Monthly Archives: August 2015

3 Ways to Avoid School-as-Usual

50.1 million children will attend school in grades PK-12 this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those, approximately 1.3 million will be entering prekindergarten.

Expectations and tensions run high in many families as their only or youngest child enters the public or private school system. Whether or not their child has attended pre-school prior to this, it is still a major transition, and most kids struggle with the change, as do their parents.

What’s different this year is the degree to which the basic premise of our educational system is being questioned and the number of alternatives being offered, explored or in the process of development.

Why question something so basic?

That we offer and avail ourselves of free, compulsory education in this country is something that most of us take for granted. But what we’ve also taken for granted for too long is the model itself: an essentially one-size-fits-all helping of test-driven “pedagogy” that is failing so many of the kids it is supposed to be serving. One indication of resistance to school-as-usual is the 20% of kids (roughly 200,000 of an eligible 1.1 million, or one in five) kids who opted out of the spring 2015 New York State standardized tests.

Is it all gloom and doom?

In addition to the vast amount of financial resources and brainpower being devoted to technology in the name of school improvement ($1.61B in funding for educational technology so far this year alone), there is a huge range of alternatives in the types of schooling choices that people are making these days.

1. High-Priced, Well-Designed Alternatives

One of the schools I’m rooting for is the AltSchool, which promises its attendees “personalized learning plans, real world application, community connection, and whole child development based on Social Emotional Learning.” I appreciate that this school believes in the power of technology to transform education, using digital tools to create Personalized Learning Plans; support collaboration between teachers, parents, and students; and to support student learning activities. But with an annual tuition of over $21,000 at its San Francisco location, for example, it’s accessible to everyone who might like to try it (tuition assistance is available).

But we should keep our eye on AltSchools. They will be having a big impact moving forward.

2. At-Home Remedies

Another alternative to schools-that-ail-us are the growing homeschooling and unschooling movements. According to the NCES, the number of homeschooled students has been increasing, with 1,770,000 students (or 3.4% of the school-age population for that year) reported homeschooling for 2013. This is a substantial increase over the 1.5 million reported for 2007, 1.1M in 2003, and 850,000 in 1999.

Homeschooling efforts are growing both nationally and internationally, supported by both online and local resources, groups, schools and communities. Some groups are fairly traditional in their approach to learning while others are contributing to increased support for learner-centric and self-directed learning.  

Concerns over transitions from a home- or unschooled environment to higher education or the workplace are dispelled by a lot of the research.Peter Gray’s study, for example, on families who unschooled their kids revealed that in 83% of families surveyed, their kids went on to college. Other studies show that kids who are educated at home tend to score higher on college placement tests and are more apt to complete college than other students.

3. Is there any middle ground?

I wouldn’t compromise too much when a child’s future learning is at stake, but it is fair to ask what you can do if you can’t afford an AltSchool or are not disposed to or able to homeschool, or unschool. Here’s a few ideas:

  • Charter schools: Intrinsic is another example of an interesting alternative, in this case in the form of a charter school, that is really pushing to make a difference. Located in Chicago, Intrinsic leverages technology and architectural design to support personalized learning. The overall design of the learning environment, called “The Pod,” includes the Coastline for independent work, the Shade for collaboration and project-based learning and the Big Board, for direct instruction and discussion. EdSurge has a great write-up on the story of how Intrinsic got built.
  • Schools with smart partners: If you don’t want your child to attend school-as-usual, look for schools that utilize technology to support personalized and blended learning, or who partner with great programs such as Tools at Schools, Beam Center or Breaker projects, to name a few.
  • Online alternatives: There are fee-based and public online alternatives. One well thought-out private, somewhat traditional online program is the Laurel Springs School. org offers classes (called “Camps”) that can be used to supplement at-school or home-based learning experiences.

Consider the alternatives if you are hesitant about the school your child is entering or already attending.  There are reasons to be concerned and there are options.


What If You Built an EdTech Company and Not Enough People Came?

In January, Ambient Insight reported that global investments in learning technology reached $2.34 billion worldwide. In the U.S. market, with the industry reporting as much as $1.61 billion in funding halfway through this year, many would think we don’t need to worry too much about the future of edtech. After all, this already surpasses 2014 totals of $1.36B. The EdSurge Edtech Index lists nearly 1,600 different products in categories that include curriculum products, teacher needs, school operations, post-secondary and the all-purpose, everything else. There’s a lot of activity, right?

But if you look closely, as Frank Catalano did earlier this year in Geek Wire, although the numbers are rising yearly in terms of seed money, the percentages of investments decline significantly after that, with very little capital being invested for edtech in later stages. The bigger dollars go to more established companies, says Catalano, like the $186 M that went to before its purchase by LinkedIn. Most others fall far behind, with only 25 buyers spending more than $100M on U.S. edtech companies, reports EdSurge.

