03/03/2021 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

School Innovation for Societal Transformation: Report from the 2021 NAIS Annual Conference

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At the final session of this year’s NAIS Annual Conference, the long anticipated keynote speech from award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was about to start. Latin School of Chicago Head Randall Dunn had just delivered a thoughtful introduction, then turned the virtual podium over to Hannah-Jones. But when the live Zoom session focused on Hannah-Jones, the creator of the New York Times 1619 Project, she sat quite for a moment, then said, “Oh, I was told this was only going to be a Q&A.”

Welcome to the world of virtual conferencing, when glitches and problems seem to be part of each hour. Without missing a beat, however, Randall Dunn calmly offered up a probing question about Hannah-Jones’s greatest hopes and fears regarding race in America. What followed was a highly engaging, thoughtful conversations on the intersection of race and education — where we are and where we should be going.

“I’m not all that hopeful,” Hannah-Jones said at the start, but then underscored her commitment to “trying to expose the ways we fall short, particularly when it comes to the way we educate our children and uphold the promises we’ve made to our society.”

“Hope,” she added, “is a balm for inaction in too many of us. We can’t bring about change on hope alone.” Indeed, her greatest fear is that we do nothing. There’s a tendency in this nation to look back and see how bad things were and look forward and imagine a better future in ways that “alleviate us of the charge to act now.”

“The better future will not come about if we are not doing things to bring it about right now,” Hannah-Jones said. “I worry about complacency. I worry that we believe in equality in the abstract but not in action…. We have these moments when we seem to be on the verge of transformation, but then we don’t have the political will to move them forward.”

Although her work as a journalist focuses primarily on public education, Hannah-Jones is aware of the history and current inequity issues in private and independent schools and encouraged the audience to act on behalf of a more just, equitable system that focuses on student and teacher integration, a pedagogy that supports all students, and a curriculum that tells the truth about America. She pointedly asked schools to consider the question, “What roles are you playing in the larger ecosystem of education?”

“I do believe that education can lead us to liberation…,” Hannah-Jones said. “And I believe there is nothing more hopeful and that produces more tangible results than integrated classrooms in integrated schools.”

To highlight what she thinks of as the transformative possibility of knowledge, she closed by noting that, just the previous week, a sixth grader at The Advent School, an independent school in Boston, had sent her a copy of an impressive magazine the students created on the history of slavery in America.

“If we respect the intellect of our children, the sophistication of our children, and teach them a history that is compelling and relates to their lives, they can handle [the truth of our racial history],” Hannah-Jones said. “And those [Advent] children will grow up to be better Americans because of this project.”

Education for Humanity

Nikole Hannah-Jones' comments brought to a close a three-day conference that centered the conversation on race in schools and society alongside conversations on lessons from the brain science of learning and new insights into the process of institutional change.

Given the enormous pressure that schools have been under in the past year alone — pressures driven by a persistent pandemic, social and political unrest, an urgent need for racial justice and equity, and the alarming impact of social media on learning and society — one could feel in each session the intensity of intension to adapt and change, to get things right.

And getting things right today, many schools are coming to realize, boils down to thinking more deeply about the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students in these deeply uncertain times. In ways we haven’t seen in years past, schools are also collaborating widely with each other — sharing experiences and knowledge, successes and failures, in efforts to both manage the shifting landscape and transform their institutions.

Taking Action

In one of the conference PechaKucha sessions (20 slides in six-and-a-half minutes), Matthew Bolton, head of the upper school at The Seven Hills School (Ohio), outlined the basic call to action and the aspects of independent education that urgently need to be addressed. His list essentially touched on key topics highlighted throughout the conference: rethinking the schedule and use of time; shifting to formative assessment; focusing intently on social-emotional learning; developing more interdisciplinary teaching; improving support for teachers; centering diversity, equity, and inclusion; and more.

Longer sessions drilled down on these new directions and initiatives.

In her session on new priorities and programming at Miss Porter’s School (Connecticut) Head of School Kate Windsor said the two main mistakes schools make when thinking about institutional change is that the proposed changes are not big enough and the process of change is not fast enough. At Miss Porter’s, the recent institutional changes have been both big and fast — and include centering antiracist practices is all aspects of school life and building a highly interdisciplinary, theme-based curriculum.

