Tag Archives: educational innovation

Everyone is a volcano: Yinuo Li On What It Takes To Create A New School (Part 2)

In the second part of this conversation between Yinuo Li, founder of the ETU School, and Thomas Hatch, Li reflects on the challenges and opportunities she encountered in launching a new school in China. Li, a biologist by training and formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, established the first ETU school in Beijing in 2016. In part one of this conversation she talks about what it took to create ETU initially.

Thomas Hatch: Was there one thing that was part of your initial vision that you really wanted to see in the ETU school that you couldn’t make work for some reason?

Yinuo Li:  That’s a difficult question. I think what the school has done has already gone far beyond where I thought we could do. Although there have been lots of difficulties, if you talk to anybody who is paying attention to education today in China, a lot of them have heard about ETU. They would see us as a pioneer and trailblazer, so I’m actually very thankful for that. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I realized that a lot of the problems you have to run a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies. Every parent who sends their kids here has this huge vision of where the kids could be. That’s why even though we’re doing, quote unquote, a “private school,” you have to recognize your work takes place in the context of the larger public system. As a result, you have to be an advocate; you have to talk about what you are doing and why, without expecting any revenue from it. If anything, those activities take a toll on your resources, but you have to have your teachers talk about your school to people who are not your parents. I think that’s absolutely necessary.   

A lot of the problems you have running a school are not within the school or within your own effort. I think education is the place where social anxieties and social issues are concentrated. They are all reflected in the school, because school is where the future of the society lies.

My deepest envy is of Finland. In 2018 I went to Finland three times — three times – it was like I was just intoxicated. But if you go there, you realize there isn’t magic there. You think, “Okay, this is how things should be.” Their teacher’s colleges have an 8% admission rate, so you get the best students to be a teacher to begin with. And teachers make a good living because the entire state is a welfare state so you don’t have to be an investment banker to be successful. You can be a teacher and have a higher level of respect. Then there’s so much equity in the system that the best school is the school next door, so you don’t have to spend that much money.

ETU students and parents at the school’s opening ceremony at the Forbidden City

When I went to Finland, the image I had is that we’re gardeners, that teachers are responsible for growing these little plants. But then I realized that the most important thing for a plant to grow is the sunshine; it’s the water; it’s the soil; it’s not my gardening skill. Of course, my gardening skills have to be okay — you can’t go around messing things up – but that’s not the essential part of it. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. And, oftentimes, when the sunshine, soil and air isn’t there, you have to find different ways of growing. If you’re in the desert, and all you see all around you are cactus, you think “Oh I’ve got to grow cactus too, otherwise I can’t win.” It becomes this vicious cycle. But if you don’t want your kids to be a cactus, what do you do? Instead of saying, “Okay, this is a desert. I’m just going to grow a cactus,” the only thing you can do is try to create this oasis in the desert. Then you’ll realize making this oasis is a huge task. You have to get water from thousands of miles away. You have to deal with sand storms, all that. But once you have this tiny little oasis, things will just grow. You don’t have to spend time picking the seeds and then massaging the seeds. The seed will just grow. I think that’s the problem right now. Most people are trying to at least pretend there’s been a lot of effort massaging the seed. But I realized that’s just completely wrong. That’s how I came to the point I mentioned in the beginning about fear. We’re growing cactus because everybody is fearful. It seems like the best way is to grow another cactus, but that doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t make the world better. It just seems to be the easiest and best way to deal with it.

In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy. Of course, as a school, you will have a lot of operational issues. For example, if you move, parents will complain. “I just signed my lease. You have to pay me back for the lease.” But what I said when that happened is “I feel bad; but you have to realize this is not my fault. It’s the collective cost we are paying because this is a desert.”  One year we had to move, and we’d spent 5 million RMB renovating it, and we were only able to use it for a year because all these other issues and we had to give it up. I was like, “where do I go to ask for the money back?” You collectively have to shoulder a lot of the social costs. You have to have an ecosystem view.  You have to understand that although this is a hard path you take, this is the only path. Otherwise, the only winning strategy is to become a spiky cactus. I think that’s the path that most people have taken which makes the environment so much worse. So you have to have a view of putting yourself in the public domain although you’re not in a public role, and you have to understand that can be hard and painful, but I think it’s the right way to do things.

In China, basically, I’m trying to do a little mini-Finland, and I do a lot of parent education because if there are more people who are awakened then they will see you are not their enemy.

TH:  With the growth in new schools and the private and international school sector in China how do you both stand out from those other schools and make sure that there are middle schools and high schools that your students can go to? And relatedly, given this attention to the wider environment and conditions, how do you deal with things like the Gaokao (the high stakes National College Entrance Examination exam system in China) that may help to contribute to the fears that you’ve been talking about?  (For more on the Gaokao and recent efforts to reform it see IEN’s “New Gaokao in Zhejiang China: Carrying on with Challenges”)

YL: On a practical level, we have a middle school now as well that we started this year.  We have grade six and seven, and we’ll probably have grade eight soon. High school, it’s on the horizon, but we’ll decide later if we want to do it or not. In terms of test prep, I think it is important. You have to prepare; you have to do drills; it’s a part of education that is about hard work. That’s why even in China, I don’t call ETU an innovative school. It’s not an innovation. It’s a normal school going back to what kids need at a certain age. But for college prep, I think the interesting example is from the Affiliated High School of Peking University. It’s a four-year public high school in China and they’re actually quite liberal. I know the head of school, and he’s been there for more than thirty years. His philosophy is that for the first three years, we do the right thing, and the last year, if we need to go to the Gaokao, we’ll take the last year and do a test prep year, and we’ll prep the hell out of it. And then they do pretty well. His whole point is that just because test prep is important, it doesn’t mean you have to start doing it since grade one. It’s all about how you balance it, and it doesn’t mean you drop it either. I really agree with that. Even in the US, you prepare for the SAT’s. In your professional life, if you want to be a CPA or go to business school or whatever, there’s a test you have to take. The test itself isn’t bad, but that shouldn’t dominate or guide your education. That’s the problem. I’m not against test prep, but I think it should be a confined time when you know where you’re going.

