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 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 Information-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. Where are the schools that 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 on Medium.)

16 thoughts on “What (& Where) Are the World’s Most Transformational Schools?”

  • Ah, you know Sam, I’m biased.

    Calhoun School in Manhattan responds to virtually all of the transformational criteria (although I would quibble with some of them). The school (even without me!) is non-competitive, focused on curiosity and passion, learning through experience, demonstrating mastery through many modalities, fostering inclusion, living democratically, challenging conventional wisdom, tackling the tough conversations about identity and diversity and more! What’s more, Calhoun does this in the hotbed of competitive insanity – Manhattan. But you know all of that. Hope you are well.

  • Steve! Thanks for weighing in. Which parts of of QED’s framework would you quibble with? That’s almost as valuable as any recs you’d offer . . .

  • Check out Woods Charter School in Pittsboro, NC. It might actually be in Chapel Hill, NC. Best “from scratch” K-12 school I’ve seen anywhere in the US..—Steve Peha

  • I’d point people to my book What School Could Be (www.whatschoolcouldbe.org) to see amazing things done within the context of existing schools. So, so often, we look at schools started from scratch (often with lots of funding) as models. But the real challenge in education is transforming existing schools, not starting a few (heavily-funded) new schools. And existing schools often change a classroom at a time. What School Could Be profiles remarkable innovations at the school, district, and state level all across the U.S., and is a great inspiration for our 137,000 existing-school communities. Also, we now offer our Innovation Playlist (www.innovationplaylist.org) — a powerful set of resources to help existing schools transform themselves, based on a teacher-led ‘small steps leading to big change over time’ change model. Check these out. Ted

  • You need to see the Documentary “The prohibited Education”. It is an amazing documentary where educators of no conventional schools talk about current Education, and how far away is of the original concept of school. The school must change from to try to change the child into follow the child, giving the opportunity to know what he really is. We need to see education like a whole were the subjects are interconnected to show the child that we are part of the universe and we have the responsibility of our own education. Dr. Montessori named this new concept of education “Cosmic Education”, education for Peace.
    Search: Escuela Activa Inka Samana” Ecuador

  • If we were to design schools, districts, and learning ecosystems around each and every learner, what might that look like? Education Reimagined believes when we start with the unique potential, needs, and interests of each learner, we end up with diverse transformational learning models aligned to the practices and mindsets elevated in the Q.E.D. Model and “A Transformational Vision for Education in the U.S.”

    We highly recommend exploring the following transformational, learner-centered learning environments (and a fuller list of environments can be found here):

    The Met (Metropolitan Regional Career And Technical Center) – Providence, RI
    Norris Academy – Mukwonago, WI
    Iowa BIG – Cedar Rapids, IA
    Design39Campus – San Diego, CA
    Avalon School – St. Paul, MN
    One Stone – Boise, ID
    Springhouse Community School – Floyd, VA
    Portfolio School – Massachusetts, NY
    Harrisburg School District – Harrisburg, SD

  • Sam, I’m part of a board working to start a Reggio Inspired Charter in St. Paul MN called, St. Paul School of Northern Lights.

    Also of course Opal School should be on your list!

  • Chuck Fellows says:

    Big Picture Schools (www.bigpicture.org) everywhere; High Tech High (www.hightechhigh.org), San Diego, FlexTech, Brighton, MI (www.flextech-hs.org)

  • The entire network of early childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy should be on this list. They exemplify each trait but especially curiosity and wonder, passion; fostering dignity and respect; based on relationships; shared investment – teacher, student, family & community; community of practice/collaborative inquiry; leadership and civic mission. The educators in Reggio Emilia inspire the work of educators around the world!

  • Stonefields school: Auckland New Zealand The most extraordinary school I’ve seen anywhere in the world. This is a model school where learner agency is taken to on board by all of the learners via the development of the learner qualities from day one. The projects that the learners are engaged in are managed by the learners as they understand and can apply the learning process within the first year of school and have developed their learner qualities (competencies) as they age. Via the leaner qualities and the application of the learning process, learners work independently as well as in groups to pursue their own initiatives, leveraging the very flexible and innovative New Zealand curriculum (46pp – http://bit.ly/2tqzkNW). Learners are fully prepared for the complexity of the world they will enter into. Amazing!

  • I hadn’t seen QED’s list, Sam — thank you for surfacing it. I like it a lot, and for all the same reasons you do. It’s clarifying in its simplicity, and it’s ambitious in the vision expressed in the righthand Transformational column. The suggestion I’d have is that there might be one other dimension, focused on the degree to which schools actively address issues of equity and social injustice — as a community and with respect to how they serve individual students. In fact, there’s a whole category of dimensions that’s pretty invisible here, that has to do with the ways schools address challenges of poverty, wellness, and trauma. It’s a terrific list, but it looks a bit as though it was developed with suburban/exurban schools in mind. Urban and rural schools are facing steep challenges that some are addressing very actively in ways I’d argue could merit inclusion on the Transformational side of the QED graphic.

