02/17/2020 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Redesigning Independent Schools — One Decision at a Time

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Independent schools today are not the independent schools of a half-century ago, or even of 20 years ago. Yes, they remain small, close-knit learning communities where every student is known well and supported. They all focus on education for the heart and mind — for academic achievement and social-emotional engagement. And they continue to send their graduates to top colleges and universities and into key positions in the world — from business to politics to law to education to the arts and more.

But today’s schools increasingly operate in ways that would seem almost foreign to schools in the mid-20th century — and that’s a good thing.

One of the main differences today is the leadership model. The quintessential school leader in the mid-20th century was some variation on Frank L. Boyden, the famed, longtime head of school at Deerfield Academy who served as head for a remarkable 66 years.

As writer John McPhee put it in “The Headmaster,” a book-length profile of Boyden, “Boyden has the gift of authority.” For the bulk of the 20th century, Deerfield was basically his school. He dedicated his life to serving the school and its alums with an indefatigable bulldog mentality and deep involvement with every aspect of school life from admissions to fundraising to the curriculum to college placement. In Boyden’s first year at Deerfield, 1902, there were only seven students. By the mid-1940, the school had an enrollment of 500 students. So Boyden was a busy man. In fact, in the early years, when the school started building up its sports teams, Boyden would fill in on the teams as needed. He even served as Deerfield’s first quarterback — and would break his nose twice while playing. In all, he applied the same energy to fundraising, hiring faculty, overseeing curriculum, increasing enrollment, and managing the students’ academic and social lives.

Frank Boyden stands out, of course, as a larger-than-life figure in education. But his essential approach to running a school was widely shared — one leader making most of the decisions unilaterally. By the turn of the 21st century, however, the practice had shifted to a far more distributive model — with the core work of schools increasingly being shared among key top administrators and division heads and department chairs — the leadership team. Teachers also began taking on greater responsibility and engaging more in larger institutional matters.

In this century, the distributive model still holds sway. But it is morphing once again into a newer model that draws input about key decisions from an even wider group — including students, parents, alumni, and the broader community. According to writer John B. Nash, this new model is a Design Thinking Model. It originated in the 1950s and 60s with the emergence of design firms such as IDEO, but early in this century, the idea started to be applied to nonengineering problems. The launch of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University in 2005 has led to the spread of the concept among a wide array of organizations, including schools.

As Nash notes in his book, “Design Thinking in Schools,” “The common denominator among organizations leveraging design thinking is the notion of quality of experience.” It’s the kind of thinking, for instance, that led the online retailer Zappos to announce itself not as a shoe store but as “a service company that happens to sell shoes.”

That may sound like a sleight-of-hand, semantic shift in thinking, but when you apply it to schools, it becomes quite interesting. “What if we thought of schools as service organizations that just happen to educate kids?” Nash writes. “Schooling is a service provided to the public that is experienced by students. That experience should be amazing.”

Part of the shift to the use of design thinking in schools is driven by the shift in the broader culture. Blame Zappos, if you’d like. Or Starbucks, where the coffee is almost secondary to the experience. The success of such companies has been driving changing expectations among consumers. It has also driven more and more organizations to adopt these design-thinking practices.

Design thinking, as applied to schools, sounds a bit abstract, but it basically boils down to identifying and solving one problem at a time to improve the student experience. And solving these problems well is based on the assumption that those adults closest to the students — teachers, staff members, and parents — are in the best position to make wise decisions about needed change.” Even the students themselves are having greater input into the process of school change today. Instead of asking schools to rely on their principals and heads as the lead program managers, schools are beginning to make the change process more deliberately distributive by asking for both input and buy-in from all constituents.

As Nash puts it, “It’s a way to fully capture what students need, what your community needs, and to create real fixes — not just something that you ask your teachers or your staff to implement as a result of visiting some place.”

The design-thinking process, as outlined by the Plattner Institute of Design, relies on a five-step process: Empathize, Define, Brainstorm, Prototype, and Test. This process kicks into gear in schools with some variation on an empathetic awareness of the needs of others — primarily students — followed by the creation of a design team to gather related data from a wide array of sources. With the data in hand, the design team starts the process of brainstorming, prototyping, and testing. In all, says Nash, schools can “use design thinking to create better learning experiences for their students, and in some instances, radically shift the entire culture of the school.”

In “Design Thinking in School,” Nash profiles schools that have used the process to successfully address a variety of challenging issues, including ways to improve the school schedule, address smartphone use by students, counter the impact of media on students’ self-concept around body image and social standing, improve student engagement in the classroom, create more student agency and individualized learning, and rethink parent involvement.

Schools have also used the process to develop truly innovative changes, create cross-curricular programs, and significantly improve a school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Some even use the process to open up exploratory questions, such as “What would surface if student voices were taken more seriously?”

Nash outlines the detailed steps of engaging in the design-thinking process. Schools that want to move more in this direction would be wise to read the book or otherwise learn about the semi-formal process of engaging in the five steps. Mostly, though, Nash encourages schools to consider the value of opening up conversations with a representative segment of constituents that allows a school to be truly curious about new possibilities — and then have a clear process of following through. In this new arrangement, school leaders are also school designers — and all constituents feel as if they can contribute to the process of change.

Over the years, we have heard it said, and repeated, that schools are not particularly good at innovation — that they are, by nature, backward-looking institutions. This may be true in many instances. But it’s clear to us that more and more independent schools, while cognizant of the past and important traditions, are evolving in wise and thoughtful ways and embracing innovations when needed. The new normal, if you want to call it that, is this sort of collaborative approach designed to surface real and urgent needs, based on the specific culture of individual schools, followed by a thoughtful, step-by-step process designed for success.

Grant Lichtman, who has made a career out of studying independent schools, writes and speaks often about this need for an innovative mindset. He argues, among others things, for schools to think of themselves as “ecosystems of great learning” — which means they see themselves as creative, adaptive, permeable, dynamic, systemic, and self-correcting. We agree. The world is changing rapidly, and schools must evolve intelligently to serve all students well for the evolving human community around them.

Lichtman also likes to quote the 20th-century educational philosopher and innovator John Dewey, who once said, “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow….”

Engaging in design thinking in schools is one of the best ways today to ensure that all students receive the kind of education they need for the world they will face as adults.

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