What (& Where) Are the World’s Most Transformational Schools?

OK, people, let’s get specific: Out of all the schools in the world, which ones are the most transformational when it comes to imagining a new way to think about teaching and learning in the 21st century?

There are a lot of inspiring schools out there, so I want to repeat: which are the most transformational – by which I mean schools that are demonstrating, by policy and practice, 10 or more of the 22 core categories from QED Foundation’s Transformational Change Model?

What I find so useful about the QED model (scroll down a bit on their home page to see it) is the way it identifies the central pillars of a high-quality education, and then demarcates what each pillar looks like in a traditional, transitional, and transformational setting. In a traditional school, for example, we tend to assume the student bears the primary responsibility for learning; in a transitional environment, that responsibility shifts to the teacher (see, e.g., just about every recently proposed accountability policy in the U.S.); but in a transformational context, the responsibility is shared via a learning team that includes, and extends beyond, teacher and student.

Of course, learning teams are just one part of a holistic system of environmental conditions. That’s why, taken together, the QED change model helps clarify what we need, and which stages our own evolution will need to pass through, in order to pull K-12 schooling out of the Industrial-era model and into a new, Democratic-era paradigm.

Because that sort of clarity is in short supply, too often we hold up models of school reform that are, at best, examples of transitional progress, not transformational change.

With that caveat in place, please help me find the best set of transformational schools the world has to offer – and please ground your recommendations in the QED change model.

I’ll start the bidding with two examples, and a sample of the ways in which the school is modeling transformational practices:

Science Leadership Academy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) – SLA is an inquiry-driven high school that opened its doors in 2006. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

Selected Transformational Practices:

  • Philosophy: Traditional – Coverage; Transitional – Depth/Breadth; Transformational – Standards-based Inquiry
  • Goals: Traditional – Test Results Targets; Transitional – Curricular goals; Transformational – Learner Aspirations & Life Options
  • Assessment: Traditional – Of Learning; Transitional – For Learning; Transformational – As Learning
  • Educator Development: Traditional – Re-certification Hours; Transitional – Group Learning; Transformational – Collaborative Inquiry

Riverside School (Ahmedabad, India) — Riverside offers a curriculum and experiences of engagement with the city that enables children to better understand their skills, potential, and responsibilities as citizens. It is also developing social intervention initiatives in the city to provide a wide array of activities (cultural, instructional, and recreational) that can be synchronized with the regular school curriculum.

Selected transformational practices:

  • Model of Success is Based On: Traditional – The Willing and Able; Transitional – Inclusion; Transformational – Racial and Social Justice
  • Context for Learning: Traditional – Classroom; Transitional – School; Transformational – Learning Community
  • When/Where Learning Happens: Traditional – In School; Transitional – Coordination between in- and out-of-school; Transformational – Anywhere/Everywhere
  • Student Investment: Traditional – Requirements; Transitional – Engagement; Transformational – Passion

To be sure, Riverside and SLA are just two of the schools out there doing several things really well, and being very intentional about the way they do so. What other schools are demonstrating a transformational approach to teaching and learning? And in which specific ways are they doing so?

I look forward to your recommendations and ideas.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Posted December 2, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Sam – this is an important call for reflection and action in transforming public education.

    I agree with most of the QED change model; however, I don’t think “all students are successful at high levels” is a useful criterion; nor do I think “academic access” is a useful descriptor. Both “access” and “high levels” are codewords, to me, for gatekeeping – for adult judgment of student work. Such phrases privilege teachers too much and learners too little. If a student is truly engaged in work that reflects and enacts “racial and social justice,” then evidence of that work will be self-evident. It should not and does not need an academic stamp of approval.

    If schools could let go of their belief in academic achievement as the ultimate expression of learning, they would transform themselves faster.

    Moreover, though I spent a significant portion of my career trying to help myself and others make the shift from grade-based assessment and reporting to standards-based assessment and reporting, I no longer think any discrete set of standards is useful in liberating learning. I do think there are hallmarks of specific, clear, honest, and beautiful communication and that we could learn a lot about any topic or discipline by learning how to communicate our questioning and learning in such ways.

    Here is a list of learning spaces I try to follow. They represent public schools (mostly charter), private schools, and homeschooling and community learning centers. I am most concerned with creating spaces of permission for student-directed learning, even when a student wants to direct him or herself to finish a traditional education in an extraordinary place, such as an innovative drop-out recovery program. They’re not in any particular order. I’m sure I’ve forgotten to list a few. Many have come to my attention because of the work shared on the Coöp. Adam Burk is someone to ask about innovative schools, as well, as are his Coöp/IDEA compatriots Kirsten Olson and David Loitz.

