Reframe: Episode 59

Inside the Synnovation Lab

synnovation lab

What if we could recreate school all over again? What if there were no more lectures, or worksheets? What if school became a place where students could create their day as they saw fit? These were the kinds of questions asked by Sycamore High School, which set out to create the Synnovation Lab – a modern, self-paced learning environment that encourages students to take full ownership of their education.

Additional Music Used in this Episode:
Broke For Free – Our Ego featuring Different Visitor
Lee Rosevere – Let that Sink In

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

The Synnovation Lab is not like other labs, and it all began with a simple thought experiment. What you do if you could recreate school all over again? How would you do it? What would you keep? What would you change?

What if there were no more lectures, or worksheets? No bells to tell students when to switch classrooms, or even set schedules for when students all took the same test?

Instead, what if school became a place where students could create their day as they saw fit? Where projects were inspired by their personal interests? Where teachers became activators, mentors, and motivators. Instead of authority figures who simply relayed information to students from the front of a class?

Not long ago, these were the kinds of questions swilling throughout the halls of Sycamore High School, a large suburban public high school in Cincinnati, Ohio.

They set out to create a modern, self-paced learning environment that encouraged students to take more ownership of their education. It would be an environment that would be far less structured than a traditional classroom, and one that could help prepare students for the present-day world they would soon join.

And that is how it all began.

Today, the Synnovation Lab just completed its first full year at Sycamore, and students have said that it has already helped them see school in a whole new way.

It’s overseen by a small group of teachers, several of whom are Miami University alumni. They interact with students to monitor their progress and achievement, and to offer advice and guidance, and to just help students work through problems as they arise.

We’ll meet a few of those teachers in a little bit. But first, let’s meet two students:


Hi. I’m Isabelle, I’m in tenth grade. I’m a sophomore.


Hello. My name is Jake. I'm also sophomore, and or 10th grade. Whichever way you look at it.

James Loy:

Here’s how Jake and Isabelle describe the Synnovation Lab.


You have almost complete control over your day at almost all points. So you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, basically, as long as it's in our community norms that we all decided for ourselves.


In a traditional classroom when there's work time, I think it's usually silent. And so, it's weird to be in a space where there's a hundred kids and they're just talking. And that's pretty normal for our days. We are able to work in groups. We're able to work individually. But we are pretty social kids. And so, we are constantly talking. But we get work done. And we get our stuff done.

James Loy:

So what are you working on today?




Yeah. Today's a math day. We're trying to get an entire unit done by the end of the week. I don't know if you are?


I'm trying to get it done by today.


I'm trying to get it done by tomorrow. So I, like, I'm doing an entire unit in two days. And that would normally be about two weeks in a traditional classroom. But since I don't have to stop and start and listen to a teacher for 45 minutes, I can do it in that two-day time period. It makes it really easy to get work done.

James Loy:

All across the lab, students are getting work done. But it doesn’t look or sound much like any classroom most of us might remember. At a glance, the lab looks really like a big, informal study hall that sprawls out across a theater that been converted into a free-form learning space.

There’s students scattered all up and down throughout the stadium setting, some are collaborating in small groups, while others are working alone on a laptop. Closer to the floor, there are students working through various equations and calculations on some of the many free standing whiteboards. And up front, where the theater stage would be, teachers are conversing with other small groups of students, who are seated around several rectangular tables.

Everyone in here is studying one of four core subjects. The lab covers English, Math, Science, and Social studies, as well a one project-based learning assignment that the students get to choose for themselves.

Their Spanish and music classes are still offered in a traditional classroom setting. But the Synnovation Lab is their primary learning environment. Students spend most of their day, most of their entire week, here in this one very large room.

To explain a bit more about how this all works, here’s Greg Cole. He’s a Miami alum, a graduate of Miami’s department of teacher education, and a social studies teacher who works in the lab fulltime.