On the other hand, the other narrative in China is “how do you compete with somebody who’s been test prepping for 12 years and you only do one year?” I think this narrative is based on a false understanding of education. I graduated from a top high school, and if I were to test prep, nobody could compete with me. I was the first in my class in high school from the most competitive province. But I became good not because I did twelve years of test prep, but because at the end of the day, I don’t hate learning. I like learning.  As I look back I realize maybe the biggest gift got from my family is a growth or development mindset, but, of course, back then, there was no theory to describe that. If you look at people who are successful in history, there are some common traits, and it’s not because they have done twelve years of test prep. I think this is the biggest misunderstanding. It’s reducing education to something very superficial and tactical. The reason there is a huge market for it is because when you are talking about something tactical you can sell things. I can sell you things to help you prep for math or whatever. The more granular you become, the easier it is to make products.  Then you have to prep for fifth grade math and for seventh grade English, and you end up buying 10 products.  There is a market logic behind it. But you have to understand how learning happens. Learning doesn’t happen through this granular collection of credits. Learning happens because you’re intrinsically motivated, and you have the ability to learn; you have cognitive ability; you have been protected; you have the psychological security, and all those very basic things. But those things don’t make money. I can’t say “Hey, you buy this course, you’ll have psychological security and health.” No, it’s much easier to pay for fifth-grade math. There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that?  Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.  

There are all kinds of things that are being sold, but at the end of day, is anybody getting happier or better, or becoming a better learner because of that?  Very few. I think testing is fine, but the most important thing is to keep your passion and curiosity for learning.

TH: What’s one piece of advice you have for other people who might like to start a school?

YL: This is probably true for starting anything, but I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano. ETU became sort of an icon and oftentimes people would come and say, “Hey, I want to have an ETU in our city. What do you need? Do you need money?  Do you need a license? Do you need people? I said, “I don’t need any of that. I just need somebody who’s committed to do it.” If you have somebody who’s committed to it, you should not underestimate the level of resources they can come up with from nothing. That’s how I feel because I really started with nothing. People would say you have to work with an investor or you have to have a real-estate company behind you. But sometimes when you have all those things it actually becomes a barrier, a burden, rather than a resource. Again, if you explore the underlying psychology, it’s because of fear. You’re thinking, “Okay, this is something so difficult I need to hold on to something that’s certain, like if you give me money, I can start.” But that could just vanish. The money can be taken away. The investor could walk away. But if you’re committed to something, different things will show up to help you, from nowhere. Money can show up from places you don’t expect. But belief and vision are hard to come by because the toughest negotiation you have is not with your partners, it’s with yourself. 

I think the most important things for starting a school are your vision and belief. Visions and beliefs inspire people, and once people get inspired everybody can become dynamite; everybody is a volcano.

Sometimes I’m jealous of this generation. You have a lot of dreams that might seem crazy but you hold on to them. Don’t give up easily. Many of them will fail, but you will learn from them. Our school has gone through so many crises. We had to move, there were parents who wanted to boycott because we had to move again, and I remember we had this debate one time when we were looking for a different venue for the school. We felt that the new venue could be much better, but there was a risk in communicating this to parents. The debate was about what was more important the venue or the parents? We came to a point where we realized, if the parents still want to follow what we do, it really doesn’t matter where we are. But if we give up our beliefs for the venue, the venue might look nice today, but it might look like nothing tomorrow. You have to continue to negotiate with yourself or you will forget. You will get captured by different things, and you are faced with those things on a daily basis. So you have to keep negotiating, and you can’t give up.

Beyond Fear: Yinuo Li On What It Takes To Create New Schools (Part 1)

Dr. Yinuo Li, co-founder of the ETU School, talks with Thomas Hatch about her experiences starting new schools in both China and the US. A biologist by training and a formerly a Partner at McKinsey and then Director of the China Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Li established the ETU school in Beijing in 2016. Since that time, ETU has opened campuses in Guangzhou and in Palo Alto, CA. The first part of this two-part conversation focuses on what it took to get ETU started; in the second part Li reflects on the opportunities and challenges for launching new schools and offers advice for other new school founders.

Thomas Hatch: When I talk with the founders of new schools, I often begin the conversation by asking about the initial problem or issue that motivated their work, but you’ve already written about that in Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World for WISE. In that article, you highlighted concerns about unprepared students, anxious parents, stressed-out teachers and isolated schools and then you described your vision for addressing those issues. How did you develop that vision and what were the first steps you took to put it in place?

Yinuo Li: I think there was definitely a sense of naiveté when I started ETU. If you’re not ignorant or naïve enough, I don’t think you would embark on something like this, as you’ll find out later. But I think the major trigger started when I was at McKinsey. I had been there for over ten years and when we were recruiting top notch graduates I found that most of them, like many graduates, were not in a place of clarity. In fact, most graduates are in a place of complete lack of clarity, even if they’ve graduate from the most privileged programs and schools.  There seems to be a big gap where people have a lot of fantasies, and they think “well, I graduated from Harvard or Columbia or Tsinghua University in China, I’m done I’m set for life.” No, you’re not.