So, with all that activity out there, why is less money spent in this sector and less risk being taken on in later stages? Are there any lessons out there for edtech companies to learn from?

Try Not to Blame Your Target Market

News Corp’s $371M writedown of Amplify, the educational software and tablet company, gives us . . . ample reason to pause. Amplify is discontinuing its tablet-making business while it sorts through alternatives for the curriculum and assessment side of the business. According to a letter written by CEO Joel Klein to Amplify’s staff, the company will continue to support existing tablet customers but will not be taking on any new ones.

Not surprisingly, Klein’s letter, published in full on BuzzFeed, emanated pride of company. “Amplify designed a compelling tablet for classroom education . . . No one put as much thought and know-how into how teachers can work in a one-to-one classroom . . . In my view, Amplify’s work has been so innovative and transformative that we’ve been ahead of the market . . . However, sales haven’t moved as fast as we initially hoped. Too many districts across the country struggle with basic issues like sufficient internet connectivity. And change management in many places has been more difficult than many had anticipated.”

Klein goes on to applaud News Corp and Rupert Murdoch for their boldness of vision and commitment to education, admitting “As positive as this relationship has been, Amplify and News Corp both believe it is time to explore new and exciting strategic opportunities, working with partners who share a deep understanding of what it takes to be successful in education.”

And that there is the kicker. What does it take to be successful in education?

Is It Really Possible That People Just Aren’t Ready?

Is it fair for someone in Klein’s position to say we just weren’t ready for the product’s greatness?

While Klein’s comments come off as oddly congratulatory considering the circumstance, it’s neither out of character for him nor that outrageous in the world of high tech, where many of you reading this today have experienced, as have I, being on one end or another of an M&A deal.

This is not to say I have no sympathy for the people at Amplify who have most probably put heart and soul into efforts to develop a superior product. What struck me, however, were Klein’s comments regarding the readiness of the market.

His comments that seem to echo, for one, Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2015report for KPCB, in which she notes that “The Internet has been extraordinary . . . But in many ways, it’s just beginning.” The report indicated that education has had one quarter of the total impact (estimated degree to which Internet has changed behavior or outcomes in selected sectors of the economy/society) that a sector such as consumer has, for example.

Catalano also points out that edtech “at least in terms of investment, is a little weird. But in that charming, awkward kindergartener kind of way, like someone who — with or without epic funding numbers — may still grow up to be a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.”

What Does It Take to Be Successful in EdTech?

If Klein appears to have exhibited impatience with the people whose problems he was trying to solve, it wasn’t the first time for him. As Chancellor of New York’s vast public school system, he battled the long-entrenched unions as well as parents who opposed his many policies of change, which included establishing the Empowerment Zone, iZone, high stakes testing, merit pay, closing schools and opening charter schools, and more.

In his memoir “Lessons of Hope, Klein notes “We would inevitably try some things that wouldn’t work.” Alexander Nazaryan writing in Newsweek upon publication of the memoir, reflected “And yet failure was still preferable to inertia.”

When Klein says “. . . the forward-thinking districts that have implemented our curriculum in the classroom are proof positive that we are fundamentally changing the way teachers teach and students learn” you are left wondering about the nature of change and the means by which it can be obtained.

Amplify ran out of time. While revenues increased $21M over the previous year (earning $24M in revenues from April to June 2015 alone), it was too little too late. CFO Bedi Singh stated that the market for the digital curriculum was “disappointing and much slower to develop than we expected.”

Many of us are impatient and seek quicker solutions to what ails education. With the speed of software development may come false assumptions about the speed of adoption and acceptance to change. A tablet is not going to change K-12 education any more than an LMS will. Real disruption needs to come from a systemic change in how people perceive of learning overall and adopt curricular changes that reflect true 21st learning needs and goals.

Can We Teach Someone to Be More Self-Directed?

If you are familiar with the story of Timothy Doner, the kid who taught himself 20 languages, you are probably not only impressed by his linguistic prowess but also by his belief that language opens you to a new world view.

Doner tells us that his language learning journey began after years of instruction at school, instruction that started with French class in third grade and continued with Latin in seventh grade. He was unable to converse in French, and in learning Latin, he was really learning some systems for analyzing language but not really a means for communicating through it.

So how did he transition from old school to a new way of learning language that enabled him to learn 20 languages over a period of a few years? On his own?

The Power of Self-Directed Learning

Listening to how Doner talks about his language learning journey, I was struck by how his story is a testament to the power of self-directed learning, even if his own narrative is focused on the relationship between language and culture.

