Future of Schooling

The emerging role of creativity in the classroom

If I were to create a word cloud of emerging concepts that I find most exciting in education today, it would include “creativity,” “design thinking,” and “maker spaces.” It seems that a grass-roots movement celebrating art and design, partnered with practical problem-solving, has taken hold in nearly every aspect of our culture.

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Coaching takes informal observations to a new level

McREL’s Power Walkthrough Coach, available July 1, builds upon our successful informal walkthrough platform for school leaders, providing tools and protocols to help coaches more specifically address instructional needs with the teachers they serve. This is in line with emerging trends we’ve seen in schools and districts, where coaches or peers give feedback to one another, yet don’t often have a vehicle for doing so in way that captures look-fors and progress without being evaluative.

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Finding and supporting the E in STEM

On the NASA Wavelength blog, McREL STEM consultant Sandra Weeks takes a look at how scientists and engineers work together to accomplish NASA satellite mission objectives, and applies that model to implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) with a focus on the role of engineering. Read her blog post, Finding and supporting the E in STEM, here.


2011_Weeks_WEBSandra Weeks is a STEM consultant for McREL. As a former high school science teacher, her expertise in STEM education and NGSS lends to the design of K-12 instructional materials and professional development on a variety of STEM topics, including NGSS and Science Notebooks, for out-of-school-time programs such as Cosmic Chemistry, NanoExperiences, NASA’s Dawn Mission, and the NASA Science Mission Directorate Education and Public Outreach forums. You can also follow McREL’s STEM pages on Facebook and Twitter for more information about our STEM initiatives.

Transforming systems of education with “bow and arrow” learning

One of my many important lessons in parenting came from a family visit to a Renaissance fair when my son was four years old. As we walked through this new, exciting environment of medieval costumes and fantasy characters, my husband and I were enjoying watching my son soak up all the sights and sounds—big eyes, lots of questions, wanting to touch everything. A vendor approached us, looking very much like Robin Hood, pulled out a toy bow and arrow, and asked our son if he would like to try shooting with it. My first reaction was that I didn’t want my son to get hurt. My second reaction was to take the bow and arrow and show him how to use it. Robin Hood quickly stopped me, saying, “Children learn by doing. Let him try on his own.” Although I didn’t particularly like someone I didn’t know telling me how to parent, I realized, eventually, that he was right.

Think about the most enduring lessons you’ve learned. They likely came from experiences you had, not from books you read. Education literature strongly supports the importance to learning of satisfaction, interest, creativity, and experience. Yet, in this era of standardized education and accountability, our education system continues to emphasize teaching kids what they need to know to pass tests, says Harvard University’s Tony Wagner, with whom I had the opportunity to talk recently.

Another innovative thinker, Steven Wyckoff of the nonprofit educational service center ESSDACK, defines systems transformation as “taking the learning process outside the school building and learning how to do things rather than learning to take a test.” Similarly, Bela Banathy, a leader in the educational transformation (or Design) movement, says that to truly transform learning, we must leave the old behind and create new “learning systems, learning territories, learning experience trails” (in Groff, p. 7).

What does this mean for school districts? They are at a major crossroads: Organizational structures, learning designs, location (physical and online), technology, leadership, policies, standards, and accountability systems are still needed—but they must be transformed to meet the demands of new ways of learning. Within these structures, how do districts transform the role of the teacher, inspire student self-directed learning, nurture experiential learning, and at the same time, confirm learning has taken place?

Let us know what you think a transformed system of learning looks like. Are there experiences you are fostering in your system or school that provide lifelong knowledge and understanding for students?

Pamela J. Jones, Ph.D., is director of McREL International’s Center for Systems Transformation.

One-to-one initiatives require a “core vision”

4.1.1Leslie Wilson co-chairs the National Steering Committee of One-to-One Directors and facilitates networking and collaboration among one-to-one visionaries. As a founding member and CEO of the One-To-One Institute based in Lansing, Mich., she created and implemented model programs and services based on Michigan’s Freedom to Learn Program.  

