Chapter 2. Innovative schools

This chapter looks at the characteristics of innovative schools. Drawing on the findings of the Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) project, it uses case studies to illustrate how schools can innovate by regrouping the four elements of the pedagogical core: learners (who?), educators (with whom?), content (what?) and resources (with what?) to rethink how traditional schools work. It then considers schools as learning organisations themselves: how they can become formative organisations with strong learning leadership, constantly informed by evidence. Finally, it discusses how technology has the potential to enhance innovation in schools by improving engagement and motivation and support student-driven learning and inquiry, interaction and collaboration, and considers the evidence for improved outcomes from investment in information and communications technology (ICT) in schools.



Schools can only play their role in the local and regional ecosystem if they are themselves open to innovation. Indeed, schools have a great potential for innovation. Yet, to many observers schools are still bulwarks of outdated practices, limiting their capacity to develop the skills of tomorrow. The OECD 2008 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that two-thirds of the teachers surveyed considered the school where they work to be essentially an environment hostile to innovation. Yet, measures used to estimate change and innovation in schools, both at the micro-level of classroom practices and the mid-level of school organisation, point to significant levels of change (OECD, 2014). Recent CERI research into innovative learning environments has unveiled an impressive universe of innovative schools in systems around the world. Around the world, many schools are becoming serious about innovation. What can we learn from them? How can we foster new ways of learning, how can we more effectively build communities of collaborative learning? How can we encourage educators and learners to build a collaborative culture of learning?

While innovation in schools should happen at the micro-level and cannot be forced upon them “from above”, ministers, policy makers and leaders more generally can play an important role in sparking innovation in schools. For example, they can provide a compelling vision of the future; set ambitious goals that force innovation; provide opportunities for autonomy, choice and competition; empower agents of change; tolerate risk taking; and reward success. Innovation only happens within a strong context of knowledge creation and diffusion, and, hence, also requires external partners in schools’ networks to foster the knowledge dynamics and the collective learning. Schools need partners to embrace innovation.

This chapter looks at the characteristics of innovative schools, offering pointers to how innovation can be achieved in schools. Next, it investigates schools as learning organisations. Finally, it discusses the role of technology in innovation in schools.

Innovating learning environments

The Innovative Learning Environments project

OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) ran the Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) project from 2008 to 2017. Part of that work consisted of an in-depth study of some 40 powerful learning environments that have taken the innovation journey, published in 2013 (OECD, 2013a). The project used the broader concept of “learning environments”, rather than “schools” or “classrooms” in order not to confine the analysis to particular institutionalised settings and to focus on the essence of what an ecosystem of learning is supposed to do.

Prior work on the learning sciences (Dumont et al., 2010) led to seven learning principles that define “21st century effectiveness” and together function as an analytical framework for examining innovative learning environments (see Box 2.1).

Box 2.1. The learning principles of the Innovative Learning Environments project
  1. The learning environment recognises the learners as its core participants, encourages their active engagement and develops in them an understanding of their own activity as learners.

  2. The learning environment is founded on the social nature of learning and actively encourages well-organised co-operative learning.

  3. The learning professionals within the learning environment are highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement.

  4. The learning environment is acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it, including their prior knowledge.

  5. The learning environment devises programmes that demand hard work and challenge from all without excessive overload.

  6. The learning environment operates with clarity of expectations and deploys assessment strategies consistent with these expectations; there is strong emphasis on formative feedback to support learning.

  7. The learning environment strongly promotes “horizontal connectedness” across areas of knowledge and subjects as well as to the community and the wider world.

Source: OECD (2017), The OECD Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments,, based on Dumont et al., 2010 and OECD, 2013a.

The ILE project added three more dimensions to the framework, optimising the conditions for putting the seven principles into practice:

  1. Innovate the “pedagogical core” of the learning environment, whether the core elements (learners, educators, content and learning resources) or the dynamics which connect them (pedagogy and formative evaluation, use of time and the organisation of educators and learners), or combinations of both.

  2. Become “formative organisations” with strong learning leadership constantly informed by evidence about the learning achieved through different strategies and innovations.

  3. Open up to partnerships by working with families and communities, higher education, cultural institutions, media, businesses and especially other schools and learning environments, in ways that directly shape the pedagogical core and the learning leadership.

In the next section we explore the first element, innovating the pedagogical core. The section that follows will discuss the second dimension, of becoming formative organisations. The third and fourth chapters of this report focus on the third dimension, partnership. This chapter and the chapters that follow use case studies (in indented block text) drawn from OECD (2013a).

Innovating the pedagogical core

Four main elements comprise the pedagogical core in our framework: learners (who?), educators (with whom?), content (what?) and resources (with what?). To rethink and then innovate these core elements – each individually and especially all four together – is to change the heart of any learning environment (see Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1. Innovating the elements of the pedagogical core

Source: OECD (2017), The OECD Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments,

Innovating using the pedagogical core at the heart of schools and learning environments means transforming organisational relationships and dynamics to make them relevant for the 21st century. In many cases, this means rethinking the kinds of organisational patterns that are the backbone of most schools today: the lone teacher; the classroom separated from other classrooms, each with its own teacher; the familiar class schedule and bureaucratic units; and the traditional approaches to teaching and classroom organisation. This is not to suggest that all schools across OECD countries strictly follow this pattern; many no longer fit this profile at all. The case studies described below have systematically rethought many of these practices and have created new learning environments by regrouping teachers, regrouping learners, rescheduling learning, and/or changing pedagogical approaches and the mix of those approaches.

