Few people today have the luxury of working on a single project at a time; most of us are juggling the demands of many teams at once. In theory, this system of “multiteaming” offers a number of upsides: You can deploy your expertise exactly where and when it’s most needed, share your knowledge across groups, and switch projects during lull times, avoiding costly downtime.
The reality, though, as we found in our research over the last 15 years, is a lot more complicated. For many people, getting pulled across several different projects is stressful and less productive than theory would suggest. Switching attention between tasks takes time and saps your focus and energy. Moving between teams, you probably also need to adjust to different roles — you might be the boss on one but a junior member of another, for example — which changes not only your level of accountability but also your ability to juggle resources when a crunch time hits. Different teams encompass their own unique cultures, including relationships, routines, symbols, jokes, expectations, and tolerance for ambiguity, which requires energy to handle. And unless you carefully plan and negotiate your contribution on each team, you may end up doing repetitive work instead of pushing your own development.
How can you manage your time, stress, and development if you’re on multiple teams? And how can you stay focused on what’s most important? Start with some up-front planning and follow a few simple rules:
Prioritizing and Sequencing Your Work
Get the big picture. Focusing narrowly on a given day’s work puts you in a reactive, firefighting mode. Schedule a regular status check on all your projects to note milestones. By proactively identifying crunch times when multiple projects have high demands, you can better manage your time and set expectations. The speed and demands of your projects determine the ideal frequency of check-ins, and the management style and seniority of your stakeholders sets the tone for establishing priorities when push comes to shove.
Sequence strategically. Pick one task and focus on it intensely, rather than juggling. Start with the task that requires the greatest concentration and give it your undivided attention. Decide on a distinct set of must-achieve outcomes, define which actions are necessary to achieve only those results, and ruthlessly stick to them. Research shows that attention residue — thoughts held over from a project you’re transitioning from — takes up valuable mental space, so the fewer switches you can make in a given day, the better. If you must multitask, then coordinate and group any compatible duties. For example, if you know you are going to need to answer phone calls at random intervals, work on another task that can be interrupted at any time.
Setting and Communicating Expectations
Protect yourself. When you’re focused on a high-priority task, buy yourself a mental escape from unnecessary intrusions. For example, when I’m writing — my highest-concentration task — I put an automatic reply on my email telling people I’m not checking messages till a certain time of day, and offering my mobile number in case of an emergency. By telling people not to expect an instant reply, you buy yourself some time to focus, while reassuring them that you will pay attention — later. Including your phone number signals your willingness to respond but also makes people think twice about whether their request truly needs immediate attention.
Document and communicate progress. Seeing momentum helps your team leaders feel empowered and in control. Be up front when problems arise. The earlier you say, “I’ve got a conflict and might have trouble delivering 100%,” the more leaders will trust you. One seasoned team member in our research said many of his responses to team requests are simply two words: “On it.” Even this super-brief response tells colleagues that he received their request, so they know he’ll follow up when he can provide more details.
Optimizing Your Development
Know thyself. A big downside of multiteaming is the truncated exposure to experts from different areas, reducing both your chance to learn from them and your ability to create an impression. Under time pressure, the temptation is for each person to contribute where they already have deep knowledge, rather than investing in members’ learning and growth. You need to own your development goals and your progress toward them. Figure out who else on the team you want exposure to. Make your development goals explicit, to both your team leader and those experts.
Force thyself. After identifying your development goals, block out time for actual learning. Research shows that a critical determinant of learning is time spent reflecting on and integrating new information. This is a challenge, because multiteaming forces us to jump between projects with the express goal of reducing downtime. Therefore, you need to intentionally and explicitly schedule time for reflection. Obviously, you can’t go overboard and become a bottleneck just to carve out contemplation time, but make sure team members see reflection as “real work.”
Across the world, the significant financial benefits of multiteaming mean it has become a way of life, particularly in knowledge work, despite the stresses and risks it can pose for people working across multiple teams at once. As one of those team members, you can manage the trade-offs of working in an overcommitted organization and reap some of the benefits yourself.
Dr. Denise Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is the author of “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and academic integrity. Challenge Success is a nonprofit school reform organization focused on promoting student well-being and academic engagement and is affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
“People don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high paying job, which brings them to happiness, or so they think.”
—Kevin Romoni, Grade 10, Doing School
Kevin was one of five students I shadowed for a year at a high-achieving high school in Silicon Valley. His classmates echoed his belief that future success was inextricably tied to high school performance. This narrow notion of success as defined by grades, test scores, and college admission ultimately took its toll on these teens. The pressure to over-achieve led to high levels of physical and emotional distress and exhaustion.
Since 2007, Challenge Success has surveyed more than 100,000 middle and high school kids in high-achieving public and independent schools across the country. We have found that Kevin’s narrow definition of success is overwhelmingly prevalent. In our fast-paced culture, kids are busy in and out of school, often maintaining schedules that are more hectic than those of the adults around them. Many students and parents feel they have no choice but to continue, day after day, at this frantic pace. They believe the prospect of a good education, future employment, and financial security are at risk if they don’t. But this “more is better” lifestyle takes a toll on student well-being and learning in many ways.
Our research shows that high school students get, on average, about six and a half hours of sleep each night, even though medical experts recommend eight to ten hours of sleep for healthy development. We know that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation and depression, anxiety, memory function, bullying, and car accidents in adolescents, according to the Stanford Medicine News Center.
Academic Worry and Emotional Distress
Nearly 75 percent of high school students surveyed report being often or always stressed by schoolwork. In fact, the National Association of Health Education Centers reports that academics are the leading cause of stress for middle and high school-aged students, and that prolonged stress can be debilitating.
Almost 40 percent of high school students we surveyed reported “doing school,” working hard but rarely finding schoolwork interesting, meaningful, or valuable. The pressure to perform often leads to a loss of engagement with learning and perpetuates a culture of “robo-students” — students who focus on getting the grades but do not find intrinsic motivation, meaning, or joy in the process. Our research shows that students who are not fully engaged affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively are less likely to achieve in school and more likely to suffer from symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
Cheating and Drug Use
When students are under pressure and lack sufficient sleep, they often engage in cheating behavior. Challenge Success research shows that 88 percent of high school and 75 percent of middle school kids admit to cheating in one form or another. Students tell us that “it’s cheat or be cheated,” and they feel they have no other options but to break the rules. Health professionals have also observed an increase in the overuse of prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, known as “study drugs.” Many adolescents believe that study drugs help them stay up and focus, and they are unaware of the severe health risks associated with abusing prescription medications.
