What type of school system do we need?

If the traditional system isn’t up to the job, what type of school system do we need?

Modern schools need to be designed around two things. First, they need to be clear about their purpose: What do families and communities want for their children to be successful? Traditional schools only focused on academics. Now high school graduates need to be strong lifelong learners, possess academic knowledge and the skills to help transfer and apply academic knowledge. Second, schools need to be organized based on what we know about how people learn. Why would we want to organize schools in ways that were not effectively helping children to learn?

There are many different terms used to try to capture different aspects of modern schools. It can be very confusing as different organizations use different terms, or have different definitions for the same terms and some states use different terms than others. For example, personalized learning might refer to the use of technology. It can also be used to talk about approaches that use the research on learning to engage, motivate and differentiate learning. When you hear the term personalized learning used always ask: Are you referring to technology or strategies to engage and motivate students?

There are 6 key concepts that make up a modern school:

  • Pedagogy is based on the research on learning: The pedagogical philosophy is based on the research on learning. We use the term pedagogy here because it is not referring to one kind of instruction. In fact teachers can use the instructional approaches that will best help students to learn lifelong learning skills, academic knowledge and how to apply it. Sometimes this will be whole class or sometimes breaking into groups. Sometimes it will be project-based learning, performance tasks or direct instruction.
  • Students are active learners: Traditional systems are based on the idea that students are empty vessels that can be filled up with the knowledge delivered by teachers. However, research on learning tells us that we need to activate our minds because learning requires efforts. Therefore, there is more emphasis on designing learning experiences that engage and motivate students and less on delivering a curriculum to all students at the same pace.
  • Definition of student success is based on what every student needs to be successful in life. In the traditional system, the school system is designed to rank and sort students in relationship to competition for college admission. The only thing that is emphasized is academic knowledge. Modern schools understand that it is important to possess academic knowledge and know how to use and apply it. In addition, modern schools prepare students with lifelong learning skills to tackle any challenges that come their way.
  • Assessing is part of the learning cycle: The traditional system has depended heavily on summative tests that evaluates student learning at the end of a unit or course. In modern systems, assessing student learning is primarily part of the learning cycle so that teachers understand what help students need and students know where they need to focus to master the concepts. Summative assessments are used as a quality control mechanism to ensure that there is consistency of expectations.
  • Designing for success: If we want all students to be successful in their learning, i.e. mastery, we need to design for it. This is what it means to create an equitable system. Designing for success starts with transparency in learning goals and understanding where students are in their learning. This doesn’t mean separating students into groups based on their performance levels because that would lead to tracking which has been proven to be ineffective. Instead, teachers work collaboratively to figure out how to best meet the needs of all their students to reach grade level expectations and beyond. Sometimes this means organizing learning into bite-size pieces for students to experience success and sometimes it means creating challenges that stretch students to build up their ability to persevere or struggle productively. Students always have access to differentiated and timely support, the opportunity to keep learning and revise their work.
  • Flexible learning environments: The traditional system is designed around teachers working in isolation with 25-30 students sitting in rows and listening to the teacher. Modern learning environments are organized around collaborative relationships among teachers. Classrooms are flexible so that students can work in different ways — by themselves, in teams, in groups or gathered together as a class. They can be involved in hands-on projects, working closely with the teacher, reading, or using technology.

Here’s a piece of advice: When talking about technology just use the phrase technology or digital. Don’t think about technology as a silver bullet or a solution. Instead, ask how can technology and digital tools can support the modern designs for learning.

Questions to Consider

  • Which of these six key features of modern schools is most interesting to you? Why?
  • Which of these six features is most difficult to imagine? How might you see it in action?
  • What have you already put into place that can serve as a foundation for one or more of these features?


Research on learning

Active learners/Personalizing learning so that students have are engaged, motivated and develop ownership of their learning

Designing for success/competency-based education

Assessing for learning

Real-world learning and application of knowledge

Lifelong learning

Flexible learning environments