Are these the schools of the future?

Nancy Otero, founding director of research and learning design at the Portfolio School, and a student at the school which favors creativity over testing.

Story highlights

  • A new wave of schools are growing, many backed by tech executives
  • Project-based learning shifts the focus from grades to creative thinking

(CNN)Whether school years were socially awkward or the happiest days of your life, this time (hopefully) brings back lifelong memories and a tinge of nostalgia for the majority of grown-ups.

It was also likely a time defined by strict timetables, rigid lessons, and unforgiving homework.
Testing, too, was probably a big part of anyone's educational experience no matter where they lived. Depending on how well one performed on tests, it often meant certain doors were open -- or closed.
    Imagine a school now, though, where students choose their own curriculum and teachers are more like mentors guiding them through activities and topics of interest. Instead of homework and tests, portfolios and exhibitions would display your films, writing, art, and creations, and you were constantly encouraged to keep doing more.
    A new wave of schools are increasing in number, particularly in the U.S., many of them flipping the traditional style of schooling to a more personalized-style of education.
    A little girl plays at the Portfolio school, which opened a year ago.

    A new type of school

    Portfolio School is a project-based start-up school in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, which emphasizes guided choice and a personalized education, mixing technology with learning activities.
    The school calls itself a "micro-school", which aims to broaden a child's creativity and is based on the philosophy that children need an interdisciplinary model of learning.
    Currently, the school has 19 students ranging from ages 5-10 in a single open-plan multi-purpose space with plans to grow to 80 in two years.
    Portfolio says its research-based approach is reinventing everything -- from the curriculum, space design, classroom management, schedule, the role of teachers and a student's engagement with the outside world.
    One way of achieving self-motivation is by giving power to the students, said Nancy Otero, a former software engineer who is the director of research and learning design at Portfolio.
    "Our school is more like a studio. Things are open all the time. We have drills, 3D printers. We give them these powerful tools, where they can code and construct," said Otero.
    Children at Portfolio learn to build and assemble, using all sorts of tools.
    Kids can make things out of plaster, they can speak, write, make videos. "Technology is not viewed as something frightening. It's one of multiple tools," said Dr. Shira Leibowitz, director of the lower school at Portfolio.
    At traditional schools, there isn't much time for most of this. "You need large amounts of time to tinker and play and those schedules (of traditional schools) are very conforming," said Leibowitz.
    There's a policy of no homework at Portfolio. "Research has shown it's not a useful thing. Some of the kids start not wanting to learn so much (with homework)," said Otero.
    What's more, says Leibowitz, kids have time to be with their families, time to nurture friendships. "It's not for everybody, it's very different, but part of what makes it work is that the families are here by choice."