How Would You Transform School?

Great question! Doesn’t get asked enough by school community stakeholders. More often, the question is: How would you change school?

Let’s start with the change school question and hypothetically ask those most impacted- teachers and students.

A typical teacher response could be suggesting new furnishings, better curriculum materials, more tech (maybe less tech!) and “MORE TIME dammit!”

Student comments might be less elegant, but more revealing. “School is boring and stupid.” For them, change is easy. Make it more fun.

Both observations are accurate but narrow in scope. It’s challenging to articulate beyond our personal sphere of influence and locus of control. This is where most school change ideas reside.

The suppositional changes by teachers and students are like further improving the internal combustion engine. Similar to traditional education, the gasoline engine is reaching the end of the road (metaphor!). With intense effort, we can eke out minimal improvement. Why bother?

No one asked the inventor of the combustion engine to build a better horse.

Let’s go big picture, beyond “band-aid” innovation. Major shifts will lead to the transformation of the learning experience. Tom Whitby tweets that change within the current system is not enough, “A common misconception about the education system is that changing one thing will fix all the problems.”

I started doodling thoughts about transformation on a piece of paper and narrowed them down to a Post-It note.

 Grading Shifts

The mindset shift away from traditional assessment and grading is foundational. A successful implementation of standards-based assessment and grading requires a multi-year effort. This is the big one, the lynchpin, the tipping point. Once new practices take hold, the change opens us up to more structural shifts.

Skills Focus

Next is the bloated school curriculum. We’ve all seen roadkill on the side of the highway. Obviously has been there for several days, makes you queasy when you drive by. I’ll leave that image in your mind as a comparison to the current state of the curriculum.

As a former middle school teacher, I overheard high school teachers lament, “These kids don’t know anything.” We force feed them large chunks of content, access short-term memory functions during the assessment (test), and then complain about unsuccessful students. Pssst. College professors often say the same thing about high school graduates. Taking it further, employers claim many college grads aren’t ready for the work world. Because we tinker at the edges, no entities are satisfied.

We can purposefully flip the curriculum and focus on skills development supported by content. Communication, problem-solving, interpersonal connections, leadership among others become the subjects. Why? Graduate profiles created by local communities across the USA focus on skill attainment beyond academics. For a closer look at which skills rank highest, Hanover Research’s skills crosswalk aggregates data across six lists. If school communities are clear on what they value most in graduates, schools are obligated to focus learning and feedback on them.

Interdisciplinary and Real World

Now, interdisciplinary, project-based work makes more sense; creating expanded opportunities for students to exercise voice and choice, interacting with the real world and taking control of their own learning leads to learning that sticks.

Mastery Learning

Competency education and mastery learning have gained significant traction across a broad swath of states. Mastery learning enables students to move at an individual pace and encourages schools to adopt flexible scheduling, mixed-age cohorts instead of permanently fixed structures. The Mastery Transcript Consortium is developing a new high school transcript based on “mastery of a specific skill, knowledge block or habit of mind as defined by the crediting high school.” This will be an alternative to the century-old transcript built on seat time, credit hours and traditional grading. High profile public and private universities are on board with utilizing the mastery transcript for admissions.

Digital Learning Journey

Instead of report cards, learners develop a digitized learning journey. The evolving story of “Who am I as a learner and a person?” comes front and center. Beyond documentation of learning, a customizable digitized portfolio provides space for goal setting, deep reflections and showing (not telling) every learner’s unique story.

Embedded Technology and Learning Spaces

Wrapped around all the shifts are technology and creative learning spaces. If stagnant standardized test scores are your dominant measurement tool then complaints that technology has not improved education are valid. Tech in school isn’t a game changer until we shift instructional and assessment practices to leverage its value. Now it does.

Whether you build new learning spaces or re-purpose the familiar, flexibility in how spaces are utilized creates (and re-creates) the optimum learning environment. Keep in mind every space is a learning space. Reach out to the local and global community.


A transformed school is a highly personalized ecosystem where students are placed at the center of their learning with the power to lead their own journey.

Courageous Leaders

Looks easy on a Post-It note. It isn’t. Courageous leaders are needed in abundance to push back against monied status quo forces to make transformation a reality. All the know-how and tools are available to maximize the learning experience for every child. Will Richardson says, “Truly transformative change at a systems level in pre-existing schools is very difficult to find. It’s easier to build a new school [#schoolfromscratch] than to change an old one.”

Easy or not, grab some colleagues, a bunch of Post-It notes and get started transforming your school.

Think Big

Your ideas start the conversation. Your voice shares the message. School needs to be different, not better.