I read a blog post from Tracie Mastronicola, Academic Dean at San Francisco Friends School, over the weekend. Having worked with a small group of faculty members at SFFS over a couple of days in early February regarding creating a process by which they might redesign their daily schedule, I was particularly interested to read her piece entitled, “‘Committing to The Air’: An update on our scheduling process”. It is a lovely piece–one I hope you will read. I love the metaphor in the title. It led me to reflect on my visits to a couple of extraordinarily different, but equally fascinating, schools with whom I had the privilege to spend some time over the last months.
Perhaps once or twice a year I work with leaders and faculty members at independent schools to help them frame out a process for change. Usually these conversations have had to do with daily schedule reinvention; however, while daily schedule change may be the end, I am most interested in the means–a smarter process to hold the ambition of complex schools striving to make impactful change. [At the end of this post I will include a small sampling of links to posts addressing aspects of this topic].
In the last six months I have worked with two schools–Punahou School in Honolulu and San Francisco Friends School. Both experiences have been remarkable and invigorating, and importantly, they each have informed my reflection on my school, St. George’s Independent Schoolwhere we have used the same framework, and in some cases aspects of it, to guide our key conversations.
I am left with this conclusion: if we are to be able to move our schools with enough finesse and thoughtfulness, as well as move them at a pace that will:
preserve the elements of a school and its culture that should never change,
allow us to keep up with our evolving understanding of how kids best learn,
and allow us to remain steadfast in a global socio-political environment undergoing stunning progress, as well as unprecedented strains and failures,
we must be willing to change the means by which we try to accomplish change processes.
I do not make the claim that the specific process I help schools work with is the only way to do this; however, it is the way I have found to be most helpful in not only arriving at a great answer for a step forward, but ensuring that a school community is healthier at the end of the process than it was leading into the process. As opposed to the terrible habit of process corrosion that often occurs when large institutions engage a change process, the approach to which I subscribe places becoming healthier as a culture at the center. In fact, becoming healthier as an institutional culture should always be the invisible number THREE of the TWO, FIVE, TEN, meaning it should be one of the non-negotiables in any significant change process.
FROM 2012: Creating a Pilot Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.
I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:
Parents can get a bad rap because we come across as obsessed with our children’s grades, while neglecting a far more appropriate concern with our children’s learning and critical skill building. Perhaps we are simply misguided as to how to best express our interest in what is happening at school and its relationship with the value a school is delivering for our child. No matter our intent, it washes away in the eyes of the folks who empty our refrigerators and refuse to greet us and look away from their phones at the same time when we limit our questions about school to grades. A number of conversations are likely to follow such lines of questioning—none of which are likely to recommend us to the Parenting Council (which evaluates a parent’s every move, of course). In short, we tell our kids it is not all about the grades and then we make it seem as if it is indeed all about the grades. Teenagers in particular have a finely tuned talent for smelling out duplicity. We end up sounding like parents we didn’t want to become, and our kids end up confused about what the real purpose of their education might be (HINT: it is not about grades in and of themselves—rather grades are the highly imperfect way we try to gauge the learning a school seeks to provide).
With all that in mind, I have an idea about a smarter path, one that might allow us to communicate our real interest in a way that allows us to be good partners with both our child and the school. First, the Change: move the conversation with your child about an important evaluation before the evaluation rather than having it only after the fact. Instead of just asking, “How did you do?” or “What did you make?” after an assessment, parents get to ask smarter questions in advance of an assessment, such as:
Did you do your work all along with your best effort?
Do you feel prepared?
When you struggled, how did you seek help if you needed it?
How did you prepare?
Are you planning on changing your approach next time?
Second, the Commitment: let your kids know you are making a change and explain why. Make them partners in the shift in your approach to discussing academic work. Don’t be a mystery to your kids. Try this approach long enough to see whether it works well for your family. Third, the Best Part: you will get to express your high expectations in the context of how your child is going about doing his or her work instead of simply through the lens of the grade itself. It also allows us far better perspective on the meaning of the grade when it is returned, thus putting us in position to be the educational partner our child needs. This is important: not all As or Bs or Cs or Ds or even Fs are alike, and if you know more in advance of the assessment’s return, you will be best aligned to be parents your child needs. For instance, the conversation with your child is different after the assessment is returned depending on answers to questions you may have asked before the assessment like, “when you struggled, how did you seek help?”
Students want expectations—high ones. However, our high expectations too often have been the wrong ones based more on the grade itself than the learning it represents. By moving our conversations in front of an evaluation, we hack into a potentially unhealthy cycle that hyper-inflates the meaning of an individual grade and diminishes the emphasis on learning. The change I suggest is likely to result in a healthier conversation with your child that will bear fruit in both learning and the academic reflection of it.
While I hope the idea that I just named is helpful to some (particularly perhaps students in grades six through ten), it is a small step compared with the moment of reckoning overdue for traditional assessment models in secondary education. A far more significant hack into the grade obsessed culture we have made over the last century plus is increasingly necessary. I focused my wondering in today’s blog narrowly on the relationship between parent and child. What if we thought bigger? Wider?