I think that was the initial trigger, and then later on, my experience also evolved. When I started the school, the direct reason was my own children because I was moving our family from California back to Beijing. My eldest was six, and he was starting first grade in China. I was the Founder of the school, and I could see all the problems, but I was primarily focused on how we could build a curriculum to “fix it.” Particularly at that time there was a big divide in China between international education and public education. It seemed like everybody had to be on one track or the other from very early on, and if you fall in between the tracks, you’re in no man’s land. I think that’s very toxic so I wanted to find a middle track. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other, if you focus on the right thing, it should be good enough. So creating that “middle track” was the first vision. But then the vision evolved as I started to realize that a school is much more complicated than that. It’s much more than curriculum. It’s really about how you support everybody in the system – the teachers, the staff, all your stakeholders outside the school.

Before March 2016, I would never have thought of myself as having any connection to the word ‘education’ in a professional sense…(but) Something happened that spring. On the surface, it was triggered by my eldest son’s time to start primary school, and our family’s move from California to Beijing. However, these two pivotal moments awakened something in me, helping me to see the links between many of my random and seemingly irrelevant experiences with education and making them suddenly relevant. This random list of experiences includes my own memories as a student, ten years working at McKinsey, recruiting and training college graduates, supporting career development for youth, three years as a minor social influencer (my husband and I have a WeChat blog with 700K followers), receiving multiple inquiries from young people confused about the future and, of course, my experience as a mother.

Yinuo Li, from  Reimagining Schools in a Hyperconnected World

Developing all those systems was the second stage. Now we have a lot of systems: we have a curricular system for the kids; we have the teacher professional development system; we have systems for parents and community support. The third stage, which is where I think I am now, is that I’m realizing that there are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty. Of course, the future is all about uncertainty, and school is almost the collective reflector of all the fears in a society about the future. It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening.  If you have that, many things can follow. You can have a system that’s more oriented towards children rather than one focused on addressing those adult fears. If you look at most elite schools, the hidden message is “as long as you pay this much money, as long as you join my club, your kids will be fine.” I just think that’s the wrong way of approaching it. If anything, it’s creating more problems than solving them.

Instead, we have to confront those fears because they reflect the very basic nature of human beings. And schools are manifestation of those fears which is really sad. It’s all hidden though so you can talk about project-based learning or whatever, and those are innocent concepts on their own, but they are being packaged into a fear-based system, as if your kids don’t have project-based learning, they’re doomed. I think that’s the problem. if you don’t address that fundamental issue, then all the good concepts and practices will end up being another tool to exaggerate those fears.

There are so many problems in education that are rooted in one thing and that is our inability to face our fears when faced with uncertainty… It’s only when you have a way of engaging with teachers, parents and all your stakeholders in a conversation to face those fears that you actually can get a real awakening.

I think that’s where we are now. At the end of the day, as you start to understand the work of all those educational pioneers and how they were thinking about education, you realize many  of them actually go directly at that fear, to the root. Because if you don’t address it, all this fancy stuff on the surface is only exacerbating the problem. That’s where I am on a heart level. Of course, the school is still the school, but these are the different phases of how I’ve been thinking about the school.

TH: That gives a wonderful sense of the evolution of your thinking, but can you take us back to the beginning, and some of the basics? How did you get started, find other parents, and make sure that the vision wasn’t just your vision, but that it was a vision that was shared with that initial group?

YL: It really started with a WeChat blog that my husband and I started in 2014. I think by the time we want to do a school, we had about half a million followers. When we started writing, it had nothing to do with education. At that time, I was a partner at McKinsey and there were a lot of questions about typical women’s leadership problems like how do you balance everything and all that. I built up a followership, and although I didn’t really know it at the time, many of them were parents. That became an advantage as we had a big pool of potential parents when we started doing the school.

Of course, the biggest headache in China, much more than US, is the licensing, but again we we’re very lucky because there was a public school that had been asked to take over another poorly performing public school that didn’t have a lot of students. The school that was taking over was interested in renting some empty classrooms. It was almost like a godsend that they didn’t have enough students. They had three classrooms to rent and they already had the proper license. So that’s how we got started the first year. However, because it’s s public school, in Year 2 the school said that they needed the classrooms because they were expanding and we had to move.  In fact, we’ve moved five times since then. At that moment, you think “Wow, this is a huge headache. Where do I find the space?”  You have to communicate with the parents and tell them we’re moving again which is really hard because there are many families who moved so they could be near the school. And Beijing is a huge city so it’s not like you can just drive five minutes to another location. But that’s how we got things off the ground; that’s the initial phase of the story.

I still remember it was April 1, April Fools Day 2016, we put out this article. Basically, the title was “Are you also troubled by education?” I wrote down all the things I was seeing, and I said, “Hey, by the way, I wanted to start a school.”  I said, “we want to start with 30 students and five teachers. If you’re interested, here is how you apply, this is the email address.” That article, in one day, probably got 200,000 views, and it was pretty widely circulated. I still remember we got about 800 emails. I was blown away. I didn’t realize how common these concerns were and how much it would resonate with people who are reading it. We got over 100 applications for teachers and about 200 families said they were interested. So that’s how we started. We got teaches from there, and we got the first round of families from there.

TH: What aspects of your curriculum were you able to put in place in that first year?  Was it primarily the Chinese curriculum mixed with a little bit of project-based learning?  How much could you really get going?

YL: In that first year, we actually got a lot going on. As I look back, the first two or three years were excellent because we were able to integrate almost everything. I’ll give you one example, in the spring we did a garden project – planting tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and stuff. That project went through the entire semester because you can do so many things with it. Upfront, you can test the seeds; you can observe the weather; you can see the rainfall; and then there are so many things you can design. Kids were putting in different seeds in different solutions with different levels of acidity, and then they had this entire observation project, both in Chinese and English, where they could write down notes and draw. Towards the end of the semester, after the harvest, we designed a project with a student-run restaurant. Since there were not as many people looking over us, the teachers could just take the students to the supermarket or to visit restaurants to figure out why some have better business than others. The kids would come up with solutions like, ”Oh, because they have music,” or “they have uniforms,” and all that. And then, of course, they had to run the restaurant. They needed to figure out the menu.  They had to figure out how much to charge, and they ended up asking for tips and then they had to figure out how to politely ask for tips. A lot of fun things! So in the first year it was almost a fully integrated curriculum. But now, because we were licensed two years ago, there are more inspections and compliance and all that.  That includes some control at the micro level, like how much time you have to spend on math and Chinese. Still, we’re trying to do as much as we can, but compared to the first year there is much less flexibility.

