Digital Credentials: A Better Way to Capture and Communicate Learning

For hundreds of years, we’ve relied on time as the primary measure of learning. Sit through a class and get credit. Accumulate enough credits and you get a degree. But a list of classes passed (a transcript) tells little about what a learner knows and can do. Add grades and the reputation of an institution and you get a little signaling value but the standard high school or college degree is a terrible communication of capabilities.

There is an invention opportunity to better credential units of learning, to open up individual learning pathways, to better communicate capabilities, and to reduce friction in talent transactions.

The pandemic is accelerating this shift to verified credentials. Enrollment in short-term credential classes increased by 70% over last year while freshman college enrollment dropped by 16%.

There are six opportunities to better capture and communicate learning.

Better Badges. Almost a decade ago, the open badge initiative exploded and suddenly anyone could award a badge for anything. It expanded digital credentialing and improved signaling for learners but it came with a wide variability in quality–some credible demonstrations of priority skills and some less so.

K-12 education has been a leader in badges–usually called microcredentials–in professional learning. Digital Promise is a nonprofit leader in hosting and issuing more than 450 microcredentials that develop and verify important educator skills.

Bloomboard powers the microcredentials that power the professional learning system at Harmony Public Schools–a great example of a well designed comprehensive talent development system

In partnership with badging platform Credly, IBM has been a leader in issuing digital credentials that capture important skills with trusted assessments.

Better badged units of study probably won’t replace courses as the ‘shipping container’ of instructional design anytime soon, but they will continue to expand options for learners outside formal education particularly in workforce development.

And as more providers like IBM and Khan Academy issues verifiable badges, more learners will be able to back up skill assertions with evidence and receive credit for prior or outside learning from their high school or college (perhaps with some encouragement from policymakers).

Better Degrees. Interest in skills-based hiring and tangible value for college degrees has lead many institutions to make current degree programs better demonstrations of valuable skills.

Online higher education giants SNHU and WGU have been leaders in back mapping courses and degrees from job critical skills. They’ve made courses consistent in content and have incorporated assessments that validate skills.

Better Transcripts. Mastery Transcript Consortium is a network of more than 330 of the most innovative schools in America that have banded together to issue more meaningful transcripts that cumulate demonstrations of mastery rather than relying on a list of classes and grades.

Greenlight Credentials helps north Texas high school scholars build and permission a digital profile to employers and postsecondary institutions. The extended transcript includes traditional and new forms of evidence of learning with supplements that help learners tell their story.

Better Records. With learners accessing multiple providers inside and outside degree programs and learning for life across a range of employment experiences, portable interoperable records are becoming more important.

In September, Walmart and Salesforce enlisted Badgr to help develop pilot solutions that could empower over two million workers to capture and communicate what they are learning. The system maintains a record of the skills required to earn each badge and because the data is machine-readable and interoperable, it offers the learner portability across institutions and employers.

Better Translation. To promote consistent skill definitions and system interoperability, the giant competency-based nonprofit university WGU organized the Open Skills Network. Launched in September, OSN already has four dozen corporate and university partners. It promotes a more equitable, skills-driven labor market by matching talent with career opportunities through a common skills language,

Also behind the scenes are translators like MatchMaker Education Labs whose inference engine can translate one set of competencies into another or reassemble learning assets developed for one system to the framework of another system with a new set of competencies.

Better Incentives. “I’m also really interested in incentives built into goal attainment along learning pathways,” said Byron Sanders, CEO of Big Thought in Dallas. He sees the potential for badge attainments to unlock internships, stipends, scholarships, and school credits.

A blockchain record, like Greenlight Credentials, can automatically execute contracts that make attainment incentives available to learners. Learners could automatically have new credentials highlighted on a LinkedIn profile where it becomes discoverable and machine-readable.

If a learner gave a group of employers (like North Texas health providers) access to their Greenlight Credentials profile, they could automatically receive work-based learning and employment offers.

Credentialed demonstrations of mastery will eventually replace most conventional grading and transcripting. In some places, that will unlock opportunities to learn from multiple providers creating faster, cheaper, more flexible, and personalized learning pathways. Credentials will become better signals of capabilities and, as they become more portable, will make employment more equitable.

Better credentials won’t tell the whole story. Learners should also be collecting artifacts of their best work and honing their storytelling skills so they can make the best case for themselves–by showing, telling, and sharing verified credentials.

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To help inform and deliver new agreements, new practices and new tools Getting Smart and eduInnovation are exploring the Invention Opportunity thanks to support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the foundations.


Distance Learning: Boosting College-, Career-, and Life- Readiness

One recent Wednesday morning, Kendall was having an issue finding information on when her asynchronous lesson assignment was due. She looked in her online learning management system, but could not find the answer. Instead of this derailing her work, she opened up her Canvas course, went to the inbox, found her teacher’s contact information, emailed her teacher, got a quick reply, and was able to complete her assignment on time.

Kendall is a nine-year-old third grader who had never previously sent an email on her own.

The shift to online learning has catalyzed the need for students to be more independent in structuring their own time and schedules, managing their responsibilities, and advocating for their needs. And these changes in learning modalities and the skills necessary to engage in that learning have affected students of all ages. Even our youngest elementary students are being expected to utilize executive functioning skills often not developed until high school or college.

So much coverage and analysis of the school closings due to the pandemic over the past many months has focused on the deficits and gaps being created and widened by the condensed school hours and time spent learning online. Missing from these conversations, however, is a recognition that even though our students may not be covering the same quantity of content or sticking to a traditional school year scope and sequence, they are developing college-, career-, and life- readiness skills and lessons as they adapt to this unique mode of learning. Through this work, our school systems are nurturing a cohort of students that are actualizing the call for 21st Century Skills that educators and policymakers have been describing as a fundamental priority for decades.

Responsibility & Independence

In a traditional year, the shared classroom experience provides students with social and physical cues to encourage them to stay on task, participate in appropriate and productive ways, and transition between activities. With the migration of learning to the virtual environment and changes to in-person learning to ensure compliance with physical distancing requirements, many of these external reminders and prompts are no longer present or clear. Students of all ages are developing new skills to keep track of their schedule, engage in learning, and complete assignments in the expected format on the appropriate submission platform. Students are practicing setting timers to know when to rejoin their class for learning. They are using cameras to screenshot important slides and images during instruction. They are creatively recording videos to show evidence of their learning rather than simply turning in a worksheet. Though, of course, there are struggles as students learn what works through trial and error, the current learning environment allows for ample opportunities to practice and refine these skills.

Voice & Self-Advocacy

Prior to the pandemic, teachers and staff were more easily able to check in on students’ understanding of new concepts, progress on assignments, and their day-to-day mental health and wellbeing. With fewer opportunities for casual check-ins and informal assessments, the onus for reporting a challenge or a struggle now falls primarily on the student. It is no longer immediately obvious to teachers when there is a problem, particularly for students learning at home. Students are realizing that, in order to move forward, they must take ownership of their learning, using their voice to speak up and clearly articulate the problem in order to receive help. In response, students are working to develop new abilities to vocalize issues that arise, ask questions about content, and communicate any uncertainties about processes and procedures for completing work. This practice in self-advocacy will serve students well beyond this school year and in all spheres of their life.