Regrouping educators and teachers

The case studies highlight three main reasons for abandoning the conventional one-teacher-per-group-of-learners format. First, teachers benefit from collaborative planning, working together and shared professional development strategies (i.e. teamwork as an organisational norm). Second, team teaching allows for a wider variety of teaching options. Third, teamwork can benefit certain groups of learners who might otherwise not get the attention they need when only one teacher is in charge.

In some of the cases, collaboration might be described as part of the general culture of the learning organisation:

Teaching teams are cross-curricular and complementary at Lakes South Morang P-9 School (Victoria, Australia), with team members planning and teaching together, as well as coaching one another. To support this, a collaborative data-storage system is available for sharing documentation, assessments, etc. Experienced team teachers also engage in coaching other teachers on various teaching approaches that cater to different learning styles.

Lobdeburgschule, Jena (Thuringia, Germany): Twenty years ago, teachers introduced teamwork as a structural element. Organisational and pedagogical themes, as well as learning and working practices, are discussed in the teams. In the early 1990s, they established the “morning circle”, when all students gather to discuss different aspects of school life.

Teachers in the Quality Learning Center and Enquiry Zone, Mordialloc College (Victoria, Australia) used to “teach to the text”, according to the assistant principal, within single, closed-door classrooms. This has changed. Now teachers open up their classrooms and work in teams to model and share good practice – not only with their colleagues, but also with students and the broader community.

Collaborative planning, orchestration and professional development

The collaborative process of team teaching encourages informal reflection and feedback. When teachers work together regularly, collaboration becomes a tool for recording, learning and sharing good practice. This is very much in line with the development of professional learning communities for teachers, which collaboratively analyse pedagogy and lesson content in order to continually refine practice.

Professional learning is a priority in the Community Learning Campus (CLC), Olds High School (Alberta, Canada). Much of the professional learning is embedded in daily activities, such as team teaching, curriculum building (multidisciplinary teams of teachers working collaboratively to design an integrated, multidisciplinary programme of study), collaborative lesson planning and team meetings. Teachers also attend professional learning days scheduled by the school or the district.

An important aspect in CEIP, Andalucía (Spain) is the collaborative work of both teachers and students. Adults in the school (teachers, families and volunteers) are organised into working groups, commissions, meetings, the Teachers’ Assembly, etc. This teamwork culture is also present inside the classroom, where several adults often work together in the same class.

At Jenaplan-Schule, Jena (Thuringia, Germany), teachers collaborate in regular meetings, such as team conferences with teachers from all classes/grades. In the weekly team meetings, teachers discuss important topics for the forthcoming week and develop the subject matter, materials and methods to be used.

Regrouping teachers to introduce different mixes of learning and pedagogy

Several of the case studies refer to team teaching, which allows for different approaches by two or more educators working together with a large group of learners. It is worth noting that, in education, small is not always preferable to large. Large groups of students may sometimes be taught together in lecture mode, and then broken down into smaller groups for other styles of teaching.

Instead of deploying one teacher in a 30-student classroom, in certain subjects the Cramlington Learning Village (United Kingdom) features 2 teachers for a 60-student class. This adds flexibility to the class schedule and allows teachers to split students into groups in any way that suits their needs, such as for parallel or differentiated instruction. It also allows them to run cross-disciplinary sessions, such as an enquiry facilitated by a science and a media teacher. The result is that teachers across many disciplines can build flexibility at no extra cost. The process of team teaching can also help to model and release the creative energies of collaboration, resulting in new and novel ways of orchestrating learning that are engaging to learners.

In CEIP (Spain), the entire class of students is regularly divided into groups of four or five. The lesson comprises activities that each last 15 or 20 minutes, and are accompanied by a teacher or another adult. Once the time devoted to one activity has finished, the adults rotate to another group, so that they spend some time with all the groups at every lesson. Each group carries out a different activity, but the general subject matter of all activities is the same.

Team teaching is used in almost all lessons at Europäische Volksschule Dr. Leopold Zechner (Vienna, Austria). Many of these teachers speak the same language as the immigrant students in the classes.

Team teaching to target specific groups of learners

Specific groups of learners who might not get the attention they need in large classes often benefit from team teaching.

Having two teachers in the classroom in Europaschule (Linz, Austria) allows for a more personal level of attention. For example, one teacher concentrates on the subject matter and explains tasks, while the special needs teacher primarily focuses on social issues, supports group-building processes and attends to those who need special attention.

Similarly, in the Hauptschule (St. Marein bei Graz, Austria), students are taught in mixed-age classes, including some students with special needs. Instead of streaming students into ability groups, teacher teams apply within-class differentiation, alternating between basic teaching for the whole class and add-on content for highly motivated students or extra support for less-motivated students.

Three to five teachers work with Dobbantó (Springboard) students (Hungary) on an ongoing basis; two of them are present together in the classroom 40% of the time. Generally, there are three teachers working with the group in the humanities, natural sciences and a vocational field, respectively, with at least one of the three having experience in teaching students with special education needs.

Instead of taking low-achieving students out of the classroom in CEIP (Spain), another teacher joins the class during the two hours each day when flexible groups are organised. As a result, there is less misconduct in classes and low-achievers have improved their academic performance.

