How to Innovate: Combine New Tools & New Schools

Learning, Online & Blended, PreK-12

The most important K-12 innovation of the last twenty years has been new school development. The most important development of the last five years has been new tools.

Districts and networks use new tools to create blended and personalized learning environments. Hundreds of leadership schools create competency-based schools where kids show what they know and progress based on demonstrated mastery. A few schools have the capacity to develop next generation tools and learning environments.

How to evaluate all of this progress? A simple 3×3 matrix that compares tech development and school model development could prove to be a useful way to evaluate innovation.

Existing Schools New Schools Next Gen Schools
Existing Tools Existing tools in existing schools. Improvement efforts focus on improving teaching practices within existing structures. Existing tools in new schools. Most of the roughly 10,000 school new schools developed over the last 15 years were moderately innovative in structure but relied on current tools (e.g., Big Picture, Expeditionary Learning, NAF…) Existing tools in  next gen schools. There are a few low tech models challenging students in old fashion ways including Montessori preschools and Great Hearts and BASIS at the secondary level.
New Tools New tools in existing schools. Many schools are personalized learning by adopting new tools (e.g., ST Math, Dreambox, i-Ready). A group of existing schools adopting new tools could serve as a test bed for short cycle trials of new tools and strategies (e.g., LEAP Innovations in Chicago). New tools in new schools. Most of the Next Generation Learning Challenges grant winners fall in this category of incorporating blended and personalized learning using a mix of the best tools available. Launched as a national new school grant program, NGLC was expanding to six regional programs. New England Secondary School Consortium includes many transform (rather than new) proficiency-based high schools. New tools in next gen schools.The NewSchools Catapult program (applications are due August 14) incorporates broader aims, a reimagined learner experience, and competency-based progress.
Next Gen Tools A handful of existing schools have the felt need and expertise to develop new tools. Leadership Public Schools, a four school Bay Area network developed ExitTicket, a classroom assessment, and FlexAlgebra.  EL Haynes developed data analytics package SchoolForce. Sanborn NH developed a competency-based gradebook and flexible grouping period. Next gen tools in new schools. Aspire Public Schools used new school development to build and deploy Schoolzilla, a data warehouse, and a blended learning model (see Liz Arney’s book Go Blended!). Next gen tools in next gen schools. A handful of schools are doing design and development work on learner experience & environment as well as the tool set.  Examples include AltSchool, Summit Public Schools, Brooklyn Labs, and College for America.


The small number of teams building next gen tools to support next gen environments is doing important and difficult work. A few innovative tools like Teach to One from NewClassrooms support (and require) innovative blended and competency-based learning environments. The sector needs more of this kind of innovation but the work is only for talented teams with backers willing to finance a long runway.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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