If you walk around schools, if you ask the right questions, if you stop and listen to teachers and students, if you look at how spaces are arranged and used, you can tell a lot about a school in a short period of time. I am in freezing Columbus, OH for the NCAA volleyball Final Four (Stanford is going to the finals!!), and was so happy to be spur-of-the-moment invited to spend some time at Columbus Academy on their last day before the holiday break.
CA is a highly-respected preK-12 independent school that is well on its way towards shaking up traditional learning systems. Here are just a few things I saw and heard, artifacts of a school that is pushing traditional comfort zones and ready, in my opinion, to start asking some of those big questions around what it means to be a leader in education in the future:
- Makerspaces that are integrated into the daily life of students. Innovation is not about having a 3D printer or a room with some tools in which students spend an hour a few times a week. We want to see the ideas of student-centered design and making percolate across the curriculum.
- A “skunk works” program, where students were offered open-ended funding of $200 to develop personal drones…and then some students partnered to pool stipends, and one group asked if they could build an electric skateboard instead, which is now sitting on display for others to see…and the ball gets rolling as part of student culture.
- A 5th grade classroom with kids on the floor, and others on “study bikes”; and a teacher who tries to have her students at their desks no more than 30% of the time all year.
- A female senior student leader of the robotics team who, on her own, started and runs a program for middle school girls to get them engaged in STEM before they get to high school. 40% of 9th graders who elect to take a popular intro programming course are girls, and girls make up at least half of the varsity robotics team.
- Annual teachers-teach-the teachers professional development days where faculty who have received PD during the year are expected to lead workshops for their colleagues.
- Open spaces where students not only can hang out and work, but do hang out and work together in small groups.
Perhaps most of all, I was impressed with leaders at the school who recognize the difference between starting pilots and changing a system, who are not willing to rest on the easy laurels of strong admissions demand and enviable college matriculation stats. As we finished my visit around the lunch table, we agreed that for school leaders the question should not be “what have you done for me lately”, but “what are you going to do for me 10 years from now” to ensure that a strong school today is a leading school in the future.