Enhanced visibility

When teachers work together in teams, they all learn from each other’s techniques and practices because they can finally see those practices (enhanced visibility); they are no longer hidden behind a closed classroom door. The visibility is enhanced even further when this becomes organisation-wide rather than just individual collaborating colleagues. While this practice might be unnerving to teachers at first, it is inherent in the nature of innovation to disrupt established habits before the innovation is integrated and becomes accepted in organisational practice.

Teachers at the John Monash Science School (Victoria, Australia) identified the benefits of “knowing what others are doing”, and therefore learning from one another, as well as “having a stronger sense of what the students are learning” and the ways in which richer connections could be made between different areas of learning. This was a new way of working for teachers, traditionally used to closed-off private areas and personal desks.

The Distance Learning Classroom in Lok Sin Tong Leung Wong Wai Fong Memorial School (Hong Kong-China) gives students the opportunity to learn from their counterparts in different schools, and enables teachers to observe lessons and exchange information with their peers who are not physically “on site”. The Smart Classroom is an advanced technological classroom that allows teachers to use a wide variety of media in their teaching. It also serves as a live link with other partner schools.

Regrouping learners

One of the most common ways in which the innovative learning environments discussed here regroup learners is by mixing older and younger learners together. When a school is very small, such mixing is inevitable.

Grouping together learners of different ages

There is a variety of reasons offered by the case-study schools for grouping together learners of different ages: as a stimulus to learning, as a way of encouraging diversity and contacts that would otherwise be unlikely to develop, to enable peer teaching, and as a way of reducing bullying and fostering good social relations.

In the Danish Lisbjerg School, there are two large groups composed of students whose ages span three years (6-9 year-olds and 10-13 year-olds). The students are also organised into smaller groups of 12, which are also mixed in terms of age. Teaching is differentiated and alternates between working within the bigger and the smaller groups. Every student follows an individualised learning path (called “the child’s storyline”), and documents work in different portfolios.

In the Community of Learners Network (British Columbia, Canada), teachers work within the walls of the traditional school structures to create innovative approaches to teaching and learning. For example, in elementary (K-7) classrooms, where students are placed in cohorts based on age, teachers collaborate across grades. They have shifted the physical structures and the learning structures to enhance collaboration among students of different ages, and they have shifted the power structures to include students as key resources in the education of their peers – and their teachers.

In the Presteheia (Kristianssand, Norway), learner groups vary in age and size but tend to be between 33 and 54 students. Time in the large mixed groups is used to build relationships among children who would otherwise not socialise. This reduces the incidence of bullying at school and increases feelings of security and confidence. It also makes it easier for students to find someone with whom they can have a trusting relation because they can choose among more students. Teachers and other staff are deployed flexibly.

Some of the case studies are very small schools with mixed-grade classes. They intentionally use the heterogeneity of their students as the basis for an individualised education, to encourage integration and autonomous learning.

Gesamtschule Schupberg (Boll, Switzerland) is a small school with a multigrade classroom composed of students of varying cognitive and physical abilities. The school emphasises the heterogeneity of the student group, and regards the heterogeneous student body as a stimulating and motivating influence on the children’s social and cognitive development.

All 20 students, from grades 1 to 9, in the One-Room School, Gesamtschule Lindental (Boll, Switzerland) are placed in one mixed-age class. Although students are assigned to a certain grade, learning activities are adapted to their current level of development, allowing for gifted students to be challenged and for weaker students to develop greater self-confidence as learners.

At the Lycée Ermesinde in Luxembourg, students of every course are divided into two groups: students imparting and students requiring knowledge. The former are in charge of documenting the issue, designing exercises and organising activities and assisting the teacher, commenting and assessing the lesson. The latter are expected to critically engage in the classroom discussions and demand efficiency, assiduousness and empathy from the “experts”. Motivation and emulation follow from this alternation of roles. As a result, main and secondary subjects no longer have any validity as every subject has the potential to becoming a main subject for specific students.

Smaller groups within the larger groups

Several of the innovation sites operate with a “house” system that offers a more manageable organisational unit and stimulates more “family-oriented” engagement among students.

Subscribing to the principle that learning is a social endeavour, the Community Learning Campus (CLC), Olds High School (Alberta, Canada) is both physically and programmatically organised into four learning communities, called “quads”. The quads provide a range of learning settings for a wide variety of groupings and configurations of students. The quads are each named according to a colour: Red, Green, Blue and Gold. The Red Quad is composed of grade 9 students. It is the only quad that contains a single grade. The other three quads include a mix of grade 10, 11 and 12 students. Students remain in the same quad, with the same group of teachers, throughout their three years in high school.

A key part of the collaborative environment in the Australian Science and Mathematics School (South Australia, Australia) is the Tutor Group Programme. Each student is a member of the same multiyear group for the duration of his or her time at the school. The Tutor Group meets daily for 40 minutes. A key role of the Tutor Group is to “ensure that students feel a sense of belonging within the school” and to “provide care and guidance through strong student-teacher relationships”.

At Colegio Karol Cardenal de Cracovia (Santiago, Chile), the unit is not the “house” or “family” or “quad”, but the “ministry”, as in a national or regional government. In each ministry there is a student minister, counsellor teacher, parent minister, chiefs of communal departments, mayor of the class and deputy secretary. The “president” is elected during political campaigns that involve voting boxes and election monitors. The student who wins the largest share of votes becomes president of the school government, and the student who wins the next highest number votes becomes the secretary-general to the president.

Co-operative learning is a prominent feature in many of the innovative sites. In some cases, it is more formalised through the establishment of learner groups that are considerably smaller than the houses or tutor groups described above.