All Kids Need Their SPACE in School
So, how do we break this cycle? How do we change our schools to emphasize meaningful and joyful learning and a broader definition of success? Challenge Success has used its research-based SPACE framework to guide solution-focused reform efforts with more than 150 schools in our School Program since 2003.
We typically begin working with our partner schools by surveying students to identify the school’s most pressing concerns, and we ask each school to bring a multi-stakeholder team — administrators, faculty, parents, counselors, and students — to our annual conferences. We encourage each school to examine its specific circumstances and then create a site-specific plan for change with a Challenge Success coach. Each school’s needs are unique and solutions can focus on one or more of the SPACE framework categories. For instance, schools might focus on professional development for deeper, interdisciplinary learning, and they may decide to strengthen teacher-student relationships via advisories.
One School’s Spotlight on the “S” in SPACE
Photo Credits: Woodside Priory School
One NAIS-member school, Woodside Priory, a 6–12 grade day and boarding school of 350 students in Northern California, participated in the Challenge Success School Program for several years. The school has shown extraordinary growth in the “S” category of SPACE, examining “students’ schedule & use of time.” Specifically, Woodside Priory recognized that student engagement and well-being could be improved by addressing two highly interrelated issues: the bell schedule and homework practices.
A Saner School Schedule
The school schedule has a substantial impact on engagement, teaching, and learning; it affects the entire school community and is an important lever for school improvement. Woodside Priory’s leaders recognized the need to make a change to the bell schedule based on results from the Challenge Success student survey. After learning that their students were only getting on average 6.5 hours of sleep each night, they decided to move the start time of the school from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. four days a week, and to start even later (9:45 a.m.) once a week. This allowed students the opportunity for additional sleep each morning, and had the extra bonus of increased professional development time for faculty.
That year, they also changed from a traditional schedule to a modified block schedule. This meant that students had five classes per day for 65 minutes each, instead of seven classes for 45 minutes each. Students felt the benefits immediately. With more time in each class, they had more opportunities to engage deeply with the material and felt less rushed throughout the day with fewer transitions.
The shift to a block schedule also dramatically changed how students experienced homework. In the past, kids typically had homework from seven classes, every night. In a block schedule, students only had homework due for the five classes that met the next day. The result was that students had more control over how they managed their homework load and had more flexibility after school and in the evenings.
Homework: Quality vs. Quantity
Educators, parents, and students often confuse the concepts of “rigor” and “load.” Rigor is associated with depth of learning and mastery of a subject matter. Load is a measurement of the amount of work that is assigned to students. Research shows that students in courses that assign more hours of homework do not necessarily experience greater mastery or in-depth understanding. Because of this, Woodside Priory sought to reduce the daily quantity of homework and increase the quality of their assignments. They decided to place student learning, engagement, and well-being at the forefront of their new approach to homework.
The In-Class Experiment – Homework Week
To get started, Woodside Priory’s Head of Upper School Brian Schlaak asked all teachers in the upper school to allow 30 minutes during each class period to get homework done in class for one week.
Here is what they learned:
Teachers learned that students take varying amounts of time to do homework; some get stuck and need help right away, and others are done in ten minutes. This challenged teachers’ assumptions about how much time was actually needed to complete each assignment.
Teachers learned that sometimes students don’t understand the purpose of a homework assignment and, as a result, can perceive it as “busy work.”
Teachers noted that they saw an increase in the quality of the students’ work — students had time to ask the teacher for assistance during class and they seemed more engaged.
Teachers noticed that many students were not using appropriate note-taking methods when reading assignments for class. This observation prompted teachers to support students with additional guidance and study skills to reduce wasted time on tasks and to increase retention and mastery.
Students learned that they can be much more productive with homework when they aren’t on social media or other distracting devices, when they aren’t exhausted at the end of the day after sports practices and other extracurricular activities, and when they have a designated amount of time to focus on their work.
Woodside Priory’s Homework Week exercise led to a fruitful discussion and support for teachers to experiment with many different approaches to homework, including: self-graded assignments; revise and resubmit opportunities; homework-free nights, vacations, and classes; and optional homework. Teachers worked on better aligning their homework assignments with the enduring understandings of their courses, and observed which approach to homework seemed best for reducing load while maintaining appropriate rigor.
This year, the school continues to focus on enduring understandings, coupled with authentic assessment work, to eliminate extraneous content and busywork, and they are orienting their curriculum around five learning competencies — communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and resilience.
We know that school reform can be a daunting task. Rather than focusing on educational fads, our strategies are founded in educational research and built to have long-lasting effects in schools.
As a result of our work with schools across the country, students:
cheat less often,
engage in learning,
feel supported by teachers, and
perform just as well or better in school.
By embracing a new definition of success, we are ultimately defining what we value. Our students shouldn’t have to choose between health or stress, and academic rigor or engagement. By challenging the current, narrow view of success, students, families, and schools can find a healthy balance and thrive.
JOSÉ URBINA LÓPEZ Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”
For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.
After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.
Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.
He too had grown up beside a garbage dump in Matamoros, and he had become a teacher to help kids learn enough to make something more of their lives. So in 2011—when Paloma entered his class—Juárez Correa decided to start experimenting. He began reading books and searching for ideas online. Soon he stumbled on a video describing the work of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.
Juárez Correa didn’t know it yet, but he had happened on an emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.
And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.
The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”
That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.
AT HOME IN Matamoros, Juárez Correa found himself utterly absorbed by these ideas. And the more he learned, the more excited he became. On August 21, 2011—the start of the school year — he walked into his classroom and pulled the battered wooden desks into small groups. When Paloma and the other students filed in, they looked confused. Juárez Correa invited them to take a seat and then sat down with them.
He started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.
“But you do have one thing that makes you the equal of any kid in the world,” Juárez Correa said. “Potential.”
He looked around the room. “And from now on,” he told them, “we’re going to use that potential to make you the best students in the world.”
Paloma was silent, waiting to be told what to do. She didn’t realize that over the next nine months, her experience of school would be rewritten, tapping into an array of educational innovations from around the world and vaulting her and some of her classmates to the top of the math and language rankings in Mexico.
