12 Things Schools Could Be Instead Of Schools

12 Things Schools Could Be Instead Of Schools

by Terry Heick

What else could schools be?

Instead of schools, I mean. Or at least as we think of the word ‘school,’ anyway. The more I think about it, the more this is about semantics and language than education innovation and reform, but we’ll soldier on without overthinking this any more than I already have.

The Premise Of ‘What Schools Could Be Instead Of Schools’

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2013-2014 school year, the United States spent well over $600 million in public elementary and secondary education and ‘related programs,’ which works out to be somewhere around $12,000 for every single public school student enrolled. That’s a staggering amount of money—over a thousand dollars for every calendar month, which could do a lot of good. (I offer a few ideas here.)

See also Learning Is Different Than Education

(Some of my language is vague here, because the data includes figures for both money spent and “amount in thousands of constant 2015-2016 dollars,” which factors in the “Consumer Price Index” and sounds an awful lot like adjusting for inflation, but itself is an adjust already several years old and needing of readjustment—and is all missing the point, regardless.)

The goal here isn’t to beleaguer the point that public education under-performs (it does), or to say children deserve better (they do), or to demonize any single gear in this system of education. Testing, students, literacy, motivation, teachers, funding—there are as many ‘reasons’ public education fails as there are imaginations to consider the possibilities.

Imagine blaming automotive manufacturing for pollution—or at least the pollution the production and usage of automobiles actually emits. And then imagine pointing at the combustion engine, the inefficiency of factories, the way people drive, stoplights, the expressways, etc., as the ‘cause’—first, as if there is just one, and second, none of this looks at the broader view of population patterns and statistics, or even more broadly, where people are and why they need to ‘move.’

This all sounds like crazy talk, right? Think of the word parts here: Automobile. Auto—self; mobile—move. They’re ‘self-movers.’

This kind of thinking is why we’re moving not towards a solution but iteration of existing problems—towards electric cars (appears to solve the ‘fossil fuel’ problem) that are self-driving (appears to—well, I’m not sure what problem this is solving. Safety? Efficiency?) rather than thinking first about people and our needs and each of these needs as a system, where one thing always affects the other, and one thing can’t be done without undoing another.

Why do we need self-movers? Is it ‘ideal’ for people to move so much? What alternatives are there, if any? Can we design work or neighborhoods or cities so that either they do so less, or more efficiently?

I know, I know—it’s ‘weird’ to think of ourselves and our relationships to one another and our physical and digital environments when we make decisions. Crazy talk.

See also 50 Crazy Ideas To Change Education

So let’s just iterate poor thinking because the infrastructure is already there. We can’t ‘just get rid of’ cars and roads and neighborhoods. Or schools.

What Else Can Schools Be Besides Schools?

So, what else can schools be? And what standards should we strive for? What are the characteristics of a good school? so we know that we’re on the right path?

I’ve had an unfinished version of this post sitting—well, unfinished—for several years now. And it’s been unfinished because it can go in so many different ways, and has so many different underlying assumptions that underpin both any answer and our need to have an answer to begin with that I just let it sit. But it’s time to write down some ideas in pursuit of some clarity, so let’s get to it.

Note a few underlying assumptions to the possible answers to ‘what else schools could be’:

1. For many of these ideas, I tried to take advantage of most existing infrastructure—buildings, personnel, supplies, etc. The idea of clean-sheet learning design that completely deletes a century of building, spending, and development isn’t feasible, if for no other reason than most students and parents would not understand what was happening and why. Everyone would panic and scream that in their day, they ‘did book reports and shoe-box dioramas and ended up just fine, thank you very much.’

Other ‘ideas’ are more ‘clean sheet–and to help clarify here, I create a very crude scale on how similar each idea is to what schools are like today on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being not at all similar, and 10 being exactly what we have now.

I hope this makes sense–if not, ask in the comments below and I’ll try to clarify.

2. Teachers are crucial to the success of any such effort. The idea that the intelligent, selfless, and hard-working human beings that chose to ‘become a teacher’ can fill other roles/needs shouldn’t need explaining, because of course they can.

3. Existing federal and state guidelines are null and void here, because the idea isn’t to make schools better any more than we should try to make tractors faster.