While leading Michigan’s one-to-one teaching and learning initiative, Leslie recruited McREL to facilitate technology training for the state and Leading for Technology staff. We are reposting her  blog as a resource for schools, districts, and states that are implementing or considering one-to-one initiatives.

You’ve Got ‘Tablets’ and Now You’re 1:1? Really?
By Leslie Wilson

More and more districts are acquiring ‘tablets and saying ‘we are now 1:1’. I always ask what that means. What is 1:1? The definitions are many as districts glom on to sexy, inexpensive, long-life battery, lightweight devices instead of foundational, robust, multi-tasking, creativity devices (which also by the way, are lightweight, have long-life batteries, etc., etc.). One-to-One Institute’s work amplifies the message that a quality, student-centered 1:1 employment is complex, transformative work. The focus points are teaching and learning and not hardware, software, and apps. A shared vision, strategic project plan and leader must accompany the program from its embryonic inception. What are the goals? How will they affect the current culture and expectations? What kind of messaging, practices and policies need to accompany this effort?

To transform teaching and learning to a student centered, personalized instructional setting, there are key components—project plan elements—that have to be addressed to be successful.  Leaders need to know, understand and guide the ‘change’ process. A 360 degree professional learning program must be embedded for all stakeholders. Teachers who will need to change their practices from adult-centered, static systems to student driven, experiential operations require time, guidance and learning communities to ensure the shift of practice. And overarching policies must direct the practices.

Human and funding capacities are also of primary importance. How will we acquire and deploy devices?  Maintain/repair them?  Refresh them? Scale out our program? What about battery replacement? Yes, even the ‘tablets’ have batteries that die. Do we buy a new one for $100 (1/3 or ¼ cost of a new tablet) or do we have a plan for replacing all of them in 18-24 months? Do we lease or purchase? What in-house funds can we reallocate to this program (if it is a priority)? What do administrators, teachers, parents/guardians, etc., need to know and do differently in this changed state?

At a time when school funding is in crisis, stakeholders need to understand ‘why’ their schools are investing in technologies when staff is being laid off and programs being set aside. Calling on and sharing research and best practices will be crucial to district’s messaging. If tablets are the chosen devices, a district must be prepared to provide technologies for students to create, multi-task, store and produce robust results/activities in addition to what they will do on the limited functionality tablets…and they need to honestly share this need and solutions to provide additional device support.

There is a much bigger picture and quality impact on education with authentic one-to-one implementations. It has to be about core vision, beliefs and strategies that complement what’s needed for learning and producing in the 21st century. It is not as simple as buying a cool tool. We can all have cool tools and have the same old, same old education system resulting in the same old, same old results.

Leslie Wilson, CEO One-to-One Institute  Read more of her blog.

Can standards raise the ceiling of student performance?

In my last blog, I noted that a recent Harvard study found mixed results for raising state standards on student performance with one notable exception: low-income and minority eighth-graders in low- performing states appeared to benefit from their states adopting better academic standards.

This would suggest that standards may have raised the floor on student performance, but what about the ceiling? Have more rigorous standards helped to raise the performance of students at the upper end of the spectrum?

At a McREL Network for Innovative Education event, Harvard professor Martin West reported that after he dug deeply into data from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compared student performance in 30 developed nations, he noticed an alarming “other achievement gap” between the top performing American students and top performers in other developed nations.

West analyzed results from the 2005 NAEP exam and the 2006 PISA exam, specifically looking at comparable levels of “advanced” student performance. His work showed that top six percent of U.S. students performed at the same levels as 28 percent of students in Taiwan, 21 percent of students in Finland, 15 percent of students in Canada, and 13 percent of students from Australia.

So why do other nations have larger percentages of students performing at the same level as top students from the United States? Have we set our standards too low? One of the premises behind the Common Core State Standards, in fact, is that we need “fewer, clearer, higher” standards to move us away from the “mile wide inch deep” curriculum that has long plagued American education. In so doing, we can allow our students to develop the deeper levels of understanding and application that are tested on the PISA exam (Read a comparison of PISA vs. NAEP tests).

