43 Questions for Planning and Starting Your Dream School

What does it take to build your dream school? That is a the question explored by hundreds who competed for 10 million dollars through the XQ Super School Project, but there are plenty of others who think about this apart from the competition. Whether it is an early childhood center, elementary school, high school or University, there are plenty of mundane requirements, but the essence of a school is about more than filling out the proper paperwork with the appropriate agencies. It is about creating a compelling vision for the school, building a coalition, and exploring answers to any number of core questions. Yet, plenty of efforts to create a new school work from largely predefined plans. It is the equivalent of building a home from a kit. You are just replicating what others did, following the instructions, building it, and going from there. Sometimes this works out well for people. Yet, there are also those times when a person or group comes along and decided to create a new type of school, breaking new ground, and creating a new sense of what is possible.

The Competition

This is the sort of idea that inspired the XQ Super School Project, a 50 million dollar offer for designers of the next great American school. I wrote about this last year, soon after the competition launched. Yet, in a matter of months, this project quickly turned into far more than a competition for funding. People from around the United States logged into the system and began to build local and dispersed teams, each of which worked together to create a plan for a new school. If you talk to many of these people, what might have started with the hope of getting the funding turned into a passion that drove many teams forward  regardless of what ultimately happens with the money. These are people on a mission, driven by a compelling vision, shaped by lots of work, collaboration, research, and soliciting input from students and others. I’m excited to see what comes from the many teams that followed through on their plans, and will now help add new and valuable educational options to the modern educational system. 

How to Build a School

So, what does it take to build a new school? Following is a list of the questions that the Super School Project used as a guide for the participants. Each answer gets you one more step to making that dream school a reality. In fact, as I looked through the questions, these are the sorts of questions that we can use to inform any number of great projects. With a few adjustments, these can guide plans for the next great K-12 school, University, continuing education business, open learning movement, or education startup. They represent the sort of questions that go into a solid business plan, preparation from a social entrepreneurship endeavor, and more. If you take the questions seriously, this the questions will drive you to think deeply, connect with others, garner critical input, conduct research, build your competence and confidence, and finally gain the clarity of vision needed to build something truly distinct.
You can find these questions on the Super School Project website as well, along with a wealth of other helpful and inspiring resources. I’d also like to thank the friends at the Super School Project for permitting me to include the questions here. Most are taken word for word, but I did tweak it a little bit, turning some statements into questions or cutting back on the word length in other instances.