TH: That gives us a good sense of how you started with the curriculum, but where did the funding come from?

YL: Well, the funding, that’s another story! There were two things. One is that original WeChat article reached some of the people who were concerned about education. One of them was an investor of herself, and she found me through the grapevine and a series of connections. And she donated 4 million RMB (about $600,000 USD). I was very thankful for that, but it’s not enough for hiring and everything else. The second thing is that for WeChat accounts like ours, typically people would put up advertisements to make some money. We never did that, but we have a pretty solid set of followers, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to create an online community,” and I charged a fee of 2000 RMB a year (about $305 USD), and said it would max out at 1000 people. I had no idea how it would go, but then it actually sold out in one day, and I said “Wow! That’s 2 million RMB right there.” We did it two more times, so I got 6 million RMB, and I remember it just felt surreal. But it meant that there were a lot of people who wanted to join, so that 6 million RMB became our startup funds.

But, to be honest, even today, we’re not making money. We’re not breaking even.  Fortunately, there are many investors who are interested in us and investing. However, I still slowly realized that the best model for us would have been something like a charter school, because right now in China, most of your spending goes to facilities. That’s why there are a lot of real estate companies who are interested in investing. For many, it’s a way for them to raise the price of their property around the school. Frankly, that might not be bad. As long as they leave me alone. But they don’t leave you alone either, because they want to package your school to attract a certain buyer. They have an agenda. So financially, things have been a struggle. We’re still afloat, but from the beginning, I turned down a lot of those so-called investors with easy money. In hindsight, that was a good choice. So, even today, although there are more restrictions, none of them are enforced by the investors.  Those come from the external public environment, and we can still get lot done. So that’s the real story. But, frankly, if you can pay for my real estate, if you can pay for the salary for the teachers and all that, I don’t have to charge anything. I would rather make the school free. But you can’t. You don’t have such a model in China.

– Part 2 to come next week…


This week’s post comes from Jenee Henry Wood who leads learning at Transcend. The post was published originally as part of their “Roads to Reinventing” blog series focusing on the central question “What now feels possible for education that didn’t before this massive disruption?”

Mary Bowman describes her homeland with grace: “We, the Lakota, live in Ȟe Sápa, The Black Hills. This is an ancient and very spiritual place for us….beautiful pine trees, rugged mountains, and prairie land. We hold very important ceremonies on this land.” She goes on to describe the beauty of the Badlands and the indignity of Mt. Rushmore, “that abomination” that sits at the spiritual home of her people. 

There are about 100K remaining Lakota in the United States. COVID has hit Indigenous communities with ferocity. Indigenous families understandably worried that their children wouldn’t be safe returning to school in the fall. So they did something we associate with the most privileged communities – they started a learning pod. 

The Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op

After posting a message on Facebook, Mary  – a Lakota teacher – and a small group of parents, grandparents, and teachers received 140 messages from Indigenous families wishing to unenroll from their public district and re-enroll in the district on the neighboring reservation. During spring remote learning, high numbers of district students were disengaged – they just weren’t logging on. The district had no plans to reimagine the model for the fall. But the Oglala district would allow for pod-based remote learning embedded in the Lakota language and cultural curriculum. 

It strikes me that these Lakota families were motivated by two realities: first, the lack of deliberate national or state action to make schools safe; and second, the importance of cultural – not just physical – safety for Lakota youth as a prerequisite for learning. Marie High Bear, now a pod teacher and mother to a young son, recalls, “My son didn’t feel as though he belonged [in his district school]…he was teased by the other kids for his long hair. I’ve had to explain to him that his baby hair is sacred to us.” For these reasons, Mary, Marie, and others in the community got together to design a learning model that would keep children physically safe and rectify centuries of inequity. “I’ve been an educator for 16 years working with indigenous kids in the public school,” Mary reflects. “I’d always say, ‘Work hard and you can change your life.’ I never got the buy-in, they just didn’t believe it. Plus, they would walk with their hands behind their backs all day, single-file. That’s just not how we treat our children.” Mary knew that this homeschooling pod could signal a longer-range shift for Native families by serving as a template for a more permanent Indigenous alternative education. 

this homeschooling pod could signal a longer-range shift for Native families by serving as a template for a more permanent Indigenous alternative education. 

The Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op is grounded in the cultural knowledge and ways of being of the Lakota people. This shows up in everything from systems and procedures to core academics. The school day begins by smudging the school house, a ritual of burning sage and cedar, a practice that aims to “cleanse our minds, and make positive thoughts so that we can walk in a good way for our people, each other, and the Creator.” The pod has six children, ranging from 2nd-5th grades. They are taught together in this multi-aged group, which is supported by a whole community of family members. Marie serves as the “proctor” and Lakota Language and Culture teacher, working one-on-one when needed and leading the group during non-virtual learning portions of the day, such as nature exploration and hosting elders. Core academics like math and science are pursued in hands-on, practice-based ways. Students also spend time in nature during science learning, and math is grounded in culturally-relevant practical examples – a future lesson will be on how to erect tipis for maximum occupancy and egress. After the morning sage and cedar burning, the group then moves to a talking circle where the child with the feather or rock holds the floor. This is designed to be a reflective space for setting intentions grounded in Lakota values of respect, generosity, bravery, and courage. The children might reflect on the question, “What is a way that I can be generous today and share with others?” 