“So,” Juárez Correa said, “what do you want to learn?”
IN 1999, SUGATA Mitra was chief scientist at a company in New Delhi that trains software developers. His office was on the edge of a slum, and on a hunch one day, he decided to put a computer into a nook in a wall separating his building from the slum. He was curious to see what the kids would do, particularly if he said nothing. He simply powered the computer on and watched from a distance. To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.
Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical method: He said no more and left.
Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”
A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”
The bottom line is, if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.
Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them. He has also recruited a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to investigate their ideas—a process Mitra believes best fosters learning. He calls them the Granny Cloud. “They’ll be life-size, on two walls” Mitra says. “And the children can always turn them off.”
Mitra’s work has roots in educational practices dating back to Socrates. Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.
In recent years, researchers have begun backing up those theories with evidence. In a 2011 study, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa scanned the brain activity of 16 people sitting in front of a computer screen. The screen was blurred out except for a small, movable square through which subjects could glimpse objects laid out on a grid. Half the time, the subjects controlled the square window, allowing them to determine the pace at which they examined the objects; the rest of the time, they watched a replay of someone else moving the window. The study found that when the subjects controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning and posted a 23 percent improvement in their ability to remember objects. “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.
In 2009, scientists from the University of Louisville and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences conducted a study of 48 children between the ages of 3 and 6. The kids were presented with a toy that could squeak, play notes, and reflect images, among other things. For one set of children, a researcher demonstrated a single attribute and then let them play with the toy. Another set of students was given no information about the toy. This group played longer and discovered an average of six attributes of the toy; the group that was told what to do discovered only about four. A similar study at UC Berkeley demonstrated that kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem. “The science is brand-new, but it’s not as if people didn’t have this intuition before,” says coauthor Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.
Gopnik’s research is informed in part by advances in artificial intelligence. If you program a robot’s every movement, she says, it can’t adapt to anything unexpected. But when scientists build machines that are programmed to try a variety of motions and learn from mistakes, the robots become far more adaptable and skilled. The same principle applies to children, she says.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS
New research shows what educators have long intuited: Letting kids pursue their own interests sharpens their hunger for knowledge. Here’s a look back at this approach.
470 BC Socrates is born in Athens. He goes on to become a long-haired teacher who famously let students arrive at their own conclusions. His questioning, probing approach—the Socratic method—endures to this day.
1907 Maria Montessori opens her first Children’s House in Rome, where kids are encouraged to play and teach themselves. Americans later visit her schools and see the Montessori method in action. It spreads worldwide.
The first Waldorf school opens in Stuttgart, Germany. Based on the ideas of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, it encourages self-motivated learning. Today, there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in 60 countries.
1921 A. S. Neill founds the Summerhill School, where kids have the “freedom to go to lessons or stay away, freedom to play for days … or years if necessary.” Eventually, such democratic schools appear around the world.
1945 Loris Malaguzzi volunteers to teach in a school that parents are building in a war-torn Italian village outside Reggio Emilia. The “Reggio Emilia approach”—a community of self-guided learning—is born.
1967 Seymour Papert, a protégé of child psychologist Jean Piaget, helps create the first version of Logo, a programming language kids can use to teach themselves. He becomes a lifelong advocate for technology’s role in learning.
1999 Sugata Mitra conducts his first “hole in the wall” experiment in New Delhi, India. On their own, slum kids teach themselves to use a computer. Mitra dubs his approach minimally invasive education.
2006 Ken Robinson gives what will become the most frequently viewed TED Talk ever: “How Schools Kill Creativity.” Students should be free to make mistakes and pursue their own creative interests, Robinson argues.
2012 The Common Core, a new set of curriculum standards that include student-centered learning, is adopted by 45 US states. Math students, say, should “start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem.”
CREDITS: WALDORF SCHOOL: COURTESY OF WALDORF SCHOOL; ROBINSON: ROBERT LESLIE; MALAGUZZI: COURTESY OF REGGIO CHILDREN; REMAINING: GETTY IMAGES
Evolutionary psychologists have also begun exploring this way of thinking. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who studies children’s natural ways of learning, argues that human cognitive machinery is fundamentally incompatible with conventional schooling. Gray points out that young children, motivated by curiosity and playfulness, teach themselves a tremendous amount about the world. And yet when they reach school age, we supplant that innate drive to learn with an imposed curriculum. “We’re teaching the child that his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions of the curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure things out that are part of our real lives.”
Some school systems have begun to adapt to this new philosophy—with outsize results. In the 1990s, Finland pared the country’s elementary math curriculum from about 25 pages to four, reduced the school day by an hour, and focused on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish students had climbed from the lower rungs of international performance rankings to first place among developed nations.
Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, is taking this approach even further with his One Laptop per Child initiative. Last year the organization delivered 40 tablets to children in two remote villages in Ethiopia. Negroponte’s team didn’t explain how the devices work or even open the boxes. Nonetheless, the children soon learned to play back the alphabet song and taught themselves to write letters. They also figured out how to use the tablet’s camera. This was impressive because the organization had disabled camera usage. “They hacked Android,” Negroponte says.
ONE DAY Juárez Correa went to his whiteboard and wrote “1 = 1.00.” Normally, at this point, he would start explaining the concept of fractions and decimals. Instead he just wrote “½ = ?” and “¼ = ?”
“Think about that for a second,” he said, and walked out of the room.
While the kids murmured, Juárez Correa went to the school cafeteria, where children could buy breakfast and lunch for small change. He borrowed about 10 pesos in coins, worth about 75 cents, and walked back to his classroom, where he distributed a peso’s worth of coins to each table. He noticed that Paloma had already written .50 and .25 on a piece of paper.
“One peso is one peso,” he said. “What’s one-half?”
At first a number of kids divided the coins into clearly unequal piles. It sparked a debate among the students about what one-half meant. Juárez Correa’s training told him to intervene. But now he remembered Mitra’s research and resisted the urge. Instead, he watched as Alma Delia Juárez Flores explained to her tablemates that half means equal portions. She counted out 50 centavos. “So the answer is .50,” she said. The other kids nodded. It made sense.