In the case of a school in Hong Kong-China, there is a deliberate strategy of mixing abilities in small working groups.

Lok Sin Tong Leung Wong Wai Fong Memorial School (Hong Kong-China) has restructured all classes in primary grades 1-6, dividing students into small groups, normally of around 3 or 4 pupils. These heterogeneous groups are formed according to students’ academic performance. Each group is made up of both more able and less able students. The heterogeneity of the groups enhances co-operative learning in which students work together to maximise their own and each other’s learning.

Mevo’ot HaNegev Kibbutz Shoval (Israel) operates with a project-based pedagogy, with projects taking place around a specific problem or question that can be theoretical, practical or both. The learners divide into workgroups of 3-4 students each, and then examine a topic or a sub-topic from the wider subject.

Rescheduling learning: Innovating how time is used

Schedules structure the school day, week or cycle; the school timetable provides a central organising tool in schools the world over. Many educators still see time primarily in quantitative terms, i.e. as something one has more or less of, with the effectiveness of teaching directly related to it. But with innovative ways of using time, time is regarded in more qualitative terms.

Timetables, flexibility and time use

The distribution and planning of activities over time is a familiar part of school life. A number of the innovative learning environments described here have moved in the direction of organising learning into fewer, longer periods, partly for greater flexibility, but particularly in order to enhance the opportunities for deeper learning.

Mevoòt HaNegev Kibbutz Shoval (Israel) has a shorter school week (5 days) and longer lessons (60 minutes) than is customary in Israel, to allow students to engage more deeply in their lessons. The number of subjects covered per week was reduced from 8 to 4 or 5; the relationship between teachers and learners has become more personal; learning has been oriented towards understanding; studying has become more individual and autonomous; and teachers mentor and support the learners.

Every day except Wednesday at John Monash Science School (Victoria, Australia) begins with a 15-minute tutorial group meeting. The timetable of the school operates on a 4-period day, and a 10-day cycle. Each period is 75 minutes long so as to provide, as described by the principal, “opportunities for deep learning”.

The timetable at the Community Learning Campus (CLC), Olds High School (Alberta, Canada) consists of five 70-minute blocks with 10 minutes between classes. One of the five blocks of time is known as Flex Period (flexible period). Students explained that they have time to eat and also enough time to work on homework or anything else they might wish to work on. They also have access to a teacher during this time.

As some of the schools in the case studies move away from the standard subject-based curriculum, it is not surprising to find that this is reflected in their timetables.

In Spanish schools, time is organised according to subjects; but in the Instituto Escuela Jacint Verdaguer the timetable is based on methodology instead. The three areas into which the curriculum is organised are reflected in students’ timetables and the “learning pyramid”: 25% of the time is devoted to instrumental areas, 25% to personal work and autonomy, 40% to co-operative work, and the remaining 10% to intrapersonal work.

The academic year lasts 36 weeks in Dobbantó (Springboard) (Hungary), as in any other Hungarian vocational school, but the daily and weekly schedules are quite different. Approximately 60% of study time is devoted to general education and 40% is devoted to developing work-related competencies.

Many of the cases that were studied use time more flexibly than traditional schools. Flexibility goes hand-in-hand with individualised learning plans and with education philosophies that aim to make schooling less bureaucratic.

The Europaschule (Austria) has no school bell, since many believe the sound interrupts learning. Teachers start and end their lessons or break a double period when they consider it appropriate.

Instead of the 45-minute rhythm and subject-oriented instruction normally found in the German school system, an open, adaptive form of instruction is applied in the Jenaplan-Schule, Jena (Thuringia, Germany). Individual students have enough flexibility in their schedules and free time to work and learn at their own pace during the day, and to pursue their other interests, apply their creativity and develop their social skills. The goal is to have students understand themselves as active and independent learners who can enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

Some of the innovative learning environments studied provide their students with the opportunity to “accelerate” their learning. There is international evidence that this leads to improved results.

At the Australian Science and Mathematics School (South Australia, Australia), year-10 students may study subjects at year-11 or year-12 level, while year-12 students have the opportunity to take first-year courses at Flinders University as part of their year-12 studies. The school responds to the learning needs of its most motivated and gifted students by allowing them to self-pace their learning and do away with the confines of the traditional school year cycle.

Rituals can help to structure the school day and make it meaningful; they create routines of reflection or planning. Several of the innovation sites studied begin and conclude the school day or week with such a special moment. For example:

In the Projektschule Impuls, Rorschach (Bern, Switzerland) the day begins with a “morning circle” when a “speakerstone” is passed around and the children can talk about their feelings or thoughts. There is a regular structure to the day. Classes start with a foreign-language session, followed by group work based on learning plans. Afterwards there is a period of absolute quietness, timed by a sandglass that runs for 25 minutes while the students remain at their place and do not speak or walk around.

The Multimedia Programme, including “The Morning Show”, the CGPS Radio Show and Film-Making project, has become central to the Courtenay Gardens Primary School (Victoria, Australia). The show is run each morning by a group of senior school learners who apply to do so and undertake appropriate training. It provides the school community with information about their day ahead, transmitted throughout the school at 9.00 a.m. on the television in each classroom, in the staffroom and at the entrance to the school, from a dedicated multimedia classroom. The show follows a structured storyboard that includes an overview of news around the school, including student and staff birthdays, teachers on yard duty, weather, a “maths minute”, phone-ins from classrooms, and a film made by students.

