03/17/2021 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Innovation for the Human Side of School Change

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In his highly influential 1997 book, “The Courage to Teach,” Parker Palmer writes, “In the community of truth, knowing and teaching and learning look less like General Motors and more like a town meeting, less like a bureaucracy and more like bedlam.”

Tim Fish, NAIS’s Chief Innovation Officer, likes to quote Palmer when talking about school innovation. In his work overseeing the NAIS Strategy Lab, Fish has been very busy in recent years, particularly this past year, helping schools figure out their design, strategy, and process for needed institutional change in an era of obvious and extreme bedlam.

In an interview in Independent School magazine, Fish noted that the drive for change in schools is led by the fundamental desire to offer “the best possible learning environment for our students and the best possible community for our faculty and staff.” Yet, while these parallel goals have always been on the table, today they are made far more urgent and complex by both the positive developments in the brain science of learning and the challenges that are putting enormous pressure on all aspects of life in and out of schools. The challenges includes the impact of unregulated, AI-driven social media; racial inequality and political unrest; a prolonged and devastating pandemic; global warming and related environmental issues; and the uncertainty about the economy and the kinds of jobs school graduates will face in the future. For independent schools, there’s another factor at play, too: the need for a sustainable source of revenue to fulfill their missions well.

In many ways, this is independent education’s version of the perfect storm — and schools, in effect, have had no choice but to respond with concerted energy and care. What is heartening in this difficult era of disruption is not just the way individual schools are responding but also the way educators are supporting each other industrywide. The innovation taking place in the independent schools today is not one focused on using technology to improve the delivery of content but one aiming for a deeply humanistic response to a deeply fractured world.

At the NAIS Strategy Lab, Tim Fish and his team, aware of the obstacles and challenges schools face, encourage schools to embrace the notion that change is now a constant. The strategy, in this regard, is for schools to use their independence and autonomy to stay flexible and nimble in response the interests of parents and the needs of student — always with a clear sense of their school’s mission, their North Star.

The Strategy Lab has been helping numerous schools through the change process. At the recent 2021 NAIS Annual Conference, Fish and a leadership team from Augusta Prep (Georgia) ran a workshop about the school’s transition to remote learning at the start of the pandemic last spring then back to being a fully open school this past fall. As with many sessions at the conference, the focus was on both the need for change and the process — how schools generate new insights and then translate insights into action.

Around the nation and world, other consultants and consulting groups are working with schools as well, while many schools are plotting out large and small innovations on their own or in collaboration with other schools. Indeed, a lead story in independent education this year is not just the need and push for innovation, it’s the way in which independent schools are supporting each other in ways we’ve rarely seen.

Creating a Bias to Action

Earlier this academic year, we interviewed Richard Boerner, head of Graded: The American School of São Paulo, which, like other schools, used the lockdown in the spring and summer of 2020 to plan not just for reopening but for reopening as a school with a greater value proposition.

To help with the process, Graded entered into a partnership with the K12 Lab at Stanford University’s d.school to drive innovation in the curriculum and program design. Through additional work with Dr. Kevin Mattingly, a cognitive science instructor at the Klingenstein Program, Teachers’ College, Columbia University, and COGx, a research and development company in applied cognitive science, Graded is also incorporating new instructional and assessment strategies based on the goal of helping all students learn deeply and develop lifelong metacognitive skills. To work with the faculty and help facilitate the transition, the school has internally hired and trained four “deeper learning coaches.”

The process of such change at schools today requires such coordinated efforts. But it all starts with the certainty that change is essential and that, when done well, it will lead to a better, more valuable learning experience for students.

Grant Lichtman, a former head of school who has worked now with more than 250 schools on matters of innovation and change, has long been a proponent of such thinking. In fact, he’d argue that the school model with which the majority of schools have been operating for decades is now broken — probably permanently. The rise of sophisticated education technology and the fulcrum of the COVID-19 pandemic now means that all schools need to prepare for and expect learning to take place in a variety of settings both synchronously and asynchronously. And as we move forward, he says that school leaders also need to think in terms of reviewing and adjusting school strategies frequently and steadily.

In short, flexibility, inclusivity, and collaboration are now essential institutional elements.