As Marie describes the pod’s typical day, she keeps referring to the ways in which their learning community centers Lakota knowledge instead of relegating it to the boundaries of the day, as it had been in the traditional system. In March 2018, after decades of Native pressure, South Dakota adopted the Oceti Sakowin, a set of essential understandings and standards aimed at addressing cultural diversity and raising consciousness to empower Native American students. Marie shares that the implementation of these standards was relegated to “specials,” once a week language classes, guest speakers, or other random experiences. This knowledge wasn’t embedded within the core DNA of school (e.g. daily rituals, curriculum) in ways that were relevant to Native and non-Native learners alike. This learning pod presents the opportunity to do what decades of advocacy couldn’t – center traditional knowledge on Lakota terms. As Mary Bowman says of the assimilative nature of American education so far, “The boarding schools tried to make us forget, but we aim to remember.” 

This learning pod presents the opportunity to do what decades of advocacy couldn’t – center traditional knowledge on Lakota terms.

I was also delighted by the presence of nature – dwelling in and learning from it – within this pod. Young people spend time outside studying plants and flora. They learn about the healing powers of natural remedies and the fundamental balance of all living things. They learn about geology and Lakota Star Knowledge, an ancestral tradition used for sacred events such as solstices and to observe the seasons in their sacred order. They eat lunch in a circle outdoors. They tell stories about the buffalo during story time, as Marie encourages them to illustrate what they hear. There is a wholeness to this learning environment that engages young people cognitively, sensorily, spiritually, and physically. In the age of COVID, with millions of children staring at screens, this is a rarity. For the Lakota, this vital aspect of their cultural and spiritual lives is left at the door in mainstream schooling. 

I was introduced to The Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op because they are recent recipients of an Enduring Ideas Award, a fund of Teach for America’s Reinvention Lab that I Co-Chair with Sunanna Chand. This co-op is such an intriguing example of reinventing because it adds a much-needed dimension to our discussion on learning pods, equity, and the path for public education in a post-COVID world. While it is too early to render a verdict on pods, the most popular narrative frames them as tools of privilege – yet another way for more affluent (and mostly White) families to hoard resources and opportunities for their kids. In some cases, that narrative is fair and true; in others, it’s incomplete. In this instance, the learning pod is almost an historical corrective. 

In this Lakota community, the road to “reinventing” is about reconnecting to knowledge and ways of being that have been long marginalized and undervalued by the traditional system. Mary Bowman, who is also a fellow with NACA Inspired Schools Network, which works to build Indigenous community schools, believes this pod is the way of the future. While her dream of establishing a Lakota community school predates COVID, she sees this as an unprecedented opportunity to prove what is possible in creating equitable, culturally affirming learning environments. I see this community making tremendous leaps towards Affirmation of Self & Others, Connection & Community, Relevance, and Whole-Child Focus through their deep commitment to culturally-responsive pedagogy. These leaps – while important in their own right – also enable better academic learning. Both Marie and Mary describe how a learning environment that fosters deep connection, sense of self, and pride creates the conditions for better academic progress and far fewer behavioral challenges. For Co-op students, a deep sense of belonging is the foundation for academic engagement and true learning. This community’s learnings could very well influence the public school district and create the demand for more Lakota-run community schools, grounded in Indigenous knowledge and facilitated by Indigenous teachers. 

When I stepped away from our conversation, the school day that Marie High Bear described somehow felt familiar to me, even though I’d never been to this classroom-in-the-living-room. I realize that many of the innovations communities are seeking – particularly the “whole child ones” – try to capture the sense of wholeness, mindfulness, and respect for other ways of knowing and being that are at the center of Lakota life. As we move forward in reinventing learning, we must continue to ask ourselves: what counts as valid evidence and knowledge, and from whom does it count? 


  • The science of learning and development confirms that having a sense of belonging and eliminating identity threats is a prerequisite for learning; the Co-op brings this lesson to life by creating a safe environment, grounded in Lakota language, and culture where learners can thrive. 
  • Innovation isn’t always about inventing something new: this powerful example of applying Indigenous knowledge in new contexts suggests a road grounded in reconnection and remembering. 
  • Learning pods can support the traditional model of school and districts to evolve.  
  • Many “modern” school design innovations highlight practices that have long been part of Indigenous cultures; we must be mindful of which kinds and sources of evidence and knowledge are deemed valid.   

Learning through play: A conversation about Quest to Learn

As part of a series focused on the evolution of schools and organizations working to improve education, this post explores the work of the Institute of Play and of Quest to Learn, a public 6-12 school opened by the Institute in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education in 2009. To learn more about how their work has evolved we talked with Arana Shapiro, Director of Programs, Schools, and Partnership at the Institute of Play and an original member of the Quest to Learn design team.

Can schools be reimagined to incorporate the highly engaging and effective aspects of gaming in order to help students learn? The Institute of Play was created in 2007 in order develop a school model that incorporated the gaming approach to the classroom setting. In 2009, the Institute opened Quest to Learn in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education. As the school puts it on its website, “Quest to Learn re-imagines school as one node in an ecology of learning that extends beyond the four walls of an institution and engages kids in ways that are exciting, empowering and culturally relevant.” Central to that “re-imagining” is the idea that with curricula organized more like games, student engagement would improve. As the school describes it, “games are designed to create a compelling complex problem space or world, which players come to understand through self-directed exploration. They are scaffolded to deliver just-in-time learning and to use data to help players understand how they are doing, what they need to work on and where to go next.”

