Imagination Lab Schools and the Future of Learning: An interview with Chris Bezsylko

In this week’s post, IEN talks with Christopher Bezsylko, the founding head of Imagination Lab School (ILS) a TK (transitional kindergarten) though 8th grade private school about to begin its second year in Palo Alto, California. Imagination Lab School asks students to “Know yourself as a learner; Find & exercise your voice; Seek multiple perspectives; and Take meaningful action.”

Bezsylko spoke to us this past spring during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. In previous posts, we talked with Wen Chen about newly opened Moonshot Academy and with Joann McPike about the origins and work of Think Global School.


How did Imagination Lab School get started?

Christopher Bezsylko: Some who know our background like to say that we’re a phoenix story, because we started out of the ashes of another school closure. We were part of the Alt School Network, and our school was going well, but Alt School decided to focus more on its technology platform and they shut down several of their schools, including the one that I was leading in Silicon Valley. After that happened, many of our families felt that we had more work to do, and we wanted to figure out how to keep it going. At that point it was my third year in Silicon Valley, and I’d been thinking about the culture of innovation and the culture of collaboration that’s infused so many industries here. I’d been exploring what work is going to look like and what the community is going to look like in the next ten years, and, in terms of my own professional journey, I wasn’t ready to go back to a regular school. This idea of creating a new space for learning is energizing, and there is definitely a demand for it. I had a great team of educators that were with me, and I wanted to keep a cohort of us together and keep doing this good work.

So we met with a lot of different people. We had investors who knew about my history, and they offered money, but there were also a lot of strings to go with that money. Some wanted the school to be for-profit, and they wanted to control the board.  I’ve never said “No” to two million dollars before in my life, but I had to do it. That was not what I was interested in doing. We had also developed a lot of connections, particularly among the families that had been part of the school. Even some of the families that had already decided to send their children to other schools still believed in us, and they supported us financially. Then we partnered with ETU Education (a growing network of schools with campuses in China and network partners in other parts of the world). That partnership helped to give us some support and bandwidth behind the scenes, like IT support and technology support, as well as support for professional development. That partnership grew out of the fact that I’d met the founder of ETU, Yinuo Li a few years earlier when she was a parent in our previous school. So that was a great coincidence. She had moved back to Beijing and started a school there. We just stayed in touch. She was a good friend of one of the parents who became our board chair. Yinuo heard about what we were trying to do, and she wanted to help us maintain control of our vision. She came to us and said “Hey, you know, we can chip in a little bit of money and help you grow.” We both wanted to have a global school, and so the idea of exploring how we could do that from two very different parts of the world was really exciting. So with the support of our parents, we established an independent, not-for-profit private school in California.

What are three features of the school that are helping bring your vision to life?

CB: First and foremost, our promise is empowering each learner be their best self.  It’s about knowing who I am, finding and exercising my voice, understanding multiple perspectives, and taking meaningful action.  The second feature of our school is what we call community connections. A school isn’t just a set of walls and the people inside. We embrace learning that happens outside of school, and we seek out opportunities to regularly interact with the broader community. I like to say it’s not just being in the community but being of the community. It’s about making explicit, deliberate connections with the community. The last feature is impact. It’s about empowering every member of our community to take meaningful action, action that has a positive impact on others.

It’s also about connecting with other people and organizations around the really amazing work in education that is happening across the globe. Our partnership with ETU is an example of that.  We’re doing a lot of work focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and sharing it with them; and they’ve developed a communication platform between home and school, and we’re piloting that here as well.  We’ve also developed a student exchange program where students from each school spend a month visiting the other school. In 2018-19 we had students and teachers from ETU spend a month with us, and we look forward to growing that exchange program this year. In addition, this summer several of our team members visited schools in Beijing and led workshops there focused on problem-based learning and socio-emotional development, and I led workshops on the future of school and learning.

You just got started last year, but is there something you already know you need to change or adjust as you move into your second year?

CB: We are constantly learning with and from our students and families, so there are plenty of changes ahead. I would say the biggest things that we’re really pushing on right now is what does the fourth part of our promise to “Take action” mean?  We are looking beyond having a student complete a project to having a student who really goes out in the world and applies the knowledge, skills, and habits we are cultivating in a way that has impact in their personal lives, in their family, and in their communities. We’re realizing our kids are deeply engaged and deeply motivated, but we weren’t really hitting that fourth part of taking action as deeply as we believe we can. So really challenging them to think about “what’s the thing we’re going to do?” Whether it’s a personal commitment, and we publish it on our social media, or whether you’re going to go home and take an inventory of waste items in your trash can, and write a letter to your parents about the change you want to make at home. What’s a small impact that you can have? I think the first time around we started off with “What are the global changes that we can make?” But those are too big, even for me. So now it’s much more about what’s the local impact I can have?