With support from Grant Lichtman — a former head of school turned author and consultant on school change — Miss Porter’s had started the change process prior to the pandemic, then accelerated efforts throughout 2020. In their session, Timothy Quinn, Miss Porter’s chief academic officer, noted the reasons for the accelerated process. “As a society,” Quinn said, “we have some major problems — climate change, inequality, the breakdown of our democracy… unchecked and unregulated technological developments…. I don’t believe we can just send students through a standard set of classes — teach them how to read and write, take calculus, etc. — and hope that they develop the skills and motivation to solve these problems.”

A question schools need to ask themselves, Quinn added, “Are we a force for good in the world?”

In a desire to be a force for good, Miss Porter’s has set out to change its “operating system” — which is to say, all school practices and policies. The result, at heart, is a new interdisciplinary, project-based, student-center curriculum supported by growth-oriented assessment and a restructured schedule.

Kate Windsor has also insisted that the redesign work center antiracist practices in all aspects of school life — from the board of trustees to the school leadership team to teaching and learning practices and more. She noted that, after reading the “Black at Porter’s” Instagram postings last year, it became clear that the school was “not keeping the promise of the mission statement for all of students.” For Windsor, immediate action was the only moral and professional option. “It’s actually very simple and straightforward,” she said. “To be an antiracist institution aligns with our mission and is fundamentally best for all kids.”

At Phillips Academy (Andover) in Massachusetts, the impulse for curricular overhaul has been equally strong for the equally compelling reason of offering a high quality education for complex times. Like Miss Porter’s, Andover began rethinking its curriculum prior to the pandemic — and continued the process through 2020 and into this year. Through the school’s Tang Institute, Andover began to, as the school puts it, “reimagine the grammar of school” — all the building blocks of time, assessment, learning, community building, student/teacher relationships, and more.

Andy Housiaux, the director of the Tang Institute, likes to quote Tom Carroll, president emeritus of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, who asked the question, “If we didn’t have the schools we have today, would we create the schools we have today?” For Andover, the clarity of this question — a call to stop trying to fix the schools we have and instead create the schools we need — was an invitation for deeper examination and intentionality, guided by the desire to design the most meaningful learning experience possible.

One of the key drivers of change at Andover has been the students themselves. The school asked students directly, “What is the best experience you’ve had at Andover and how do you know?

The responses align well with the brain science on learning. What students appreciated most were opportunities for independent research, a focus on mastery learning, collaboration with peers, and project-based learning that is relevant to their lives.

In response, Andover created The Workshop at Andover — a entire 10-week term in the junior year committed to addressing a broad social issue through an interdisciplinary approach. The theme for 2020 was Community, Class, and Carbon (which the students quickly switched to “Crisis” to address the impact of the pandemic). This year’s theme is Democracy and Dissent. The themes draw from all disciplines and require students to find their own approach. Assessment is focused on mastery. In all, the project encourages self-discovery, self-direction, productive struggle (embracing obstacles and failure), internal motivation, creativity, original and divergent thinking, and deep connections.

Not surprisingly, student engagement in The Workshop has been enthusiastic. One student noted how happy she was to escape the “grinding for grades” and doing something that felt deeply meaningful and personal, with the potential to impact the broader world.

This shift is a matter of stepping away from the old concept of “academic rigor,” embraced by independent schools for decades, toward “excellent and meaningful work.”

A National Movement

Everywhere one turned at the NAIS conference one met up with school leaders and teachers engaged in programmatic changes on a scale we’ve never seen before. It’s as if school leaders suddenly realized that, to serve children well now, their schools need to be incubators for social change.

For his part, George Zelesnik, head of The Crefeld School (Pennsylvania), noticed a weakening of his school’s culture following the 2016 presidential election. In response, Crefeld has shifted to using restorative justice practices to rebuild a cohesive culture that supports learning and well-being. In all, it has been three-year process for Crefeld to become what it now describes as a “restorative” school.