Flexibility & Resiliency

The pandemic has forced all of us to make drastic shifts in how we go about our daily lives. This has meant that we have redefined what it means to go to school and to learn multiple times in a matter of months, completely upending our students’ sense of schooling and how it should look and feel. Amidst these transitions and changes, our students have seamlessly and without disruption quickly adapted to the structure and modality of the moment. During typical school years, teachers spend considerable time and energy preparing students in advance of major shifts and transitions. In order to get them ready for an upcoming change, teachers might have conversations about expectations, read relevant books, or share a clear, visual timeline or countdown. These recent pandemic-related changes, however, have been forced on our students with little notice and with no assurances for any longevity of a current plan. The flexibility that our students have shown across these transitions is extraordinary. They have displayed great resiliency, readily following each new plan, quickly adapting, and working alongside their teachers and peers to navigate the new situations and circumstances.

And they are practicing this flexibility throughout their days. Students learning from home have learned to remain calm through technical issues. Students learning from the classroom have learned to be patient as they learn new routines, structures, and rules that work to keep them safe. And students in a hybrid model have learned to quickly adjust as teachers try to navigate multiple learning environments or multiple learning pods, often within the same day, and sometimes simultaneously. In the face of many potentially frustrating moments, our students have responded with grace and understanding–overcoming obstacles and continuing to show up Zoom after Zoom, day after day, ready to learn.

Problem-Solving & Technology Skills

Early on in the pandemic, our days seemed to be filled with more chaos and confusion than structure and answers. As teachers were redesigning learning to fit new formats, students were right alongside them, figuring out how to learn via computer, communicate with their teacher, and collaborate with their peers–with no prior model from older students or lessons learned from past years. Moments of stress and frustration grew out of a long list of new digital platforms to learn and lost videoconferencing connections. And doing this alongside peers, who were also struggling and adapting, added to the overwhelming moments for students, teachers, and families.

Over the past many months, students have worked to strengthen and develop robust problem-solving skills in response to these challenges. Students of all ages now easily navigate learning management systems and educational apps. When problems arise, many students have learned to respond by looking for solutions rather than panicking. Students now know to expect the unexpected. Teachers have consistently modeled a calm response, helping them to think critically and creatively about ways to work around problems and find a resolution.

And this deep immersion in utilizing technology to learn has required many students to become so adept with digital tools and resources, at a very young age, that they are able to use technology to showcase and deepen their learning through collaboration and creation. Rather than simply using digital tools to consume information, these students are using technology to expand the learning experience.

Shifting Perspectives: Redefining Learning and Growth

This transition to online, hybrid, and physically-distanced learning has been challenging for all involved. We should applaud our students for the steps they have taken to take ownership of their learning and to advocate for their needs in order to stay engaged. They have displayed flexibility and resiliency with each new wave of information and change. They have become experts at troubleshooting and creatively showing what they know. And all of this growth and development is possible because of our teachers’ thoughtful encouragement, unending patience, and unrelenting focus on student growth and well-being.

While few of these skills are formally assessed or documented on traditional report cards, these new capabilities will have large and far-reaching impacts on future success. These students will be prepared to navigate unexpected issues, problems, and changes in circumstance, utilizing the skills they are developing now. As teachers and parents who are prone to worry that our students are falling behind, we must acknowledge and celebrate students’ progress and development in these areas. These experiences will serve our students far beyond this season of learning; for they are foundational to future college, career, and life success.

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Virtual Agreements Help Mitigate Cheating in My Online Classroom

By: Renata Nikolayev

As schools adjust to primarily virtual models, I’m hearing from fellow teachers that they’re worried about a potential rise in student cheating. It makes sense to be concerned about that: without physical oversight—teachers behind a screen, parents trying to manage their own careers—how will students resist the temptation to check in with their friends (including their best friend, Google) for quick answers?

But those of us who have experience teaching online have proven strategies to help mitigate cheating. My favorite one, and perhaps the most effective, is to write a contract.

What does that look like, exactly? During orientation in my language classes, we read, discuss, and sign a joint contract. It’s a vibrant discussion, but most kids are new to the concept of contracts and have probably not signed many (or any!). So I focus on demonstrating the value of the contract right away, and then refer back to it often with several kinds of in-class activities.

One of my favorite examples is through popular songs! We’ll jointly use free online translating tools to translate a well-known song with lyrics we all know by heart back and forth into multiple languages. (I particularly enjoy using Adele’s “Hello,” which I run through a French translation and then back into an English one.) The songs, predictably, end up with nonsensical, outlandish lyrics, which students find hilarious! And because it’s funny, the memory—the moment—becomes cemented in their minds, and they’re able to see firsthand how using shortcuts can make their work sound silly, and then draw on that lesson in the future. (Or at least, that’s the goal!)

We jointly revisit this contract throughout the year to recall the promise they have made to me, to each other, and most of all to themselves. To be successful, the agreement must be rooted in mutual respect and honesty—which in itself is practiced every day in my classes, where we strive to be kind to each other, to uphold each other’s work, and to build an atmosphere where success isn’t an end point; it’s a process.

In fact, in addition to creating a contract with your students, overall, we teachers should strive to cultivate a classroom where the act of cheating itself becomes irrelevant. We should, for example, normalize making mistakes, and teach our students that trying—and failing—are essential parts of the learning process.

In many cases, taking this approach means teachers will have to weigh your grading to reflect the fact that the creative process is more meaningful than the end result. Educational apps like EdPuzzle, WooClap, and FlipGrid can make these demonstrative tasks more fun and engaging for the student while providing data and feedback for the teacher. The great thing is that live, student-centered, dynamic, synchronous classes are the perfect breeding ground for this type of learning to happen!

Another way to emphasize the spirit of the virtual contract is to emphasize project-based learning. Are standardized, static assessments important? Sure. But formative, dynamic check-ins make it easier to avoid cheating—because, by doing so, there aren’t necessarily any right (or wrong) answers. Online instruction assumes that every formal assessment is “open book” when online, and I plan accordingly by changing the format of end-of-unit assessment prompts to be more open-ended.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I never give multiple choice quizzes or matching and fill-in-the-blank prompts, but rather that these types of assessments are viewed as check-ins for students—a time when they can reflect on how well they may have demonstrated understanding of basic concepts. For me, as the teacher, the crux of their learning is assessed by what they do with this information and how they integrate this knowledge into a larger skill set.

At the end of the day, in my online language courses, the gold standard for proficiency is the ability to produce, unrehearsed and on the spot, both written compositions and spoken dialogue at various language registers appropriate to the social context at hand. Students learn quickly that they simply can’t cheat their way into demonstrating language proficiency in the live setting. In fact, one of my favorite exercises to demonstrate this is when I show my students the myriad (comical!) ways that Google Translate can be wrong. It’s a light-hearted, funny moment in my classes that demonstrates exactly what can (and usually does) go wrong when this tool is misused, and emphasizes to students how silly it would be to use translating tools for their homework.