Wanting to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Doner started to teach himself Hebrew by listening to the lyrics of popular Israeli rap music. He eventually started visiting Israeli cafes in New York neighborhoods, perfecting his accent, vocabulary and listening skills along the way. From there he went on to Arabic, practicing at first with street vendors, and moved on to Persian, Russian, Mandarin, Swahili, and others.

Like most self-directed learners, Doner was compelled to teach himself something and found the means to do so outside of school-as-usual.

The Traits of a Self-Directed Learner

Self-directed learners are by nature independently minded and driven in their pursuit of knowledge. In addition to this, studies on self-directed learning tell us that:

  • Self-directed learners take more responsibility for decisions associated with their pursuit of learning.
  • Not all self-directed learning takes place in isolation.
  • Self-directed learners can transfer learning from one situation to another.
  • Activities associated with self-directed learning include: self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, etc.


Doner’s initial forays into language learning did not yield very positive results. Learning a language in absence of a cultural context and need makes it difficult for most of us. Once he found his motivation (a need for first-hand knowledge), he began to develop a means to teach himself (Israeli rap music). Having laid that foundation, he started to expand not only his repertoire but his toolset as well.

An Evolving Toolset for Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learners are resourceful. In today’s digital world, there’s no shortage of good sources for learning almost anything, especially language learning, including traditional text-based materials, online lessons, discussion groups, etc. Doner doesn’t mention much of that and instead began with rap music as his textbook and neighborhood cafes as his classroom.

As he started to build his repertoire, he expanded his classroom to include outdoor vendors, bookstore owners and practically anyone who would talk with him in whatever language he had undertaken. When that became limiting, he posted videos of himself on YouTube and grew his classroom even further.

Talk about the power of social media! Doner notes that he had teachers and conversation partners for any language he wanted to study.

 What We Can Learn about Failure from Self-Directed Learners

When I think of Doner out there, I see him as an intrepid explorer of new worlds, new ways of thinking and refusing to fear failure. He created his own community of learners, as he has pointed out, by “visiting the outer boroughs and embarrassing himself.” As he worked to improve his language skills, he oftentimes struggled in those conversations with native speakers. “Maybe you have to use a lot of English. Maybe you aren’t that articulate or interesting when you talk.” He illustrates how through one awkward exchange, he learned a word that he will never forget. He appears to be a fearless learner.

Does Self-Directed Learning Have a Place in Institutional Learning?

We’re divided in our perspective of education. Depending on where you live, how much money you have, and how much impact you want to have on your child’s learning, there may or may not be very obvious options for how they do so. Doner’s story is admittedly extreme, but it should serve to excite us about the possibilities that exist when kids can find and fuel a passion for learning.

How does that translate into the public or private education systems today?

There’s a few things we can do to provide opportunities for engagement where currently there is not enough room for generating interest on a student-by-student basis. And it needs to happen on a curricular level so that teachers are left with the room and capacity to spark individual flames of interest.

If we look back at the list of traits of self-directed learners, we know we need to make room for:

  1. Project-based learning activities that provide the time and leeway for kids to take on more responsibility and to discover, albeit in a more structured format than outside of school, areas of interest that may grow over time.
  2. With project-based learning and other more extended engagementscomes an opportunity to fail, change course, and maintain a sense of confidence that can engage kids more significantly than when asked to complete short-term exercises that demand right or wrong answers without much opportunity for exploration. An interesting take on this was presented in an article this month on math education in KQED’s Mind/Shift column.
  3. Design thinking and maker curriculum opportunities can provide the tools and processes for young learners to start exploring on their own. Provided with the experience of working together on shared and guided projects, kids might build on such opportunities to engage in projects of their own.
  4. Modeling mentorships within the school system can help kids gain the confidence to work with the support of an adult or peer mentor on projects of their own interest.

At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about teaching people to be more self-directed, it’s really about providing opportunities where kids can become independent thinkers and problem solvers and feel confident about exploring their own passions. In the workplace, we are seeing how expanding the opportunities for informal learning is positively impacting workplace performance. We’re also seeing how corporate training is evolving into more of a curatorial role in order to make learning available to meet the needs of different learners in different situations. A one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t work anywhere along the continuum of the learning experience.

The bottom line is that we need to start early on to help kids find the spark that will develop into a lifetime passion for learning and doing.

For more on Timothy Doner, see this article on Ideas.Ted.Com as well as his very entertaining TEDxTeen Talk from 2014.

Can We Back Into a Plan for More Relevant Learning Design?

If we look ahead to tomorrow’s workplace, we know that employees need to be increasingly:

  • Agile thinkers and problem solvers
  • Technically savvy
  • Capable of managing and sorting through massive amounts of information

If we look at today’s college graduates, what do we see? In one New York Times report, Steven Ratner describes millennials as “the best educated generation.” Yet, despite his characterization of them as “engaged, upbeat and open to change,” he also notes that “They are faced with a slow economy, high employment, stagnant wages and student loans that will constrict their ability both to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and to save for the future.”

