The United States has more than 100,000 schools, so it’s not surprising that it has some of the worst and the best school practices in the world.  And the best are best by design.  Let’s emphasise that.  The best of the American schools are by a mile some of the most interesting in the world.  They are worth learning from – and this is not surprising.

There is a recent innovation history in the States of supporting new school designs.

In 1984 the Coalition of Essential Schools was set up following publication of Ted Sizer’s book ‘Horace’s Compromise’.  It began as a network of 12 schools and as of 2016 has more than 600, connecting under the banner of ‘common principles for uncommon schools’. Basically, it represented the start of the whole school reform or redesign movement based upon a set of shared design principles.  As examples, the Coalition’s principles include:

  • Less is more – depth over coverage 
  • Personalisation – built on profound knowledge of learners
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Assessment based on demonstration of mastery and real tasks. 

In 1991 the New American Schools initiative was launched.  Its intention was to stimulate the development and implementation of transformative whole school designs.  It was intended to break free of a paradigm that simply improves the existing model, or that bolts onto it new programmes.  It supported school design teams (educators, business people, researchers) to create potentially transformative new school designs with the scope to be scaled.  Of course, not all were successful, but some proved to be seminally influential – such as Expeditionary Learning, Co-NECT Schools, ATLAS Schools or Roots and Wings.  Even more successful was the establishment of the precedent of new school design and the practice of individual and collective evaluation of designs.

Fast forward to 2000 and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had a big idea about how to fix the problems of American education. They resolved to break up large high schools and turn them into ‘small schools’ – small learning communities of 400 or fewer students. They believed that small high schools would lift graduation rates and student achievement, especially among minority students, because the strong relationships between students and teachers would ensure that students were profoundly well known.

The foundation spent $2 billion promoting the dissolution of large high schools and the creation of small schools across the nation. Some 2,600 new small high schools opened in 45 states. New York City alone has more than 200 such schools, with high schools devoted to such themes as leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice.  By 2005, Bill Gates had told the National Governors Association that ‘America’s high schools are obsolete’; that small schools made everything ‘relevant’, through hands-on activities and new pedagogical approaches.

Were all these schools successful?  Of course they weren’t.  However, the small-high-schools program funded the growth of the Big Picture high schools, founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor (now 60+ Big Picture high schools in 18 states). These small, personalised high schools, started for drop-out learners, graduate 92 percent of their students on time. Amazing.

Gates also funded the EdVisions network of schools, (getting on for 50 high schools in 12 states). SAT average composite scores for EdVisions schools far exceeds the composite average; and over 82% of EdVisions graduates progress to degree programs, which speaks for itself.

New Tech Network  now has in excess of 150 schools and is a leading design partner for comprehensive school change and innovative learning environments.  They achieve 72% college enrolment and 84% college persistence – and this with a model that transforms existing schools, not just start-ups.  Truly impressive.

The foundation also funded the growth of High Tech High (HTH), now 13 high schools in the San Diego area. 99% of HTH’s graduates have been admitted to college or university, with approximately 80% admitted to four-year programs. About 35% of HTH graduates are first-generation college students, and 85% of their free school meals students complete degrees.  Astonishing.

The high schools in these four school design networks work.  Students in these schools all consistently outperform teenagers in conventionally sized, conventionally structured high schools with comparable demographics.  The system is learning to learn from them and the work has spawned other diffusion organisations – the Buck Institute supports project-based learning to spread; Bob Pearlman (formerly of NTN) curates a school reform and innovation web space.

There are also some common features across all these models:

  • All include project-based learning, an engaging and empowering pedagogical model, which requires teachers to collaborative as designers of learning
  • All focus on the centrality of relationships – have ‘advisory’ (where advisory is the soul of the school, symbolising supporting students before teaching curriculum)
  • All have powerful adult learning norms
  • All have pervasive cultural identity and school level ownership of what matters, including what is assessed and how and by whom it is assessed.