4. The purpose here is to brainstorm, not offer an in-depth socio-cultural and academic, research-backed analysis of how public education can ‘change,’ if for no other reason than that premise itself–how it can change, what else schools could be, etc.–is beyond the realm of most formal K-12 and secondary discourse, not to mention the research that both comes from and seeks to sustain each. (Imagine an oil refinery seeking/funding/using research around consumer-scale renewable energy sources like solar roof panels on homes.)

So if you find yourself thinking, ‘There is no clear explanation of exactly how a learning studio can replace a school in regards to…’, you’re right. If there was ‘research’ to support new ideas that redefined a new system of teaching and learning for the 21st-century with great clarity, vision, and precision, this kind of article wouldn’t be necessary (and would work better as a book than a blog post).

And most critically, note that the fact that many of these solutions wouldn’t ‘neatly’ replace our concept of what schools ‘is’ is kind of the point. Some of these ideas move past iteration and even transformation, or towards redefinition (of what school ‘is’ and ‘does’) entirely–which would and should lead to other discussions, such as ‘If students aren’t going to learn math in schools, where will they learn it? What level of math literacy fits modern knowledge demands in light of access to information and computational technology?

Note: I’ll update these with more info, resources, and clarity over the next several days

12 Things Schools Could Be Instead Of Schools

1. Project-Based Learning centers

Alongside the ‘literacy-focused model’ below, this is likely the closest to the existing model of ‘what school is’ as we know it. If you could leverage the content knowledge and relationship-building skills of teachers to help guide students through (passion-based? place-based) project-based learning, you’d have something close to the idea here.

The big idea would be a place of learning dedicated to helping students collaborate within and beyond the ‘school’ to solve problems, express genius, and realize opportunities accessible to them.

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 100

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 7

Key Similarities: many schools use PBL, existing curriculum/curricula could be used to supplement or guide PBL efforts; traditional ‘content areas’ could be maintained if necessary

Key Differences: assessment would need to shift from standardized to ‘localized’ and personalized; ‘data’ such as reading levels and test scores would be replaced by PBL products and artifacts; curation of student work (e.g., said artifacts) would be crucial

Closest existing cultural model: a project-based learning-focused school

2. Amazing, irresistible libraries

None of the videos above exactly capture the idea here, but the point is to have a space that makes books and related media–all documented knowledge–accessible, compelling, modern, expertly-curated, and truly ‘student-centered’ versus ‘librarian-centered.’

‘Ideal’ Number of students: highly-dependent on library size–maybe 250?

Closest existing cultural model: Picture a well-funded modern library with a little bit of Smithsonian Museum mixed in

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 5

Key Similarities: the focus on books and knowledge; inquiry-based and self-directed learning would be the primary catalysts for exploration; literacy skills would be crucial; physical structure somewhat similar

Key Differences: the concept of specific content areas being taught in groups by individual teachers wouldn’t exist; no ‘testing’; dozens of distinct, individual classrooms would be unnecessary

3. Learning studios

This is a vague concept, but the idea is a learning ‘space’ that doesn’t have a specific schedule or content areas, nor are students grouped by age. Rather, it’s an open space for truly ‘open learning,’ with resources like libraries and technology, adults and peers available for mentoring or collaboration, the organization and curation of artifacts from learning experiences, and even a place to meet with outside collaboration partners.

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 25-50

Closest existing cultural model: a tech-infused coffee shop/mini-library/maker space

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 3

On the surface, Learning Studios would not at all do a good job of using existing school infrastructure–buildings, classrooms, curriculum, etc., especially because one of the key ideas behind a Learning Studio is scale–small size, intimate space, local placement, and accessible ‘teacher’-student interactions. But to use the existing model of ‘school’ (and the billions of dollars already spent creating it all), each classroom could become such a ‘studio.’

Key Similarities: focus on learning; necessity of teacher-student relationships, collaboration between students

Key Differences: much smaller size; no content areas, standardized testing, or content-based curriculum

Number of students: 20-30, depending on location

Closest existing cultural model: a coffee shop/modern library hybrid

4. Program management centers

There’s probably a more compelling label I could’ve used, but the idea is a kind of center that ‘students’ visit to be mentored, guided, registered for, or otherwise supported as they sign up for, participate in, contribute to, or even create ‘programs.’

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These could be knowledge-based (an ongoing engineering program to teach math in a way that supports students hoping to become engineers or architects, etc.), location-based (a program that seeks to reduce pollution in a local river, lake, or ocean), equity-based, academics-based–what the program ‘is’ becomes less important than the diversity of programs and opportunities for students, if for no other reason than the context and goals for most/all would likely be outside of the school itself.