    Sudbury Valley School
    The Clearwater School
    Trillium School
    Brooklyn Free School
    Manhattan Free School
    Purple Thistle Center
    Music Resource Center
    Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts
    Northwest Passage High School
    Phoenix Charter Academy
    Quest High School
    Murray High School
    Quest to Learn
    Catherine Ferguson High School
    IDEA School Innovation Tours
    be you
    Integrated Studies Program
    Pugeot Sound Community School
    Nottingham Hackspace

    I look forward to reading other suggestions and to hearing feedback on these!

    All the best,

  2. Posted December 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with and share your passion for “liberating learning”. Like you, my life’s work has been a journey from adult-centric (privileging teachers too much, as you state) to learner-centric practices. My greatest learnings and most significant insights have come from the learners with whom I have had the privilege of working.

    For instance, right now I am engaged in delightful and spirited debate with some former students about the MacArthur Foundation’s “Badges for Lifelong Learning” initiative (http://dmlcompetition.net). Some see it as a viable alternative to the “academic stamp of approval” while others see it as the same old thing with new wrapping. Thus far all agree that the key is in the application and use of the ideas: who gets to decide what the basis for the badges (and their standards) is and how they are awarded?

    Re the word choice (a favorite Sam quote: “Words, words, words”… Hamlet, right, Sam?), I’d welcome suggestions for those two phrases you don’t like. We wrestled long and hard with each phrase on that graphic, each intended to capture an iceberg, if you will, of research and context. “Successful at high levels” very specifically does not state “academic” levels, and we quite deliberately stayed away from “achievement” which has become synonymous with standardized test scores. “Access” is another important word for us, as too many poor, non-white students are not allowed access to high quality learning experiences.

    Ultimately, I believe, the issues you and my former students raise are issues of power and privilege. True student agency – where students have equal voice in shaping the decisions that impact their lives in all aspects – is the REAL disruption. And I truly believe it is coming soon to a neighborhood near you (and me!)


  3. Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I realized the “successful at high levels” is in fact connected to academics, contrary to what I wrote in my earlier post, so to clarify:
    Like Chad, I do agree we have got to get past our paradigm of academics as the beginning and end of learning. At the same time, I’m painfully mindful of the tiered access in the United States to academics. The tracking system is alive and well, with adults making life-defining choices about who can learn what and how much.

  4. Posted December 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sam,

    This feels a little like a homework assignment: align these criteria with these goals, describe, defend, exhibit. Geez Sam, ya never get away from being a former English teacher?

    I love Urban Academy, in New York City, and I know you do too. I love Urban because when I go there I see this belief enacted: every adolescent is an intellectual, and has capacity to “read” the world and the relations of power that are fundamental to understanding the world. And then they give kids the skills and practice to do both. Very few schools I know do both of these things. And they have couches in the hallways, and art everywhere, and a full-size paper mache subway station mural, complete with a rat, at one end of their school, and there are books and photos and magazines and movies strewn all over the place.

    This is important to me, perhaps more than the criteria of traditional, transitional, and transformational. Another thing I believe: we may need to give up the quest for universal criteria in the transformation of the sector and our movement away from a one best system. It’s important to me that adults understand on what basis they believe education is important, and who it’s for, and why.

    What do you think? Are we aware of what we like, as critics and evaluators, and why?

    I look forward to many many conversations with you about this Sam. I’m writing now about nearly the same things.

    With respect!


  5. Posted December 2, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Kim – thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree – privilege, power, and access remain crucial concerns in public education.

    I want all students to have access to personally meaningful work of lasting, self-evident value to them, to their schools, and to their communities. I am entirely behind universal, open access to that kind of work. Regarding academic access, do we provide access to “high” levels of schooling (tracking) or do we provide access to quality learning that isn’t abstracted into test scores? Do we dismantle privilege or extend it? Do “we” set out to do these things, or do we create learning spaces wherein kids direct us?

    For the sake of justice, so long as we’re in between traditional schools and transformative schools, we probably need to work hard at doing all of this. At the human, classroom, and school level, the demise of traditional education should be just as humane and liberating as the rise of its replacement. The end of the old requires as much attention as the beginning of the new, as much as that bugs impatient iconoclasts like me.

    I remain afraid that privileged schools will be allowed to transform while struggling schools will be required to “achieve” more before being allowed to transform. I want students, parents, educators, and communities to re-discover and experience their own authority to grant themselves permission to change education.