For Juárez Correa it was simultaneously thrilling and a bit scary. In Finland, teachers underwent years of training to learn how to orchestrate this new style of learning; he was winging it. He began experimenting with different ways of posing open-ended questions on subjects ranging from the volume of cubes to multiplying fractions. “The volume of a square-based prism is the area of the base times the height. The volume of a square-based pyramid is that formula divided by three,” he said one morning. “Why do you think that is?”
He walked around the room, saying little. It was fascinating to watch the kids approach the answer. They were working in teams and had models of various shapes to look at and play with. The team led by Usiel Lemus Aquino, a short boy with an ever-present hopeful expression, hit on the idea of drawing the different shapes—prisms and pyramids. By layering the drawings on top of each other, they began to divine the answer. Juárez Correa let the kids talk freely. It was a noisy, slightly chaotic environment—exactly the opposite of the sort of factory-friendly discipline that teachers were expected to impose. But within 20 minutes, they had come up with the answer.
“Three pyramids fit in one prism,” Usiel observed, speaking for the group. “So the volume of a pyramid must be the volume of a prism divided by three.”
Juárez Correa was impressed. But he was even more intrigued by Paloma. During these experiments, he noticed that she almost always came up with the answer immediately. Sometimes she explained things to her tablemates, other times she kept the answer to herself. Nobody had told him that she had an unusual gift. Yet even when he gave the class difficult questions, she quickly jotted down the answers. To test her limits, he challenged the class with a problem he was sure would stump her. He told the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the famous German mathematician, who was born in 1777.
When Gauss was a schoolboy, one of his teachers asked the class to add up every number between 1 and 100. It was supposed to take an hour, but Gauss had the answer almost instantly.
“Does anyone know how he did this?” Juárez Correa asked.
A few students started trying to add up the numbers and soon realized it would take a long time. Paloma, working with her group, carefully wrote out a few sequences and looked at them for a moment. Then she raised her hand.
“The answer is 5,050,” she said. “There are 50 pairs of 101.”
Juárez Correa felt a chill. He’d never encountered a student with so much innate ability. He squatted next to her and asked why she hadn’t expressed much interest in math in the past, since she was clearly good at it.
“Because no one made it this interesting,” she said.
PALOMA’S FATHER got sicker. He continued working, but he was running a fever and suffering headaches. Finally he was admitted to the hospital, where his condition deteriorated; on February 27, 2012, he died of lung cancer. On Paloma’s last visit before he passed away, she sat beside him and held his hand. “You are a smart girl,” he said. “Study and make me proud.”
Paloma missed four days of school for the funeral before returning to class. Her friends could tell she was distraught, but she buried her grief. She wanted to live up to her father’s last wish. And Juárez Correa’s new style of curating challenges for the kids was the perfect refuge for her. As he continued to relinquish control, Paloma took on more responsibility for her own education. He taught the kids about democracy by letting them elect leaders who would decide how to run the class and address discipline. The children elected five representatives, including Paloma and Usiel. When two boys got into a shoving match, the representatives admonished the boys, and the problem didn’t happen again.
Juárez Correa spent his nights watching education videos. He read polemics by the Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Río (known as Rius), who argued that kids should be free to explore whatever they want. He was also still impressed by Mitra, who talks about letting children “wander aimlessly around ideas.” Juárez Correa began hosting regular debates in class, and he didn’t shy away from controversial topics. He asked the kids if they thought homosexuality and abortion should be permitted. He asked them to figure out what the Mexican government should do, if anything, about immigration to the US. Once he asked a question, he would stand back and let them engage one another.
A key component in Mitra’s theory was that children could learn by having access to the web, but that wasn’t easy for Juárez Correa’s students. The state paid for a technology instructor who visited each class once a week, but he didn’t have much technology to demonstrate. Instead, he had a batch of posters depicting keyboards, joysticks, and 3.5-inch floppy disks. He would hold the posters up and say things like, “This is a keyboard. You use it to type.”
As a result, Juárez Correa became a slow-motion conduit to the Internet. When the kids wanted to know why we see only one side of the moon, for example, he went home, Googled it, and brought back an explanation the next day. When they asked specific questions about eclipses and the equinox, he told them he’d figure it out and report back.
Juárez Correa also brought something else back from the Internet. It was the fable of a forlorn burro trapped at the bottom of a well. Since thieves had broken into the school and sliced the electrical cord off of the classroom projector (presumably to sell the copper inside), he couldn’t actually show them the clip that recounted the tale. Instead, he simply described it.
One day, a burro fell into a well, Juárez Correa began. It wasn’t hurt, but it couldn’t get out. The burro’s owner decided that the aged beast wasn’t worth saving, and since the well was dry, he would just bury both. He began to shovel clods of earth into the well. The burro cried out, but the man kept shoveling. Eventually, the burro fell silent. The man assumed the animal was dead, so he was amazed when, after a lot of shoveling, the burro leaped out of the well. It had shaken off each clump of dirt and stepped up the steadily rising mound until it was able to jump out.
Juárez Correa looked at his class. “We are like that burro,” he said. “Everything that is thrown at us is an opportunity to rise out of the well we are in.”
When the two-day national standardized exam took place in June 2012, Juárez Correa viewed it as just another pile of dirt thrown on the kids’ heads. It was a step back to the way school used to be for them: mechanical and boring. To prevent cheating, a coordinator from the Ministry of Education oversaw the proceedings and took custody of the answer sheets at the end of testing. It felt like a military exercise, but as the kids blasted through the questions, they couldn’t help noticing that it felt easy, as if they were being asked to do something very basic.
RICARDO ZAVALA HERNANDEZ, assistant principal at José Urbina López, drinks a cup of coffee most mornings as he browses the web in the admin building, a cement structure that houses the school’s two functioning computers. One day in September 2012, he clicked on the site for ENLACE, Mexico’s national achievement exam, and discovered that the results of the June test had been posted.
Zavala Hernandez put down his coffee. Most of the classes had done marginally better this year—but Paloma’s grade was another story. The previous year, 45 percent had essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.
The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. The top score in the entire country was also 921.
He printed the page and speed-walked to Juárez Correa’s classroom. The students stood up when he entered.
“Take a look at this,” Zavala Hernandez said, handing him the printout.
Juárez Correa scanned the results and looked up. “Is this for real?” he asked.
“I just printed it off the ENLACE site,” the assistant principal responded. “It’s real.”