Greg Cole:

Technically, it’s a school-within-a-school model. So all the students are enrolled in Sycamore high school. There's 50 freshmen. 50 sophomores. This year, those two groups will matriculate to sophomores and juniors, and then we will add 50 new freshmen. And so, the students are enrolled in here in their four core classes, and then … and a PBL course, or project-based learning course. And during that time, they get to choose what to work on and how long.

So as opposed to being issued a schedule by the school, they get to decide maybe I want to start my day by doing some math for 30 minutes. Then I’ll transition to science, like, maybe do some social studies. I want to do English after lunch. Or any mix-up of that. And they do their work until they're done with it. And so, one of the things that we believe is that it … that self-pacing … that the students can move on when they're ready.

And so, for some students, that means that maybe it only took them 30 minutes to do something that it would have been allotted an hour in a traditional course. Maybe they needed two hours, right, so that they need longer to understand that, especially we see that in math and in science. Some of those concepts are really difficult, and it gives them the chance to work on that.

And so, as you can imagine, that self-pacing structure means that not everybody's taking a test at the same time. And so, typically as … this is my 17th year teaching, I would just almost every other Thursday have a history test. Well, some students probably would have been ready for that test after two days of instruction. And some students might need a whole other week. So, in here, we can accommodate that self-pacing based upon their need.

That's one of the foundations is just that self-paced learning, the personalization of that as much as possible.

And the other one is the project-based learning component. And so, each of the students chose a project that they wanted to work on. If you think of … if you had a chance to study something, to help solve a problem during the school day, what would you do? And so, we had some students who built, in essence, a generator out of a bicycle. Other students who are working on poverty programs. Some students who helped us design an attendance system.

So kind of like that personalization of learning and the project-based learning are probably the two pillars of the Synnovation Lab.


James Loy:

Mr. Cole says that this focus the personalization, and the freedom and flexibility of this self-paced environment, has really helped students build their teamwork and communication skills. And the project-based learning component has also connected their learning to real audiences and authentic real-world problems in a way that also helps students understand why they need to learn all this stuff in the first place.

But these are not only things that set this place apart from a traditional school. The Synnovation Lab is also changing the way students think about their grades as well.

Of course, there are still grades and there are still tests.

But the novel idea here is that there is no such thing as a failing grade. Instead, students get either an A or a B or an incomplete. Anything less than a B is considered incomplete. So, if they turn in work that would normally be a C or lower, they do it again, and again, and again, if necessary. Until they master it.

Greg Cole:

And so, I think what it does is it says, Hey, we just want you to do your best. Right. Don’t worry about grades. You are going to get either an A or a B, and we are going to work on that process with you until you get it back.

And so, there are some people who are concerned that what students will do is they'll just keep trying things over and over and over again until they get that A or B. Well, I mean, just like all humans, eventually they realize, you know what? It's probably just a lot better and easier to do my best the first time, to get consistent feedback from the teacher.

So that, really, I'm less of a teacher, more of a coach, you know? I was a coach for a long time. And, in essence, what happens is: every single day, I help my players work through where they're at to get them ready for a game. Right. And to get them game ready. Well, I feel like that's how it is in here as well. It is that I'm not here to teach you, and to give you information. I'm here to coach you along on your process, help out where I can. Push you where I can. Provide context where I can. You know, help you do the best you can. But really, it's student ownership of learning. And my job is to coach them up.

James Loy:

At first, thinking about learning in this way was a big shift for a lot of the students, because not all of them were honors students, or even students who were used to getting all As and Bs.

In fact, all 100 participants make up a cross-section of students that match the profile of the entire school.

So, on one end of the spectrum, there are some students here with learning disabilities, while on the other, there are those who got perfect pre-ACT scores, and then students who fall everywhere in between. And they are all mixed in together.

Greg Cole:

And then so, as a teacher, you know, again I’m the social studies teacher, what that means is that all students are in different places. They ask different depth of questions. And so, I'm really able to coach up each individual kid where they are. And so, one kid … a conversation on globalization could be really, really short. Another one we might need three conversations. Right? I need three sit downs just really … so I know that they know that they get it.