The focus on games grew out of a concern with research showing a link between increases in high school drop out rates and declines in engagement as students transition between elementary and middle school. “Our question was,” Shapiro explained, “can we take the principles that make games engaging spaces and turn them into a school space, therefore engaging kids in school in a way they haven’t in the past?” The Institute of Play’s design team then began exploring the elements of games that make them so appealing. The team noted that games present a complex challenge or problem to solve and were focused on a single goal. Then, they saw that feedback to the participant was ongoing and immediate. Also, participants step into an immersive space and take on a role. Learning happens because participants are required to apply what they know to whatever problem they are trying to solve or whatever role they have taken on. According to Shapiro, “Our learning model is presenting students with complex and challenging problems that they don’t know how they’re going to solve, and then developing curriculum that leads students through a series of experiences that help them develop the skills and expertise that help them solve the problems.” Students are expected to move through the curriculum as they would move through a game.

The team also believed that in addition to preparing students to meet required standards, their gaming approach could foster skills that students need in order to succeed in life but that aren’t usually addressed in school. “At Quest, we outlined a set of competencies that we want kids to know in order to compete, but more importantly we believe there are skills that kids can learn, like complex problem solving, communication, systems thinking, and digital media tool use, that are equally important.”

The school’s experiences in the 7 years since it opened makes clear both the intense interest in gaming as a form of learning as well as the challenges of focusing an entire school on such a new approach. On the one hand, the school has been the subject of a number of stories and articles and gets frequent requests for visitors. On the other hand, the school has faced a number of challenges that new schools often face.  For example, the school is trying to re-imagine learning while occupying the same kinds of classrooms that have been around for years. In Quest to Learn’s case, flexibility is further limited by the fact that the school occupies one floor of a public school with six other schools operating in it as well.

Furthermore, despite the interest in games, students, parents, and educators all have different ideas about what the games should be and how they should be used for learning. For example, one misconception has been that the school would be high-tech and focus on video games. In fact, the school doesn’t use technology any more than a normal school would. In short, in order to be successful, all stakeholders need to be engaged and that requires an emphasis on helping all members come to a common understanding of what the school is trying to do.

Teacher education has presented another challenge, as most schools of education are not focused on the Institute’s vision of progressive education. In many ways, the Institute’s philosophy is more consistent with play-based models for early education, but it is less familiar for many teachers at the middle and high school levels. As a consequence, the team at the Institute of Play found that teachers often needed to be introduced to an entirely different model for education and considerable focus on professional development was required.

At the same time, the experiences of the Institute and the school have contributed to a robust professional development program. The school’s unique approach to learning has attracted the interest of teachers and leaders who want to know more about how to bring this approach to learning to their own schools. As a result, the Institute has developed a professional development program that stands alone from the school. That program includes 3-day workshops for teachers and an online community to help keep participants connected. These workshops are now in schools on Long Island, Westchester, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Chicago, North Carolina, and Michigan. In short, rather than trying to scale a gaming approach to learning by developing a network of Quest to Learn Schools, the team has found that working directly with teachers may provide a better avenue for expanding their approach.



Learning from successful education reforms in Ontario

class-roomIn 2003, the Ontario government began to focus on issues of educational improvement. The government instituted a series of reforms that have proven incredibly successful, with elementary achievement results rising from 54% in 2003 to 72% of elementary students performing at or above the provincial standard in in reading, writing and mathematics in 2014, and high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 84% in the same amount of time. This past summer I spoke with Mary Jean Gallagher, Ontario’s Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division, and Richard Franz, Director of Research, Evaluation & Capacity Building, for the Student Achievement Division, to learn more about their experiences with this reform effort thus far, and their plans for the future. As this conversation was so informative, we have decided to post it in two parts. Here, in part one, Gallagher and Franz share some of their thinking on aspects of the Ontario reform effort that have been essential to its success.

Bringing educators into policymaking realm

In 2008, Gallagher was the leader (Director of Education) of Canada’s southernmost school district when she was selected for her new position at the Ontario Ministry of Education (MOE). This position – Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division– was envisioned as an innovation. While MOE officials were typically promoted from public service positions, Gallagher’s experience was in schools, as a teacher, a principal, superintendent, and Director of one of Ontario’s 72 school districts. With the creation of this Division and position, and the hiring of Gallagher, the MOE demonstrated that it valued the expertise of educators. This went along with the MOE’s renewed emphasis on valuing the work of educators, particularly in positions that focused on student achievement. At that time, the MOE wanted to ensure that all of their work was based on valuing educators—seeing improved learning as a result of improved teaching.

With this new effort to bring educators into the policymaking realm, the MOE also made sure that approximately two-thirds of staff within the Student Achievement Division was comprised of practicing educators who had already proved themselves to be strong instructional leaders. In order to do this they created new positions in which practitioners, such as teachers and school leaders, could work for up to three years with the MOE. The theory behind this model was that working closely with “front-line” educators would build the capacity of both those who worked in the field, as well as those who worked in the central offices. Franz pointed out that working with educators on the creation of new policy helps the MOE officials by providing perspective on how such policy might “land” in schools. Additionally, once those educators complete their temporary positions in the MOE offices and return to their schools, they arrive with more knowledge and understanding of how such policies were developed and created. This new “blended” model builds appreciation in both spheres. As Gallagher and Franz explained, this effort helps create alignment between goals, priorities, methodologies and implementation, and over the past 13 years it has proven a “formula for wonderful results.”

Maintaining a limited number of goals

Gallagher and Franz also attributed Ontario’s success to the MOE’s narrow focus on a limited number of educational goals, specifically increasing student achievement, closing educational gaps, and increasing confidence in public education. As Gallagher and Franz explained, these are the goals that everyone working in the Ontario education system can recite, as well as the targets associated with them. By focusing closely on a limited number of goals they have seen a huge difference in their ability to keep focused on what is important.