Juárez Correa noticed the kids staring at him, but he wanted to make sure he understood the report. He took a moment to read it again, nodded, and turned to the kids.
“We have the results back from the ENLACE exam,” he said. “It’s just a test, and not a great one.”
A number of students had a sinking feeling. They must have blown it.
“But we have a student in this classroom who placed first in Mexico,” he said, breaking into a smile.
PALOMA RECEIVED THE highest math score in the country, but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of them placed at the same high level in Spanish. The results attracted a quick burst of official and media attention in Mexico, most of which focused on Paloma. She was flown to Mexico City to appear on a popular TV show and received a variety of gifts, from a laptop to a bicycle.
Juárez Correa himself got almost no recognition, despite the fact that nearly half of his class had performed at a world- class level and that even the lowest performers had markedly improved.
His other students were congratulated by friends and family. The parents of Carlos Rodríguez Lamas, who placed in the 99.99th percentile in math, treated him to three steak tacos. It was his first time in a restaurant. Keila Francisco Rodríguez got 10 pesos from her parents. She bought a bag of Cheetos. The kids were excited. They talked about being doctors, teachers, and politicians.
Juárez Correa had mixed feelings about the test. His students had succeeded because he had employed a new teaching method, one better suited to the way children learn. It was a model that emphasized group work, competition, creativity, and a student-led environment. So it was ironic that the kids had distinguished themselves because of a conventional multiple-choice test. “These exams are like limits for the teachers,” he says. “They test what you know, not what you can do, and I am more interested in what my students can do.”
Like Juárez Correa, many education innovators are succeeding outside the mainstream. For example, the 11 Internationals Network high schools in New York City report a higher graduation rate than the city’s average for the same populations. They do it by emphasizing student-led learning and collaboration. At the coalition of Big Picture Learning schools—56 schools across the US and another 64 around the world—teachers serve as advisers, suggesting topics of interest; students also work with mentors from business and the community, who help guide them into internships. As the US on-time high school graduation rate stalls at about 75 percent, Big Picture is graduating more than 90 percent of its students.
But these examples—involving only thousands of students—are the exceptions to the rule. The system as a whole educates millions and is slow to recognize or adopt successful innovation. It’s a system that was constructed almost two centuries ago to meet the needs of the industrial age. Now that our society and economy have evolved beyond that era, our schools must also be reinvented.
For the time being, we can see what the future looks like in places like Juárez Correa’s classroom. We can also see that change will not come easily. Though Juárez Correa’s class posted impressive results, they inspired little change. Francisco Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was even dismissive. “The teaching method makes little difference,” he says. Nor does he believe that the students’ success warrants any additional help. “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.”
More than ever, Juárez Correa felt like the burro in the story. But then he remembered Paloma. She had lost her father and was growing up on the edge of a garbage dump. Under normal circumstances, her prospects would be limited. But like the burro, she was shaking off the clods of dirt; she had begun climbing the rising mound out of the well.
Some schools are finding new ways for technology to fuel students’ curiosity so they can steer their own learning. —J.K.
Brooklyn Free School
Founded just under a decade ago, the Brooklyn Free School builds on a tradition of democratic education. In this “real, practicing democracy,” students are allowed to direct their own learning. There are no grades or mandatory assignments.
New Technology High School
No desks, no bells, and teachers who lecture by invitation: pretty much what you’d expect of a school dreamed up by Silicon Valley types. Students at this school in Napa, California, must demonstrate technology literacy, mastering skills like digital video production and Flash programming.
Laptop-toting students at this small school in Manhattan participate in an “online collaborative space” in which they interact with teachers and experts. And not just any experts: A NASA scientist and other luminaries have delivered lectures remotely.
High Tech High
Originally a single charter school in San Diego, High Tech High is now a 12-school network that serves more than 5,000 K-12 students. With access to sleek facilities—including labs for subjects like biotech, mechanical engineering, and graphic design—students develop multimedia research projects, consult with experts, and even present their work in professional venues.
Mooresville Graded School District
The eight schools in this district outside Charlotte, North Carolina, provide students from the fourth through twelfth grades with MacBook Airs. That means less lecturing and more projects, with students seeking answers online and sharing their discoveries with one another.
School of One
Multiple skills are taught at the same time in different parts of open-space classrooms in New York City. The program’s approach blends traditional lectures with computer exercises and virtual tutors, and a learning algorithm generates a daily plan for each student.
Being developed in India and England, cloud schools are education maverick Sugata Mitra’s vision for the future: spaces in which children learn on their own, with occasional encouragement from teachers via Skype.
Earlier this month Princeton University Press published a book called “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” by a sociologist, Rachel Sherman, who researched the spending habits of 50 well-to-do parents in New York City, and diagnosed a pervasive problem of reticence around wealth. Ms. Sherman uses her encounters with people who agreed to speak with her, in many cases about their fears of seeming showy, to conclude that there is too much silence around money and that all of this alleged hush and professed shame ultimately slow our efforts to mitigate inequality.
Given that we have segued from the era of the Rich Kids of Instagram to a moment in which the rich wives of cabinet secretaries use social media to tell us that they are wearing Hermès and that they are better, it is a difficult time to argue that modesty is really what is complicating things, or that a greater degree of honesty about renovation costs on Central Park West will lead us to a more just tax code. And yet Ms. Sherman’s book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary — “Manhattan poor’’ as others have put it — given that everywhere they chose to look they find someone who has a lot more money. Private schools emerge as dangerous incubators of this dynamic because they are the places in which the affluent receive the most intimate exposure to the obscenely rich — where your week in a rented condo in Sun Valley is a deprivation compared with the schoolmates flying from Teterboro to third houses in Vail.
In recent years, and most obviously since the rise of Black Lives Matter, private schools around the city have taken concerted care to recruit minority students, to introduce curriculums and conversation about racial understanding in lower grades, to seek diversity consultants and to promote inclusion around gender. At the same time, ostentatious displays of wealth and entitlement that can dominate a school’s ecosystem have gone too often unchallenged. At the end of last month, however, John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote a letter to the parent body meant to shake up the existing order.