What are the goals of all this transformational work? Schools engaged in creating new and innovative programs today almost universally want the learning experience today to be based on greater student agency, with formative assessment, mastery learning, and a focus on both cross-disciplinary and project-based learning. Student social and emotional health and physical safety are also priorities, as is a focus on an inclusive, equitable community and curriculum that serves a diverse student population well. The overall goal — for each and every student — is a greater depth of learning, personal engagement, interpersonal connection, and the development of essential life and learning skills.

To enable such change to take place, school leaders need to know not only how to identify the needs of students but also how to work with the broader school community as they guide the process of programmatic transformation. For their part, teachers need to develop the skills and pedagogical practices to make these priorities flourish.

In all, this is the kind of bias toward action consultants say all schools need in order to survive and thrive today. Indeed, sensing the growing need for such a leadership mindset, the Klingenstein Center, with funding from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, has recently created The Forge Experience, designed for academic leaders “who see possibilities and seek to shape solutions and refine them in a community of fellow educators dedicated to reflective practice, professional growth, and positive change in school.”

The Strategy for Change

In the case of Augusta Prep, the process of change, with help from the NAIS Strategy Lab, was to use the Kano Model of Satisfaction to prioritize innovation and investment, then employ the MOCHA model for assigned roles and tasks to shape and guide the change process. Guiding the process is what the Strategy Lab describes as “the jobs to be done” — a tool developed by Clayton Christensen, from the Harvard Business School, and Bob Moesta, from The Rewired Group, that focuses on the parental demand side. In this case, the jobs included the need to simultaneously maintain academic quality, improve student agency, maintain community, and improve the use of technology tools for in-person and remote learning.

In its work with schools, the Strategy Lab team likes to use a mountain-climbing metaphor to drive home how schools successfully manage change. Day hikes are experiments and pilot programs that serve as explorations and training for the larger, innovative “summit hikes” that involve the entire school community. While schools are pushing for new ways to creatively meet their mission and offer a stronger “value proposition,” the Lab encourages schools not to take on the larger changes without first engaging in these shorter explorations of new ideas and approaches that will help set the table for larger institutional transformation.

NAIS Strategy Lab’s three characteristics of schools working for change include:

  • Shifting from endurance thinking to emergence thinking;
  • Clearly understanding who the school serves and its value proposition;
  • Through a flexible process, making small bets to calibrate and validate big bets for the future.

In recent years, schools have been using some variation on this approach with success. But there are other creative approaches to institutional change that are being employed as well.

The K12 Lab at Stanford’s d.school sees itself as a catalyst for building “creative confidence” in schools. For the Lab, creative confidence is a matter of shifting leadership mindsets to “a bias-to-action to tackle big challenges.” Given the challenges students face today, the Lab says its overarching aim is “to interrupt inequities, obliterate opportunity gaps, and make sure every student has affirming and inspiring learning experiences.”

This kind of language is inspiring, but it can also be overwhelming to schools that want to make significant change, or that know they need to change but don’t know where to start. Understanding the messy complexity of the challenge, the K12 Lab team works with schools so that they understand how design thinking can better bring about their institutional aims. Like the NAIS Strategy Lab, the K12 Lab encourages schools to identify and hold the larger aspirational goal in mind, but start small. “There is so much that can and might change that it can feel overwhelming,” says Ariel Raz, the K12 Lab’s head of learning collaborations. “In many cases, it’s better to start small and learn through the iterative process of change.”

If the goal is to create a new schedule to accommodate deeper learning and build in space for student-directed learning, for instance, instead of changing the entire schedule at once — a step that would impact the entire curriculum and all teaching practices — Raz says it makes sense to create different versions of the schedule and parallel prototype them for a short period of time, then compare results.

Such experimentation is at the heart of design thinking — an ongoing, iterative process of moving a community to a better place. It includes both “problem framing” and “opportunity framing” — focusing on what’s not working and how we make it better as well as on what is working and how we expand upon it.

A part of design thinking is the also process of “future thinking.” At the NAIS conference, Lisa Kay Solomon, a designer in residence at Stanford’s d.school, led a session on how design thinking can create better value in schools. Solomon talked specifically about creating equitable schools that “unleash the potential for all learners.” The process doesn’t involve predicting what’s to come, she said. It’s about imagining the future we want to live in, then figuring out how we get there.