Do you have other examples like the home inventory where you said this is more of what we had in mind?

CB: We have a rolling drop off. Kids just come in when they can, and they do a series of choice activities. We have one young man who is almost always the first student at school. He’s been coming in since the climate change unit with Starbucks cups and straws every day. So the head of our STEAM program sat down with him, and she pulled up the commitment that he made which was about reducing pollution in the oceans. He looked at it, and they talked about it, and said “Hey, how many days?” They looked at the calendar, and he realized it had been thirteen days. “How many cups have you brought? How many straws have you got? What’s your commitment?” Of course, this is a third grader who probably forgot his commitment because that’s what third graders do. Then she asked him a few questions, and he ended up bringing the letter home and said: “Hey, mom and dad, I need you to help me meet my commitment. I need your support and reminders so I don’t keep buying these things.” For us it’s one of the tools and resources that the child needs to keep his commitment. And this was a simple example, but it’s powerful in that we are trying to incorporate that learning at home as well. And so the parents are going to get this letter from the child, not from me as the head of school, not from a teacher. This is directly connected to something their child did at school.

Do you know how the parents responded?

CB: The response has been very positive. Our families value the strong relationships we form with them and their children, they value the authentic learning and the community connections, and they share many stories of learning that their children brought home. For example, during our end of the year investigation into Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption, students across the grades explored the questions, “Where does our food come from?” and “How do our food choices impact our community?” As part of their learning, students in grades 2-5 created garden proposals which detailed how they could grow their own food at home. Students conducted interviews, did research, analyzed prices, created budgets, drew plans, and created prototypes of their garden spaces. As we were getting ready for our learning exhibition we started receiving videos from students which showcased the actual gardens they built at home. Some families were exchanging seeds and others were planning to share their harvest. There was a deep impact here where all members of our community were active and engaged learners.

Just for the basic facts: how many kids do you have now?

CB: This year we have sixteen students from TK, a transitional kindergarten, through fifth grade. We’ll add a grade level every year. We have two mixed age groups right now and we will evolve to five mixed age groups from TK-8.

You have worked in a number of different educational institutions, and you’ve been doing this work for a while. As you think of other people who are trying to create their own learning experiences or schools, what are some things you think might be helpful for them to hear about?

CB: For me, the biggest one is finding that “Why?” Knowing your “Why?” is the thing that drives you. In the first year, I spent a lot of my time focused on marketing, development, and operations because we are a small school without a lot of staff. I wear lots of hats and that means that I don’t get to spend as much time as I want every day sitting down with the teachers, learning with and from them. But when I make those sacrifices I remind myself why am I doing it. Because there are definitely hard days and dark days. But it really is about knowing why we are doing this work and why our work is important.

A short film from InformationMatrix TV provides another glimpse of Imagination Lab School


LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Michael K. Barbour

Michael K. Barbour is Associate Professor of Instructional Design for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Touro University California. He has been involved with K-12 distance, online, and blended learning for almost two decades as a researcher, evaluator, teacher, course designer and administrator. Michael’s research has focused on the effective design, delivery, and support of K-12 distance, online, and blended learning, particularly for students located in rural jurisdictions. This focus includes how regulation, governance and policy can impact effective distance, online, and blended learning environments. This has resulted in invitations to testify before House and Senate committees in several states, as well as consulting for Ministries of Education across Canada and in New Zealand. Michael completed his Ph.D. in Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Barbour discusses his work exploring distance learning and its role in educational change. As he puts it:

I would hope that the field [of educational change] begins to expand its awareness and reach. Two years from now, or five years from now, I would hope that I would be able to point to specific theories or models of change – and be able to describe how I had used or seen them used in specific contexts within the K-12 distance, online, and blended learning environment. In my personal case, hopefully the exercise of participating in this interview will provide some impetus for me to become more aware of this field. But even from the standpoint of a field as a whole, educational change needs to be seen within various educational disciplines – not just educational instructional technology – in much the same way that educational psychology the seen as a guiding or overarching lens for everything that we do. As for what might excite me about the field, based on my limited knowledge… It would probably have to be the potential the field has to engage with folks like myself, who are largely ignorant of the specifics of the discipline, to be able to apply various aspects of the field in a more informed and systematic fashion. Essentially for educational change to exist in much the same way that models of instructional design or systems for program and product evaluation have become inherently embedded, almost to the point that they’ve become second nature, to research and researchers in most educational and instructional technology disciplines. I believe there would be great potential for folks in the field of educational and instructional technology to be able to rhyme off models of educational change in the same way they can rhyme off different models of instructional design.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Osnat Fellus.