    Ultimately, I don’t have any specific words to suggest, but we need conversations like these to achieve the transformation we want, as well as to answer Kirsten’s questions. And in these conversations, I am happy to err on the side of transformation.

    All the best,

  6. Sheryl Morris
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this conversation.
    What (& Where) Are the World’s Most Transformational Schools?
    The Montessori philosophy goes to the very heart of the “Transformational” Model of learning (whole child, passion, personalized learning plans, proficiency reporting, etc.) Ahead of her time, Maria Montessori wrote about and used methods that advance ideas in current, brain and learning research.
    Montessori, as well as, Steiner-Waldorf, Reggio Emilia educational philosophies have been known and admired, globally, for many decades. 
    Why not, in fact, champion a further reawakening and push for more mainstream acceptance of these holistic educations? There are those that know nothing about Montessori, or very little. Those that do often say, “I wish I’d been taught that way,” or “I wish I could send my children to a Montessori school.”
    Needs are great, especially in the public schools. Public Montessori education should be a choice, available to every family, rather than only those lucky enough to attend a private school.
    There is a lot to be found online about Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia schools – what and where they are. To begin, one site I can suggest is called Collaborative Montessori Initiative. http://www.collaborativemontessori.org/
    Most respectfully,
    sheryl morris

  7. Posted December 3, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    In reading the categories highlighted in the QED change model, NBCS/SCIL (Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning) would tick the box on virtually every category. It is difficult to comment on one’s own school though. The following comment was made by Charles Leadbeater at the World Innovation Summit for Education, Doha, Qatar at the start of November this year:

    Stephen Harris is Principal of an amazing school just outside of Sydney called Northern Beaches Christian School. It’s one is of best schools that I have been to around the world for making evident in its daily practice a philosophy that learning should be collaborative and participative and it’s evident in the way children learn, the way they interact with one another and the way the teachers lead learning and structure it and also in the buildings and the furniture. Stephen is reinventing a school from within.”


    The are a number of videos uploaded to Vimeo that also show what the learning environment at NBCS looks like:

    Useful vid highlighting our approaches to learning from a spatial perspective : http://vimeo.com/28448313
    and another
    And yet another

  8. Posted December 5, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Sheryl and Stephen for the newest recommendations — I’ll share a summary of all the schools/networks that have been put forth thus far in a bit — and thanks, Chad and Kim, for modeling civil discourse. It does seem that all of the school people have suggested thus far gravitate back to the core attributes of a transformational learning community, as was described on http://www.facesoflearning.net. Once again, we know more than we think we do — and yet no one in the major media space is talking about these things!!

  9. Amelia Whitman
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Quest to Learn (http://q2l.org/) is an amazing school using innovative teaching ideas that are appropriate for today’s world. Below is their overview from their website:

    Mission critical at Quest is a translation of the underlying form of games into a powerful pedagogical model for its 6-12th graders. Games work as rule-based learning systems, creating worlds in which players actively participate, use strategic thinking to make choices, solve complex problems, seek content knowledge, receive constant feedback, and consider the point of view of others. As is the case with many of the games played by young people today, Quest is designed to enable students to “take on” the identities and behaviors of explorers, mathematicians, historians, writers, and evolutionary biologists as they work through a dynamic, challenge-based curriculum with content-rich questing to learn at its core.

    It’s important to note that Quest is not a school whose curriculum is made up of the play of commercial videogames, but rather a school that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences. Games and other forms of digital media serve another useful purpose at Quest: they serve to model the complexity and promise of “systems.” Understanding and accounting for this complexity is a fundamental literacy of the 21st century.

    At Quest, the theme of “systems” is expressed in all aspects of the school’s design, from a standards-based integrated curriculum, to student support structures stressing the interconnectedness of academic, community, and youth development concerns. Academic standards provide the link between excellence and equity by setting consistently high, public expectations for every student, informed by an understanding of how students learn best. College and career opportunities are supported through an intern and apprenticeship model that allows students to engage in learning alongside experts starting in the 8th grade.

    Core principles include:
    1. Learning for design and innovation
    Quest’s standards-based curriculum supports students in becoming active problem solvers and innovators of the 21st century. Our curriculum is design led and inquiry-based, in that it immerses students within complex problem solving contexts where they are challenged to innovate around possible solutions. Tinkering and theory building are critical practices supported across the curriculum. Students are given time, space and purpose to tinker with systems (games, simulations, small machines, social systems, ecologies, etc.). By making small-scale alterations in both experimental and directed ways, students reveal the system’s underlying model. Breaking systems in order to discover new ways of acting within them is a core component of this approach. Students tinker and theorize as a core method of discovery.

