Hardware is Not a Strategy (and Other Advice for School Developers): Part 1

Our team at the Gates Foundation funds a variety of innovative schools as part of our Next Generation Models strategy. Because of that, people who are developing new schools (let’s call them “School Developers”) often ask us how they should get started.

Since these types of questions come up frequently, I thought it might be helpful to write a series of blog posts to share what I know (and do not). In full disclosure, I have never actually designed or launched a school, but I have had the good fortune of funding and supporting many highly capable people who have. Please take this advice with that caveat in mind.

In Part 1, I will start with what I hope is some practical advice to help School Developers get started:

1: Defining Academic Goals

Even though much of my work involves education technology, I often say, “Hardware is not a strategy.” A School Developer should never start with hardware-centric questions like, “Should I buy iPads, Netbooks or Chromebooks for all of my students?” or “What is the optimum device to student ratio – 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3?” For more insight into why these are the wrong questions to ask, consider reading Cramming Computers: It’s the Same Old Story by Michael Horn.

Instead of starting by selecting hardware, School Developers should begin by defining a specific, measurable set of academic goals that they want their students to achieve. This should include a long-term goal that reflects the summative outcome you want your students to achieve (e.g. 100% matriculation to a competitive four-year institution).

In addition to setting clear long-term goals, you should also set interim goals that you believe will directly lead to your long-term goals. These shorter-term goals should also allow you to measure progress frequently, as well as helping provide the data you need to improve your design. For instance, I believe that the most powerful shift that school leaders can make is to set interim goals that focus on accelerating learning growth toward college readiness for all students. Although this sounds logical, this shift represents a major paradigm shift away from our current assessment and accountability system that prioritizes grade-level proficiency over learning growth.

Moreover, we are currently caught in an unfortunate debate – one side argues that schools should focus on foundational literacy and math skills while the other advocates for developing more complex skills such as creativity and critical thinking (as though they must be mutually exclusive). As Alex Hernandez writes in The Future of Education: It’s a Love Story, this does not have to be an “either…or” debate. I would encourage School Developers to set goals that both ensure that all students master basic skills AND develop more complex skills that will prepare them for college and beyond.

Only after School Developers have defined a set of long and short-term academic goals does it makes sense for them to develop their school models. Again, this is one of those statements that seems logical but it’s amazing how many smart, well-intended School Developers start making crucial academic, financial and operational decisions without a clear sense of the outcomes they hope to achieve.

** Note: kudos to our friends at Alliance for Excellent Education for strongly encouraging this “define goals first” approach in their Project 24 initiative .

2: Develop A Set of Design Principles

Developing a set of design principles that can guide the academic, financial and operational decisions that a School Developer must make is an extremely useful exercise. The ideal is that these principles are broad enough that they can stand the test of time, but specific enough that they guide critical design decisions.

For example, we believe that schools that are more effective at facilitating personalized learning for each of their students will be more successful than those that do not. To inform and bound our grantmaking in this area, we developed the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

For further context regarding these principles, read our blog post on The Next Generation of (Personalized) Learning. Our hope in sharing our principles is not to convince you to adopt them verbatim, but rather to offer an example of the type of principles that are useful in guiding major and minor decisions, both at the outset of the school design process and thereafter as you adapt your model.

3: Design an Instructional Model

Once you have developed specific, measurable goals and a set of design principles to guide your school design, then by all means start designing the school. Organizations like CEE-Trust, Charter School Growth Fund, IDEO, Alvo Institute, 2Revolutions, Silicon Schools, Public Impact and Ed Elements are all starting to offer design sessions to facilitate design thinking among early-stage school developers. There are many ways to approach this process, but below are a few approaches that may be useful for an individual or team interested in engaging in this process on their own:

  • Blank Slate: Allow yourself the freedom of designing a school from scratch. Ultimately, you may have to deal with real constraints that might prevent you from implementing your design within an existing school, but do not start this process feeling constrained by things like bell schedules and facilities.
  • Student-Centered Design: Start by picking 3-4 actual students that are underserved by the current education system, and dive deep into the root causes of why those students struggle. Use their experiences as the driving force to push your thinking about what “school” would need to look like to ensure they achieve the goals you set.
  • Ask Questions, Answer Them: Joel Rose, founded of New Classrooms and School of One, kick-started his design process by asking 700 questions about how it would work. Then, he and his team systematically answered and re-answered each of those questions to develop and improve the model.
  • Design With the End In Mind: Use the long-term goals that will drive your school to inform your thinking about the types of experiences that students will need to have to achieve those goals. For example, if you want students to succeed in college, you will likely need to develop their ability to take full responsibility for their learning. What specifically would your school need to do in order to accomplish that?
  • External Facilitation: Leveraging an external facilitator like the ones mentioned above can be enormously helpful in driving this process. We have seen that a day-long, roll-up-your-sleeves design session can really generate enthusiasm and catalyze a movement. 
  • Look to Others for Inspiration: While I suggest starting the design process with a blank slate, it may help at later stages in the design process to seek inspiration from the trailblazers. I encourage taking a look at the following resources profiles of innovative schools: The Next Gen Learning Challenges: Wave IIIa, The Dell Foundation’s Blended Learning Case Studies and The Innosight Institute’s Blended Learning Profiles. In addition, the blogging site, BlendMyLearning.com, features writing from a wide variety of educators that are deeply engaged in this work.

I am positive there are other techniques that School Developers can use to start this process, but hopefully these ideas offer a helpful starting place. 

Coming Soon: Part II

In Part II of this series, I will focus more deeply on blended instruction to provide more detailed guidance to School Developers who are interested in taking that approach.

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2 thoughts on “Hardware is Not a Strategy (and Other Advice for School Developers): Part 1

  1. Pingback: NGLC Announces $12M for Breakthrough Schools: 30 Planning & 20 Launch Grants | Maximize Potential by Scott Benson

  2. Pingback: Scale What? | iPersonalize

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