School Design

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There are many models of schools in existence. Most of them could be improved. Many more could be created from scratch. This wiki serves as a starting point for the design of new educational programs or schools in an environment that opens them up to constant critique and improvement.


  • Andy Pethan, a 2011 graduate of Olin College of Engineering. I am entering a one-year teacher certification program to teach math in Minnesota in 2011-2012. Someday, I may be deeply involved in founding a new school, but if that happens, I want to have a good plan. The following explanation of a new high school design is from a project I did a few years back. Please tear it to shreds and add yourself as an author. Thanks!


Throughout my research and my experience as a student, I have come to realize the importance of motivation in the learning environment. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Most schools use grades and standardized tests as an outside, motivating force to make sure that students learn what is expected of them. Evidence suggests that this leads to performance based goals from students, which often leads to failure-avoidant strategies for studying and learning new material. It also suggests that students who are intrinsically motivated focus on achieving success rather than avoiding failure. Creating an environment where students can learn with their own motivation appears to be the key to success-oriented, long term, satisfying learning.

Motivating many diverse individuals in full classroom is a difficult task, one that only the best teachers have been able to achieve. Thus the question is now changed to how are the best teachers motivated? Like students, extrinsic reward systems rarely lead to higher job satisfaction and performance. For teachers, the most common extrinsic reward is money, something that is important to meet basic needs, but rarely improves performance. Teachers too need to be self-motivated in order to motivate their students. This comes through confidence in ability, open communication, and feedback from other teachers, students, and administrators. But the final question remains: what kind of school administration can create this kind of motivating environment for teachers and students? It takes a strong leader who is persistent in their vision of a motivating learning environment to create such a place.

I approached this paper with the thought of developing a new school, specifically a public high school, that I named Motivation High School (MHS). I chose a high school because it is similar to my current situation as a college student but still fits into the public school system that I have studied most recently. A thesis, in the form of a mission statement below, summarizes my viewpoints on the key factors in a motivating school community, one that focuses on the continual learning and improvement of everyone inside the school. I also use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a framework for studying the needs of students, teachers, and staff that must be met to ensure learning occurs.

Mission of Motivation High School

Every student, teacher, and staff member at Motivation High is a part of our collaborative learning community. This community is built on respect, open communication, continuous improvement, openness to change, engagement in school functions, and a commitment to learning. It is a priority for the school to meet the needs of each student, teacher, and staff member within this environment.


The most important part of the MHS community is the individuals that reside within. Respect for others is therefore taken very seriously in everything we do. Respect starts with the embracing of differences, including but not limited to race, religion, sexual orientation, and ideas. It also is expected when fulfilling other key tenants of MHS, including open communication and feedback, which can often be perceived as negative or demeaning. We have a few specific strategies in place to enforce respect at MHS.

Freshmen Orientation, Junior Reorientation

All students coming into their freshmen year will be required to take part in an orientation program that spends the first day of school fully dedicated to presentations, videos, and small group discussions around respect for others. These activities may include discussions on race, social acceptance, and acceptable behaviors in school. Role plays may include students learning how to respectfully give feedback to their teachers, while the teachers practice receiving feedback. The juniors will also go through this training again, except this time, with a high level focus. They will spend more time discussing what they have learned about respect, diversity, and difference of opinion in their daily lives. They will also continue to practice giving and receiving feedback with their teachers, this time with a better sense of where respect can be lost in the feedback process.

Employee Respect Discussion Groups

Every second Thursday over lunch, all staff and teachers will meet in their small discussion groups assigned for the year to discuss current thoughts and issues relating to respect in the workplace. The groups, each with 6-7 people, will have 40 minutes dedicated to talking through tough issues often suppressed or ignored in the workplace. By staying with one small group for the entire year, the group is intended to build trust and make employees feel comfortable around difficult topics, especially those centered around respect for others. These discussions should also better prepare staff and teachers in their interactions with students in cases that they are receiving, or even unintentionally giving, disrespect.

Open Communication

In order to achieve a better learning environment, communication between community members must come naturally. This includes students working together in teams, teachers giving each other feedback on ideas, students sharing their thoughts on the class with their teacher, staff approaching their own or other departments with suggestions, etc. This type of open communication takes conscious effort to achieve. We do it by establishing a safe environment to share ideas, a culture of feedback, and dedicated time for discussions. These are better described in other sections of this document.