Organised learning outside regular school hours

A number of the case-study learning environments systematically structure learning and support for their learners outside regular school hours. There are many more examples than those cited below, as all of the sites using virtual e-classrooms, for instance, have removed the close connection between face-to-face contact and organised learning.

The Entre Amigos association in the Polígono Sur is responsible for organising extracurricular activities through an official tender process of the City Council of Seville. From 8 a.m., the selected organisations are in charge of the “Morning Classroom”, developed to assist those whose parents go to work early in the morning, most of them at street markets. Evening extracurricular activities start at 3 p.m. and finish at 5 p.m., although CEIP (Spain) is normally open later.

The Lok Sin Tong Leung Wong Wai Fong Memorial School (Hong Kong-China) has launched a number of activities for students before, during and after school. Those who need to be at school early can join the “Reading is Fun” programme, from 7:15 a.m. through most of the following hour. Students can choose different kinds of books to read and share afterwards. In addition to lunchtime activities, students can join the Student Gardener Team to look after the plants in the school garden and in the community garden during recess. Every afternoon, students have 40 minutes of self-study to work on their homework. There is also a two-hour period at the end of the school day for tutorial classes on academic and creative subjects.

The Enrichment Programmes, Rodica Primary School (Slovenia) offers an array of artistic, research, international, linguistic and social activities that encourage creative thinking, constructivist education and diverse paths to knowledge. These complement the regular programme and are offered mostly outside of regular lesson time, in the afternoon or on Saturdays.

Widening pedagogical repertoires

Innovative learning environments also work with different pedagogical approaches to expand teaching and learning. Many focus on inquiry approaches and collaborative work, both of which are critical for preparing students for future learning and for equipping students with 21st-century skills. These sites also take full advantage of the possibilities afforded by communication technologies. What is important are the mixes of pedagogical approaches. Innovation is not about using a single new teaching method or one kind of technology; it is about employing a combination of approaches, including direct teaching, and tools.

Inquiry learning

In many of the innovative cases studied, students engage in project-based learning. They are encouraged to acquire knowledge while practising skills, like hypothesis generation, scientific inquiry, self-monitoring and (sometimes on-line) literary analysis. Some sites have shifted from subject-specific teaching towards more interdisciplinary learning that links knowledge and skills from several subject areas.

The Jenaplan-Schule, Jena (Thuringia, Germany) distinguishes among learner group instruction (music, arts, sports, handicrafts/woodworking, etc., and social studies), learner group work, and learner group projects in nature, geography/history, German and ethics/religion. In all learner groups, the project work, scheduled for 100 minutes three times a week, is the central working form.

“Problem-Based Learning” is an important part of students’ work in natural sciences, social sciences and technology at Instituto Escuela Jacint Verdaguer (Spain). All such work is planned as a team and carried out either co-operatively or individually. Understanding a problem is considered to be the first step on the path to finding a solution to the problem. The organisation of learning spaces, the timetable, activities, trips and workshops are based on this methodology.

At Matthew Moss High School, Innovation Unit (England, United Kingdom), student teams work one day per week on a research project. The teachers first introduce a challenge, which can vary from launching an egg as high as possible and returning it to earth without breaking or responding to a natural disaster, to investigating family histories of migration. The students then gather information about the topic, write a research proposal, and, after the proposal is approved by the teacher, conduct the research throughout the school year. In the process, they are free to organise their own research, while the teachers act as facilitators who present in-time lessons or suggest additional sources of knowledge.

In the Community of Learners Network (British Columbia, Canada), educators design broad inquiry questions that encompass a range of learning intentions. Background knowledge is developed through direct instruction and a series of information-gathering collaborative processes, such as research, “jigsaw”, literature circles, information circles, field experiences and guest presentations. A prominent feature of this phase is a series of “circle meetings” where students’ learning is co-constructed and facilitated in small groups. Reflective writing and representations of evolving understanding, using mind maps, follow the small group meetings. After this phase, the students are coached to articulate their own inquiry questions that fit within the larger inquiry question. As they pursue their individual inquiries, they often facilitate learning experiences for their classmates. Ongoing progress is supported through multilevel feedback circles that rely on self, peer and teacher support. The inquiry process is followed by a celebration of learning, called a Learning Showcase, where families, fellow students and community members are invited to share in the learning experience. Once the inquiry circle is completed a new one begins, following the same sequencing of activities. This allows the students to become more autonomous in their learning and gradually take on more challenging inquiry projects as they progress.

Authentic learning

It is a common feature of many innovative learning environments to make the learning experience authentic and meaningful by engaging students with real-life problems, offering hands-on experiences, and incorporating the students’ historical, natural and cultural environment into learning activities. Central to authentic teaching are “real-life” problems, which are interesting to students because they are more relevant, complex and challenging than simplified problems designed by educators, and because they are more closely linked to the development of 21st-century skills.

In the Centre for Studies on Design at Monterrey (CEDIM), The Atelier of Ideas, Monterrey (Nuevo León, Mexico), the college co-operates with enterprises and institutions that submit “real-world” projects that student teams complete – from brainstorming to final evaluation, with instructors acting as counsellors in this process. There are three major steps: project design – coming up with a plan to bring the project to fruition; collaborative work – working together to optimise the process and the outcomes; and evaluation – by the teacher, peers, the individual student and the external agency that came up with the project proposal.

