Seeing Both the Forest and the Trees: Exploring Innovative Practices Across the K-12 Landscape

Photo Credit: Zach Reiner

Photo Credit: Zach Reiner

By Elizabeth LeBlanc and Dr. Christopher Harrington

As a field, education research has a problem of practice. As Chelsea Waite writes, “Too often in education, we turn to the same school exemplars time and again to uncover insights about K-12 school innovation. This limited sampling is often circulated via word-of-mouth, creating an echo chamber that distorts and diminishes the larger landscape of schools innovating toward student-centered learning.” Successful school and district stories of blended learning, personalization, and innovation are often told, retold, and remixed across research channels, meaning that too often we are not telling the full story or even the full range of stories. Other unintended consequences of the K-12 education research community ‘echo-chamber effect’ include:

  • A lack of recognition for visionary thinking and foresight within our own field. If an idea or practice only gains validity once a critical mass of researchers have covered it, we run the risk of missing the truly new, innovative, and out-of-the-box ideas when they emerge. 

  • Unintentional amplification of the success stories at the expense of the challenges and the down- in-the-trenches work that innovation over time actually takes. Truly rethinking traditional practices and implementing more student-centered ones is a difficult, time-consuming, and often daunting task. 

  • Fewer examples of lessons learned. When we as education researchers only spotlight a school or district without giving the full context of their journey to a successful model, we do a disservice to the field. 

  • Generation of a limited number of exemplars means that schools, districts, and leaders that are looking for new or innovative learning models may not find ones that “look like” their own in terms of demographics, geography, or achievement goals. 

Thus, when conducting research in the K-12 learning space, we as researchers often have to choose: Will we go for a high-level analysis to get the 30,000 foot view, or will we focus on deep dive case studies that illustrate successful or innovative implementation of a specific strategy? 

A new project from the Christensen Institute attempts to bridge the gap between practitioners in the field and those of us trying to describe efforts across the field to bring the transformative potential of technology to every student. Over the last year, the Christensen Institute worked with a wide-ranging group of foundations, nonprofit organizations, state entities, and other collaboratives and coalitions in the education arena to crowdsource and tag a dataset of over 235 schools and districts who are innovating in the area of student-centered learning. This undertaking, which highlights both the individual schools (the trees) and a bigger-picture look at the diversity of schools that are innovating (the forest), is aptly named The Canopy Project

The work of the Christensen Institute to both examine trends within individual schools and across the collective also raises the question of what we mean when we say that the work of a school or schools is “innovative.” For the purposes of the project, and as a step towards a future larger framework that might inform and support the field as a whole in knowledge-sharing across organizations, they came up with a three-part definition that recognizes “innovative “ work in K-12 schools as the deliberate development, implementation, and/or sustaining of strategies, systems, or learning models that support increased student-centered learning through:

  1. Personalization of the teaching and learning process

  2. New definitions of student and/or school success

  3. Increasing equity for historically underserved or marginalized students 

At the i4tl Center for Research and Innovation, we understand that in education as elsewhere, evolving and innovative practices often outpace our ability to describe them, especially in the midst of our industry’s ongoing quest to grow each child and to personalize their learning to their unique needs. Thus, a project like The Canopy Project is both needed and timely. 

To that end, the i4tl Center for Research and Innovation is pleased to announce the launch of our “Innovative Practices” blog series, a monthly blog dedicated to finding and telling the stories of schools and districts innovating along the lines of the 12 practices identified in The Canopy Project. We will be looking at and telling the stories of schools across the nation that are pushing forward in the areas of: learner agency, social emotional learning, project-based learning, new definitions for success, designing for equity, competency education, blended learning, experiential learning, new models for staffing and infrastructure, wraparound services, maker learning, and universal design for learning. In addition to finding and amplifying the stories of these schools, we want to look at impact and outcomes - that is, the change being effected by this important work as schools and districts move to increasingly student-centered learning models. 

Note: The i4tl Center for Research and Innovation is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization. Our research into innovation, digital learning, and community-building - as well as the tools developed from our work - will always be free and accessible to K-12 schools and districts as well as post-secondary institutions to advance our field and to give students of all communities, levels, ages, and demographics the education they deserve. In i4tl’s latest research project, The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning, the Institute for Teaching and Leading  studied over 60 schools and districts that have made the commitment to personalized learning in an effort to better understand the best practices as well as challenges of extending the promise of digital learning to every child. 

At the i4tl Center for Research and Innovation, we strive to build value for educators and practitioners through our research into how schools and districts across the country are bringing together the principles of personalization, technology, and shared visions of leadership to create innovative learning models. Our primary research goal is to take data and research and turn it into immediately useful and actionable information to inform the decisions of school leaders, administrators, teachers, practitioners, parents, and students going down the road of personalized learning. The i4tl research process includes a deep commitment to telling the authentic stories of the schools and districts with whom we partner.

About the Authors: 

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading. She also serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning school in northern New Mexico. Elizabeth has 15 years of experience in the design and implementation of high-quality, effective programming. With an MA in Educational Technology and Curriculum Design, Elizabeth works to coach and support teachers engaging in digital and personalized learning. Elizabeth was recently named to the NM Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory and was awarded the 2019 NMSTE “Making IT Happen!” award. Elizabeth has co-authored several education research projects, contributed book chapters, and written articles on brain science, whole child instruction, and blended learning. 


Dr. Christopher Harrington, the founder of the Institute for Teaching and Leading, has long served on the forefront of innovative education. Currently a professor atImmaculata University, Chris specializes in assembling and inspiring great work from great teams. In his previous positions as President of eLearn Institute, Inc. and CEO of Harrington Education Associates, Dr. Harrington assisted dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended and online learning programs, including the nationally recognized Quakertown Community School District where he served as Director of Virtual Education Services. Chris worked with multiple state and national groups in the field of education, includingiNACOL and the Colorado Department of Education. Dr. Harrington recently joined the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute team as their Director.