Big Ideas for Better Schools: Ten Ways to Improve Education | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Ideas for Better Schools: Ten Ways to Improve Education

Ideas for students, teachers, schools, and communities.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Fourteen years ago The George Lucas Educational Foundation was created to celebrate and encourage innovation in schools. Since then we have discovered many creative educators, business leaders, parents, and others who were making positive changes not only from the top down but also from the bottom up. Since that time we have been telling their stories through our Web site, our documentary films, and Edutopia magazine.

VIDEO: 10 Big Ideas for Better Classrooms: Striving to Improve Public Education

Running Time: 19 min.

Along the way, we listened and learned. Nothing is simple when strengthening and invigorating such a vast and complex institution as our educational system, but common ideas for improvement emerged. We've distilled those into this ten-point credo.

In the coming year, we will publish a series of essays that further explores each aspect of this agenda, with the hope that those on the frontlines of education can make them a part of their schools.



  1. Engage: Project-Based Learning
  2. Connect: Integrated Studies
  3. Share: Cooperative Learning
  4. Expand: Comprehensive Assessment


  1. Coach: Intellectual and Emotional Guide
  2. Learn: Teaching as Apprenticeship


  1. Adopt: Technology
  2. Reorganize: Resources


  1. Involve: Parents
  2. Include: Community Partners


1. Engage: Project-Based Learning
Students go beyond the textbook to study complex topics based on real-world issues, such as the water quality in their communities or the history of their town, analyzing information from multiple sources, including the Internet and interviews with experts. Project-based classwork is more demanding than traditional book-based instruction, where students may just memorize facts from a single source. Instead, students utilize original documents and data, mastering principles covered in traditional courses but learning them in more meaningful ways. Projects can last weeks; multiple projects can cover entire courses. Student work is presented to audiences beyond the teacher, including parents and community groups.

Reality Check: At the Clear View Charter School, in Chula Vista, California, fourth- and fifth-grade students collected insect specimens, studied them under an electron microscope via a fiber-optic link to a nearby university, used Internet resources for their reports, and discussed their findings with university entomologists.

2. Connect: Integrated Studies
Studies should enable students to reach across traditional disciplines and explore their relationships, like James Burke described in his book Connections. History, literature, and art can be interwoven and studied together. Integrated studies enable subjects to be investigated using many forms of knowledge and expression, as literacy skills are expanded beyond the traditional focus on words and numbers to include graphics, color, music, and motion.

Reality Check: Through a national project called Nature Mapping, fourth-grade students in rural Washington learn reading, writing, mathematics, science, and technology use while searching for rare lizards.

3. Share: Cooperative Learning
Working together on project teams and guided by trained teachers, students learn the skills of collaborating, managing emotions, and resolving conflicts in groups. Each member of the team is responsible for learning the subject matter as well as helping teammates to learn. Cooperative learning develops social and emotional skills, providing a valuable foundation for their lives as workers, family members, and citizens.

Reality Check: In Eeva Reeder's tenth-grade geometry class at Mountlake Terrace High School, near Seattle, student teams design "schools of the future" while mentoring with local architects. They manage deadlines and resolve differences to produce models, budgets, and reports far beyond what an individual student could accomplish.

4. Expand: Comprehensive Assessment
Assessment should be expanded beyond simple test scores to instead provide a detailed, continuous profile of student strengths and weaknesses. Teachers, parents, and individual students can closely monitor academic progress and use the assessment to focus on areas that need improvement. Tests should be an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes, retake the test, and improve their scores.

Reality Check: At the Key Learning Community, in Indianapolis, teachers employ written rubrics to assess students' strengths and weaknesses using categories based on Howard Gardner's concept of multiple intelligences, including spatial, musical, and interpersonal skills.

Back to Top


5. Coach: Intellectual and Emotional Guide
The most important role for teachers is to coach and guide students through the learning process, giving special attention to nurturing a student's interests and self-confidence. As technology provides more curricula, teachers can spend less time lecturing entire classes and more time mentoring students as individuals and tutoring them in areas in which they need help or seek additional challenges.

Reality Check: Brooklyn fifth-grade teacher Sarah Button uses exercises and simulations from the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program with her students, helping them learn empathy, cooperation, positive expression of feelings, and appreciation of diversity.