And our math teacher, Mr. Ulland, does a great job of talking about how in math, if you get a 60% on a math test, normally you pass. Right? But you've also missed 40% of the math content, and that builds up over time. And so, just making sure that the students have mastered their learning. And so, we really try to talk about mastery based learning, that you've mastered your learning before you move on.

And so, what that means is that if you're on chapter three, that means you have mastered chapter one and two. Not gotten to 60%. Not been … not failed and just moved on to the next chapter. And so, for some students that means that they'll need into the summer to finish the course, to really make sure that they understand it. But we really feel that means that they're going to learn it. And that, with fidelity, they'll be prepared for next year, and obviously for life beyond.

You know, totally completely different. It's completely different than how I grew up. You know, testing has changed. The EP tests have changed. The workforce has changed.

And so, what we're trying to do is we're trying to think about: when you go to work at Procter & Gamble -- obviously they're a large employer in the area -- what is that going to look like? What are you going to need to be successful there? Working on a team. Communicating. Evaluating. Thinking for yourself. Taking ownership of a project, you know, keep working on it until you get better. That's what Procter & Gamble wants.

You know, nobody at Procter & Gamble is going to come and give you information for 30 minutes. And then come back later and ask you if you understood that and you're ready to go. They're going to expect that you are going to go out look for the information that you need to understand it better. Come check in when you have questions, you know, get continual feedback from your manager, or your director, or whoever it is.

James Loy:

How successful do you think the lab has been so far? Do you have any sense of that?

Greg Cole:

Yep. We get asked what data do you have? Right. And how do you capture responsibility? How do you capture ownership? A couple of data points that we've had: our attendance is through the roof. Kids come every day. Like, you can look at it. We've got a hundred kids. Two of them are absent today. Right. And neither one of those are absent because they're avoiding a test. They're not absent because they didn't do a project, or a homework assignment. Because in a self-paced environment, if you're not ready for the test you say, Hey, I think I need one more day of prepping. You know, our discipline is in essence zero. Discipline referrals. Those are two data points.

Obviously, there's other academic measures that we'd be interested in. But just that ownership of learning, that's success. And so, we're going to really attempt at tracking our students as they go to college, as they go into the workforce. And really track them and see how is it that you feel?

But based upon our interviews - we do parent-teacher conferences a little bit different, the students run it. And they are reflecting on how they're doing. What they need to work on. What's going well. What's not. We really rely on student feedback. And just the maturity -- and these are freshmen sophomores -- and so, that's what I think you might be impressed with - is when you talk to them, they make eye contact. They can tell you what they believe. They can back up their beliefs, and what they're doing. They can tell you how they struggle. And so, for 14 and 15 year olds to be able to do that, I think is very impressive.


James Loy:

This idea of ownership is one of the most common theme in the lab. It comes up again and again. The teachers talk about it. The students talk about it.

One of the big projects that’s creating a lot of buzz is a YouTube series called Historically Inaccurate, which has become a favorite among many students.

Historically Inaccurate is a show that covers history from a variety of angles. Some of the episodes feature a main character -- a student of course --who has messed up history in some way. So then, he has to go back in time, see what he messed up, and solve the problem, and in doing so, the audience gets to see how history actually happened.   

It also has a new mini series called PsycHistory. And it covers topics like WWII, prohibition, the cold war, the science of propaganda, and more. 

The creator, and current showrunner, is a student named Will, who had the idea after being encourage to run with his history lessons in a way that interested him.

Will MacLeod:

Well, the funny thing was is that it started as me being bored in history class. That's really how it started. I went the first two weeks without doing any history of. And I just was not feeling it, you know, and … I don't know. I've never really previously been interested in history, especially not to the point I am now. And basically, my teacher, which is Mr. Cole. He's over there.

He said that why don't you just go ahead and think about it and in a light that reflects something that you're passionate about. And at the time, I was like a hyper nerd, and I decided psychology was what I wanted to talk about with my history. So I wrote this essay about how Common Sense by Thomas Paine reflected some various psychological principles about persuasion. And I took that essay, it was about two pages, and I asked him, like, what do you want me to do with this now that I’ve written it?

