This school requires students to lead in learning

At the Denver School of Innovation, high schooler Amida Nigena is responsible for getting her work done—and for figuring out what the work is. DSI, like a handful of innovative schools, pushes its students to take responsibility for learning.

In most high schools, everyone travels at roughly the same pace, regardless of aptitude or interest. Some schools are resisting that trend, and in doing so are establishing school cultures that require students to engage rather than requesting them to engage, reports The 74 Million.

At first, “I hated the school,” Nigena said. “The first year was really rough on everyone. We were just thrown in. We didn’t know what personalized learning was, and neither did our teachers.”

Principal Lisa Simms agreed.  “We hired 10 teachers who were rock stars in a traditional setting, she said. But the approach was so new the staff had to start with such basics as establishing a common vocabulary. For example, it was hard to even find a definition of competence. “What does it mean to be competent? How do you show mastery?”

It is the unconventional practices of these schools that make them stand out. James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson, editors of The Content of Their Character, a study of school culture and student formation from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, frame the importance of practices this way: “The moral and missional ethos of a school [is] reinforced through a range of practices, or routinized actions—some formal, some informal—all oriented toward giving tangible expression to the school’s values and beliefs.”

Many pioneering pedagogical schools don’t have a “character” mission. What unifies them is their passion to give “expression to the school’s values and beliefs.” In the case of DSI, Amida Nigena says that the experience of being required to take responsibility for her learning was frustrating at first, but, “It’s taught me to be patient and to persevere, and also that it’s OK to fail. That process has really changed me, especially when things don’t go exactly well.”

That is precisely the power of formative institutions with a clear “missional ethos . . . reinforced through a range of practices.” Those practices, in turn, shape students’ confidence and competence in learning and in life.

Practices take practice. They require a commitment to culture. Schools that are developing or considering unconventional approaches can consult Michael Niehoff’s recommendations for creating and cultivating school culture.