Invoking the country’s current state of chaos, he wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege — that stood apart from the larger political and social crises besieging us. He blamed, in large part, “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interest.” He called for a dismantling of “this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory,” warning that without it, students would merely ascend to “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous and spiritually barren.” Without a shift in ethos toward greater commitments to the common good, toward social justice and activism, he said in the letter, “I am afraid we are, for a majority of our students, just a very, very expensive finishing school.”
Even outside the bubble of Manhattan private schools, it’s a fairly blunt critique of privilege. That the statement came from Trinity, founded in 1709 and one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in the country, made it all the more powerful. Board members at other Manhattan schools noted how astonishing the document was, given its potential to turn off donors who might have been completely at peace with the way the school had been doing business.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, about infusing our program with a greater sense of redeeming purpose,’’ Mr. Allman told me, “and approaching it from a perspective of student well-being with a better sense of why students are going about this work.’’ Mr. Allman came to Trinity several years ago from prep schools in Texas and Georgia — he ran St. John’s in Houston when Elizabeth Holmes, the fallen Silicon Valley billionaire was a student — environments in which the parent bodies were no less intensely focused on ambition and achievement. Mr. Allman’s letter also explained the way that Trinity would go about transforming its approach to community service, integrating what students would do outside the classroom with what they were learning inside. Trinity is on the Upper West Side near several social service agencies and adjacent to a public housing complex, whose playground the school’s children have used over the years.
Radically rethinking a school’s culture involves not only getting parents and children to alter a deeply ingrained mind-set and executing pedagogical changes, huge projects in themselves, but also ensuring that the families admitted are in tune with these values. This requires an ability to determine what sort of parents seek admission to your school solely so that their children can sit atop a cognitive elite and suggest to them that they might be happier elsewhere. This is not easy, but it is important work for institutions that continue to groom the people who seem to keep running the world.
I asked Mr. Allman how he thought his letter had been received by parents in the school, some of whom I had spoken with who said they found it inspiring and soulful. “Parents get to see people up close who use us for purely instrumentalist purposes, and they are happy to see the school push back,’’ he said, “and give it to them.’’
The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.
When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).
There are many simple and effective ways to activate this circuit in the course of a day.
Using positive constructive daydreaming (PCD):PCD is a type of mind-wandering different from slipping into a daydream or guiltily rehashing worries. When you build it into your day deliberately, it can boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability, and also-re-energize the brain. To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading, then wander into the recesses of your mind. But unlike slipping into a daydream or guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, you might first imagine something playful and wishful—like running through the woods, or lying on a yacht. Then you swivel your attention from the external world to the internal space of your mind with this image in mind while still doing the low-key activity.
Studied for decades by Jerome Singer, PCD activates the DMN and metaphorically changes the silverware that your brain uses to find information. While focused attention is like a fork—picking up obvious conscious thoughtsthat you have, PCD commissions a different set of silverware—a spoon for scooping up the delicious mélange of flavors of your identity (the scent of your grandmother, the feeling of satisfaction with the first bite of apple-pie on a crisp fall day), chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity. In this state, your sense of “self” is enhanced—which, according to Warren Bennis, is the essence of leadership. I call this the psychological center of gravity, a grounding mechanism (part of your mental “six-pack”) that helps you enhance your agility and manage change more effectively too.
Taking a nap: In addition to building in time for PCD, leaders can also consider authorized napping. Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if it’s a creative taskyou have in front of you, you will likely need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing. Your brain requires this longer time to make more associations, and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.
Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.
When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.
For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD, 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.
Srini Pillay, M.D. is an executive coach and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group. He is also a technology innovator and entrepreneur in the health and leadership development sectors, and an award-winning author. His latest book is Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. He is also a part-time Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education, and is on internationally recognized think tanks.
That’s one of several ways students can better prepare themselves for tests in the new school year
ILLUSTRATION: HANNA BARCZYK
What’s the best way to study for a test?
Many students will plunge into marathon study sessions this fall, rereading textbooks and highlighting their notes late into the night. The more effort the better, right?
Not so, new research shows. Students who excel at both classroom and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT aren’t necessarily those who study longest. Instead, they study smart—planning ahead, quizzing themselves on the material and actively seeking out help when they don’t understand it.
Carl Wilke, a Tacoma, Wash., father of six children ages 4 to 22, sees the studying challenges that students face almost every school day. He coaches his children to pick out the main points in their notes rather than highlight everything, and to look for headings and words in bold type to find the big ideas in their textbooks.
Several months ago, his 18-year-old daughter Eileen tried to study for an advanced-placement exam. Eileen says she struggled with a practice test and realized that she didn’t know how to study. She asked her mother, Catherine, for help. Ms. Wilke sat with Eileen for two hours while Eileen used an answer guide for the test to explain why her answers were wrong on questions she’d missed, then discuss the correct ones. As they worked together, Eileen says, “I was teaching her while simultaneously teaching myself” the material—a study technique that enabled her to ace the test.
FIVE WAYS TO HONE YOUR STUDY SKILLS
Find out what the test will cover and the kinds of questions it will include.
Start at least a few days before the test to plan how and when you will study.
Identify helpful resources such as practice tests or instructors’ office hours to assist with material you don’t understand.
Practice recalling facts and concepts by quizzing yourself.
Limit study sessions to 45 minutes to increase your concentration and focus.
High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they’re stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students. Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube. Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A’s, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so, says the study by Elena Bray Speth, an associate professor of biology, and Amanda Sebesta, a doctoral candidate, both at St. Louis University in Missouri.
That activist approach reflects what researchers call self-regulated learning: the capacity to track how well you’re doing in your classes and hold yourself accountable for reaching goals. College professors typically expect students to have mastered these skills by the time they arrive on campus as freshmen.
Many students, however, take a more passive approach to studying by rereading textbooks and highlighting notes—techniques that can give them a false sense of security, says Ned Johnson, founder of Prep Matters, a Bethesda, Md., test-preparation company. After students review the material several times, it starts to look familiar and they conclude, “Oh, I know that,” he says. But they may have only learned to recognize the material rather than storing it in memory, leaving them unable to recall it on a test, Mr. Johnson says.
Top students spend more time in retrieval practice, he says—quizzing themselves or each other, which forces them to recall facts and concepts just as they must do on tests. This leads to deeper learning, often in a shorter amount of time, a pattern researchers call the testing effect.
