We’ve known for some time that education was in need of a major overhaul. Many teachers and administrators have been ready for it for a long time. Some districts, a few states, and the occasional national leader have stepped up and championed the cause for change.
But largely, our industrial-based system here in the United States (and around the globe, to be fair) has remained unmoving, terminally broken in many ways, although still chugging along as best it can on its last leg.
Many experts are saying that the pandemic is the final nail in the coffin.
But before we even delve into the ashes and grieve what we will have lost - before that final gasping breath after the long silence - there is hope. There are phoenixes rising from the earliest ashes.
There are schools here in the United States and around the world who are succeeding in extraordinary ways. And honestly, their examples may save us from the complete destruction of our system, because if we can grasp some of these underlying concepts and apply them to our own classrooms, schools, and districts, we may be able to provide the catalyst for the change we desperately need without losing everything.
There are patterns to their success. They present us with new paradigms we can adapt to and learn to understand and work from as foundations for the future of education.
In this series of Reformation articles, we’ll touch on the common principles underlying the success of these schools on the following topics:
- learning spaces
- parent and community engagement
- identification of school “self” and purpose
- identification of and embracing sources of inspiration
- adjusting responsibilities of learning and control
- changing the delivery of instruction rather than the content
- the ability of every student to learn
- using strategic routine while also avoiding stagnation
- engaging the experts
Before we begin tackling those questions, though, we’ll introduce you to the schools we’ve chosen as examples (some we’ve talked about before) and a brief summary of what makes them special.
The one question we were asked when we brought up the idea of exploring these topics of amazing schools leading the way in the reformation of education was: “What about testing?”
The question in and of itself is fodder for a very long discussion (why is that always our most important, first question?), but rest assured, all of the schools we are talking about are subject to the same local, state, and national standards as their counterparts and meet (at minimum) all requirements.
Most of them, however, far succeed minimum standards, despite the fact that none of them is the least bit concerned about making standardized testing their main objective.
In other words, yes - You can be innovative, change education, end the factory model, and still achieve. In fact, you’re more likely to achieve when you get out of the industrialized models of schooling because students actually want to be there, are interested in the content, and are invested in learning.
Here are the schools we’ve been studying, in no particular order:
The Ron Clark Academy - Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.
Is there a teacher living in the United States who hasn’t heard of Ron Clark? We doubt it.
RCA is a leader in all sorts of ways. Their vision is not just to teach the students who attend the school but to extend the lessons they’ve learned as a school to other schools all over the world. It’s their goal, their mission (if you will) to be the best school in the world. They want to attract as much attention as possible in order to improve and uplift the education of every child on the planet.
What makes them special is their charismatic leadership (obviously), but also their constant reminders that they are just “everyday teachers” like the rest of us.
RCA’s biggest success is not keeping the success to themselves. They want you to know you are a part of their family, and you are in every way capable of the successes they are achieving.
Fuji Youchien - Tachikawa, Tokyo, Japan
The “circle school” is most famous for its amazing architecture, where their preschool and kindergarten students are free to run in circles on the roof!
But they are also unique in the structure inside the school, which is an open-concept, architecturally wholesome environment perfect for allowing young children to grow.
Perhaps the thing that makes them most unique, however, is their deep belief that even the youngest children should be free to move around independently, make learning choices of their own, and be “in charge” of themselves. They are a Montessori-inspired school that is as unique in its treatment and respect of the individual child as it is the learning environment.
Wooranna Park Primary - Melbourne, Australia
It’s the school equivalent to Disneyland.
Wooranna Park Primary is a seriously fun school that embraces learning in a very unique way.
At Wooranna Park, kids have had the opportunity to sail the seas in a dragon boat, blast off into space in an indoor rocket ship, and generally learn in the wildest, most exciting ways possible.
Lesher Middle School - Fort Collins, Colorado, U.S.A.
Once known in their community as the school NOT to send your kids to, it’s become the little school that could. Within a decade, the principal was able to turn the school around by hiring and retaining excellent staff and faculty, making their kids the most important thing, and listening to parents. It’s now one of the most highly sought after schools, and their principal was the National Principal of the Year in 2017.
Manurewa Intermediate - Auckland, New Zealand
This intermediate school was in such difficult shape that the government stepped in and took over for four years. The buildings and grounds were in poor conditions and were constantly being vandalized, they had staffing issues, there were financial problems, and it was so unsafe that teachers had to do duty in pairs. There were armed guards at the gates.
The physical environment has changed dramatically (it’s a must-see! Take a look here), teachers and students feel safe, and the school has recently been recognized for its “Excellence in Engaging” students, as well as receiving national awards for overall leadership in 2017.