The three-year practical building and living project at Breidablikk Lower Secondary School (Norway) involves students building houses on a 1:20 scale. Students get to play the role of builder, gardener, electrician, bank employee, real estate agent and others. To this end, the school co-operates with representatives of different businesses. Students use the same digital tools that architects use, and houses are furnished with electricity and handmade furniture. All designs must be environmentally sustainable.

Work on real-life problems often goes together with hands-on experience. At a few sites, hands-on learning involves inviting native speakers of the languages students are learning into the classroom – or through videoconferencing – for face-to-face conversations, or letting students participate in international events where they can hear and speak the languages they are studying.

Hands-on experience may also entail running a small business, such as producing and selling homemade products or working on problems posed by external customers. The students naturally gain experience in such activities as marketing, accounting and customer service, but also in organisation, co-ordination and team work.

The Mypolonga Primary School (South Australia, Australia) has a student-organised shop in which the students sell homemade products, and products commissioned from the local community, to visitors and tourists. All classes are involved in business, craft and tourism, and senior students along with a junior trainee operate the shop one day per week. Students rotate through a series of tasks in the shop, acquiring language, mathematics, art, craft and hospitality skills along the way.

Authentic learning activities often involve aspects of the students’ immediate environment. These allow students to explore the world around them and learn about the cultural and historical heritage of the place where they live.

Liikkeelle! (On the Move!), Heureka, Finnish Science Centre (Finland) encourages students to examine everyday settings from the perspective of natural sciences. Activities include investigating air quality and noise levels with the guidance of the relevant experts and authorities. Students place a measuring device near their school, work with a centre for natural-science teaching for analysis, process the data and publish results in an interactive map on an on-line learning platform. They then discuss the results with students from other schools and with a wide network of experts.

Authentic learning often involves several rounds of review and revision towards a polished result, which may be an exhibition, a stage performance or a portfolio. When students can present their work to a real audience, it becomes a source of public learning and celebration. Working towards a final performance also motivates students to achieve genuine mastery because real audiences demand coherent presentations and a high level of understanding. Presentations are also learning events in themselves: setting them up involves skills like organising group efforts and communicating effectively with an audience. Once again, the relationship with 21st-century competencies is clear.

In the CEDIM, The Atelier of Ideas, Monterrey (Nuevo León, Mexico), students present the projects they have been working on – all of which respond to real enterprise and community demands – in front of local enterprises and public and/or private institutions. By doing so, the assessment of their work becomes much more authentic and meaningful to students.

The Showcase is a celebration that completes each inquiry cycle, and has come to be seen as an essential element of the learning process (Community of Learners Network, British Columbia, Canada). Classmates, school administrators, families and community members are all invited to view the products that the students have created, and to discuss their learning experiences with them.

Europäische Volksschule Dr. Leopold Zechner (Austria) practices a special performance assessment called “commented performance portfolio” up to the third grade. Twice a year students present their achievements to parents and teachers in a detailed conversation that lasts around 30 minutes. Students present work they have done and answer teachers’ questions or demonstrate learning by solving problems they feel confident they can tackle in front of their parents.

Mixes of pedagogies

The orchestration of learning within the environment is complex, involving many decisions, often taken by teachers working collaboratively or with others in the learning leadership, about when and where and with whom particular pedagogies are appropriate, and how these should be modulated over time. In all of the examples below, part of the day involves whole-group, teacher-led activities, mixed in with other types of teaching and learning.

In the Lobdeburgschule (Thuringia, Germany), a typical week for a grade-1 student starts with the Monday “morning circle” where various topics are discussed. Then, learners work on their individual plans with partners, sometimes with the help of the teacher and using a range of different worksheets and prepared materials for support (“free work”). Then, it is the “epochal projects” session, which is project based. Students work for about a week on a single theme that includes different subjects and topics of the Thuringian curriculum. At the beginning of the project, the teacher provides core information; questions about the theme are developed, and sometimes small working groups are formed. The results are presented at the end of the week. Subject-oriented lessons follow, but students are more free to direct their learning in these lessons. The school week ends with the group “final circle” on Friday afternoon.

At the Mordialloc College (Victoria, Australia), the daily expedition time (11.00 a.m.-1.00 p.m.) provides opportunities for workshops and student conferences related to the substantive curriculum content, as well as embedded aspects of literacy and numeracy. Guides also hold workshops on areas that address the specific needs of students. These are the key points of direct instruction for students and are generally held for groups of 15 or more students.

Coursework at Jenaplan-Schule, Jena (Thuringia, Germany) includes mandatory subjects, but it also demands a high degree of development and discovery by individual students.

In the Instituto Escuela Jacint Verdaguer (Spain), teachers are still regarded as the best source of information on reading, writing and arithmetic, and they perform that knowledge-transmission function for learners who would not be able to discover core concepts by themselves or in a short time.

Traditional methods of teaching can be complemented by e-classrooms for acquiring and strengthening knowledge, as well as for assessment (Internet Classroom, Kkofja Loka Primary School, Slovenia). Teachers’ learning materials, prepared in advance, are collected in one place within the e-classroom where they may be used directly without downloading. Instruction via e-classroom takes place through an interactive whiteboard and portable tablets. E-classrooms allow for individual feedback after completed work or activity, with messages or a grade or a knowledge test given before progression to the next level.

Even in learning environments that have deliberately sought to move away from conventional forms of teaching and organisation, there are particular subjects for which those more conventional approaches are judged to be the most suitable even if, in these cases, teachers are always looking to encourage more active engagement among their students. The mix of pedagogies may be realised through the different media and settings used, as when e-classroom work is integrated into the larger menu of teaching and learning options. It may also stem from teachers’ preferences and choices as part of the wider orchestration of learning. Again, these innovative learning environments have not simply replaced one approach or methodology with another, but rather use a wide array of approaches, all of which are aligned with the broader learning strategy.

