Long-time educator Wayne Jennings

Use brain-compatible, competency-based, project-based learning to meet goals of K-12 education

A Minnesota K-12 Education Policy Interview

December 14, 2018

Education consultant and long-time educator Wayne Jennings says redesigning the education system hasn't gone very far. He says many attempts to deal with problems facing the system have had disappointing results. In his 2018 book, School Transformation, he recommends changing the system by using brain-compatible, competency-based, project-based learning.


John Adams, Steve Anderson, Janis Clay (executive director), Paul Gilje, Wayne Jennings, Bill Rudelius, Dana Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Randy Johnson.


Education consultant and author Wayne Jennings-a former teacher, principal and superintendent, as well as education advocate-recommends changing the education system by using brain-compatible learning through competency-based education, where students are rewarded when they can show they've learned a concept or skill, and project-based learning, which is student-centered.

He says redesigning the education system hasn't gone very far. He says many attempts to deal with the problems facing the education system have had disappointing results-even those that have included large donations or grants given to specific school districts, such as Mark Zuckerberg's donation of $100 million to the Newark Public Schools.

He discusses key points from his 2018 book, School Transformation , which addresses ways to solve those problems: (1) goals for K-12 education; (2) problems in the current education system; (3) impacts of changes in technology and families and the new emphasis on race and gender equity; (4) how the brain learns and the need for brain-compatible learning; (5) eight principles for transformed schools; and (6) examples of brain-compatible learning activities.

Jennings acknowledges the challenge for teachers in dealing with large spans in learning and learning styles in their classrooms and he questions the idea of separate classrooms that divide kids by age groups. He called the bias against vocational/technical learning a serious problem, noting that not all kids are college material or interested in college.

He said he recognizes that dealing with racial diversity in education has not been easy. He concludes that while it's a good idea to desegregate schools, we should work with the students we have, instead of moving them.


Wayne Jennings, Ph.D., is an education consultant and author with a 60-year career as an educator and education advocate. His most recent book is School Transformation (2018). He recently received the prestigious John Dewey Society's Outstanding Achievement Award, "in light of your recent book and your decades of work in progressive educational causes."

Jennings started teaching in the 1950s in the Minneapolis Public Schools. After two years, he moved to the Saint Paul Public Schools for most of his career. He won and directed one of the 11 award teams to redesign American education in a nationwide competition. The design, Community Learning Centers, has been implemented in several schools.

Jennings helped design several experimental schools: Chiron Middle School, Saturn School of Tomorrow, Saint Paul Area Learning Center, Children's Theatre School, Mall of America High School, San Diego Museum School, Minnesota New Country School, EXPO Magnet Middle School. He has also started several traditional and innovative schools.

He established and directed Open World Learning Community (formerly Saint Paul Open School), a K-12 research and demonstration school of the Saint Paul Public Schools that attracted 10,000 visitors over 10 years and was described in many articles and books. The school won the Pacesetter award from the U.S. Office of Education for being educationally effective, cost effective and worthy of replication. The school is now in its 48th year.

As principal of Saint Paul's Central High School, an inner-city school for 1,800 students, Jennings helped reverse the school's negative image and established 12 magnet programs as part of a desegregation plan. The school doubled its enrollment in two years. He helped establish and served as assistant director of Saint Paul Public Schools' Career Study Center, a prototype alternative program for at-risk students that became a model for legislation.

He established and directed the Staff Development Department of Saint Paul Public Schools, which provided training programs for 130 administrators and 2,600 teachers. Jennings started the following charter schools: Family Learning Center, Jennings Community School, High School for Recording Arts, Museum School and several others.

Jennings published the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) newsletter, the Brain Compatible Learning Networker, for 18 years. Besides his most recent book, School Transformation (2018), other books include Inciting Learning: A Guide to Brain-Compatible Instruction (2002) and Bridging the Learning/Assessment Gap: Showcase Teaching (2004). He has also authored articles, other books and chapters in several books.

His other projects have included the Five Year Plan for Adult Literacy in St. Paul that culminated in a state-of-the-art adult learning center; service as a member of the Congressional-funded team for evaluation of charter schools; and over 300 addresses to workshops, seminars and conferences. Jennings also established several successful businesses: construction, manufacturing fiberglass canoes and education consulting.