And he's like, I want it to be an actual product, like something that people can see. And it turns out that there was Ryan Scram and Ryan White, which … they’re up there. But basically they said that they wanted to do a video as a project. And I said, well, I got this essay here. We could just read it in front of a camera. So that was the first video. It obviously wasn't very entertaining. If you look at it … and I can show you later. The difference between the beginning of the year to where we are now - now we have like actual acting and stuff. We have plots. We're doing this new video series called Historically Inaccurate, because that's the name of our channel.

I’ve been the main spokesperson for it, and kind of the leader. I help manage everybody, which has been awesome for me, obviously. Getting all these leadership skills before I'm even out of high school is difficult. Definitely rewarding at times.

James Loy:

I love how it went from you not even liking history, to having this idea, to it becoming a full blow production and collaboration with all these students, that’s also like a crash course in leadership too, somehow.

Will MacLeod:

It's been a wild ride.

I feel like when people find their calling in here, it's definitely something really amazing. I think I found my calling, which, trust me, if you told me I would be doing videos for YouTube on history last year, and that I was passionate about that, I'd look at you like you had four eyes. Because I hated history last year.

It's getting people out of this academic mindset where everything has to revolve around the grade. And more about, like, you know, do I actually understand this? Is something I enjoy? Do I want to learn more about this?

James Loy:

Since the project has really caught on among students, Will now has a whole team helping him write scripts, act in skits, shoot video, edit footage, and more. In fact, students are involved in all kinds of ways.


My name is Luis and I am a freshman.

James Loy:

Luis is in charge of all the marketing for the YouTube channel.


So what I do in marketing is I look at the analytics throughout the entire thing, which we're able to do if you own the channel. So through the analytics, you are able to see views, subscribers, and watch time. And those are kind of the big three things in YouTube. So, what I’ll do is I kind of use the same method throughout each three. Except subscribers is a bit different. And I’ll get to that later.

So, for views . . .

James Loy:

As Luis starts to dive in and explain his process, he talks about studying the way YouTube’s algorithm works, about the kinds of titles that get clicks, and those that don’t. About how they need to still iron out the kinks in each video description, and how their audience engagement strategies change from video to video.

He’s only a freshman, remember. But he talks about analytics for a full 15 minutes, like he’s been doing it for years, before I finally ask him if his teachers are teaching him how to do these things, or are these things he’s learning on his own.


I actually kind of have to figure that one out. What I usually do is I study it on, like … I study it on sites. Because there are lots of sites about YouTube's algorithm, and that type of stuff. But since it's not completely figured it out, I kind of have to check multiple sites and say, “lots of sites are saying this. Not that many sites are saying this. This is probably more reliable information.”

And then, I’ll try that out. And maybe if it doesn't work for us, I’ll have to look for something else. But I also pick things up along the way. Like, at the beginning, I was mostly just doing exactly what the sites told me, not really checking to see if it was gonna be good or not.

But then I started to see: some of these sites contradict each other. Maybe I should see what's even more reliable. And I started to see, oh, I have access to the analytic. That'll let me see what fails and what doesn't, and how I could use that, which kind of ended up becoming the main part of my job.

So I guess, as I go along and more people start watching, and we have more access to things, I kind of see what I can take advantage of, and kind of have to teach myself.


James Loy:

These are a few of projects happening today on a typical morning.

But here in the Synnovation Lab, it’s not just a unique learning experience for the students. Because, as you might imagine, this type of environment is a big change for the teachers as well, especially those that have a long history of teaching in traditional classrooms.

Greg Ulland:

I’m Greg Ulland. high school math teacher here at Sycamore. Graduated from Miami in 2001.

James Loy:

Mr. Ulland is also one of the lab’s primary architects, and his experiences with students over the last couple of years have played a key role in helping to transform this space into the learning environment it is today.

