A Boston Charter School visit — Too many good ideas trying to fit through a small doorway

One of the MBA courses that I am taking in my final semester is Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovations in Education. According to the syllabus outline ETIE “explores how entrepreneurs are applying business practices and technology innovations to transform classrooms and schools/colleges to lead to higher performance”. I find it a fascinating course in which we look at various innovative educational models from traditional schools and charter schools in the US, to personalized and blended models, across K12 and higher ed.

What I like best about ETIE is that in addition to business school students we are joined by students from Harvard’s Public Policy and Education Schools. This broader range of backgrounds and experiences adds greater richness to the discussion, more than I have experienced in my other classes.

In addition to participating in classes taught using the case method, a institution at Harvard Business School, we are asked to write 4 blog posts throughout the semester. I thought it might be interesting to share them here. The first post is a reflection on a charter school visit we conducted. I have disguised the school’s name.


During the visit to Boston Charter School (BCS) I was struck by their use of the physical environment and its effect on student learning. There is an increasing buzz around the impact that space has on teaching and learning — In fact Room2Learn (Links to an external site.), based out of the Harvard i-lab, provides a platform where teachers can get inspiration on different ways they can structure and style their classrooms. While I appreciate this in general and the research behind the use of space in the workplace and classroom is generally solid, I couldn’t help but see this as another example of bad implementation. One where a well-meaning educator heard about a general concept and applied it without really understanding the concept.

Stuff, lots of it.

The first classroom I went into was a 5th grade classroom where the students appeared to be working on a math concept. The classroom was arranged in clustered tables of 4–6 students. This type of configuration lends itself to collaboration as students can share ideas or jointly construct objects. However, in this case students were just going through worksheets on their own as the teacher transmitted instructions.

In the second classroom, the desks were set up in a traditional ‘factory style’; a grid of individual desks. However, in this room students were taking an assessment; an activity better suited to the set-up.

Admittedly I was there for only a short time and perhaps I caught them during an individual study time. Perhaps if I had observed them later in the day I would have seen a different model of instruction. Or perhaps not. Given BCS’s focus on ‘College Readiness Programming’ this might be the dominant style of instruction and the collaborative set-up is merely a red herring.

The other reaction I had while walking around was that there was A LOT of stuff everywhere. Posters on the walls, manipulatives, slogans. You can see this in the images below. While each I’m sure is a great initiative on its own, collectively they were just overwhelming. As a student, I’m not sure where I’m meant to look. Is the hope that the students will passively absorb these messages subliminally?

BCG, my former employer, has a framework called Smart Simplicity (Links to an external site.). At a simple level, the framework is a reaction to incremental innovation that inevitably leads to a complex mess.

“Complexity, as measured by the number of requirements companies have to satisfy, is rising steadily. To address each new requirement, companies often set up a dedicated function, create a new process or report, and then build systems to coordinate with existing functions. This leads to an increase in organizational complicatedness, meaning the number of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals. All of these internal complicatedness factors have seen a sharp increase over the past decades.”

I believe it is time for BCS to take a holistic look at their classrooms and approaches. To understand how their individual good ideas and practices can mesh together most effectively.


About the Author

Jesse Whelan is a 2nd year MBA student at Harvard and the founder of adapptED, which improves student learning by empowering teachers to address the root causes behind student errors.

Are you passionate about improving learning effectiveness? Are you a student, parent, or teacher interested in trialing out the adapptED platform? We’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at jesse@adappted.co

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