Personalized Learning Opinion

Five Approaches to Breakthrough Schools

By Jal Mehta — October 12, 2017 7 min read
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By Tyler S. Thigpen

Tyler is a Partner at Transcend, a national nonprofit focused on accelerating innovation in the core design of school.

In April this year, an eight-year-old boy in East Palestine, Ohio, watched some YouTube videos and learned to drive. His parents already in bed, he grabbed his four-year-old sister and the keys to the family van and drove a mile and a half to the McDonald’s drive-through for a late-night snack.

Luckily, everyone was fine. The boy obeyed all traffic laws (though it was unclear how he reached the foot pedals) and he, his sister, the van, and all signposts en route to French fries were unharmed. No charges were brought.

But let’s pause on this a few seconds.

A kid learned to drive from watching YouTube.

What are this boy’s teachers in for over the next ten years of his education?

It’s hard not to wonder whether he’s in a school that’s prepared for him--and kids like him--who have to compete with 21st-century technology.

Thankfully, there’s now a solid push in education to reimagine “school"--so that would-be child drivers are not just inspired by courses created for them, but also are engaged in environments designed to awaken learning mindsets, creativity, collaboration abilities, core academics, and personal leadership.

We’re seeing--from Getting Smart, Education Reimagined, and others--more and more helpful lists of schools that are pushing the envelope of the traditional school model. But at the moment, with everything that’s surfacing, it’s a bit hard to decipher what themes are emerging and where things are headed.

As I’ve studied these schools, it seems that five orientations of innovative schools are emerging. The following framework isn’t the conclusive result of landscape analysis, but rather some themes of what we’re seeing among innovators and early adopters in education.

Note that the categories of innovative schools listed below--and the schools within them--span all sectors of education, including traditional district, private, mirco, and charter; exist in all regions of the United States; and serve a diverse spectrum of students. Schools can take more than one of these orientations, and there is also some interdependence.

1. A Pedagogical Orientation

Schools in this modality closely link 21st-century education implementation with robust delivery of some particular pedagogy, whether it is problem-based learning (e.g., the New Tech Network of schools across the U.S.), design-based learning (e.g., Riverpoint Academy in Spokane, WA, or Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA), place-based learning (e.g., Teton Science Schools in Idaho, or Think Global School), in addition to others.

Educators working in these schools believe that students best learn when they develop breadth and depth of prior knowledge and provide opportunities for students to practice applying that knowledge in a variety of situations. Educators in these schools are persuaded that students must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge in order to learn. Unfortunately, these educators often say, we don’t automatically draw on prior knowledge when we’re learning something new--prior knowledge needs to be activated deliberately and with the help of certain favorable pedagogies.

2. A Capstone Orientation

Capstone-oriented schools have students participate in substantial projects, often self-directed and with public presentations, that require them to draw upon, demonstrate mastery of, and apply content learned in traditional classes to solve a problem, make an argument, defend a thesis, complete a venture, or make a product. Examples are Nuvu, Envision Schools, the High Tech High network, or any of the maker schools, where students may learn robotics or use digital printing to create tangible work.

Educators in schools with this orientation believe that empowering learners with genuine autonomy fuels students’ feelings that they are in control of their learning and advancement. Motivation is blocked, they argue, when learners perceive that there are barriers to their progress in the environment surrounding them (e.g., time, people, system, resources, policies), such that they feel like they are not in control of their learning and advancement. But if we give students a runway to use their learning on a project they design, then their growth, development, and motivation are accelerated.

3. A Personalization Orientation

Personalization-oriented schools make individual students’ learning preferences and pathways the foci. These schools are often competency-based and emphasize social and emotional health. They usually orchestrate learning environments where students learn at their own pace, and may even pursue their own interests. Examples are Summit Public Schools, AltSchool, Acton Academy, Valor Collegiate, and New York’s School of One.

Educators in these schools believe that learning environments are organized optimally when students are able to progress through clearly defined goals with constant assessment; have a customized path that responds and adapts to his/her individual learning progress, motivations, and goals; and have access to up-to-date records of his/her individual strengths, needs, motivations, and goals. Typically, educators in this orientation believe that progressing through mastery of competencies is more helpful to learners than seat-time or age requirements.

Belief in the importance of self-efficacy is also a driver for educators in this modality. Developing a vivid, concrete positive possible self that includes academic success can motivate present school behavior and result in achievement. Promoting and developing self efficacy (“I can succeed at this”) is associated with how long one will persevere at a given task and the likelihood to bounce back when faced with adversity.

4. A Career-Based Orientation

Schools in this mode position real-world internships as integral components of the school week. Examples are Del Lago Academy Campus of Applied Science, The Met, The Academy Group, and the Cristo Rey Network.

Educators working in these schools greatly value students’ sense of belonging, especially in a career context. For them, developing a sense of belonging (“I belong to this work community”) helps students develop a stronger, more connected sense of identity, thereby helping them be more willing to adapt to norms and apply effort to tasks. Cultivating a belonging mindset also mitigates against stereotype threat.

Enrichment is another key belief of educators in this modality. Students, they surmise, need and deserve the opportunity to pursue excellence outside of traditional academics. They need a taste of the joy that comes from passionately pursuing greater skills and the cognitive and emotional enrichment that creates. To create that passion, these educators offer students a chance to be exposed to multiple different opportunities that enable them to learn outside the core academic content areas, especially in different workplaces.

5. A Curricular Orientation

Schools with this focus incorporate 21st-century themes--such as global competitiveness; science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM); international cultures and/or languages; the environment; or social justice--into every (or nearly every) facet of the learning experience. Examples include The Steam Center at Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kearny High School in San Diego, and Epic High School in New York.

A key belief of educators in these schools is that students addressing real-world scenarios in an integrated way, across contexts, and in authentic settings will help with generalizability and knowledge transfer. To build fluency and ability to respond accurately to problems for the rest of their lives, they hold, authentic practice is critical.


It’s especially important to note that no one particular educational orientation is a one-size-fits-all model. And that’s part of the point, and part of what is so encouraging about the direction in which we see schools are headed. Breakthrough school models, or combinations thereof, such as those I’ve listed above, are finding different ways to make the immediacy and relevance of a learning culture embedded within their core values, and that curiosity and appetite for knowledge radiates throughout the communities they serve.

As for our precocious young automobile driver in Ohio, there is a lesson to be learned here--not about traffic laws or driver’s licenses, but for those of us who have been charged with understanding how to engage kids who will constantly surprise us. They are inheriting a far more complex, fast-moving world than the generations before them did. We educators should keep up.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.