The Questions

  1. What will you name your school?
  2. What is the bold and compelling idea at the center of your school?
  3. How will you get input from young people to make sure that your school truly serves the needs of the learning community and beyond?
  4. How will you get insight about how to best prepare students for life after your school (college, work, etc.)?
  5. What inspiring examples, research, and ideas from others will you tap into for the design of your school?
  6. How will you make sure that all the elements o the school come together to create a consistently powerful learning experience for students?
  7. Whom will your school serve?
  8. How many students will the school serve once you are fully operational/enrolled?
  9. What is the makeup of the dream team that you’ve assembled to make this school a reality?
  10. What additional expertise and/or people do you need to make this happen?
  11. What are your top three insights about the challenges facing your prospective students in the 21st century, both globally and in your community? Create a description (text, video, charts, other) that illustrates these insights.
  12. What are the top three insights from young people about how they experience school and learning in their lives, about how they see their education and career opportunities, and about your role in preparing them for the future? Create a description (text, video, charts, other ) that illustrates these insights.
  13. What are your top three insights about how young people learn — the insights you’re most passionate about bringing to life in your school? Create a description (text, video, charts, other) that illustrates these insights.
  14. What mission, purpose, and core values will animate and unify your school? (Consider how these might build the engagement of students and adults, rally the support of your community, and drive the development of your school.) Create a description (text, video, charts, other) that illustrates the mission, purpose, and core values.
  15. How will your school support and enable students to form positive identities as continuous learners, build complex skills, and contribute as members of their communities? Create a profile or persona of 2-3 potential student stories of your future school. Describe their growth and development through school. Create a description (text, video, charters, other) that tells the story of these three people, something you could share with prospective students, teachers, and parents, including how your school will cultivate student agency and engagement.
  16. What partners will be part of the ongoing work of the school? Explain how partners will work together to design and plan the school, and how your partnership will support student learning, engagement, development, and connection to post-secondary success. Create a description (text, video, charts, other) that illustrates how you will draw on these partnerships to enhance the student experience.
  17. What roles will teachers, leaders, and other adults play in your school? What specialized knowledge and skills will they need?
  18. What are your plans for staff recruitment? What sources will you explore?
  19. How will you enlist nontraditional educators to optimize your school design?
  20. How will you foster a strong professional learning community and promote continuous learning and improvement?
  21. What barriers do you anticipate, and how will you overcome them?
  22. How will you measure growth in every student’s learning? How will you identify problems, challenges, and opportunities? What tools and procedures will you use to gather this information, and how often?
  23. How will you collect feedback on your instructional program, the overall experience of students, and the effectiveness of school leadership? How will you understand and improve performance based on this feedback?
  24. How can you use standard data sources differently to rethink student assessment from the bottom up? What data are not being collected through existing systems?
  25. What do you need to know about your students’ academic competencies, social-emotional development, and real-world interests in order to guide their journeys to adulthood?
  26. How can your school use time, space, and technology in innovative ways that enhance opportunities for students to learn and grow and for teachers to thrive and succeed?
  27. How will your students spend their time during the day and throughout the school year?
  28. How might you use spaces inside and beyond your school to enhance learning? How will you develop or get access to those spaces?
  29. What technologies will help you create the best possible learning experiences for your students?
  30. What is the current school finance situation in the community you wish to serve? What funding streams for youth and education are available to you? How flexible are they, and are there any rules and constraints for these funds?
  31. What is the total cost of implementing your school model?
  32. How will you use resources creatively to fulfill your mission?
  33. How do you expect to use money strategically during the development year prior to opening your school How about for the first five years of operations?
  34. How will you ensure that your school is financially sustainable? What funds—beyond per-pupil allocations—do you anticipate needing over the long term? How will you secure them?
  35. Who has the financial expertise to make your innovations real? Are they willing to help or be a part of your team?
  36. Will your school be an independent charter school, a school within a charter network, or a school within a district? What are the pros and cons of each?
  37. How will you ensure fair and effective policies regarding student enrollment, calendar, hiring, procurement and purchasing, curriculum, and other matters? How much discretion will you need in these matters to enact your innovation?
  38. Which champions will you need to provide your school with guidance and support, and to ensure accountability for legal requirements, sound fiscal practices, and high expectations for student learning?
  39. How will students influence the ongoing governance of your school? What opportunities for leadership can you give them?
  40. What do you need to do in order to evolve from concept to implementation? Who needs to be involved, at what level of commitment, and in what roles?
  41. Organizations develop habits very early in their operations. What mission critical practices can you build in from the beginning?
  42. What gaps, barriers, and threats could hamper your ability to fully implement your design? How will you address them?
  43. How will you stay flexible to differences in the way your team members view processes and priorities? How will you adapt when your expectations don’t match reality?

When Every Family is a Startup

What I’m about to share is nothing new, but it is a significant societal and economic change in this connected world, and I contend that it has large and important implications for thinking about the nature of education in a connected world.

I returned from a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam a couple of months ago. While I was only there for a couple of days, I continue to think about the cultural experience. I don’t know what this says about me but I thoroughly enjoyed crossing busy streets in Hanoi. Amid countless cars and scooters rushing by, friends told me to just drop my head, step out into traffic and walk slowly but steadily across the street. Just don’t stop or change pace as someone may well hit you, they explained. Again, I’m not sure why I enjoyed this so much. Perhaps it was because I got to disregard pretty much every childhood rule that I’d ever learned about crossing the street or “playing in traffic.”

Walking or riding through the streets of Hanoi, you can’t help but notice the line of small businesses run out of the street-side first floor of each building, with families often living above. I’m certainly no expert on Vietnam, Vietnamese economics or the Vietnamese business landscape, but I was told that almost all of these are family businesses do not reach the financial threshold that requires them to go through formal processes with the government. Or some do, but they just don’t report it. If it is run by you and family, and you don’t make too much money, it is pretty quick and easy to start as many family businesses as you want, and that is a common way of life for families in a city like Hanoi. As such, one person indicated that many, perhaps even most, families living in Hanoi had one or more family businesses. It might be making and serving one type of street food. Or, it might be a simple and singular craft or service.

As other businesses develop in Vietnam, this massive family small business framework may well fade, with more people opting for jobs in companies. Again, I don’t know the Vietnamese landscape so perhaps that transition is well underway. Regardless, I’m intrigued by the parallel between what I saw in Vietnam and what is happening in the United States and the digital world at large, the growing options for work from home, self-employment, and small businesses.

