George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Big Ideas for Better Schools: Ten Ways to Improve Education

Ideas for students, teachers, schools, and communities.

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.

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.

Students

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.

Teachers

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.

Schools

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.

Communities

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.

View a transcript of this video

10 Big Ideas for Better Classrooms (Transcript)

George: I strongly believe that education is the single most important job that the human race has.

Teacher: We're actually out to reform the public school system.

Student: You know, we're not stupid. We have a lot of drive in us. We could do anything we put our minds to.

Teacher: You know, it hits you. Like a teacher you're just like, "Oh my god. Something that I designed made this kid feel like a hero."

Teacher: Jeffrey?

Student: Are we going to have enough room for the whole webpage just on that one line?

Teacher: You'll be surprised. It just goes right down.

Student: Water.

Student: And the water...

Teacher: Imagine if kids from the beginning could be learning through developing their interests through things that they’re in love with or that they cared about. You know, just imagine. Yeah.

Teacher: We would place the dome right here for instance.

Student: Okay.

Narrator: These sophomore geometry students in Seattle have a problem, and they're excited about solving it.

Teacher: The problem that they have to solve is how do you design a state-of-the-art high school in the year 2050 on a particular site. Students are in teams of three to four, and they're in a design competition for a contract to build it.

Student: It's the fire-eliminator. This is a vacuum. There's water inside it.

Narrator: In Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, these fifth graders are designing a tool to put out fires in space.

Student: If you turn it on high, it sucks up the fire balls.

Narrator: In Hawaii, high school students are building electric cars and racing them. These students have something in common: they are energized, focused, and challenged, determined to do their best. They are collaborating in hands-on, real-world projects studying everything from robots to worms, learning lessons they'll never forget and having fun in the process.

Student: We did an experiment on dead worms. We smelled them and they didn't smell good.

Marco: We have a camera now that you guys can go out and shoot.

Marco: If I look back at my own education, I remember the projects I made. I remember the hand I made in kindergarten. I remember the volcano I made in third grade because they were projects. They were things that had an end to them. Something tangible, something that I can say to my mom, "Mommy, look what it is. Look mom, look what I did."

Teacher: So that's not absolutely set in stone.

Narrator: Twice a year, students work with their teachers to come up with a question or area of inquiry that they will pursue for the next several months. They integrate math, science, and English studies, and with the help of local artists, express themselves in art work, dance, video, drama, and music.

Narrator: The process of deep inquiry into a single subject is the same whether it's seventh graders studying the war..

Student: Well I realized this. You look at this picture, you feel sorry for the soldiers and that kind of makes you want to support the war. But then if you look at this picture, you feel sorry for the Iraqis, and that makes you think that the war isn't necessary.

Narrator: ...or first-graders focusing on frogs.

Student: That little green dot is called a spiracle.

Teacher: If you study something really deeply, you become very invested in it. So what you're seeing, even with the frogs in the first grade, is tremendous investment. Kids really, really care about frogs. It wouldn't have been as deep if they would have studied frogs for two days and lizards for two days.

Students: It's just a frog that we made that sticks out its tongue. Not many people -- a lot of people wanted a tongue, but they didn't have to get a tongue, but I did.

Narrator: Gulfport, Mississippi's Harrison Central High School hasn't changed much since it was founded in 1957. But over the past several years, there's been a quiet revolution going on that has transformed Harrison's curriculum. In almost every classroom, cutting-edge technology tools are facilitating a new way of learning.

Student: There in the guild today, what could be said about national politics is A, the Republican party held the majority of voters, B..

Narrator: Now history lessons are as exciting as game shows.

Student: What is your final answer?

Narrator: Digital cameras help reveal the principles of physics.

Teacher: Are we collecting?

Narrator: Probes and laptops are used in real-world scientific explorations. They even use technology to improve their nationally-ranked cheerleading squad.

Teacher: We tried to come up with a conditioning program, and we used the computers and the probes to tell us what the heart rate was before they exercised, and then what it was afterwards, and also the respiration.

Student: Life without this stuff, we'd have no idea how much things have changed, and where we started and where we're at now.

Narrator: Data from the cheerleader workouts is given to students in an Algebra Two class for analysis.

Student: We used a thing called linear regression to get basically the average increase or decrease.

Karen: So you want to put your GPS's up this way. Those six numbers, those numbers you see there are satellites circling the earth.

Karen: They feel very comfortable with any of the technology nowadays. They follow their instructions very well because they're serious about it.

Karen: You see that word "position"? Tap on the "position" and look for "status."

Karen: It's not a field trip. When we go out there, the kids know that we're doing real science, and they're much more alert. But if it was just a field trip, they wouldn't be there because what does it really mean?

Karen: So if we know where Horney toads are, we want you to go to that site and we want you to write down that latitude and longitude on your paper, okay?