    2. Learning for complexity (systemic reasoning)
    A core goal of our pedagogy is to help students learn to reason about their world. Systemic reasoning, or the ability to see the world in terms of the many interrelated systems that make it up—from biological to political to technological and social—supports students in meeting this goal. Enduring understandings include:

    Understanding of feedback dynamics (i.e., reinforcing and balancing feedback loops): understanding that small level changes can affect macro-level processes.
    Understanding of system dynamics: understanding the multiple (i.e. dynamic) relationships within a system.
    Understanding hidden dimensions of a system: understanding that modifications to system elements can lead to changes that are not easily recognizable within a system.
    Understanding of the quality of relationships within a system: understanding when a system is working or not working at optimal levels.
    Homological understanding: understanding that similar system dynamics can exist in other systems that may appear to be entirely different.

    3. Learning for critical thinking, judgment and credibility
    One core component of our learning model is helping kids to understand many of the unintended consequences that may arise as part of their participation with and use of digital media. Students will learn how to judge the credibility of information drawn from online resources, for example, and learn how to reason about and evaluate content. They will learn how to manage and synthesize multiple streams of information, in order to avoid being “overloaded” with data. They will learn to be critical thinkers—able to appreciate, debate, and negotiate different points of view expressed. Most importantly, our curriculum will focus on equipping students with an understanding of new models of citizenship, civic participation, and public participation made possible within today’s networked learning landscape.

    4. Learning using a design methodology
    Our curriculum creates contexts for ongoing feedback and reflection. This approach creates opportunities for students to demonstrate and share their knowledge with teachers and peers, as well as get continual feedback on their work and ideas. Across the curriculum students act as socio-technical engineers in the creation of playful systems—games, models, simulations, stories, etc. Students will learn about the way systems work and how they can be modified or changed. Through designing play students learn to think analytically and holistically, to experiment and test out theories, and to consider other people as part of the systems they create and inhabit. Game design serves as the pedagogy underlying this work.

    5. Learning with technology and smart tools
    Within our curriculum students learn how to build smart tools, or “tools to think with.” These tools might be maps, online dictionaries, equations, or computer simulations, to name but a few. Through these tools students have access to continual and transparent feedback on achievement toward learning objectives.

    6. Prep for college and world of work
    The curriculum provides diverse opportunities for students to experience and explore potential futures, supported both by an early college program and internships beginning in the 8th grade.

  10. Jennifer Boudrye
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    “Transformational” – so many meanings. When I look at schools that have transformed students to become confident, skilled, accomplished, happy people, I have to put forth Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC. My son transferred there this year from a high achieving public school in neighboring Montgomery County, MD. While he continues to do incredibly well academically (and yes – they have a great academic program!), the growth I’ve seen in him artistically, emotionally and socially is extraordinary. I hear the same from other DESA parents every day. DESA accepts students from all over DC (and some from MD & VA), regardless of current academic level. Through great teaching, nurturing, support and challenge, they achieve a 98% HS grad rate and 95% of the students go on to college. About 70% end up working in the arts. When you provide students the opportunity to develop their talents and follow their passion amazing transformation happens.

  11. Jamal
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sam,

    I agree with Kirsten, “feels like a homework assignment”. One I want to complete, one that raises my own level of understanding and gets my mind working hard in evaluating and synthesizing information, thank you!

    Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park Colorado is a Transformational school. Not only do they put into practice the attributes of a Transformational school as listed on the QED graphic but they also are happy to help others do the same.

    Check them out at http://www.eaglerockschool.org/about_us/index.aspx

    The fun part of this assignment (as is often the case) comes in learning from others and chasing down your curiosity and interests. I could spend a lot of time looking at the schools folks are putting forth here, and isn’t that really the point of this exercise? As Sam said you don’t hear this conversation in the main stream media and to me it is the only way we are going to get to Transformational from here.

    Thank you!


  12. Posted December 14, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Please check out the Milan Village School http://www.milanvillageschool.org
    I would add helping every child find their passion every day as another criterion.

  13. Anne Madsen
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    I will say that the Kaospilots definately qualifies despite 20 years of age as one of the most innovative and cutting edge schools in scandinavia. The Kaospilots is a 3 year program in project management, sustainable business design and process design. Especially their focus on personal leadership, projectbased learning and teamunderstanding as 3 of the core diciplines in the programme makes it a transformational experience for the students.
    Every team represents its own learning community and theory is manifested in practice, reflection on practice and feed forward in a continous learning spiral.
    The students are encouraged to work from passion and to TAKE their own education, hence nothing is given; it is an active choice every day, and with that comes responsability.
    I am a former student myself and now working passionately to make possitive change in the Danish Primary school. The reason for that is simple; I have spend a lot of time at the Kaospilots disentrainning the behaviour of knowing the right answer and living up to the preset standards, that I had been taught all the way up through primary school, and high school. I had to disentrain that behaviour at the Kaospilots to rediscover my innovative, creative, collaborative, couragious nature.


