This blog is extracted from a book chapter about New York’s iZone – in particular iZone360, a school redesign programme initiated in 2010.  (The book is “Sustainable school transformation”, edited by David Crossley, Bloomsbury, 2013.)  The UK’s Innovation Unit was design partner to this programme for three years. 


By Spring 2010, New York’s Chancellor Joel Klein, and his Deputy Chancellor for Innovation, John White, had come to believe that the ‘industrial model’ of schooling was exhausted and could not deliver either college and career readiness for all students, or more equitable outcomes (both key performance indicators in the States). He also recognised the energy, ingenuity and commitment that was present in some ‘renegade’ schools who broke the rules and achieved beyond expectations.  Believing that new models of practice were required from which the system could learn, the New York City Department of Education launched one of the world’s most ambitious and intentional education innovation programmes. The rationale was simple:

“New York’s schooling system perceives a need for its young people to be enabled to achieve 21st century  standards that prepare them for post-secondary success by emphasising higher-order critical thinking, real-world application, and collaboration that will necessitate developing instructional capacity that our schools do not currently have.”

The ultimate aim of the strategy was to transform learning for the 1 million students in NYC’s 1,700 public schools through replacing the ‘industrial model’.  The ambition was to build schools round the needs, interests and motivations of individual students. Students enter schools as individuals, often now tech-savvy, with a diverse set of needs, capabilities and prior learning histories. Therefore, the new logic went, schools must reorient themselves to treat students as individual learners, where every child owns a unique education plan with his or her own path to personal and academic success.

The goal was to make personalisation the central approach to educating students, where learning would be about each student mastering skills and capabilities in her own way, at her own pace – much as is habitually modelled in music learning or with gaming technologies. Personalised approaches and mastery based assessment were the new foundation stones. In iZone360 schools, it would no longer be about advancing students through grade levels and tests based on age and time spent in class, but about supporting them to build the skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed to be successful in the world:

“We are committed to engage every child in a personalized, rigorous, and engaging learning plan that develops the skills they will need to succeed in the complex real-world situations they will face in college and career. It will motivate them by connecting their learning to real-world contexts and empowering them to define and manage their own academic progress.”

There was also a belief that this transition couldn’t happen without an incubation strategy for pioneer schools such as that provided by iZone – as shown in the diagram below.


During the 2010-11 school year this high-level vision for ‘personalised mastery learning’ was articulated one level further, identifying four pillars or principles:

  1. Personalised learning plans and progress
  2. Flexible and real world learning environments (multiple learning modalities, learning anytime, anywhere, on- and off-line, project-based)
  3. What was called ‘next generation’ curriculum and assessment
  4. New student and staff roles (advisor, tutor, mentor, designer, facilitator, peer-tutor).

The ambition for iZone – which already had a history and body of work in technology innovation (iLearn) and school component innovation (Innovate NYC) – was expanded to include a third component, iZone360, with the following brief:

iZone 360 – a community of practice of schools committed to whole school redesign through the integration of components and practices into whole new schooling models of highly successful 21st Century personalised learning – on behalf of the whole system.

It is this emphasis on whole school redesign and its wider system implications that offers interesting possibilities for the UK system. 

iZone360 – a system transformation strategy

From its outset two things created energy for this bold work. The first was an utterly irrefutable case for change supported by a strong mandate, an impatience for innovation, from the Chancellor, Joel Klein.  He was convinced by his own life-experience as a poor New Yorker, profoundly believing that education could, and should, do the same for the current generation’s poor – those who have consistently been failed by the schooling system – as it did for him.

The second was a compelling vision of an alternative pedagogical paradigm and the re-design principles around which new school models should emerge.  This was well-defined in theory, but also intentionally open to multiple interpretations in practice. (New York has never set out to create a definitive new model. Pluralism, multiple models, choice possibilities all better describe the case. The consistency lies in fidelity to the design principles.)  The five point theory of action was straightforward enough:

  1. identify principals of ambitious and potentially ‘renegade’ schools willing to engage in radical school re-design within a strong community of practice (think a MAT arrangement), working on behalf of the entire system
  2. build the design around a clear diffusion strategy – animate that wider system around the work and connect it such that the foundations of a diffusion strategy are present from the outset
  3. create new forums wherein the emergent strategy and implementation challenges can be collectively shared and problem-solved by all key actors
  4. incubate the schools by utilising resources flexibly, including service design expertise, multiple professional learning approaches, support from expert ‘model design partners’, use of innovation disciplines, provision of innovation coaches and a range of other supports – including relevant deregulation
  5. learn from the work, codifying practices in ways that support diffusion and scale across the system.

