Three Steps to a Better K-12 Future: Innovate. Differentiate. Activate.

According to the Gallup organization, 86% of K-12 school district superintendents are optimistic about the future of their own districts. It is a future that will likely be more driven by student-centered innovations than teacher-centered traditions. Research out of Stanford University shows that pupils at student- or learner-centered schools “exhibited greater gains in achievement than their peers, had higher graduation rates, were better prepared for college, and showed greater persistence in college.” (These results held true even in schools normally thought of as disadvantaged.)

Still, if student-centered learning is to continue to pay off its big-picture promise, how can schools fill in that picture with “component innovations” to support, enliven and extend this type of learning in (and outside of) their own classrooms? A consideration of three basic steps forward will provide some valuable clues.

Step 1: Innovate as only your school can

Educational innovations can be exciting; they can also be distracting. The first task is to look at new techniques, technologies and resources through the lens of specific utility. That is, what will be useful in your particular context for your unique students, and what will simply be the latest shiny object? What can you afford, both in terms of budget and teacher training? And as you look, don’t be afraid to look far and wide, beyond the latest mobile learning solutions or Learning Management Systems, and think big…even as big as the school building itself.

For instance, if you are building new, or adding on to a school, consider how space impacts the student-centered imperative, which the International Society for Technology in Education defines as “moving students from passive receivers of information to active participants in their own discovery process.” Rather than developing classrooms aligned along a traditional hallway, you could consider a flexible plan that can adapt large spaces to accommodate everything from STEM-related labs to multi-class poetry write-a-thons.

Step 2: Differentiate with purpose

Structural or programmatic innovation is only useful as an outgrowth of student needs or opportunities. Or, put another way, having a cool concept is not, in and of itself, meaningful. Have dialogue with your student community – pupils, parents and influencers from teachers to tutors to extra-curricular leaders. Listen closely, and learn. Take a page from the playbook of the George Lucas Educational Foundation and allow “students to share in decisions, believing in their capacity to lead, and remembering how it feels to learn.”

While this may seem to apply only to schools free to set their own agenda – like charters and other private schools – differentiating your school offering based on specific, student-inspired criteria is equally important for public schools. After all, a school community’s unique difference within a school system can help attract, retain and motivate teachers, parents and students who have complementary goals and educational perspectives.

Step 3: Activate with imagination (and technology)

Student-centered learning requires a human-centered approach to educational technology. The focus in deciding what technology to use should be on how it empowers students as learners, explorers and “rapid growth organisms” who must learn their subjects while also learning how to handle the many social and emotional challenges of growing up.

In other words, tech-enhanced learning is not just about the dominance of Google Drive and its many attendant apps (projected to be used by 110 million students by 2020). Schools and individual teachers should explore the rapidly-expanding universe of apps that empower creativity, collaboration and discussion. Want to give students the power to comment on presentations in real time? Try Poll Everywhere. Hoping to engage more students in the sciences? Have your science department look into the app-based curriculum Lifeliqe, which uses 3D modeling plus augmented and virtual reality to bring science to life.

Whatever amazing, high-tech tools you employ, don’t forget to mix in the wonder of no-tech teaching. Create outdoor classrooms, so students can learn from the world around them. Develop indoor quiet spaces, so those same students can learn from the world inside them (as for once, they can hear themselves think).

And always remember that in this new era focused on the learner, teachers, the ultimate educational resource, are more important than ever, not only as instructors, but also as leaders and co-learners on an exciting journey.

Activating Innovation Trends
Gallup: 2018 Survey of K-12 Superintendents
ITSE: Essential Conditions for Student-Centered Learning
George Lucas Educational Foundation: Student-centered learning: It starts with the teacher 5 Apps to Promote Student-Centered Learning
Cison newswire: Google Apps for Education Expected to Reach 110 Million Users by 2020