Bridging the Gap Between Groundbreaking Research and Real-World Learning

Voices from the Field   13 April 2017
By Jeff Snipes and Chris Balme


We seek to create an environment that actively fosters students’ exploration of their authentic Self and the adoption of a wise, compassionate worldview.

Jeff Snipes and Chris Balme

EDUCATION IN THE US IS UNDERGOING A RENAISSANCE IN INNOVATION. Countless initiatives are exploring the potential impact of technology integration, project-based learning, and rigorous college preparation. Most of this innovation is driven by the demand for a higher performance workforce. Fueled by a growing anxiety about low test scores and a more competitive global economy, our schools push students to learn more, faster.

However, along with advances in technology and productivity have come increases in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. We’re successfully creating more efficient ways to acquire content while the amount of content we are seeking to acquire continues to grow; yet, this leaves less time for learning how to apply this increased knowledge wisely. Traditional schools are not designed to foster a sense of self-awareness, wholeness, and connection to others. It’s time to apply modern developmental science to advance these internal goals, through an education that explicitly develops individual and social wisdom, compassion, and purposeful wellbeing.

As pioneers in this pursuit, the two of us (Jeff Snipes and Chris Balme) were drawn together through a persistent and urgent question: “How do we create an education model that shifts away from content acquisition alone to better prepare students for the skills they need to lead happy, successful lives and become conscious leaders in the 21st century?” Said more succinctly… “Can we teach wisdom?”

A Vision for 21st Century Humanistic Education

Following in the footsteps of Dewey, Montessori, Steiner, Maslow, Rogers, and other alternative education and psychology pioneers, we are focused on establishing a school that prepares students for the 21st century workplace (learning agility, innovation, design and systems thinking, collaboration, complex problem solving, and global perspectives), while also helping them develop a deep connection to their inner sense of Self.

Adolescent and developmental psychologists, from Steinberg to Kegan, to Wilber and Wade, stress that adolescent development is a period of great significance in an individual’s formation of a healthy identity. Middle school students are actively exploring and deciding who they are and how they want to be in the world. They are forming a belief system about how the world works and how they should act as a member of a global society. They may embrace this inner voice—their authentic Self—or abandon it in exchange for security, achievement, or affiliation with others. We seek to create an environment that actively fosters students’ exploration of their authentic Self and the adoption of a wise, compassionate worldview.

To this end, Millennium Project is leading the way in developing a new model for education—one in which our innovation lab school enables us to test, refine, and modify instructional learnings and best practices through our Institute, as well as to create professional development programs that will scale to teachers everywhere through an online, blended learning platform.

What Brought Us Here

Our shared experiences inspired us to pursue a broader definition of education success.

Jeff spent 16 years building a global leadership consulting business—coaching and advising executives in Fortune 500 companies. His firm’s research indicated that regardless of an individual’s intelligence and technical skills, when successful leaders plateaued in their careers, it was largely due to a lack of self-awareness of their personal potential, patterns, and belief systems. In parallel, he became engaged in the pursuit of how to develop these skills and this awareness earlier in life. While serving as the Board President at Marin Montessori School, he helped launch a progressive junior high program grounded in the pursuit of humanistic education—or education for life.

Chris served as CEO of Spark for nearly 10 years, a national nonprofit whose apprenticeship-based programs place underserved middle school students in organizations ranging from Google to city government. After graduating from Penn, Chris began his career as a middle school teacher, where he soon realized that for students to succeed, in school and beyond their educational experience, their learning must be relevant and connected to the real world.


regardless of an individual’s intelligence and technical skills, when successful leaders plateaued in their careers it was largely due to a lack of self-awareness of their personal potential, patterns, and belief systems.

Jeff Snipes and Chris Balme

Together, we spent three years researching and developing our vision before Millennium School opened its doors in August 2016. We traveled across the US and visited schools in other countries to observe successful models, study best practices, and meet with leading professors, researchers, scientists, and thought leaders in education.

Our travels took us as far as Finland where we sought to understand how the Scandinavian nation consistently ranks near the top of international student assessments while reducing standardized testing and giving teachers freedom to design their own curricula. One example of our key takeaways was Finland’s elimination of siloed subjects in favor of interdisciplinary “topics,” which we developed into Millennium’s concept of “Quests,” a foundation for inquiry-based learning at Millennium School described more below.

Through our efforts, we designed the Millennium Project, which will ultimately be an integrated educational institute in San Francisco, California showcasing the best developmental, science-based approaches for teaching and learning in the 21st century. Our roadmap for this project consists of three phases: 1) Innovation Lab School; 2) Research and Design Institute, and 3) Broad-Scale Professional Development.

Phase 1: Innovation Lab School

Founded in 2016, Millennium School is an urban middle school in San Francisco where leading research in developmental science is applied in an authentic, student-centered

learning environment. The methodologies are measured and adapted to foster integrated academic mastery and student growth across multiple lines of development (cognitive, social, emotional, creative, somatic, ethical, psycho-spiritual). The innovation lab serves a uniquely diverse population of students through its flexible tuition program. The founding class includes 24 sixth-graders blending low, middle, and high-income families from a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds.

Millennium School is guided by a set of general principles for how to put a developmental science model into practice—the specifics of which are continually explored and tested with our scientific partners. Key model components include:

Inner World & Skills Focus: Developing skills in areas like executive function, emotional awareness and self-regulation, conflict resolution, and concentration.