While it’s reasonable to look to the state of the economy to understand what landed many of this generation of 18-34-year-olds into their current plight, we must also examine the means by which we prepare young people for the workplace in any given time period and in the face of ever changing economic forces.

Education vs. Training Redux

Despite reports of a lagging economy and its impact on the unemployment rate, we still see many jobs being left unfilled every year. While our universities continue to preach the value of a liberal arts education, we are also seeing the growth of “academies” of learning directed at training today’s unemployed graduates and career changers for those open positions. Think Code Academy,Hacker Academy, General Assembly, Galvanize, etc.

In addition to this, we’ve seen organizations such as the Thiel Fellowshipawarding hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time to individuals to circumvent the traditional college education and work on what is now estimated to be over a half a billion dollars of aggregate worth in the past few years.

What we see in common of course is the common denominator of technology associated with all of these efforts. Additionally, we know these groups focus on:

  • Hands-on learning activities
  • Real-life business engagements
  • Mentor-driven learning experiences

Still, we hear about the value of the four-year college experience, and particularly the liberal arts degree. We are still considering the value of that experience toward the development of a more fully-rounded individual, one who has learned from history and who is capable of engaging in the highly analytical thought process that may contribute to the vast amount of problem solving and decision making activities required in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace.

Aren’t we?

Backward Plan, But Start from the Beginning

We shouldn’t have to wait until college to learn how to think. Or how to think deeply. More project-based learning, more maker-based learning activities and the establishment of mentorship programs at earlier ages can help prepare the students of today for a more complex workplace of tomorrow.

While not everyone will be coding for a living, the students of tomorrow (as do many of today) will understand the principles behind the most relevant of programming languages. Design thinking and systems thinking will play increasing roles in how curriculum is developed and the result will be a stronger candidate for the workplace of tomorrow.

Universities are thinking about this already and considering their place in the world. The same should be true of K-12. How we learn is no longer a part of a single paradigm. Where we do so shouldn’t be, either.


What Did You Do This Summer?

When people ask “How’s your summer going?” it reflects a paradigm built around a traditional school year calendar but which applies to a subset of the population who can really take advantage of that model. Of course, I remember the beach-filled days of my childhood with great fondness. My parents provided wonderful summers of abandonment that sharply contrasted with the “regular” part of the year when I was in school. So now, when people ask me the question, I simply say, “It’s just like any other time of the year,” which may be true for many working adults. But recently, upon being asked the question, by a smiling mom accompanying two sun-drenched, towel-clad kids into our building’s elevator, it got me to thinking about the dichotomy that is our children’s lives.

Real Life and the Classroom

For ten months a year, and five days a week, most kids spend 7 hours or more inside of the school building, and for many of our youngest learners, in a single classroom led by a single teacher. This is the reality of their days. Sitting in neatly aligned rows for most of the day, they move according to plan through a series of carefully planned, monitored and evaluated activities.

Contrast that to the annual summer vacation and the shift in routine, the change in pace and often location, as well as the expansion of freedoms. Which of these feels “real” to the average kid?

Bringing More Reality to the Routine

The well-sought-after and usually hard-to-get summer internship opportunity presents itself as perhaps the antithesis to those halcyon days that typically define the summer vacation. Placing your high school or college students into the rigors of a fast-paced and often chaotic workplace environment will definitely boost employability upon graduation. But will it seem like you are taking something away, denying them the pleasures of abandonment?

Internships immerse young people in situations that are unlike anything they can experience in most school environments. This summer, LinkedIn is publishing student stories of internships, and there are some fantastic revelations of what they are encountering. This one, by Brian Higgins, is particularly illustrative of the challenges and rewards. Brian compares his engineering internship at Pixlee to playing baseball at the college level for the first time, discussing the need to up his play in both arenas as well as the realities of encountering failure as part of the process of engaging in both these environments. That Brian has grown from both experiences is clear as is the fact that he could not have experienced or learned any of that inside of a classroom.

There’s the dichotomy. And that’s what those questions about summer and summer vacations make me think about.

So, what if we were to incorporate more of the internship experience insider of the classroom? What if we were to engage students on all levels to the challenges of real-life tasks throughout the school year? At the very least, there are a few actions we can take to ensure that once students leave school, they won’t experience the type of culture shock so many kids often do. We can do more to prepare them than we do now in programs entrenched in the high-stakes testing mode. These alternatives include:

  • Project-Based Learning introduced into curricula at all levels
  • Internships incorporated into senior year curricula at the least (as much of the school year is wasted once students apply for college)
  • Mentorship programs using outside experts to introduce students to the diverse opportunities that await them outside the classroom
  • Peer mentorship programs that help students to apply critical thinking and decision making skills to supporting their own community of learners

What Did You Do This Summer?