Could it be that what I saw in Vietnam gives me a glimpse into what is happening in the digital landscape? The more I thought about this, the more similarities I saw between Ebay and these family businesses of Hanoi. One difference, and this is obviously a major one, is that the business efforts happening in the United States are often experimental and supplemental, offering people disposable income above and beyond what many do for full-time job. Yet, that is not true for all, and this digital marketplace has extended around the world. In fact, I just hired a person from Vietnam, another from Russia, and two more from the United States through an online service to do some graphic design work for me. There are plenty of people who have learned how to tap into the connected world to generate significant income or even a full-time salary.

The digital world, even going back to the 1990s, helped to create spaces for people to explore and experiment with self-employment, even if mainly for supplemental purposes. I remember the personal realization in the 1990s that, if I could generate any kind of website that garnered the attention of 10-20,000 viewers a month, I could create a business out of it.

Just scan what is happening on Ebay, Etsy, UpWork, Udemy, Fiverr, Patreon, Kickstarter, TeachersPayTeachers, and hundreds of other similar online services.

  • With Ebay, anyone can become a broker of used (or new) goods.
  • With Etsy, anyone skilled in a craft (or who gain access to purchase crafts so they can resell them to people in other parts of the country or world where there is higher demand) can set up a storefront.
  • With UpWork, you can be a consultant or independent contractor as a programmer, graphic designer or illustrator, administrative assistant, writer, social media specialist, editor or dozens of other areas. These people make money ranging from a few dollars an hour to well over a hundred dollars an hour, they can set their own hours, and they can do their work from pretty much anywhere.
  • With Udemy, people are designing fee-based, non-credit online courses on everything from photography to setting up a blog, and there are plenty of people who are making solid five and six-figure incomes doing it.
  • With Fiverr, people are making extra money by doing even simple tasks like writing a 300-word blog post.
  • Patreon is a digital platform that draws from a century-old tradition of sponsors or patron’s of certain people’s work, especially artists, but it extends far beyond that.
  • With Kickstarter and dozens of other crowd-funding sites, people are getting the capital necessary to produce a product ranging from a documentary to a new electronic device. Or, they are just using it to get pre-orders for products and services.
  • With TeachersPayTeachers, educators are selling worksheets, lesson plans and other products of their work as classroom teachers; and some boast of making six figures doing as much.

With modern debates about workforce development and the role of college education, these sorts of platforms offer us a glimpse into a future where most families have what many still consider a non-traditional revenue stream, even if it is a supplemental one. It shows us that anyone with valued knowledge or skill, regardless of how it is developed or acquired, has a better chance than ever to turn that knowledge and skill into an opportunity for significant income. We live in an age where it is easier than ever to create multiple streams of income without ever leaving your house. Who knows, we may well see ourselves venturing into a future where almost every family is a startup or small business. Given this emerging future, what are the implications for our schools and education system?

Meet Breakout EDU: Proof That Learning & Fun Go Together

In 2005, James Sanders started as a classroom teacher in South Los Angeles, where he continued for the next five years. In his words, he was “lucky enough to be one of the first teachers to use Chromebooks in the classroom” as a pilot with Google. Of course, there must have been more than luck at work as he went on to be head of innovation for KIPP Bay Area Schools, worked with education projects at Google, was co-founder of ClassBadges, became a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and more recently, James became the founder of Breakout EDU.

From their web site:

Breakout EDU creates ultra-engaging learning games for people of all ages. Games (Breakouts) teach teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and troubleshooting by presenting participants with challenges that ignite their natural drive to problem-solve.

James explained that the idea for Breakout EDU came when he and Michael Wacker were in Canada at an escape room with a group of teachers and students. If you haven’t experienced an escape room, you get locked in a room and work with others to solve a series of challenges/puzzles/riddles to get out. With his background in the classroom, James already knew that play was a powerful tool for learning. Combine the experience of a classroom teacher and that of a rich game design like an escape room and you get the birth of an education startup that is building an impressive community of educators who are excited about mixing games and learning.

Of course, there are problems with locking students in a room, but you can still use the game and puzzle part, and that is just what Breakout EDU does. They provide you with the starter kit or the instructions to build your own. It consists of a wooden box, a series of different types of combination locks, an invisible ink pen, and a few other items to get you started. Then there are the games. Among the 70+ existing Breakout EDU games, only a small portion were developed by the Breakout EDU team. The rest are built by the wonderfully creative and engaged Breakout EDU teacher community.

