Sixth graders at Waukesha STEM Academy work on an exploration related to baseball marketing for class. (Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

Last year, Kim Crosby spent about 80 percent of her class time teaching math concepts at Waukesha STEM Academy in Wisconsin. For the other 20 percent, she helped students individually.

This year, that time was reversed: 80 percent of her class time was spent moving from student to student; about one-fifth continued to be a standard lecture format. The rest of the direct-instruction materials she wanted students to see, she assigned them to watch or read at home.

“To me, this makes more sense,” Crosby said.

When it comes to challenging traditional ideas about how schools should operate, this two-year-old charter school is building a reputation with a curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math, and where student schedules can change every day.

Students choose when they want to eat and when they want to work during a 60-minute lunch, and they randomly can be found working in groups behind the reception desk—or in the teachers lounge.

It might sound like too much freedom for middle-schoolers, but not to Principal Ryan Krohn.

“If we want kids to act like adults and be responsible and come up with ideas and manage their time,” he said, “why do we continue to tell them exactly what to do and expect them to do it in the same way and at the same time as everyone else?”

Krohn is part of a growing network of educators in Wisconsin and across the nation calling for learning environments that are less lecture-driven and more collaborative. They want children to think better for themselves. They believe teachers must use technology in more sophisticated ways to advance learning. They believe the immediate payoff is more engagement. The long-term goal: higher achievement.

Dramatic spending cuts, calls from taxpayers for greater efficiency, and rapidly evolving technology are propelling such ideas forward and causing more people to question the seemingly immutable norms of traditional schooling:

Why are classes still largely structured around lecturing, when research shows learners often retain information better through writing about it or explaining it, with feedback?

Why do schools largely group children by similar age instead of similar ability?

Why is memorization and fact-regurgitation so heavily valued when school leaders and employers say they want greater problem solving and critical thinking skills from graduates?

Promising opportunities

New technologies offer promising opportunities for schools to move away from the factory-style instruction model to one where learning plans are customized for each student—something already common in special education but largely absent from the mainstream.