Thinking about the school I want for my kids

Because of my job in education at Microsoft I have been fortunate to gain some visibility to what incredible schools and teachers across the country and globe.  While this is certainly not comprehensive – in fact I’d welcome other links to amazing school programs – it does provide a healthy and inspiring starting point. 

As you might imagine – part of my interest in this is very selfish.  I’m trying to see how the schools which my children attend could have similar qualities. In general, US schools pale by comparison to schools in other countries.  When people in the US complain about the quality of schools, I don’t think that they truly get the magnitude of the chasm between US schools and schools in, let’s say – the UK, Canada, Australia, Finland, Singapore, etc…  Many have heard the stat that the US is in 17th place, but do people truly know what that means? 

If people thought about education as an investment, would they feel better about the taxes they’re paying?   We pay the lowest taxes in the world – so from an education perspective, we are getting what we pay for.

Fundamentally – the very core to having a high quality school/classroom isn’t the technology in the room.  It’s the teacher engaging the students (even if that teacher is 3000 miles away).  So – as you look through these videos and resources, also bear in mind that the most successful programs are also steeped in teacher training, best practices and a pursuit of excellent teaching. 

I look forward to hearing from you about your thoughts, ideas and other references.

1st start here:  a great video with stats on tech usage among students (I’m assuming younger students – there’s a separate video circulating out there about higher ed)

Schools that are really lighting things up (improving student outcomes) and changing thinking about education. 

  • Microsoft Innovative Schools program: This is a highly unsung program with about 40 schools worldwide using technology to improve student outcomes.  Some are radically different than what we’ve seen/known in the past (Lumiar in Brazil, Fontan Schools in Colombia, etc…) and some are a little more traditional.  What the program attempts to do is not just throw tech out there for tech’s sake, but rather, to create/propose processes to go from cruddy results and poor tech usage to great results and substantial tech usage. .  The steps that are in these processes include the likes of thoughtful development of community support, teacher hiring practices, curriculum innovation and more…  There are a lot of school videos up there to check out!
  • Rich DeLorenzo and the Reinventing Schools Coalition:  Note – Rich is moving to Seattle and I’m trying to get him to be available for a few sit downs to discuss possibilities.  Please let me know if you’d be interested in that.
  • Chris Gerry and New Line Learning (Microsoft works very closely with these folks) Note – they have, I believe, the 2nd poorest population in the UK. One of the things for which they’re known is moving from classrooms with 30 or so students to plazas  with 90-120 students- and greatly improved outcomes.  Part of the magic here is that the teacher satisfaction and quality improves because of a team teaching approach that fosters best practices, focus and feedback.   and also here: and
  • On my SkyDrive, I have a bunch of videos and papers with excellent examples.  These include
    • A video of an Australian elementary school using Kodu (a game development program from Microsoft that’s being deployed in schools across Australia).  This is an example of kids having a great time learning art design, story development, creativity, collaboration, digital literacy and – yes – software development.  Sweet spot is for kids ages 4-10!
    • A video of students at Silverton School in Australia in which the students talk about their extraordinary school. 
    • New Line Learning – another excellent video of that school
    • And more…
    • The very successful KIPP program has found that the top determinate of their success is the school leader.  What they do with their school leaders is have them spend an entire year planning out their school.  Is their website and here is their report card showing their tremendous results  Note – their signature is that they have longer hours and days than other schools.
    • Other schools to examine: Crescent Girls School in Singapore – ; along with    Plus – here’s a US resources from Microsoft: – these are super helpful links.
    • Link to an innovative school up in Canada – this will help you see a place that isn’t at the bleeding edge and yet is still using technology in some very cool ways

Other resources/links to innovative/useful thinking on schools:

Reading List – want to read some books that share your interest and passion for improving education and that have some thoughts/proposals on answers?  These are simply the ones I’ve read or that I have on my kindle to read right now.  Again – please add to the comments below with other suggestions

  • The Global Achievement Gap – Tony Wagner – looks at examples across the US of schools that work/don’t work and breaks down some of the common themes of what works.
  • Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell – looks at a number of different seeming “outliers” in their respective areas and, again, looks for commonalities between what makes them less outliers and more patterned.  This includes schools
  • Whatever it Takes – Paul Tough – This is the incredible story of the Harlem Children’s Zone and Geoffrey Canada.  Essentially – it’s the story of a person who, fed up with what existed, started with a small radius and looked to address the children in that zone holistically and to change the definition of “normal” from undereducated, incarceration heading, poverty to everyone heading to college and graduating to viable jobs and contributing to society.
  • Work Hard. Be Nice – Jay Mathews – the story of the KIPP school and how 2 Teach for America teachers went from frustration at pushing boulders uphill in their individual classes to starting one of if not the best charter school network in the country (although not really a network – as it’s run through the KIPP foundation.
  • Disrupting Class – Michael Horn & Clay Christenson (author of innovators dilemma) – looks at school reform (I haven’t read this one yet – but really need to)
  • Born Digital – by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser  – Unintentionally it is about how to make people who are age 40 years old feel really old.  Intentionally – it is about digital natives (people born into technology) and making suggestions to digital immigrants for how to best foster their creativity and growth in this new reality and not to screw it up by applying rules, considerations and laws based on a pre-digital paradigm.

Lastly – below is a blurb written regarding the teachers at Microsoft’s Innovative Education Forum this past November in Brazil –

There are no excuses for poor quality education, disengaged students or archaic schools. The attendees at Microsoft’s Worldwide Innovative Education Forum held this week in Salvador Brazil and the students at the schools that I visited during that week proved without a doubt that budgetary resources, physical locations, and incoming student proficiency are not insurmountable hindrances to student success. We saw educators and schools from the remotest and most disconnected of villages to the highest of high tech cities – all sharing and showing how they are innovating to more deeply engage their students, improve individual students’ outcomes and create a generation equipped with 21st century skills. 

We frequently hear – and even say – rhetoric around education being the key to creating the workforce of the future, but this week’s event really brought that reality to life and showed how schools and educators with varying access to resources showed a heroic ability to truly understand their students’ motivations, backgrounds and capabilities and inspire them to new heights.

For us, what was especially inspiring and motivating was how these heroes, some with access to private resources, some public resources and others a blend, are all using technology as one of their keys to unlocking their students’ potential.  It was incredible to see how, like MacGyver could practically turn a toothpick and rubber band into a functioning airplane, these heroes of knowledge used technology.  Here are some examples of educators and schools using technology to improve student outcomes:

  • Julio Fontan, evolving the Fontan School his father set up in 1957 in Colombia and expanding it to schools in Chile and Spain, has created a successful project based learning model that creates personalized curricula for each student and eliminates age-based grades.  Specifically – it require students to exhibit a mastery of particular competencies before “passing” and moving to the next level.  The Fontan schools use Microsoft Dynamics, Sharepoint and Live@edu to track student performance on a personal basis so that all of the educators have knowledge of student’s current levels.  Students coming out of the Fontan Schools understand that you can’t just move up based on age or time – that you have to progress on the merit of your work. 
  • Canadian teacher, Genevieve Doucet, recognized the potency of combining the collaboration capabilities of Sharepoint with the organization and notetaking capabilities of Microsoft OneNote to help substantially improve the grades of her special needs students.  Specifically, she persuaded her school’s IT administrator to create a special student section on their historically teacher-only Sharepoint site so that she could set up shared access to OneNote for her students.  Her students, all of whom have some degree of dyslexia, were typically getting Cs, Ds, and Fs on their grades.  When she integrated this into her class, OneNote helped them keep their notes and their work in one place, helping them stay more organized.  It also autosaved their work so that they didn’t have those moments that plague all of us when we close a file and suddenly realize we forgot to hit save.  Lastly, the tandem of OneNote and Sharepoint allowed the students to collaborate on projects they were developing in OneNote AND allowed Genevieve to weigh in real time on their projects rather than waiting until the end for her critiques.  Thus – allowing them to turn in higher quality work.  Genevieve Doucet’s students, rather than being hampered by their dyslexia, are being empowered with collaboration, organizational and creative skills.
  • Heading over to Singapore, Alvin Tan saw that his students were using a lot of social media.  They were tweeting, blogging and, in general, staying tethered to the Internet and their technology in general.  Rather than trying to cut that tie or shut down those devices when they came to class, Alvin has had them turn up the dial – using Windows Live Instant Messenger, Groups, and Spaces to help his students learn much more deeply and collaborate much more with each other – leading them to be much more self directed learners.  For example, one way he uses instant messenger is to set up role playing for a particular character, let’s say Isaac Newton.  He created the first model of Newton and populated a database of information bits in that database.  That information fills the “brain” of the IM character Sir Isaac Newton so that when students “message” Newton, they get an answer back.  If there’s not yet answer, then the students collaborate to find that answer – thereby making the automated Newton “smarter”.  He has encouraged them to even create their own IM learning experiences – where they have to do the research themselves and get it working.  Alvin Tan’s students, in addition to understanding the fundamentals of Newtonian physics, are now self-directed learners, know how to communicate succinctly (and well) and are already proficient collaborators. 

And I could go on.

