The education world is full of incremental change — the slow process of individuals learning about new strategies and approaches, trying them out, improving on their skills, and hopefully sharing their learning with colleagues to continue growth. While that process is necessary and good, if the changes to education are all in the service of doing the same thing better, they may be missing the point. The world has changed since education became compulsory and the current moment necessitates an education system that isn’t just better, but different.

“We are at a point in schools when we have to change our internal reality,” said Will Richardson, a former English teacher turned speaker and school consultant, at the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, during a session. He was frustrated by the focus on using new technologies to educate children the way it has been done for years, without recognizing that the current context demands a radically different vision of learning.

The internet has made learning more accessible than ever, and often outside of school, making school activities feel increasingly restrictive and irrelevant to students. In the current context, kids are finding teachers and mentors through their passions and are able to connect with them more easily than ever before. There are powerful search engines that spit back answers to questions that used to only be found in books. And kids know which apps will solve their math equations for them.

Educators know the world has changed and are increasingly acknowledging that it’s time to be asking different questions about what it means to improve education. Richardson travels around the world for his work and can point to examples of schools and districts that are asking themselves difficult questions to propel change. The successful ones are letting the answer to the question, “How do kids learn best?” drive everything they do in schools.

He pointed to the Canadian province of British Columbia and its stated goal to offer education that is student-initiated, interdisciplinary and co-planned by students and teachers together. Ontario, Canada’s Ministry of Education is embracing collaborative inquiry through play. And Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia are thriving under the visionary leadership of Pam Moran. “If you go through and look at things they are valuing, it is based on a core set of beliefs and the world around them,” Richardson said.

On the left are qualities many people list when describing meaningful learning experiences. On the right is a list of things done in schools.
On the left are qualities many people list when describing meaningful learning experiences. On the right is a list of things done in schools. (Will Richardson)

Schools need to have a clear vision, rooted in today’s context and a set of practices that reflect those two things. When he consults with schools, Richardson said he most commonly sees a lack of vision based in how students learn. In his many talks he shares a list of things educators know intuitively about how kids learn best alongside a list of things schools do because it’s easier for adults. He says if educators want to shift education to the modern context, they need to prioritize things that help students learn best.

“It’s about doing work that matters,” Richardson said. “It’s about connections. It’s about play. It’s about cultures where kids and teachers are learners.” When schools have a set of beliefs about learning and enact those beliefs through practice, but don’t anchor what they are doing in today’s context, they may be doing something progressive, but also a little irrelevant. Beliefs and contexts without practice leads to ineffective teaching. The sweet spot for a very different type of education system lies in the Venn diagram of all three: beliefs, context and practice.


“Kids deserve consistency that is grounded in a belief system,” Richardson said. He has talked with students who hate that they have to adapt to completely different expectations, structures, and rules in every class. When a school isn’t unified around a vision the experience for students can be very disorienting.

To begin moving towards what Richardson calls a “modern education” system, he says educators need to learn, educate, articulate, and then do it.


It’s no longer enough for teachers to get a credential and then sit back and teach the same content year after year. Richardson says to be part of modern learning, teachers need to actively educate themselves about the context students live in and how they can improve as educators.

“There’s never been a more amazing time to be a learner,” Richardson said. “How are we in education not running towards that in our own personal lives and embracing that?”

It’s not just about connecting on Twitter with other educators or asking for professional development about technology. If teachers are waiting for a planned PD about something they are probably already stuck. “You have to have the disposition of an eight-year old to find your own learning,” Richardson said.


“You probably aren’t going to be able to do this by yourself, so go out and build capacity,” Richardson said. Parents, community members, students and school board members can be allies for making the shift. Richardson points to CCSD59 as an example of a district that reaches out to all parent populations, communicates about vision and practice through a blog and educates with its Facebook page. “They are constantly putting practice in front of people to build their capacity to engage,” Richardson said.


Articulating a mission statement about where students should be when they graduate and actualizing it with a vision that lays out how to get there, is a key step in slowly making the shift Richardson describes. It can be difficult to interrogate longstanding policies and choices, but if districts, schools and individual educators can’t reflect on what’s working and what isn’t, articulate a change, and begin doing it, the education system as a whole will become irrelevant.


“This is really hard, but I think it’s worth it,” Richardson said. Teachers can start by picking one area of the curriculum and letting students own it. Then advocate for that practice, and connect with other educators who are doing it. There comes a point when talking about the need to change is no longer enough; educators who resonate with Richardson’s message, have to jump in and try it.

How Can Schools Prioritize For The Best Ways Kids Learn? 18 July,2016Katrina Schwartz

  • Montessori-Now

    Mr. Richardson is describing what Montessori education has been doing for over 100 years. Dr. Montessori began her work by observing children and how they best learn. Her research resulted in a “scientific pedagogy” that is a “system of education” that includes specially educated teachers who base their practice in an understanding of child development. This system puts the child at the center with a deep respect for engagement in one’s own learning.
    Educators and school systems looking for a “model” would be well served by observing a quality Montessori school at work. The education “wheel” has been putting these “innovations” in practice for a long time. This system is more relevant now than ever before.