6. Learn: Teaching as Apprenticeship
Preparation for a teaching career should follow the model of apprenticeships, in which novices learn from experienced masters. Student teachers should spend less time in lecture halls learning educational theory and more time in classrooms, working directly with students and master teachers. Teaching skills should be continually sharpened, with time to take courses, attend conferences, and share lessons and tips with other teachers, online and in person.

Reality Check: Online communities such as Middle Web, the Teacher Leaders Network, and the Teachers Network bring novice and expert educators together in a Web-based professional community. The online mentorship gives novice teachers access to accomplished practitioners eager to strengthen the profession at its roots.

Back to Top


7. Adopt: Technology
The intelligent use of technology can transform and improve almost every aspect of school, modernizing the nature of curriculum, student assignments, parental connections, and administration. Online curricula now include lesson plans, simulations, and demonstrations for classroom use and review. With online connections, students can share their work and communicate more productively and creatively. Teachers can maintain records and assessments using software tools and stay in close touch with students and families via email and voicemail. Schools can reduce administrative costs by using technology tools, as other fields have done, and provide more funds for the classroom.

Reality Check: Students in Geoff Ruth's high school chemistry class at Leadership High School, in San Francisco, have abandoned their textbooks. Instead, they plan, research, and implement their experiments using material gathered online from reliable chemistry resources.

8. Reorganize: Resources
Resources of time, money, and facilities must be restructured. The school day should allow for more in-depth project work beyond the 45-minute period, including block scheduling of classes two hours or longer. Schools should not close for a three-month summer vacation, but should remain open for student activities, teacher development, and community use. Through the practice of looping, elementary school teachers stay with a class for two or more years, deepening their relationships with students. More money in school districts should be directed to the classroom rather than the bureaucracy.

New school construction and renovation should emphasize school design that supports students and teachers collaborating in teams, with pervasive access to technology. Schools can be redesigned to also serve as community centers that provide health and social services for families, as well as counseling and parenting classes.

Reality Check: The school year at the Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center, in Fort Worth, Texas, consists of four blocks of about nine weeks each. Intersession workshops allow its K-5 students time for hands-on arts, science, and computer projects or sports in addition to language arts and math enrichment.

Back to Top


9. Involve: Parents
When schoolwork involves parents, students learn more. Parents and other caregivers are a child's first teachers and can instill values that encourage school learning. Schools should build strong alliances with parents and welcome their active participation in the classroom. Educators should inform parents of the school's educational goals, the importance of high expectations for each child, and ways of assisting with homework and classroom lessons.

Reality Check: In the Sacramento Unified School District, teachers make home visits to students' families. Teachers gain a better understanding of their students' home environment, and parents see that teachers are committed to forging closer home-school bonds. If English is not spoken in the home, translators accompany the teachers.

10. Include: Community Partners
Partnerships with a wide range of community organizations, including business, higher education, museums, and government agencies, provide critically needed materials, technology, and experiences for students and teachers. These groups expose students and teachers to the world of work through school-to-career programs and internships. Schools should enlist professionals to act as instructors and mentors for students.

Reality Check: At the Minnesota Business Academy, in St. Paul, businesses ranging from a newspaper to a stock brokerage to an engineering firm provide internships for three to four hours per day, twice each week. BestPrep, a philanthropic state business group, spearheaded an effort that renovated an old science building for school use.

Back to Top

Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anita Scherer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a soon to be a certified teacher in Early Childhood education (at the age of 55)! I just read this article about visualization and learning! What a concept for teaching!

How can I look into this form of teaching for Kindergarten age children..........I am very interested and am passing this article and your website on to many colleagues!

Also, I have a 19 year old son that is very disillusioned about life. He graduated from H.S., but has such a "bad taste" in his mouth for education that he will not consider college. He is currently working as a Bank teller during the day and at a gas station at night. He would love to do film work or music mixing, but is not willing to go the college route........any suggestions for him?

Thanks for the help.


Anita Scherer

Bryan Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Congratulations on the commitment of this program!

This is a great article about the impact that interactive teaching in our youth will transform their learning and create our leaders of the future! The coaching and the involvement aspects are key! Great work.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was reminded, while reading the section on cooperative learning, that inherant motivation of the students must be addressed. Self- motivation is a real problem in a world that targets dollars from pre-teen on up, and a society that bases worth on what you have. this leads to a sense of hopelessness in some of our youth. Many students disconnect for whatever reasons in cooperative learning environments because the playing field is not level.