Greg Ulland:

I've probably been at this for almost 10 years. So, it was a hard shift. But it happened, for me, very slowly. So it was not like laborious. At first, I started getting maybe frustrated with the fact that I had to reteach a lot of stuff. Because we live in a transient world now. So kids would go to soccer tournaments. Kids would get suspended. You name a reason, and then … And when they came back, we had to fill them in on the gaps.

So I started, like, asking, how do I do that without literally re-teaching them on my own time that I didn't have a lot of?

So I started just by adding videos of my lectures, so that if a kid was to miss, or, even more importantly, if they were to miss something, they can go back and re-watch it. And so, then I just built those. Eventually that led to a situation where I had flipped my classroom. So the kids were gaining the information from me. But they were getting that at home from the videos that I made. And then, in class, they could do all their practicing. They could make all their mistakes. They could utilize my expertise to get help. And I could scaffold while they were there.

One thing that's obvious is that, you know, cheating or obtaining information digitally is a major hurdle that we have to overcome. You know, the days where I could give a worksheet and check to see if they got the answers right were gone. So, it became way more about what I was observing. How I was willing and able to help them. And all of that needed to go on the clock, if you will. So I needed to add time where I could watch them work, and allow them to make mistakes. So that model really worked well. So, like, it took me six years to get all that stuff ready. But I had been doing that in the classroom for the last three years.

So when you take the schedule away, you add a whole another component. Basically, you're taking the minimum pacing requirements away. And we still have that. If they want to stay in here, they have to meet a minimum pace. But they could do all the math, and then do all English. So that created, I think, the final piece where they truly had to choose to learn, which I think is our little hidden benefit that we didn't even know about.

A kid comes to me and says, I'd like to take this chapter nine test. Or, I'm ready to take it. Maybe I don't want to take it, but I am prepared to take it, and today is the day. And in the opposite, they were always being told when they had to do things. And that created an atmosphere where education was more like a job, or more like a chore. I mean, like, we all do things that we have to do. We prioritize them based on the need and our enjoyment of that. So I love that piece.

And, honestly, why am I the holder of the information? With the web, and math is relatively universal. It hasn't changed. So that's kind of a neat thing about math in the lab, is that, in essence, it is a very traditional math class. The kids do work. They make mistakes. They learn from those mistakes. They do that a couple days in a row, and then they take a quiz. That quiz forms our next step. So, if they don't do well on it, then they got to take another one. But we'll have a remediation session, which is what you're seeing going on. And then, they do two or three quizzes, and they take a test.

The math hasn't changed. The structure hasn't change. But what I had to completely flip was … I didn't … they didn't need me to introduce the information to them. There's books for that. There's videos for that. I made videos for that to help let them know that I am willing to do that for them. But my major role is now helping to fill in the gaps and challenge them. So, provide support. Provide structure. And provide rigor. It's made my job like a lot more enjoyable. 

James Loy:

Do you think it is realistic or feasible for other schools to do something similar to like what you have here? Can this be replicated in other schools, do you think?

Greg Ulland:

Well, I don't think this costs a lot of money. All I needed was a Google account, honestly. Some decent textbooks. But I'm using three or four different textbooks. So I've just kind of grabbed what I liked.

Definitely takes open minds. Commitment to a space. And some patience. But, I think it's gonna … I think it'll grow. I really do. I think that the product kind of speaks for itself in this sense: Our kids are really good communicators, and they're happy. And, like, you can't say that about a lot kids these days. They, I think, are possessing some really important modern-day skills. And schools are looking for a way to do that.

I also think we're gonna get away from this No Child Left Behind, strictly test-based educational system. It served its purpose. It raised the stakes. It raised the expectation. But I think this idea that every student in the country … or that a student in Montana should be educated in the same way as a student in Manhattan, hopefully that'll go by the wayside soon. We can start personalizing this again, to what the kids need and what they deserve. And maybe even what they want, a little bit.


James Loy:

We want to thank Sycamore High School and its staff for letting us tour the Synnovation Lab and visit with students.

This is the Reframe podcast. Thank you for listening. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share it with all of your friends. Many more episodes are available for free on Apple Podcasts and on Google Play Music.