Therefore, better standards alone may not be sufficient to raise the achievement of all students—at either end of the spectrum. As I’ll explore in my next blog, if all we focus on is better standards, we may overlook a critical missing component in the formula for school—and student—success.

How well are districts, schools, and teachers challenging students at the top of the spectrum to raise the ceiling on performance?

Written by McREL’s Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing, and New Business Development

Developing effective digital learning policy

Digital tech blogIn the ‘80s, teachers were excited to incorporate overhead projectors into their classrooms. In the ‘90s, cutting edge classrooms were those equipped with a computer—one that would allow students to take turns accessing CD-ROMs and saving to floppy disks. Today, digital technologies have exploded, and schools might issue tablets to all students, rely exclusively on virtual courses, or even encourage the use of cell phones in class. But does technology in the classroom really improve student achievement?

Research tells us that although technology can have a positive impact on student achievement it is no guarantee of success (Pedro, 2012). Some students in online classes might outperform their peers,  while those enrolled in a particular virtual school lag significantly behind. One educational software program may lead directly to higher test scores while another produces no measurable effect. And a one-to-one laptop initiative may be a wild success in one school district while it is a complete flop in the district next door.

Given the variable success of digital learning initiatives, decision makers have much to consider when determining whether and how to invest in digital learning. McREL’s newest policy brief, “Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World,” offers recommendations to policymakers as they consider ways to formulate digital learning policy:

1.       Consider digital learning options that will address the unique needs of a specific region

Effective digital learning policy accounts for the strengths and needs that are unique to a region.  While investment in a learning management system may be appropriate for a highly developed region, other areas may be better served by improved access to the Internet.  Likewise, disparities within  regions may mean that students and teachers in rural and remote areas lack access to the educational and technological resources that more populous areas take for granted.

2.       Develop a rationale for digital learning

Advocates for digital learning may cite different reasons for their support. Some emphasize the role that education plays in preparing students for the workforce, arguing that students must be highly digitally literate to succeed in today’s technology-driven workplace. Others focus on technology’s ability to improve student achievement and enhance educator effectiveness, while still others argue that digital learning promotes more equitable access to education.  Consideration of these rationales is likely to increase stakeholder buy-in and produce clearer policy.

3.       Support successful digital learning implementation strategies

Successful digital learning programs provide for ongoing and substantive support to teachers and principals who must be trained to effectively incorporate any new technologies into their practice and maximize on the potential of those technologies. Further, effective digital learning policy provides for the ongoing evaluation of any digital learning initiative, which in turn allows for ongoing program improvement.

How effective have digital learning initiatives in your region been? What is your current digital learning policy? What obstacles does your district or school face in creating one?

For further details on effective digital learning policy, read this free McREL resource: Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World.

Written by Allison Dunlap, policy research assistant at McREL.


Pedró, F. (2012). Trusting the unknown: The effects of technology use in education. In Soumitra Dutta & Beñat Bilbao-Osorio (Eds.) 135–146, The Global Information Technology Report 2012: Living in a Hyperconnected World. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Retrieved from

Adding up the costs of the Common Core

2FinanceSmallLove them or loathe them, the Common Core State Standards are a clear game changer for states, districts, and schools—and, of course, teachers and students. Much attention has focused on the impact of the standards on these populations, with a heavy focus on gaps between current state standards and the new standards and how that’s likely to play out in the classroom. As educators have gotten a more solid handle on the figurative costs of the Common Core, however, attention is turning to the literal costs of implementation.

A recently released report from the Fordham Foundation, Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? (Murphy & Regenstein with McNamara, 2012) contends that while most states have implementation plans in place, few have really considered how to address the cost of those plans. The report examines only transitional costs (i.e., instructional materials, assessment, and professional development related to implementation) and considers three potential scenarios: Business as Usual, Bare Bones, and Balanced Implementation.

Business as Usual, as you might guess, doesn’t differ much from current approaches to implementing standards, using textbooks, pencil-and-paper assessments, and in-person professional development. The Bare Bones approach employs typical cost-cutting measures, such as open-source materials over textbooks, computerized assessments over hard copy, and online over in-person professional development. And then there’s the Balanced Implementation approach, which uses a mix of materials, different types of assessments, and hybrid professional development.