Trusting students is key—but only because I make it clear that students can trust me to do my best in keeping them engaged and interested in the material, so that they take ownership of their learning.

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Having lived and traveled all around the world from a young age, Renata Nikolayev continues to marvel at the power that language holds to connect us with others’ humanity. With a professional background built on the human dynamics of communication, she serves as Head of Languages at Dwight Global Online School, and continues to enjoy traveling the globe in search of that spark of connection. Follow her on Twitter at @BougeotteRusse

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“I Could Never Do This Alone” – Collaboration, Trust, and Human-Centered Design at Design39

By Sabba Quidwai and Devin Vodicka

What if you no longer felt as if you were alone on your own island? Despite the unparalleled levels of burnout, stress, and frustration being experienced by educators across the globe, we’ve also seen everyone rise to the challenge with an increased enthusiasm for designing new systems and experiences to meet the needs of today’s learners. With the pandemic revealing the stark inequities and inadequacies across education in preparing learners for their world, the story of Design39 Campus serves as an inspiring national exemplar. Design 39 Campus, a TK-8 public school in San Diego, California uses design thinking to define and design a new grammar of school for The Fourth Industrial Revolution providing students with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets so that they can thrive in future workplaces as life ready thought leaders who elevate humanity.

A New Grammar of School

In 1994, education historians David Tyack and William Tobin wrote, “The Grammar of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard to Change,” where they made an observation that like languages, schools have a set of grammatical rules and structures such as dividing knowledge into subjects, age-based grouping, the division of time and space. During the industrial era and the years that followed, these became so well established, that despite the rapid changes taking place around us in today’s world no one really questions why we engage in outdated and exhausting practices increasingly taking a toll on our health and wellness. When we refer to a “new grammar of school” we are suggesting that the source code itself has been modified in such a way that comparisons with existing approaches become difficult if not impossible.  This involves new systems, new structures, and new language as well. As an example, at Design 39 their educators are called “Learning Experience Designers” (LEDs).

Teachers as Learning Experience Designers

Principal Joe Erpelding is guided by the mantra “the future is a place we create.” Erpelding recognizes that individuals cannot and should not have to do this work alone. If educators are to have the time and space needed to define and design a new grammar of school, then leaders need to create the conditions for educators to thrive.

At Design39 Campus they begin this journey with the following question: What are you energized by? This question forms the foundation for collaboration as they recognize we can’t be great at everything, but we are all great at something. That something is your superpower that you bring to the table.

For deep and meaningful collaboration to occur amongst the LEDs there must also be a culture that nurtures a high level of relational trust. Bryk and Schneider, Tschannen-Moran, Daly, Vodicka, and others have written extensively on the importance of trust in schools. Significantly, the high levels of relational trust and collaboration provide the foundation for a radical shift away from hierarchical systems and structures and allow for a more organic, networked model.  A necessary and profound result of this approach is a concurrent shift in authority, which moves away from an externally-oriented, compliance-driven focus to one that embraces agency and empowerment from individuals and teams.  Radical connectivity thereby leads to radical change.

Design39

Promising Practice Study: Design39 Campus

A new study by Quidwai examines how Design39 Campus defined and designed a new grammar of school. The methodology for this study was a mixed-methods approach to gather data for analysis, using qualitative and quantitative data including surveys, interviews, observations, and document analysis. The participating stakeholders were the Learning Experience Designers from K-8. Their experience ranged from 2 to 30+ years of teaching. An online survey was sent to all 54 learning experience designers at Design39, with a 100 percent completion rate. In addition, a selected group of members from each of the grade-level teams was interviewed together as a focus group. Grade level teams are organized as K-3, 4-5, and 6-8. A random selection of six LEDs was then interviewed individually. Observations of learning experiences throughout the day and of the LEDs planning in their collaboration space known as the Design Studio was conducted. The gathered data were then analyzed to determine the validity of the assumed knowledge, motivation, and organizational assets related to their performance.

A Culture of Collaboration

A unanimous sentiment shared across all LEDs was that design thinking is an excellent approach to designing learning experiences for all learners, however, it required a strong collaborative effort. When asked what they believe made them successful in doing the work they do at Design39, they all attributed their success to the people that they work with. As one LED shared, “We have nine brains working together instead of just one.”

Over 70% of the LEDs interviewed shared that before Design39 they had felt as if they were isolated in their classroom. As one LED shared, “Before if I wanted to do a project I had no thought partners, I had no one to bounce ideas off of, it doesn’t matter how supportive your administration is it’s just really hard to do alone.” Another LED built on this and shared, “When I think about instruction, I think about how many standards can I merge into an experience. Many of the standards overlap. You can’t integrate and create experiences that nurture deeper learning on your own, you need the different lens of STEM, History and English. They shouldn’t say this is this subject or this is that they should have the flow throughout the day and that’s what we can create when we are working together.”

These sentiments shared by the LEDs present a fundamental tenet of engaging in design-based work – content is not taught in isolation, nor do people work in isolation. In an analogy presented by David Perkins, he shares how in the game of baseball we don’t spend a month learning just how to catch and then another month learning just how to bat and another month learning how to throw. Instead of isolating each area, all of the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to thrive as a baseball player are integrated and connected to a game as a whole. Learning experiences, Perkins says, should be conducted in the same way to allow for deeper learning. Seeing this actualized in their work each and every day with their learners was a notable value shared by the LEDs. Not only did the integration of design thinking lead to deeper learning, but the LEDs were also developing a nuanced understanding of their learners’ individual growth and development, further increasing their intrinsic motivation to persist in cross-curricular collaboration with other LEDs. This knowledge and empowerment in seeing themselves as design thinkers have also given the LEDs a greater sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Daniel Pink identified these three elements as giving individuals the “drive,” to motivate themselves in the workplace. In the case of Design39, providing LEDs with a culture of collaboration fuels their motivation to define and design a new grammar of school.

When interviewed, almost every LED shared how at Design39 they felt trusted, they felt safe, they felt vulnerable and above all, they felt like they were treated like professionals. In fact, when surveyed about how supported LEDs felt by their leadership when trying new methods of teaching, an overwhelming 94% agreed or strongly agreed.

Vulnerability and Trust

Understanding the value of collaboration is key when considering transformation.  The next logical question becomes: “what is required for meaningful collaboration?” The research on this topic clearly indicates that effective collaboration requires relational trust between the collaborators.  Trust itself is a challenging concept, and relational trust focuses on the interactions between two or more people.  When individuals interact with one another, each person makes determinations regarding how much they are willing to share based on their perceptions of safety and risk in the exchange.  In other words, the more that we extend and open ourselves, the more that we must be vulnerable in the interaction.  If we do not feel safe and secure in the interaction, we are less likely to be vulnerable which leads to superficial interactions instead of deep, meaningful relationships.

The concept of vulnerability was a key theme in the interviews with the team members from Design 39.  In order to create a school culture where vulnerability is the norm, risk-taking must be encouraged and “failures” must be seen as lessons learned.  With respect to Design 39, here the context of the interactions between staff is influenced by the pedagogical orientation to human-centered design thinking.  Interestingly, there exists a reciprocal cycle where the emerging culture of vulnerability ultimately allowed the LEDs to continue mastery of their craft in collaboration with others to integrate design thinking to define and design a new grammar of school.

