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Innovations High School – The School of the Future

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The clearest evidence that education is in a time of transition is the fact that there is a new model or fad popularized in the media every week or two. I myself am guilty of this, having just recently written pieces about the New American Academy and Quest to Learn as education models that might have applicability not only in K-12 classrooms, but also in higher education. What these two efforts have in common is that they represent a break from the industrial education model of the past, they have a significant reliance on technology, and their curriculums are designed to teach children to be innovators. This week’s entry into the fray is Innovations High School in Salt Lake City Utah. Touted by reporter Robyn Bagley as "the first of its kind in the nation," is Innovations High really that innovative? And if it is, could it hold the key to unlocking the future of education?

Innovation Is the Future
Innovations High is, on paper at least, a perfect match for the information age. In a fast-paced world characterized by knowledge creation and management as the primary vehicles for economic progress, education needs to be both flexible and to present students with structured opportunities to build their media and technological literacy. At the same time, students need to gain practical experiences that will prepare them for higher education or the working world.

Almost every job or process that can be routinized and done at a distance has or will be outsourced to foreign countries where labor remains cheaper.  One thing that Americans have traditionally done well, and continue to do, is to produce innovative ideas, and creativity is the key to the future of the American economy (Marquis, 14 March, 2012). Our traditional, industrial age education system does not (in fact, cannot by definition) produce innovative thinkers. Students working under this model are taught to be worker drones that respond to bells and follow other people’s orders. Innovations High seeks to break this oppressive model through a cutting-edge curriculum that works in direct opposition to our outdated education model. Here’s how.

Key Features
There are several features of the Innovations High experience that are so revolutionary that they have previously appeared mainly as theoretical best practices for how education should look in the 21st Century. Among these innovations are:

  • A self-paced curriculum – students work at their own pace during a year-round academic calendar and an extended yet flexible 7:00am to 5:00pm school day where accelerated students can work faster and struggling students can take the time necessary to reach mastery.
  • Mastery-based education – While not explicitly stated in the school literature, it is implied that students work towards mastery of topics rather than completing subjects within a given time. This strategy makes learning a constant while allowing time to be variable. This is extremely effective and more accurately reflects the ways in which learning happens in the real world.
  • Blended F2F and online courses – Contributing to the self-paced nature of the education at Innovations High, students can take online classes that allow them to work at their own pace and at times that are convenient for them. Additionally, working online helps students develop a digital skill set that will help them become successful in the information age.
  •  Technology-centric curriculum – Based on the course offerings available, technology represents the core of the educational experience at Innovations. There are a wide range of technology courses (more than non-technology courses, in fact) including,  C++ programming, Java programming, .net programming, digital photography, digital video production, Flash animation, Web design, 3-D graphics and animation, computer networking, etc.
  • Internship opportunities – Students have the opportunity to participate in senior internships in their chosen career path. Harkening back to an older apprenticeship model, internships support students in both developing real world technical and soft skills while also helping them to make connections that can reduce the hardship of transitioning from school into the workplace.
  • Individualized education – The combination of time flexibility, online options, internships, a wide variety of classes, and a counselor-facilitated "self-paced Personalized Education Plans" help each student craft an individualized experience that suits their interests, academic level, and intended career path. This model exactly reflects the way in which learning happens outside of schools in a connected, always on, user-centered world and supports students in developing the habits that will make them lifelong learners.
  • Support for a variety of learning styles – The flexibility and self-paced nature of the program, as well as the hands-on, interactive nature of many of the classes, allows students with different learning preferences to cater their education to the style of learning which is most effective for them.
  •  Parental involvement – Relying on hi-tech communication tools, parents can monitor their children’s progress on a daily basis. The simple fact that the expectation for parental involvement is a core principle of the school will help keep students on task, motivated, and engaged and is one of the most important factors in student success according to teachers (Innovations High School, Our School)

This is a long list of goal and techniques that should allow students at Innovations High to effectively develop skills and knowledge that are essential to successful employment in an information-based economy. One question remains however, will "Innovations" High School really teach students to be innovative?

The Seeds of Innovation
The curriculum of Innovations High is certainly just that – innovative. It incorporates some of the most progressive educational techniques currently available – techniques that can also be seen in other advanced K-12 schools such as Quest to Learn and the New American Academy. What is not evident from the school’s literature or from any evidence currently available is how this curriculum supports students in becoming truly creative thinkers. The structure is certainly present to allow students to explore topics that could lead to innovation, but is the support or focus available that supports them in developing creative ideas? One of the core components necessary to make students think in innovative ways is an active support for thinking across disciplines and synthesizing new information from disparate sources. Additionally, students are encouraged to become innovators if there is an entrepreneurial culture and expectation associated with the instruction. It is unclear whether this focus is also present in the school. The seeds for innovation are present and will be sown by the individualized nature of the curriculum, but even so, they will require support and care in order to blossom into true innovate, 21st Century leaders.