Narrator: To engage their students at the end of the year, the eighth grade teachers came up with a project focusing on cars.

Student: Oh a car. Look at it.

Narrator: Like most Landry projects, the car unit was featured across the eighth grade curriculum. In science class, students made balloon-propelled cars out of recycled materials, and road tested their various designs.

Teacher: Try to write some different selling points.

Narrator: In Language Arts, students wrote car commercials, and in math, they calculated loan payments.

Teacher: The six percent of whatever you get for item number seven.

Student: So multiply six percent...

Teacher: Times that.

Student: Okay.

Narrator: They also use the web to plan trips and find information on fuel economy, and environmental impacts.

Linda: I've had kids come back to me and tell me, "Do you remember that project we did?" They have never, ever come back to me and said, "Do you remember that test we did?" So I think that's the impact. If the kids remember, test scores will go up, and our tests always have.

Teacher: To the outside classroom, so..

Narrator: While students must draw on their knowledge of everything from math and English, to the aesthetics of design, they also learn an invaluable lesson in teamwork.

Joe: We can see how many we can fit. We can see how many we can fit.

Student: I'm thinking because..

Joe: When we finally started on the site model, there was constant little squabbling about, "Oh, this should go there."

Student: Just the bottom row itself, just holds twelve hundred people, right?

Joe: No, no, no. This entire thing holds twelve hundred people.

Student: Oh, the entire school.

Teacher: They're faced with this really complex problem that has certain constraints, and they have to figure out how to begin to make the decisions, and move the process forward. And how do you do that decision-making within a group? These are the things that are really maybe the most powerful learnings that come from it. The real life problem-solving communication, collaboration skills.

Joe: I did learn how to work with people that didn't think the way I did, and thought non-linear, didn't believe in deadlines sort of thing. They really think out of the box, which is not like me. I'm a completely in the box kind of person. You've got to make sure you work together good.

Student: Why not have the whole site's wall open? Be glass, facing the water.

Howard: People may be good test-takers, but once you leave the world of testing, you have to think for yourself because the world doesn't come organized in four choices with the fourth one being "none of the above."

Narrator: For schools that are challenging the high stakes testing movement, the goal is to put less emphasis on cramming, drills, and test-taking strategies, and focus on in-depth learning.

Anne: I'm all for high standards. I don't know of anybody who's for low standards. The question is do we get at what we're saying we want using the test to drive this? That's the real crux of it. And I would argue that we don't.

Teacher: R's represent that these are his strength areas, and also any time you see the shape of a triangle, those also represent the strengths..

Pat: We're interested in how students apply knowledge, and so students are required through their high school to do major projects each semester. At the end of high school, they should have eight major projects that they would have developed, that all of this is to be put together on a multimedia portfolio to document what it is they're capable of doing.

Leili: We've been working with the Egyptians because they had so many symbols and hieroglyphics and..

Leili: Compared to what sort of my friends in other schools do, I think it's more interesting over here because you really get to understand the thing more than just memorize stuff for a test, and write it down and forget it.

Narrator: Sarah Button is about to tear her heart out in front of her fifth-graders at the Patrick Daly school in Brooklyn.

Sarah: And her sister came into the room and said, "Are you going to wear those old rags to school?"

Linda: We are talking about a whole new vision of education that says that educating the heart is as important as educating the mind.

Daniel: Emotional intelligence, which refers to how you handle your own feelings, how well you empathize and get along with other people is just a key human skill, but it also turns out that kids who are better able to manage their emotions, for example, actually can pay attention better, can take in information better, can remember better. In other words, it helps you learn better.

Student: When I first moved here a year ago, no one really wanted to play with me, and all the fifth graders called me names.

Michael: What was it doing to your heart?

Student: It just made me feel really bad.

Michael: And what I try to teach the kids is that we have to be more real about our emotions, and back to the time of Macbeth, Shakespeare said, "Always give sorrow words. Grief that doesn't speak whispers to the overfraught heart and bids it to break."

Student: My main thing that's gotten me through all this is empathy.

Tony: I believe that the social, emotional component is clearly the most important part of a child's life, and I don't know of any child who learns best when they don't feel good about themselves. If we can create an environment where we feel good, and care for each other, everything else falls into place.

Student: It shouldn't be a world hate, it should be a world love.

Michael: Yeah.

Teacher: Speaking of ionic compounds, we've got this cool card game that you've seen before, but we're going to modify it a little bit.

Narrator: While project promised students are placed in classrooms just three weeks into the program, they don't go it alone. They are constantly monitored and supported by their peers.

Teacher: How do you think it went?

Teacher: I was really excited about the students.

Narrator: They're mentor teachers..

Teacher: It worked well, and it worked well for review.

Narrator: ...and by one of the program's directors.

Director: Then you had closure today and that was great. I think that's one of the first times, Carrie.

