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4 radically different school models upending education

Goal setting and PBL serve as cornerstones for new school models. Is self-directed learning every student’s future?

These days, there are few that would disagree that education needs to start looking more like the world students will one day work and live in and less like, well, school. What that might look like in the future is anybody’s guess, but it may be safe to assume a lot more will be required of students than simple passive learning.

Four school leaders recently spoke about their innovative school models and visions for student success in an increasingly digital world during a panel hosted by Clayton Christensen Institute cofounder Michael Horn at this year’s ASU GSV Summit in San Diego. The new models overwhelmingly favor some combination of project-based learning coupled with self-directed goal-setting and skill building for students’ life after school.

Here are the four school models and their approaches to teaching and learning.

Design Tech High School, San Mateo, CA

This new charter will one day serve students in grades 9-12, but for now 280 students are currently enrolled up to tenth grade. The mission: to make the world the better place through teaching students the theory and methodology behind design thinking.

“For us, we believe design thinking is both a mindset and process to help us reach this mission,” said Ken Montgomery, the school’s founder. Part of the design thinking mindset, he said, contains a “bias toward action,” which for students means asking them to be self-directed much of the time.

On a typical day, students receive their daily schedules in the morning. Sometimes there’s a note in there — called a referral — prompting them to spend additional time on a subject or with a particular teacher, but otherwise students have a lot of flexibility in choosing how they spend their time. They can choose to catch up on coursework, try to get ahead, or work on a curiosity project, which the school is constantly pushing them to undertake.

Those projects give students a chance to put design thinking to the test and develop something they want to create. Here, the school’s recent partnership with Oracle, and its employees, can make a big difference (the school is eventually planning a move onto Oracle’s campus). One girl, who had a visually impaired grandmother, designed and created a watch that played a unique song when different denominations of paper currency were passed underneath.

“We’re really trying to operationalize that self direction,” Montgomery said. “The typical day is extreme personalization. It all starts with them learning what they need to do and building their schedule, and us providing the expertise they need to reach their goal.”

The Incubator School, Los Angeles

“Our school is an entrepreneurship themed school,” said founder Sujata Bhatt by way of introduction. In that, she means, it mimics a startup incubator, of the Y-Combinator sort, like those that have cropped up in most urban areas over the past few years.

The LAUSD pilot school has a lot of autonomy letting it function much (but not exactly) like a charter might. Most of the 200 odd middle and high school-aged students are there to learn entrepreneurial skills — everything from how to design and create technology to starting a business, pitching to investors, and diving deep into data and analytics to help run operations.

Next page: Focusing on real-world relevance for students

On any given school day, students start by meeting with advisors to discuss goals and current events, then move on to their student-created clubs doing everything from creating YouTube videos to putting on performing arts productions. Students also have two impact projects to contend with — one concerning humanities, the other STEM — often connecting with what Bhatt calls “lived experiences.”

One student, she said, is creating a special back brace that also provides an extra pair of hands, inspired by a parent who works in the construction industry. The impact projects were designed to cross as many disciplines as possible, and students are expected to provide ample documentation to back up their work from persuasive writing, to presentation and pitching.

All that practice isn’t just preparing students for some far-off future — some of them are already pitching real CEOs as part of their entrepreneurship teams, which function like miniature startups. Each team has already received seed funding in anticipation of a full launch by the time those students get to 12th grade.

“We want to prepare students for three different futures,” Bhatt said. “One is college, the traditional four-year college pathway; also startupland, so they can choose to move into that and then come to college when they’re ready to go to college; and then the third choice that we’re preparing students for is a kind of un-college, unbundled experience, because by the time we have our first graduating class in 2020 we think there will be a lot more options available than just a straight four-year path.”

Big Picture Learning

The students at this network of more than 50 schools in the U.S. (and 60 outside the country) are 75 percent minority and 75 percent free/reduced lunch eligible; and more than 20 percent of them have learning differences, according to Carlos Moreno co-executive director of Big Picture Learning, which received much of its funding for expansion from the Gates Foundation. “We believe all of our students are brilliant,” Moreno said. “And we need to provide them with an opportunity to be brilliant.”

BPL schools tend to focus on the 3 Rs, Moreno said: Relationships, relevance, and rigor. “In order to best serve our students we feel that we need to know them really well,” he said. A robust advisory system pairs students with an advisor for up to four hours a day. In advisory, students are focusing on content but also on social and emotional learning and non-cognitive development.

Students spend two days a week at internships that suit their interests — the relevance portion — and, on campus, work on deep project-based learning that ties into their internship work. For some students, there’s no expectation to take traditional English or science courses, although they are offered.

Instead, developing numeracy and literacy skills happens in an environment that might not look too different from a jobsite. Students demonstrate the third R, rigor, via the occasional standard assessment but more meaningfully through portfolios and quarterly presentations, where they’re expected to vigorously defend the work they’ve done in front of their peers.

Khan Lab School, Mountain View, CA.

Sal Khan’s very own Silicon Valley tuition-based micro-school currently enrolls 60 students, who range in age from 5 to 13 — but don’t call it K-8. “We don’t have grade levels,” explained school director Orly Friedman. “Instead, we’ve decided to group our students by independence level, which means we put them in groups based on how much support they need from a teacher in order to work to the best of their ability.”

Once a week, every student sits down with a teacher to discuss and set goals for themselves in a range of subject and content areas, as well as more fluid self-assessments such as character strengths, cognitive skills, and passion projects (yes, even the five-year-olds).

The goals ultimately determine how much time students spend on any given subject (Khan Academy materials are naturally used to teach both math and Javascript) plus how much time they need with teachers vs. solo and group work. “For the most part, the morning is more individual self-paced work,” where teachers can also tutor students or pull them out into small groups, Friedman said. “The afternoon is more project-based, collaborative work.”

Additionally, all students move through two blocks of wellness — inner and outer. With so much to do, the school day can run long, often ending at 6 p.m., with Friedman explaining that many students stay the whole time in order to “continue working on goals.”

Since it’s only in its second year, the model may still be something of a work in progress. “Some kids end up wasting a lot of time for the first couple of months,” Friedman said, as they acclimate to setting and achieving their own open-ended goals. “How much time do we allow — where is that balance? I think that will be a question that we’ll ask for a long time.”

The entire panel is available to stream online.

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