In addition to knowing these goals, educators have become increasingly aware of the ways in which they can measure improvement and identify success as they work to achieve them. This allows teachers to develop an understanding of their own efficacy and agency, which, as Gallagher and Franz noted, excites and motivates educators. Ontario’s focus on province-wide testing standards in literacy and numeracy, and a set curriculum, has promoted clarity about what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do.

Using data and assessments to test the system, not individuals

Starting in the mid-1990s, Ontario’s government began implementing a set of tests based on Ontario’s Curriculum Expectations and Standard of Achievement for grades 3 and 6 in reading, writing, and math, as well as in grades 9 (math) & 10 (literacy). As Gallagher explained, Ontario holds very high standards for their students. Student work is identified as level 1, 2, 3, 4, and the provincial standard of success is level 3 (the equivalent of a letter grade of B), which is higher than what is expected on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Ontario’s assessment organization is an arms-length organization of the government, funded by the MOE but separate from it with its own board of directors. This organization has become, over time—an opportunity for professional learning as well, as teams of educators are assembled to devise test items and mark assessments over the summer months. As a result, teachers become well versed in the standards and measurement of performance and thereby build their own assessment literacy.

Gallagher and Franz note that these assessments are not standardized, and are not proprietary. Instead, they are criterion referenced assessments of the curriculum. The tests are used to gather information about the degree to which the students are able to demonstrate what they have learned from the curriculum. As a result, Ontario’s teachers feel less pressure to “teach to the test”; instead, the teachers are teaching to a curriculum they approve of and which teachers have had a hand in developing. The overall sense is that the tests are used to assess the entire educational system, rather than individual teachers and students. This collective focus also encourages teachers to work collaboratively and use assessment for learning for student achievement efforts.

Ontario has also moved to a common data system across the province as well. Starting in the late 1990s, the government created a tracking system in which all students were assigned an ID number. This allows the MOE to track individual school’s assessments of student performance, and compare those results to province-wide results. The ID number is also now being used to track students from early childhood education through to college (or apprenticeships). As Gallagher and Franz noted, this ID number is not linked to student names, but is used to analyze trends and patterns to understand what is happening system-wide.

Collaborative Inquiry

Teachers in Ontario regularly work together to analyze student work and plan new instructional strategies. These practices are articulated in an assessment policy called “Growing Success” and have been put into practice through a collaborative inquiry model of professional learning. Professional learning through collaborative inquiry has been so successful that it has replaced the old model of professional learning in which teachers were corralled in “banquet hall style” training sessions, where experts presented and teachers broke out into workshops. As Franz explained, “We assume that teachers come now with a certain level of skill, and we work with teachers on how to use a collaborative inquiry approach to examine student work, thinking about how to move students, and making that the object of their inquiry.”

How have classrooms changed?

As Gallagher explained, one of the things that everyone has learned is that the ideal classroom is less about teaching strategies and more about teacher thinking and behavior. This process starts in the assessment domain, with deep teacher knowledge of the students, the curriculum, and the learning goals. Then, the teachers can utilize any of the strategies they might have in their “backpack,” to help the students progress. Generally, in an ideal classroom one might see high levels of engagement, individual and group work, and differentiation; however, there is no particular reliance on any specific strategies or programs throughout the period. The aim is to allow teachers the space to try out their own strategies, and to develop their ideas through collaborative discussion with other teachers. This way, teachers feel accountable to one another and the classroom becomes a “de-privatized” place.

What Gallagher and Franz have noticed is that there is a trend of more inquiry-based learning in classroom. While there are some concerns about how much curricular content there is to learn, there is an increase in student-led learning, focusing on problem solving and creative work. In the following audio excerpt, Gallagher describes a recent visit to a kindergarten classroom where the teachers allowed students to lead an extended study of trees:

Be on the look-out for part two of this post, in which we focus on how Ontario plans to move ahead with an expanded reform agenda.

Deirdre Faughey

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#EFF13: A Twitter Chat on Educational Innovation

14592653118_dde584e697_oAs I scan the Internet and Twitter for news to share with out IEN readers, I notice a growing number of twitter chats emerging on education topics. We have also attempted our own Twitter chats, such as our recent effort using #WhatsnewAERA during a symposium we conducted last month at the American Educational Researcher Association Conference (#AERA15). These conversation threads take many forms – they can be enrichment opportunities for students, networking opportunities, or virtual “coffee-klaches” on high-interest educational topics. They can also bring together the online followers of live events. Now that these threads can be collected on one platform (such as on Storify.com), or searched for by using the hashtag as a search term on Twitter, readers might find that they can access some new information and get a sense of what was discussed at these in-person events; however, reading all of the threads can be a headache. Becoming Twitter-literate might be a new skill we all need to develop, but for now I thought I’d share my own attempt to make sense of a Twitter chat that seems relevant to IEN.

This week, I spent some time reading a Twitter chat hosted by an organization called Education Fast Forward, a not-for-profit organization that aims to develop a “global movement of teachers, students, leaders and policy makers who understand education’s challenges well and will support each other in tackling them.” This organization hosts live, international “debates” in which prominent voices in education come together with the aid of high-speed Internet technology. This debate, titled “Rethinking How We Learn,” was held on May 7th and included an in-person panel discussion and audience in Norway, but additional speakers joined from remote locations using video conferencing. Then, the entire event was broadcast live on the Education Fast Forward website (a recording will be made available soon). Those watching on their own personal computers were encouraged to maintain a simultaneous conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #EFF13.

The conversation began with a familiar question that served as a foundation for all that followed: “What is the purpose of education?” Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) suggested that technology be used to help us rethink how we teach. The focus at the start was on how students learn together, learning how to learn, and asking questions. Commenters on Twitter pointed out that learning, and the education system, seem to be “in collision” with one another. Concern was quickly directed to teachers and teacher education, with calls for teachers to be empowered to innovate. Here, Andreas Schliecher (@SchleicherEDU) claimed that teachers in Asian countries are more open to collaboration and innovation. Gavin Dykes (@gavindk) argued that innovation might not require a change in education legislation, but more risk-taking and less conservatism. On Twitter, many expressed their concern that teachers who might want to innovate are presented with an accountability roadblock: can we innovate in this worldwide, high-stakes accountability context?

