Wednesday / May 29

Imagine What School Could Be… 

We need a particular type of innovation, the kind that makes the world a better place. This generation of young people needs to solve problems with a level of complexity and magnitude rarely seen over the course of human history. 

Pollution and contamination of the environment, lack of access to resources for a growing number of people, changing weather patterns and ecosystems, the rise and spread of international terrorism, a polarized populace, global poverty, rapid urbanization and large-scale migration—the question for our generation of teachers is, “How do we prepare young people to tackle problems we currently don’t know how to solve?” 

Consider these facts from The Necessary Revolution (Senge, 2010): 

  • More than a third of the world’s forests have disappeared in the past 50 years. 
  • Many diseases are far more prevalent due to toxins in products like food and children’s toys. 
  • Five hundred million chronically underemployed people live in slums, a figure that is increasing by 50 million each year. 

And these from Creating Innovators (Wagner, 2012): 

  • Senior business executives say “the greatest innovations of the 21st century will be those that help to address human needs more than those that create the most profit” (p. 6). 
  • Young people are deeply worried about the future of the planet and want to make a difference more than they want to make money. 

Now, put those facts next to these (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016a, 2016b): 

  • Thirty percent of U.S. students drop out of high school. 
  • Fifty-four percent of students who start college do not complete it. 


  • The most popular word students selected to describe how they usually feel in school was “bored” (Lyons, 2004). 

Businesses want creativity and ideas that address human needs. Today’s young people want to do something meaningful, now. Meanwhile, students are bored and opting out of school in droves. 

More than ever, students need to transfer their learning to real-world, highly dissimilar situations. What we know about dissimilar transfer is that it requires an abstraction to the conceptual level, deeply grounded in a knowledge base. We can and should start with low-road, academic transfer of learning but quickly move across the spectrum toward high-road, real-world transfer of learning. 

What would schools look like if we were developing students as collaborative innovators ready to tackle the world’s most complex challenges?  

Picture a school organized around real-world problems that require the flexible application of each subject’s concepts with an eye toward identifying and developing students’ passions. Students would engage in a variety of experiences that ask them to contribute to building a healthy, sustainable, and just world. 

The students in this world-changing school are probably not sitting in desks in rows learning in 50-minute blocks of time, are they? Imagine students choosing an environmental or health situation to solve while they explore concepts of science and mathematics—for example, discovering renewable energy solutions for a major company or reducing infant mortality in a developing nation. 

Picture a senior who has identified politics and conflict resolution as his passion. He has chosen to analyze a nation with civil strife, the Central African Republic, and make recommendations for improving the situation. Monday morning starts off with a Skype conference call with a nongovernmental organization from Mozambique that will share lessons learned from the end of that country’s civil war in 1992. 

After he finishes the call, the student and his team note down action steps and divide the tasks based on each member’s interests and expertise. They have two weeks until the next call and before then have two scheduled team meetings and a full-day lab session to work on this project with an expert and the teacher who is mentoring the group. This project is called the Grand Challenge. 

At the end of year, the student’s team will present its work to a group of experts who will evaluate the students’ technical skills, application of conceptual understanding, ability to think critically, and collaboration skills. If the work measures up to the standards for a particular area, they’ll receive a badge denoting their skills. 

This student has been deepening his understanding of concepts such as authorityrule of lawjusticeconflict, and freedom since elementary school. He became a peer counselor in the second grade and has always had a passion for building empathy between disagreeing people or groups. He has read The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria, two books on America’s democracy by Akhil Amar, and many books on Africa and developing nations. He spent last summer as a peer counselor with youth in a special juvenile detention center where he deepened his skills and understanding of conflict resolution. He has already transferred his understanding of civil strife to several situations, as he analyzed Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War in eighth grade and Europe after World War II in tenth grade. He feels prepared for the Grand Challenge, as all of his learning experiences have led him to this level of thinking and application. 

In addition to the Grand Challenge project and individualized course, he also participates in five courses that all seniors take: Thinking Like a Mathematician, Thinking Like a Historian, Thinking Like an Engineer, Thinking Like a Journalist, and Collaboration & Problem Solving. For each of these courses, teachers design learning experiences that help him hone his disciplinary thinking, deepen his conceptual understanding of the discipline, and learn key factual information. Each week he applies what he is learning in one of these courses to real-world problems that his peers have chosen as their Grand Challenge. During these disciplinary thinking labs, a team presents a problem they are facing as part of their Grand Challenge to the students in the class. The students are charged with using the conceptual understanding and thinking of the discipline to help the team better understand the issues, test a possible idea, or develop a solution. Teachers act as coaches who help structure the learning and provide feedback during these labs. 

The last element of this student’s weekly schedule is coaching a disciplinary thinking lab for sixth graders. This helps him strengthen his thinking in an area of his choice, create community in the school, and give the adult teachers more time to plan rich learning experiences for students and provide effective feedback. 

As he thinks about what lies ahead for the week after his Monday morning call, he is excited. He knows the work he is doing is tapping into his passions and purpose. It is also intellectually challenging—he is always uncovering and applying conceptual understanding, evaluating his own thinking using intellectual standards, and applying that thinking to the real world. He believes that his efforts in school will truly change the world—and the great thing is that they will. 

It starts with conceptual understanding. As you try out the strategies and become an expert conceptual teacher, know that you are taking a giant step toward preparing students to tackle problems that we don’t yet know how to solve. Your impact can be tremendous—and it’s just what the world needs now. 

This post is an excerpt from Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary. 

Written by

​Julie Stern is an author, trainer and instructional coach, supporting schools in transforming teaching and learning around the globe. Her depth and breadth of knowledge combined with her vision and contagious energy make her an in-demand facilitator in many areas including visible learning, concept-based curriculum, differentiated classrooms and formative assessments. Julie is the author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, is certified in researcher John Hattie’s Visible Learning as well as H. Lynn Erickson’s Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction. She is a James Madison Constitutional Scholar and taught social studies for many years in DC and Louisiana. Julie previously served as the director of public policy and curriculum innovation at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools in Washington, DC, where she led the revision of curriculum in all subject areas grades 6 – 12. Her email is: and her blog is

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