Guides vs. Teachers: Shifting the model from teachers as content-holders to Guides who have the abilities to Mirror, Model, and Mentor.

Living Village: By using Occupations—important roles which each student fulfills for the community, from cooking lunch to managing budgets—students develop skills and a sense of their ability to contribute to something larger than themselves.

Experiential Learning Design: Shift from lecture-based, passive classrooms to project-
based learning, Socratic seminar, and Apprenticeships as our core learning modalities.

Integrated Curriculum: Students engage in six-week projects, all oriented around personally relevant, authentic Questions emerging from the class.

Real World: We deeply integrate with the city around us, teaching global citizenship, civic participation, and applied learning, while bringing outside professionals in to teach, evaluate, and motivate student work.

Whole-Self Measurement: We’re designing a whole-self measurement tool to include traditional cognitive measurements and go deeper into other areas of development.

Curriculum at Millennium School is largely oriented around “Quests”—interdisciplinary projects rooted in either Humanities or STEM disciplines that faculty, or “Guides,” craft based on student interests, world trends, or special opportunities for learning. Quests are also augmented with an integrated Math Mindsets program (leveraging the work of Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck) and an immersive foreign language program using Comprehensible Input.

In practice, learners engage in each Quest for six weeks. Using guiding questions, our students are encouraged to run with these topics in a variety of directions based on their unique interests. At the end of each Quest, students display their learning and gain real-world speaking experience in front of the community.

As Millennium School matures, we are developing a second phase in the overarching Millennium Project, the Research and Design Institute.

Phase 2: Research and Design Institute

A key missing link in educational transformation today is sufficient research that demonstrates new techniques in a real-world context. To address this need, Millennium Project’s Institute partners with university professors to coordinate ongoing research projects in related fields of study. Millennium will then integrate and translate key findings into applicable instructional design and, ultimately, into professional development programs (Phase 3).

Each aspect of the innovation lab school’s design is informed and supported through these partnerships. The lab school provides an active “feedback loop” between research and practice, affording researchers a statistically diverse and consistent environment to apply, test, measure, and codify results.


Millennium will then integrate and translate key findings into applicable instructional design and, ultimately, into professional development programs.

Jeff Snipes and Chris Balme

Current Institute partners and their areas of contribution include:

Stanford’s Graduate School of Education: Millennium is working to design, implement, and measure the efficacy of a student-centered model of emergent curriculum and an integrated growth mindsets math curriculum for middle school. (Dr. Denise Pope, Stanford Graduate School of Education)

UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: Millennium integrates the science of social, emotional, mindful, and pro-social psychology directly into the overall curriculum and learning environment (in contrast to an independent social-emotional learning course). This partnership intends to study the key educational influences on creating healthy adolescent identity and morality formation.

We are in the process of co-creating Greater Good Science Center’s Online Resource Atlas, a toolkit that will offer a wide range of social-emotional learning practices, as well as short articles on forming school culture around prosocial human development. (Dr. Vicki Zakrzewski, Education Director of Greater Good Science Center and Dr. Dacher Keltner, Dept. of Psychology at UC Berkeley)

UCSF Neuroscape Lab: Millennium is working closely with the translational neuroscience center engaged in technology creation and scientific research designed to better assess and optimize brain function, as well as to design, test, and measure interventions that actively improve the cognitive functioning of adolescents—specifically working memory, concentration, and executive function. We hope to co-create a student dashboard that can dynamically track and measure increases in executive functioning over time.

In the neuroscience Quest, our students took the ACE Executive Function Assessment—a tool produced through UCSF’s Gazzaley Lab in partnership with Zynga in the form of an engaging video game on iPads. Our intention is to roll out a comprehensive program for building executive functioning among our middle school students next year. (Dr. Melina Uncapher, Director of Education Program and Assistant Professor of Neurology, UCSF)

These collective partnerships enable Millennium to test and implement the latest research in real-time, continuously learn from results, and ultimately share our insights so that other schools may benefit.

Phase 3: Broad-Scale Professional Development

The final component of the Millennium Project involves sharing our key findings and methodologies broadly with the educational community.


These collective partnerships enable Millennium to test and implement the latest research in real time, continuously learn from results, and ultimately share our insights so that other schools may benefit.

Jeff Snipes and Chris Balme

While there is already significant research available to demonstrate the positive impact of applied neuroscience, wellness, and pro-social, psycho-spiritual development on both academic and student health outcomes; there is a wide gap between existing research and classroom implementation. This is a result of a lack of 1) practical models of application in real-world environments; and (2) cohesive, easily accessible professional development for teachers.

Millennium believes that teachers are the most critical change agents in schooling. We intend to work closely with representatives from local public school districts and charter management organizations to identify the specific practices that are most transferable to individual teachers.

Our goal is to create a high-quality, technology-optimized blend of in-person, live broadcast, social media, and online learning programs that will be available directly to individual educators at a low cost. Millennium will also seek to license its methodologies to third-party teacher training organizations for even broader distribution.

By providing them with research-backed models of instruction that integrate 21st century skills and authentic student-centered learning within a real-world context, we seek to empower teachers to facilitate active learning.

The future of education is exciting. As a society, we are at an inflection point of transforming education to better prepare our children to lead meaningful lives, able to make the conscious contributions to society that we need now more than ever. Millennium Project hopes to serve as an innovative model and testing ground for the latest advances in developmental science-based adolescent education. We look forward to sharing our insights with others and working together to cultivate the next generation of leaders.

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