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Every educator wants to create an environment that will foster students’ love of learning. Because the criteria are intangible, it’s difficult to define or pinpoint exactly what they are. But one group is giving it a try.

Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched the Innovative Learning Environments project to turn an academic lens on the project of identifying concrete traits that mark innovative learning environments. They sifted through and categorized the research on learning science, documented case studies, and compiled policy recommendations they hope will transform the current system.

Their book, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice and the accompanying practitioner’s guide, lay out the key principles for designing learning environments that will help students build skills useful in a world where jobs are increasingly information and knowledge-based. The principles are not job-specific – no one knows what the future economy will demand. Instead, the main goal is to develop self-directed learners, students with “adaptive expertise.”

“Adaptive expertise tries to push beyond the idea of mastery,” said Jennifer Groff, an educational engineer and co-founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign. “You may be proficient, but without adaptive expertise you can get stuck very quickly as the world shifts.”

[RELATED READING: How Can Teachers Prepare Kids for a Connected World]

Groff doesn’t dispute that mastery is important and that students need to learn age-appropriate content, but she also argues it’s equally important to develop students’ ability to go beyond that, to question and apply learning in new situations.

To that end, these are their identified principles for innovative learning.

  1. Learners have to be at the center of what happens in the classroom with activities focused on their cognition and growth. They have to actively engage in learning in order to become self-regulated learners who are able to control their emotions and motivations during the study process, set goals, and monitor their own learning process.
  2. Learning is a social practice and can’t happen alone. “By our nature we are social beings and we learn by interacting,” Groff said. “We learn by pushing and pulling on concepts with one another.” Structured, collaborative group work can be good for all learners; it pushes people in different ways.
  3. Emotions are an integral part of learning. Students understand ideas better when there’s interplay between emotions, motivation and cognition, so positive beliefs about oneself are a core part of reaching a more profound understanding. The power of emotions and motivation in the classroom are well documented, but often overlooked because they are “soft.” Still most teachers know that if a student is upset about something that happened at home or in school, he won’t learn well. Similarly, keeping students motivated should be the starting point of learning. If students understand why it matters, learning becomes more important to them.
  4. Learners are different and innovative learning environments reflect the various experiences and prior knowledge that each student brings to class. “You really want practices and processes that help teachers engage each student where they are,” said Groff. This principle is understood by every frustrated educator teaching to a “middle” that doesn’t exist.
  5. Students need to be stretched, but not too much. “It’s really critical to find that student’s sweet spot,” Groff Said. Educators should try to prevent both coasting and overloading. Students need to experience both academic success and the challenge of discovery. In a diverse classroom group work can help achieve this as students at different levels help one another.
  6. Assessment should be for learning, not of learning. Assessments are important, but only to gauge how to structure the next lesson for maximum effectiveness. It should be meaningful, substantial, and shape the learning environment itself. “Good teachers do this informally most of the time,” Groff said. “But when it’s done well and more formally it’s a whole structure and methodology where you collect feedback on the learning pathway and it drives the next step that you take.”
  7. Learning needs to be connected across disciplines and reach out into the real world. Learning can’t be meaningful if students don’t understand why the knowledge will be useful to them, how it can be applied in life. Understanding the connections between subjects and ideas is essential for the ability to transfer skills and adapt. “We can’t just have things remain in silos that never interact,” Groff said.


Many of the seven principles Groff outlines are second nature to good teachers, but they can feel hard to achieve within education systems that are slow-moving, bureaucratic and resistant to change. Still Groff says there are ways for teachers who want to create an innovative learning environment to begin down the path, even without the full support of their colleagues and administration. Groff also hopes shifting to the Common Core could offer openings for building in these practices. “It’s designed in a way that condones a lot of the principles that we’ve been talking about,” she said.

Everyone knows the common barriers educators face: the school culture, the students and themselves. Groff says with some reflection and problem solving, teachers can often begin to work around these barriers. An educator might think she’s open to innovation without realizing that there are preconceived notions about how one should teach that are deeply ingrained.

What’s more, if the school culture does not encourage experimentation, educators can mitigate negative reaction by framing the ideas in a way that will be accepted, or by bringing in outside resources to try and convince naysayers. Even finding one colleague in or outside of the school to bounce ideas with can make the process much smoother.

Educators can also test ideas with students before implementing them. Students have been indoctrinated into the same educational mindset about what makes a “useful” education as everyone else, and some might be resistant to new teaching methodologies. Without their enthusiasm it can be hard to persevere through other obstacles.


The darling of the Innovative Learning Environment case studies is the Jenaplan School in Germany. It’s one of the few schools embodying all the principles fluidly. The school has about 450 students that range three to 20 years old. Students aren’t broken up into grade levels, instead they learn in mixed-age groups as well as in groups of roughly the same age. Learning is directed by students, often project-based, evaluated primarily through writing and projects, self-assessments and peer-assessment. The schedule is periodic, focusing on a topic like geography or history for three to four weeks and crossing into multiple disciplines. The teacher is seen as an active mentor and coordinator and the school has active parental involvement.

The Jenaplan School has won awards for its model and in the eyes of the Innovative Learning Environment researchers is doing an excellent job at preparing students to be adaptive and nimble thinkers in a knowledge-based world.