The connections between the culture of the school and the learning model orientation to human-centered design thinking manifest themselves in other important ways.  For example, just as design thinking emphasizes risk-taking and collaboration, it also encourages the pursuit of connections from diverse perspectives.  In addition to empathy as part of the design process which requires people to not work in isolation, what follows is that content is also not taught in isolation. We are therefore not surprised to see that Design39 provides an array of interdisciplinary experiences.  This example illustrates one of the many benefits of having shared values and a commonly understood learning model to guide and sustain ongoing collaborative efforts.

While every member of the community has a responsibility and influence in the ongoing development of the school culture and climate, those with formal authority have a significant effect with respect to a critical feature such as risk-taking, thereby impacting the staff members’ willingness to extend vulnerability to one another.  As found in Vodicka’s dissertation study (2007), the level of relational trust that teachers held for the principal was associated with their level of social connectedness with other teachers.

We should therefore not be surprised that at Design39 the culture of innovation is built on a foundation of trust and collaboration. A community where diversity of ideas, personalities, and skills is nurtured and valued. The culture at Design39 marks a radical shift in education organizations from power and decisions that are traditionally made externally to a culture of radical connectivity amongst the individuals who make up the organization and their ideas.

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Sabba Quidwai is a social scientist, a graduate of the Global Executive EdD program at the University of Southern California, and a former high school Social Science teacher.

Devin Vodicka is the Chief Impact Officer at Altitude Learning, author of Learner-Centered Leadership, and former superintendent of Vista Unified School District (San Diego, CA).  

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What’s Working During COVID

By: Norton Gusky

While many people have been concerned about the lack of learning during the COVID period, there have been a number of successful strategies and approaches. Through a dialog with regional educators, my contributions to the work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), and listening to personal stories from 2020 HundrED Virtual Innovation Summit, I’ve compiled a list of successes. In this posting, I’ll share some of the ideas I’ve discovered. We’ll look at how at one school in Pennsylvania has students working together in teams and collaborating even with remote learning and social distancing. We’ll hear from an online trainer how the pandemic has opened new learning doors for active learning for students, parents, and educators. We’ll hear from one edtech company that has made robotics a remote hands-on experience for all learners. We’ll discover a school district in California that has found ways to continue to expand the expertise for their professional learning community. Finally, we’ll discover how an African non-profit has had to pivot to continue to deliver its entrepreneurial program for learners.

Collaboration and Working as a Team

Melissa Unger, the K-2 STEAM Teacher for the South Fayette School District, has been an educational leader for the past decade. The pandemic forced her to rethink how she designs learning experiences, especially to promote collaboration and team-building. According to Melissa, “Being in a hybrid setting and social distancing has caused us to rethink what it means for students to work together and collaborate. One of the best tools I have used for this is FlipGrid—students are able to share their work, thoughts, or ideas via short videos, and others can comment. In each homeroom, students have only met half of their classmates in person this year, so FlipGrid has allowed for a greater sense of community building and information sharing. I have watched students use others’ videos as a way to add on to their own ideas and form connections.

“I also think that now more than ever open-ended projects and STEAM tasks are really important for our students. These projects and tasks address an uncertainty that students need to understand—an uncertainty about the virus, school closures, and just what’s going to happen each day. With open-ended projects, I think students start to see that having all the information is not always necessary before moving forward. This new learning situation builds confidence and resilience during this time of uncertainty.”

Active Learning

Active learning is always an important goal. In order to achieve learning engagement, it’s critical to think about instruction design. According to Kelsey Derringer, the Co-Founder of CodeJoy LLC, ” The job of an educator is not to simply transmit information, but to design educational experiences. Even in online learning, this is still the job, though our delivery method has radically changed. In our classes at CodeJoy, we continue to ask, “What are the students DOING?” We offer opportunities to do more than listen—students can code and control robots, build their own catapults at home with craft supplies, engage in the Engineering Design Process together, talk to a live puppet, ask a florist to cut a rose in half to see what it looks like, strap a phone camera to a horse and go for a ride, or have a dance party with children all over the world! Engagement looks different online, but it should still be the cornerstone around which educators design their learning experiences.”

Lock downs and social distancing requirements have created serious challenges to hands-on robotics education, but also inspired creative solutions, such as 1:1 robotics and remote robots. According to Tom Lauwers, the CEO and Founder of Birdbrain Technologies, “With 1:1 robotics, all students have a robotics kit at home, and use remote collaboration tools like the newly released micro:bit classroom along with teacher-led video instruction to learn coding and robotics. Remote Robots is a new technology that we’ve developed to allow kids to code a robot in a beginner-friendly environment that is not located in the same location as them. We quickly created five 24/7 live-streamed robots in April that anyone can code, and have also created a tutorial for educators to set up their own remote robots. Together, 1:1 robotics and remote robots provide educators with a toolbox to continue physical computing and robotics education in these pandemic times.”

Creating a Professional Community

For the past three years, CoSN has assembled a global team of advisors to look at Innovation in Education. I’ve been part of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation advisory team. This year in addition to the normal Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers, we began to look at examples of innovation due to the COVID situation. Phillip Neufield, the Executive Officer for the Fresno Unified School District in California shared his insights with the CoSN community. According to Phillip, “Over the past five years, our district has moved to more experiential, actionable professional learning where teachers experiencing their learning as we intend teacher practices to land as learning experiences for their students (albeit with adult learning wisdom applied).”

“So in spring we delivered over 100 webinars to prepare teachers for the shift to distance learning with over 1,700 educators participating, some up to 3-5 times in different webinars. Educators could access recorded sessions. And we offered competency-based, on-demand web training resources with over 10,000 unique visits.”

“We repeated this approach in summer to prepare educators for fall. We found educators were bringing these new teaching practices back to their grade-level or department-level professional learning communities (teaching practices included the know-why, know-how, and tech mediated activities).”

Creative Pivoting

The problems learners, parents, and educators face in the United States due to the pandemic are truly global. During the Virtual HundrED Innovation 2020 Summit I listened to an African educator, Frank Omana, outline how his non-profit, EDUCATE!, pivoted.

Educate! tackles youth unemployment by partnering with youth, schools, and governments to design and deliver education solutions that equip young people in Africa with the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities. With the appearance of COVID this skill-based model for entrepreneurial studies had to find a distance learning option

Frank and his team created “The Experience on Air.” They began to broadcast on national radio and via text messaging. They kept the core components—practical experience with mentorships, skills, and assessments. Remarkably the pivot opened new doors for the African learners using the distance learning model.

In each of the cases I’ve outlined new doors opened, while old gateways were no longer available. In today’s world, that’s the lesson we all need to understand. We need to be nimble and pivot so we can maintain our educational goals like Birdbrain, CodeJoy, Frenso, or the South Fayette School District. The real test is how well we meet the needs of our learning community.