Continuous Improvement

MHS strives to be the best school it can be. This may sound like every other organization today, but we have specific programs in place, even beyond our open and feedback-driven culture, to ensure our school’s improvement. These programs also include continuous improvement of individuals, with targeted evaluations and money allocated to this end.

Student Generated Course Development

Instead of placing the expectation of classroom innovation on the teachers alone, we have a full time teacher dedicated to helping students develop their own courses. These courses can be an independent study or a 30 student course, and are intended to provide students with an opportunity to lead their own education. The intrinsic motivation in a self or group designed course is an important differentiator of MHS from more traditional schools. All student designed courses must pass specific requirements before and during the course to qualify for credit, and each course is assigned an advising teacher. Some courses, after a much stricter review process, may also count towards required credits.

Education Lab

MHS will have a comfortable room dedicated to pedagogical reading and development. This education lab will be a gathering place for teachers to discuss their classes with their colleagues and share new ideas. It is also open to students and staff who are interested in how they learn, how different teaching styles reach out to these needs, and how a blend of techniques in the classroom can affect learning. Fresh ideas from papers, magazines, web articles, and books will be held in the room for easy access. The lab is intended as a hub of classroom innovation.

Teacher Evaluations

Teachers are held to high standards of behavior. Instead of measuring teacher performance based on student achievement or simple survey ratings, they are evaluated on their practice of positive teaching behaviors. Students in class are surveyed at the end of each semester with questions like “How often did your teacher seek feedback from the class? How was this feedback received?” or “Do you feel that your teacher respects you as a student and community member? Why or why not?” Each teacher also fills out the same survey for themselves. The responses are read by the principle and used as a topic for discussion in a meeting with each teacher each semester.

Student Evaluations

MHS goes beyond the traditional grading system to allow for more complete and helpful evaluations of student learning. Each teacher evaluates his or her class on classroom learning, performance, attitude, personal character and respect, desire to learn, and recommendations for future courses or topics of study. Like the teachers, students also fill out their own surveys and use it as a comparison point with the teacher evaluation.

Standardized Testing

Standardized tests are not a focus at MHS, but improved scores are expected as an outcome. We feel that we are building a better person at MHS, and that standardized tests do not and cannot measure all that we do. However, we still feel that student performance through increased knowledge is very likely to occur, and that because of our innovative approach, that MHS improve each year.

Departmental and Organizational Reviews

The staff are primarily evaluated by their peers twice a year through a similar survey to the students and teachers. It is focused on behaviors and attitudes. There is also a significant self review that probes not only the employees behaviors, but also their own learning since the last review. As part of the MHS learning culture, it is expected that staff pursue their own learning too, with time set aside in the week and money dedicated to staff courses, research, and exploration. The final part of staff reviews looks at their place in the work environment. They are expected to talk about the organizations effectiveness and discuss their own ideas for improvements.

Openness to Change

In order to implement new ideas proposed by the community, individuals need to be open to change. This encompasses change in the direction of the school and willingness to change philosophies of teaching or learning for individuals or the entire class. This community value is built into and constantly reinforced through the school culture.

Engagement in School Functions

All members of the community are expected to be involved in activities of the school. This ranges from student service work like tutoring, to extra-curricular activities and programs based inside the school, to greater community outreach programs. We believe the teacher and staff involvement in this capacity is rewarding for the employee and beneficial to the students.

Commitment to Learning

Everyone at MHS is expected to be constantly learning. For the students, this is of course the primary purpose of school. For the teachers and staff, however, it is also very strongly emphasized. We believe that a culture of adult learning is pervasive and will be passed onto students. It also provides an important skill in professional development and motivates employees to excel in their jobs.

Meeting the Needs of the Community

To better grasp the needs of the individuals at MHS, we use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a framework. To do this, we will look at each level of need for staff, students, and teachers.

Maslow needs.svg Image from

It is the goal of MHS that every person inside can maximize their learning by reaching self actualization, as defined by Maslow. In order to do this, it is imperative that the school helps every individual to meet their lower level needs, the four levels that Maslow groups together as the deficiency needs. In order, these are physiological needs, safety, belonging, and esteem.