  14. Pranav Kapadia
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi all,

    Many thanks for this interesting conversation. I am the father of a 10 year old studiing in Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India mentioned by Sam. As a layman, I probably missed understanding the full conversation in its right context. Having said that, this conversation has made me aware about the thought process of the school management and how it is likely to make a transformational change. Thanks you all for that.

    It has been 6 months since my 10 year old has started attending Riverside. In this span, I have seen him change from an awkward, unsure and introvert child to a confident, clear thinking child who is better able to handle unusual situations that his life in school and home throws to him. He was a straight A student in the traditional rote learning system of Indian schools who knew his arithmetic tables from 1 through 20 by heart, and although his proficiency in the tables has suffered, his ability to push his own limits has increased many fold. Our relationship as father and son has vastly improved in the last six months.

    My two cents…if it is of any help.

  15. Posted January 17, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Hey my friends! We need your support. A small group of game changers started to create a global map of outstanding and reformative education institutions. It is a visual way to locate each other in the world: http://coolmeia.org/educa/cmtls/node/19

    Our mission is to connect the pioneers of a next edge education in order to strengthen the alternative education system and create a positive impulse on our traditional education systems.
    Furthermore we would like connect with you and enable joint activities and a fruitful exchange with other mind like institutions

    Please add information about outstanding educational institutions or initiatives to the collaborative mapping. Thanks in advance! Philippe

  16. Amit Sheth
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Dear Sam and many others on this group,
    I have something very basic to ask. What is schooling all about? What do you mean transformational? Is getting my kid to be savvy about technology & presentations and speaking confidently the only major issues? What about knowing the basis of numbers? OF being confident on how numbers behave? On knowing more about your country, its language, it culture, its tradition, is history and its geography? i find this and a lot more missing in the so called transformational schools of the world!! Yes, my son also goes to Riverside, Ahmedabad and i can almost guarantee you, that if I or any ‘normally schooled’ Indian were to ask 10 questions of or on India to these kids, they would all fail to answer. Probably be bewildered. The same would hold true for maths and science. Then how do you rank these schools. AM really baffled. yes, am happy that my son has grown out of his skin, learnt to be confident etc etc. But life is more than just being street smart, right?
    Eagerly await comments.

  17. Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks Amit. One of my favorite schools has this as their mission statement — “empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” I love that because I think it speaks to your point — a great education is about knowledge AND skills; our voices must be used effectively AND with integrity; and any education that focuses disproportionately on any one part of the body (whether it’s the mind or the heart) is incomplete. I do think we’re in the midst of evolving our own understanding of what it means to “know” something, now that so much of the world’s basic knowledge set can be accessed within seconds via a smart phone, but I don’t think it serves any school to act as if the act of knowing things is no longer an essential part of a transformational education. Does that make sense?

  18. Leena
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    Hello all,

    Introducing myself, am a product of a traditional school in Dubai. Towards I end I will share with you all what I gained and lost in the traditional setup.

    There are two aspects of education 1) Knowledge 2) Approach taken to impart that knowledge.

    I think both types of schooling, traditional and transformational aim to educate. However, the approach they take differs. Transformational schools in their endeavour to educate with the different approach, touch several other aspects in the lives of the children.

    While a teacher in a traditional school doesn’t get involved with the emotional arrangement of the child, am hoping that the later do.

    Being a mother of two children who attended traditional schooling, I now question the way I studied and so did my children. We can read English, do a bit of Maths and are aware of Science. But I have a question that I ask often: DO WE THINK ONCE OUR TEACHER HAVE TAUGHT US?

    If English literature is taught – how many traditional students can write a high quality piece of work?
    Math – some children get it, some struggle most of the school life. How much of maths do we apply once we finish school? Unless someone choose to major in finance or physics
    Science – traditional schooling only expect children to accept and follow. How many children go ahead in life to use what they studied?


    I think we live in a world that just continues to have a mass productions of ROBOTS – yes Robots – who are born, studying, work and die. Who are never given the exposure, the opportunity, the environment and the most importantly a chance to think. A few who did are the ones who change our lives and lives of people around them . Steve Jobs / Mark Zuckerberg / Dr Abdul Kalam

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