I’m not looking to deny your kids their days in the sun. We all need a break from the rigors of any regular routine, whether that’s school, work, childcare or elder care, for example. So why not bring more reality into the routine that is still school-as-usual and at least better prepare our kids for the ever-changing workplace of their future? Then our kids can have their cake, and their ice-cream, too.

Start AIMMING for Success

It’s time to start AIMMing for success. AIMM is a simple acronym for Academics Integrated with Making and Mentoring, a straightforward formula for achievement. It requires the blending of academics, a maker curriculum, and mentoring to help build the knowledge and skills to succeed in an uncertain future. Each of these three components reach, of course, across wide swaths of territory. But they present a means of preparing our kids for a future hinted at but not yet fully defined.


Taken as they are today, the core requirements of most traditional educational approaches make for a very dry and untethered set of skills. That being said, the ability to understand the relationships between numbers, to be able to analyze a piece of text, to see how chemicals interact under certain circumstances and to learn from our past all contribute to the analytical skills we all need to function in an adult world.

Putting together a simple budget, responding to an email request or complaint, preparing a meal or fantastic dessert are perhaps the simplest of tasks that many kids leave high school unable to complete. The simplest.

But by integrating this knowledge building and skills development into more practical learning experiences, we will see longer-term retention as well as ability to apply learning than in the test-driven school environments many of our kids are living in today.

Maker Curriculum and Project-Based Learning

Implementing Project-Based Learning, where students engage in real-life life problem-solving activities over an extended period of time is a great step toward applying those seemingly disparate sets of skills to something of lasting value. Doing this within a maker framework, where students create a tangible prototype, receive feedback and complete a real deliverable takes our kids one step closer to being able to function in the real world.


Many of us remember a teacher, coach, or advisor who took a special interest in us either through a single incident or over an extended period of time. But not everyone does, and until we integrate this type of one-on-one support into our educational models as a regular practice, few people will receive the type of long-term, ongoing support and expertise that can help kids navigate their early years and transition into adulthood.

There are some great mentoring programs out there for kids considered to be at risk, those who may be on their way to dropping out of school and not attending college. While these programs provide a valuable service, for the most part, they serve a school as usual model. The type of mentoring mentioned here is part of a disruptive model to change school as usual for all kids, mentors that can be integrated into the curriculum as we bring more outside expertise into, or take more kids outside the school room through ongoing PBL and maker activities.

How High Can We AIMM?

K-12 is the place to begin integrating academics with more hands-on, real-life, extended learning experiences. Schools like AltSchool, programs such as Breaker,Beam Center, Tools at Schools and are amongst those who seek to bring more meaningful learning experiences to kids inside of school and out. Higher Ed is also searching for ways to connect more with what their students need outside of the college experience. I’d say, AIMM high.


Are You Planning on Sending Your Child Back to School as Usual?

What if the school to which your child returned in the fall was so different from what the industrial age, traditional school looked and behaved like that you could barely recognize it?

What if instead, your child was welcomed into a building without classrooms, a community of learners centered on a foundational set of learning standards and was provided the tools and resources with which to meet those standards?

In such a school, there would no longer be the need to:

  • Report to the same classroom each day
  • Stay seated for 50 minutes at a time focused at the front of the room
  • Move around all day with the same group of 25-30 kids

Instead, your child would look forward to:

  • A school day engaging in different environments with different students and teachers depending on the activity
  • A day designed according to an individual learning plan co-authored with school officials to best meet your learning goals and learning style
  • A week where some days you spend more time out of the school building than in it

Where Learning Proceeds According to an Individual Learning Plan

Until very recently Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) were designed mainly as tools for students who were considered to be struggling and were associated with what were considered to be disabilities. However, creating a specific set of goals and activities according to a child’s unique learning goals and competencies makes sense for all children. It also allows for more individual attention by teachers and other practitioners focused on individual children’s’ interests and needs.

While the implementation of ILPs in their more recent iteration is in its infancy, there are some interesting applications that we can look to as we explore this new alternative.

Mass Customized Learning

Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey write about Mass Customized Learning(MCL) as the transformational change required to make education meaningful to individual students. Schwahn and McGarvey see individual learning plans as the delivery system for today’s learners living in the Information Age, as opposed to the mass produced education designed for those living in the Industrial Age. Recognizing the amount of change required to enact such a practice in today’s schools, these educators talk about leap frogging over rather than tinkering with the current system.

In advocating for MCL, Schwahn and McGarvey ask us to “Let’s do for learners, what Apple does for music lovers, what does by profiling our reading interests, and what Google does by organizing the information we want.”