The Civic Caucus has done more than 65 interviews over the years on K-12 education and how to get better results for students. (Go to http://www.civiccaucus.org/interviews.html and search for education K-12. Then sort the interviews by name or date.) The Civic Caucus interviewed education consultant and author Wayne Jennings to learn about his ideas on changing the K-12 education system, especially those developed in his 2018 book, School Transformation.


1. Key points from Wayne Jennings' book School Transformation.

There are four main goals for K-12 education. Education consultant and long-time educator Wayne Jennings says the goals are (1) active, responsible citizenship; (2) productive, satisfying careers; (3) Lifetime learning; and (4) personal fulfillment. "Nobody would argue with those," he said. "The problem is how do we carry it out?" He said schools are set up by subject areas and asked whether that is very successful.

There are a number of problems in the current education system. Jennings said the problems include:

  • Sixty percent of high school students disengaged;
  • Graduation rates that have ranged from 10 percent in the 1910s to 70 percent in the 1970s to about 80 percent now, with a rate of 50 percent for some kids of color;
  • One million dropouts in the U.S. each year;
  • The large number of "in-school" dropouts, who drop out of participating in school;
  • The achievement gap between affluent students and students from poor families;
  • Suspension levels in schools;
  • Limitations of the classroom model; and
  • The curve of forgetting-students don't remember what they've been taught.

We are in a new era. Jennings said features of ournew era include: (1) Changing technology. "We haven't seen anything yet," he said, noting the development of artificial intelligence. (2) Enormous changes in families. (3) Emphasis on race and gender equity. (4) Many, many more changes.

He said most books on education detail those problems, but are skimpy on what to do about them. He said in School Transformation, he says a lot about what to do.

There are four key findings about how the brain learns. Jennings listed them:

  1. Input: the more the better;
  2. Experience: opportunities to test one's wings;
  3. Feedback: essential to refine learning; and
  4. Safety: lack of anxiety, unconditional positive regard.

"We need brain-compatible learning," he said.

There are eight basic principles for transformed schools. Jennings lists the following in School Transformation: (1) Personal learning plans; (2) Advisor program; (3) Trust and belief in children and youth; (4) Student-directed learning; (5) Team building, vision, creativity and commitment; (6) Partnerships of many kinds; (7) Choices for students and teachers; and (8) Technology. "But," he asked, "what do we do with the resisters?" The book addresses that impediment, he said.

There are many brain-compatible activities. Jennings lists a number of them in his book. Here is a sample:

  • Project-based, place-based ventures;
  • Outdoors activities to escape from the four walls;
  • Interdisciplinary learning;
  • Service experiences;
  • Field trips, local and extended;
  • Exchanges among schools: rural, urban and ethnicity;
  • Photography, video and editing;
  • Drama and debate;
  • Fine arts, practical arts;
  • Internships and shadowing experiences;
  • Exhibitions and public presentations;
  • Pupil/teacher planning;
  • Students as resources; and
  • Competencies learning (badging).

2. Other problems in the education system.

Classrooms have large learning spans among students.Jennings said that there is a span in the number of vocabulary words different kids have before they start kindergarten. And he noted that a seventh-grade class might have a seven-year span in reading levels. "It's a big challenge for teachers to deal with that," he said.

"Another span," he continued, "is students' interest in a particular subject. Some kids may be interested in other things, like music or the deep sea. And kids have different learning styles. Some learn from the teacher talking and from textbooks and some learn by hands-on activities."

"What should we do about classrooms and kids with a huge span in learning and in learning styles?" Jennings asked. He said 160 years ago, Horace Mann created the idea of separate classrooms, dividing kids by age groups. "Administratively, it was very efficient, but not pedagogically," he said.

Education is a supply-side enterprise and does not necessarily match up with different learning styles. An interviewer made that comment and said there is a bias against kids who would benefit from vocational and technical learning. The interviewer also said classrooms can work well if they're organized correctly. Jennings responded that there's a difference between classrooms for all kids and classrooms with courses that students choose.He said schools can use classrooms and have it work well.

