Building the School of the Future

Building the School of the Future
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Picture the last time you were in a classroom.

You were probably in a desk, attached chair and table and all. That desk sat in a row of other desks, with more rows of desks behind and in front of it. The teacher stood in front of the room with a whiteboard or, in some places, a chalkboard behind them. For the 45 minutes to an hour and a half you were in that classroom, the teacher lectured you on math, science, English — whatever the class was about, and you sat there in your desk, taking notes.

Now here’s a classroom in the year 1900.

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Aside from the lack of color, it’s pretty similar. That’s because the basic school model designed in 1892 is still the model we base our schools on over 100 years later. The subjects — Math, English, Science, History, Foreign Language — are also still the same. How teachers “teach” and how students “learn” are virtually the same.

But if the system’s not broken, then why should it have to change?

Consider this: what is the purpose of school?

The public education system in the United States was designed to standardize education and ensure that every child was brought to a certain standard of content knowledge and could be compared to one another. With that in mind, we can understand the ideology behind every policy we enact and measure we take when it comes to education: No Child Left Behind, Common Core, standardized testing (SAT, ACT, etc), Race to the Top, and more.

At face value, that goal seems admirable: make sure that everyone in the US is educated to some degree.

However, there’s a problem.

Our education system no longer works.

Over the years, the cracks in the US education system have become more apparent as the world has changed culturally and technologically.

For starters, take the most basic foundation of school: the traditional learning model. Put plainly: teachers teach a subject, students learn, teachers make an assessment, every student is graded, and then the teachers move on after a certain period of time, regardless of whether or not the subject was actually learned by every student. Learning advances at the educator’s pace, not the student’s.

Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, depicts the inherent flaw in this system in his book, The One World Schoolhouse. This traditional learning model is called the Swiss Cheese Model. In the book, he describes a situation where students are taking a class and must get at least a 50% in their grade in order to advance to the next subject. Their performance is varied, but most students get over 50%.

However, that means there is at least <50% of content that multiple students have not absorbed. As they advance through subjects, the students subsequently develop gaps in their knowledge as they haphazardly learn chunks of information that are deemed passable by the traditional learning model. Eventually, it catches up to them, and nothing makes sense anymore.

This is apparent in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a series of reading and math tests administered to a sample of students across the country. Since 2009, math scores have been virtually flat. Reading scores haven’t changed since 1998–20 years ago. Our attempts at education reform in recent years have failed, in part, because of this fundamental flaw in standardizing education and moving everyone along at a certain pace, even though different people…learn differently.

Our collective answer to the awareness of the flaws in our education system has always been to collect more data, test more, and compare the results. That’s resulted in the creation of our standardized test taking culture. That, in combination with the stringent standards set by policies like Race to the Top and Common Core has pressured schools and teachers to “teach to the test”, with little to no regard to the relevance of the content we learn in school, the way it’s taught, or whether or not these tests even measure anything worth measuring.

The culture it’s created — making mistakes is bad, learning anything else besides what’s on the test is bad, teachers that don’t have good student test scores are bad — has had an appalling effect on our schools, our teachers, and our children. Up to one in five kids living in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year. When students underperform and our normal method of making them spend more time in school doesn’t work, our usual answer is to medicate them and give them drugs to “fix” them.

Because the problem is with the kid, not the school…right?

When the World Economic Forum produced a report in January called, “The Future of Jobs”, the authors listed the top skills for employees for 2020, as supported by the corporate executives that they interviewed.

Complex problem solving. Critical Thinking. Creativity. Coordinating with others. Emotional Intelligence. Judgment and decision-making. Cognitive flexibility.

A common theme emerges from these skills: people need to know how to adapt to new situations and think thoroughly and creatively while working with others.

But how do you get creativity from sitting in a classroom for 8 hours per day and listening to lectures? How are you to solve complex problems if you’re told to do math a certain way, to do things the way that tests look for, to do things by the book? Where does cognitive flexibility show up on multiple choice tests, where the answer is literally black and white?

According to research conducted by Kyung Hee Kim, Professor of Education at the College of William and Mary, all aspects of student creativity at the K-12 level have been in significant decline for the last few decades. She put it this way:

— children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.

Our education system has become desperately out of touch with contemporary societal needs. Schools continue to teach subjects that show up on tests without caring that we’re not teaching them anything genuinely useful. They teach students content and spend years memorizing content that an average child could look up on their smartphone in less than 5 minutes.

