Innovative schools are out there--some are just flying under the radar.

Is this a new way to discover innovative schools?

A new effort hopes to broaden the definition of innovative schools and cast a wider net to gather examples of student-centered learning experiences

It’s often difficult to spread the word about how schools are truly innovating and reimagining what the learning experience should look like for students, because the same innovative schools are looked to for inspiration time and time again.

The Clayton Christensen Institute has launched a new project to vastly expand knowledge and insight about what innovative schools truly are.

The Canopy, as outlined in a new report, is “an effort to build better collective knowledge about the diverse range of schools offering learning experiences designed with students at the center.”

Related content: 9 innovation tips from pioneering schools

“We’ve named the project the Canopy, as a way to envision both the individual schools—the trees—and the diversity of schools that are innovating—the forest,” writes author Chelsea Waite.

The project uses a “deliberately broad” definition of the terms innovation and innovative when referencing the work schools are doing, all in the hopes of uncovering a broad and diverse set of schools working toward the same goal. That goal? “Working toward student-centered learning through personalization, new definitions of success, and/or equity for historically marginalized students.”

Part of what makes Canopy unique is that it uncovered 235 schools that are progressing toward student-centered learning, but that don’t all appear elsewhere on lists of innovative schools. In fact, 72 percent of these schools don’t appear on any other commonly-referenced lists.

With better collective knowledge comes new ideas and insight about school innovation–ideas and insight that may have remained hidden or dormant, and therefore unable to inspire others.

When the same schools and districts are used over and over again as examples of innovative practice, broader and more diverse examples of innovation are overlooked. Innovative schools and models that are promising but fly under the radar, entire regions, and broader trends are ignored or overlooked.

The Canopy has two research goals:

1. Surface a diverse set of schools that are innovating, capture data on their models, and highlight trends appearing across the dataset. This goal is achieved by asking which schools are innovating, and where, along with identifying the innovative approaches and designs schools are pursuing.

2. Develop recommendations for building shared knowledge by testing how to surface and structure data about innovation in schools. To meet this goal, researchers asked how effective the Canopy process was in surfacing a diverse set of schools that are innovating and accurately capturing their approaches.

The research yielded six hypotheses that deserve additional inquiry:
1. Learner agency and SEL are widely seen as priorities, but school practices may lag behind a general commitment to these approaches—or they aren’t being codified and captured coherently.
2. Rural schools may be facing barriers to innovation or innovating in ways that don’t reflect national trends, and may benefit from targeted support and investment.
3. Students in schools serving predominantly black populations may not be getting the same opportunities for learner agency and social-emotional learning.
4. Experiential learning and competency-based models may be facing barriers to scale in schools serving low-income students and students of color.
5. Efforts to redefine student success could be playing out differently depending on whether school models are designed to serve marginalized students.
6. Lower-poverty schools and those serving predominantly white students may not be attending to the needs of marginalized students as deliberately.

The dataset used to compile the report helped researchers define major trends within school innovation, but readers are encouraged to conduct their own analysis and learn more about diverse innovative practices.

Moving forward, new solutions may emerge that connect the dots in the world of innovative schools.

“We hope that this report is viewed as a rallying cry to break down the knowledge silos that currently impede the growth of innovation, creating stronger conditions for student-centered learning to seed and flourish nationwide,” the report concludes.

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Laura Ascione

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