Incremental vs Revolutionary Transformation: How School Innovation Works, the case of New Tech Schools

New Tech aims at aligning the teaching and learning ecosystems by having a strong philosophy of building a 21st century classroom: They want their curriculum and all the learning to be in line with the current realities of the world.

We met with Paul Curtis, Director of Curriculum of the New Tech Network, a network of 192 schools created in the 90s and headquartered in Napa, California. The Schools are mainly US based although developing in Australia and China.

For Paul Curtis, it’s all about teaching the students 21st century skills, also known as the 4Cs: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creation. Those are, for him, the skills a student needs to fit in our world, a world changing so fast that jobs we know today won’t exist in 10 years time.

How to prepare students to live in an ever-changing world: that’s the challenge New Tech’s trying to tackle.

Another way of treating students and of being a teacher

New Tech Schools are all about making the students aware of their responsibilities: the school looks more like a university campus than an actual school, there is no bell so that students learn how to manage their time, no rows in the classrooms- students face each other- and the learning is supported by technology to enable them to work independently and at their own pace.

Through a Project-Based-Learning (PBL) methodology, New Tech Schools encourage peer-to-peer learning which gives students the responsibility of their own learning as much as the one of their peers’.

Los Angeles students work in STEM projects at Student Empowerment Academy
“The teacher isn’t throwing information at you but rather guiding you through the way. It is your responsibility to ask for clarification or do research: You are responsible for your learning.
Grace O’Malley, Sophomore New Tech Student at Los Gatos High School.

For Grace, a traditional schooling environment is nothing like real life and students are not learning the basic skills they need for their future such as public speaking, collaboration and communication skills, research skills, advocating for oneself, time management… Those are the skills that matter and that will help her in the long run says Grace, who admits being much more confident and strong since she visits a New Tech School.

New Tech schools aren’t treating their students as kids but rather as young adults: as the school’s mission is to prepare them for their future, students get many opportunities to work with actual companies and other organizations. For New Tech Juniors and Seniors, compulsory internships that relate to a topic of interest have been introduced. These internships happen all along the semester, once a month during school time, and aim at preparing the students for professional life and make them discover various jobs.

The only thing Grace regrets is that she is mostly being graded like the rest of American students, and that’s the main thing she’d wish she could change. According to her, tests aren’t the right way to assess knowledge because of the discrimination attached to it: “some can learn and process information at a very quick pace -sometimes even without understanding it- others just can’t”.

Cramming a ton of info for a test is not learning

Ideally, Grace would like to take testing completely away and assess people’s knowledge with presentations and discussions: ways that are used in real life. “In jobs and real life you never take a test, you just put your knowledge to work in whatever you are doing and that’s how I think it should be in school.”

Getting rid of testing altogether would mean taking away pointless stress on students and give them the opportunity to actually learn.

Holistic Change as an innovation premice

Nowadays, a lot of schools are trying to add some innovative practices to their curriculum: that’s the wrong approach according to Paul Curtis. He describes it as incremental transformation:

“Systems hate change. Attempts to gradually change only one element in a complex system often result in the system rejecting anything that is too disruptive. When trying to dramatically change systems like education, it is often better to introduce a whole series of aligned changes all at once so that the whole system is disrupted. Success is more likely when you change the whole system, redesigning everything” Paul Curtis

This precisely is what he calls revolutionary transformation.

At New Tech, Paul and his colleagues want to change the whole model, believe in revolutionary changes. To achieve those changes there are no secrets: The school leader has to take the big bet, rethink and redesign everything with the help of the teachers.

One of those revolutionary changes concerns the assessment: New Tech built its own LMS (Learning Management System) and grading system thus putting value on the (1) 4Cs, (2) writen and (3) oral communication, (4) work ethic and collaboration. So for a research paper a student would typically have four separate grades.

This got your interest? Each school wishing to join the network has to go through an extensive training that happens over the summer. The potential of such a pedagogical approach is huge and although it seems complicated and early to assess if New Tech Students are better of in life, they definitely are some of the most engaged, curious and mature students we’ve experienced.

Napa New Tech students make a movie (left) and prepare robots using complex circuits (right)

Authors:

Svenia Busson and Audrey Jarre are the founders of the Edtech World Tour, a global research on education technology and innovation aiming at shedding light upon worldwide innovative practices and pedagogical innovations. Learn more about their project here.

A huge thank you to Grace, for telling us her story! Here’s what she thinks of Education Technology: