Author Archives: T Hatch

The Evolution and Scaling of the Whole Child Model (Part 1): An Interview with Cynthia Robinson Rivers

NOTE: This interview I did with Cynthia Robinson Rivers originally appeared in

The first part of this 3-part post draws on an interview with Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, the founding principal of the Whole Child Model at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington D.C. Robinson-Rivers recently joined Transcend, where she works with schools in Texas, Tennessee and Washington D.C. who are adopting the Whole Child Model. The interview was conducted by Thomas Hatch and students from his School Change class at Teachers College, Columbia University in the fall of 2023. Part 1 focuses on the initial development of the Whole Child Model and some of the supports for teachers. This post builds on an a 2-part interview last year with Transcend’s Keptah St. Julien who talked about the key elements of the Whole Child Model (See part 1; part 2).

Establishing the key components of the Whole Child Model at Van Ness Elementary School

Thomas Hatch (TH): Can you tell us about the Whole Child Model and how it originated at Van Ness?

Cynthia Robinson-Rivers (CRR): As we were developing what would later become the Whole Child Model, we talked with teachers, students, parents, and community members and asked: “If we’re successful during our students’ elementary school years – pre-kindergarten through fifth grade – what will our students be like as adolescents and adults?” This generated a long list of words, including, most prominently, “compassionate,” but also words like “critical thinkers.” Those became our graduate aims, and they were for the students to be creative, compassionate, critical thinkers, curious, constant learners and students able to build community across lines of cultural and racial difference. These were the characteristics and dispositions we hoped to cultivate in students during their time with us. From those aims, we then worked together to develop the actions we would need to take in order to be able to develop those traits in our students.

In our second year, we partnered with Transcend and they helped us to codify the things we were doing as a school model that could be shared with others. That work led us to establish three key components:

  • Student well-being,
  • Student as a maker
  • Student ownership for learning

Student well-being is the most developed, as it was the component we started with, and it’s the most foundational to the model.

The work on student well-being also has 3 parts:

  1. CARE is the set of universal “tier 1” practices every student receives. It’s effective in supporting kids, helping them to be successful with their school day for 90 to 95 percent of students.
  2. BOOST is the set of additional “tier 2” and “tier 3” supports that we give to that 5 to 10% of students who need additional support to be successful participating in the routines of school.
  3. FAMILY CIRCLE is our approach to family engagement, and it includes practices that aim to place families as equal partners in education and leverage that support for the student’s development.

Zooming in on CARE, which stands for Compassion, Assertiveness, Routines, and Environment, something as straightforward as the language teachers use and the tone of voice they use when they speak with students is considered a tier 1 support for everyone that walks into the school building.

We start with the physical environment, with the classroom as the “third teacher” and as a hugely important part of the students’ experience. We want them to enter a room that is comfortable, personal, accessible, and a reflection of the students’ backgrounds and cultures.

We think about the physical environment of the classroom as the third teacher and as a hugely important part of the students’ experience. We want them to enter a room that is comfortable, personal, accessible, and reflective of the students’ backgrounds and cultures.

There are many ways in which our approach to the classroom environment helps to meet a child’s needs. Most importantly, we want the room to be accessible, meaning students know how to access materials independently and where to find needed items that are in organized bins and are clearly labeled. Ideally, we have lamps and natural light as an alternative to overhead fluorescent lights and access to nature through keeping plants in the room. We have framed pictures of students and their families to not only acknowledge the importance of families and make them visible in the classroom, but also to help calm students when they are upset. We aim for our classroom environments to be trauma-informed, welcoming, predictable and consistent.  When kids don’t know what’s coming, they’re much more likely to be dysregulated and to be quicker to get upset than when they know exactly what to expect, and the classroom can help to establish that kind of predictable and supportive environment. Another important part of the classroom is the centering space, a physical space in every room that kids know they can go to if they feel upset and has the visuals and the physical materials that can aid them in doing so.

In addition to the physical environment, we have the Strong Start morning routine, inspired by a socio-emotional learning program that Van Ness utilized in its beginning years, which includes support from students beginning with a greeting at the door when they start the instructional day. The aim is to enable kids to be successful, especially if they have come to school with challenges that day or the evening before.

Strong Start includes: 

  • Greetings: Students get a personal, warm greeting, with a choice of how to be greeted and a meaningful exchange back and forth – serve and return (as in tennis) – that will help kids who may not have healthy attachment to get experience connecting with a trusted adult. 
  • Breakfast in the classroom: As an alternative to a noisy and impersonal cafeteria, students eat together in the more quiet and calm environment of their classroom.
  • Independent activities: Students journal, conference with their teacher, or engage in partner or small group activities that can include academic interventions.
  • Community Building: Teachers bring the class together as a group to foster a sense of shared community and belonging. 
  • Purposeful Partnering: Teachers pair students up with at least one other child to engage in activities that create student to student connections.
  • Breathe and Focus: Teachers give the students an explicit opportunity to practice ways of gaining composure if they’re upset. 
  • Goal setting:  Teachers ask students to set an intention for the day. We know that when we set a goal and we tell someone about it, we’re much more likely to meet that goal.
  • Reflect and Share: Students are able to process current events or recent classroom conflicts through a group conversation the teacher facilitates.

We also engage in a broader set of CARE practices – that include strong start, classroom design, intentional language, and other components –  and many people visit schools that we work with and think, “Oh, this is great!” and comment on how “warm and fuzzy” the practices seem.  So we often explain that, while the environments we create are warm and that’s important, the practices are rooted in brain science and each have a purpose.  We try to share as much as we can about what happens inside students’ bodies and brains when their development has been impacted by trauma and the importance of schools being trauma-informed.

The Whole Child Model is inspired by Dr. Bruce Perry’s neuro-sequential model. It helped us to understand that if kids come to school fearing for their physical safety, which is the case in some of our highest need schools, they first need to regulate.  That’s where practices like Breathe and Focus come in. If students are not regulated, they’re not ready to learn. We also know that if they are upset, they might be controlled by their limbic system. Their amygdala might be over reactive and they may be scanning for threats. In that state, they are also not ready to learn. Where we want them to be is in their prefrontal cortex, regulated and ready to reason and think abstractly and critically.

A typical day with the Whole Child Model

TH: The extensiveness and comprehensiveness of the support is really noteworthy and as you emphasized, it’s not just a set of features or elements but they are grounded in a particular approach and theory about children’s development and children’s behavior. Could you give us a sense of how all of this plays out in a typical day?

CRR: Students arrive, receive a greeting, and have breakfast in the classroom. As students are arriving, those already in the classroom engage in independent activities, including journaling and reading, until the teacher gathers students together for strong start group activities. While many social-emotional learning programs call for a daily or weekly block of activities, we believe that students should experience positive and supportive interactions throughout each day and should have frequent opportunities to practice their skills in authentic ways.  So, you would see this come to life in language a teacher uses when working with students, to either help them be successful because of the clarity or concision of language or help them think critically because of open-ended questioning. You would see students learning independently in all parts of the room – the maker space, the art center, the small group reading table, and other areas – in ways that promote autonomy and choice to empower students.  Social stories – visual stories that help students know what to expect – might be used to support students moving to a new activity or individually to help students who have difficulty with transitions. These are just a few examples of how a whole-child, student-centered approach would live throughout the day and not be confined to a narrow block of time.

“You would see students learning independently in all parts of the room – the maker space, the art center, the small group reading table, and other areas – in ways that promote autonomy and choice to empower students.”

Key Supports for the Model: Staffing for Socio-Emotional Development

TH: Can you talk a bit about what it takes to support the model? For example, do you need a lot of support staff to be able to make it happen? Do the teachers have any coaching?

CRR: Yes, the socio-emotional, behavioral, and mental health staff require in-depth training, but within these roles the staffing and capacity vary widely at our schools. In DC, many schools have “behavior techs” who respond if there is a child in immediate need. The behavior techs are also the people who run structured recess and restorative in school suspension.

In other regions using the Whole Child Model, staffing approaches are very different and, in some cases, have less support and capacity. Some schools have only an itinerant social worker, no behavior techs, and no positions like dean of students to coordinate behavior responses. We work with schools to determine who can own some of those systemwide approaches in lieu of the behavior techs. Typically, we are able to work with schools to figure out who on the staff would be most appropriate to take the lead and make sure interventions are running.

Before implementing intensive behavior interventions, it’s important to focus on CARE Plus, the set of interventions that happen in the classroom before a student is referred to outside supports. If the teacher has a student who could benefit from additional support, there are many CARE Plus strategies that can be used. For example, a child might get an individualized daily schedule in addition to the classroom posted schedule, because they need to know exactly when transitions take place and need to see that in a personalized way. Students may have specialized seating or they may get the additional responsibility to be the line leader because being in line is a part of the day that the student may have a hard time with. Students may get to have a movement break or use their break card to go get a break. These are all interventions within the classroom but teachers need the support of an administrator to help think through which strategies would help the child before more intensive interventions are considered.

Book Studies and Professional Learning for Teachers

TH: What about professional development for teachers? Can you talk about your book studies and how other professional development activities are integrated into the school day? 

CRR:  Yes, when I was at Van Ness, we would read one book for a school year, and we usually read a chapter or two per month and one book every summer. The summer reading was on your own, and we would debrief it during the first week of professional learning at the beginning of the school year. The year-long book study would be the focus of every monthly staff meeting, where we would talk about what we learned in that chapter and how we would apply it. Then that would line up with how we would do observation and feedback as a leadership team, giving feedback on those specific practices that teachers were learning about and implementing. We were able to use those forums because we had other opportunities for other types of professional learning.  DCPS implements LEAP, a structure that allows for weekly 60 to 90-minute content area meetings when early childhood, ELA, math, or enrichment teachers gather in a PLC to improve their practice.

We found that when you define the times and places where you will prioritize different focus areas, it helps ensure you don’t forget about the non-cognitive aspects of a child’s development.

In addition to monthly staff meetings and weekly LEAP sessions, there are quarterly PD days where we usually have a year-long focus area. One year was focused on racial equity and ways to mitigate against implicit bias. Another year our PD days focused around maker-centered learning, and we brought experts from Project Zero at Harvard to come do training with us. Defining the times and places for different kinds of professional learning helped us to decrease the tension that teachers often have, where they feel like they have so much to do on reading and math and raising test scores that they don’t think they have time for social-emotional learning or well-being. We found that when you define the times and places where you will prioritize different focus areas, it helps ensure you don’t forget about the non-cognitive aspects of a child’s development.


From a “wide portfolio” to systemic support for foundational learning: The evolution of the Central Square Foundation’s work on education in India (Part 1)

NOTE: This interview I did with Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja originally appeared in

Over the next two weeks IEN looks at the first 10 years of the evolution of the Central Square Foundation (CSF) and its efforts to build the capacity for improving learning outcomes in India. The posts draw from an interview with CSF’s Co-Managing Director Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja. Part one explores the first five years of the Foundation’s initiatives (2012-2017) and how they developed their strategy for the next five years focusing on foundational learning, educational technology, and affordable private schools. Part two concentrates on the “four pillars” of their approach to foundational learning and the lessons they have learned in trying to improve learning at scale in India. For more on the 10th Anniversary of CSF’s founding see #10YearsOfCSF: Leaders at CSF on Their Vision for the Next Decade.

Central Square Foundation’s first five years: Developing a “wide-portfolio”

Thomas Hatch: Can you tell me about the background and evolution of the Central Square Foundation (CSF)?

Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja: We started in February 2012. The founder of CSF, Ashish Dhawan, has one of the largest private equity funds in India. He always had a deep desire to move to the development sector, and he started by serving on boards of other NGOs to try to gain an understanding of education. I joined CSF in July 2012, and for the first five years, we were only funded by our founder which allowed us to be very entrepreneurial in how we looked at education. The only “guardrails” he put up were that we would be a non-profit; we will look only at school education (K-12); and we would support young social entrepreneurs. As a result, venture philanthropy shaped a lot of the work that we did in the first phase of our journey.

Without external funders, we had the flexibility to look at a diverse set of issues from education technology to early childhood education to data and assessments. During this time, grant making was one big part of our work. Second, we supported research, particularly research from the perspective of how it can inform policy. Since we are neither a university, or an evaluation agency, our research was always oriented more for policymakers and for other education leaders and on how our research can help the ecosystem develop a collective voice. Third, we focused on government engagement. Even while we were doing grant making and looking for innovative solutions, we knew that for any solution to scale and be sustainable it needed government adoption. Early on, we weren’t even sure what government engagement meant, but we began by trying to come up with innovative solutions, having smart researchers lend their voice to it, and then handing it over to the government to run with it. But, as in much of the developing South, government demands typically include asking you to work in partnership with them, so we ended up setting up a number of project management units both at the central and the state level.

TH: What’s the advantage of an organization like yours taking some of that work on in a partnership with the government?

SS: The reality is that most people in the government understand the issues and challenges that the system is facing; they’re not blind to it. but the education production function is so complex that it’s difficult to pick out one part of the problem and solve it. The government is in the business of setting up the policy, and they are doing the regulation, and they are also the service provider of education. Working with an external partner enables them to hire people with a different profile – with different backgrounds and more specific expertise about a particular issue. The external partner becomes an extension of the government but they’re also able to bring a different profile of talent and to be razor sharp on the issue that they’re working on.

Working with an external partner enables [the government] to hire people with a different profile – with different backgrounds and more specific expertise about a particular issue. The external partner becomes an extension of the government, but they’re also able to bring a different profile of talent and to be razor sharp on the issue that they’re working on.

For example, working on a partnership focused on school leadership was my first project at CSF. At that time, school leadership as a term was not even being used in India. But, in 2012- 13, we were able to bring a group of people together, including myself, from the US and India, with expertise in organizational leadership to create the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI) which worked with principals of “low-fee” private schools. (For an overview of the evolution of ISLI see IEN’s conversation with ISLI Founding Director, Sameer Sampat.) But then the government was able to set up a National Center for School Leadership that built on a lot of our learnings in ISLI even though “low-fee” schools aren’t even part of the government sector.

The development of India’s national online platform for teachers provides another good example. As you know, the growth of technology in India has always had the advantage of better device penetration, cheaper internet, cheaper hardware but the software solutions have been the problem. In this case, states started building their own portals for teacher education but their first version was basically just a PDF of their teacher manual that they put on their websites. So there was a huge opportunity for a platform to be built, not just a portal, but a platform on a national level that states could connect to. 

The national teacher platform called DIKSHA relied on core technology that came from the EkStep Foundation. Their own legacy is from AADHAR which is a platform enabling the Government of India to directly reach residents of the country in delivery of various subsidies, benefits, and services by using the resident’s unique 12-digit Aadhaar number only. They already had sophisticated technology at a level that no state government would have been able to develop itself. CSF then took on the project management responsibilities to integrate and adapt the technology for the state governments so that it aligned with their needs and had the look and feel of their website portals. It was a logical opportunity for CSF to start working with the government, but it was dependent on identifying a strong need where the government wanted support and where CSF had the ability to provide that support.  It’s one of my favorite examples of a government partnership, because it involved a foundation like EkStep that brought in the technical capability; we brought in the project management capability, and we also had a much deeper understanding of teacher education, having worked on that for about four years. To the best of our knowledge, this is one of the most successful examples of a public good being created in partnership with CSO’s and NGO’s and different parts of the government. By 2020, the Prime Minister described DIKSHA As “one nation one platform” for the entire spectrum of education, now serving students and families as well as educators.

Shifting to phase 2: Focusing on “impact”

TH: The examples you talked about illustrate how you were operating during those first five years? 

SS: Yes, and this was the time at the end of what we call the first phase of our work that our Board put the question in front of us of “What will CSF’s work look like?” During that phase, we were an operating organization which doesn’t actually work on the ground with students and teachers and school leaders. We incubated ISLI.  

We helped to bring the leader in from the US (Sameer Sampat who went on to co-found, with Azad Oommen the first Executive Director of CSF, Global School Leaders on the ISLI model), but I was the donor on the team. I wasn’t running the organization. We were also working with states who had different interest areas. In Delhi at one point, we were working on the school-to-work transition and department restructuring. Two very distinct areas of work that are not directly related to student learning outcomes. It’s a long value chain for department restructuring: it depends on department re-structuring leading to better pedagogy and better curriculum that reach classrooms in schools and teacher education programs that then leaders to better teaching and learning.  Our board left it up to us to decide: would it be better for CSF to continue with the “wide portfolio” approach and continue to engage with state and central government, when an opportunity and interest appeared? Or should we take stock and pick a part of learning outcomes where we could have a more direct impact? And we felt that the breadth of our work allowed us a space where we could narrow down our focus and make a more meaningful impact. We essentially said:  Let’s pick out an area. Let’s be more outcome and measurement and evaluation driven in our work overall and also in how we work with our partner.” We always say for education reform to stick we need to zoom in to a district and go deep. Similarly, we decided to pick an issue within education and go deep. 

Would it be better for CSF to continue with the “wide portfolio” approach and continue to engage with state and central government, when an opportunity and interest appeared? Or should we take stock and pick a part of learning outcomes where we could have a more direct impact?

This was around 2017 and about the time that the Gates Foundation began looking at doing work in education in India.  Our first validation came when they chose CSF as an “in-country” partner. We were still a relative rookie in the education space when they saw potential in us. 

As we moved into this second part of the CSF journey, we shifted from the portfolio approach to three focus areas: 

  • Foundational learning
  • Technology in education
  • Private school sector

Landing on the need for foundation learning was very evident for us. There is a rural household survey called ASER which has been going on in India for 20 years, and it shows that the problems with basic skills are quite deep.

The second area, building on some of our earlier work, was education technology. The widespread availability and use of mobile devices and data put India in a unique position relative to many other countries. There was also a lot of for-profit entrepreneurial activity happening in India, so we saw an opportunity for solutions to be created and designed locally. We also had a unique advantage because CSF had already been playing an evangelizing role for how tech can be leveraged for education within the government system. 

The third issue area is private schooling.  We are very unique as a country where over 40% of children do not take advantage of the free education provided by the public education system. Education in India, like it is worldwide, is aspirational. The moment a family can afford to pull their child out of the free government school, they would rather send their child to a private school with fees beginning at roughly $10 a month. For the most part, the government has looked at the private school system mostly from the perspective of regulation, and there hasn’t been a strong focus on quality. But in the first phase of our work, because a lot of us, including our founder Ashish, came from the management and the corporate side of the world, many people assumed “Oh you guys must be pro-private schools,” and it took us a while to clarify that whether it’s a government school or low fee private school the school is accountable to deliver quality education. 

Our approach to these three areas has been similar to what I described for our first phase: 

  • Working with the government and creating a reform agenda with a collective voice of other education leaders
  • Evidence building and supply shaping comes from the work we do with our partners, with other NGOs in the ecosystem with a sharp focus on the public good – making sure that whatever we are creating is available to others in the education ecosystem – and an emphasis on research
  • Deepening our government engagement efforts by shifting from working across multiple issues in multiple geographies to focusing our work in certain states on the issue of foundational literacy and numeracy

Getting to scalable and sustainable solutions in these areas became an extension of our approach in phase two. Across focus areas like education technology, we are trying to be more sharply focused on early learning, including at home, and in our work in private schools, we are trying to raise the bar for quality at the primary level. From a measurement perspective, we are targeting the learning poverty index the World Bank has highlighted (measuring the percentage of children who can read and understand a simple text by age 10), asking “how can we contribute to bringing down learning poverty in India?” with an ambitious target of bringing it down from 55% to 15% over the next five or six years. We’ve found this is both a directional goal– requiring us to articulate how our work contributes to it – and an aspirational and inspiring goal that connects our work with others. 

TH: Given how hard it is to achieve these goals, have you also established some benchmarks to see if you’re headed in the right direction?

SS: Unfortunately, because of COVID, the plan to get a baseline is still on paper. The whole principle of system reform is that you’re doing it – not just with the approval of the government – but in partnership with the government. However, with the situation worldwide with COVID, that’s been impossible. We actually adapted a tool that USAID uses, the Early Grades Reading Assessment and the Early Grades Math Assessment. We’ve partnered with an assessment agency, and we’ve piloted it in English and in Gujarati so the tool is ready, but quite honestly haven’t even asked the government for permission yet because it’s just unfair. We’re also acutely conscious that whenever we get an opportunity to do the baseline, it will actually be lower than it would have been before COVID first hit. But, in a way, it will also capture a more picture from ground right now. 

What can change in schools after the pandemic?

“What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?” But “What if it isn’t? What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the conditions that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?” These are the questions I asked in a commentary I published in the Journal of Educational Change in August 2021 and that were excerpted in a post on International Ed News (Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website). My commentary is the second in a series launched by Corrie Stone-Johnson Editor of the Journal of Educational Change and builds on the first commentary by Yong Zhao and Jim Watterston – “The changes we need post-Covid My commentary is part of a new project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts post-pandemic (following-up on issues my co-authors and I raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021).

“We will now resume our regular programming…”

The times are always changing. The question this year is whether we can build on some of the changes schools made in the face of the coronavirus and reimagine education altogether. Like many, I am hopeful that we can take advantage of the current moment to make at least a few meaningful steps in some of these directions.

Nonetheless, my work over the past thirty years on school improvement and school reform efforts in the US and in “higher” and “lower-performing” countries also makes me deeply skeptical. Time and again, I have seen how ambitious plans and visions fall short of their aspirations. As a consequence, although I believe this may be a crucial time to ask: “What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?”, I also know that we need to ask a second question: “What if it isn’t?”  What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?

Is there a real opportunity to re-imagine education post-pandemic? Or will the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?

I don’t see this as a pessimistic take. It’s imagining the future and understanding the past that enables us to take off on journeys where the exact destination is unknown. When getting ready to climb a mountain, adventurers don’t just hope that the path they envision does not lead to an impassible ledge; they don’t rely on the hope that the weather will hold. They try to imagine what might happen when they turn a corner or reach a new level, and they get prepared. When the unexpected happens, when the conditions predictably change in unpredictable ways, we need to be ready to respond and rise above.

As my colleagues Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg and I argue in our new book, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict, education systems all around the world find themselves in this situation today. Now more than ever, it’s clear that we do not know exactly what lies around the corner, and we cannot determine, with certainty, what today’s students will need as adults or what roadblocks or supports societies will put in place for helping them to get there. But we can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.

We can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.

In my commentary in the Journal of Educational Change, I explore what it will take to support real changes in schools post-pandemic by exploring three questions:

Part 1: Why don’t schools change?

Part 2: How (and why) did schools change during the pandemic?

Part 3: How can schools change post-pandemic?

My responses to those questions build on several key principles derived from my working in and studies of a variety of efforts to create more powerful learning experiences in both developed and developing contexts: 

First, new possibilities for schooling are most likely to take off when their goals, capacity demands, and values fit the common needs, existing capabilities, and prevailing conditions in the schools and communities where they’re supposed to work.

Second, this first principle leads to a corollary or second principle that seems particularly problematic for those who want to reimagine schooling altogether: the more radical our visions are for education and the more they diverge from conventional practice, the less likely they are to take hold on a large scale. However, that does not mean that it is impossible to pursue the new visions for education that Zhao and Waterston and others imagine. It means that the demands and pressures of conventional schooling make it easier to bring those visions to life in particular circumstances and contexts – ecological “niches” in a sense – rather than across entire school systems.

This tension between the nature and extent of reform efforts, however, yields the third principle and opens up another avenue for change: There are places – “niches of possibility” – where the conditions are more amenable for transforming education. That does not mean that we have to accept every aspect of the conditions or ignore those that are deeply problematic. But we have to figure out how to challenge and work with and around the conditions in order to change them.

From this perspective, the specific vision for learning remains important, but that vision has to be accompanied by the recognition that it is not the vision itself that will change schools; schools will be transformed, over time, with changes in the conditions and the construction of the infrastructure for more powerful learning. Rather than aiming to develop a program and scale it across contexts, the focus shifts to the student level and to making sure that all students, particularly those left out and systematically disadvantaged by conventional schooling, encounter more and more opportunities inside and outside schools to engage in powerful learning experiences. Those experiences create new emergent possibilities for education that build directly on the specific conditions in which students live and learn every day.

(Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website)

The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict on the Getting Smart Podcast

In February, the Getting Smart Podcast featured a conversation with me and Tom Vander Ark about my new book The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict. Tom talked with me about the key stages of my career and we walked through the key sections of the book. I was particularly interested to learn that Tom first encountered my work through my article “When Improvement Programs Collide,” published almost 20 years ago. That set us off on a discussion of how I see may work as focusing on what we need to do to improve school reform and to build the capacity of the whole eco-system of organizations, agencies, services, and people who are engaged in the work of school improvement.

What do we need to do to improve school reform efforts and build the capacity of the whole eco-system of organizations, agencies, services, and people who are engaged in the work of school improvement?

You can find the full podcast here:

Here are some of the key takeaways that Tom highlighted:
[:51] Thomas shares the origin story of NCREST as well as its mission.
[3:01] Tom shares his appreciation for Thomas’s early work on the concept of coherence.
[3:39] Thomas takes us to the early beginnings of his work around coherence and explains what it is and why it is important.
[7:54] Thomas tells about each of the sections in his book, starting with part 1: “Why Should Schools Change?” He headlines the case for change and provides some suggestions on how to create agreements around them.
[11:40] Tom shares the key insights he appreciated in the first section.
[12:27] The second section of the book covers barriers to change. Thomas lists some of the barriers and what we can do to make progress in overcoming them.
[15:39] In section three of Thomas’s book, he writes about how schools can improve. In particular, he focuses on high-leverage problems. Thomas explains what these are, why they’re critical, and shares some examples.
[17:33] The next section of Thomas’s book is on how education can change where he introduces the concept of micro-innovations. Thomas explains what these are and what they can do to move a system agenda forward.
[20:18] Tom shares how 4.0 Schools have been teaching this idea of micro-innovations.
[21:07] Chapter 5 of Thomas’ book is on systems change. Thomas speaks about two critical elements of systems change that are covered in this chapter: capacity building and collective responsibility.
[25:28] Would Thomas agree that it takes a decade-long push on all three of these primary levers to really promote systems change?
[27:44] Thomas reflects on his career, professional learning, and how he has seen education change over the years.
[30:29] Would Thomas say that writing is part of his learning process?
[32:00] What’s next?

Mentioned in The Episode:

From Learning Loss to Learning to Read: High Leverage Strategies for School Improvement

This post draws from my new book with Jordan Corson and Sarah van den Berg, The Education We Need For A Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin 2021). An edited version of this post was published originally at:

Along with the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak and widespread school closures come hopes for reimagining schools as they reopen. These hopes for the future, however, rest on making the concrete improvements in schools that we know we can make today.

Despite the enormity of the challenges and the massive race and income-based inequities in society and schools that the coronavirus exposed – again – the pandemic has also made visible the fact that many communities already have the capacity to address at least some of these challenges. In New York City, in the first month of the school closure, the Department of Education worked with businesses like Apple and Microsoft to provide almost 500,000 computers and iPads to students who needed them. Across the US and around the world, even with limited digital infrastructure, communities are opening up hotspots for public use, equipping buses with Wi-Fi (and sometimes solar power), and pursuing other innovative ways of getting students online. Given the existing possibilities, one commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission testified that the connectivity gap could be closed “virtually overnight.” If it can be done, then it should be done. No need to wait any longer.

Getting students connected to the Internet is no panacea for educational challenges, however, particularly in many parts of the developing world, where almost half of all students don’t have a computer at home and over 40 percent lack access to the internet. We also know that even with Internet access and online opportunities, significant improvements in students’ learning depend on developing more powerful instructional practices and providing better support for educators. Nonetheless, the responses to the coronavirus show that we have the capacity to address some inequitable learning opportunities, and we can take these steps right now by responding to high-leverage problems.

High-Leverage Problems

My colleagues in the New Jersey Network of Superintendents and I argue that those efforts can begin by developing a coordinated response to what I call high-leverage problems:

  • High-leverage problems concentrate on issues widely recognized as central to the development of more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.
  • They present opportunities for visible improvements in relatively short periods of time.
  • They establish a foundation for long-term, sustained, systemic efforts that improve teaching and learning.

Addressing high-leverage problems depends on developing a keen sense of what matters to people and what matters in an organization. It requires careful analysis of multiple problems and continuous reflection on the process of addressing them. It relies on a powerful repertoire of strategies that meet the specific demands of different situations and on developing new practices and resources when necessary. All together, these steps can lead to the “quick wins” that help propel organizational and social changes in many sectors.

#Learningloss & Learning to Read

Take the critical concern for the “learning loss” likely to be created by the massive disruptions to schooling that so many children around the world are experiencing. That term – now almost a one-word hashtag – actually obscures a host of challenges that have to be unpacked to be addressed productively. First, different children experience learning loss to different degrees; they may experience it in some academic areas and not others; learning loss may also be affected by experiences of trauma and the stresses and socio-emotional challenges that come with the pandemic; it may result from inaccessibility to online learning and school support services including free meals and counseling; and it may stem a loss of relationships with peers and teachers, disengagement with school, and prolonged absences from learning in person or online. Such a litany of problems can make any first step seem inadequate and pointless. Nonetheless, breaking down a high leverage problem like learning to read yields a coordinated series of strategies that many communities already have the capacity to pursue:

  1. Make books by authors from a variety of backgrounds freely accessible.
  2. Find children with vision problems and provide them with glasses.
  3. Develop and understanding of why some children are chronically absent from school/online learning and support regular attendance.
  4. Identify children who are struggling to learn to read and provide targeted interventions.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

Even in countries like the United States, children in high-poverty areas have a much harder time getting books than their peers in middle-income areas, but a number of programs (including one sponsored by the country singer Dolly Parton) have taken advantage of book vending machines, doctor’s offices, and other mechanisms to address this issue. Organizations like EmbraceRace and the Jane Addams Peace Association post lists of books by authors from different racial and cultural backgrounds so that there’s no excuse not to provide all children with access to materials that reflect their heritage.

 Of course, making books and print materials available in a variety of languages, by authors from a range of backgrounds, is just one step. Children still need to be able to read those books once they get those books into their hands. Nonetheless, 25 percent of school-aged children in the United States have undiagnosed eye problems that inhibit their ability to read, and one in three children haven’t had their vision tested in the past two years (if at all); but relatively low-cost programs to test students’ vision and get glasses to those who need them do exist. In the developing world, it may be complicated to create a supply chain that makes print materials readily available and ensures every child who needs glasses gets a pair, but it can be done.

We know that chronic absences from school have a devastating effect on children’s learning and have a disproportionate impact on students in communities of color, but that knowledge has also led to the development of a number of successful strategies for helping many children to get to and stay in school. Despite the re-emergence of the “reading wars” over the best approach to teach reading, there are a number of well-established strategies and supports that many teachers and schools are already using that target the specific needs of at least some of the students who experience difficulties in learning to read when they are in school.

Improve Schools and Transform Education

These first steps may not reach every student right away, and any initial success has to be followed by developing educational activities that foster more advanced skills and a broader set of developmental needs – an even more challenging proposition. Ultimately, addressing these challenges will depend on truly reimagining schooling, and, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind.

We need to reimagine schooling, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind

In short, the pandemic itself will not change schools:  Nothing will change in schools unless we change it. Yet the strategies to provide glasses, to address chronic absences, and to provide targeted support in reading can lead to real improvements in schools – even in the midst of a pandemic – if we choose to dedicate the time, resources and commitment to put them into practice on a wide basis.  We can take these critical steps to make the schools we have more efficient, more equitable and more effective today and to lay the groundwork for transforming education as a whole in the future.

How to take responsibility for the future of education

This post was adapted from my forthcoming book The education we need for a future we can’t predict and “Building the capacity for collective responsibility in Norway” (to appear in Leading and Transforming Education Systems edited by Michelle Jones and Alma Harris). It was published originally on

In a recent article in Forbes, Tom Vander Ark outlined 15 “invention opportunities” that can support the development of equitable high-quality learning opportunities in the future. Among the fifteen are challenges to create “accountability 2.0” and develop the mechanisms that can bring people together to share diverse perspectives and support community agreement on the aims and purposes of education. These mechanisms are essential for fostering the common understanding and collective responsibility that fuel the social movements we need to dismantle systemic racism, create equitable educational opportunities, and transform education.                      

Re-defining accountability itself serves as a first step in developing these new mechanisms. For too long, accountability in the US has been synonymous with answerability: Answerability reflects the beliefs that individuals and groups should be accountable for meeting clearly specified and agreed-upon procedures and/or goals. Yet the focus on answerability ignores responsibility another crucial aspect of accountability. Responsibility reflects the belief that individuals and groups should be held account­able for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher pur­poses that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.

Individuals and groups should be held accountable for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher purposes that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.

Although carefully specifying outcomes that need to be achieved and establishing consequences for failing to meet those targets can increase efficiency, it also ignores many other valued outcomes, and it can undermine the discretion and expert judgment that may be needed to make many decisions. When taken to extremes, this approach spawns a compliance mindset and leads to efforts to game the system that make it look like the goals have been achieved when they haven’t.  

At the same time, simply leaving individuals and groups alone is not the same thing as supporting the development of individual or collective responsibility. Developing responsibility also involves developing the capacity—the investments, materials, abilities, commitments, and relationships—needed to carry out responsibilities effectively. In short, accountability comes from the capacity to support a balance between answerability and responsibility.

Finland’s PISA scores have slipped a bit in recent years, its education system still excels in many respects and continues to stand out as one of the most equitable high-performing systems. Even though many analyses highlight the autonomy of teachers as central to that performance, those analyses often fail to mention several other key aspects of Finland’s education system that support the development of the relationships, trust, and common understanding in education so central to developing collective responsibility and achieving equitable outcomes:

  • A well-established social-welfare state that supports all members of society by connecting education, health, social services, and other sectors
  • A national curriculum framework and a strong, coherent infrastructure of facilities, materials, assessment and preparation programs to support teaching and learning
  • A curriculum renewal process in which stakeholders from all parts of society participate in reflecting on and revising the curriculum framework
  • The use of a vari­ety of high-quality informal and formal assessments that inform efforts to improve practices and performance throughout the education system

The Finnish approach to assessment play a particularly important role in supporting the development of common understanding and common aims. That approach includes diagnostic and classroom-based assessments that elementary teach­ers can use early in children’s school careers to identify those who may need some additional help with academics and to ensure that all students stay on track. In secondary schools, well-known exit exams anchor and focus the system. The National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools, providing an overview of national and regional performance in key subjects, such as Finnish and mathematics. Although the National Board doesn’t use that information for ranking (and can’t, because not all students and schools are assessed), it shares school-level information with the schools that participate and municipal-level data with the munici­palities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sam­ple assessments widely available for free, so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid tools that link directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.

Under these conditions, students don’t have to pass tests that require them to demonstrate proficiency by third grade; they hardly ever “fail” or have to be held back; and most students reach at least a basic level of educational achievement.  At the same time, this approach both supports considerable autonomy for educators and schools and builds the common connections that steer the system toward broad education goals without having to rely heavily on rewards or punishments.

This approach contrasts sharply with those in contexts like the US that focus almost exclusively on answerability by using tests to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for reaching specified benchmarks and other outcomes. Rather than using assessments to look back to see whether educators did what they were supposed to do, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it depends on making sure no one gets too far off course. It means using assessment to look for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not to check on each individual or make sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. In the process, Finland supports the development of the collective responsibility central to guiding education into an unpredictable future.

Rather than using assessments to look back to see what educators did, we need to use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes, and schools are headed in the right direction.

New technologies, artificial intelligence, and many other kinds of innovations can help to improve education. But those technical achievements will not accomplish much without the personal commitments and broader social movements that can transform our communities. If we are truly to develop collective responsibility in education, then we have to develop collective responsibility for education. We have to hold ourselves, our elected officials, and our communities accountable for making the changes in our society that will end segregation and discrimination, create equitable educational opportunities, and provide the support that everyone needs to thrive.

What in the world is happening in the US? Scanning the headlines for news on education and the election

This is an updated version of a post that I published initially on

The US elections on November 3rd spawned uncertainty and anxiety across the country. In addition to summarizing the initial presidential election results (using the headline “Trump sets U.S. on course for institutional crisis”), Politico’s Global Translations provided links to headlines from around the world.

Beyond those headlines focusing on the Presidential election, I found a series of stories that described the implications for education at the national, state, and local levels as well as several articles and blog posts that explored how educators and students are responding so far.

Before the election, Education Week focused on 7 Big Questions for Schools and Education and noted as well that Educators Prefer Governors With a More Cautious Approach to COVID-19. After the election, Sean Cavanagh reported on the “muddled picture for K-12 and the education industry.”

Chalkbeat previewed 8 big consequences the election could have for America’s K-12 schools. After the election, they took a look at what the results mean for schools and reported on a series of education related issues in Indiana, Colorado, and Michigan:

The74 continues to curate a live blog with updates on key education related votes across the country 2020 Liveblog — Education on the Ballot: Rolling Updates, Results & Analysis From 50 Key Votes That Could Reshape Education Policy. In addition, they have summarized many of the results of state and local elections for governors, senators, and school board members (Education on the ballot 2020) along with highlighted results of several different ballot initiatives:

  • Pre-K Wins Big in Colorado, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Multnomah County
  • California Ban on Affirmative Action in College Admissions Likely to Stay in Place
  • Washington State Passes Sex Education Bill
  • Florida Voters Choose to Amend State Constitution to Say ‘Only a Citizen’ Can Vote

Ballotpedia provides links to an extensive set of overviews and results of national elections, ballot measures/issues, state-by-state elections, and school board elections, and google searches of education and elections turns up many stories on local ballot measures and school board races.

Beyond the results, both before and after the election, a series of stories have been looking at the aftermath and how to deal with it in schools and classrooms.

Small steps to big changes in schools

As schools in the US and other parts of the world make difficult decisions about how to reopen this fall, I look at some of the concrete steps that, over time, could make schools healthier places and transform the basic parameters of schooling. This post expands on comments I made at the Education Disrupted/Education Reimagined convening sponsored by WISE and the Salzburg Global Seminar in April  and summarized in a volume sharing the conference proceedings.

Have the wide-spread school closures changed schools forever? The history of school reform efforts shows that schools are much more likely to change slowly and incrementally than they are to suddenly transform, even in the face of a deadly virus. Yet we can take advantage of what we know about how students learn and how schools change to address a critical problem with the design of conventional schools:  Schools are a better medium for spreading disease than they are for supporting meaningful learning.

Learning depends on healthy, safe conditions for students, educators, and all those who work in schools; but schools cram too many people into too little space, and the typical lay-out of age-graded classrooms along labyrinthian hallways limits collaboration, exploration, and engagement with the world. We’ve made things worse in the US by leaving buildings in disrepair, and failing to provide adequate ventilation, air conditioning or heating, particularly in low-income communities. Add on a draconian schedule with little time for exercise, lunch, or other healthy activities; and then ramp up stress levels with high stakes tests where students have to sit in rows in silence for hours facing a ticking clock.

But things can change. We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

Focus on learning that matters

The school closures and the inequities of access to online learning immediately launched a spate of proposals for dealing with “learning loss.” Many of these proposals rely on intensifying work on academic subjects, yet these proposals ignore the mile-wide and inch deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for those left behind to catch-up. Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Although academic needs have to be met, the challenges that students face as they return to school go far beyond academic achievement and a “less is more” approach to academics creates the efficiencies that provide time and space for supporting other critical aspects of children’s development. Back in school, learning will be enhanced by creating educational opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences during the outbreak; to develop coping strategies; to rebuild positive relationships with their peers and teachers; and to get engaged in meaningful and constructive work in areas they care about. When that happens, educators can shift their focus from covering the entire curriculum to addressing the critical needs of every child.

Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Break down the barriers between learning “inside” and “outside” schools

As we remake schools to help stop the spread of the virus, we can stagger schedules to fit students’ sleep patterns and development as they get older. We can make sure that students have regular chances to take the breaks and get the exercise that we know benefits learning and productivity. As we limit the number of people using school facilities at any given time, we can rotate students in and out of schools and expand support for students’ learning far beyond school walls. In addition to online learning, we can take advantage of possibilities for education outside on playgrounds, in the natural world, and in the neighborhood in gyms, museums, libraries, community organizations, and businesses. In the process, we can shift the focus from getting children into schools to enabling them to explore the world.

Expand the power of the education workforce

         To increase the reach and power of teachers who have been limited largely to working with students in classrooms, we can engage a host of people who have the time and the capacity to play a positive role in learning inside and outside schools. Organizations like City Year and Citizen Schools already demonstrate how to mobilize volunteers young and old who can provide targeted academic support as tutors, act as mentors, or guide students’ in projects, apprenticeships, and community service. Numerous proposals could help meet the demand, whether it’s through the kind of education “Marshall Plan” discussed by Robert Slavin or by expanding National Service and Americorps as outlined by David BrooksJohn Bridgeland and Alan Khazei, or bills  being developed in the Senate.

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Condense schooling and increase learning

All of these changes are within our reach right now. They do not require new curricula, massive professional development for teachers, or new technologies. Reimagining education depends on re-orienting our priorities, making schools healthy and safe, and focusing first and foremost on students’ needs and interests, particularly those of Black, Latinx, and immigrant students, students from low-income communities and the communities hardest hit by this pandemic. But as we change our priorities and take these initial steps, a more radical possibility emerges: Condense the school day.

Instead of extending the school day and requiring students to spend even more time on basic skills, we can concentrate more efficient academic support in more limited time slots, with educators able to utilize sophisticated materials and coordinate contributions from colleagues with specialized expertise as well as volunteer tutors, mentors, and online and offline guides. In a sense, every day could be a half-day, opening up opportunities for students to have lunch, get outside, and participate in a host of school-based, community-based, or online activities; to get any counseling they need; to pursue their own education interests; and to participate in activities that foster a much wider range of developmental and educational goals. Such an approach rejects the tacit assumption that limits education to schooling and embraces the possibilities for supporting students’ learning and development wherever and whenever it occurs.

6 Things Educators Can Do From Home To Help Their Students

What can we do? That’s a question we are all asking right now. For all of us that question begins with what we can do to keep ourselves and those around us safe and healthy.  But parents and educators like me are also thinking about what we can do to support our children, students and colleagues as K-12 schools close and classes go online. There are no easy answers, but here are 6 things I’m thinking about to try to deal with the challenges and take advantage of the possibilities:

  1. Focus on health and wellness. Learning is an important goal, but health and wellness for everyone has to come first. Students will learn the most from the acts of courage and kindness that help keep us all going.
  1. Suspend Schoolwork. Suspend exams, grades, and any other requirements that may contribute to stress and anxiety – for teachers and parents as well as students. Children and parents need opportunities and guidance for engagement in positive and productive activities, not more reasons to fight over homework or “keeping up.”  
  1. Encourage invention, design, creative expression and meaningful engagement. Instead of trying to figure out how to cover the curriculum, educators can put the syllabi aside and focus on meaningful activities – activities related to important learning goals that might be motivating and interesting for students to do while they are out of school.  Instead of creating new demands, concentrate on creating new possibilities:
    • Encourage students to keep a weekly diary – in words, pictures or any other media
    • create online journals, newspapers and magazines that students can contribute to
    • Invite students to share artwork, music, writing, photographs, or videos in an online exhibition
    • Stage online “talent shows” for students to share videos they have produced
    • Provide links to online resources and tutorials for learning languages, playing an instrument, developing academic abilities or learning other skills and enable students to share their progress
  1. Connect, connect, connect. Educators are uniquely positioned to provide information and support for their students, particularly those who are struggling the most. We can check-in, ask how they and their families are doing, share the latest news and resources, and help to identify critical needs. Educators can also build relationships and fight isolation by finding and creating opportunities for students to connect with one another as well with adults, particularly those in retirement homes, hospitals or anywhere else people might be disconnected and in distress
  1. Find new ways to serve the community. Create online community service activities and virtual service projects. My oldest daughter, a senior in college, has been serving as a mentor and had to say goodbye to the elementary student she visited every week, but what if they didn’t have to say goodbye? What if they could stay in touch by text or video even for a short-time every week? With so many students of all ages out of school, we can create online clearinghouses where students – or anyone really – could connect with those looking for mentoring, tutoring, or just conversation. Reach out and partner with parents, those from community centers, after school programs, Americorps programs like City Year and Citizen Schools, museums,  and libraries to find and create these activities for students to engage in online. Together educators and these extended programs can work to focus particularly on the students and their families who may be unable to get online or stay connected.
  1. Embrace collective responsibility. From living in Norway for a year, I learned it is possible both to respect the rights of every individual and cultivate a sense of collective responsibility.  There is no more important time for reinforcing our common bonds and recognizing that everything we do has an impact on our neighbors. It could be as simple as inviting children to call their grandparents or extended family once a day or a couple of times a week or just calling down the hall, leaning out the window or talking across the fence. The most profound thing we can do in difficult times can be done anywhere in any circumstances, dedicate ourselves to working with and for each other.

Is Finland’s education system changing?

Finland has been hailed for having one of the best education systems in the world; criticized as scores on international assessments have slipped; and, most recently, flooded with questions about whether it is dramatically changing its education system by making conventional subjects “a thing of the past.” Whether you believe Finland’s education system is moving up or down on some set of rankings, it’s clear that there are some teachers, school leaders, and other educators who are trying to do some things differently.  The challenge as Saku Tuominen describes it, is “not pushing new ideas into schools, but trying to identify innovative ideas that are already out there” and helping them spread. As he joked, the problem is that “whatever happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.”

To address this problem, Tuominen founded HundrED to find promising educational innovations around the world.  HundrED just released its list of 100 global innovations from Afghanistan to Venezuela and many places in between.  Last year, in a kind of test-run for their global work, Tuominen and his colleagues identified 100 Finnish educational innovations that they have documented and shared online.  During my most recent visit to Helsinki last summer, I had the chance to meet with a few of the education innovators on the Finnish list as well as with policymakers and colleagues from a variety of other Finnish educational institutions.  All those with whom I talked not only emphasized that their work begins with a recognition of and respect for the autonomy of teachers and a commitment to basic principles of equity, but also expressed some frustration with the difficulties and slow-pace of improving and changing the Finnish education system. At the same time, those conversations pointed to key avenues for supporting the development of new and more effective educational practices at both the policy and the school level.


Policies for change

At the policy level, as Anneli Rautiainen, Head of the newly formed Innovation Center at the Finnish National Agency for Education, explains, Finland has two primary means of influencing education: the curriculum renewal process and the launch of specific policy initiatives. The curriculum renewal process takes place roughly every 10 years and includes an extensive period for public discussion and feedback on potential changes in the national curriculum framework. As a result, Rautiainen explained, “almost everyone can have a say in what children should learn.”  As part of that process, municipalities and local schools also have considerable autonomy in deciding how to implement any changes. The previous curriculum renewal process in 2004 concentrated on the development of the school as a holistic learning environment for students, but the most recent curriculum renewal process emphasizes “phenomenon-based” learning and “transversal” competences that cut across traditional school subjects. Although the new framework does not eradicate subject-based teaching, it stipulates that all students should participate each year in a multi-disciplinary learning module.  Those modules are to be designed locally by teachers, with the expectation that students will be involved in the planning.

As with all policy initiatives, some teachers and schools are already off and running.  In fact, as part of the earlier emphasis on developing a holistic learning environment some have already pioneered approaches that include multi-disciplinary projects. For example, in Fiskars, a community in Finland well-known for its artisans and craft-workers, the local school has expanded the learning environment to include the whole village.  As a result, students regularly participate in workshops that focus on topics like glass blowing and historically based theatre productions.  As a consequence, the school is already well positioned to respond to the expectations for carrying out interdisciplinary projects in the new curriculum framework.

In addition to trying to move the system forward through the curriculum renewal process, the Finnish National Agency for Education also carries out what have been translated as “spear” projects – targeted efforts to support the implementation of other policy priorities.  Most recently, those projects have included an initiative in which municipalities have been invited to apply for funding to enable a teacher in a school to support the professional learning of colleagues by co-teaching, modeling or coaching. “One of our biggest aims,” Rautiainen pointed out “is to have schools become professional learning communities, and to support learning at work, rather than taking a course somewhere else,” and this project is one way of putting that aim into practice. Another project encourages experimentation among municipalities that want to provide instruction in foreign language in earlier grades (before 3rd grade where it begins in most schools now).  An ongoing project designed to get schools “on the move” was launched in 2010 to increase students’ physical activity during the school day and included the expectation that all students in Basic Education should have at least one hour of exercise every day.

