The past decade has brought about a flurry of innovation in the K-12 education system. But “school innovation,” perhaps once assumed to indicate technology integration in schools, now encompasses myriad pathways to student-centered learning like competency-based education, experiential learning, social-emotional learning, and more. Given this expanding toolbox of innovative approaches, it doesn’t make sense for only a handful of school models to dominate the national narrative about innovation.
In an effort to surface a more diverse set of innovative schools and document key elements of their models, the Christensen Institute recently launched the Canopy project, a collaborative initiative that reimagines how school innovation data is sourced and organized. We generated Canopy data from a two-step nomination process that shares information about school design from a diverse set of schools not commonly referenced on other school lists (e.g. Springpoint’s list of schools to visit). The project uses a set of 88 “tags,” or keywords and phrases representing aspects of school design, that nominators and school leaders applied to each school’s nomination to describe elements of the school’s approach to student-centered learning. Canopy data on school models, sourced from 173 schools that verified their information, reveals insights that may otherwise have gone unnoticed by the field.
In this season of best-ofs, wrap-ups, and predictions, our analysis of Canopy data leads to three questions that education stakeholders should keep top of mind in 2020:
1. Who’s learning through creation, who’s not—and why?
There’s a persistent call among education experts for schools to use technology not just to democratize access to differentiated instruction, but to enable student learning through creative production. While this argument is not new, it’s on the upswing. The forthcoming 2020 Driving K-12 Innovation Report by CoSN identifies “learners as creators” as the number one accelerator for innovation in schools. The recent passage of Perkins V accelerates the upward swing of career and technical education, as well as a wave of “new CTE” programs in high schools that focus on work-based learning and real-world projects. The maker education movement, boosted by the White House’s Nation of Makers initiative from 2014-2016, continues to promote the benefits of making as a way to learn. Project-based learning advocates additionally argue for more projects that enable students to make an impact in the real world. And a 2019 Gallup poll showed that the vast majority of teachers think that incorporating creativity in learning takes more work, but has a bigger payoff for students. In light of these trends, it’s worth examining the rhetoric and reality around students as creators.
While that same Gallup poll suggested that creative learning is not yet the norm in schools, Canopy data suggests that it has the potential to be, as nominated schools appear more likely than others to pursue approaches centered on student production of some kind. About two-thirds (67%) of schools were cited as pursuing project-based learning, a broadly-defined approach to learning through inquiry into complex questions. But tags referring more explicitly to learning through creation and real-world contribution were less commonly cited. Only about half of schools used the experiential learning tag, defined as “learning through real-world experiences outside the classroom;” and only a third of schools were tagged maker learning, defined as “learning through the process of designing and producing physical or digital creations.”
Moreover, these varied approaches appear unevenly implemented among schools serving different demographics. When it came to experiential learning and maker learning, the data shows suburban and more affluent schools being tagged more often compared to urban, rural, and less affluent schools. These approaches also appeared more common among schools with larger proportions of White students. It’s possible that while project-based approaches may be more widely adopted among schools with a variety of demographics, experiential and real-world components of project-based models may be more common in affluent and suburban contexts.
Are schools working to transform the learning experience for higher-poverty students and students of color purposefully opting against these approaches in the course of being culturally responsive to the priorities of their communities? If not, what are the barriers to scaling experiential learning and maker learning in these contexts? Further research should investigate why some schools might be pursuing or adopting experiential instructional models with less frequency.
2. Whose responsibility is it to design with equity in mind?
Equity has long been a priority among education stakeholders. During interviews and desk research to build the Canopy tagging system, it became clear that today, innovative equity work is as much about system design (inputs) as equitable achievement (outcomes). This recognition led us to create the designing for equity tag, described as: “The school puts historically marginalized students at the center, with the goal of improving supports and outcomes for these students. Examples of marginalized students include students with learning differences, students in foster care, students in the justice system, and students with low academic performance.”
With that description in mind, it’s encouraging that the designing for equity tag appeared in 74% of schools serving the highest percentages of Black students, as well as more often in higher-poverty schools, given that students with that demographic profile are more likely to face some form of marginalization. But what about other schools? Canopy data suggests that efforts to design for equity may break down along racial and socioeconomic lines. Designing for equity was cited in only 34% of schools serving the highest percentages of White students), and somewhat less often in lower-poverty schools. Given that virtually all schools serve some number of students whose experiences and identities (including and beyond race) are historically marginalized, could this pattern indicate that predominantly White schools and those serving higher-income families are at risk of failing to meet the needs of marginalized students who may be in the minority?
Furthermore, this finding could have implications for some equity advocates’ goal to achieve equitable systems, not just individual student or even demographic group outcomes. During an interview, Caroline Hill, one of the Canopy project’s advisors, reflected that designing for equity requires learning about systems of oppression in order to intentionally work to dismantle them. If predominantly White schools and schools in higher-income communities do not see that work as part of their responsibility given their demographics, they may risk perpetuating inequitable policies and exclusive cultures when they could be powerful advocates in favor of equity.
3. What’s unique about innovation—and the barriers to it—in rural schools?
While about half of the schools confirmed in the Canopy data are urban, 27% are rural and 22% suburban. This suggests that plenty of rural schools are innovating, supported and amplified in some cases by organizations like the Rural Schools Collaborative and the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative.
But Canopy data strongly suggests that rural schools may face barriers to innovation, or are focusing their efforts more narrowly. Rural schools were less commonly tagged for all innovative approaches, often significantly so. The exceptions to this were blended learning and wraparound services, where tagging rates for rural schools were closer to the rates for suburban and urban schools.
Rural schools’ capacity for innovation may be more limited due to a number of factors, such as availability of funding or buy-in among school leaders and communities. Alternatively, rural schools could tend to focus deeply on one or two areas, rather than pursuing a broad set of approaches. What targeted supports might benefit rural schools trying to innovate? Alternatively, are there ways in which the current Canopy tagging system fails to capture forms of innovation that are specific to rural contexts?
While the Canopy findings are not nationally representative, they offer a glimpse into critical questions about how school innovation is evolving at the turn of a new decade. Download the full Canopy report to learn more about the Canopy’s methodology and about hypotheses that the education field should investigate further to ensure that student-centered approaches take root and grow effectively and equitably.
Chelsea Waite is a research fellow at the Christensen Institute focusing on blended and personalized learning in K-12 education, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the design of new instructional models.
Like this article? Sign up for ASCD SmartBrief to get news like this in your inbox, or check out all of SmartBrief’s education newsletters, covering career and technical education, educational leadership, math education and more.