Solomon also underscored the value of “yes and…” thinking. This is a way to reframe problems into opportunities — say, for instance, using the lessons from remote learning to drive conversations about better use of time and space, rethinking assessment, shifting learning to be more student-centered, prioritizing social-emotional health, and diving deeper into the question of how technology can best leverage learning goals. Another phrase she likes to use is “amplify the bright spots.”

More generally, the K12 Lab has been encouraging schools to focus intently on equity in education, guided by the question, “How do we ensure that the world we are designing creates a more just world for everyone?” Thinking in these terms leads to more focused design questions about what equity looks like in schools and how it is best supported through programs and practices. A central curricular change raised by such inquiry is that schools “move from preparing students for the world as it is to giving them the skills to shape the future.” Given that such outcomes involve new approaches to teaching and learning, schools must engage in the iterative process of building, testing, and improving processes that would enable such outcomes.

Over the past year or so, many schools have engaged in some form of future thinking, followed by backward design to create the steps needed to reach the preferred future. A short list, all highlighted at the recent NAIS conference, includes:

The Crefeld School (Pennsylvania) shifted to being a “restorative justice” school as a means to improve the school culture and student outcomes. In the process, faculty and administrators trained at the International Institute for Restorative Practice and the school partnered with the Learning Exchange for ongoing coaching.

Hathaway Brown School (Ohio) has begun combining data on student SEL strengths with data on academic strengths and weakness to understand how each student learns best and thus provide them with appropriate individualized challenges.

Miss Porter’s School (Connecticut) completely reimagined its curriculum to help students to think and work collaboratively, make connections among disciplines, and apply knowledge to addressing complex social problems. The school has also simultaneously centered anti-bias practices in all aspects of school life.

Phillips Academy (Massachusetts) created a pilot spring-term program for juniors that require students to address a broad interdisciplinary theme that, in turn, requires a great deal of self-directed learning, creative problem solving, and divergent thinking. Lessons from this program are already impacting other areas of the curriculum.

Marin Academy (California) has engaged in creating interdisciplinary signature problems; de-siloing the academic and administrative departments; centering diversity, equity, and inclusion — and otherwise building a growth mindset into the DNA of the community.

Grant Lichtman likes to point out the way embracing innovation in schools leads to a powerful, ongoing process of institutional improvement. As he puts it, “innovation adds value; value drives strategy; strategy drives innovation.”

In his work with Miss Porter’s School over the past two years, he has seen this process in action as the school has both transformed its curriculum and committed itself to being a consciously antiracist institution. While Head of School Kate Windsor makes the point that the need for these changes were clear because they are best for all students and align with the school’s mission, the school still needed to engage in the complex process of change. Tim Quinn, the school’s chief academic officer and academic dean, noted that the new initiatives remain a work in progress, but he also pointed out that the rationale for change is clear and the direction it will take the school is toward being more vital and valued in the lives of students and the world.

Lichtman is also working with the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) to help the organization better support its member schools during these complex times. In a related session at the NAIS conference, Lichtman made the argument for innovative thinking in independent schools — especially when compared to the traditional approach of strategic planning. Strategy and innovation, he says, are two different ways to plan. Strategic planning focuses on existing performance indicators, with the assumption the future looks more or less like today. Innovative planning, by contrast, is “disruptive, creative, focused on new insights, and assumes the future is dynamic.”

In 2020-2021, we’ve seen more schools make the leap from strategic thinking to innovative thinking. And much of the work has been focused on the parallel tracks of inclusive, equitable education and quality education. Technology plays a role in the process, but it’s not the driver. In our interview with Richard Boerner at Graded: The American School of São Paulo, we asked him how he’d define “innovation.” He replied: “Essentially, innovation means that we are embracing the kinds of actions in education that can provide a profoundly better experience for all students, not just in school but also in all dimensions of life after school and college.”

There it is. Innovation is not about having a STEM lab or makerspace. It’s not about coding or robotics. These initiatives are all valuable — and in many cases have triggered a push for broader changes in thinking about the curriculum and pedagogy. Indeed, STEM-driven project-based learning and the embedding of the arts have centered new learning practices including flexibility of thinking, finding new perspectives, focusing on joy and play, crossing boundaries, pushing curiosity, and creating deeper self-awareness and critical reflection.

But deep down, innovation is primarily about improving the educational experience for all students. For independent schools, it comes around to fulfilling their humane missions in a 21st-century context. There are no set rules and not set pathway. Just this remarkably important goal and a world of options.

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