The point of all these US examples is simple.  Healthy systems have to have innovation capacity – a self conscious attempt to design, implement and evaluate potentially paradigm-shifting new models of practice.  Yes, there are real schooling problems in many US States and cities, but the system will be fine because it knows where it is heading.  It has great icons from which it can learn – as evidenced in two very current reform movements:  XQ America and Education Reimagined. They build from these iconic innovatory school designs.

We do not (yet) have this tradition in the UK.  And not to have it simply means that we constantly focus on striving to improve the existing school model.  A model that is more than 100 years old and way, way, way out of date.  A model that has failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic challenge, or to engage the potentially disengaged learner  (or to engage most learners, for that matter).  Nor has it provided teachers with an intellectually challenging profession, or excited and involved parents with the experience of their children.  Effectively, this means that innovation becomes limited to new ways of delivering the 60 minute subject-based lesson!

Innovation Unit has worked with many of those cited above, extensively with High Tech High.  Richly, too, with Big Picture, Expeditionary Learning and New Tech Network, and has learned much from Buck Institute and Bob Pearlman.  We believe it is time to start just such a movement in the UK.  There are three ways we plan to do this:

  1. In partnership with others (Eos, Hartsholme Academy, School 21, XP School) we will fill the airways with thought leadership material.  We’ll generate energy around the ideas, the evidence and the images of practice that mark out a direction of travel
  2. Innovation Unit has formed a School Design Lab to provide tools, processes and extended support for design and implementation of new school models
  3. Innovation Unit is seriously considering establishing a MAT of innovative new school designs, which will mean three things:
    1. Creating a different kind of MAT – a MAT that builds on the best that is known about school-to-school collaboration (e.g. HTH as a MAT or A Different Kind of MAT Story)
    2. Recruiting a diverse group of start-up schools eager to generate new school designs around a common set of design principles – think of the Coalition’s “common principles for uncommon schools”
    3. Building a coalition of partners around the work eager to support and enable its success.

With regard to the common principles, we believe that these might be the areas around which principles should form:

Slide 1

And our first take on what exactly these principles might be is below.  However, the point is this.  We want to socialise these, to take them on the road and to refine them through engagement with similarly ambitious teachers, leaders, parents, Local Authority people, those working in MATs, RSCs, business people, philanthropists – all those, in fact, who care about redesigning schooling and learning.  So, if you are one of these people, please add comments below, or send them to me: david.jackson@innovationunit.org.

And thanks for engaging with this.

Slide 2

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4 thoughts on “Why the UK Needs New School Models

  1. Great article David. I have a much better understanding of PBL and its history. I wonder if this is the way forward for Australia’s remote Aboriginal schools. David An

    1. I would say that it is definitely, undoubtedly, unquestionably the way to go with remote Aboriginal schools – for all sorts of reasons, not least that it will be the medium that releases their potential and incorporates and honours their culture and heritage.

  2. David, great article. I feel that you have captured most of what we are also trying to do at PSII in Victoria, BC, Canada. I would offer a few suggestions, though, that I think may be significant. For me, I think a school needs to embrace the notion of “emergent curriculum” (like most early learning experts already do) if they are really serious about personalized learning. Projects are valuable when they are part of a learning path that has been co-created by learners and their teachers, coming out of personal curiosity or personal need. I have seen project-based learning done well and I have also seen it done in a way that makes it the least personalized approach possible. I also believe that projects are best when they are under the umbrella of interdisciplinary inquiry. The artificial silos of traditional subjects prevent learners from really spreading their wings when the learning they want to pursue overflows one of those restrictive containers. And this only strengthens your point about community partners. When we really allow for emergent, interdisciplinary paths of inquiry, it is quite possible that schools will need to enlist help from members of the community where those learning paths cannot be supported completely in-house. The balance between what is teacher-suggested and what is learner-initiated is key, in my humble opinion. This is where it usually falls apart, especially at the high school level (at least in Canada) where teachers sometimes see curriculum outcome coverage as synonymous with learning. Or, maybe to be more fair, they see curriculum outcomes as necessary and do not have faith that emergent learning paths will necessarily intersect with the completely non-personalized universal province, state, or national curriculum.

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