  • Lisa Fels

    This is an insightful post with a number of compelling arguments. I agree that education needs to be different and modernized, and should involve parents and the community. Answering the question of how kids learn best is appropriate. And, yes, technology is an increasingly significant factor. However, of course learning is not restricted to the classroom, and our talented, hard-working educators are not the only individuals who can foster learning and growth in kids. In fact, students should have the opportunity to learn from each other in a safe, positive, social, relevant, real-world (all of which Mr. Richardson rightly states) environment. With the right platform, and when used appropriately, social media can be a powerful tool in accomplishing these goals.

  • willrich45

    Thanks for highlighting my session, Katrina. Much appreciated.

    For anyone who might be interested in delving into these discussions further, I’d encourage you to join our Global Community of Changemakers on Facebook. You can sign up here:

    Hope to see you there!

  • Todd Kominiak

    This idea of a curriculum co-planned by students is very interesting. While teachers obviously need to be the guiding force behind a student’s education giving them a broader voice in what and how they learn can only help to keep them better engaged.

  • Greg Ashman

    Although it is interesting to contemplate what teachers intuitively think about how children learn, it might also be worth looking at the research.

    In this paper, the evidence for student autonomy is reviewed:

    In general, students learn less. They are hampered because the don’t know what they don’t know.

    In this paper, the idea of learning through inquiry or play is discussed:

    It tends to overload learners because they have too much to focus on whereas more teacher led instruction highlights the key features.

    It is possible that the methods advocated in this article will be detrimental to all students but more detrimental to those with the least prior knowledge. These methods could therefore drive greater inequality.

    I think we need to seriously review the evidence before we decide to change entire education systems based upon intuition.

  • Pundit456

    Mr Richardson has an obvious interest in convincing people that a radical change is needed; and that he has the needed change.
    Mr Richardson fails to acknowledge that the technologies to which he refers were created and developed by people educated under the “old system”
    There are millions of people who can drive a car exceptionally well; but haven’t a clue about how they operate.
    These kids he mentions who know how to find and use “apps” probably could not write an app if their lives depended on it; and probably do not know what “app” stands for.
    The point is, no matter how adept one is at using technology they still need a firm foundation of the underlying fundamentals so that if the power goes out or the satellite goes offline they won’t be left twiddling their thumbs waiting for somebody to fix it.
    However, the very first step toward repairing education is to get the federal government out of it. Unfunded federal mandates drain local resources and inhibit development of effective teaching methods.
    One size does not fit all. If it did the system would be working.
    Learning most often occurs when a person can associate new information with something they already know; which can vary from state to state so that the most efficient methods are developed by the state not the department of education.

  • The American Psychological Association endorsed Learner Centered Practices in response to the call for accountability. Most educational researchers are aware of the power of individualized education plans. Play is our natural approach to learning, and the opposite of play, is threat. We are traumatizing children with high-stakes assessments, and standards based upon content and trivia. It is play that leads to love of learning. Rigor and testing are not healthy learning experiences for our children.

    For a history of how content and assessment became a profit center, and adult convenience models became the norm:

  • chrisdawson

    This is really just a reflection of the deeper problem of education in America. We still don’t agree on what schools are for. Are they a great democratizing place where our kids go and all of them learn facts, but also learn how to find, process, consolidate, evaluate, and synthesize information in order to be citizens who can participate fully in our democracy? Or are they the place we send kids to train them for whatever entry-level jobs will demand of them? Do we want our schools to help our kids come to their own well-founded, well-considered conclusions or do we want them to be able to produce a lot of factual information quickly?

  • Gueneth Corrigan

    The one vital piece to this is confidence. Teachers need to feel supported and enabled to confidently teach. Administrators need to express confidence in their teachers, students, and parents. Parents need to also show confidence in the entire process and move away from grade level expectations and rankings. Confidence just is lacking, and without it there will be little change in our educational process.

  • Larryalobo

    Learning how the brain works and learns is the first order we need to know (and how to create settings for dynamic or growth mindsets. Then how children learn at grade or age levels based on new research on developmental understanding. Then recruit people who are at the top of their class to become teachers (as they do in Finland) because if we demand more from teachers (which we need now) we will need them to be top performers. Then their training needs to be at a higher level so they can be more independent to run classrooms and learning settings and experiences. Its not about fashioning THE way to do things but being skilled enough to be flexible enough to adjust to how the kids in your classroom learn best (not learning styles) and how to pace their time in the classroom so they get a real chance to learn so it sticks, not just for a test. We may have to get rid of and challenge old psychology and teaching theories from the past as we learn more how we learn/ We might even incorporate best practices from some USA schools and schools that are doing much better than USA schools are doing. We might as well learn from those who are more successful. Its not about technologies (though we will incorporate them) but about setting things up so we can be better at individualize learning and make sure that students are at grade level or higher by 3rd grade and use middle school to make up for what they lack as they prepare for high school and beyond.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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