Welcoming Transfronterizo Students in New Mexico

In the United States, a right to schooling is legally guaranteed for all children regardless of immigration status. For many immigrant students, however, the right to schooling is far from certain. In addition to many other issues, students with U.S. citizenship may have family members with a different citizenship status. Mixed status families face problems such as deportation, often making sustained attendance in schools difficult. One response to these issues can be found in Deming public schools in southern New Mexico. For decades, Deming schools have welcomed students from nearby Palomas, Mexico. These transfronterizo (transborder or border crossing) students, hold U.S. citizenship but come from mixed status families. Each day, hundreds of students travel across the border to attend schools in Deming.bordercrossing

Hoping to learn more about Deming’s powerful work, we recently spoke to friend of IEN and Educational Change SIG Chair, Professor Kristin Kew. Kew is in the first stages of a research project with Deming superintendent Dr. Arsenio Romero about these schools and the experiences of transfronterizo students and their families. Kew notes that since coming to the University of New Mexico, she has been fascinated with the role of the border in education. Of course, as the project begins, the current political climate gives the work entirely new meanings.

2 Places and Everyday Crossings

Kew suggests that Palomas and Deming could be one city. The two places co-exist. Their economies and people are entangled, but they are separated by a border. 20 years ago, this border was simply a chain link fence with a small hut. Border patrol knew all the students crossing for school. In general, though it was still a journey and involved process, crossing the border at this time was relatively informal. Today, a 2-million-dollar border wall welcomes the students as they cross. Kew points out how these checkpoints and walls create a strangeness to the ongoing calls for building a border wall. She notes that for these students, a wall is already an everyday reality.

Each morning, the journey for nearly 1000 students from 4 years old through high school seniors begins in Palomas. Palmoas is a small town in the state of Chihuahua roughly 30 miles from the U.S-Mexico border. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Deming began welcoming students crossing the border, Palomas did not have its own high school. The town has since opened and currently operates several schools that charge fees, but many families in Palomas still prefer to send children to Deming schools.

With the vast majority of transfronterizo students coming from mixed status families, most parents must say goodbye to their children at the border. After navigating through border security, Deming schools take over. Kew points out that “it is important to note the key role that crossing guards, bus drivers, and others play in helping students safely move from home to school and back each day.” After hours of greetings and farewells and moving from one country to another, students finally arrive for the start of the school day.


Deming’s Approach

Though Deming schools are not alone in welcoming transborder students, with transfronterizo students elsewhere in Mexico attending schools in places such as nearby El Paso or California, Deming is unique in its location. Where many of these other schools are found in larger cities, Luna County, of which Deming is the county seat, is largely rural. Additionally, Deming has one of the highest poverty rates in New Mexico. Deming’s unique positioning creates distinct dynamics and issues as it welcomes students across the border. As parents who do not have documentation are not allowed to cross the border with their children, the schools must resort to alternative methods of communication. Principals have reached out to parents through Skype to discuss school matters. Deming has also stationed buses directly on the U.S. side of the border to pick up and drop off students. Yet, Deming does not have the same resources as other districts providing similar services. Kew says that these issues mixed with parents who continue to send their children to school, educators who find ways to support families, and children who make the journey to attend school every day reveal a key them in the early research. “Resilience within this community is a constant theme here,” she says.

Deming schools also show a unique situation in serving their students. Though the students are citizens, they live outside the district. The decision to welcome students from outside the district dates back to 1948. For the first few decades, Deming schools welcomed students regardless of documentation status. Recently, however, the district policy has shifted so that only citizens can come from outside the district to attend the schools. But, Romero has firmly committed to continuing the practice of welcoming students from across the border. Likewise, many of the teachers are former Deming students themselves. With the majority of students being emergent bilinguals, teachers undertake both language learning and culturally affirmative teaching.

New Directions in Deming

The current political climate has added further adversity for the students and staff in Deming. For instance, when the Trump administration threatened to close to border last spring, Romero and his staff had to consider contingencies. They faced the possibility of students being stuck on one side of the border or the other. Where students in nearby El Paso could attend school virtually, Deming does not have the infrastructure to offer regular distance learning. They did offer 3 contingencies for sheltering or helping students return home, but issues such as these are becoming routine concerns for Deming schools.