Schwahn and McGarvey have written extensively on the value of individualized instruction and work with schools and teachers to apply the principles of mass customizing technologies to the public school experience.

Alt Schools

Taking the concept of the playlist as the heart of its pedagogical approach, the Alt Schools “curate our rigorous curriculum in partnership with students and parents, allowing children to learn at their own pave and in the ways they learn best.” Playlists, designed around individual student profiles, include individual, small group and whole class experiences.

AltSchools will be present in three cities in Fall 2015: San Francisco, Palo Alto and Brooklyn. Each location boasts open classroom design, mixed aged groupings, and connections with the community.

What a Difference a Building Makes

It’s impossible to think of changing the level of engagement for learners without considering the environment in which they are expected to learn. Many of our kids experienced the flow of the Montessori Pre-K classroom, moving from practical life to sensorial, math and language activity throughout their half-day introduction to school. Moving on to kindergarten, there was perhaps an extension of that environment, with play, reading, resting areas and the like. But by the time most kids hit first grade, they are placed in classrooms with rows of desks and expected to engage when sitting for long periods of time focused on one part of the room.

Intrinsic Learning; New Design

Of course, many schools have moved beyond this, but for the majority of students it has been the norm. Now, with the advent of schools such as Intrinsic, we are seeing buildings designed for learning in the 21st century. Intrinsic boasts being the first school of its kind: a school built specifically for blended learning. In a recent two-part write-up on EdSurge, Michael B. Horn wrote about new design for schools and specifically about Intrinsic. Larry Kearns, who worked with Intrinsic on the design of the school, notes that the blended learning curriculum on which the school is based helped to dictate the requirements for the physical space:

  • Personalized learning individually through digital media or in small, interactive groups
  • Peer-to-peer or teacher led activities
  • Students rotating through activities and spaces on a regular basis

Kearns also notes that the final design is based on multiple pilots and that without the iterations they would have ended up with an entirely different space.

Breaking Down Barriers and Walls

This spring, a landmark school, P.S. 31 in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx was demolished. Despite its landmark status and its title as “The Castle on the Concourse,” the building had fallen into extreme disrepair. While years of debate preceded the demolition, many former students and preservationist were shocked by the final blow.

While there is growing dissent against school as usual, as a society we still seem to cling to old school notions of how and where kids should learn. Whether discussing new approaches to learning or new structures within which kids might better learn, change is slow as people cling to paradigms that no longer fit the constituency schools are meant to serve.

While we can’t and shouldn’t be tearing down all existing schools, as new schools are considered, so too must the space in which they are housed. Whether creating entirely new buildings, extending school to the neighborhood spaces, and reconfiguring existing space, we need to think mainly about how kids can best learn.

As Kearns notes “One part of the ecosystem that directly challenges architects is the extent of codification and standardization that is engrained in district policies and city building codes. In order to complete Intrinsic, we had to apply for every kind of code relief possible. Since the codes only referenced the egg-crate school, no one knew how to apply the rules. So the major trap to avoid is the impulse to design schools literally by the books that exist now. The books need to be edited for the 21st century. That is the first thing school districts need to rethink—how spaces in schools can be designed to mediate learning more effectively.”

To effectively implement blended learning environments where individual, peer and whole group interactions are rotated throughout the day, we’re going to have to break down both pedagogical and physical barriers.

So, should you send your child back to school as usual?

Animated Figure with Diploma

Questions Raised by a Placeholder Diploma

Last week I observed over 600 students from the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts graduate at the esteemed Avery Fisher Hall. Lining the aisles in uniform white caps and gowns, the students expressed their individuality mainly via style of footwear and cap decoration. From dangerously high heels to worn-out Converse, and from glittery bulls-eyes to a construction hat mounted with a mortarboard, our kids made their way toward the stage to the accompaniment of the LaGuardia Symphony Orchestra. When they arrived at the podium, they were handed a diploma, and as instructed, strode (okay, some danced) across the stage to shake hands with the principal, pose for one last official photo and head back to their seats to wait for the recessional. Pretty standard stuff, right?

But wait, the diploma was a fake, a placeholder to be replaced later that week when these seniors were made to take one last trip back to school to pick up the real thing. That, of course, got me thinking about diplomas, both the value of the experience leading up to one and the outdated form factor itself.

In auditoriums around the city, kids were going through similar ceremonies. They, too, were receiving placeholder pieces of paper in an effort to avoid the mishap of being handed someone else’s diploma instead of their own. Then a day or two after all of the buildup, all of the . . . pomp and circumstance, they dragged themselves back to school to pick up a piece of paper that they and undoubtedly no one else will ever look at again.

