The Increasing Relevance of Great Schools in a Technology-Driven World

St. George’s Independent School Head Chaplain, Jessica Abell, recently asked two questions during a homily at the Germantown campus: “How many of you have Alexa at home? And, what do you ask her? The first question elicited a multitude of raised hands, and the second question included answers such as: “I ask her the answer to math problems.” “I ask her how to spell things.” “I ask her to tell me funny jokes/to read me stories/to teach me dinosaur facts.” How interesting. One student said Alexa can also order things…Yikes!

In my experience as a student, I didn’t have Alexa to provide such information. I remember arguing with a classmate early in middle school about who had more major championships to his name, Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall. We could not resolve such a dispute quickly.  We needed a library or an authority on the topic, perhaps our tennis coach. As a result, we just argued in such situations, at times seemingly endlessly. It was not unheard of for similar disagreements to end at last with grass stains and bruises. Today’s students get to move quickly past finding out the right answer to questions far harder than the Laver or Rosewall question and toward more important challenges. How is what I know important? What else do we need to know? Where is the most reliable source of information that might help us? What do we now do as a result of what we now know? How do we communicate what we have learned?The brand of middle school disagreements I participated in are virtually extinct today.  Of course, the quick accessibility of facts is not a news bulletin in 2018, but understanding its impact, its challenges and opportunities, occupies those of us working with students. As educators, we might feel tempted to feel a bit obsolete in a world where asking a question often takes longer than it takes to provide the answer. However, the teachers at St. George’s, teachers willing to take advantage of what we know about how kids learn best, have never been more necessary for young people, for we are moving into a time when the primacy of content delivery is waning, and the role of teaching skills, such as collaboration and synthesizing disparate pieces of data are ascending. It is not good enough to know something (though students must also know things); they must know what to do with what they know, how to make meaning from it, and how to work with others to create shared understanding and purpose. They also have to learn how to disagree, how to compromise, and how to stand their ground. And increasingly, we must help student become accomplished at discriminating what is true in a bottomless sea of falsehoods. Against a backdrop of national debates that are too often devoid of quality thinking or requisite facts, the work of our school is taking on a greater importance. I am reminded daily at St. George’s that the best learning experiences happen when our students are connected to each other through the work of a great teacher. In such an atmosphere, students have the appropriate space to work together, to disagree and to agree, and to find common ground.

Indeed, becoming educated is not a solitary act, and it does not have just one beneficiary. The education our students work toward at our school is a gift to them individually, yes, but it is also a gift to the families they will be a part of, the professions they will occupy, and the communities within which they will live and serve. Choosing St. George’s and partnering positively with the school to educate these remarkable kids has a ripple effect that will undoubtedly last a life-time. In short, as parents our choice of and partnership with the school is among the greatest individual gifts we can give our children, and it is far, far more as well—such an education has the power not only to transform the trajectory of the lives of our individual children, but also the power to transform the neighborhoods, cities, and nation they will inhabit.At St. George’s we are busy providing experiences that go far beyond simply content. Whether our kids are making soap and lip balm through the second-grade bee project or they are testing water in our Collierville wetlands with University of Memphis researchers, our students are allowed to go deeper into learning than memorizing facts and content. As advanced as the technology Alexa and Siri represents is, it is equally as limited. Students need a great school like ours to make learning experiences more engaging and more collaborative, thus allowing us to prepare them to thrive in the lives they will lead.

Taking PROGRESS CULTURE and TWO, FIVE, TEN into the World

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 School where 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.

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture

The Role of Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture 

Foreshadowing Progress in a School Culture

Differentiating Traditions from Bad Habits

Two, Five, Ten: Guidelines for Establishing the Priorities of a Change Initiative 

Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited 

The Heads’ Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time: An Idea Revisited Through a New Example

           #TBT: Several things I have written for the blog have remained timely in my work as a leader in an independent school. Perhaps none remains as useful as the what I have reposted here for #TBT this week. My thinking about pilot programs remains central to how I believe we can move a large complex institutions forward, while minimizing risk and maximizing potential benefit. The post came back to mind for me this week, as I have been in a couple of conversations with very thoughtful students about the role of service-learning in our school. Without going into the detail, I have been left feeling strongly that schools have largely attempted the impossible by placing service near the center of our claims for the value of the education we provide, while we have not committed either the time or the space to support those claims.
           In short, what is important in a school is what you can find in the actual program, not in what we simply tell students is important. While St. George’s has been doing many things right, it is time to do better. This is where piloting ideas will serve us well. Next school year we will pilot an idea in our schedule that will more fully reflect the priority on service and character education we hold dear in our school. Interestingly, because of our daily schedule, put in place for the 2016-2017 school year, we now have flexibility we didn’t dream of before. The schedule itself has been a remarkable success. Among other things, it allows for a later/healthier start time and for far deeper engagement in the classroom. What we have not yet explored is how it can be a vehicle for the kind of flexibility that will allow us to pursue opportunities beyond traditional academic courses without compromising class contact time. We can do that, and it is time too pilot ideas in order to learn how best to make it happen.
          Because I have not announced the idea to the entire community yet, I will hold off in describing the details, but I will point out that without the focus on the role of pilot programs, we artificially limit our chance to move a school farther, more thoughtfully, and more quickly forward. While reading what I wrote way back in 2012, please use the links to navigate to a more through discussion of each of the bullets. I hope you find my reflection helpful.
FROM 2012: Creating a Pilot Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QE2_leaving_southampton_water.jpg 
RMS Titanic (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/RMS_Titanic_3.jpg )

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:

For Parents—A Dad (also a School Head) Wondering About Grades

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.]