In addition, the ambition was always to co-design the evolution of this strategy with participant principals, such that the DOE personnel and school leaders could learn the way forward together – much in the spirit of a ‘systemic action enquiry strategy’. The significance of this (in theory) is obvious: on the one hand, in the short-term creating radically new school models requires de-regulation and safe space – systemically enabling conditions; new policy and practice enablers. Longer-term, scaling of these models would involve all system actors learning alongside one another how to adapt expectations, supports and accountabilities to new schooling and learning approaches.

Simple examples of what is implied by this might be that in new school designs the State’s ‘seat-time’ (school attendance) regulations may become anachronistic; teachers’ working conditions might need to change; universal assessment dates (grade-level testing) may become counter-productive; age-cohorting students might be redundant; attendance in learning may be more valuable than attendance in school; the regulation school calendar may be inhibiting. The shared learning ambitions were designed in part to wrestle with such emergent issues of experimentation, unlearning and abandonment.

This co-design intent and its underpinning trust-based commitment, the community of practice approach, the ‘on behalf of the system’ moral purpose of the work – and the total belief that professionals have it within their power to be the school and system redesigners given appropriate license and supports, made iZone360 an archetypically progressive policy strategy.  Jurisdictions can learn from this alone – it isn’t policy-makers best equipped to effect change; it is practice leaders.

iZone 360 – a whole school redesign story

iZone360 was initially a cohort of 26 schools (later 50 schools) deliberately drawn from across the geography of New York City.  Some were the most highly developed schools such as City As School, iSchool, NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies or WHEELS. Others were ‘regular schools’ wanting to become profoundly less regular. Yet another group were new schools still at the design stage (think Free Schools).  What this diverse group had in common was the desire to redesign around the core principles below – and to help one another with that ambition.


Each school chose an external school design partner to work with them (such as Big Picture, Apple or New Tech Network).  The idea was not for the schools to adopt the design partner’s model, but to draw from their expertise in creating a distinctive ‘next generation’ NYC model. Beyond this, ‘component partners’ were also commissioned to bring expertise in key elements of the work, which could be anything from technology systems to advisories; simulations to project-based learning; scheduling to community mobilisation.  They meant business.

Each school also established their own Design Team – guided by protocols – which was to include the principal, a team leader and a cohort of staff who together had the potency to transform the school. As a community, the schools committed to a six-day design process spread across the year, together with school-based support in-between.  This approach involved the progressive introduction of robust and disciplined methods to design, prototype, evaluate, and support the scaling of new school models – a component led by the Innovation Unit.

In addition, affinity groups were established around common themes and issues; school-to-school peer support and challenge figured prominently; and the principals formed a leadership council to take ownership of the ambition together with senior DOEn personnel.

What has all this to do with UK MATs?

It may be a surprise that his blog is not about New York, nor about the iZone.  It is about an innovation strategy with the ambition and the power to begin to effect system transformation.  It is about the potency and variety of school-to-school collaboration designs.  An earlier blog post featured High Tech High – viewed through the lens of a MAT. This post attempts to do the same for iZone360, by viewing it as a MAT specifically designed to build a body of practice of value to the system.

Put another way, what this post says is this:

  • It would be distinctly possible to establish a MAT of schools committed to designing and creating new school models, as iZone 360 did
  • It would be equally possible to agree the set of ambitious design principles around which each school would then express its own radical purposes and originality.  iZone360’s are above; try these as a UK starting point:



  • Such a MAT could also agree and monitor the most rigorous success indicators and ambitions for student learning – far beyond the limited range of test results that currently constrain educational imagination – and evaluate its collective and component success against these measures
  • Such a MAT would function also as both a collaborative community and a community of practice (COP) – a group of schools committed to each other’s success and to building a collective body of knowledge to inform new practices – like iZone360
  • As a group of, say, 20 schools striving towards ambitious new designs, the COP would be well placed to utilise international links with groups of schools like Big Picture Learning, ConnectEd California, Edvision Schools, Envision Education, Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High, New Tech Network and others, as well as with some of the major pedagogical developments such as the Deeper Learning movement – just as iZone 360 was able to do
  • A MAT of innovative schools could generate energy in the system – much as Eos is beginning to do for primary schools across the UK and as iZone360 did in the States. It could use its people, its practice and its connections to build associates and progressively a movement around the work
  • The MAT might include some existing established schools wishing to further redesign and reinvent themselves.  It could also incorporate Free Schools wanting to use the capacity of the schools within the MAT to create and implement new school designs – just as iZone360 did
  • It is hard to imagine, too, that it wouldn’t be possible to draw into this compelling vision some significant system players who might act as supporters and advocates – individuals, organisations, philanthropic entities.

So that is the pitch.  Two blog posts, each describing the kind of MAT that could act as icons for a new kind of schooling and learning.

Interested?  Feel free to comment.



2 thoughts on “A Different Kind of MAT Story

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