So what does this mean for states’ bottom lines? The Bare Bones approach, according to the authors, could cost as little as $3 billion nationally, versus just over $12 billion nationally for Business as Usual. Balanced Implementation is estimated to cost approximately $5 billion, cutting some costs through the use of more online resources but ramping up others through the use of interim assessments. The Fordham report also provides estimates by state, which vary widely according to population and other factors (for example, $1.6 billion for Business as Usual in California, vs. $32 million for the same approach in Wyoming).

A separate report from the Pioneer Institute (AccountabilityWorks, 2012) focused not only on transitional costs of the Common Core, but the costs for implementation over a seven-year period. This report estimated a national “mid-range” implementation cost (most similar to Fordham’s Business as Usual Approach) of $15.8 billion, $10.5 billion of which is estimated for one-time costs, such as instructional materials and technology infrastructure.
According to McNamara et al. (2012), new costs average out to a total between $249 to $396 per student—which doesn’t seem like much, if the Common Core standards ratchet up student achievement as hoped. But the bulk of these costs are likely to come early in implementation, as states develop and purchase new instructional materials, provide professional development to their teachers, and ensure that their existing technology frameworks are equipped to administer the new online assessments aligned to the Common Core. Since many states are already cash-strapped, these new costs are likely to be a bit burdensome, at least at first.

How is your state handling the budgetary implications of the Common Core?

Written by Kirsten Miller, lead consultant at McREL.

Trend Spotting: The Evolving Role of Museums in Education

On the Horizon, an international journal that explores emerging issues as technology changes the nature of education and learning, has released a concept paper titled, Museums and the Future of Education. Co-authored by Scott Kratz, vice president for education at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, the paper explores the vibrant role that museums could play should education experience a profound shift from traditional teacher- and school-centered models to more informal, personalized, “passion-based” models.

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Online Instruction that Works: The environment is different, but the strategies still deliver

Learning with computers isn’t what it used to be. Most of us knew them as a classroom tool; now, they are the classroom. A total of 1,500,000 K−12 students enrolled in online courses in 2009, almost double the number in 2006, according to the International Association for K−12 Online Learning. Alabama, Michigan, and Florida require online learning for students to graduate, and others, like Idaho and Utah, are considering similar changes. Students, parents, and teachers alike appear to be embracing online learning. In a fall 2011 EducationNext article, students report better engagement when learning is differentiated and accessible through multiple venues, and teachers often report better relationships with students and the ability to provide one-on-one guidance that face-to-face classrooms cannot afford (“The Highs and Lows of Virtual School: One Teacher’s View”).

But knowing how to instruct online effectively is not automatic. The first time I delivered professional development virtually, in spite of knowing better, I lectured more, used fewer multimedia resources, and did not provide ample time for participants to interact with one another. It seemed that all the lessons I had mastered in face-to-face instruction suddenly had to be relearned in an online environment. I didn’t have the physical cues (e.g., eye contact, facial expressions, off-task conversations) to help me adjust my lessons accordingly.

So I went back to the nine research-based strategies of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) that I know so well and realized that, tweaked for virtual application, they still provide the framework I need for effective instruction. They reminded me to do the following in an online classroom:

  • State explicit objectives for each session and make them accessible to all.
  • Provide feedback to each participant and allow them opportunities to give their peers feedback and self-reflect.
  • Offer multiple avenues to help participants develop understanding of new concepts.
  • Provide ample opportunities for participants to interact in groups.
  • Provide opportunities for participants to apply what they learned in real-world situations.

6a010536aec25c970b015437bd01db970cTime and again, we have received feedback from readers and workshop participants that the CITW strategies provide clarity and purpose for how to create an environment conducive to learning and how to scaffold student learning from initial understanding to deep knowledge (see figure below)—whether they’re teaching science or social studies, in an urban or rural setting, or in an ELL or mainstream classroom. Though the delivery method of online learning is different, we have every reason to believe the CITW strategies will deliver for teachers in virtual classrooms like they do for teachers everywhere who want to be the most effective they can be.

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is an educational technology consultant at McREL