    As you know, at Next Generation Learning Challenges we’re working with educators in hundreds of schools that lie somewhere in the middle towards the righthand columns. Many are actively pushing that righthand column on some of the factors while clearly still Transitioning in others. (You can find a good analysis/synthesis of some of these schools at https://www.nextgenlearning.org/resources/how-next-generation-schools-define-success,)

    What schools really stand out to me? Without trying to get too technical about all the factors, the schools that come to mind are the ones we know well as places where a) all or almost all students are deeply engaged and challenged in their learning and plainly show commitment and responsibility in pursuing it; and b) there is an intensely strong sense and spirit of belongingness within the community, among students and adults. If those two indicators are being vividly fulfilled, that’s honestly enough for me to qualify as Transformational. Some examples from across our network: Design Tech HS in Redwood City CA; e3 Civic High and THRIVE in San Diego; Magnolia Montessori for All in Austin; Summit, in the Bay Area; Valor Collegiate in Nashville; DaVinci in LA; CICS West Belden in Chicago; Lighthouse, in the Bay Area; Urban Montessori in Oakland; Workshop School in Philly. So many others getting close, including some traditional districts that are moving there as whole ecosystems: Vista Unified (near San Diego), Arcadia Unified (LA), St Vrain CO, Kettle Moraine WI, Albemarle VA, Lindsay CA, Henry County GA, Brooklyn LAB, Building21 in Philly, Intrinsic in Chicago. So many schools in the Big Picture and New Tech and EL networks, like Two Rivers in the heart of DC.

    Sorry for the length. Your question struck a chord. There is a LOT going on out there to transform public schools! That’s the main thing, and the hopeful thing.

  • I would like you all to know about Life Academy, a fully public school in Oakland, CA, and hope it can be added to this list. It certainly ranks as a transformational school. It was an academy in a comprehensive high school that was not serving the majority of its students. A group of educators and community members working with community organizations and BAYCEs came together in 2000 to form Life Academy High School. Because of its teacher-led model of professional development it was also able to add a middle school to its high school in 2011. It is located in what is known as the ‘flatlands’ of East Oakland, and is one of the highest performing high schools in the district, with its graduation rate still 17 percentage points higher than the District average. They have a strong student-centered, portfolio-oriented culture with a very successful project known as the ‘Senior Defense’ serving as a landmark of the good education the students are receiving.

    Here are some short videos showing Life Academy:
    Senior Defense

    Biology Class

    Supporting Teachers

    Middle School Writing Class

    Election Results at Life Academy

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Hope Life Academy can be highlighted, Susan

    Susan Zeig

  • It’s hard to judge learning centers from the outside. One person’s “participatory” can be very different from another’s, and sometimes those differences only clearly manifest when certain triggers are set off. Also, the skills, empathy and respect demonstrated by individual staffers are probably far more impactful than following any particular learning-center model. The student-body dynamic is also important.

    That said, a couple of places that stand out in my opinion are the Agile Learning Center in Charlotte, NC, and Raw Learning in Staunton, VA. They have very learner-centered philosophies. What also stands out is that they are modeled on principles rather than rules, so the rules can be quite easily changed if they don’t seem to be working well. They also have well-thought-out systems in place for deeply relating to and involving students in shaping their studies and their learning environment. The students then feel they are valued and have “skin in the game,” and seem engaged and very respectful to each other and to the staff.

  • Big Picture Education Australia schools without doubt occupy the “transformational” zone!

    Big Picture Education Australia (www.bigpicture.org.au) works with Australian schools to deliver an innovative learning design and school structure that personalises learning for each student.

    Research shows that as many as 40 per cent of school students are unproductive in a given year. BPEA addresses engagement by focusing its design on students’ individual interests and needs. The BPEA design is shown to improve the quality and quantity of a student’s work, attendance, literacy, numeracy and school completion rates.

    Confidence in exam-based scores used to gain entry into university isn’t strong any longer. A fresh way to view how learning is assessed was required, and this led to BPEA’s development of its ground-breaking Graduation Portfolio program.

    As part of their BPEA Graduation Portfolio work, students take on multiple in-depth internships, with local organisations and businesses, through Years 9 to 12. They hone their interests through real world experience with expert mentors in the community.

    To learn more, please view this item broadcast last year on Australia’s Lateline current affairs program: https://www.abc.net.au/lateline/unique-program-gives-students-a-new-path-to/8402758

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