Among these and other finalists, some lack clean water, some lack consistent power, some lack peer support and more.  However, the resource these educators and schools have in abundance is creativity and what they’re doing is coupling that creativity with technology to create a potent solution that turns out students heavily equipped with 21st century skills.  For example, Nubia Solano from the rural town of Shagun, Cordoba in Colombia, worked with parents to raise money for computers by having them make and sell pencil holders.  She is helping her students learn communication and technology skills by having them teach computers to their teachers; Moliehi Sekesi from Lesotho, whose school is frequently without power, frequently only can use her laptop at school until the battery runs out.  She is helping her students develop strong communication skills, learn how to be self directed and collaborate by using their cell phones to take photos of plants on a field trip and subsequently turn the photos and accompanying interviews with community members into a newsletter they are distributing.

On the Friday of the conference, I had the honor of being taken by helicopter out to two rural schools by the Brazilian education team. 

The two schools we visited were only accessible to the rural communities by dirt roads and served as the first education centers of its kind.   In fact one of the schools was a place for learning for children, ranging from 10-25, by day and a community center for all by night.  While the physical location of these schools might be severed from most modern conveniences, there was no disconnection from the quality of education these students received. 

The first school we visited was built in 2006; before it was constructed, children’s access to education was up to their own determination.  The goal of the school is to equip the kids with the knowledge and training they need to advance the conditions in their rural surroundings, improve their community by developing new agriculture and farming techniques, and learning a specific trade like selling bake goods from their bakery at the local market.  

When we walked through the school, which was tucked away in the Brazilian jungle, I saw in the student’s faces a sense of pride, confidence, and purpose knowing they were the first generation to “break the chains of ignorance” – as one sixteen year old answered when asked what the school meant to him.  We met a group of students within their reading room which was a single unit structure, decorated with their own paintings, surrounding open windows.  Each student explained,  in their native Brazilian Portuguese dialect, their favorite stories from the books they’ve read that month: L.Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ and Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.  As the students drew comparisons from the stories main themes with their own personal experience I couldn’t help but notice one eighteen year old boy who stood upright, shoulders back, and spoke in a confident tone making eye contact with all of the visitor’s while he used his hands to emphasize the most important parts of his tale.  I couldn’t help but wonder how different this boy might have carried himself three years earlier, when he was fifteen and didn’t have access to this reading room or the school.  

The second school was more of a trade school where students would stay for two to three week stints learning new ways to grow pineapple from ‘slips’, cross pollinate papaya seeds, and implement new irrigation systems to provide water to their land.  The one thing that struck me was the condensed cycle between knowledge gained and the application of said knowledge; and we’re not talking applying this knowledge for a test, this was for the sustainability of their community.  As the students shared their stories, each one spoke passionately about the impact the school made and how it would benefit generations of family members.  One fifteen year old girl shared that her access to education will benefit her entire community and that she has become responsible for sharing this gift with the younger kids in her village in order to “lift up my community with the power of knowledge.”  The perspective and insight these kids had on what it meant to be given the gift of education was spoken in profound terms well beyond their years.  The one story I’ll always remember is the fourteen year old boy who said: “This school is the fork in the road which will allow me to travel to places unimagined to a kid from a small rural village in Brazil.”  That’s the power of education!

It is clear that there are some governments, school districts, administrators and individual educators around the globe that are fostering approaches that deliver on the 21st century skills that students need now and into the future to succeed – whether it’s in jobs of today or in the not yet created jobs of tomorrow all of which require flexible, motivated and engaged learners.  

From all this – we have a crystal clear and critical call to action to foster the growth of these innovative teachers and schools – helping what they’re doing evolve from innovative fringe projects to status quo. 

Read about the event winners here:


5 responses to “Thinking about the school I want for my kids

  1. Liz Gentile McKay

    thanks Suzi. “IM learning experiences” seems self-contradictory :). I feel like such a dinosaur.
    also, by Ken Robinson –
    his TED lecture: Do Schools Kill Creativity?
    and his book
    The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

  2. I just left a link to your blog over at <a href="; Seattle Schools blog. Your post here seems very relevant to the 3/21 “Interview With Queen Anne Elementary Principal ” thread being discussed there.

  3. Very interesting 😉

    passed along some of the links to some of our folks who do education and technology.

    The Youtube video was great!

  4. Hi Suzi! I listened to your talk on KUOW and wanted to share a link to our school “across the pond” in Woodinville. We are an independent school full of children with “hair on fire”. : )

    The Attic approaches teaching and learning from a constructivist and developmental framework. We believe that within a developmental philosophy of education, the learner is viewed as having developing mental abilities, the learning process is always seen as creative activity, and knowledge is always a construction of the mind’s interaction with the world (Elkind 1989)..

    I invite you to come and visit us in the fall!

  5. Pingback: A tale of three charter school visits | Suzi's Political & Educational Observations and Experiences

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