A Framework for Change: Foundations and Academy

This article is part two of an article series on an innovative approach to developing multidisciplinary curriculum that taps into student interest. You can read part one here.

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed.” 

Ken Robinson

In June 2018, twelve school-aged boys and their soccer coach ventured into a deep cave in Thailand.  Unfortunately, they traversed too far and became trapped inside the deep dark cave after rising floodwaters blocked their path.  Experts from around the world, including the Royal Thai Navy SEALS, deliberated for days on how to save the boys. 

After requests for help, Elon Musk offered support. Within days, Musk’s team, with Thai rescuers, collaborated to design a miniature submarine.  The sub held one body and enough oxygen to last for several hours.  Musk’s team fabricated and immediately shipped the product to Thailand.

How do we make schools into innovation centers?

As educators, these are the types of innovation skills we want to develop in children.  We understand our world needs students who have the ability to ask “what if?” and then take deliberate action, sometimes immediate, to produce, create, or design.

Post-pandemic, let us consider schools as the innovation centers of the future. Educators can become the leaders of innovation by inspiring students to tackle problems we face in today’s world.

How do we incorporate such a philosophy into our current model?  How do we effectively develop innovation and problem-solving skills while also teaching fundamental skills? We need a new vision for education.

An Answer: Academy

In search of a solution, my colleagues and I experimentally designed a midmester program.  Similar to a college January term, a midmester breaks from the traditional routine of school for a limited time and offers unique learning opportunities.  In 2019, we rolled out our program, entitled Academy.

Our Academy’s purpose is to develop and utilize the 21st century skill sets.  We focus on creativity, problem-solving, and communication skills while intertwining disciplines and skills.  Students explore topics in-depth, create a product, then formally present their learning. We now incorporate this program into our yearly curriculum every May, and our entire middle school participates.

Post-pandemic, many of us recognize the need to transform our education system toward a more project-based model like Academy.  Many educators envision this concept as a year-round model for education.  Yet, swift change can be a heavy lift.

To transition toward an ideal, schools could use the Academy program concept to incorporate more 21st century skills while still devoting time to the basic skills.  Such a model could combine dedicated time for fundamental study, which I will refer to as Foundations, and Academy-type courses.

By dividing the year, schools could rotate between Foundations and Academy components.  For example, a school could begin the year with four weeks of Foundations to establish routine, skills, and content, then move into a multi-week Academy session.  Alternating the study of Foundations with an Academy program throughout the year would enable educators to teach the basic skills as well as delve into authentic problem-solving and innovation.


A Foundations component could be dedicated to introductory study in the typical academic disciplines.  We could envision this as “traditional school”.  Schools’ typical daily schedules and routines would be in play, and students would have a predictable routine of skills and content.

A four-week time frame for Foundation would enable educators to teach one or two short units.  Teachers can adapt units to this length and incorporate traditional assessments.  Foundations would utilize the best of traditional teaching techniques.

ACADEMY Component

Academy, on the other hand, consists of courses designed separately from the established curriculum.   Academy offers an in-depth approach to innovation, problem-solving, and collaboration.  Through this project-based learning program, students are exposed to a variety of topics with integrated courses which challenge them to explore and create.  Academy curriculum weaves together strands of disciplines, skills, and creativity to create a full fabric of knowledge.

Through collaboration, teachers create project-based coursework that embraces 21st century skills.  Sample courses might include renewable energy design to power parts of the school, importance of free press while crafting a newsfeed, or play production where students write a play and perform.

Making Academy a Reality

Designing an Academy program requires vision.  What will the program look like and what will be its benefits?  What do you hope to accomplish through the program?  It also requires innovative teachers and a commitment to success.

Offering dedicated planning and discussion time for its creation and development is crucial.  Providing voice to everyone in the development process is also necessary to craft the best possible program.  It requires commitment from everyone involved, and you cannot have commitment without voice.

Administrators must be committed to a quality program and to provide resources necessary for a large-scale overhaul of the system.  Schedules will need to be adjusted and spaces dedicated.   Most of all, administrators must be willing to support new ideas.

Teachers also must be willing to try something new and to think differently.  Designing a project-based learning course is challenging.  Teachers will need to research, create, and innovate themselves.  In many schools, a cultural shift may need to occur.

As we move to transform, some will question the rigor of such models.  What does rigor, then, look like?  Consider a typical professional’s workday.  Rigor is problem-solving.  Rigor is attempting to communicate effectively, to propose ideas, to share your vision, to collaborate with others from different perspectives.  Rigor is writing, thinking, calculating, innovating.  Rigor is challenging work.

Academy provides all these opportunities.  Courses are designed to challenge, offer insight, and integrate disciplines.  The program would offer a high-quality academic experience.

Full transformation of our education system will require vision and commitment. Imagining systemic over-haul can be overwhelming but taking small steps can lead us in the right direction.

Jennifer Smith is a social studies teacher and fifth grade team leader at McDonogh School in Maryland.