Marianne Gleason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm interested in learning more about the home visits teachers have made in Sacramento and am curious about how that can be incorporated into a school program. Ultimately it will help parents help their children with homework and possibly become more involved within the classroom. I would like to see parents learn more about reading with their children as it impacts all areas of the curriculum.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read your comment and I thank you for the inspiration (I'm 49 and still in school studying to become a Reading Teacher). As far as your son is concerned, first off, he is not alone. There are many disillusioned young adults who go off and party because they aren't motivated to work hard enough to fight for something they really want. Celebrities make life look easy, party and get your name in the papers, etc. and unfortunately children look to them as role models. Unfortunately, the followers don't really know all the ins and outs of celebrity life. Without sounding too podium-based, I would suggest he decide for himself what he really wants to do and then do the research to find out how to reach his goals. He's too young to sit at home in a dead-end job and just dream! I wish you both luck, and I hope he finds what he's looking for.
PS. I can tell you that with the dream comes a lot of hard work, and ask him how willing is he to work for what he really wants (i.e., he needs to do the research and find out for himself - you can only encourage him and tell him to follow his dream - if that's what he really wants - savvy?). He's a big boy - it's time to let go of his hand and push him out of the nest. Be tough and give him some options: Go to school (and stay at home), and/or find a job while in school, and/or decide on a career that you can work at for the rest of your life and be happy with. Responsibility is the key - let him decide (no rush), and then the support and encouragement to succeed.
I hope this helps,

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great find! I just would like to share insights involving Literacy Centers. I watched the video "Big Ideas for Better Classrooms", but there wasn't any mention of centers (although it looks like they were being implemented).
Kat Guth

Keith Waters's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

An excellent summarization of initiatives. Is it based on a model of challenges to overcome? Where does PD fit?

How can someone contribute a slightly different approach for evaluation?

A collaborative approach would generate a wealth of ideas/concepts/designs. Could use newest capabilities to manage the influx of creative content.

Would like to help, but how...

Xelan Bonn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always been an advocate for better ways of learning and teaching and I feel America should always be the cutting-edge example and world benchmark in this realm. Toward that lofty goal, I think this program does its part in helping and I wish we had more programs like it.

I would challenge all innovators to re-think education from a whole new perspective - from the point of view and passion of the end-user - the student turned worker or contributor to society.

If I were designing a new system, it I'd like to see work programs integrated with education. The student first chooses their profession, secures part-time student employment in that profession, then embarks on a suitable education tailored around the full progression of such a career. Tax and other incentives should help us re-design the workplace to accommodate such innovative learning systems for their own benefit as well. The goal is to create an experience and educated student, one with wisdom and understanding both, that feels passionate about their profession or work.

Building on that end-game, we should then support a front-end solution in learning that seeks to expose the student to as many possibilities and potentials as may be feasible, ever expanding the student's mind until they are hooked by their passionate future. We should not be building robots, but rather beings that can fully express their passions in their work and life as much as possible, toward not only enriching the student, but the world.

The challenge is to bring these concepts to forefront of learning and redirect our energies toward a more synergistic world, whereby commerce and industriousness are blended with passion, enthusiasm, and greater respect for applied learning, an environment which allows the very best in us to emerge and grow our world in ways never before dreamed of - for who would you prefer to drill your teeth - the passionate dentist who cares and has been mentored for many years, or the one that wanted to be something else and begrudges his or her parents, profession, and even patients?

Passion is the untapped magic in all of us. It is like a magical dust that permeates all we embody and pursue and when all else fails us, it is what affords us the greatest perseverance toward achieving miracles and leaps in knowledge - it keeps us going when all is lost.

Under its heated flame, passion begets perseverance, and perseverance begets success, the student transforms into experts, eventually coming full circle to transition into mentors, in great display of their attainments and humanity - for teaching fills the mentor's otherwise indescribable void to the brim when it appears to the mentor that all that could have been learned has been learned - the flame mellows but shines - and yet the mentor is proven wrong and finds new learning in teaching others, new knowledge coming from those he or she inspired - for they will improve upon it - their passion demands it.

If we can redesign learning and work systems so that we tap into the passion treasures of our new young minds, we can materialized a great new world that celebrates our maximum potential as the inhabitants of this tiny blue planet. This program is a great step toward that wondrous tomorrow. For I, like Mr. Lucas, believe that if we invest in our students, the rest will take care of itself.

I would challenge all readers to do what they can in helping progress and blossom this excellent program.

Xelan Bonn
Patriot Union of America

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.