GCE Lab School: A Conversation with Eric Davis

Q&A   26 January 2017
By Eric Davis


I knew I didn’t want other students to feel the way I felt in class—stupid, ashamed, and that their only way to take ownership of the experience is through various forms of misbehavior.

Eric Davis

Q. What is your background in education? What moments propelled you to start GCE Lab School?

A. It’s easy to trace a thread backward, but as a child, my educational experience did not make sense to me. I was a poor student who did not fit the academic mold expected of me and was constantly reminded that I wasn’t good enough. I was one of those kids who “has a lot of potential.” It’s almost comical to look back on 12+ years of the same comment on report cards and wonder why no one other than my mother ever asked if I was simply in the wrong educational setting. Suffice it to say that I did not attend “student-centered” schools. However, I can tell you that—consciously or not—I was cataloging the ways in which my schools/teachers didn’t effectively serve me, and all along, I was plotting my strategy to teach and coach the students with more diverse learning styles. Specifically, I attended traditional college prep schools and experienced failure in many ways: I was pulled out of class and sent to “learning resources” (a room in the basement of the elementary school, even when I had matriculated to middle school in a different building). I was told that I couldn’t learn foreign languages (I now speak French and Spanish). In place of a real-world context for mathematics, I was consistently informed that Algebra and geometry are easy concepts that I should get by copying the problems or reviewing the textbook (I didn’t). Not once in my entire K-12 career was I offered an alternate mode of presentation, even when my documented learning differences clearly warranted it.

Despite these experiences, I’m extraordinarily privileged. I grew up loved and secure. I knew, every day of my life, that I had a future and that I had potential. Yes, even those clichéd comments bespoke of a possibility in which I believed. When I arrived at college, I swiftly discovered that I had learned more of the key foundations than I had realized and that I had a stronger base than most. Lastly, and most importantly, I played sports—3 seasons/year, every year. I had to attend and maintain decent enough grades to play. And, I learned a great deal on the athletic field, in practice and games. I developed the foundations for teamwork, creativity, discipline, hard work, strategy, coping with losing, overcoming failure, and accepting that there’s almost always a better team or player out there—this does not absolve me from the pursuit of my or my team’s potential.

Mostly though, I knew that I didn’t want other students to feel the way I felt in class—stupid, ashamed, and that their only way to take ownership of the experience is through various forms of misbehavior. I was inspired by the world (I felt great as a learner outside of school) and wanted my education to reflect that. I really wanted to know why we were asked to know things. I asked the “so what?” question every day, and rarely did I receive a satisfactory or credible answer. Ultimately, I wanted to build a school model that invited students to learn in school the way that they learn in life: through integrated experience, connection, play and experimentation, and doing. I knew from my experience that until content was practiced, it would not be internalized nor lead to substantive changes in knowledge, behavior, attitudes, or beliefs.

Chronologically, I began coaching basketball when I was in high school, working as a camp counselor in the summers. I started teaching full-time immediately after I graduated college. I launched my first educational venture in 2001 and my first non-profit in 2003. And, I’ve been blessed to work with so many different types of learners and organizations over the past 15 years.

Q. What drove your team’s decision to expand from GCE Lab School to the Global Learning Models Design Firm? When did you know you were ready to scale?

A. Our intention from day one was to impact the system. And, this simply means that we knew GLM would one day exist. We were repeatedly cautioned to focus only on one thing, so we put our efforts into GCE Lab School. But, we documented how we built the model, how we iterated, and how we learned. This reflective and self-critical process fueled our ability to move from one site to a scalable model. I knew we would have to prove the concept before anyone would believe in our aspirations and vision statements. We also recognized that building the team and network would take a few years, and we weren’t in any rush—too many lessons to learn, mistakes to make, strategies to flesh out, money to raise, processes to productize, and students to inspire and prepare. We knew we were ready for scale when the curriculum and PD trainings lived digitally and had been refined in multiple settings. We had run several beta projects in which we licensed content and trained public and charter school educators, with positive response. Teachers wanted to see our model in their schools.



I think the biggest challenges were, and still are, semantic. Words have connotations, and these words reflect culture.

Eric Davis

Q. How do you balance scaling a model and keeping the uniqueness of individual communities intact?

A. People. Our model is totally customizable, and during our PD trainings with teachers, we build on what they already know and do. Our model makes sense when people see that it mirrors a natural way of learning, so schools are able to adapt it to what they’re already doing.