Richard Feynman Quote of PuzzlesJames is quick to note that the power isn’t in the box and locks but in the power of play, and putting these tools into the hands of great teachers. When you have that combination (pardon the pun), you get a community of students who are deeply engaged and working incredibly hard to solve problems. Along the way they are developing skills like collaboration and problem-solving, and they are gaining some content area knowledge as well.

At this point, Breakout EDU has not done any traditional marketing or promotion. They are still in beta and believe strongly in that, using this as a time to refine their ideas with the help of a vibrant community. Of course, the word is getting out, and the interest is growing, as evidenced by the robust Facebook group and the fact that I’m seeing presentations about Breakout EDU at EdCamps, regional education conferences, and in the online chatter among those in the larger educational technology community.

If you read my blog, I’m often talking in grand terms, speaking of potentially disruptive innovations or the wide scale impact of a new technology or company. James is cautious, even skeptical of such language, claiming that Breakout EDU is not a solution to any great educational problem. For James, “it is just a tool.” However, he clearly has a simple but compelling mission in Breakout EDU. He sees this as an opportunity to show people that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive.

Breakout EDU is also completely open. It is an open community. They provide everything that you need to build your own kit, so anyone with less than a hundred dollars for supplies and a local Target or Home Depot has pretty much everything that they need to get started. Anyone can design a game or use the other games, and there is nothing proprietary.

In an education startup space where many are designing entirely virtual products and services, Breakout EDU maintains a keen interest in the physical element. Many of the existing games certainly have a blend of the online and physical, but James believes that, “there is something powerful in getting them to move around and work in groups.”

Such an approach in the classroom is also an interesting way to reconsider the role of failure. Where failure on a test or assignment is no laughing matter and often even a cause serious concern, failure in a game becomes part of the learning experience. A group might have 75-100 failed attempts at solving a puzzle before they find the right solution. This is a good thing in a game, and failure becomes just part of the journey to success.

In the contemporary education startup space of people positioning for large market share and massive financial support, Breakout EDU is a refreshing exception. They are not seeking venture capital. They are not quick to rush out of the beta phase. They truly embody the spirit of Nail It Then Scale It, but they seem far more driven by building a great model that helps teachers than creating some world-renowned educational gaming company. As much as I could tell from James, they truly are a mission before margin outfit, a fine example of social entrepreneurship in the education space.

In the past, I’ve written about how I see potential in being a humble radical in the education space, but Breakout EDU is a good example of what I mean. They have a compelling vision, but they are more grounded in the present than grand dreams of the future. They embrace the fact that what they have is a work in progress, and they invite a community of educators to help with that progress. They are providing something of potentially great value to educators, but they refuse to overstate the potential impact of what they’ve provided.

As such, I’ll give the Breakout EDU community the last word in this article. As our chat was coming to an end, I asked James about what sort of results teachers were finding from their games. James simply posted that question to the Facebook group, and following is how the community members responded.

Mindy C. I have found that my students earning D/F’s are often the ones solving clues! It’s awesome to see them participating and finding success.

Sara B. Yes! Students that don’t do well in “traditional” school assignments seen to thrive here. Maybe it says something about their thinking…

Bailey C. I know as a new teacher I’ve been really having a tough time getting my students on board with the idea that learning isn’t always a “show me on a quiz” process. It finally clicked with them now that I am doing content based breakouts and they are having fun exploring topics rather than focussing on “what’s going to be on the test.”

Jody M. I have seen a student who, in regular math class, refuses outright to do any math at all (very bright, autistic spectrum), but in a breakout sat twice with pencil & paper to show another student how she felt something should be solved.

Jessica G. The first two breakouts I did, I had one student who would completely give up because it was “hard” and he was “stupid.” Then, after a pep-talk about perseverance, this same student KILLED the next breakout, solving clues left and right. The smile on his face was priceless when he realized he could do it if he set his mind to it…..Attitude is everything! smile emoticon

Michelle J. Some students (who feel they are “not smart enough”) have been able to appreciate their own special gifts when they think differently and are able to help the group of solve a problem. The feedback process for me has been very important, as well as being able to give students the opportunity to design their own games.

Maria G. One of my favorite things I heard in the debrief after a game with 8th graders showed me what a big role inference plays in BreakoutEDU games. They were saying that they loved not being told what they were going to learn and having to figure it out by themselves. You can see a sense of empowerment that they felt. This to me was such a powerful positive example of what these games bring to learning.