The process involved rethinking disciplinary protocols to strengthen community and better manage conflict and tension. Restoration is about restoring relationships and repairing any harm between students and students, between students and adults, and between adults and adults.

To get the community to this new thinking, the school engaged in a “deep unpacking” of school culture, followed by key school stakeholders taking part in training at the International Institute for Restorative Practices. The school also partnered with The Learning Exchange to get coaching in the restorative practices process. Afterward, Crefeld trained all of the staff and has now fully implemented restorative practices.

As Ann Croxson, Crefeld’s dean of faculty and curriculum coordinator, said, “I find restorative practices to be deeply ethical and profoundly healthy.” The results of these efforts are improved faculty and staff relations, more engaged supportive students, and a cohesive culture that supports belonging for all members.

The intersection of excellence in education and DEI work in schools has also been central to the work at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (Maryland), home to the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. Through the center, the school has been combining the best practices in mind, brain, and education (MBE) research with the research on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The combination has been driving changes in St. Andrew’s and is now central to its transformational practices.

In a conference session, a St. Andrew’s team noted that when they overlay MBE and DEI best practices, a central list of developmental needs emerges — including creating a sense of belonging and safety, supporting identity development, addressing and eliminating stereotype threats, better connecting emotion and cognition in learning, building resilience, developing a growth mindset, and centering social issues in the classroom, to name just a few. In this highly detailed session, the St. Andrew’s team explored these issues and more — highlighting how schools can develop a curriculum and culture that supports both DEI and MBE goals.

In other sessions, school leaders from Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart (New Jersey), Brewster Academy (New Hampshire), Friends Central School (Pennsylvania), Marin Academy (California), Hathaway Brown School (Ohio), and others discussed the systemic antiracist work taking place at their schools, focusing on curricular transformation, handbook reviews, climate studies, hiring practices, SEL support for all students, professional development for teachers, and the development of more racially diverse communities. In all cases, the process of transformation includes a clear framework for change that links to the school mission and values.

Keynote speaker Jason Reynolds, award-winning writer and coauthor of “STAMP: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” also urged a more intentionally humanistic approach to education that acknowledges the complexity of race and that works to support and engage all learners.

Technology and Learning

In his session, Paul Emerich France, a board certified teacher currently working at the Latin School of Chicago, noted his own breakthrough in understanding quality education for the 21st century. After 10 years of teaching as a board certified teacher in a Chicago-area public school, he left to work with an edtech firm in Silicon Valley. For France, the shift seemed like the ideal opportunity to apply his knowledge to the development of software that would improve learning broadly. But instead, the experience revealed that the promises promoted by education technology were more a distraction than a help for schools.

“I realized that one of the things we were doing wrong was centering the technology. We weren’t centering the students and their humanity,” France said. “When we consider personalized learning, we need to consider our students’ humanity before we consider what types of technology we’re using.”

Without question, the rise of education technology has led to a shift toward more personalized learning, but the edtech industry too often confuses individualized learning with personalized learning. As France came to understand, individualized learning and personalized learning are not synonymous.

“It’s important to know the difference,” he said. Individualized learning — a term in wide use today as a supposed positive movement in education — tends to isolate students and by its very nature is often a source of inequity. We don’t want kids sitting alone in front of computers, responding to promotes all day, Frances said. “To have the best learning outcomes, we need to personalize learning within a community of learners.” Don’t isolate; connect and engage.

France is the author of “Humanizing Distance Learning” and “Reclaiming Personalized Learning.” Both books ask us to center not the technology but the students’ and teachers’ humanity in the learning process. In his books, he outlines ways to connect, encourage, and support all learners within the classroom and within the restraints of distance learning — while also focusing on approaches that are sustainable for the teachers.

The latter point matters a great deal today. “It needs to be said that teachers right now are leaving the classroom at alarming rates,” France said, “and it’s because we’re being asked to do too much. Differentiation, personalization, it shouldn’t be a Herculean effort…. Instead, we need to move toward sustainability.” His approach doesn’t involve exhausting teachers. In fact, he said he loves teaching now more than ever.