A number of people and entities are asking exactly that question. Tired of feeling like helpless inheritors of a flawed approach to assessment where what we seek to evaluate and what we actually evaluate are not always well-matched, the idea of finding a better way may not be as far out of reach as we may have thought. At my school, we have become members of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group of schools across the country whose vision is reflected in this statement: “the MTC hopes to change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.” While I do not know where this conversation will lead (and we are not making precipitous moves to leave our current transcript and approach to assessment behind), I am excited for our school to be at the table for this fascinating conversation. If there is a better way, I want us to find it and be bold enough to pursue it. Our kids deserve nothing less.
[Here is a more complete idea of the MTC: “The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.” For more go HERE.]
[Below is the text of my part of our first 2018 newsletter. It should hit SGIS mailboxes soon; however, one never knows about the mail delivery in our area–it is slow like geologic processes are slow.]
In my most recent chapel talks at each campus, I spoke about the moment that Simon Peter first met Christ on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the fifth chapter of the Book of Luke. During a single morning, Peter changed the direction of his life, choosing to stop being a fisherman in order to follow Jesus and become a “fisher of men.” Peter’s story was apt for explaining a phrase that I have found myself using recently: “more sailing than driving.” I have made a habit over the last couple of years of describing any situation that will require finesse and an ability to adjust on the fly as “more sailing than driving.” For some reason, almost certainly misguided, I have assumed everyone knows what I mean. In short, Simon Peter made a life decision like a sailor does. He was not following a specific roadmap. He was faced with something he could never have expected that offered a life of greater meaning. So, just as a sailor does when facing a new opportunity, he changed course.
As a girl, my mother grew up sailing each weekend on Fishing Bay around a point from the far larger Chesapeake Bay of Virginia and Maryland. Years later when she tried to pass along her love for sailing to my sister and me, it was clear early on I would not be much of a sailor. At age six or seven, my contribution was to complain about being bored and do my best to avoid being hit in the head by the boom swinging across when we tacked. I liked going fast, but we rarely seemed to go fast. In the moments when the wind faded to a breeze, then diminished to stillness, I wondered why we’d chosen floating in a hot boat rather than some other more entertaining hobby such as capturing bugs on the grassy edge of the narrow bay shoreline or fishing for sharp toothed Blues. During those dead air moments, as we sat waiting for any breeze that might help us move again, I realized that sailors never go straight toward their destination. They take advantage of what the wind gives them—moving closer to but not directly at their destination with each tack. Good sailors know how to make the most of the situation, and importantly they know how to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity—a breeze stiffening off the port bow or the promise of an advantageous wind around the point. With decades (and decades) separating me from my time at Fishing Bay, I have come to see sailing metaphorically, rather than simply as a pastime I never quite understood well enough to see why some people thought it was fun.
Years after my time on Fishing Bay, I watched the America’s Cup with fascination, and it revealed another reason to learn to sail—at least metaphorically. The sailors on those boats knew exactly how to work together toward a greater goal. The defining characteristic of the best boats was the ability of a crew to be stronger because of each other, rather than trying to find success despite each other or trying to be better than each other. St. George’s graduates learn to be part of such crews and they learn how to be skippers of such boats.
I believe that all too often we pretend there is an accurate roadmap for what lies ahead of us in our lives—a sequence of turns along a well-delineated route guaranteed to take us where we need to go. A lot of schools appear to teach their students as if this is true. I believe this is dangerously misleading, and it sells our young people short. The best-laid plans fall away when we are faced with the unexpected. In such moments, we want our kids to be equipped to navigate a new opportunity or challenge. So, what should we want St. George’s Independent School students to learn? To sail. Our students should become good sailors—entrepreneurial ones, ones who are brave enough to make a necessary shift in order to work toward a better world, a more fulfilling life—ones who, like Peter, know how to become part of a group greater than the sum of its parts.
As is so often the case I find that our students find far better, certainly more succinct, ways of making the essential point. Inside this newsletter you will find a Q & A with Sope Adeleye, Head Prefect of the Class of 2016 and currently a sophomore at Harvard. When she was a senior at St. George’s, she told me: “ [At St. George’s] I have learned not what to think but how to think, and not just how to think but how to think with other people.” Sounds like someone who knows how to sail.
Best wishes to all St. George’s sailors in 2018! Happy New Year!
[At the end of this week, my wife, daughter and I will head to Richmond, Virginia to help celebrate my mother’s eightieth birthday. In the piece above I mention my mother as a sailor who spent much of her youth on the water pulling everything from the wind it would give her. To my thinking now looking back over so many years, she was a sailor the way a good musician is a musician–at some point such people forget the science, and they move on by feel. On the water she learned to trust herself, as well as work with others; she learned to be brave enough to ride on the full strength of a powerful tail wind, as well as patient enough to sit out still air. My mother has needed all that learning in her life, and she has deployed it in a way that has showed me to aspire to as much myself. Her intelligence, grace, kindness, humility, passion, work ethic, and even her “don’t tread on me” approach to multiple cancer battles together serve as an excellent buoy for which any of us might rightly sail. ]