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Norton Gusky is an educational technology broker and uses technology to empower kids, educators and communities. You can find him on Twitter at @ngusky.

This article is a repost and originally appeared on Norton’s blog.

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Getting Clearer: Career and Technical Education

It was a whole party or what popular culture would say, “a whole mood.” In the parking lot after graduation, a recent graduate with ROTC honors and Wastewater Management certifications (a certification unique to this graduate) celebrated with his large family. He left high school with the grades and the networks to choose college, career, or the military. With his Wastewater Management certification, he chose to start his career as an 18-year-old making $45,000 and a hefty benefits package.

To that young man, and many others, college and career are not two separate entities. “There’s no such thing as college and career readiness. It’s all career readiness. Some careers require a four-year degree and beyond and some don’t.” Those words from my former director constantly echo through my head every time there is a discussion around Career and Technical Education (CTE). Too often CTE is put into a bucket for “kids not going to college,” but now the tides are shifting and the value of having hands-on experience combined with rigorous academic knowledge is becoming the priority.

CTE is a form of education for high school students that allows them to gain industry experience, skills, and credentials before graduating. CTE looks different in every school district. In some areas, students leave their high school for a half-day program and travel to a career center to pursue interests in automotive, culinary, health care, emergency medicine, and other professional areas. In other districts, students remain in their high schools to pursue those interests and others such as graphic design, engineering, architecture, and computer science. Students that engage in a CTE course of study are well prepared for postsecondary career opportunities, regardless if those start in an apprenticeship program, on a college campus, or in the military.

Students in CTE courses also take advantage of the opportunity to earn CTE-embedded college credit from their local community colleges and universities. By accessing courses such as Project Lead the Way, postsecondary institutions are working with local school districts to ensure that students have options and that the hurdles are removed to create greater equity and access for all students. School districts are also working to pair CTE and Advance Placement together in courses such as engineering, computer science, pre-law, and cybersecurity. Instead of leaving high school with a piece of paper, students are now equipped with the academic knowledge, transferable skills and industry credentials to navigate future opportunities. According to the United States Department of Education, eight years after graduation, students who participated in CTE programs had higher median incomes than students without a CTE focus.

For students, the future earnings are important, but engaging in their passions is the biggest draw to CTE. They see participating in the different programs as a win-win for them and their families. Families get excited when they see their child light up about what happened at school and students get excited to share their experiences, the professional connections made, and the assessments passed. Admittedly, students and parents are sometimes skeptical about dedicating part of the educational day to learn in CTE spaces, but the draw of project-based learning, scholarships, and job opportunities entice students to take advantage of a different learning opportunity.

I remember meeting an engineering student and understanding the importance that her family played in her life. She started life with severe health problems and was given the prognosis of not having long to live. Using the fierce determination to not only fight for her life, but also to succeed as a young lady in a predominantly male field of engineering, made her stand out. She got stronger, mentally and physically, dug into her love of figuring things out, and signed up for engineering and agriculture classes. Although she had to endure other life struggles, she leaned on her love for her CTE classes to give her purpose. By connecting her interests to her life lessons, she learned the importance of being a steward of the earth and using that to make life better for everyone. As a result of her mastery of 21st Century skills of resilience, accountability, problem solving, and more mixed with her passion for STEM, she earned internships with large corporations. Now enrolled in college to continue working on becoming a STEM champion, she is another example of how CTE looks different for everyone.

It’s important to remember that students are all unique and need a personalized plan of study that truly gives them the chance to chart their own course. The interests are varied and students deserve space to explore their interests and have the opportunity to fail. CTE allows students to create, reimagine, collaborate, and critically think their way through problems and projects. They quickly realize the need to think on their feet and lead others through challenging situations. They learn to be ok with not achieving success the first time but learn how to become a leader, be flexible, and use their social skills to help them move forward.

CTE bridges the gap between high school and postsecondary options. There is a large skills gap in the United States and high school students are able to fill in the gaps when CTE is prioritized in schools. By removing the rhetoric that college is the only pathway to success, students will be proud to channel their hands-on passions into careers. Helping students understand that learning is a continuous process throughout their careers allows them to know it’s ok to have ideas, it’s ok to work on those ideas, and it’s ok to go out and build their dreams.

The purpose of school is not to teach students how to get jobs, rather right after high school or after college. Our purpose, as educators, is to teach them how to think, how to be global citizens, and, as my previous student said, “How to be a steward of the earth.” Students are looking for more as they have access to lots of information and see how people should and should not be treated. They have a voice and they aren’t afraid to use it. They are no longer willing to tolerate the “traditional” way of life and their education should reflect the world around them. They have choices in all they do and education should not be the exception. Let them learn what they want, and let’s celebrate their choices along the way.

For more, see:


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5 Recommendations to Improve Remote Learning for Families

By: The LEANLAB Editorial Team

Defining the nuanced challenges that parents and caregivers are facing in 2020 is a big undertaking, but it merits our full attention before we can shift into problem-solving mode. In a year filled with so much uncertainty, the challenges parents face are fluid, shifting week-to-week and hour-to-hour. However, at LEANLAB Education, a nonprofit supporting education innovation, we know we can’t identify solutions to problems we don’t fully understand, which is why we prioritize getting close to the communities we serve—even in a world where social distancing is requiredand why we surveyed more than 500 parents and caregivers to understand how they’re coping in the age of remote learning.

We wondered how parents and caregivers from different backgrounds were approaching remote learning; specifically how caregivers with differing geographical, racial, and economic backgrounds perceived and experienced remote learning. We found that a parent’s education level was one of the most salient factors in determining how prepared they were to deal with the challenges brought on by the transition to a digital learning environment. If education level truly shapes how people react to the world around them, it puts our vision into even sharper focus as we look to provide every child with equal access to an inspiring education.

The concerns parents and families have about their children’s education reach beyond the challenges brought on by remote learning. Concerns that were prevalent before the onset of the pandemic have only been exacerbated by its arrival. In our annual listening tour, family-to-school communication has consistently been a top stressor for parents and schools. This year, it intensified as the responsibility of overseeing their students’ day-to-day education has fallen more squarely on the shoulders of caregivers.

We’ve distilled our comprehensive report and parents’ advice on how to make a difficult transition a little easier for school communities. As COVID cases continue to rise here in Kansas City and across America, and as school leaders weigh the potential negative impact of no-win decisions, we hope they’ll leverage the crucial voices of parents in making those determinations.

Benefits of Remote Learning

1. More Frequent Communication Between Teachers and Families

  • Teacher-parent communication is a key success indicator of at-home learning. In open-ended survey responses, many parents responded that teachers who reached out about missing assignments or provided clear to-do items helped make at-home learning successful. Parents appreciated the support of having a weekly overview of to-do items that clearly distinguished required work versus recommended, optional assignments. We found that 51% of parents were more aware of what their child was learning compared to at-school learning.
  • Caregivers appreciated teachers who gave them access to a direct line to email and call with questions. When school administrators and teachers communicated clearly with parents about their expectations in a face-to-face virtual format, parent satisfaction was higher.
  • Parents cited a desire to hear from teachers when their student was doing well, not just when their student was struggling. Of respondents, 40% of parents said teachers initiated communication with them more often than before COVID-19, and 35% of parents said they initiated communication with teachers more often than before. Black respondents, in particular, reported more confidence, involvement, and awareness during at-home learning than during at-school learning.

