Embracing a culture of innovation through labs

Schools test bold ideas to bring student-centered learning into the classrooms.
March 27, 2019

Paul Domer, principal at Eisenhower Elementary and XinXing Academy, has spent quite a bit of time thinking about the future. He has read books, attended seminars, and listened to a variety of perspectives. What he learned validates a gut feeling he has about the traditional model of education — it needs to change.

“Our students will be asked to solve some big problems in the future — the achievement gap, poverty, and climate change, to name a few,” said Domer. “These are really important things, and if we want students to be successful, we need to give them more than facts.”

Domer is currently working with his staff to create an innovation lab designed to increase student-centered learning. The strategy of a lab is to test a bold idea in a controlled setting with a small group before bringing it to scale. The concept is similar to a pilot program, with intentional testing and measuring along the way, including measuring student satisfaction and engagement.

Although he is just beginning to set up what this might look like, Domer knows that the desired outcome is to shift his building’s learning environment toward problem solving, creativity, and collaboration — all skills that will be critical for the future workforce.

“My hope is to get us all thinking differently,” he said. “I want to align learning with the needs of the real world, and ultimately to create learners who can go out and make the world a better place.”

Innovation labs are new in Hopkins, with each of the schools in various stages of the process. The District expects to see more experiments in the near future that test the boundaries of traditional school. Labs are a critical part of Hopkins’ mission to go from Great to World Class through a process known as Vision 2031, a vision co-created by the Hopkins staff, parents, community members, and students. 

“If we think empathetically from the student perspective, that will begin to shape the labs we create and what we test,” said Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed, superintendent of Hopkins Public Schools. “We have to get in touch with our end users, which for us is our students.”

North Junior High tests a school within a school

North Junior High had their end users in mind when they decided to lab a new school model known as North University (NU), a nontraditional school experience for students who are not reaching their engagement potential. NU students are enrolled in two regular classes — math and another subject of their choice. The rest of their schedule is open and flexible. The curriculum is inquiry-based, meaning the students have a lot of control over what they learn and how they learn it. Although North is only a few weeks into its experiment, students are already giving it positive reviews.

“I love NU and I would recommend it for everyone,” said seventh-grade student Isaiah. “I did not look forward to school before, but now I do.”

NU is run by two teachers and a social worker, and is supervised by the dean of students. Its goals are to meaningfully engage students, increase a sense of connectedness, and foster student resilience and self-awareness. Using the lab process was instrumental in allowing radical innovation. With a small sample size of 16 seventh-grade students, a core team of educators was able to swiftly move forward with a bold idea in a short amount of time.

“When I started to imagine how I would want my classroom to look like in 10 years, I could not envision how to get there short of closing down school for two years,” said Debbie Hahn, a social studies teacher who helped create NU. “This is the future of education. For me, it is how I want school to look like for my students and my own children.”

NU is a blend of learning that occurs both inside and outside the school walls. Students have traveled to the University of Minnesota, where they were paired with a group of college athletes. The trip examined the history of athletics through the lens of race and gender. NU students also visited the Minnesota Capitol and met Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan.

NU is headquartered in a North Junior High classroom, which is where students spend the majority of their day. Students are involved in many of the decisions related to their learning. As a first assignment, they designed the learning space that would best meet their needs. They worked with a budget, created blueprints, shopped for furniture, and consulted with an architect firm.

“Having this flexibility allows us to be more responsive to students, and we are involving student voice to help determine the learning paths,” said Hahn.  

Once a day, NU students participate in genius hour, a time where kids deeply explore a passion and are given time to learn more about it. Louie, an NU student, is researching world history and the evolution of rap.

“Genius hour is by far the coolest thing I have done in school,” Louie said. “I was never excited to go to school before, but now I am getting to learn more about what I want to learn about. I don’t dread school.”

Everyone can create a lab

Structures are in place to support leaders, teachers, and staff members who have the desire to test a bold idea through a lab format. Creating a culture of innovation is an exciting shift, but it does require staff and administrators to embrace ambiguity and even failure, as not every lab will be successful. And that’s the point.

Stephanie Herrera works with principals to support them in leading innovation for their schools and to encourage them to also be willing to take bold risks alongside their staff. She started working for the District this summer as the director of principal leadership.

“It’s one thing to have an idea, but then to be willing to be vulnerable, not fully knowing what it might look like or what the result will be, that is not easy,” said Herrera.  

Alice Smith adds enrichment to literacy learning

At the beginning of the school year, fifth- and sixth-grade teachers at Alice Smith Elementary were willing to take the leap. They were among the first to embrace the lab concept. Instead of teaching literacy the way it had always been done, the teachers re-imagined a new model. By creating cohorts of fifth- and sixth-grade students, they were able to provide enrichment for all students, maximize school choice, and increase classroom engagement. 

“The students are getting so much more than they would have if they were just in one classroom,” said Catherine Luckemeyer, a fifth-grade teacher at Alice Smith.

Developing the new model required out-of-the-box thinking and a desire to do things differently, something the teachers were encouraged to do. Instead of using the existing curriculum, they embedded the learning standards into seven enrichment experiences for students. Throughout the school year, students rotate through each of the experiences which range from canoe building and theater to poetry and genius hour.

For her experience, fifth-grade teacher Christina Farrell adapted a natural disasters unit and turned it into an escape room that her students need to break out of by solving puzzles, connecting clues, and working in teams. It connects back to literacy because students need to read and retain in order to solve the puzzle. At the end of her unit, students create their own escape room for their classmates to solve.

“It keeps their interest,” she said. “They are excited for what is going to happen next, and they are writing much more than they were before.”

Maggie Lund, a sixth-grade teacher at Alice Smith, admits it felt counterintuitive to go against the grain of what she had been taught. Taking on 180 kids in rotation, rather than the 30 she would have had, was a mindset shift. And although she was initially worried that she would not hit the standards, it was easier than she thought.

“Having the support has made it much easier for me,” said Lund. “We have been given the go-ahead to try things and we can alter it to fit what we want it to look like. The whole team has been really excited and supportive of one another.”