The Coolest School in America

By Shane Krukowski If you were to visit the ‘coolest school in America’, what would you expect to see?

What kind of classes do you think the school would have? What kind of classrooms? What kind of teachers? What kind of technology? What kind of students?

What if I told you the ‘coolest school in America’ didn’t really have any classes? No classrooms either!  Not really teachers — more so advisers and credit validators with big open spaces and workstations resembling workplace cubicles. No class bells or loud speaker announcement interruptions. All with modest technology and a modestly performing incoming student population, especially when using traditional measurements.

You probably wouldn’t believe me, or you may write it off as a nice outlier in the educational ecosystem. However, this is, indeed, what the Coolest School in America looks like.

The ‘coolest’ label was issued by Tom Vander Ark, the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  And the school happens to be the Minnesota New Country School located in Henderson, MN (an hour southwest of the Twin Cities). This 6-12th grade school individualizes the learning experience for every student by leveraging project and inquiry-based approaches across the board — and without apology.  It was also the first public school in the nation to be run by a cooperative — teachers work together as professionals to reach consensus and make school decisions. But Minnesota New Country is not alone. High schools like this are spouting up everywhere across the country and the momentum is only furthering us in this direction.

Groups like EdVisions Schools, Big Picture Schools and High Tech High Schools have been pioneering a better way forward and are producing compelling evidence that their new approaches make a difference.  Even the sacred cows of suburbia are starting to look at these models with genuine interest. Granted, you won’t see them use the same labels for these schools, but when you peel the onion, you see the same fundamental pieces as you’d see in these other organizations.

What’s so different? Why so compelling?

First, let’s start by putting some of the underlying assumptions out there.

  • People learn differently and a heck of a lot of people learn best by doing.
  • Outside of traditional academia, content areas do not stay neatly placed into their own containers. On the canvas of life, content is a messy smattering of vivid colors.  We organize and catalog these colors in order to better deal with information once we understand it, but the organization does not mean people contextualize and come to the understanding in that same manner.
  • Content grows exponentially. We’ll never get there if memorizing and regurgitating facts is what people define as good learning. Considering what we know about the world already today, we can’t discount the possibility that things could look significantly different — even in as little as four years.
  • Students learn best when they have voice in what athey’re learning and how they are learning it. Violent campuses, chronic disruptive behavior and de-moralized teachers seem to have a way of disappearing when kids actually want to be at school.

As a result, these cooler schools employ a much more open daily schedule that accommodates time for deeper learning experiences that are contextualized based upon learning styles. These schools also depend heavily on performance-based assessment, meaning students can’t rely on filling in some bubbles and washing their hands of ever applying what they’ve actually learned. For example, it’s really a sight to see when a 9th grader intelligibly fields questions from a community expert.

These schools create impressive learning communities. Individual learning styles and personal interests are valued, so students actually want to come to school. Likewise, since the professionals are able to be professionals and differentiate, it creates a morale for staff unlike traditional institutions. When students are grouped in multi-age advisories, mentoring becomes real and modeling of the project process becomes a norm for older students.

Interested in learning more? Meet students and teachers from “cool” schools like the ones I’ve described at the upcoming   360˚ LEARNING: EXHIBITION & UNCONFERENCE.  Join community members, businesses and schools to examine student work and share thoughts about the changing face of education in the Great Lakes region.

When: May 20, 2010
Time: 10:00AM – 6:00PM
Where: Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) Kern Center

Shane Krukowski is a Co-founder of Project Based Learning Systems- Before co-founding PBLS in 2005, Shane managed $1.25+ million of web development projects through his 3 years at Homeboyz Interactive (Milwaukee, WI) and year of consulting work after graduation.  Shane is passionate about educational reform and has been championing Project Foundry® since 2004. In 2006, Shane won the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition as well as placed 3rd in that year’s Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Competition. He earned an MBA from Marquette University in 2007 and a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Computer Management Systems from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2002. Shane lives in Milwaukee with his wife and two young children.

3 Responses to “The Coolest School in America”

  1. 1 Kris May 3, 2010 at 10:11 am

    That’s very interesting. On the surface it strikes me as faddish, especially after reading this article from the New York Times:

    On the other hand, the concept of teachers as advisors/facilitators of learning makes a lot of sense in our modern world.

    It’s probably worth further research and reflection.


  2. 2 Nichole May 11, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Project-based learning may seem faddish as it is a buzz word in education at the moment. What seems to be the case is that many schools have students do teacher-guided projects, but at MNCS, the students design the projects and the staff is there to help them meet their goals. MNCS has been around for 16 years and keeps working for the students that attend. Come for a visit if you are in MN!


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