Schleicher argued that “everyone likes innovation except for their own children,” a point that made it clear that the #EFF13 debate up to that point had been less about what innovation might look like – what changes might need to be made and why – and perhaps too focused on what was wrong with the current systems. Some on Twitter called for innovative teachers to be rewarded, which led to speculation about what innovation would look like and how it would be recognized. Howard Rheinhold’s suggestion to use voice feedback in response to student work was retweeted several times on Twitter, with May Britt (@baadsto) recommending Evernote for its ability to record voice memos directly on documents. At this point Greg Foley (@GregmFoley) began to wonder what was so wrong with the “conventional” education system of the 20th century? After all, it provided the foundation for innovation as well.

When the example of coding was offered as a movement that relied mainly on those who are self-taught, I began to think about the stunning lack of diversity that the discipline of coding has become known for. At the same time, it became clear that diversity was not part of this conversation on educational innovation – in fact, the Twitter conversation here was among a pretty homogenous group. The connection between innovation and privilege was made by an undergraduate student from Australia, Olivia Hill (@ohill8) who said “I would also like to acknowledge my privilege as a student who is white, cis-, middle class and able #EFF13.” Another interesting comment was shared on Twitter by @CoRe2dot0, from Germany. Unfortunately, it was not taken up by the others on the chat: “Maybe one shld differ between disruptive and sustaining innovations”?

We will continue to try to follow and learn from Twitter chats on the topic of educational innovation around the world as they happen.

Deirdre Faughey

For recent news on educational innovation around the world:

Latin America’s big education innovation | Miami Herald Miami Herald http://buff.ly/1PR8qku

Quality education, innovation & research the key – The Times of India http://buff.ly/1c0jq1A

Saudi’s education strategy aligned with innovation agenda – Zawya http://buff.ly/1c0jHkY

What Drives Innovation in Education Publishing (and What Doesn’t) | Digital Book World http://buff.ly/1FnLlnU

Education World: Educational Innovation Is a Team Effort, Expert Says http://buff.ly/1c0krXa

Education and innovation in Europe | #MITIDE | SiliconANGLE http://buff.ly/1HnorfR

Educational Innovation Around The World (Revisited)

Last month IEN hosted a symposium on educational innovation around the world, featuring commentary papers from and a discussion about innovation in:

In addition to slides from the framing introduction and the presentations, Deirdre Faughey and an online audience shared notes and questions from the session which can be found at #Whatsnewaera on Twitter.

The discussion highlighted for me several key questions about innovation in different contexts that we need to continue to address:

What’s really “new” and what difference does it make? 

The discussion emphasized that rather than a property of a particular idea or practice innovations make possible more productive and beneficial activities and outcomes in a particular context. In that sense, ideas and practices that may already be in use or may be well known in one context may lead to new developments and improved outcomes in another context.

What innovations are worth spreading?

Not every “new” development is worth pursuing. However, ideas and practices worth spreading includes those that create new opportunities to address problems, achieve existing goals, or pursue productive but previously unimagined directions and activities. In education, in particular, valuable innovations are those that transform the “instructional core,” changing the relationship between students, teachers and content in ways that lead to advances in learning.

What strategies can support the spread and productive use of educational innovations?

The session highlighted a number of different approaches to spreading and deepening innovation that are linked to particular contexts:

  • Start work on developing innovations “at the margins” of the educational system, where there may be fewer requirements and less attention; demonstrate success; and build demand for spread (as in developing peer-tutoring in rural schools in Mexico)
  • Build (and build on) regional clusters and other means of organizing “like-minded” schools and organizations that can incubate innovations that meet their particular needs (as in Singapore)
  • Leverage existing networks and infrastructure (as in efforts in Africa to take advantage of work to build networks focused on health and use of health data)
  • “Occupy” existing structures and re-direct resources (as in Mexico where success of tutoring networks created demands for using professional development resources in new ways and helped to put those involved in developing tutoring networks into central roles in the education system)
  • Use the central structures and resources to seed and reward local and regional innovations; to identify those of broad relevance; and to incorporate selected local innovations into central policy-making and support (as in the “Centralized decentralization” approach in Singapore)
  • Foster conditions that support innovation at the school/community level; the regional/cluster level; and the national level (as in Finland’s efforts to support high levels of professionalism among teachers; coherent but flexible expectations for learning; adaptive leadership; and productive networks and partnerships)

These different approaches, however, have strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, starting at the margins, for example, can be labeled and stigmatized as only appropriate for students, teachers, and schools in those schools. On the other hand, centralizing and systematizing local innovations can reduce flexibility and adaptiveness and limit the local ownership that may have been central to the innovation’s value. Further, while promoting the use of partnerships, clusters, and networks can facilitate spread to some individuals and groups, others are still likely to be left out. As a consequence, questions of whether and when to scale innovations and how to link work at the margins/work at the center and work across networks and clusters have to be addressed.


While the session made clear that developing productive educational innovations is challenging in any context, it also demonstrated the possibilities for innovation under a wide range of conditions.

Ultimately, the session suggested that innovation cannot be a goal in and of itself. Rather than trying to create new solutions to old problems, the promise of innovation lies in finding new problems, opportunities, and possibilities for advancing learning of students, educators and systems.

Thanks to all those who have contributed to the discussion so far. We welcome further conversation and look forward to hearing more about the work on educational innovation underway in many different contexts.

Thomas Hatch