There are over 132,000 schools in the United States, and most of them continue to operate as they did 150 years ago. While many experts are increasingly vocal about the mismatch between our prevalent sit-and-get, industrialized model of schooling, and the agile, dynamic skills the global digital economy is hungry for, only a small percentage of schools have embraced the core institutional redesign needed to enable graduates to thrive in this changing world. Why is this the case and how might we accelerate the process?
Education in the United States is profoundly local: 88% of all school districts have 10 or fewer schools, and community aspirations, working conditions, and accountability measures are defined locally. While we partner with educators and leaders around the country, and we see that although change may be launched at the national, state, or district level, it is always enacted school by school. We also see that schools are so overwhelmed with the daily work of educating students, many of whom arrive with deep personal needs, that they have little time, space, or capacity to take on the disconnect between the design of school and the changing economy. Leaders and educators may be curious about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is impacting our world, but there’s always the next IEP meeting or homelessness crisis or district assessment or board meeting or state report coming due this Tuesday. Over and over again, we hear how there’s just not enough time and energy to reimagine what school could be, even if the need is felt.
For innovation to spread and scale, we must create ways for latent demand to become viable demand; we must democratize opportunities for all schools to participate in redesign, not just those that have the luxury of doing so because they have larger budgets and can hire additional staff to take on the work. This entails creating efficiencies to enable local redesign.
Addressing the supply side is one way to create those efficiencies. Will each of those 132,000+ school communities create its own new school model? Or will they undergo a discovery process to define what sort of school model they’re compelled by and then do the creative work of designing that model from existing components? We think the latter is more likely. We expect that a very small percentage of the nation’s school communities will become designers of model components while a much greater number will design with model components.
By components we don’t simply mean curriculum replicating the existing subject structure (English, History, Math, etc.). Rather, we mean more complex designs that have relevance to our current economy, including hard and soft skills like computing and creativity that require different configurations of adult roles, schedules, partnerships with the community, etc. These components can be characterized through a variety of frameworks, from Education Reimagined’s to Next Generation Learning Challenge’s or by what Transcend calls the 8 Great Leaps that differentiate a much-needed new model of learning from the existing industrial one:
- deep, interdisciplinary learning
- high expectations for all students
- students being active drivers of their own learning
- learning that is flexible, personalized, and can take place anywhere in school and outside
- educators who collaborate with others outside of school
- active roles for parents as partners
- inter-connectedness with the local community
- technology embedded into the heart of learning and relationship-building.
Some examples might include:
- A high school computer science program that serves all students (not just select ones) and creates learning pathways linked to corporate certification (Autodesk, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce), thus enabling students to graduate both college – and job – ready
- A comprehensive human development model of schooling for elementary students that includes emotional literacies, self-regulation, and relationship-building skills
- An adaptable design for high school-career STEAM learning that enables students to acquire entrepreneurial and technical “knowhow”
- An elementary school computational thinking model that enables students to build analytic frameworks around artificial intelligence
These components, once built and codified, become the supply which many more schools can adopt and adapt, and put together with other components, to more efficiently bring change to their local contexts.
Spreading Innovation in K12
These demand and supply issues were front and center in April at the ASU GSV Summit, where one standing room only panel took on the issue of how to scale, spread, and sustain innovation in K12 education.
There and in other forums, a consensus is emerging that ‘scaling’ is the wrong metaphor for expansion of innovation in education. Scaling is a remnant of the industrial model itself, where a widget is created and then replicated and distributed into the market.
Spread is a more powerful metaphor suited to an age of networks and virality, where ideas and examples can jump into new contexts where they are adapted. The question of opening redesign doors to an ever greater and more equitable number of the 132,000 plus schools then shifts to four spreading strategies which together can form a virtuous feedback loop or a theory of systems change:
- We need to build streamlined, efficient, cost-effective discovery processes that enable communities to arrive at their local solution for redesigning school.
- We need to grow the actual supply of available, adaptable model components such that every community is not reinventing the wheel (and perhaps, borrowing a page from software, create an open-source library or github to house these components).
- We need to develop and spread streamlined, efficient, cost-effective processes for the assembly and adaptation of those components.
- We need to create mechanisms for the spread of knowledge of and from these adaptation/assembly efforts, which will create greater demand for the discovery processes described above in (1).
Schools themselves rarely have the time and resources to do this capacity-building work and nor should they have to; they’re in the business of educating students, not designing change management processes. They should, however, have ready access to redesign processes that let them locally define what change they want to embark upon as they will be the owners of sustaining that change.
The “we” above refers to ecosystem enablers – the non-profit organizations who support schools in change management processes, the entrepreneurs who design solutions for K12, and the funders, both philanthropic and venture, who resource the non-profits and entrepreneurs. These ecosystem enablers are the ones who will help latent demand become more broadly activated, and the supply and processes for redesign to become more widely accessible; thereby opening the doors for more of the 132,000 schools in the US to take on the work of redesign.
Three Big Design Levers to Spread Innovation Via Networks
All these agents gathered in April at ASU GSV, where three big design levers emerged, along with ways to create efficiencies in the application of those levers. All three of these levers activate networks as a means to spread and sustain innovation.
- Enable inclusive design to grow demand. Lasting innovation cannot be done to people; it must be designed with the stakeholders who will live it and sustain it, and those stakeholders are often excited to share with and borrow from each other. The function of larger systems likes districts and CMOs then must also shift: it becomes the enabling of inclusive design. After decades of trying to implement top-down change, we know it doesn’t spread or sustain itself.
- De-risk innovation to grow demand: K12 systems are not known for encouraging risk takers, yet redesigning 132,000+ schools necessitates risk-taking. We can intentionally remove risk from the ecosystem by activating networks to spread stories about risk takers (educators, school leaders, systems leaders, boards, cities, states) and followers, and thereby lower the threshold of what is considered risky. Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, argued that these stories amplify work that’s already being done, provide cover for other innovators and adopters, and also provide an evidence-base for what has and has not worked.
- Activate technology to grow and spread supply: Technology solutions can enable more schools to enter into redesign by creating efficiencies. Big Picture Learning has launched ImBlaze, an internship management system that enables schools to streamline their students’ and teachers’ experiences of out-of-school learning opportunities. Digital Promise has created an online digital portfolio system where innovative districts can share their change management tools, as has Modern Teacher, which is also facilitating an 18-month dialogue between providers of all the stacks of school’s technology infrastructure: Student Information System (SIS), Learning Management System (LMS), digital content, assessment, voice recognition–in the hopes of creating a single, seamless school-facing product. Transcend is working on making all of its design assets available online including developing a more comprehensive innovation discovery journey toolkit over time.
The school redesign sector, which currently comprises fewer than a hundred organizations and funders, needs to activate networks to spread innovative school redesign as a less risky new normal. They need to develop streamlined, efficient products and processes, supported through democratizing technological delivery channels, so that more communities are able to undertake an inclusive design journey to reimagine schooling to better meet the needs of the graduates they’re launching into our rapidly shifting economy.
This article was developed and researched in collaboration with Sujata Bhatt, Senior Fellow, Transcend