Schools as learning organisations

The analysis of cases in the ILE project underscored the finding that a learning environment should become a “formative organisation” through strong design strategies and corresponding leadership supported by learning information richness and effective feedback channels. In other words, to become innovative, schools themselves should become “learning organisations”. A growing body of scholars, educators and policy makers have argued for reconceptualising schools as learning organisations. They consider this to be the ideal type of school organisation for dealing with the changing external environment, for facilitating organisational change and innovation, and even effectiveness, i.e. improvements in the learning outcomes of students and other important outcomes. However, relatively little progress has been made in advancing the concept – either in research or practice. This lack of progress partly stems from a lack of clarity around the concept. A recent OECD paper has explored developing a common understanding of the concept of the school as learning organisation that is both solidly founded in the literature and is recognisable to all parties involved, i.e. scholars, educators, policy makers, parents and others alike (Kools and Stoll, 2016). It concluded by proposing an integrated model of a school as learning organisation.

Informed by a small network of experts and on the basis of a critical review of the research literature the paper proposed the following characteristics of the school as learning organisation in an integrated model (see Figure 2.2) in which the collective endeavour is focused on:

  • developing and sharing a vision centred on the learning of all students

  • creating and supporting continuous learning opportunities for all staff

  • promoting team learning and collaboration among all staff

  • establishing a culture of inquiry, innovation and exploration

  • embedding systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning

  • learning with and from the external environment and larger learning system

  • modelling and growing learning leadership.

Figure 2.2. Integrated model of the school as learning organisation

SLO dimensions


Developing a shared vision centred on the learning of all students

  • A shared and inclusive vision aims to enhance the learning experiences and outcomes of all students.

  • The vision focuses on a broad range of learning outcomes, encompasses both the present and the future, and is inspiring and motivating.

  • Learning and teaching are oriented towards realising the vision.

  • The vision is the outcome of a process involving all staff.

  • Students, parents, the external community and other partners are invited to contribute to the school’s vision.

Creating and supporting continuous professional learning for all staff

  • All staff engage in continuous professional learning.

  • New staff receive induction and mentoring support.

  • Professional learning is focused on student learning and school goals.

  • Staff are fully engaged in identifying the aims and priorities for their own professional learning.

  • Professional learning challenges thinking as part of changing practice.

  • Professional learning connects work-based learning and external expertise.

  • Professional learning is based on assessment and feedback.

  • Time and other resources are provided to support professional learning.

  • The school’s culture promotes and supports professional learning.

Promoting team learning and collaboration among all staff

  • Staff learn how to work together as a team.

  • Collaborative working and collective learning – face-to-face and through information and communications technology (ICT) – are focused and enhance learning experiences and outcomes of students and/or staff practice.

  • Staff feel comfortable turning to each other for consultation and advice.

  • Trust and mutual respect are core values.

  • Staff reflect together on how to make their own learning more powerful.

  • The school allocates time and other resources for collaborative working and collective learning.

Establishing a culture of inquiry, exploration and innovation

  • Staff want and dare to experiment and innovate in their practice.

  • The school supports and recognises staff for taking initiative and risks.

  • Staff engage in forms of inquiry to investigate and extend their practice.

  • Inquiry is used to establish and maintain a rhythm of learning, change and innovation.

  • Staff have open minds towards doing things differently.

  • Problems and mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning.

  • Students are actively engaged in inquiry.

Embedding systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning

  • Systems are in place to examine progress and gaps between current and expected impact.

  • Examples of practice – good and bad – are made available to all staff to analyse.

  • Sources of research evidence are readily available and easily accessed.

  • Structures for regular dialogue and knowledge exchange are in place.

  • Staff have the capacity to analyse and use multiple sources of data for feedback, including through ICT, to inform teaching and allocate resources.

  • The school development plan is evidence-informed, based on learning from self-assessment, and updated regularly.

  • The school regularly evaluates its theories of action, amending and updating them as necessary.

  • The school evaluates the impact of professional learning.

Learning with and from the external environment and larger system

  • The school scans its external environment to respond quickly to challenges and opportunities.

  • The school is an open system, welcoming approaches from potential external collaborators.

  • Partnerships are based on equality of relationships and opportunities for mutual learning.

  • The school collaborates with parents/guardians and the community as partners in the education process and the organisation of the school.

  • Staff collaborate, learn and exchange knowledge with peers in other schools through networks and/or school-to-school collaborations.

  • The school partners with higher education institutions, businesses, and/or public or non-governmental organisations in efforts to deepen and extend learning.

  • ICT is widely used to facilitate communication, knowledge exchange and collaboration with the external environment.

Modelling and growing learning leadership

  • School leaders model learning leadership, distribute leadership and help grow other leaders, including students.

  • School leaders are proactive and creative change agents.

  • School leaders develop the culture, structures and conditions to facilitate professional dialogue, collaboration and knowledge exchange.

  • School leaders ensure that the organisation’s actions are consistent with its vision, goals and values.

  • School leaders ensure the school is characterised by a “rhythm” of learning, change and innovation.

  • School leaders promote and participate in strong collaboration with other schools, parents, the community, higher education institutions and other partners.

  • School leaders ensure an integrated approach to responding to students’ learning and other needs.