Students who formed study groups and quizzed each other weekly on material presented in class posted higher grades than those who used other study techniques, says a 2015 study of 144 students. At home, Mr. Johnson suggests making copies of teachers’ study questions and having students try to answer them as if they were taking a test. Taking practice tests for the SAT and the ACT is helpful not only in recalling facts and concepts, but in easing anxiety on testing day, he says.
Retrieval practice often works best when students practice recalling the facts at intervals of a few minutes to several days, research shows.
Studying in general tends to be more productive when it’s done in short segments of 45 minutes or so rather than over several hours, Mr. Johnson says. He sees a takeoff-and-landing effect at work: People tend to exert more energy right after a study session begins, and again when they know it’s about to end.
No one can pace their studying that way if they wait until the night before an exam to start. Students who plan ahead do better.
Students who completed a 15-minute online exercise 7 to 10 days before an exam that prompted them to anticipate what would be on the test, name the resources they’d use to study, and explain how and when they’d use them, had average scores one-third of a letter grade higher on the exam compared with students who didn’t do the exercise, according to a 2017 study of 361 college students led by Patricia Chen, a former Stanford University researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore. One participant’s plan, for example, called for doing practice problems repeatedly until he no longer needed his notes to solve them—a highly effective strategy.
Many teachers in middle and high school try to teach good study habits, but the lessons often don’t stick unless students are highly motivated to try them—for example, when they’re afraid of getting a bad grade in class, or scoring poorly on high-stakes tests such as the ACT or SAT.
When her daughter Deja was still young, Christina Kirk began to encourage her to identify major concepts in her notes and use retrieval practice when she studied. When as a teenager Deja resisted being quizzed by her mother, Dr. Kirk asked an older cousin to serve as a study partner.
Dr. Kirk also encouraged Deja to invite one or two of her more studious friends to their Oklahoma City home so they could quiz each other. After the girls worked for a while, Dr. Kirk took them to the movies. “You have to give them something positive at the end, because they’re still kids,” she says.
Deja, now 18, still makes use of study groups in her college courses.
Independent schools are trying to keep pace with rapid changes in the demographic, economic, and social composition of their student and parent populations. At the same time, new forms of competition have emerged, providing alternative school options for parents and their children. Despite this, most independent schools continue to provide the same type of education with little variation.
Many schools have made changes in the form of adding programs or services that are perceived as being valuable to parents as well as upgrading facilities, but these changes have contributed to the increasing cost of educating a child in independent schools. Tuition and cost of living increases have made most independent schools unaffordable for middle- and some high-income families. How can we continue providing a top-notch education while keeping our schools affordable?
To understand the forces at play and to help independent schools better compete, NAIS examined schools with different financial and educational models. Over the course of three months, we conducted a review of publicly available information, interviewed administrators at six U.S. schools, and created profiles that highlight some of the distinguishing attributes of each school. Three school profiles follow; all six profiles are available here.
Blyth-Templeton Academy, a college-preparatory high school in Washington, DC, combines very small class sizes with city-wide learning opportunities. Blyth-Templeton opened on Capitol Hill in 2015 and is scheduled to open a campus in New York City for the 2017–2018 school year.
Blyth-Templeton’s curriculum focuses on immersive, student-centered experiential learning, where teachers teach what the students want to learn. The experiential learning is not just an occasional field trip, but a daily and weekly part of the school’s curriculum. Blyth-Templeton’s academic year is divided into four terms, each term lasting about two months. During a term, students study only two subjects, allowing them to explore various subjects in greater depth than in a normal school schedule. Students follow a daily schedule consisting of three two-hour periods. During these three periods, students study an array of traditional academic subjects, such as math, science, or history that are combined with travel time around DC to make it experiential. The final two hours of a student’s day consists of an open period, where the student is free to write papers, work on projects, or study for tests. Teachers are available during this period to assist students with their work. In addition to traditional coursework, the students complete several courses that are more adaptive to their personal interests. These courses explore the students’ interests in a more personalized way, while simultaneously helping them to develop their critical and creative-thinking capacity.
Blyth-Templeton is part of the Blyth Education family, a private Toronto-based company founded in 1977, that offers secondary education and educational credit programs. Belonging to the Blyth Education network means that students at Blyth-Templeton can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses through Blyth-Templeton Academy Online, study overseas with the Blyth-Templeton Academy Global High School, or even do an academic quarter at a Blyth-Templeton Academy High School in Canada.
Fully funded by tuition, Blyth-Templeton has no fundraising events. In 2016–2017, the tuition was $14,850, compared to $37,030, the median day school tuition in DC. The school also offers financial support via financial aid or merit scholarships; about 20 percent of students receive financial support. One of the main reasons Blyth-Templeton is able to provide this type of education at such a lower cost is that instead of spending money on new facilities, labs, or athletic fields, the school uses existing community resources. Operating out of the Hill Center, a community center close to the U.S. Capitol, Blyth-Templeton rents classroom space in the center, paying only for the space while it is used. Instead of buses or vans, students navigate the city via public transportation and walking. School libraries and textbooks have been replaced by laptops and trips to a local public library. There are no athletic teams, but students who want to participate do so in clubs or leagues outside of school.
Rather than lecturing, Blyth-Templeton teachers facilitate academic discussion in the classroom. The
average class size is eight students. The school currently operates with seven faculty members and five school leadership positions. The school’s compensation is comparable to other schools; however, Blyth-Templeton offers part-time faculty positions for those interested in other pursuits. This flexibility helps attract talent and allows faculty to pursue outside endeavors such as graduate school or other work.
BASIS Independent Schools
BASIS Independent Schools, a network of pre-K–12 private schools, combines a STEM-focused education with an emphasis on foreign language skills to provide students with a practical education for the 21st century. BASIS places heavy emphasis on science and mathematics in the classroom. Students begin studying chemistry, biology, and physics in sixth grade, and begin high school math during middle school. Upon graduation, all BASIS students will have taken all three sciences at the honors level, one AP science course, and one AP math course. Foreign languages are also a critical component of the curriculum. All students begin studying Mandarin as early as pre-kindergarten and are given the option to continue Mandarin or learn a new language in middle school. Many high school students elect to take AP courses in their respective languages, often studying Mandarin, Latin, French, or Spanish at the college level.