2) Increased Parent and Student Agency

We found that one benefit of at-home learning was children could adjust their learning schedules to what best suited their interests and needs. “We were able to structure learning around his interests, as well as find a more natural rhythm to the day. He loves to read at night before he goes to bed and likes to do math games first thing in the morning, as well as spend a lot of time playing outside. Being at home allowed us to have a more natural rhythm. It also allowed us to do more art, which he loves.”

Some parents were also able to spend time supporting their child’s academic interests, or helping their child tackle challenging subjects, with 48% of parents reporting that they’re more involved now than previous. One parent shared, “I discussed American history with my child and enriched his knowledge of history in the process.”

Remote Learning Challenges

1) Students Struggle with Motivation and Ability to Focus

One of the biggest challenges the survey reveals is a lack of student motivation and focus. Parents cited an absence of grades, resulting in their child not being incentivized to complete assignments. In the words of one parent, “Students were told that their grades would not drop. This gave my student zero motivation. My student did only what she had to, which was very little.”

Caregivers also commonly mentioned an inability to focus as a perceived challenge for students. “Uno de mis hijos necesita que alguien esté constantemente recordándole para que se mantenga enfocado en lo que tiene que hacer. A veces se distrae fácilmente con otras cosas en la computadora. Entonces era estar checando que hiciera su trabajo.” (Translated: One of my children needs someone to constantly remind him to stay focused on his assignments. He easily gets distracted with other things on the computer. Therefore, I have to keep checking on him, in order for him to complete his work.)

2) Parents Struggle with Limited Time and Capacity

Another major challenge was parent capacity and time, which was especially challenging for parents who were working a full-time job, and parents with younger children and/or multiple students in the household. One parent commented, “Trying to balance work and manage the kids’ classes is a huge challenge. If we only had to do one or the other, we could manage, but both are exhausting, and doing both well is just not possible.” Some parents, particularly for those with multiple children, lamented that the varying platforms and systems used by schools made supporting their children confusing and difficult.

There are also racial disparities in parent confidence to support their children in a school-at-home setting. For example, for Latinx parents, 17% felt less confident compared to when their child was in in-person school while only 9.86% of white parents felt less confident. Additionally, education level appears to be an indicator of capacity. Of those we surveyed, caregivers with more education (those with schooling beyond high school) felt more prepared to support their student at home, felt more comfort and confidence in using edtech tools, and were less concerned about their student’s educational progress.

3) Families Lack Access to the Tools They Need—Including the Internet

An important piece of understanding the parent experience with at-home learning is the impact of the digital divide, the gap between those with access to connectivity and technology and those without. A LEANLAB report from June 2020 illuminated the stark inequities in education among students throughout the Kansas City metro area as a result of the digital divide. As many as 20% of students across 22 school districts lack access to the Internet, and therefore miss out on the same virtual learning opportunities as their connected peers. Despite our earnest efforts to supplement our online survey tool with phone surveys, we were unable to capture the true effects of the digital divide on parent experience with at-home learning because of the medium of the survey and how difficult it is to connect with disconnected families. Only 20 out of the 516 respondents indicated that they lacked consistent and reliable internet access, and the survey significantly under-represents the sentiment from parents without access to the Internet.

Given these findings, we’ve drafted a few recommendations for schools, teachers, and parents.

5 Recommendations

1) Co-create personalized instructional goals for students

In surveys, 70% of respondents indicated that their child’s educational progress (or lack thereof) was a concern. However, perhaps caregivers, educators and school leaders need to work together to redefine what constitutes “progress” in the context of a global pandemic. The day-to-day experiences for families in 2020 are as unique as the U.S. population is diverse. If there was ever a time to abolish one-size-fits-most arbitrary goals for student achievement based on grade level, this is it.

An ideal scenario would be one wherein school leaders create opportunities for teachers and families to co-create customized, individualized learning goals for each student that are appropriately modified for the era of a global crisis and the context of remote education. When families buy into shared expectations, they’ll work in concert with educators to help their students meet new, modified and achievable goals.

2) Foster ongoing communication between educators and caregivers

Schools should prioritize and develop systems that create clear lines of communication between parents and teachers. Teachers need ways to source feedback from the home and vice versa to adapt and respond to student needs in real time. An ongoing feedback loop will help both families and educators adapt to rapidly-changing environments and help teachers feel confident the workload they assign is feasible for students and their families.

3) Set a learning schedule that allows for flexibility

One key method that helped make at-home learning successful for the families we surveyed was a well-defined study plan or schedule that still allowed for flexibility. In some instances, teachers helped create a schedule. In others, parents created one for their student. Either way, we found that predictable, yet flexible, schedules helped add structure and kept students focused and motivated. The key is building in a schedule that is flexible enough to meet the unique needs and time constraints of the students’ families.

4) Coach parents on edtech tools

Not only are schools constantly adopting new edtech tools, those tools are also constantly evolving. It’s challenging for educators to stay up-to-date on the myriad of tools in the classroom, let alone the parents. Without support on the platforms schools leverage in both an in-person, and especially a remote learning environment, parents are ill-equipped to support their students, which puts more burden on the educators. Schools should forge partnerships with their edtech providers to offer comprehensive and on-going support for parents (in multiple languages), on not just how to use edtech tools, but also on the desired student learning outcomes for each platform. By training parents in groups and putting more responsibility on the backs of edtech providers, educators can save time by fielding fewer one-off questions and leverage parents as a network of classroom aides to add to their capacities.

5) Collaborate with parents and give them agency

Schools should extend ongoing, at-home, collaborative learning opportunities with parents to support parents’ abilities to reinforce materials in the home setting and provide parents more agency in their child’s education. Many parents we surveyed reported having asked their student’s teacher for advice on how to tutor their kids, and reported finding that to be incredibly helpful.

School leaders should consult parents on important school decisions. For example, they should get feedback when they select edtech platforms to ensure that the solutions are user-friendly enough that parents, as well as teachers, can support students’ interaction with the tools. This will reduce stress and confusion for caregivers, students, and teachers alike.

In 2020, it takes an entire education ecosystem to produce a career-ready, socially responsible adult. The assembly-line, one-size-fits-most approaches of factory model schooling are antiquated in a brick and mortar classroom, but fall especially short in a remote environment. Parents, educators, and administrators need to collaborate and communicate frequently to make the constant adjustments and real-time decisions necessary to yield the best possible outcomes for each individual student.

More to Learn

Our in-depth report dives further into these successes and challenges, and provides more systemic findings on the variation in perspectives and experiences with at-home learning among parents in the Kansas City metro area. We outline some key takeaways and report on the data for schools and families to ensure that we can use the lessons we’ve learned in the past year to build a more equitable future for all students.