Source: Kools and Stoll (2016), “What makes a school a learning organisation?”,

Technology in innovative learning environments

The potential of technology-supported innovation

Innovating schools is not just a matter of putting more technology into more classrooms. Engagement and motivation, student-driven learning and inquiry, interactivity and collaboration, and personalisation and flexibility, may all be enhanced with technology – but all are possible without it. Yet, technology is everywhere and we cannot imagine learning environments not harnessing the potential of digital technology in some way(s). As the previous discussion and cases have shown, technology may contribute to all the different components, relationships, partnerships and principles that define innovative learning environments. There is not one single “technology effect” but instead technology can permeate in many different ways throughout learning environments. Technology can offer a platform for inquiry-based learning, providing a collaborative working space for individual learners, groups of learners and classes or networks of learners. Technology can be the mechanism upon which inquiry-based learning is built, such as through game-based learning or on-line simulations, structuring inquiry-based learning in an engaging and relevant way.

Powerful information and communications technology can recast all of the elements of innovation. It can redefine who learners are, for instance, by bringing in excluded learners or by connecting together learners who otherwise would be totally unconnected. Technology has the power to redefine the educators – the on-line tutor or expert, for instance, or the teacher in a classroom in another school or even another country. The role of digital resources and ICT in changing content is also potentially enormous, by opening up a wide range of otherwise inaccessible knowledge, by promoting the so-called 21st century skills using the media that are commonplace for learners in their activities outside school, and enhancing equity of access. Digital resources obviously transform resources for learning, as well as the very notion of a “learning space” by activating, for instance, virtual learning environments.

Virtual settings illustrate well how technology contributes to redefining the assumption that learning has to occur in a fixed place at a fixed time with standard batches of learners. Certain teaching and learning options would not be available without a high minimum of technology. It opens up complex learning experiences via simulation or games that could not otherwise normally be used. It permits distant communication and collaboration, and brings access to educational materials and experiences of a richness that previously would not have been possible except through such means as a university library.

For the learning environment to be a formative organisation, technology can play an obvious role in organising learning data and feedback. But it may well come into play in other ways, too. Distributed learning leadership may very well depend on it for communication and collaboration, as might teacher learning using on-line materials, collaborative platforms or social media. Strategic options for learning design and redesign may be critically informed by examples available on line, including any necessary support for it to be sustained.

Technology is often integral to and supports the widening of boundaries and capacity through partnerships, through enabling communication and sharing experiences and knowledge. This is particularly obvious and significant through networking with other learning environments. Sometimes, this will depend on technology for collaboration with others at a distance, sometimes it will rely on more direct forms of face-to-face dialogue and action.

Technology has not been singled out as defining a separate “learning principle” but, far from diminishing our assessment of its importance, when well used, technology can critically enhance all the ILE principles listed in Box 2.1:

  • Technology has repeatedly shown its value in engaging young learners, hence, reinforcing “learner centeredness” and the key role of emotions and motivation.

  • Technology facilitates collaboration and joint learning, including through use of social media, hence underpinning the “the social nature of learning” principle.

  • Individual differentiation can be greatly facilitated through, for example, more systematic tracking of individual learning paths and achievements and hence also formative assessment and feedback.

  • Making connections is a defining aspect of ICT, hence opening numerous possibilities for “horizontal connectedness”.

At the same time, the mere presence of technology is not by itself enough to innovate learning environments. Nor should innovation be assumed to be synonymous with going digital, as this may only reproduce traditional methods and pedagogies in a different format.

The background report for the 2016 Global Education Industry Summit reviewed in greater detail the potential of technology-supported learning and the impact of digital technology on education and learning (OECD, 2016a). In the following section, therefore, a short update will suffice on the basis of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 results.

PISA 2015 data on computers in schools

Introducing computers into the classroom can be justified on several grounds, including preparing students to become full participants in today’s digital public space, equipping them with the digital skills needed for the labour market and allowing teachers to explore new teaching tools (OECD, 2015). It is therefore hardly surprising that governments have invested substantial resources in computers, Internet connections, software and ICT more generally. But this investment has not always produced obvious gains in student learning. As the PISA report, Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection (OECD, 2015b) concludes, in general, schools and education systems have not been effective in leveraging the potential of technology.

PISA 2015 asked school principals to report the number of computers available to students in the school for educational purposes, and how many of these are connected to the Internet. Across OECD countries, there are 0.77 computers per student in schools, 96% of which are connected to the Internet. There are large differences in the computer-student ratio across education systems. In Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Macao (China), New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, there is at least one computer available per student, and at least 95% of the computers are connected to the Internet. By contrast, in Albania, Algeria, Indonesia, Kosovo and Tunisia, schools have less than one computer for every five students, and fewer than 70% of the computers are connected to the Internet (OECD, 2016b).

On average across OECD countries, there are more computers per student available for educational purposes in socio-economically disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools, and more in rural than in urban schools. Education systems may be compensating for the fact that disadvantaged students and students living in rural areas often have limited access to computers and the Internet at home. However, the percentage of computers connected to the Internet in socio-economically disadvantaged schools is lower than in advantaged schools, and is also lower in rural than in urban schools.

Across OECD countries, the more computers available for educational purposes per student, the lower students score in science, but only before accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools. Once the socio-economic profiles of students and schools have been accounted for, 7 PISA-participating countries and economies show a positive relationship between numbers of computers and science scores, and 11 show a negative one (OECD, 2016b).


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