Courses for change

Mehackit and Startup High School, two of the Finnish educational innovations highlighted by HundrED, have found a different place within the conventional education system where new approaches may take root. Both organizations take advantage of the fact that at the upper secondary level (roughly ages 16-18) students have to take roughly 50 compulsory courses, but students can choose the topics for about 25 other courses.  In Mehackit’s case, they began about 2013 by offering workshops and “clubs” to engage young children in programming and coding – making things with technology, not just using technology.  But, as current CEO, Heini Karppinen, explained, Mehackit’s founders are part of a new generation of social entrepreneurs trying to respond to a context where “there are a lot of services that people would like to have, but that they don’t get anymore from the government.” In this case, the founders discovered that those children who attended Mehackit’s clubs and maker-fairs often had parents who were already tech-savvy and working in technology related jobs.  They worried that children who didn’t have parents in tech-related fields would ultimately graduate high school without having experienced the “maker-side” of technology.  To reach all children, the founders felt they needed a way to work within the formal education system.  As the new curriculum framework in 2016 also included computer programming for the first time, they saw a “niche” in working with older students, where teaching programming required sophisticated technical knowledge and skills that relatively few Finnish teachers possess.


In response to this opportunity, Mehackit created 2 courses for 16-18 year old students that teach programming through projects focused on robotics and electronic music projects and creating multimedia art and graphics.  The courses are designed so that they can be offered by schools around Finland (and Mehackit has already exported them to Sweden and the UK as well) as easily and efficiently as possible. Mehackit not only provides teaching materials, they also hire and train instructors, many of whom are university students working on technology related degrees.  While Mehackit is a for-profit company and schools and municipalities purchase the courses, Mehackit also has a shorter workshop course for 12 to 16-year-old students; provides freely available open source materials; offers a new materials kit at cost; and has created teacher training workshops so that teacher can develop their own, comparable, courses.


Startup High School has taken a similar approach to Mehackit.  Although Startup High School may eventually create a high school for entrepreneurial studies (along the lines of subject specific schools in Finland that focus on music, the arts, and sports), they are set to begin with an offering of three courses in the fall of 2017.  (Pekka Peura, a teacher whose work I highlighted in “Brand-name” teachers in Finland, is one of the founders of Startup High School.) Those courses are designed to enable students from a number of different upper secondary schools to learn “how to think critically, how to solve problems, and how to be a change maker.” In developing the courses, the founders seek to create the kinds of student-centered, active, and multidisciplinary learning opportunities emphasized in the new curriculum that they described as rarely emphasized in Finland’s typically highly-academically oriented high schools.  Courses will include original video interviews with a variety of Finnish entrepreneurs and artists, including CEO’s, rappers, actors, and dj’s that students will access as they develop their own Linked-in profiles and plans and portfolios illustrating their own design ideas.  Perhaps most importantly, the founders emphasize, students should leave the course as part of a network of peers with common entrepreneurial interests, connected via social media.  While Startup High School could charge for the courses, their plan is to make the courses widely available for free or perhaps with a nominal registration fee that, along with contributions from sponsors, would help to cover their costs.

Although Mehackit essentially delivers the instructors and materials to each school with whom they partner (and they map and track exactly where they are in reaching out to all schools across Finland), Startup High School offers virtual courses that they lead and administer themselves and that students in a number of different high schools can take as one of their 25 elective courses. In both cases, Mehackit and Startup High School are offering new topics and approaches as part of modules or “plug-ins” that not only fit within current course demands and expectations in Finland, but can also be offered as a conventional course in many other education systems.

Opportunities and challenges

            The new ideas and approaches endorsed by policymakers and highlighted by HundrED demonstrate how Finland’s national curriculum framework can support and encourage those who want to change their approach to teaching and learning. But the autonomy that teachers and schools in Finland enjoy also means that many can choose not to change their practice quickly or deeply.  As Rautiainen puts it, the framework and policy initiatives can “nudge” the system, but by no means guarantees that changes will be made.  For example, while some reports indicate that over 90% of Finnish municipalities are participating in the “on the move” initiatives, concerns remain about exactly how it has been implemented and how it is playing out for all students.

Those I talked to acknowledged that there are number of factors that might encourage and reinforce those who choose to use their autonomy to maintain more conventional classroom and school practices.  For one thing, while the new curriculum framework adds expectations for students to engage in interdisciplinary projects, little, if anything, has been left out of the “old” curriculum.  Like Singapore’s effort to create ‘white space” in the curriculum, the changes in the national curriculum framework in Finland try to squeeze more into the conventional curriculum and school day.

But at the same time that some elements of the framework change, many elements of the system remain the same and reinforce conventional practice.  Even without high-stakes annual testing like that in the US, the high-stakes exit exams at the end of high school help to align the whole system, but they also serve as constraints reinforcing the traditional divisions between subjects. Conventional textbooks provide similar constraints. As Antti Rajala, a former teacher and currently a researcher at the University of Helsinki noted, even as they benefit from high-quality textbooks, teachers who are trying to innovate sometimes see “the textbook as an enemy.” As a consequence, as Peura explained, one of the first steps he and others make to change their teaching is to go beyond the textbook.

Along with the autonomy of teachers comes a highly independent teaching force.  Teachers can choose their own professional development plans, and, in many cases, can choose to pursue their work on their own, rather than in collaboration with their colleagues. Peura reported that on one small survey he asked teachers why they don’t share their work more often, and their overwhelming response was that “colleagues” were the biggest obstacle. Peura sees the concerns that Finnish teachers have about changing as understandable, but notes that it means that when one or two teachers do try to make their work public or share it more widely, peers often object.

Perhaps most problematic, this commitment to autonomy runs smack up against Finland’s deep commitment to equity: if early adopters take off with the interdisciplinary projects but others do not, learning experiences across Finland are likely to become less and less comparable. In fact, those I spoke to were less concerned about overall decreases in average test schools and much more concerned that the PISA results and the results of the national monitoring tests are showing that student outcomes are more differentiated and less equitable than they have been in the past.  Illustrating the inherent tension between the autonomy of teachers and the rights of students, Rajala told me that in one of the schools where he is working the principal had to deal with the fact that several of the teachers did not want to incorporate an emphasis on digital skills into their teaching.  In order to respect their autonomy while still ensuring that all the students got the same digital learning experiences as their peers, the principal had to figure out a way to schedule students so that they all got a chance to work with those teachers who were actively working to incorporate digital skills into their classrooms.

Given all of these factors, in a system largely considered to be “working,” with few incentives to change, it should be no surprise that many both inside and outside the education system see maintaining the status quo as a sensible way to operate. That’s why from Tuominen’s perspective, the key issue is to find those innovations that are working – where there is both a clear and widespread need and where the knowledge, skills, and resources to make the necessary changes are also already available.  He cites as examples “the gaming room”, which, essentially provides the plans and materials so that schools can quickly and easily create a place where students can access the most effective educational games and use them during recess and other points during the school day. Similarly, the “house of learning” provides a set of stand-alone tools that help students to plan, track and assess their own learning, without requiring extensive training.  Tuominen does not expect all the “innovations” that HundrED identifies in Finland or globally to take off, but he believes that initiatives like HundrED can help to highlight and spread those that are gaining traction.  In the meantime, however, since the Finnish system is designed to “steer” not to penalize, there will be no grading, sanctions, or public humiliation. But changing the education system will continue to be a subject of public discussion in Finland, particularly when the next curriculum renewal takes place.

Thomas Hatch, Teachers College, Columbia University