05/17/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Enabling Schools of the Future

Maybe I'm too close to it. I've started schools, run schools, taught in schools, went to school, visited schools, and they all look pretty much the same. As I imagine what schools may look like, I bump up against my pre-conceived and ingrained notions of what school has always been -- seat time, mandated testing, teacher credentialing, students in rows of desks, classroom management, staffing, custodial needs, and on and on and on. These throw up barriers to any new notion of what schools could actually be. And I know that I am not alone. Even "breakthrough models" of schooling are currently organized around these traditional structures. This coming weekend's Maker Faire Bay Area (May 19-20) takes my insane hobby of imagining what the future schools might look like into sharper focus. EdSurge and Make Faire created a pavilion focused on DIY learning in schools -- schools that will need to look and function much differently to support this type of learning. Even with this, I cannot help but think that they won't look much different than today -- unless:
  • We become comfortable with taking risks in schools
  • Technology becomes more seamlessly interwoven into student learning experiences
  • Online content providers evolve beyond video lectures with multiple choice assessments
Risk is a Four Letter Word

Our school systems fail in very predictable and repetitive ways. The same schools have been failing the same demographics of students for generations. And yet when something even slightly different is suggested to improve learning outcomes, we ask for a deep evidence base that proves this new strategy has worked before.

Alex Hernandez, of Charter School Growth Fund, proposes a FabLab for school -- a place where educators and wannabe educators can try out their new models of schooling in a risk-tolerant and safe environment (after school and summers). More summer programs should be tinkering in this same way.

At SMASH Academy, Level Playing Field Institute is doing just that. While students are still attending classes, each student has a laptop and works through a tech-enabled, project-based curriculum for 5 weeks. Instructors, mostly local high school teachers, are encouraged to try things, particularly things using technology in these classrooms that they are not trying at their regular school. The hope is that these practices are workshopped over the summer and then imported into their year-round classrooms.

Online Learning 2.0

The more celebrated and highly utilized online learning experiences provide short videos and text followed by multiple choice or similar assessments. Teachers then get analytics about their classes and students. Some see this as an improved instructional model. For me, it is a more efficient instructional model if what we are trying to do is ensure students receive a compulsory education as evaluated by statewide mandated assessments. What if we want students to thrive in a 21st century economy?

This is another place SMASH is innovating. Piloting a new platform, called MySciHigh, teachers and students will be immersed in a project-based, blended learning environment where students complete interactive tasks online and in the classroom. Once students prove proficiency of the standards, they unlock an online, cooperative project that requires them to apply everything they learned throughout the unit by creating something original and new. While online education and project-based learning are not new -- the marriage of the two on a scalable platform is.


We need to stop pandering to our "digital native" students and provide structures and platforms that better enable their success -- and success not just on statewide measures of assessment, but on outcomes related to college and career readiness. Through MySciHigh, we hope to tap into what motivates students to learn at the highest levels and see technology as part of the means to get there. While we have some big hypotheses based on years of research and practice, we are going to listen to our student and teacher users, apply real time data and feedback, and keep improving through a nonstop process of inquiry.

Could this change schools for the better? Possibly. But if we do not take risks and apply the Lean Startup methodology to schools, we'll fail generations more of the same students and that is just not ok.