We also combine global essence with local context. What matters to everyone, everywhere? How do you experience this uniquely in your environment? Because we tested our model in so many contexts—brick and mortar public and private schools, online, blended learning—we quickly found that localizing the curriculum for our Chicago students wouldn’t scale. Now the questions that guide our curriculum are relevant to anyone, anywhere. For example, access to clean water is a concern for everyone, though the concerns are different for a student in Chicago versus a student in Salt Lake City. Our curriculum allows the same questions and resources to be investigated regardless of geographic location.

Q. You knew failures and mistakes would be part of the process. How were you able to get community buy-in, knowing their kids would be put through a brand new, untested system?

A. Trust. But, trust certainly wasn’t built overnight. Building an inquiry and project-based learning model that cultivates global citizens instead of graduates isn’t easy for most traditional parents and schools to understand—it’s not what most of them experienced. Moreover, our language didn’t speak to the primary parental concerns: your child will attend college, be prepared for a career, get married, and live a beautiful life. Parents only want to hear that their children will be learning how to solve the world’s most important problems if it means they get a scholarship to their college of choice along the way.

Our model wasn’t accepted easily, even though it’s infinitely closer to the way people live than the majority of models that have been fabricated in the mainstream education system—a system designed for success in the Industrial age we no longer live in. I think the biggest challenges were, and still are, semantic. Words have connotations, and these words reflect culture. This means that simply describing an educational environment can lead people to believe we are an “alternative” school at best (good for someone else’s child), we are for the fringe students and those with learning differences, or we are only for those who couldn’t make it in traditional school. Of course, these interpretations couldn’t be further from the truth. Our model is as much for the student who seeks to be genuinely challenged as it is for the student who is ignored in a typical classroom.

Q. What have been your favorite stories about learners at GCE Lab School? What about that matters to you?

A. I could tell you the story of Raji, a remote learner in Guayaquil, Ecuador who has discovered in our curriculum his passion for social activism. Or Henry, who was a shell of a person when we first met and became the big brother to all GCE students enroute to earning his degree in public policy. Or Leandre, a Burundian refugee who found himself in Chicago, at GCE, and has since parlayed his deep gratitude and tireless effort into a full ride to university. Or Alexis, a statistical anomaly, whose demographics and domestic challenges indicate that she should have dropped out and gotten pregnant, but who, instead, graduated in three years, earned a scholarship to university, and now volunteers at GCE. Or Jed, who was chronically reminded he was a walking defiant behavior disorder but who, in truth, is a gifted musician, philosopher, and environmental activist. Or Zoe, my own daughter, who I saw come to life as a learner and citizen. More than the feedback from any one learner or family is the pattern that emerges.

Each child shares that we see them, that we know them, that we care about them, and that we honor their individuality and potential as learners. The pattern is that our model is the path toward transformation of their lives, ownership of their learning, and a passport to the world of opportunity, whatever it is they may choose to do. The pattern is these young adults transformed from students to global citizens.



In the next 10 years, we anticipate impacting more than a million students and thousands of educators through curriculum and professional development.

Eric Davis

Q. What differences do you see in learners that have attended GCE for some time versus new enrollees that are coming from the traditional system?

A. Culture. Do you know what it feels like to be part of a culture of learning, where the highest end is to own the experience, to be of value to yourself, others, and the world? Do you know what it means to value the question and pursuit more than the answer itself? Do you know what it feels like to discover practitioners of the content you’re learning and see the value of the material in context? Do you know what mastery looks, feels, and sounds like? To each of these questions I would stress that the answer is not how long someone has been at GCE but rather how willing they are to open themselves up to possibility and inspiration. Sometimes we see this in moments, and other times it takes months or years.

Q. What should pioneers be looking out for in the coming year(s) with GCE/GLM?

A. More stories of transformation. GCE is a lab school, and we continue to experiment and critique what we’re doing to see what works best for students. We have already made major breakthroughs in terms of curriculum, how to structure a school day, how to build an ideal learning environment, and how to turn the city into a classroom. These advancements will continue. In terms of GLM, we are in the process of implementing programs in 40 schools around the country. In the next 10 years, we anticipate impacting more than a million students and thousands of educators through curriculum and professional development.

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