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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe 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

Kristine's picture

My nephew went to the Kansas City Art Institute where Walt Disney got his start...he could draw...has gone on into movies and video and is applying to teach English as a second language in Korea....maybe looking at alternative kinds of schools would encourage him...and there is nothing wrong with spending a few years out of education until he figures out what he values the most on his own. I wish I had done that after high school.

Abhijeet's picture

These are really nice ideas. It interests me even more because we are running an online campaign to collect great ideas on building a dream education system and these are indeed great.

Kolya's picture

It seems that in public education one reads article after article concerned with improving schools through engaging students and helping teachers to become mentors to their students. This is not how you improve schools. I apologize, but there are so many problems with public education that you cannot simply restate glittering generality after glittering generality such as "teachers should be emotional guides". People in education need to stop altering policy with "feelings" and start altering policy with their intellects.

To better illustrate what I mean, I shall go through the list item by item:

#1: Engage
While this certainly sounds great, in practice the story is going to be sadly different. In order to conduct projects such as these, one must operate under the assumption that the teachers guiding the projects will actually be capable of doing so. Unfortunately, anyone naive enough to believe that most teachers are capable of launching such activities should not, realistically, be an instrument in education policy. Furthermore, having these projects last for "months at a time" certainly narrows the scope of education. If you're interested in teaching a life science course, you should not be spending the majority of the school year conducting projects where students work with insects to improve applicable analysis schools. These projects sounds good because they're engaging. However, a student should, in a life science course, be receiving an academic foundation in the subject (how do animals adapt to their surroundings? what are the arguments for and against evolution? etc.) Only once you've established this background can you begin to explore the subject first hand. A prime example: in college, you are unlikely to get an internship if you don't have relevant classroom experience first. There's a reason for that, and it's a practical one.

My suggestion: I understand the merits of having hands-on activities. Consequently, there should be a standard two-week project that students partake in at the END of the year, where they will have a chance to use the skills they've learned in the classroom. This would also effectively serve as a progress report. If a student can apply what has been taught in the classroom, then he has learned what he was supposed to learn. When I was a freshman in high school we did a myriad of, frankly, worthless "experiments" for different units. I learned nothing in the course because there was no real direction. You learned about ecology, vaguely applied some of what you learned, and that was it. After the end of a unit, what was learned in the unit lost all relevance to the class (in effect, making the unit unhelpful to a greater understanding of scientific pursuit).

2. Integrated Studies

Naturally, this is a good thing. I see nothing wrong with teaching students to weave individual disciplines together. But here's the stick: teachers don't know how to apply various fields to a project themselves! All throughout school I had classes that sought to "integrate" studies. This is the status quo. And the status quo is not good. If teachers could learn to effectively mix disciplines, then progress could be made. But until that happens, you need to face reality. I only had a few classes in school in which teachers effectively integrated learning so that I felt like I got something positive from the class.

My suggestion: initiatives should be taken to standardize activities where different skills and subjects can be applied to solving a problem. History classes should engage students' critical thinking skills, for example. And of the ten history classes I took in school, I only had one teacher who could do that ( until college, that is). While a teacher can be told to integrate aspects of education, it's meaningless to the vast majority of them. Fix that problem, and you can move forward.

Unfortunately, I think I have run out of space, but my main point is that administrators need to fix preexisting faults before they can improve education. These faults start at the head and finish at the tail. This article explains how to fertilize the tail. Vitamins must be taken orally, starting at the head. Administration standards need to be reviewed. The hiring process must be revolutionized. Schools need to become efficient academic institutions. Only then can you improve what goes on in the classroom.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Two goals every school leader can embrace are continuous improvement and wringing as much value as possible from every dollar in the budget. These two tasks do not have to be mutually exclusive. The school must challenge all students to reach their full potential. The school must lower the significance of social background on academic results. Trust in the school and student well-being must be enhanced through respect for professional knowledge and practice in the school. With the new activity lessons school days will become exciting, varied and inspiring. The lessons will support alternative ways of teaching by including exercise and activities that supplement the classroom teaching. The children must experience integrated and active schooldays and they need more classes and improved quality of teaching. One of the most desirable aspects of the present system is that teachers tend to share materials and techniques with their colleagues. This enhances the education process and benefits students. Consider the diminished willingness of teachers to share with others if their compensation and evaluation is based on a competition with the others on the staff.

Amy Spring's picture

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