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What is Innovation? Part II:  Focus on Innovative Schools

This issue is Part II of our series on Innovation (for Part I, click here). In Part I, we moved from inquiry to insight by collecting thoughts on innovation from education and industry leaders. Their responses to a survey we conducted helped us develop a draft of a framework to understand the definition of innovation and the effort behind it – what many of us believe to be magic is really a series of actions that enable innovative ideas to develop and come to fruition. Innovators listen, learn, relax, persevere, and imagine. 

We’d like to continue learning and building our framework for innovative action. Please consider sharing your thoughts here.

In Part II, we answer the question,


What is innovation (in education)?


We will acquaint you with a few education rabble-rousers and their innovative models for teaching and learning. They are demonstrating HOW this is done. From an entirely co-created program in New York, to a school that gives power tools to third graders in San Francisco, innovative educational leaders are breaking down traditional walls and achieving incredible results.

Part of the work of School of Thought is to build a network of collaborators who support, strengthen, and promote transformative educational experiences. We eagerly learn from our peers and seek to demonstrate ways we are influenced by their trailblazing.

Brightworks School in San Francisco, CA 

On a typical day at Brightworks, you will be introduced to conscientious building, breaking and fixing mixed with a little responsible danger. But you'll be ok; this is how we learn!

Gever Tulley, a former software engineer and the school’s founder, whose Ted Talk can be found here, believes in the power of real tools, real materials, and real challenges to spark the curiosity of children. Tulley does not worry about kindergarteners using power tools or attending class in a tree house. When students play dangerously, they discover what they're capable of, according to Tulley. Problems start to look like puzzles, and today’s world needs more solvers. Their Community Lunch program brings the entire school together once a week to share a meal, engage in lessons about where food comes from, and learn how to prepare it.  The school believes learning can happen anywhere and field trips are not your typical trips to the museum. Educators are called collaborators. They support a mixed age environment and take the lessons of friendship, empathy, and understanding to a new level. Brightworks’ school design — a giant maker space without walls around classrooms — fits their curriculum design and is intended to spark creativity at every turn. Tech Insider named Brightworks one of the most innovative schools in the world for its living-on-the-edge approach to education. 

Hudson Valley Sudbury School in Kingston, NY

The learning at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School, an independent school in Kingston, NY, is self-directed and self-governed. Students have a say in everything from how they spend their day to how they demonstrate their learning. Adults don’t initiate the learning process; they provide guidance. HVSS students may head outside to learn from nature, spend the day co-developing rules for the school, or sit by themselves creating a video game. In fact, HVSS challenges students to seek out their own resources (books, local professors, YouTube tutorials) on every subject from sociology to engineering. 

Although a lot of learning happens outside the walls, the design of the school is thoughtful. There is room for fast and slow thinking, independent and group work, and quiet contemplative reflection along with busy, bursty conversation. There are no tests and no grades. If students so choose, they figure out a way to translate their learning into transcripts colleges can embrace. Though it sounds way outside the box, HVSS is not an entirely new model. It is based on the educational philosophy first developed by another Sudbury school, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA in 1968. The belief is that young people are hard-wired to grow and learn. When given the opportunity to be free to do so, they thrive.

E3 Civic High in San Diego, CA

The E3 Civic Charter High School is located inside the San Diego Public Library. The school, opened in 2013, said the library is not only its home, but a "co-educator" for its students. In fact, E3's students have access to the library’s collection of more than 1.2 million books, along with its auditorium, art gallery and reading rooms. The school's classrooms are configured flexibly, with furniture designed to move around and writeable walls that students are encouraged to use for mapping ideas, challenges, and solutions. 

The program is STEAM-integrated and founded in Design Thinking. Their project-based learning approach challenges learners to “explore the human condition throughout each discipline.” During their senior year, scholars have the opportunity to engage in internships of their choice several days a week. Along with meaningful engagement in the community and a community-supported online store for professional clothing, E3 celebrates the fact that their student population is representative of the diversity of San Diego. 

The Apollo School in York, PA

Apollo is an innovative program that operates inside a public school, Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania. Apollo offers the Central York students a semester-long, four-hour block of classes blending English, social studies, and art into an interdisciplinary project-based curriculum. The special program is co-taught by three teachers, one from each subject area. Over the semester, students design and complete four major projects aligned with core educational standards in all three subjects. Students set their own goals each day based on the project they are working on at the time. They engage in individual and team work, have personalized sessions with instructors, and attend mini-courses of their choice taught by the teachers. 

When a project is completed, students meet with all three teachers to represent and defend their learning, tying it to specific standards and learning targets. Student evaluation focuses on academic skills — reasoning, perspective, contextualization, and synthesis — and “soft skills” or dispositions — communication and time management.

The Apollo choice is one variety of “mass customized learning” with the goal of student voice and choice.  As lead English teacher Wes Ward states, “Apollo is one spoke of that wheel.”

For more

For additional inspiration, check out a group of innovative schools that Revolution School is honored and energized to be part of, the Innovation Schools Cooperative. And there are SO MANY MORE!  School of Thought aims to highlight, amplify, learn from and collaborate with our trailblazing colleagues across settings and fields. If you have a program, model, practice, or idea you think fits this conversation, please feel free to share with us via social media, and add #school of thought.  

Our takeaways

Despite their differences, all the schools we highlight are innovative in their approach to education. We have identified five common themes in their models:

SPACE: Innovative space can be a catalyst for creativity. More ideas here and here.

SKILLS: Executing creative ideas requires more than creativity. Students need skills to navigate a fast-changing future. Ideas here, here, and a fabulous podcast here.

PERSONALIZATION: Experiences co-created by students give them the freedom to thrive and help them find their voice. For example, check out this podcast on DC schools here, voices from the field from student-centered educators, and a TED Ed talk here that underlines the why- how student voice is learning is tied to social justice.  

TEAMWORK: Students who apply their skills within a team, to a continuum of opportunities outside the classroom, learn skills necessary for productive collaboration and see learning as relevant. Check out the Buck Institute of Education , including this free set of PBL lessons to use or to inspire. Also see the model at EL Education or try a one-hour Performance Task for the classroom, designed by educators at Two Rivers Charter School.

REIMAGINED SUCCESS: Making a difference in the world, embracing the joy in learning, and celebrating diversity are outcomes that reach beyond grades. For more, Sal Khan shares his ideas here. Other views by colleagues at the Mastery Transcript here. Rather listen than read? Tune in to Reimagine’s podcast on measurement here.


Interested in bringing an innovation mindset to your classroom? Check out StartedUp Innovation, whose mission is to bring you together with other educators, innovators and entrepreneurs thinking inside, outside and around the box. And we love this perspective on what innovative schools do differently as well.  

Revolution Recommends

In this issue, our book recommendation is not a recent bestseller, but a book from just a few years ago that illustrates a version of innovation that resonates.

Creating Innovators is authored by Dr. Tony Wagner. An educator, documentary maker and author, Wagner is also the founder of Harvard’s Change Leadership Group. Wagner brings clarity to
 what it takes for young people to become innovators: nurture creativity, spark imaginations, support learning from failures and persevering. Wagner argues that a childhood of creative play leads to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood grow into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. He touts the idea that we need, “Play, passion, and purpose,” to build young innovators.

A video trailer for the book is available to view on the Home Page of this website.  The website www.creatinginnovators.com features video footage to supplement the book’s key themes.

Revolution School is a new high school in Philadelphia where students co-create their unique academic journey. To inspire curiosity and open the world to possibility, we break down the walls between learning and life. We welcome our founding class in September 2019.

Revolution School of Thought started as a project in 2017 and is now the center of our effort to lead with an active voice and shape the outlook for education. School of Thought allows us to innovate through convening, collaboration, and research — in theory and practice!

School of Thought Team
Founder: Gina Moore
Lead Author: Dr. Jane Shore
Head of Mission/CEO: Thomas McManus
Copy Editing & Design: VIM Collaborative

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