Meanwhile, the research project is still in its early stages. Kew plans to move the research toward a critical ethnography. Beyond highlighting the work of the schools, this approach would allow for tracking student and family experiences crossing the border each day. The project hopes to explore the difficulty, uncertain, and further understand the resiliency involved in these educational journeys. Generally speaking, the work provides a powerful counter-story to current narratives about education, immigration, and border crossing.


Scanning the headlines on OECD’s Education at a Glance 2019

With a focus on higher education this year, Education at a Glance 2019 highlights that, on average, 44% of 25-34 year-olds from OECD countries held a tertiary degree, an increase from 35% in 2008. However, among 18-24 year-olds, an average of 14.3% are not employed or in school or vocational training, with that percentage rising to 25% in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Italy, South Africa and Turkey.

Tertiary degree holders also earn 57% more than those who have completed an upper secondary education.  At the same time, women earn less than men at all levels of educational attainment, and the gap is wider among those with a tertiary level education.  In 2016, the percentage of total government expenditures spent on education – from primary to tertiary – averaged 11% in OECD countries, from a low of 6.3% in Italy to 17% in Chile.

Headlines in a number of countries also emphasized the results related to higher education, but noted as well the significant gender gaps in pay between men and women, and concerns about education expenditures, class size, and teacher pay.



Australia should try to keep more international students who are trained in our universities, The Conversation

Australia’s education system takes almost one in ten of all international students from countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)… They represent about 48% of those enrolled in masters and 32% in doctoral programs.



(Translation) In Brazil, investment per student and teacher salary remain low, Gazeta Do Povo

…although Brazil invests in education more than other members of the organization, student spending is below the average of these other nations



Higher education needs to step up efforts to prepare students for future: OECD

In China, the recent share of tertiary attainment is 18 percent, much lower than the OECD average. Among Chinese people aged between 25 and 34, 67 percent are expected to enter tertiary education for the very first time, slightly more than the OECD average of 65 percent.



(Translation) New OECD figures: The class quotient is rising fastest in Denmark,

The Danish class quotient in both the youngest and the oldest classes has now passed the EU average. In fact, Denmark is the country in the OECD, where the class quotient in the oldest classes has increased most since 2005.



(Translation) Comparison East beats West, Spiegel Online

The people in East Germany are more highly qualified than the citizens in the West….Over-55-year-olds are doing particularly well.



High gender pay gap among degree holders – OECD, RTÉ

The figures show that women with third level [tertiary] qualifications earn 28% less than their male peers in Ireland. The study shows the number of women who attend third level is higher in Ireland than men –  51% of women compared to 43% of men.



OECD: Israel big spender on education, students receive less, The Jerusalem Post

Israeli expenditure on education as a share of GDP may now be among the highest in the developed world, but Israel still spends significantly less per student than most other countries, according to a report published on Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.



In Latvia, women with higher education earn 20% less than men, LA.LV

In Latvia, women with higher education earn on average 20% less than men with the same level of education, but women with secondary education earn 28% less than men with upper secondary education.



(Translation) Norwegian students and universities cost more,

A new report shows that spending per student at Norwegian universities and colleges has increased more from 2010 to 2016 than in most other countries. Expenditure growth was 20 per cent per student. This is 12 per cent more than the average in other Western countries (OECD countries).



(Translation) Report: Polish teacher earns little, but also spends little time at the blackboard,

According to the Education at Glance 2019 report, a Polish teacher earns $ 26,428 annually after 15 years of work. Teachers in Luxembourg earn the most in Europe – $ 108,624, Germany – $ 74,486 and the Netherlands – $ 63,413. The Finnish educator earns $ 42,206 and the teacher in France 37,700.




Slovenia still below OECD average in spending on education, Total Slovenia News

Slovenia earmarked in 2016 the same share of its gross domestic product (GDP) for education as in the year before, 4.3%, which is below the OECD average.



Bad education? Why more class time has not improved academic results in Spain, El País

Spanish high school students perform worse on PISA tests than Finnish pupils, even though they spend 246 more hours in the classroom



Switzerland- Vocational training or degree? Employment rates are similar, MENAFN

Overall Swiss adults had a higher employment rate than the OECD average: among those with obligatory school education it was 69% compared with the 59% OECD average. For those with post-obligatory school vocational training the employment rate was 82% (OECD average 76%) compared with 89% (OECD: 85%) for those with tertiary education.


