A Conversation About Big Shifts

Independent schools across the country are beginning their school year with long days of faculty/staff meetings dominated by talk of new policies or procedures, and instructions about how to manage events in September, among other activities. Unfortunately, what’s usually missing are big picture conversations about how we all might rethink what we do in light of the constantly changing world. We rarely discuss how to change what we’ve always done at school. Independent schools are usually so deeply rooted in tradition, and staffed by folks so profoundly invested in traditional academia, that acknowledging the shifting education landscape is challenging enough, let alone designing for it.

“If the only constant in the world is change, why are schools resistant to it? How do schools embrace the inevitable future while maintaining what has worked in the past?” ~Santa Fe Leadership Center, August 2012

Fortunately, some within the independent school community are pushing institutions to ponder change. On the final day of the NAIS Conference back in March, association President Pat Bassett delivered a keynote address highlighting the MacArthur Foundation’s work on 21st Century Learning. Some weeks later, he reiterated his points in a TEDx talk at St. George’s School in Spokane, WA. According to Pat, he was taking his “best shot at summarizing and illustrating with independent school examples what I see as ‘the next iteration of school.'” [The video of Pat’s talk is at the end of this post.]

1. Knowing must become Doing. – It’s not enough for schools to ask students to remember, analyze, and discuss, we must make them take action with knowledge. At the 2012 NAIS conference, Pat mentioned Project-based Learning (or Inquiry-based learning with a product) as a great strategy for this. Pat: “the Internet is the biggest disruptor in history of education, and we must recognize what this means for knowing.”

2. Teacher-Centered must become Student-Centered. There will always be a place for teachers at our schools, but we have to empower students to learn from each other and through taking on tasks or projects they design.

3. Individual must become Team. Our culture is steeped in individualism, but work and life are more cooperative than ever. To teach individual and global empathy, we need to employ teamwork in core academic courses as well as we do it in after-school sports and other activities. Challenge: “Do grades and Dean’s List and class rank reward students for individualist thinking, or cooperative attitudes?”

4. Consumption must become Construction. This is much like shift #1, but Pat distinguishes it as work that students do that they see meaningful. How can we create learning experiences that students see as ‘real-world’ and meaningful to them and others?

5. Schools must become Networks. Teachers must be part of massive connected knowledge groups – for those of us who’ve been creating Personal Learning Networks using social media, this is a no-brainer. I’m always shocked by how many teachers are so poorly networked off-campus. Would this be allowed in any other profession?

6. Single Sourcing must become Crowd Sourcing. Schools should use the collective wisdom of their communities to improve their institutions and solve problems. This has easy applications to class learning as well.

7.High Stakes Testing must become High Value Demonstration. Though the move in public education seems to contradict this shift, university application processes increasingly recognize the value of portfolios of student work as a legitimate admissions criteria.

8. Disciplinary must become Interdisciplinary. He doesn’t mention it in his TEDx talk, but at the NAIS conference, he referenced the need for independent schools to integrate the curriculum. In what other area of life besides school is knowledge so neatly organized into bins? So many independent schools recognize the value of combining history and literature, for example, but don’t mix anywhere else. Why is this? Doesn’t art often make strong political statements? Shouldn’t ethics always be a beginning point in thinking about science?

If you don’t get to the big conversations about where your school is going in the opening staff meetings, at least consider these on your own. How can they inform what you do in your classroom? If you have some pull with your administration, ask them to set aside 60 or 90 minutes or a day later this year to watch the video and have a discussion. It wouldn’t hurt independent schools to think about big changes.