Introduction

No matter where, when or how you grew up, a single word unlocks a complex trove of memories: School.

12th graders working together during one of their Friday College Readiness Block, when students can make choices about what they will work on and where they will work | Credit: USC Hybrid High

Over the last 150 years, the notion of what a school should be has evolved. From John Dewey’s one-room schoolhouse and the industrialized “factory model” to the open classrooms movement of the 1970s, schools have oftentimes tried to incorporate the latest ideas in education—some that proved to be successful and others less so.

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Changing demographics and the widespread use of technology have forced teachers, administrators and parents to readjust for a school population with dramatically different needs. For example, the number of English language learners (ELLs) attending American K-12 schools has continued to rise: In the 2013-14 school year, the number of ELLs had reached a staggering 9.3 percent. In his seminal article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, the emergence of what author Marc Prensky calls “digital natives” has seen educators grapple with a generation of students that access and process information in radically new ways.

Creating a powerful learning environment, tuned to students' needs, is challenging—and demands educators employ many elements or building blocks.

Each element has a tremendous impact on the learning experience for students, staff and families, and every school handles those building blocks differently. So, EdSurge has identified 19 of them—from “edtech selection” and “professional development” to “change management” and “infrastructure”—along with more than a dozen schools that are thoughtfully employing these building blocks to meet the unique needs of their students.

Yes, technology plays an important role in today’s classrooms. While the pace of change has accelerated, however, one constant remains the same: Good teachers are critical to delivering an effective learning experience.

From a rural school district delivering on a vision of self-paced learning, to a charter system incorporating social-emotional learning into its curriculum, to a group of Los Angeles administrators who failed big before creating a far more supportive, blended environment for their students, these stories give a taste of how schools are changing, as well as the role technology is—and isn't—playing in that change.

The Elements of a School Redesign

When it comes to redesigning schools, there are dozens of elements schools can play with to reconfigure and reshape what the concept of "school" looks like.

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When it comes to redesigning schools, there are dozens of elements schools can play with to reconfigure and reshape what the concept of "school" looks like.

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Illustration by Richard Nattoo

Peeking Inside Schools and Districts

No school or district could—or should—change every building block simultaneously. But after traveling all over the country, talking to educators and hearing their stories, EdSurge came across 14 schools and districts that are each excelling at one to two elements at a time. Looking for some inspiration around professional development, change management or infrastructure? Click below to read these stories of excellence and progress.

Why do we want to change teaching and learning?

TAYLOR COUNTY PS

Turning Ideas Into Action

Vision

ASPIRE PS

Knowing When You're Ready to Go Blended

ASSESSING READINESS

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What do these changes look like in practice?

MILPITAS PS

When Change (Management) is a Constant

School Culture

VALOR COLLEGIATE ACAD.

Making Social-Emotional Learning Core

Pedagogy & Curriculum

ALBEMARLE COUNTY PSD

Redesigning for a Better Student Experience

Learning Environment

PIEDMONT CITY SD

Where Students and Teachers Own The Data

Data & Assessment

ALBEMARLE COUNTY PSD

Redesigning for a Better Student Experience

Student & Teacher Experience

FREEDOM ELEMENTARY

Where Students Decide When and What

Scheduling & Timing

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What resources do we need to make this happen?

RENTON PS

Putting Wifi and Infrastructure First

Infrastructure

ACTON ACAD.

When Students Buy the Edtech

Edtech Selection

YUMA ELEMENTARY SD

Better Edtech Budgeting

Budget & Financial Planning

D.C. PS

Shifting Professional Development Models

Human Capital

LINDSAY UNIFIED PS

Reaching Every Stakeholder

Policy

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How do we prepare our community for redesign?

D.C. PS

Shifting Professional Development Models

Professional Learning

LINDSAY UNIFIED PS

Reaching Every Stakeholder

Communications

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How do we implement these changes?

TAYLOR COUNTY PS

Turning Words and Ideas Into Action

Implementation Support

MILPITAS PS

When Change (Management) is a Constant

Change Management

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How do we scale and improve?

HYBRID HIGH / EDNOVATE

Reflecting, Iterating, Improving

Reflection and Iteration

BALTIMORE COUNTY PS

Share and Tell, Tweet All About It

Share to Grow a Community of Practice

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Conclusion

The structure of school does matter. As these portraits have shown, there is rich variety at this point in time in how communities of educators are constructing schools.

Elementary students at Milpitas Unified School District in California | Photo Credit: Milpitas Unified School District

We know this to be true: The very best schools are filled with teachers who believe in the power of education to transform lives, and who believe in the capacity of their students to learn and grow. That’s been so since the days of one-room schoolhouses, and will likely continue to be the case no matter where and how we teach. “It’s that idealism, that idea that you can help other people,” observes Stanford University scholar, Larry Cuban. “That’s been something that good teachers have always had. And no matter what happens, they’ll continue to have it into the future.”

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Well-designed tools can help educators realize the educational “best practices” put forth decades ago by researchers like Benjamin Bloom. Data from formative assessments can give teachers better insights into what each learner needs and so enable instructors to change strategies. Games and online collaborative projects allow educators to teach in ways that researchers believe can better engage students.

That said, the structure of school does matter. As these portraits have shown, there is rich variety at this point in time in how communities of educators are constructing schools.

A foundational ingredient of all schools, no matter what the final structure, is an education vision—something that starts with insightful school leaders. But acting on those beliefs demands a precise choreography of resources and people: the financials, the teachers and families, the physical layout of learning environments, and more.

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Technology can play a critical role—but only when the technology supports the approach, the teaching philosophy and the goals that educators, students and families have agreed matters the most.