Burdened by this system, our teachers, even the best ones that think differently and deeply want to make a difference in the lives of their students, are essentially reduced to human YouTube videos. We never question the subjects we teach in school — these 5 subjects that 10 old guys picked out in 1892 — and continue to do so mindlessly…because that’s what’s on the test.

In our attempt to standardize learning and bring every child to a certain educational “standard”, the only thing we’ve succeeded in doing is failing half of the children in the US and proclaiming that the other more successful half was successful because of our great education system.

In a related article, I discuss the expectations we place on kids. We hope for kids to be creative, to be happy, to be successful. But we hold those hopes while we put them in a system that cares more about testing, ranking, and categorizing kids than truly teaching them to be better. When we look at the successful people we admire in life, most of them were successful because they recognized the horrific environment they were in and escaped it. They succeeded in spite of it, not because of it.

In reality, every child has the potential to do something great.

That’s why we started Sora Schools.

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Imagine being a high school student again. Except, this time, when you enter high school, instead of sitting in class and studying whatever random subject — Algebra II, English Lit — you sit down with a teacher and they ask you what you want to learn. Instead of practicing answering 50 math problems in 45 minutes, you could be learning how to build a video game, starting a YouTube channel, or writing your own novel. And whenever you need help or guidance, your teacher is there to help you — not lecture at you. Need help with learning how to code? Don’t know how to write a plot? Your teacher will help you, and keep you accountable to your goals. You can aim for anything you want, with the support of a team of incredibly smart, caring people.

Not only that, but the entire school is full of people just like you, working on all sorts of cool projects.

That’s what Sora is.

Our school is designed to personalize education for students. If you work best by pushing through a subject for 20 minutes and then you need to do something active for a break, you can do that. If you like to work outside, you can do that. You learn the best way that you love to learn.

With the help of dedicated faculty, we help students find their aspirations and develop them as capable, empathetic leaders. The purpose of the school is to expose students to opportunities and provide connections and resources for them to succeed in whatever it is they do. As such, we’ll hold optional workshops, interesting classes, field trips, speaker sessions, and much more to expose students to new subjects and ideas.

At Sora, we stress project and work based learning. Because of the interest-based learning nature of the school, a Sora experience will be different for everyone. One student could be starting a blog on homelessness in Atlanta while another could be conducting a science experiment comparing the effects of different fertilizers on certain plants. In some cases, students will be doing projects for businesses and companies — for example, a student that wanted to learn web development could help build a website for a local business. Their work could potentially have real impact. Throughout their time in school, students slowly build up a portfolio of work that they can use for college applications, jobs, and more.

Assessment will be competency-based. Students advance and learn at their own pace. There are no grade levels, arbitrarily determined by age. Students are part of an incredible community that work on whatever interests them. On day one, students meet with our staff to develop learning plans based on their profile, their interests, and their aspirations. They continue to work with our staff throughout their time at Sora, continuously adjusting their plans and what they want to learn or accomplish. Over time, they build up skills in different areas like math and reading comprehension at their own pace.

Our staff will assess the quality of work from each student and determine whether they’ve demonstrated competency in whatever subject they’re pursuing. In general, students will be assessed periodically to measure progress.

Faculty don’t spend time memorizing textbooks the night before and lecturing to their students the next day. Instead, their job is to be a resource, helping students with their projects and guiding them. We believe that the goal of a teacher is not to teach a subject, but to help a student learn.

At the end of a Sora education, students are ready to lead happy, successful, and fulfilling lives.

The Mission

At the end of the day, our founding team (myselfGarrett Smiley, and Wesley Samples) is doing this because we’re passionate about education and helping kids in a broken model. We’ve been chipping away at the edges of this problem for years, bringing different facets of our background to come up with the solution. Garrett started a nonprofit teaching financial literacy to foster children. I’ve taught career development and entrepreneurship to students. Wesley has worked with struggling kids in school and talked to school administrations about reforming their programs. We’ve spent the last several months reading volumes of books and research on learning and education, talking to experts in the fields of alternative schooling, learning from people who have achieved success without traditional education, and developing the plan for Sora. We have a fantastic team of education veterans giving us feedback and advice.

Ultimately, our vision is to maximize the potentials of students everywhere.

For the vast majority of people in the world, going to school is an opportunity to transform our lives and become smarter and kinder people. Most schools don’t do that.

That’s what we want to do at Sora.

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June 27, 2023 Garrett Smiley
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