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

Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture #tbt

In November of 2011 I wrote “Stretching the Rubber Band on a Progress Culture.” As the second installment of Ross All Over the Map #throwbackthursday, this one comes back to mind for me quite often as I reflect on how schools can become best equipped to move forward strategically. The rubber band metaphor has held up for me as a way to conceptualizing healthy progress in an institution.

On the knobs to the medicine cabinet, poised to make the nose dive into the toilet if my hand knocks them on the way to the aspirin…on the coffee table peeking out from under the magazines and books…on the floor under the couch…in the corner of the kitchen counter grouped in the eddy where keys and purses and ball caps wind up, RUBBER BANDS, specifically hair bands, are all over my house. 

Since they play no practical purpose in my own life, I tend to think about them metaphorically.  This is the sort of thing English teachers do when faced with a reality. My daughter—a hair-banded whirlwind of activity—often reminds me, giggling as she speaks, that I am bald. Strangely enough, when she does this, I both love her more and have a fleeting desire to sell her to the circus.

So…how can rubber bands help us understand what a Progress Culture will look like in a school?

Some school communities/school cultures seem surrounded by walls.  Membership is predicated upon sharing a tightly defined set of static customs and expectations—they are built for continuity.  I think of the Cardinals that meet in order to choose a new pope upon the passing of the Catholic Church’s leader. This gathering has changed little if at all over the last few hundred years—clearly one of the ways it defines its success is by the extent to which it has not changed its operation.  Schools that share some of these characteristics experience change glacially if they experience it at all.

The opposite of a walled community/culture is one that can quickly disappear within the larger cultural context in which it exists.  It is loosely organized and the factors that drive it are as fickle as wind.  Not only does it not have walls, but the bonds it encourages are likely to be so loose as to be easily broken. For a school, the idea of quickly disappearing is hard to envision; however, schools that seem to reinvent themselves according to the whim of constituents are numerous.

While the walled school community/cultures denies the existence of the tide, the wall-less community/culture is washed up and washed away by it. In a school with a Progress Culture, I see a third option. We need to create a school culture that is held together by a rubber band.

In order for progress to occur in a school, the strategic resolve, the entrepreneurial thinking of a faculty member, or the initiative of a student must be allowed to get ahead of the institution temporarily. Having participated in conversations at several schools about what language we will write that will describe the truth of the school and the aspirations of the school simultaneously, I have found that the tension between what a school is and what it desires to become is prerequisite to any lasting steps forward. To be a Progress Culture, we need vision, faculty members and students to get ahead of us, but not so far out in front that the bond that holds the community together is broken.

A Strategic Plan, a vision statement, an individual, or a small group can stretch the rubber band away from the larger group.  As it stretches, tension builds.  In the context of a school, that tension comes out in the form of hard questions—what does this mean for me? Will this diminish the desired outcomes of the school? Who will not choose to stick around to see how all this turns out?  How will this affect what we already do well?  Once the tension in this rubber band reaches a certain point the groups have to pull back together.

But which side will move first and where will the two sides meet? These are the questions that determine institutional resolve.  If the people and ideas that got out ahead of the culture/community must do all the moving back, the school will have a difficult time being believable the next time it invites community members to stretch the rubber band, and the right next steps forward will be missed.  If the established community/culture does all the moving forward, there is risk that the school will lose things of substantial value in their move to reduce the tension in our rubber band.

The good news is that when both sides engage this process thoughtfully and earnestly, a school can take great strides forward, while not sacrificing what should never change.