Yet, the report is just the first step in understanding the successes, challenges, and impact of at-home learning for local Kansas City parents. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep many students out of traditional classrooms, it is important for parents and school communities to work together in a way that supports parents, students, and teachers. Further research is needed to evaluate the ongoing effect of at-home learning on student learning and social-emotional outcomes, as well as on teacher and family well-being.

For more, see:


Members of the LEANLAB Education staff contributed to this article. The report was prepared by Dr. Erin Heubert and Joy Wang. Dr. Heubert and Jorge Holguin collaborated on the survey design and distribution.

LEANLAB Education is a Kansas City-based nonprofit whose mission is to launch transformational education innovations that have a national impact. Their method is pairing under-resourced school communities with high potential education technologies to measure their impact in authentic classroom environments.

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Your District Needs an Innovation Pathway

By: Rebecca Midles and Greg Gazanian

Do you have educators in your system that are ready to make some innovative changes and need some runway? Having an innovation grant can help. As Pam Moran has shared it is important to find ways to say yes to innovation.

The Arcadia Unified grant and venture fund program provides an adaptive process of support and exploration for teachers and staff who are experimenting with new ideas and are in need of funding, resources, or other insights.

Greg Gazanian, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at Arcadia Unified shares that they wanted the fund to be different and not just a ‘submit an application and wait’ process. The process would need to be streamlined. The idea of this structure came from Greg observing an ASU/GSV Summit conversation between a venture funder and an educational innovator.

The Arcadia Unified Strategy and Innovation Department first budgeted for innovation grants during the 17/18 school year. The program has expanded each year since then. Hundreds of grants have been offered with even more requests for general support fulfilled. COVID-19 has offered an opportunity to provide even greater support to our teachers and staff.

Greg advised a need to focus on outcomes more than how you or the district looks, “You have to have humility in this work.” He also shared that the first value of Arcadia Unified is to be collaborative and invites you to connect with him for more information. Email: [email protected]

Example Projects

Arcadia Unified Lab School

In an effort to explore maximizing voice, choice, and agency for students in a unique environment, Arcadia Unified funded the launch of a middle school “lab school”. The lab school consists of a custom environment in which students can focus on alternative approaches to learning. The grant funded the creation of the classroom space as well as supplies.

Quick Translation Services

We learned that office staff would often need to call in outside help for translation services. We funded the purchase of Google Nest Hub devices that can translate many languages automatically with no ongoing costs.

Math Camp and Exploration

After a math teacher expressed an interest in creating a highly fun, creative, and collaborative space in which students can learn and explore math, Arcadia Unified worked with her to fund a new innovative space for learning.

Elementary Wellness Center

We were approached by one of our elementary school counselors who were interested in building a wellness center for the school’s students. The center would offer a space for fun, reflection, and social and emotional learning. We offered a grant to cover furniture and other features for the room.

Key Features

  • The program is available to all Arcadia Unified staff.
  • The process for support can be started at any time.
  • There are no time limits or application windows.

According to Greg, the requests are often supported by research conducted by the Strategy and Innovation Team and the results of grants and ventures are shared with other stakeholders.

While the funding is an important component of the program, Arcadia Unified often receives requests for help in navigating organizational structures and/or barriers. The Strategy and Innovation department acts as a go-between and advocates on requests for permission and information on new initiatives or ideas.

There is no minimum or maximum grant amount. Each request is considered individually and seen as an opportunity to explore needs within the district. Oftentimes, the funding or support offered evolves beyond the initial request. Grants and ventures can range from funding for flexible furniture to the programming of custom apps for classroom support.

When selecting what to fund, scalability plays an important role, as does an equitable spread across the district. However, sometimes in the early stages of innovative concepts, it takes root in a school or with a team of teachers first but can then roll out to other parts of the district. The interests in this opportunity have also spread to departments across the system like food service and special services.

While we recognize that budgets are tight and challenging and prioritizing staffing is the most important focus, if there is space for community support or national sourcing, a small amount of funding could provide the start to long-term innovation using a model similar to Arcadia Unified’s blueprint.

Other Examples of District Innovation Funds

The following are a few examples of districts with an Innovation Fund and/or an Enrichment Fund.

  • JeffCo Public Schools in CO. Innovation Fund created by Jason Glass (podcast here) who is now Kentucky’s Ed Commissioner.
  • Westport Public Schools Innovation Fund in CT. Shared grant applications, process, guiding principles, and their Profile of a Contributing Citizen.
  • Bellevue Schools Foundation Enrichment Fund in WA. Grants supporting the community and teachers.
  • Humble ISD Education Foundation in TX. Offers Innovative Education Grants. Shared application, manual, FAQ, portal, and workshops.

For more, see:


Greg Gazanian is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer for the Arcadia Unified School District in Arcadia, CA. He oversees organizational culture, strategic management, partnerships, research and the Innovation Grant and Venture Fund program.

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Eight Ways New Schools Innovate

The rapid global shift to hybrid and remote learning–with lots of versions and variability–provoked renewed interest in new school models. And, compared to 20 years ago, the invention opportunity is enhanced by the science of learning, broad agreement on the importance of success skills, and better tools.

The opportunity to design schools to promote whole child development is expressed in a framework from Turnaround for Children. The five design principles include “positive relationships, environments filled with safety and belonging, integrated supports, the intentional development of critical skills, mindsets and habits that all successful learners have, and rich meaningful instructional experiences so that students discover what they are capable of.”

With Altitude Learning and for the Texas Learning Exchange, we are building on Turnaround’s complication of learning science and cataloging innovative school models. We spotted and tagged features of innovative schools in eight dimensions. New school models innovate in one or more of these dimensions. They may not have a long track record of success but their early practices and results are promising.

1. Outcomes: how student learning goals are expressed. Outcomes may be innovative in the way they are described, the group they target, or the level strived for:

2. Learning model: how learning experiences are authored, organized and sequenced. Examples of learning models that feature engaging and innovative learning experiences include:

3. Social and emotional learning: whole child development, as Turnaround notes, combines positive relationships, safe learning environments, integrated supports, and skill building. Examples include:

  • Valor Collegiate Academies places human development at the core with environments filled with safety and belonging. The Valor day begins with Compass Circles where facilitators promote mindfulness and social and emotional skills.
  • Social and emotional skills are developed in a team-based advisory system called Crew in EL Education schools. Learning expeditions (projects) involve students in original research, critical thinking, and problem-solving, and character development with a focus on contributing to a better world.
  • SEL is at the heart of equity-centered systems and structures in Austin ISD, where they are “working hard to create brave, respectful, collaborative spaces to support all students, staff, families, and communities.”

4. Competency: how learning is measured, communicated, how learners progress through the system, and how they share their progress and capabilities.