Physiological Needs

To help everyone meet their most basic needs, MHS has a healthy cafeteria, fitness facility open during and after school, and rest area for employees. The cafeteria does not serve foods labeled as the most dangerous to kids, and instead focuses on a healthy balance of foods that kids will actually eat. The rest area is for short employee naps during breaks to help recharge for the day.

Safety Needs

MHS is very serious about reducing crime and threats to safety within the school. Instead of simply punishing students who do get in trouble with the law, there is a large emphasis on rehabilitation with the learning environment. Local social workers and police work closely with MHS to enforce this philosophy. The need for respect of one’s circumstances and ideas is also related to an individual’s feeling of safety inside the school. If a person feels that they have been disrespected and are unsure how to resolve the situation, we have a team of student, teacher, and staff volunteers ready to help as pre-designated times before, during, and after the school day. These rooms are intended to be safe places in the school, with the intention that every community member will feel comfortable going to someone with their concerns. These people are trained in listening, asking appropriate questions, peer mediation, and referring people to other sources if necessary.

Employees also have a need for security of employment, health, and property. This starts with a livable salary. It also includes benefits like healthcare, despite its rising cost to the school. Beyond this, MHS has a trained person on staff who teaches employees how their benefits, retirement plan, and general pay structure work. This person also serves as a financial planner who helps employees manage the money they do earn to help employees obtain financial security. As for long term employment security, MHS is very honest and transparent about the hiring and firing process so employees do not feel unjustifiably threatened of losing their jobs.

Love and Belonging

It is important that MHS fosters healthy, working relationships and a sense of purpose and belonging for individuals. The open communication goal is aimed at creating working relationships, and ideally stronger friendships, within the school. The goal of engagement in school activities is intended to create a sense of purpose for each community member outside their traditional role. This, combined with a feeling of being needed within the organization, will hopefully help individuals feel a sense of belonging at school.

Esteem Needs

Independent study, classroom projects, extracurricular activities, or small group initiatives that result in a positive learning experience and/or positive outcome will generate positive self-esteem and the respect of peers. By focusing praise on the process of developing new initiatives or projects instead of simply the end result, we feel that we can build positive esteem even in failing initiatives.

Self Actualization

After helping community members reach their first four needs, labeled by Maslow as the deficiency needs, the school can now work through its innovative learning culture of ownership and improvement to help each individual reach self actualization. This is a continuous process that helps individuals develop their sense of purpose in life. Students are guided and encouraged in this process within the classroom by the teachers. Open-ended and self defined activities allow the autonomy for students learn how to approach problems, with the guidance structure of a teacher in place to ask probing questions and seek explanations. Outside the classroom, in after school activities housed at MHS, students are encouraged to explore their interests. Staff, teachers, and parents are strongly encouraged to help with these programs, and a reasonable amount of funding to pay coordinators and purchase materials is available.

Teachers are also encouraged to explore. MHS has a relatively large employee development budget to encourage this growth, with the assumption that new ideas don’t only return to their classroom, but through daily collaboration and sharing of ideas, that they come into every classroom. In addition to personal exploration, teachers are asked to spend a significant amount of time reading about teaching, discussing their findings and questions daily with other teachers, and in a more formal setting at the education round tables every other Thursday (off weeks of respect discussions).

Staff, like students and teachers, are also asked to explore their interests with the use of school resources available to them in the process. Besides personal topics of interest, the staff is also encouraged to learn more about business administration and how successful schools work. These can be used as seeds for new ideas for improving the daily function of the school, or even suggesting more radical changes to improve the environment. Besides sharing these ideas in daily conversation, staff will also meet every other Thursday to discuss school improvement and question the current system in place.

The Outcome of this Document

This plan for MHS is a working, living document, one that is intended to be revised indefinitely as new ideas and reasoning for change surfaces in conversation. Because of the radical ideas proposed here, it will take a courageous, convincing, and relentless leader to implement it. Further describing the challenges posed by each idea or initiative, along with more concrete, cited evidence for each point, will make this document more believable and likely to be accepted by students, parents, teachers, and administrators.