Here, the ‘school’ is just a space for students to gather–likely asynchronously.

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 250-500

Closest existing cultural model: College/university civic participation departments

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 3

5. Place-Based Learning center

Very similar to the ‘Project-Based Learning center,’ a ‘Place-Based Learning Center’ is focused on projects, but also service–whatever was necessary to work within a local context.

This would be a kind of neighborhood resource where students and families formally gather, working together to identify problems and opportunities, then work together to gather the knowledge, resources, and collaboration necessary to solve and address them.

Number of students: 50-200

Closest existing cultural model: a think tank for children full of wonderful collaboration and local knowledge and carefully considered and applied technology

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 7

6. Maker spaces–digital, physical, and ‘textual’

Maker spaces don’t have to strictly be tech-based, nor ‘only’ arts and crafts. The ethos behind maker learning is ownership, design, and a problem-solving, tinkering, can-do mindset. With this mindset, what is being made–physical or digital, creative or practical, useful or whimsical, is unlimited–and less important than the mindset and practices and patterns of the space itself.

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 100

Closest existing cultural model: imagine an entire school that is all books and maker space; also, a video game or digital/movie production studio of some kind would be close if it produced something other than merely digital products

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 3

Key Differences

Key Similarities

7. Self-directed learning systems

This is similar to a ‘learning studio,’ but has a bit more structure in place, most notably a self-directed learning framework to guide students through self-actuated and entirely personalized learning experiences.

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 

Closest existing cultural model: 

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 5

8. Literacy centers

As stated above, this would look similar to a really elegant and well-funded public library, but fewer books and more ‘stations’ and technology to work on specific literacy skills like reading, writing, research, speaking, public oration and debate, digital citizenship, and more. It would also be characterized as multicultural, with a clear focus on fluency in multiple languages, and communication using live video streaming and chat with other children around the world.

‘Ideal’ Number of students: ~100

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 7

Key Differences: Most traditional content areas would disappear–only used in pursuit of ‘literacy’ in general (so instead of teaching students close reading so they could examine historical documents, they might instead read historical documents so that they could master close reading. More broadly, though, the focus on literacy would expand from ‘just reading’ to ‘what to read and why, and how to communicate with people who hold different views about what you’ve read.’

Key Similarities: Focus on reading, writing, research, language, listening, and speaking literacies

Closest existing cultural model: a really elegant and well-funded massive public library in a large city–, but fewer books and more ‘stations’ and technology to work on specific literacy skills


9. Living museums

An interactive space the focuses on the human condition as expressed through creation and curation of artifacts that represent that condition

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 50-250

Closest existing cultural model: The Smithsonian National Museum of American History (but smaller and more living/breathing/interactive/ongoing)

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 1

10. Mentoring, apprenticeship, and internship-driven organizations

Like a ‘PBL-school,’ but embedded in nurturing physical and digital networks. Further, vocations and apprenticeships can be used to immediately authenticate and ‘justify’ the learning experiences

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 

Closest existing cultural model: University-based internship programs

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 4

Closest existing cultural model: part ‘school,’ part ‘university-style internship’ program

11. Blended learning centers

Like ‘school,’ but primarily serving as a resource to merge physical and digital learning experiences (whether formal, academic, and course-based, or place-based and project-based).

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 250-500

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 7

Key Similarities: traditional content areas could be maintained; testing, letter grades, curriculum, curricula, etc., could all still be used

Key Differences: possibility of asynchronous learning; students could learn at their own pace given the right model

Closest existing cultural model: universities with strong online-learning programs and resources


12. Imagination Spaces

The idea here is closely related to the others–the Project-Based Learning and Living Museum spaces, for example–with the main difference being that students don’t necessarily have to ‘do projects,’ and the scale is much smaller than a ‘Smithsonian Museum’ approach. Imagine a slightly-more-constrained, always-on ‘genius hour.’

‘Ideal’ Number of students: 25-50

Closest existing cultural model: Something between the Smithsonian Museum and The Walker Library of Human Imagination

Similarity to existing school models on a scale of 1-10: 2

Closest existing cultural model:

12. Any combination of the above

There’s no reason a ‘school’ can’t become a combination of the above–a tech-infused place-based learning environment that focuses on literacy and civic participation through a maker education ethos, for example.

12 Things Schools Could Be Instead Of Schools; image attribution barretwebcoordinator