Top-Down, Bottom-Up, Inside-Out and Outside-In: Stories of Change and Innovation in Schools

Kathleen Brautigam
Posted on our orig Blog site by Kathleen Brautigam.

Got direction?

“Create a classroom learning environment that does not repeat the mistakes of the past”, said my cooperating teacher in 1970.

So, I vowed…My students would have to do more than just process information. They would problem solve by doing relevant projects that challenged them academically and creatively. Our students would learn about cultural diversity, and marvel at the similarities. I would adapt instruction to meet the individual needs of each student. I would determine where they were on the instructional continuum and help them progress as far as “they” could go.

The reality…I did those things without critical student data informing our decisions, without ready access to a community of experts, without the capacity to create resources efficiently, AND without sharing my efforts with my peers or community. It was a painfully, gradual process (often one lesson or unit at a time) as I purchased or created materials and investigated sources that were static and difficult to individualize.

Most students were motivated. But, I wished they could visit the countries we studied, actively contribute to experiments and get more timely responses to their spontaneous questions and observations. Most of all, I wanted to capture the interest of the students who were not making the connections between information, critical skills and the real world.

Thank goodness…we have come a long way since my first years as a classroom teacher! Instructional models and tools I once dreamed about are now a reality. New learning environments, with a wide variety of technologies, tools and resources, make connecting and learning independently and with others possible. It’s more critical than ever that we apply our best teaching and learning strategies as we move beyond traditional classroom boundaries and practices.

Learn from the past, direct every asset, relationship, and resource available in order to …cooperate, collaborate and communicate as we educate. Here are some examples that are working towards that goal!


Many state, regional and district organizations are building toward the vision of creating collaborative, authentic learning environments for their students in the schools they serve. One rural district’s first steps include virtual field trips, participation in global projects, expeditions, and other forms of interactive online learning. Online expeditions are their choice as interactive textbooks instead of traditional texts. Curriculum guides and connected communities of practice offer their educators lesson suggestions and activities that are aligned with Common Core and state standards. They give students the choice to vote for places the explorers should visit next and chat with expedition members about experiment results, or about how to solve an unanticipated problem. The students could also email questions to online experts around the world and go online themselves to find answers to the daily mysteries they uncover.

Many programs come to mind as examples of driving this change to more authentic and more self-directed learning using 21st Century resources. A basic and critical need for teaching and learning is affordable and reliable access to broadband. States in partnership with school districts and regional service agencies are taking that vision for change to build statewide broadband education networks providing access with and through college and universities, regional service and individual schools. The more farsighted programs assure connectivity supports collaboration, instruction, professional development, and most important – student learning.

One legislative effort for broadband connectivity, Pennsylvania’s E-Fund, was unique in that it supported multiple strategic programs to infuse technology and learning innovations all the way down to classroom instruction. Over a thousand school level educators, the Keystones, were competitively selected based on vision, interest and capabilities to work collaboratively across the state in a connected learning community committed to finding and incorporating new approaches into their schools. The programs were augmented with a regional approach that highlighted coaching and mentoring (Classroom for the Future and Getting to One) for schools at the state and regional level to drive a vision of classrooms for the future. These initiatives with state support through mandated funding and individual district leadership wrapped every level of education in a collaborative action plan to initiate real change for their classroom learning environments.


Students learn how we learn and work together when we expand the boundaries of their classroom learning environments through with a wider view of the world.

Students are able to engage, empower and accept the accountability for their own learning. Using project based approaches skillfully designed in collaboration with their instructors students decide how they will learn, what they will learn, at what pace they will learn and in what ways they will demonstrate this new knowledge. It is truly a time for the learner – with the focus on knowing their passions, styles and preferences and a commitment across all areas of education to making their learning experiences powerfully personal. The challenge is how to make it happen for all students to make a community of motivated, self-directed learners.


Research based frameworks, such as the enGauge 21st Century Skills, are used by districts to provide guidance on policies, resources, and practices so that educators would shift their focus to skills our students will need in the future, including Digital Literacy, Inventive Thinking, High Productivity and Effective Communication.

At the center of this movement and driving change outward is an empowered faculty. They are creative, energetic individuals who are ready to share ideas, expertise, and time. Their classrooms are active, cooperative settings that remind observers of adult work environments. Teachers leading by example… students as co-learners!

Imagine a sixth grade class… students are creating interactive mathematics tutorials to be used by a second grade class. One student uses the laptops microphone to record classmates saying “Try again; your answer is not correct.” She will use the various recordings as voice prompts in her tutorial. Others discuss – “Is this problem too hard for them? Is this one too easy?” One can hear a student offer to show his neighbor how to change the color of a background screen. A principal passing by is asked to critique a graphic, and a teacher who stops in is asked to help delete an object from the screen. Students are holding the assessment criteria sheets that they created in their hands as they review their projects. Focus and enthusiasm abound-no one is teaching to test questions!


From the outside in, communities are uniting with their school district to bring about change. School, business and community representatives gather to plan for a comprehensive community strategy to bring wireless connectivity to underserved populations or to provide independent funding for resources and innovative practices.

Business and community leaders are creating education foundations to provide independent and sustainable funding for innovative, student-learning programs, and resources supported by technology.

Schools become open laboratories for learning when they invite community in to become part of the process.

One current injection of school and community expertise is the use of business and community experts as instructional coaches or tutors in support of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). These experts share career advice, act as subject matter experts, and sometimes lend business advice to help secure outside funding for a district’s education foundation.

Government, business and community are energizing to create unique solutions. Research is available to defend or replace instructional practices.

As all these efforts converge…Doors are opening, students are engaged and connecting. It’s an exciting time for innovators, visionaries, and collaborators! They are connecting, cooperating, and communicating to invent solutions to better education, and our students’ future. Make it known!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.