Four Keys to Success at the Most Innovative Schools in the World

Recently in Getting Smart, David Ross wrote an article summarizing key practices for school innovation, with links to some of the most innovative schools in the world. Excerpts from the piece appear below:

Recent visits to renowned centers of innovation such as AltSchool in San Francisco and the Dalton Academy in Beijing have got me thinking about what it means to wear the label “one of the most innovative schools in the world.”

There are many such lists, so I spent a day reviewing all that I could find. I built a spreadsheet to capture the adjectives used to describe the innovations present in these schools and then mapped them into broader categories. Here’s what I learned:

Use of space

Innovative schools such as Ørestad Gymnasium in Denmark and the Green School in Bali adopt a flexible attitude toward walls, classrooms, open areas, community and workspaces. There is a heavy focus on the implementation of sustainable practices in construction, design and use.


Invariably, students in such organizations as the Kosen Network in Japan and Blue School in New York engage in project-based learning. The projects vary in duration, from one-day engagements to the long-form expeditions favored by schools that adopt the Expeditionary Learning model. Instruction in innovative schools is described as student-directed or personalized, often using technology to accomplish that goal. Accordingly, it is quite common to see flipped or blended strategies.

Grouping structures

The composition of learning cohorts is a fascinating feature of innovative schools. At Digital Study Hall in India, there aren’t enough teachers to support the large number of learners so the organization records teachers’ lectures and sends DVDs of the recordings to poor and rural areas for mass consumption. At Brightworks School in San Francisco, the teachers personalize learning by using a mixed-aged approach that tries to break down the walls between school and community.


There is a continuum of authenticity in place here, but schools such as the Met in Providence, Rhode Island and Sra Pou Vocational School in Cambodia require students to interact with the community or local businesses via apprenticeships, internships, service learning, or projects that have an action component. In fact, Sra Pou brings the local economy into the school itself, providing training for all members of the family.

This list is not comprehensive. We can all think of other innovative schools in the U.S., such as High Tech High in San Diego or P-Tech in New York, that are inspired by these same features of innovation or take the work in a new direction. The rest of the world has its exemplars, too, notably the Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam and the Innova Schools network in Peru.

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