During senior year, all BASIS students take capstone courses, studying advanced subjects ranging from quantum mechanics to game theory and political philosophy. Students spend their last trimester completing a senior project, which allows them to apply their knowledge to an area of their choosing. Senior projects are guided by a staff mentor, and can take the form of internships, university-level research, field work domestically or abroad, and other options depending on a student’s individual interests.
The BASIS promise includes that not only will students graduate with a deep understanding of academic disciplines and a mastery of traditional skills, but also that they will learn to innovate and think across disciplinary silos and become 21st century knowledge workers. While most schools have similar goals, BASIS prides itself as having a proven track record of great student outcomes as measured by both national and international ranking—like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Test for Schools—and college acceptance rates. The OECD Test for Schools is based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and provides information on students’ performance in math, reading, and science compared to other students at schools in the United States and the world.
Class sizes at BASIS Independent Schools vary between 20 and 25 students. The elementary classes have a unique teaching approach: Each first- to fourth-grade class is staffed by two joint teachers. The first teacher is a subject expert, who has a degree in whatever subject they are teaching. The second teacher is a learning expert, whose job is to help facilitate the holistic development of students, focusing on their emotional and social development. The joint teacher model ensures that students will learn from teachers who are experts in their
field, while developing more general emotional/interpersonal habits simultaneously. Teachers also have two hours of “student time” set aside to support students individually and in small groups.
Funded by a tuition rate that varies from $22,900–$29,500 depending on the grade and location, there is no fundraising or state/federal money. This is possible in part because BASIS Independent Schools are managed by BASIS Education, a company that started with operating charter schools. When BASIS Education expanded into opening private schools, the company drew on 15 years of experience with fiscal control and responsibility. Teachers are paid competitively, but BASIS schools aim to restrict facilities spending to only what is necessary to deliver a competitive educational program.
BASIS Education currently operates 28 schools across the United States and the world, including charter schools and independent schools in Silicon Valley, California (5–12); Brooklyn, New York (pre–K10); McLean, Virginia (preschool-11); Fremont, California (K–8); and the BASIS International School in Shenzhen, China (preschool–12). BASIS plans to expand its current U.S. locations and open private schools in other cities around the country; another New York campus (K–8) is set to open in Manhattan in 2017. Internationally, BASIS plans to open a second school in China by September 2017 and is opening its first European location in Prague in 2020.
Student agency—the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation—is at the heart of the Acton Academy model. Acton is a learner-driven community that strongly believes children can plan their school day and manage their time. It’s modeled on a one-room schoolhouse, enrolling 36 students in the elementary studio, 36 in the middle school studio, and between 36 and 48 students in the high school studio. The school year consists of trimesters spread out over 11 months, during which students engage in real-world projects, apprenticeships, state-of-the-art educational gaming or “quests,” and Socratic discussions in a multiage classroom.
The educational approach is based on a concept Acton refers to as the “Hero’s Journey,” which seeks to help students discover how they can live a life of meaning and purpose and develop hands-on skills that will allow them to do something that will change the world. No homework is assigned at Acton; however, students are able to access multiple learning programs like ST Math, Khan Academy, and Dreambox at home. Instead, “young heroes” celebrate the mastery of tools, skills, and character by earning badges, assembling portfolios, and taking part in public exhibitions. Parents use these badges to track academic progress in core skills, like reading, writing, math, and spelling, and character development. Electronic and hard copy portfolios capture rough drafts, photos, video, and other creative work. Public exhibitions at the end of most quests allow young heroes to present work to experts, customers, or the public for a real-world test.
Acton Academy opened its first location in 2009 in Austin, Texas, and has since opened another 25 U.S. and international campuses. Schools (as well as parent groups and entrepreneurs) can apply to become part of the Acton network. Most of the schools in the Acton network are nonprofits, and tuitions depend on each school location and offerings. In 2016–2017, tuition ranged between $500 and $1,000 per month. Acton Academy in Austin reports an annual cost-per-student at $4,300. This low cost may be a direct consequence of the teaching model: Students are supervised by adult “guides” who are more of a support resource than a traditional teacher. The school is run with fewer adults than what you typically find in other schools, which in turn, saves money in overhead.
Acton plans to continue opening additional campuses in 2017 across the United States and in various countries around the world, with the goal of opening 50 to 100 schools a year. There seems to be growing interest in the Acton model: The school has received 2,500 applications from parents who want to start their own school, representing about 100 applications a week. This doesn’t mean that Acton runs these schools; it provides them with kits and resources to use as guidelines for creating an Acton-inspired learning experience.
Modeling These Models
The approach that these schools are taking—combining a teaching model that is more student-centered with a business model that focuses on what is core to providing an excellent education—might not be a good match for the mission of some independent schools, but the inherent practices offer a lot to consider and explore.
Balancing low-cost and quality education. A brick-and-mortar type of school, while offering the latest and greatest in facilities, programs, and services, comes with a high price tag. Many for-profit schools prioritize their investments in teaching core academic programs, while outsourcing extracurricular activities. What are the programs and services that your school could outsource? Are there opportunities at your school to take a more minimal approach to facilities and lower operating costs?
Understanding your niche market. Many schools offer a wide selection of programs and services trying to please as many parents as possible. However, by being the school for everyone, you’re risking not being the right school for anyone. It’s important to clearly differentiate your school’s offerings from your competition and communicate these differences to prospective families. What type of parents are the best match for your school’s mission? (See sidebar below, “Parent Profiles”) What are the types of messages that resonate best with them?
Delivering on the promises of personalized learning. Many independent schools say they offer personalized learning, but to what extent are you offering students the opportunity to decide what to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it? Consider what programs or services your school offers to guide students in pursuing a career. Are there additional opportunities to help students explore their interests or to connect them with professionals in relevant fields?
Sidebar: Parent Profiles
What type of parents does your school attract—or want to attract? NAIS’s Parent Motivations Study can help you learn more about the parents in your school community.
The 2011 study sought to understand high-income parents’ attitudes and motivations about independent schools and examined how parents learn about various school options, what they value in an education, and what persuades them to select independent schools. The study identified five parent personas: Challenge Seekers, Success-Driven Parents, Right Fit Parents, Character-Building Parents, and Public School Proponents.
Members can download the full study, which includes an in-depth look at each persona as well as messages that resonate with each segment and tips to help you reach out to parents more effectively, here.