Teacher: I think the most important issue in teacher preparation is getting prospective teachers into real life classroom settings early. And if you're working with a mentored teacher, or an experienced teacher or college professor, that interaction can be very effective in learning how to teach.

Director: Your transition from the food labels to the game was a little rough, so just tie in what you're doing here and how it goes to there, and that's really going to help them make the connection about what they do instead of just having disjointed things.

Teacher: I like the way that you've taken that original card game, but then you did take it to another level this time, so the students had to write down the formulas. They could challenge each other. I thought it was great.

Narrator: Like most student performances, this winter celebration at Susan B. Anthony Elementary School in Sacramento, California gives parents a chance to watch their youngsters shine. But this holiday concert is different. The speeches and songs are translated into Spanish and a Mung dialect, just two of the 21 languages spoken by students at the school. A few years ago, this kind of gathering seemed impossible because language barriers and cultural differences made parents leery of any involvement with the school, and the disconnect between the school and community led to other problems.

Carol: When I first became principal here at Susan B. Anthony, the year before we had a tremendous number of suspensions, about 140 to be exact out of 500 children. Our attendance was not what it should be, and there were just not the day-to-day connections with the community that we needed for our students to achieve.

Teacher: Good job.

Narrator: Things began to change in 1998 when a small group of parents and staff at Susan B. Anthony got together with a non-profit community group to start a home visit program. Teachers from the school volunteered to visit the homes of their students twice a year to solicit input from parents and report on their child's progress in class.

Parent: I haven't seen you in a long, long time.

Teacher: It's not your usual the teacher's stopping by. It's we're coming together two by two, we'll visit you, we'll talk about what are your goals for your child, and how can we get your student there?

Teacher: How long have you lived in this area, in this community?

Leng: The kids are doing much better. I mean if they're misbehaved, I say, "I'm going to call your mom and dad." And then they stop, so they change. And also it really enhances their self-esteem too. It helps them feel good that I actually care about them. I actually take the time to go visit them in their home.

Teacher: Very good.

Carol: If you're getting a pin or a medal, and your parents is in the audience, please locate their hand and bring them up because they are part of your learning plan.

Narrator: Carol Sharp credits the home visit program for improving attendance and academic performance, and creating a new level of trust of communication.

Carol: I see students that really believe in themselves. I see parents that call me with questions on academics now. I also see a low suspension rate, less vandalism, increased in achievement, and attendance. So as I look at year-to-year, it's gotten better and better.

Carol: Congratulations, Angel.

Voice: Well howdy, boys and girls. Welcome to the McCaw School of Mines.

Narrator: Community volunteers built and financed the School of Mines, and local architect, Bill Snyder, volunteered to design it.

William: So we went to Disneyland and we went to the Indiana Jones ride where they created the illusion of taking people down underground and into a cave situation. So we sort of figured out with the resources that we had what we could do, and it's kind of funny because the company that built the Indiana Jones ride actually did the work here for us as well, and what we did to get them to do that, we had several kids help us write pleading letters to them and we took the model that we built of this and we set it in their lobby for about a month before they said, "Okay. We surrender. How can we help?"

Teacher: Everybody thinks we're just this Disneyland that people come to and leave. No. We have over one and a half million people in the valley here. The community really is involved in the school. The top CEOs come in to read to kids in our school district, mentor kids, and be good role models so that our kids feel they're valued in our community.

Thomas: Now who helps you with your homework at home?

Student: My calculator.

Thomas: Your calculator. But does your mother help you?

Thomas: The more smart kids we have, the better our future will be. The more kids that are able to take care of themselves and provide for themselves, the better we're going to be. So I said anyone who does not have a kid in the school, share. Just share what you have.

Narrator: There is an extraordinary community center in the heart of New York City. It offers a complete range of medical services from dental and medical check-ups, to mental health counseling. There are adult education classes, and computer training courses, a basketball program, and a bicycle shop. A dance company, and a string ensemble. Those are just a few of the activities offered afterschool at IS 218, a public intermediate school designed from the beginning to meet the needs of the entire community.

Jane: When I first came to this school, I noticed two things. I noticed that the children seemed happy, and I noticed that there were a lot of extra adults around, and I wanted to know what was happening here, and how we could make it happen in more places.

Teacher: Do you want to spell this one first?

Student: Okay.

Narrator: IS 218 is open six days a week from seven in the morning to nine at night all year long. It's the product of a partnership between the New York City Board of Education, and the Children's Aid Society, which pays for and administers the extracurricular programs.

Teacher: So I think that's comforting for the parents to see what type of stuff we have.

Jane: The needs are always greater than the resources that we can bring to the table, even collectively. But I think that we have found that if you have the word "Yes" written in your heart, you can make almost anything happen. And I think that we're living proof of that in our schools in New York City.

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