The fake diploma not only symbolizes an antiquated rite of passage but also an educational paradigm that no longer serves the very constituency it represents.

Toward a More Contemporary View of High School

There are many aspects of the high school experience that appear archaic given what we know about how people learn, how to design effective learning environments and experiences, the potential to utilize technology to support the learning experience, and the ways people interact in the workplace.

While many school districts and independent schools are making headway, these vestiges of traditional schooling are prohibiting rather than driving learning in many schools today:

  • Teachers standing in front of the class lecturing students.
  • Students sitting in rows and listening to their teacher lecturing in front of the class.
  • Grades assigned to all homework assignments with little or no option for revision.
  • Quarterly grades based on daily homework assignments and weekly testing.

What we should be seeing in place of the above are:

  • Teachers engaging in whole class, group and individual discussion to build on knowledge acquired by students via engaging, foundational knowledge transfer and interactive learning assignments.
  • Learning spaces designed for optimal engagement based on the type of learning activities in which students are engaged.
  • Longer-term projects integrating a variety of disciplines
  • Portfolio and project-based learning evaluations, where trial and error builds to mastery over time and with ongoing feedback.

When it comes to preparing our kids for meaningful and productive participation in society and in the workplace of tomorrow, it makes little or no sense to adhere to old school practices.

Toward a More Meaningful Graduation Exercise

A piece of paper shouldn’t represent the totality of a student’s experience in an engaging, problem-based and student-centered learning environment. And given current capabilities around electronic record-keeping, neither should that one piece of paper be necessary to document the actual event of completing high school.

If we could bust the paradigm of the paper diploma, perhaps we could engage in more meaningful ways of celebrating our students’ accomplishments. Instead of focusing on a single valedictorian or salutatorian, wouldn’t it be more meaningful to hear from more students about their diverse experiences? For a performing arts school in particular, I keep thinking of the old adage of my fiction writing days “Show, don’t tell.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud that my daughter has made her transition from high school, and I was glad to celebrate her for her accomplishments. I just keep thinking about the fake diploma and the meaning we have instilled in it.


Letter to My High School Graduate

Tomorrow you will participate in a ceremony at one of this city’s most prestigious cultural institutions to celebrate your graduation from high school. I am so proud of you for making it to this point and for the choices you have made in order to get here.  And I so respect the decisions you have come to in planning out the next few years of your life. I know that situations change, and yours probably will, too, but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and you’re off to a great start.

From the very beginning, you knew your own mind. One might even say it started on the day you were born, arriving earlier than the doctors predicted. “Come on,” you must have said to yourself. “It’s time to get started.”

From a very early age, you displayed a talent for performance and attached yourself to artistic endeavors as a means of learning and as a means of expression. In those earliest of school plays, you appeared at ease with yourself on stage and took joy in entertaining others. There was a high degree of professionalism instilled in these youthful experiences. While you sometimes chafed at the intensity of practice and rehearsal, you were steadfast. The foundation was being laid for the work to come.

Still in elementary school, you engaged in movie making, learning the technology and script writing skills that you’ve utilized since then to produce projects that would take you through the college application process.

Transitions have always been challenging for you, and in middle school, art seemed to take a hiatus in deference to academics. You chose this highly academic school yourself and exposed yourself to the rigors of the entrance exam and the course of study in order to be with the majority of your friends, but it did come with something of a cost. There were the piano lessons after school for a while, and the summer theater camp, but school was school and not much art was there for you to engage in.

When the time came for you to apply to high school, you chose not to sit for the city’s specialized school exams but instead to focus on auditions for the performing arts schools, I knew you had already discovered a large part of who you are. Through those weekly voice lessons and train rides out to Brooklyn to be coached in acting, not only were you perfecting your natural talents, but you were building character as well. Add to that the experience of auditioning at the city’s top performing arts schools, and you should reflect on how hard you worked to get to this point.

Winning a place in the most competitive of those schools was bittersweet, I know. Your first love was acting and here you were accepted to the vocal studio instead. Working through the disappointment was one of your more challenging battles. Yet, these four years of preparing for and performing at school and by invitation at venues across the city have culminated in an even stronger voice, musically and otherwise.

The college application process was one of the most grueling experiences you could have endured, and yet, what did you do? You wrote a song about it!

As I have applauded each performance, I applaud you now for all you have accomplished to date, and all that is to come. You are intellectually curious and compassionate, and you have skills that you owe to your own perseverance and achievement. Brava!

This week, over 50,000 students will graduate from New York City high schools. While the city will continue to boast of increased graduation rates, we know that we cannot take graduation for granted and that we need to continue to make school more relevant for today’s kids and tomorrow’s. The pressures on today’s school children, teachers and parents are deeply ingrained in the traditions created years ago and impacted on by the reforms of the present day. There are shining examples of schools that are breaking these molds and focusing on technology-enhanced, truly learner-centric and project-based learning methodologies. I look forward to the day when alternatives become the norm.