Donna W. We played one game with 5th graders during their Media Center pullout time. None of the groups were able to breakout in the time allotted. However, every time they see the Media Coordinator they ask when they will have another opportunity to Breakout. They were engaged, thinking, collaborating during the activity. They didn’t give up and they want to try again- calling that a win-win!

Toni H. During a debrief session, a student(special education) identified that he became obsessed with the lock rather than using clues to solve it. He plans to use the clues in his next Breakout session. His teacher couldn’t believe he identified the issue and planned for improving.

Heather L. I found it interesting how my high level kids struggle with both the breakout box lessons and the weekly homework challenges. The lower level kids excelled during the breakout box lesson. I watched the advanced students get frustrated by the thought an…

Bailey C. Agree! I’m seeing similar things. However, my gifted students do not fit well into that mold. I’ve found mine get pretty competitive and proprietary over their solutions.

A Virtual Internship Startup That Meets the Needs of Universities & Companies

Part of what I love about my work is simply learning about the many interesting and innovative things that people are doing in the education space. This is sometimes happening with new school startups, intrapreneurs within existing schools, and in classrooms around the world. However, there is so much happening in the education startup world as well, which is part of why I enjoy doing a modest amount of consulting in that space.

At least three or four times a week, I get an email, LinkedIn message, or direct message from one of those education startups, rarely to pitch a product. It is usually just to share ideas back and forth. Perhaps they came across an article that I wrote, one of my videos, or they were at a conference where I was giving a keynote or leading a workshop. Something that I shared connected with their vision or passion, so we follow-up. That is how networking works, right?  Well, this is more true than ever in the digital age.

A couple of weeks ago, one such conversation happened with Michael Quigley, co-founder of Promazo, and I’m excited to tell you a bit more about it. I apologize in advance to Michael and his colleagues if I misrepresent anything here, but here is what I heard and what excited me about what they are doing.

When it comes to higher education, we know that hands-on and real world experience are both powerful. First, it is an incredible way to learn real world skills. Second, it adds something to student’s resumes so, upon graduation, they are not applying to a job with absolutely not tested experience in a given field. Third, if helps students discover whether a given type of work aligns with their gifts and abilities. Fourth, if helps students understand the relevance of what they are learning in classes that would otherwise come off as abstract and disconnected from the rest of life. Finally, by being tested with real world projects, students get a better sense of their strengths and limitations. They can learn to build on their strengths, reduce their limitations, and fill in gaps along the way. As such, they start to take more ownership in their learning and personal development.

With such a long list of benefits, it would seem that internships are a no-brainer for college students. They are great ways to gain that real world experience, get to know themselves, apply their learning, build their resumes and more. Yet, there are geographic limitations to internships during the regular school year. Transportation can be a challenge for some students. And, given all the other responsibilities in college, it can be a challenge to fit an internship into that schedule. When we can make them happen (especially during breaks from school), these immersive, in-person internships can be tremendous. However, in the absence of that, is there anything else that can be done?

This is where I was excited to learn about Promazo and see what they are doing. As I talked to co-founder Michael Quiqley, they aspire to revolutionize the way students find jobs and the way employers find (and keep) top talent. Since much work is moving to become more virtual, why can’t internships be virtual as well? Promazo will work with companies to find a project that could benefit from interns. This is not the “go get me coffee type of internship.” It is real work that addresses real needs and has real deadlines. Promazo then works to find a group of University students at a given campus, assembles them as a project team, manages the project, and guides this team of students from project start to completion, sometimes even concluding with an in-person pitch of their product at the company headquarter.

They launched this idea with 7 college students working on a project for IBM. Now they have over 300 students at schools like Georgetown, Harvard, Boston College, Carnegie Mellon, and Notre Dame involved in these virtual internships for an impressive collection of well-known and well-respected companies.

There are countless benefits to this beyond what I’ve already mentioned, but consider these three. First, these are paid internships during the academic year, so this is real work that replaces what might otherwise be traditional campus jobs. This is better pay and more real world experience. Second, this is a great recruiting tool for these companies. They get a peek into the skills of these interns which can easily turn into a new job for a recent graduate and new, promising talent for the company. Third, this is a model that doesn’t depend on extensive work or coordination from the University. Promazo does much of the work, while giving the University a great internship program about which they can boast.

This is a solid example of an education startup that has a creative solution for both companies and Universities. They do this while not ignoring the need for a sustainable financial model for themselves. This is a brilliant model for a win-win-win example of educational entrepreneurship. I look forward to seeing how it develops over the upcoming years.