7 Essential Principles of Innovative Learning 6 June,2013Katrina Schwartz

  • I was especially gratified to see Principle #3: Emotions are an integral part of learning.

    (Although technically, emotions are not the mathematical integral of learning, but the mathematical derivative!)

    See “Cognition, Affect, and Learning”

  • While I generally like the principles put forth (particularly #1), I am miffed by statement #2 – “Learning is a social practice and can’t happen alone.”

    It is certainly true that learning in social settings can be the most effective method of learning for certain students and for certain types of content, but it is simply not the case that “learning can’t happen alone.” Learning independently – whether by reading books or using sophisticated learning technologies – is absolutely possible.

    • disqus_Fatj6OZQwl

      Why should you be ‘miffed’? Perhaps you do not agree… perhaps you haven’t experienced it. But why get upset with it? Learning from one another, listening to different views, sharing your difficulties… all these are part of a learning process, surely. Schools rarely create or facilitate a process of group discussion. I have used it often in my school and sometimes seen it work with children who learn better from their peers than teachers. Besides, this serves to model an atmosphere which lets children deeply discuss an academic point…. most children to children conversations are often about other interests, never an academic point… so this does allow them to see that such a conversation is possible and stimulating as well!

      • I think you misunderstood my point. I believe that social learning is certainly possible and have personally experienced it many times in my life. However, I do not believe that all learning must be social. We can learn independently too.

        • disqus_Fatj6OZQwl

          Thank you for clarifying. I was only surprised at your use of the word: miffed.

  • disqus_Fatj6OZQwl

    In our school in Chennai, these principles led us to creating a MAG classroom in the middle school. In our school the grades 2 to 4 are in a mixed age setting and the grades 5 to 7 are in yet another one. We have seen that not all the age ranges work in mixed age groupings… In their adolescent years, peer grouping sometimes helps, sometimes doesn’t…. we are still working our way out of that.

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  • ACE College

    Great read. We especially like #6 – Assessment should be for learning, not of learning. It takes a great teacher to implement this properly. Thanks for the article.

  • Nice text, really nice text. Congratulations and thank you very much.

  • aja3102

    We tend to teach how we were taught. Our current teachers were taught to sit still, regurgitate information and prove what we had learned on a multiple choice test. There was not a whole lot of room for creativity, self discovery or project based learning. In order for our children to be prepared for the future of technology, be risk takers in the learning process and experiment with ideas that may or may not work we need to teach our teachers that this is ok. Schools that are frameworks for the Innovative Learning Environment take the time to model and support what this looks like to their teachers. These seven essential principles will only work if the school, staff and community take the plunge into innovative learning together.

  • Toby Smith

    I disagree with Groth in regard to his assertion that learning is a social practice and can’t occur alone. If that is the case, how is the excellence achieved by many introverts who shun group work explained. His assertion is clearly wrong.

    • Gary Chapin

      It’s interesting that just two items later he points out that all learners are different … except they’re the same in that they learn in groups?

    • Chris Webb

      “We learn by pushing and pulling on concepts with one another.” Structured, collaborative group work can be good for all learners; it pushes people in different ways.

      I feel like those are two parallel, but different, statements. I think learning does involve pushing and pulling, for extroverts and introverts. However, an introvert can push and pull without group work; how about interacting with a text? Solving a problem?

    • Even introverts have to rise to the challenge of learning to share their ideas with others. In the end, learning has to be shared in some context and that is part of the learning. Knowledge may have been acquired in private, however today’s world today places more value on how that knowledge is applied and shared, like in this forum. I am sure some of us are introverts? The 7 principles are robust under real life learning scenarios.

  • @iammrd

    I agree very strongly with #6, assessment should be for learning not of learning.

    Great stuff!

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  • Richard Bailey

    Interesting that most of the comments relate to whether the content agrees or disagrees with the commentators’ existing believes.

    Not a lot of evidence of learning!

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  • margery

    To the point that Toby is making –
    As with everything, all of this requires nuance. Every learner should be able to learn in ways that help them feel safe and every learner should be able to build on their strengths in ways that help them flourish. At the same time, learning from other people’s perspectives and having access to feedback that helps us become more competent in ways that we value and in ways that help us create healthy communities – that’s important too.

  • Caluza

    I agree that they are all key principals to learning. It is interesting that the school mentioned at the end of this article, the Jenaplan School, is in Germany, which is the home of another educational reform that follows these same principals. Steiner Schools or Waldorf Schools follow these seven principals and have been around for almost 100 years.

  • Bea Pierce

    There is a school in Sydney that has been actively practising and successfully implementing these 7 principles for over 40 years. Recognised as one of the few schools in Australia offering learner-directed education, check out Kinma School

    • Yes, I know many schools in Australia and abroad that have operated under these principles for decades. Here is one: Thankfully, many educators see the 7 principles, and others, as a given. It is interesting to juxtapose the 7 principles with mainstream education trimmings such as high-stakes testing, pass/fail, ranking, subject-based timetable, ‘bells and cells’, ‘turn it in’, worksheets, and dare I say, #PISA. Many of these trimmings have been imposed and are, in many ways, a distraction to effective learning. If the boot doesn’t fit the 7 principles, lose the boot!

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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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