Finding the Right School: If it Doesn’t Have These 10 Features, Keep Looking

While not all families have the luxury of multiple options for where to send children to school, there are a growing number of possibilities for many of us: traditional public schools, magnet schools, charter schools (with emphases from STEM to project-based learning, performing arts to futures in health care), independent private schools, parochial schools, virtual and blended learning schools, and homeschooling. Some of these options are free (either because they are public or you live in a place where a choice program allows you to cover the cost of private school education), while others include a modest (a few hundred) to massive (reaching over $40,000) price tag. Whatever the case, I suggest ten features to seek and/or expect from schools in the 21st century. Each of us are likely to rank these differently. Some may consider one feature so dominant and personally important, that it becomes worth it, even in the absence of many others. Other people might see them as equally important, seeking out a school that has all ten features. Either way (even if you would rather use a list of your own making), I offering the following ideas a starting point for your deliberations.

Beware. These will challenge and help you imagine and find schooling options for your children that might be very different from your own schooling experiences. The “it was good enough for me” mindset is not always the best. After all, if I had a surgical procedure 30 years ago and my child now needs the same procedure, would I really want them to have it done the same way it was done for me, regardless of the newer and potentially better technologies and resources of today? I contend that the same idea applies to schooling options. With that said, here are ten ideas to consider.

1. Personalization – Look for places that recognize the uniqueness of each student and actually strive to redesign the school and learning experiences around this uniqueness. In this age, I see little reason to tolerate a school that persists in a one-size-fits-all factory approach to education. We have the technologies, resources, and knowledge needed to do things differently. Look for the places where your students can benefit from such a perspective. While I recognize that there are limits to the diversity of needs and types of students that one school may be able to effectively serve, beware of places where the primary expectation is that students conform to the whims and preferences of each teacher or administrator. So, why not look for the school that is able to adapt to the unique needs of your child(ren)?

2. Alignment with your family’s deepest belief’s, convictions and values – School can be a wonderful opportunity to learn from and interact with a diversity of people and perspectives. At the same time, you don’t go to medical school to become a lawyer or beauty school to become a plumber. That is because each of these schools have different purposes and they have very different types of impact on the learners. The same is true when it comes to the formation of young people in areas of their beliefs, convictions and values. Why not find a learning community that shares what your family holds dear, that will support the lessons that you teach your children in the home? As one wise person shared with me, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”

3. Strength-based education – Some schools are excellent at identifying where students are weak, making sure students are aware of their weaknesses, and then creating plans that ensure students spend the majority of their time focusing upon improving their weaknesses. There is certainly a time to focus upon developing areas of weakness, but a strength-based approach also values discovering your strengths, and being invited to invest ample time and energy in those strengths. Look for schools that talk and act this way.

4. Teachers who embrace their work as a calling and lifestyle, and who love to learn. – Some things are taught. Others are caught. We want students to catch the joy and wonder of learning. This can be greatly enhanced by teachers who truly pursue teaching as a calling in life. It is part of their identity. They invest time in growing and improving as teachers, not just for a raise, but because this is who they are, what they love to do, and they want to get better at it. Students will sense this and benefit from it. Similarly, contrast teachers who see school as a task to complete with those who truly embrace life as learning. The task mindset can spread quickly, cultivating what I’ve referred to as a culture of earning instead of learning. Look for evidence that teachers and administrators in prospective schools see life and learning as wonderfully interconnected. Look for people who read, create, design, and invest themselves in a life of learning, not just learning as a job or task to complete.

5. Deep commitment to helping students learn how to learn, to grow as a self-directed learner. – I’ve written a great deal about SDL on my blog, so this one will come as no surprise to many of you. Look for schools that don’t just teach content and subjects, but that teach and mentor students in learning how to grow as independent self-directed learners. This doesn’t happen from schools and classes that try to control, dictate, and instruct constantly. That cultivates skill in compliance, but it doesn’t help them learn to do things for themselves.

6. An undeniable culture of commitment to helping each student discover, refine, and build upon her/his gifts, talents, abilities and passions. – Related to the point about strength-based education, one of the valuable parts of an education is exploring who you are, your gifts, talents, abilities and passions. Look for schools that have a full culture committed to doing this with students, and then providing them opportunities to invest in building on these things. This will most certainly require a commitment to #1 mentioned above, personalization. For example, I went to a high school where one teacher created an ancient history elective simply because a small number of us students had a passion for it and wanted to explore it. I think the teacher even did this above and beyond his regular teaching load. It remains one of my most memorable high school classes.

7. Schools that are committed to minimizing or abandoning the game of school. – Beware of schools that invest the majority of their energy in teaching school to students. How much of the day is spent getting in lines, being taught how to be silent, raise your hand, hold it while you need to go to the bathroom, perform for nothing other than avoidance of a low grade or pursuit of a high one? These are all part of the game of school, a game with rules that don’t really apply or help in most other parts of life. While some of these things may be a part of certain school cultures, look for places that emphasize authentic learning, and you hear teachers and students talking more about what they are learning than what rules should be followed. I’m not suggesting that the schools be absent of rules, only that school not be primarily about rules.

8. Frequent opportunities for deep learning. – Rush students from 45-minute class to 45-minute class and there is little time to dig deep into any one subject. Yet, some of the most amazing learning treasures are only found with the time to dig deeply into them. Look for schools that are creatively providing frequent chances for learners to go deep.

9. Safety – This should go without saying. Without physical, emotional and social safety; it is hard to think about learning. Those basic needs flood our thoughts and emotions. So, find places that take this seriously, that have no tolerance for bullying, that monitor how safe students feel and actually are (both matter) safe.

10. Community – Learning in community is an amazing experience. The joy of accomplishing something that can’t be done alone is a rich and powerful learning experience. Many schools talk about the value of community and their commitment to it, but look for strong and persistent evidence that it is really there, not just students interacting at recess, before and after school, and in the hallways. Look for experiences where students are interacting in pairs, small groups, and the like around their learning. Again, many schools talk “learning community”, but if you listen, you may rarely hear and see conversations and community activities where learners are cooperating and collaborating. Also, beware of rash assumptions about this one. For example, there are many stereotypes about homeschooling lacking this element, but I know many homeschool situations where there is much more collaborative learning than happens in traditional schools.

I’m sure that you have features of your own. For example, I didn’t mention things like high academic standards, as that is one that most of us already have on our mental list. These certainly represent my own convictions and values, but I offer them as a starting point for thought and deliberation. They might not only serve as a resource for families considering schools and homeschooling, but also for schools examining their own culture and commitments.


Posted in blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).