Maker Spaces and Digital Fabrication Democratize Learning

As Paulo Blikstein noted “Innovation and collaborative problem-solving are core skills for virtually any career, and yet those are the very elements that have been pushed out of the schools by the mandates of standardized testing.” If you’re a parent who is frustrated by this, perhaps you sign your child up an after-school robotics class, or you register for an online program such as, or maybe it’s a kind of hybrid plan and you order your daughter (or son) a Blink Blink creative circuits project kit. If you’re a teacher, maybe you sign yourself up for a professional development event, such as “Project-Based Learning Integration: From Design to Evaluation” held on June 9 at the Beam Center.

It was refreshing to witness the engagement of about 30 educators while learning about the background of project-based learning (PBL) and digital fabrication and working together to brainstorm appropriate projects.

Not only did we learn about how maker spaces need to be designed for optimal impact, but we also personally experienced first-hand some of the challenges of designing effective projects.

What is Beam?

The evening’s session was hosted by Brian Cohen, Co-Director of the Beam Center and facilitated by Nancy Otero, Director of Professional Development. The Beam Center, located in the transitioning industrial waterfront of Red Hook, has a number of different offerings, ranging from collaborative projects with kids, working with schools to develop their own programs, and professional development.

Their programs include after-school workshops for elementary school children and programs for high school students in which they collaborate with engineers and artists. Beam Camp is held in Strafford, New Hampshire and includes both full summer sessions as well as one-month experiences that are focused on a new and unique building project for each session.

Key Concepts of Project-Based Learning

Surrounded by projects spanning conductible yarn to a dome-like tent that projects digital representations of the constellations, we were first provided an overview of PBL. Otero is also Curriculum Coordinator and Developer for theTransformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University and founder of Active Emergence, a group that helps schools develop MakerSpaces orFabLabs@School. She shared a number of key concepts associated with successful PBL:

  • Space matters: As David Kelley of IDEO has pointed out, “We read our physical environment, like we read a human face.” Otero stressed the importance of making learning spaces gender neutral and accessible, with ample examples of what types of projects are possible.
  • Let kids explore: Here we were encouraged to consider Maria Montessori’s advice to “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
  • CREATE: According to Otero, successful projects share the following characteristics.
    • Child Direct: Let students choose, be curious and lead.
    • Risk Friendly: Encourage successful failures.
    • Emotionally Attuned: Praise process rather than people.
    • Active: Judge activities by tinkerability and playfulness.
    • Time Flexible: Help students find and stay in flow.
    • Exploratory: Ask open questions.

The Need to be Purposeful in Terms of Diversity and Design

Two main findings tell us that we need to be purposeful both in terms of how we encourage participation in PBL and digital fabrication as well as in how we design the actual learning experiences. As Otero shared with our group:

  • Diversity is something we need to continually strive for. According to Leah Bueckey’s keynote at FabLearn 2013:
    • Of the 36 magazine covers depicting maker projects and curricula, 85% of the people shown were male, O% were African American;
    • Of 512 articles surveyed, 85% were written by male authors;
    • Of the projects developed to date, 90% appear to be in the category of electronics, vehicles and robots.
  • Order matters: In designing learning activities, studies have shown that students learn better when given the opportunity to experiment and then are provided with instruction. Think of the flipped classroom methodology. Experiments by Schneider and Blikstein show higher performance on tasks when students are allowed to discover for themselves rather than having to first listen to instructions on how to perform the tasks.

Trying It on for Size

As we found out, designing such projects has its challenges. Walking around the room as smaller groups worked through the process of planning sample projects, Otero encouraged active brainstorming and discouraged the tendency to lead with technology. She challenged groups to focus on individual concepts that students could learn while working through projects that ranged from urban design, working with fractions, and conductivity. What did we want the kids to learn?

What’s ahead for PBL and Digital Fabrication?

According to Otero, “We are seeing more and more independent schools implementing [these projects] as a tool for multidisciplinary activities, teaching robotics and programing. More and more teachers from public and independent schools are interested in using technology even though it’s not clear how to integrate it or evaluate it. Parents and students are asking for these spaces and classes. They will happen, hopefully as a tool to understand technology and find it less alienating, and as a way to democratize invention.”

While a growing range of opportunities exist outside of school for PBL in after-school programs, maker clubs and spaces, in online programs and within the homeschooling and unschooling communities, Blikstein’s comments continue to ring true. Hopefully, with programs such as those at the Beam Center and the growing DIY and Maker movements, one day we will prove Blikstein wrong and see this type of innovation integrated in the schools as well. I think he might be OK with that.