France argues that humanized personalization in education should do the following:

  • Connect learners through collaboration, vulnerability and human connection;
  • Use assessment as a tool for knowing learners;
  • Curate a high-interest curriculum that exposes learners to new and relevant topics to broaden experiences and schema;
  • Leverage whole-group, small-group, and individualized practices;
  • Understands individual learner’s needs in the context of the collective learning community;
  • Promote agency and autonomy through social-emotional learning and structured choice;
  • Use technology to preserve or enhance human connection; and
  • Consider identity, advocate for representation, and promote equity.

These points are not new, of course, but the combination is emerging broadly as the new essentials of quality education. The innovation taking place in independent schools today is not one focused on using technology to improve the delivery of content but one aiming for a more deeply humanistic response to a deeply fractured world.

Still, schools also have no choice but to consider the impact on technology on society and their institutions. Another keynote speaker, Tristan Harris, cofounder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, outlined the deep concerns he and others have with the rise of AI and the impact of unregulated social media on individuals and the society. As he pointed out, children are being harmed, adults are being manipulated, the culture is being ripped apart, while social media companies are raking in enormous profits and power. If one doesn’t feel concerned about these matters today, Harris said, just stick around. The power and application of AI will increase exponentially. He encourages all of us to collectively shift to less and wiser social media use and, in schools, help students engage in the kind of moral and civic action that will help reclaim our culture and improve interpersonal relationships.

To that end, Harris also noted that one independent school, Brentwood School (California), has stepped up and launched a program called Impact Challenge, designed to lead an informed, humanistic response to technology’s invasion of our lives and culture.

Learning from Each Other

The urgency for institutional change has created an urgency for knowing how to design institutional change. Keynote speaker Heidi Grant, director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, made it clear that, given the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in, it has “never been harder to educate our children then right now.” All of us, adults and students, are under constant cognitive load. “One option,” she said, “is to sulk. The other option is to address the problem.”

The good news is that we now have greater knowledge about institutional transformation. For independent schools, there’s also a greater willingness to share expertise and support each other across institutions. Anyone who partakes of One Schoolhouse’s Academic Listserv knows this well. Every query for support is answered with a mix of empathy and professional insight.

As for the change process itself, Grant Lichtman, an expert on the process of school change, underscored the core rationale for innovation: the way innovation adds value to schools, value drives strategy, and strategy drives innovation. In our VUCA climate, he encourages schools to embrace this iterative cycle that can only drive schools toward greater outcomes and relevancy.

Lichtman presented a workshop with Patti McDonald, the executive director of the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), on CAIS’s efforts to help its member schools develop inquiry-based learning pedagogy and a mutually supportive network guided by leaders who embrace a growth mindset. Their session focused on strategic and tactical plans for transformation — and highlighted some promising outcomes of this process.

In two separate sessions, members of the K12 Lab at Stanford University’s d.school also addressed the question of institutional change from a design perspective. In one session focused on taking a futurist approach, Lisa Kay Solomon, a designer in residence at the lab, outlined the process of using design thinking to create great value at schools and develop equitable institutions that “unleash the potential for all learners.”

Encouraging school leaders to think like futurists, she noted ways successful organizations backward design from their preferred future. It’s not about 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. For schools, this exercise is driving much of the shift to equitable, student-center learning for better student outcomes.

In a parallel session, Laura McBain, the K12 Lab’s director of community and implementation, noted the ways schools are thinking less in terms of preparing students for the world and more in terms of giving them the skills to shape the future.

The K12 Lab has also been encouraging schools to focus intently on the question of 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 — and then requires schools to engage in the iterative process of building, testing, and improve those processes.

Throughout the conference, speakers also referenced other groups that have been supporting and partnering with schools to help lead transformation. A short list includes the Mastery Transcript Consortium, EL Education, the Klingenstein Center, NAIS’s Strategy Lab, the E.E. Ford Foundation, the Global Online Academy, One Schoolhouse, the K12 Lab, and a host of individual schools and experts pioneering news pathways.

The underlying question in all this work today is about the students and the value of schools in their lives and society. What stories do we hope the graduates of the Class of 2022 and beyond will tell about their experiences at our schools? With this question in mind, many independent schools are centering the needs of students — then rolling up their sleeves and redesigning their programs around these needs.

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