without strong support systems, those without a successful family educational history, or those without a sense of who or what they might become. Why would it? Schools consistently say that a key problem is low aspiration from students and/or parents. The best new kinds of school start with helping every student to have personal, ambitious goals and aspirations that mean something to them.

  1. Relationships, relationships, relationships

It is a truth that in most secondary schools, young people are not individually well known. They have perhaps 12 or more teachers a week, none of whom have more than three hours contact in a class of 25+ (and these are teachers who will teach 200+ students a week). In many of the best models we have seen there are two key relationships not seen in most schools: the teacher ‘advisor’ or ‘crew leader’ who spends quality time with the group, and community mentors who work closely with students on out-of-school projects – everything from internships to expeditions. There tends to be a consistent teacher advisor for the total time a young person spends in school. In these examples deep and responsible relationships really, really matter – to both the adults and the young people.

  1. Our conventional paradigm of school constrains engagement

Most people working in or around schools instinctively know this and it is backed by research, which shows that student engagement declines significantly as young people travel through the education system. Engagement in learning at secondary level is low and even amongst those who appear engaged, passive disengagement is endemic. Ask young people to name one word that characterises their experience of school and most will say ‘boring’. This is not true of the students in the schools we have visited and studied, because their entire study programme derives from or sparks their passions and interest, and they can see its relevance in the real-world. 

  1. Schools don’t have to be organised around subjects, lessons and timetables

The historical classification of knowledge into ‘subjects’ is an anachronism. It is perpetuated by exam structures and by the university tradition of preparing subject specialists. The ubiquitous ‘one hour lesson’ is a design to fit in all of the 10 or more subjects and teachers that a young person will see each week. In UK primary schools this pattern doesn’t exist to the same extent and it doesn’t need to in secondary. At many of the schools we have worked with, students can have whole day learning sessions supported by their advisory teacher and shaped by the focus of the project they are engaged with or by their personal learning plan.

  1. There are better ways to assess students’ learning and skills than tests and exams

This is such a truism that we hardly needed to travel to America to learn it. However, seeing the combination of exhibition, portfolio, presentation and creation of ‘artefacts’ to demonstrate learning and skills feels like the sane and common sense approach. It’s even penetrating policy work, with states adopting performance-based assessment strategies with the support of organisations like the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE).

  1. Culture matters in schools as much as it does anywhere else

Every school has a culture. In the new US models we have seen it tends to be explicit, pervasive, and is self-consciously lived and espoused by the students, not just the staff. The students own it and help create it. In September at one school we visited, when litter started appearing on site from the new students, the juniors and seniors got together and asked them to sort it out – and it worked. If these schools have any tough question from visitors about what it feels like to be part of the school, they let the students, not the leaders, answer.

  1. It’s a religion, and belief matters.

These new kinds of school are staffed by individuals who believe in the humanity of the school’s approach and its power to transform. Faced with scepticism the professional development lead at one of the schools said: “Everyone thinks it won’t work, you have to believe that it will – and it does.” That belief includes students, too. It is so pervasive in High Tech High and Big Picture Learning schools that we have visited that it comes across on day one as cultish – it can feel esoteric, almost evangelical, with everyone using the same vocabulary. They talk it up together and you feel a bit on the outside, critiquing. By day three you understand that the cultishness is just a verbal and behavioural manifestation of everyone’s shared belief in the approach – the symbols and rituals of the environment.

  1. Parents are embraced as primary educators and significant partners

All schools talk up their commitment to parents, but for many schools it is can be an arm’s length, occasional, sometimes patronising relationship held on the school’s terms. In the best of the new school models we’ve seen, parents are active, co-creating, engaged and involved partners. For example, they will have ongoing dialogue with their child’s advisor; they are involved in assessment and exhibition; they are active in the development ofd students’ personal learning plans  These schools know that they don’t recruit students to the school, they recruit families, and that parents are the most significant adults in students’ learning and wellbeing.

  1. Growing the number of meaningful adult relationships creates opportunity

One of the abiding successes of the UK’s public (i.e. private, privileged) schooling system has been the strength of its old boys’ network (gender, unfortunately, apt). People frequently succeed because of their social capital – the number of people that they know who can help them. So many of the schools we have seen recognise this and build relational capital into their design. One purpose of internship mentors or the community experts is to increase the number of significant adult relationships in each young person’s life. In turn those adults get to be meaningfully involved in the work of the school and they receive the gift of contributing to real world success in the lives of students. They change lives.

  1. Peer-to-peer support is a multiplier

Advisory is family. Students in these schools spend much more of their time in school together in advisory than an equivalent student in most secondary schools, where ‘curriculum’ time is prioritised over pastoral. Teacher advisors stay with their crew year on year and this group of up to 20 students and one adviser behave like they are 21 learners and 21 teachers; all looking out for one another and supporting each other to succeed. What’s not to like?

There are, of course, great and not-so-good schools in every new school model. There is a danger of over-hyping, over-glorifying them. Dennis Littky is the first to say about Big Picture Learning schools that there are exemplar ones and there are those just not so good. There is a spectrum, just as with all schools. But the best are very, very good and those less good are still doing a fine job and striving to do it better. The same is true within any of the individual schools. There are astonishing teachers and there are those still struggling to acquire the craft knowledge to optimise the potential of the approach. Of course there are; they are human systems.

You could argue that this is the story of any school system, but it is hard to spend time in some of these exemplary schools and not to come back to the UK changed. They offer up a paradigm shift in how to “do school”, which is transformative enough. But they also demonstrate a tangible and inspiring shift in what students are able to achieve within these contexts when they are supported with rigour by teachers who hold a passionate belief in what they do and how they do it.

For now, it is enough to say that we believe there are multiple new models of school that can do a great job for all young people – that can get closer to the values of equity, social justice and the liberation of human potential that is inherent within the educational mission. We are equally convinced that the traditional model of schooling is not, by a long stretch, the best we can, or should do, for young people.