Britain has biggest primary school classes in the developed world, report finds, The Telegraph

State primary schools in the UK now have an average of 28 pupils, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) latest Education at a Glance study. This is the first year that Britain has been ranked as having the highest number of pupils per class – joint with Chile – out of all the OECD countries.


Headlines Around the World: Back to School 2019 Edition

Schools around the world start at different times of year (this Wikipedia page offers a calendar with a partial list). Like many other places, schools here in New York City start in September. This week, we are continuing a yearly IEN tradition of gathering headlines from different places around the world that discuss the start of a new school year. IEN’s Aidi Ban has also contributed a number of fascinating stories about students heading back to school in China.



Mexico City Begins School Year With New Gender Neutral Uniform Policy (WBUR)
School started last week in Mexico City and with the new school year comes a new policy. Students can wear whatever they want, regardless of their gender. But that doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Photos from Omar Martinez of the 1st Day of School In Tijuana

United States

Have You Heard Podcast — The Back to School Episode
School can be a tough, even traumatic place for students and teachers alike. Four teachers tell Have You Heard what they’re doing to change that.

Larry Cuban on Seating Charts and the Grammar of Schooling

Migrant Children Separated From Parents Experienced Severe Trauma, Government Watchdog Finds. Here’s What That Means for America’s Schools (the74) A reminder of the trauma many migrant youth face as they head back to school

First Day Jitters Of A Different Kind: A Guatemalan Boy Begins School In Cincinnati (Cincinnati Public Radio)
A similar story, but about an individual student’s journey and experiences on the first day of school



New semester starts in China (from Xinhua Net)
Photos and stories of students heading back to school

Randomized School Admissions Rattle Shanghai’s Rat Race (from Sixth Tone)
Admissions concerns as students head back to school (or start school)

School’s Out for Prolonged Summer of Hong Kong Protests (Wall Street Journal)
As students head back to school, protests continue in Hong Kong

Students Boycott Classes on the First Day of the School Year in Hong Kong’s Latest Democracy Protest (Time)
A similar article, specifically discussing boycotting schools


New School Year Begins Today In Greece (Greek City Times)
A welcome back and overview of the school calendar in Greece


How much these Canadians spent on back-to-school shopping (Global News Canada)
An analysis of Canadian spending on back-to-school items

Ontario educational workers hold strike vote as students head back to school (Global News Canada)

Back to school: Toronto volunteers pack supplies for kids in shelters  (News Toronto)

Czech Republic

“According to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, fewer Czech pupils say ‘Yes’ when asked “Do you like to go to school?””

International Headlines

A Request to All Kids Going Back to School (Thrive Global)

The back-to-school question some believe we should ditch (BBC)
Exploring why teachers should stop asking “what did you do on summer break?”


LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Sarah L. Woulfin

Dr. Sarah L. Woulfin is an associate professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Educational Leadership who studies the implementation of instructional policy. Using lenses from organizational sociology, she investigates how policies and organizational conditions influence the work of teachers, coaches, principals, and district administrators. She has conducted several studies of instructional coaching across multiple states and educational systems. She has adopted a research-practice partnership approach to engage in mutualistic qualitative research with district leaders. Dr. Woulfin’s work has been published in AERJ, AJE, EAQ, EEPA, Urban Education, and other outlets. In her doctoral work at the University of California-Berkeley, she focused on policy implementation and institutional theory. As a former urban public school teacher and reading coach, she was dedicated to strengthening students’ literacy skills to promote educational equity. As a scholar, her commitment to raising the quality of instruction motivates her research on how policy influences—and is influenced by—administrators, coaches, and teachers.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Woulfin discusses her work exploring instruction and its role in educational change. As she puts it:

When researchers provide feedback and encourage reflection, this coaching increases the capacity of change agents…

It is vital that Educational Change scholars track bottom-up change as districts design structures, draft plans, and carry out activities…

With the goal of assisting transformation in educational systems, I currently use a research-practice partnership (RPP) approach to conduct rigorous and relevant research on change efforts. As described in this piece, I support change agents by adopting a coaching stance which entails observing, listening, and asking questions. Notably, when researchers provide feedback and encourage reflection, this coaching increases the capacity of change agents, enabling them to support other educators in tackling reforms.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Osnat Fellus.

International Ed News on Break

IEN will be off this week and next, but we’ll return at the beginning of September with posts about heading back to school around the world.