Challis Primary - Perth, Australia
You may have had some interesting “meet the teacher” experiences, but this school takes the concept to a whole new level: teachers meet their students as early as 6 months old! They have a program to assist their students and families from 0 to 3 years old.
They offer health services, meet physical needs, and care for every aspect of a students’ early life. This school is doing “early childhood” right! They really excel in bringing the community into the school.
Hellerup School - Coppenhegan, Denmark
This school has few inner “walls” or classrooms. The space can be changed to accommodate the needs of each child. There are nooks, large open spaces, a moveable library on wheels, outer walls with computers, and instruments in the open. The children are very free to explore and access the curriculum, delving into it at their own pace.
It feels more like a “home”, or like the environment adults have in their workplaces, and the children are able to take ownership of their spaces. They are allowed to move the furniture around. Each “home” space has a kitchen, and children can make meals and eat together when they are hungry.
It’s a very interesting, student-led, open-concept school in so many ways. They are even occasionally known to have repelling sessions from the third floor to the first, so the kids can literally “climb the walls” (we’re not saying that particular idea is for everyone, but it definitely makes this school unique)!
Casa Sula - San Mateo, Costa Rica
Nestled in a rainforest community lies a school that believes that children should be provided with all the things they need to explore the world around them. They have real tools, they cook their own meals, they can learn languages, and they play games that teach them about science in which they can explore scientific concepts.
There are math areas, writing areas, and areas to practice adult living.
It’s a place where children are able to choose their learning and develop the learning that they want to achieve.
Casa Sula is a place where children love learning. The adults prepare spaces, guide them in personal learning processes, and facilitate their learning journeys by honoring what, how, when, and why children are drawn to learning experiences.
Green School - Bali, Indonesia
Green School is an international collaboration that embraces many of the concepts of open schools such as Wooranna, Hellerup, and Casa Sula, but the focus of this school is environmental, economical, biological, and sustainable health.
The school is an open bamboo and thatched roof structure with spaces for exploring music, entrepreneurship, high-tech innovations, low-tech learning tools, global initiatives, and sustainable solutions to everyday issues in life. It’s a very forward-thinking school that not only provides a safe, developmentally appropriate, and focused learning environment for children, but also seeks to change the world around it through recycling, creating and using its own energy, and growing its own food.
It’s exactly everything you would imagine a “green” school to be… and so much more. School lunches there are vegan, and all of the animals are safe to live happy, long lives to teach students about how to care for the world around them.
It’s the friendliest school we’ve seen for local students, international students, and the environment alike.
Østerskov Efterskole - Hobro, Denmark
The students of this school never know what is going to happen when they arrive at school on Monday morning.
It’s a boarding school, so when they arrive Sunday evening, they are given a costume they can wear throughout the week, and there are other small “clues” hidden throughout the school, but no one knows what will be happening until sometime Monday.
The division of this school that we’ve found most fascinating is the “LARP” division - live action role play. Teachers and students become someone different each week and explore historical events, literary events, and cultural events.
For example, one week, they all boarded the Titanic. Every subject “aboard” the “ship” was geared toward the exploration of that topic - math classes studied how to make life rafts, musicians played for dances held in the ballroom, science classes explored the density of icebergs, and so on.
Students and teachers all dress, eat, perform, and “play” through a different subject each week. Many of the students who attend this school struggle with learning disabilities, physical differences, or other things that may put them “at-risk” in other school settings. Many of these students really thrive in this setting.
School of the Air, Australian Outback
No listing of “outside the box” schools would be complete without one of the oldest “modern” schools.
School of the Air was the expert in social distancing and “virtual learning” long before it was cool.
The Australian Outback is incredibly large, and families are utterly alone in some of the most remote regions. School of the Air has worked around this problem by delivering the year’s worth of materials to students and “meeting” students on the radio for years. Children would call in and answer questions over the radio, and families could interact and feel connected.
Many of these families depended on a governess or tutor to help children in the area, so they would create a small “pod” so students in a region could meet once or twice a week to physically speak with a teacher or tutor who helped them along as they worked.
School of the Air still exists, but now it’s much like many virtual schools around the globe - something we’ve become a lot more aware of since the pandemic. Now they rely on the internet to keep them connected, and they’re using a lot of the tools we all are right now (although they’ve been doing it for some time and have figured out some more sustainable and long-term solutions).
Although they’ve found themselves “fitting in” in new ways, they really were pioneers in distance learning, and we definitely want to acknowledge their innovation.