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Designing an Innovative High School Diploma Together

Exploring Secondary Pathways
By Corey Topf
Designing an Innovative High School Diploma Together

At the height of the COVID pandemic, I remember conversations with teachers and administrators about how this might finally be the wake-up call we all need. We surprised ourselves with how quickly we adapted to the crisis and online learning, and schools came up with innovative ideas for balancing learning and wellbeing. “Maybe this could be the nudge we all need to finally rethink systems and structures at our schools,” we said. “Think about the flexible schedules we could design. Imagine the shift we could start to make toward more authentic learning.” Even though we were overwhelmed by the uncertainty, there was such a genuine sense of hope.

Then, before we knew it, we were back—not just back to school, but back to unhealthy habits we were all so eager to break. Maybe we were just thrilled to be back in person again and that was enough. Maybe the uncertainty and isolation made us crave routine and connection. 

For many of us, the big questions are starting to creep back. We are realizing the need for a deeper why for our learning. The focus on grades and achievement might keep us afloat for now, but deep down we know they won’t give us the type of meaningful learning experiences we all need to thrive. Here’s a tangible example: A few weeks ago, a 10 grader at the American International School of Budapest (AISB) asked me a question that highlights where so many of our high schools are at. The student looked up from his computer where he was doing some research about universities and asked, “Mr. Topf, what do you think would look better to universities, if I did 4 HLs [high levels] or did 3 HLs and one online AP [advanced placement] course?”

The truth is, we all know the problems—perfectionism is on the rise, mental health issues are spiraling out of control, and artificial intelligence is forcing us to question what is truly worth learning. Thankfully, we have more research now than ever about the types of learning experiences that are enduring and fulfilling—that not only challenge us intellectually, but also enable us to contribute to others and strengthen our character. 

Over the last ten years there have been pockets of schools piloting great programs for students (see the list below). At the AISB, we are proud of our new Innovation Diploma that we launched this year. It empowers students to solve authentic problems using concepts from multiple disciplines. They take two integrated, project-based courses (e.g., English, Design and The Imperfect Art of Living; Science, Art, and Innovation Studio) that enable them to see the interplay between different subject areas. In these courses, they also have increased autonomy over their learning to build self-regulation and contribute beyond the classroom through project-based learning.  Learners are also given the opportunity to go in-depth into a specialized field of their choice to get a better idea of their purpose and possible careers they might pursue in the future. 

Innovative Programs Piloted at International Schools

  • The Innovation Academy at the American School of Lima, Peru
  • Futures Academy at the International School of Beijing
  • Quest Academy at Singapore American School
  • IDEATE Program at Beijing City International School
  • JIS Studio at Jakarta Intercultural School
  • Praxis & Pursuits Programs at the International School of Kuala Lumpur

But we have all been innovating in isolation.

This is why, since November of this year, we have been teaming up with a range of international schools. Instead of individually shouldering the burdens of designing student-centered learning experiences, we want to design a collaborative, innovative diploma for our high school students. We are looking to share our strongest courses, connect our students and teachers, and build credibility with universities and our families. 

The conversation began with just a few schools, but it quickly became clear that this is an urgent and important need for all of us. So, we created a Pathways Summit to make the conversation more inclusive, and around 40 international schools have already signed up.  If your school is looking for new pathways to meet the needs of more of your students, we would love to have you join us. The Pathways Summit is May 3rd and 4th, and we are beginning Pre-Summit Conversations in March. Here is the link to our website and the registration form.

We don’t know where all of this will end up or how it will take shape, but we do know that there is power in starting the conversation. 


Corey Topf is the Innovation Diploma Coordinator at the American International School of Budapest and the Director of Innovation Academy Online.

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