5. Diversity, equity, and inclusion: how diverse learners are welcomed and supported in their learning journey. Examples include:

6. Organization of time and staffing: innovative ways of organizing learning experiences, schedules, supports, and staff. Examples include:

  • To support high dose tutoring, Brooklyn LAB pioneered the LAB Corps Fellowship, a residential talent development model.
  • Schools in the Opportunity Culture network share a system of multi-classroom leadership that provides both a talent development ladder and better support for junior teachers.
  • There are more than 150 teacher-powered public schools where teacher teams have the autonomy to lead their site.
  • Boston Day and Evening Academy have proficiency-based pathways that allow students to progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time. Students benefit from wraparound services, digital tools that help create a personalized approach, and a school open 12 hours a day.
  • Bedford County Public Schools has eliminated master schedules at secondary schools, instead of assigning 12-15 students to a “learning coach” who meets with students routinely to promote connectedness and to develop flexible schedules that meet the needs of each learner.

7. Tools: learning platforms and applications that support innovative practices. Examples include:

8. Theory of Change: unique entry points or partnerships, productive scaling strategies, and networks. Examples include:

  • Tiny start: 4.0 Schools helps edupreneurs pilot their learning model in an afterschool or summer school program.
  • Start small: Kettle Moraine School District launched three microschools to initiate high school transformation. Each started with a couple of teachers and a few dozen students and together they grew into almost half of the high school enrollment.
  • Dallas ISD supports new schools with Innovation Engine grants and personalized learning support. Denver’s Imaginarium supports new and transformed schools.
  • Community as classroom: Tacoma School of the Arts was the first of a network of three schools to leverage community resources.
  • New format: Prenda is a new way to think about remote learning. small groups (pods) of 5-10 students meeting in homes, churches, community centers, or workspaces.

Most innovative schools combine two or more of these dimensions. Examples include:

  • Building 21 in Philadelphia is building a network (#8) around an innovative outcome framework (#1) and learning model (#2), competency assessments (#4) with strong relationships where every student is known and understood (#3).
  • San Diego Met offers students four years of Internships while earning an AA degree with a high school diploma. Gateway to College helps disconnected youth earn an AA with a high school diploma.
  • Solar Prep is a Dallas ISD PK-6 (soon to be PK-8) girls school with a 50/50 socioeconomic diversity blend featuring blended and hands-on STEAM learning including robotics and coding.

The sudden shift to remote learning in March exhibited the limitations and inequities of current learning models while promoting newfound agility. The nine-month struggle to deliver learning experiences under duress made clear to many the potential for new school models. Efforts to launch new schools and transform existing schools around these eight dimensions may be a benefit of the crisis.

For more, see:


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To help inform and deliver new agreements, new practices and new tools Getting Smart and eduInnovation are exploring the Invention Opportunity thanks to support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the foundations.

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See it to be it: The power of mentorship and entrepreneurship

By: Kevin Newell

Several years ago, when I was president of McDonald’s West Coast operations, I needed to meet with a Los Angeles area franchisee before heading back east to Chicago. My driver pulled into the parking lot, where a young African-American security guard was on duty. We nodded at each other — I’m certain I was wearing a suit — as I walked inside.

A few minutes later, the security guard approached the owner and me, prompting us to ask whether there was an issue outside. “No,” he said. “I just want to have a moment to speak to the gentleman here.” We chatted for a few minutes. He was probably in his mid-20s and had just recently returned from two tours of duty in Iraq.

“Thank you for talking to me,” he said. “It’s just that I haven’t seen anybody like you before” — meaning a Black man with a high-level position in corporate America and important enough to have someone drive him around while he worked.

Then it hit me: My new friend never once dreamed of working in a C-suite, McDonald’s, or elsewhere. How could he? As far as he knew, no one who looked like him ever had.

You have to see it to be it.

Our conversation made me realize that I needed to offer the world more than hamburgers. Today, in my retirement, I’m mentoring young people in the community where I grew up to be entrepreneurs, to show them that a person of color doesn’t have to be an athlete or entertainer to be successful.

Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet, a high school on Chicago’s west side – where I grew up – offers students a different approach to learning, one that can’t be found in a textbook. For the past 3 years, I have been a mentor to students at Michele Clark Academy as part of the INCubatoredu entrepreneurship program helping students learn the steps to launching a business, from identifying a problem to developing a solution. But, of course, it’s about much more than helping students start a business, as a mentor I’m using the concept of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for teaching them to solve challenges, add value to their communities and succeed in the world of work – and, perhaps most importantly, using my own experience to help students see themselves, and their future, in a different way.

It’s a joy to watch my students discover the power of creative problem-solving, collaboration, and conflict resolution — essential skills that will drive them far beyond the classroom. A leader always emerges on each team, usually someone with enough enthusiasm and charisma to convince other team members to buy-in to their concept. These are the “soft skills” so many employers say are lacking in the workforce, and programs that connect students with mentors are one of the few places where kids can learn them. At the end of the year, they pitch their solution to potential investors with the hope of bringing their idea to market demonstrating both these soft skills alongside the technical know-how needed to present their ideas.

Many students at Michele Clark come from backgrounds that are either troubled or traumatic, and some lack the social skills we expect for children in their age group. Very few, if any, of these students have had any exposure to the world of entrepreneurship or business that students in more affluent communities may get at their dinner tables. During my early days at Michele Clark, I had to suspend my judgment about whether they were actually listening to what I was sharing. In my mind, they were signaling that they didn’t care. Eventually, I learned not to put too much stock in their social cues. Take a student we had a couple of years ago, a young man who never quite seemed engaged or interested. Turns out the kid took everything he’d learned from INCubatoredu, ideas we didn’t think he was paying attention to, and launched an online business. He wasn’t ignoring me. He was doing it his way.

Another of my early lessons: Kids naturally and quite quickly gravitate to the competitive aspects of the program; they become deeply invested in “winning,” which in this situation means finding funding and launching their products. When that happens, it’s cause for celebration.

But it doesn’t always happen. That’s when I share with them another important lesson, something they’ll need no matter where their careers take them — learning to cope with “failure.” When they run up against disappointment, like not convincing investors to back their project, I ask students the same two questions I asked my teams at McDonald’s: “What did you learn? And what are you going to do differently?” It causes them to think about the pros and cons, the missteps, the steps not taken.

I seize the opportunity to tell them about my own “failures.” When I was the global chief brand officer at McDonald’s, I had to do some soul-searching to keep my mistakes from beating me down. Fortunately, I worked for bosses who realized that not every idea can be a Big Mac. They held me accountable, all right, but not for having a 100 percent success rate. To keep my job, I had to be smart enough to learn from my mistakes and strong enough to try again. The experience showed me the importance of resilience, a lesson I pass on to my students.

“You think you failed?” I ask them. “Imagine someone reading your college application and discovering that at age 16, you entered a pitch competition for an idea you created from scratch? Do you think that person will see you as a failure — or as someone with the tools and motivation to succeed in life?”

In communities across the country, millions of kids are waiting for a mentor to show them what’s possible in their lives. Programs like INCubatoredu provide what that security guard didn’t have in his home and community — something to aspire to.

I see myself in each and every one of the kids I work with at Michele Clark. But more importantly, they see themselves in me. And if they see it, they can be it.

For more, see:


In addition to his volunteer work, Kevin Newell is an executive advisor for HubKonnect, which creates customized local store marketing plans for individual franchise locations. He is the former global chief brand officer of McDonald’s Corp. and former president of the company’s West Zone.

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