"Teachers go into teaching because they like the classrooms," he said. "They grew up with classrooms. It's almost impossible to get to something else." They are handicapped by that paradigm, standardized testing and textbook-driven curriculum.

He said the bias against vocational/technical learning is a serious problem. "Lots of kids are not college material and other kids aren't interested," he said. "It's too bad that high schools have removed shop and home economics classes."

Jennings said it's ridiculous that schools are calling kids in first grade "scholars."

Alternative schools and alternative learning centers don't seem to provide a progressive alternative to teaching kids who've been removed from regular schools. An interviewer made that comment and said his sense is that alternative programs don't work differently from regular high schools, except that they have smaller classes and are more tolerant of absences and tardiness. The interviewer said contracts with alternative learning centers don't have incentives for good results.

Jennings responded that alternative learning centers around the state were created for "at-risk" kids, as defined by state law. He said the statute calls for the alternatives to do something different from regular schools. He noted that in charter schools, teachers can create their own programs. But most of them are doing the same thing as other schools.

Another interviewer, who used to teach in an alternative educational program, said the state standards for alternative programs are the same as for regular schools. The interviewer pointed out, though, that there is no teacher-training program for teaching in alternative education programs.

A third interviewer, who formerly served on the Minneapolis School Board, commented that alternative schools are under-resourced. He said we send kids there who need lots of attention, but the alternatives don't get the same level of resources as regular schools. When nonprofits are running alternative programs, he said, the Minneapolis School District does not see those kids as part of its schools. "We need to see those kids as public school students," the interviewer said. "We can't do that on the cheap."

3. Attempts to improve the education system.

Redesigning the education system hasn't gone very far. Jennings said he was concerned about the progress of education from the early days of his teaching career. He taught ninth grade at Como Junior High in Saint Paul and found that his students didn't remember much from eighth grade. He began teaching in an interdisciplinary way, using two-hour blocks of classes.

He quoted John Dewey: "Give students something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand reflection; learning will naturally result." But, Jennings said, that flies in the face of most of what we do in schools.

There have been many attempts to deal with the problems facing the education system. Jennings noted that a $100 million reform program in the Miami School District has shown very little progress. "There was little difference between schools in the program and schools that were not," he said.

He said the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg gave the Newark Public Schools has made very little difference. Jennings said the same is true in the Philadelphia Public Schools, which received $150 million from the Annenberg Foundation. And he said a federal judge ordered over $1 billion in changes to the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. "The results were dismal," he said. There have also been millions of dollars of Federal grants to schools. "Educators say it's a money problem," he said. "But the results are disappointing where they have had the money."

Jennings said there have been thousands of workshops and conferences, many books and articles in professional magazines, and use of many education consultants with ideas about how to improve the education system. "Why haven't things changed?" he asked. "They've improved a little bit, but not much."

The solution to learning gaps among students is developing personal learning plans that take account of students' strengths, weaknesses and interests. Each plan, Jennings said, has goals that the student helps develop. Periodically, each student has a conference with the student's advisor and parents to review what the student has learned.

This approach requires a choice of programs for students, he said. "Increasingly, we have offered that choice." He mentioned the 1971 experiment in southeast Minneapolis that offered five learning alternatives in the schools there. After three years, he said, Minneapolis Superintendent John Davis wanted these models to be available across the school district. "The notion of choice is another way to deal with these problems,"

Finland is renowned for having the best education system.Jennings said teachers are paid well there and given more authority over what to do. Over several decades, he said, Finland made the teaching profession respectable. Kids get 10 minutes between classes and the country continually studies how the education system can be more effective, he said.

The result of those studies is that Finland is moving more to an interdisciplinary approach, he said. "Learning happens through projects."

How do the Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program and open enrollment affect what goes on in the system and in the classroom? An interviewer asked that question and Jennings said parents like the notion of choice, but it's resisted by school districts. He said PSEO, through which juniors and seniors can take classes tuition-free at colleges or vocational/technical schools, is "the best-kept secret from parents." He noted that school districts can keep 10 percent of the per-pupil revenue for students who take part in PSEO to cover administrative costs.

