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4 Steps to More Innovative Public Schools

by Kaleigh Watson:

When we picture the future of education, it’s fun to envision sending our kids off to schools where they’ll spend their days in classrooms integrated with floor to ceiling technologies as hologram teachers lead their lessons. And while this picture of a futuristic classroom may not be far off, the perhaps more important future of education seems to lay not in yet-to-be-invented technologies, but in the curriculum itself.

In fact, the future of education, and curriculum in particular, is already changing. In recent years there’s been a subtle shift away from the “basic” areas of education like history, geometry, chemistry and literature with a push towards more modern curriculum goalposts. Experiential learning, STEM focused lessons, coding skills, and entrepreneurship based projects are just a few of the building blocks to the education of the future.

While “coding skills” and “entrepreneurship” may seem like nothing more than education buzzwords, their integration into school curriculum can help kids succeed in our technology driven world.

But how exactly can we foster more innovative public schools? Three education leaders and innovators convened this past spring at the TomTom Fest Hometown Summit to speak about their experiences in pushing for, and helping create, the education of tomorrow. Here’s what they had to share about fostering more innovative education.

1) Let kids help drive their own education

Could a more “innovative” education actually spark more interested and engaged learners? According to panelist Keaton Wadzinski, the answer is an absolute yes. Wadzinski, founder and executive director of ReinventED Lab, explains that in his experience students want to have more authenticity and agency in their educational experiences. He finds that students also want to learn “real world skills”, like how to do taxes. More practical skills like this are key to a more innovative and practical education, one that many students are excited to be a part of. This desire should be harnessed, advises Wadzinski, who suggests using student voices as assets. “Students are the most important, but often least engaged stakeholders”, he explains. An important first step towards creating a more innovative education may simply be figuring out what it is that students want to learn.

2) Include and engage community

Community plays a huge role in cultivating innovation in schools, according to our panelists. Katie Boody, CEO of The Lean Lab explains that garnering community support can help a school thrive. Working to improve education in Kansas City, Mo, Katie reccomended looking for talent, those who can contribute or support the school, within the community before seeking out national talent, “We need to get to know people in the community first – identify the leadership and ask them to help” she explains.  More broadly though, panelists recommended engaging the community with initiatives like pop-up events to educate community members. For example, “pointing to social innovation and imagining an educational context”.

Equally as important as community engagement, if not more so, is gaining support from parents. “Parents are primary”, states one panelist, “we must support the parents if we are going to support the children”. And the solution here is to invite them, often and broadly, to school events. One panelists suggested inviting parents into the school for events and showcases, instead of just for things like disciplinary action and fundraisers. Parents who are positively engaged in the community and mission of the school will be its best supporters.

3) Break away from outdated standards of education

“Standards of education” that have been in place for years may be some of the biggest inhibitors to moving towards more innovative learning. A primary example is the “seat-time” standard, a metric that attempts to measure education according to the number of hours students spend sitting in the classroom. This is exactly what our panelists want to push back on, urging for a more straightforward focus on learning.

A second inhibitor to innovation is the “test scores” metric. Test scores may not be the best way to measure true education, and they also trap educators into teaching particular curriculums with little wiggle room to explore other topics of interest with their students. One panelist explains, “The press doesn’t care if you’ve made progress and if students are learning. They care if students are learning in ways that can be demonstrated on a particular test”. This means that an important step towards innovation will be to change mindsets about how we currently measure education, and break away from the older, ineffective standards we currently use. One panelist expounds on this issue, saying, “We are so focused on scores and curriculum that it inhibits good teaching… the testing craze can limit our ability to invest in skills that the current job market requires”.

4) Don’t import – adapt

Another important tip for successful innovation is to be aware of your own area and community. Looking at what schools in other states are doing and attempting to copy those initiatives may not be the best way to achieve real innovation. It’s important to consider the demographics and needs of your own area. Instead of attempting to directly import what other schools are doing, one panelist suggested, “We need to make sure what we’re adopting is tailored to our community”. Each community’s needs are unique, and being aware of this is an important step to finding the best ways to innovate.

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