The interviewer asked if the two programs make any difference in the classroom with the kids who are left behind. Another interviewer, a former teacher, said, "When the best students leave the room, it's a deficit."

What about the role of school boards?An interviewer asked that question and also asked about education expert Ted Kolderie's idea of allowing school districts to choose among alternate school-board governing structures. This would be much like the optional municipal governing structures Minnesota cities have been allowed to choose among.

Jennings responded to both questions by saying the state determines what is to be learned, but doesn't say how. "There's the opportunity for change and innovation," he said. He doesn't know whether it's a good idea for school districts to pick the governing structure they want for their school boards. He said the state has its own requirements, but school districts are free to do almost anything, although there is tedious reporting.

"Given the challenging situation and the difficulty of changing it, give parents and teachers school choice," Jennings said. He said education colleges do not look at better ways to organize schools. "Many education college faculties are full of people who were in the education system," he said.

Ten years ago, the Legislature mandated that kids had to pass Algebra II in order to graduate. Jennings said suddenly, kids weren't able to graduate. So the Legislature decided kids could take several equivalent courses and test out of algebra.

An interviewer commented that in the Civic Caucus's study of human capital, we learned that it's one thing to teach math abstractly, but some kids can't learn math unless they see how it's going to be used. The interviewer added that when they see a practical use, kids pick up math right away. "To mandate algebra without knowing how kids learn is wrong," he said. "We keep driving down a one-lane highway and it seems to be the only way to go. It's a self-reinforcing system."

Jennings responded, "We're caught in a strait jacket." He said charter schools are released from many regulations, but 90 percent of them are doing the same things as district schools. He said there are many teacher aides in schools who are really good with kids, but lack the credentials to teach.

Competency-based education rewards students when they can show they've learned a concept or skill. Jennings said that system works better than just having kids spend a year in class and then get credit. "There are lots of things we can do to make the education system more successful," he said.

He also recommended project-based learning, which is student-centered or might be totally independent. He mentioned the example of a girl who wasn't interested in anything, except her hair. Her mentor helped her develop a project on different kinds of hair and what it takes to become a hairdresser. She learned about careers, math and chemistry doing the project.

How do we bring back the idea of community in schools, so everyone isn't just focused on their own needs? An interviewer who is a former teacher asked that question. Jennings responded that it would help to get other agencies to work together on integrating social services and health services into the school setting. "As it is now, every agency protects its own territory," he said.

Dealing with racial diversity in education has not been easy. In response to an interviewer's question about the Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota lawsuit over segregation in schools in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul School Districts, Jennings said it's a good idea to desegregate schools. But, he said, districts like Minneapolis and Saint Paul can't do that, because minority students make up such a large share of their enrollments. (See two Civic Caucus interviews from fall 2018 on the Cruz-Guzman case with attorneys John Cairns and Dan Shulman .)

An interviewer who previously served on the Minneapolis School Board referred to a similar situation in Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky. "It was very challenging," he said. "I'm not sure we have the commitment and the leadership to follow through. The tendency is that students of color will have to move the farthest in attempts to desegregate schools. It's almost impossible to make a black school a school of choice for suburban students."

Jennings pointed out that 20 years ago, a judge ordered $1 billion in changes to desegregate the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. The Supreme Court upheld the judge's authority. The changes included the construction of a new high school, which cost $100 million. "It was an attempt, but it failed," he said. "Achievement didn't change much."

The interviewer said there is a challenge when we're focusing on how to bring black students' achievement up to the level of white students. "I want us to teach students where they are," the interviewer said. "They need to achieve progress continually each time we measure to get them to higher levels of achievement. What are the levels of performance in the community? I'm not concerned about the gap. Students might not have the same achievement on tests, but they can have success in their community. Some of these students have been successful in higher education."

Jennings replied that we should work with the students we have, instead of moving them.

4. Conclusion.

Jennings concluded by saying that change in the education system won't come in one giant move, so we must do it in pieces. "Make changes, start new programs and give choices," he said. "Use the principle of an institutional bypass. It helps to understand that we're not helpless."

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