BCIS In Focus- March 2016
Dear Parents, Colleagues, and Friends of BCIS,
In this edition of “In Focus,” I want to share some sentiments on the following topic, one that I will entitle “The Moral Imperative for Schools: Schools must be Organic, they must embrace the Dialectic, and they must be Innovative!”
Subsequent to completing my formal graduate study at Harvard some years ago, I have participated in a Study Group that meets there periodically during the academic year. This collection of independent and public school administrators and a few university types focuses on timely and salient questions, commentaries, and perspectives interfacing with education and other sectors of the community and the human experience. Engaging in substantive, informed, and rich discourse around common readings, the Study Group provides participants with a treasure trove of opportunities to enhance and expand one’s own learning, often by challenging the conventions that have guided our individual work for many years.
One of the topics that has been the focus of our time together over the past few years is the configuration of schools and colleges and the decreasing capacity of these institutions to successfully address the needs of students who will live their lives in the 21st Century. It has become increasingly clear to the majority of the members of the Study Group that the configuration, the infrastructure, and the pedagogy embedded in theses institutions is not congruent with student needs, indeed not congruent with the present and emerging demands of both the contemporary and futuristic society. Needless to say, our little Study Group of educators is not alone in this thinking. Increasing numbers of our colleagues in education are recognizing both the inefficiencies and the deficiencies of present day schooling.
We are all too familiar with the statement that far too many graduates of our schools are ill-prepared with the skills and content understandings required to successfully navigate the challenges of college and life. With increasing frequency, we hear that our graduates are not interested in intellectual risk-taking and divergent thinking. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the same concern of Sir Ken Robinson, one of the world’s leading authorities on creativity, who routinely observes that kids come to us in pre-school as incredibly creative and inventive, but more often than not leave school discouragingly conformist in behavior and thinking.
Let us contemplate the delivery models of our various programs and initiatives in our school classrooms that advance divergent thinking, creativity, and innovation. Innovation in schools remains a significant challenge. And yet, more than any other professions, more than any other institutions, the lack of innovation in education and medicine would have at best, stultifying consequences for all humankind.
Consider the following set of questions! How do school leaders create conditions that will allow innovation to thrive in their schools? How do we nurture the innovative leaders among our teachers so that their efforts leverage greater institutional change?
Here are some observations on how we advance an innovation mindset:
If we think of four core values that might well serve school communities: independence, interdependence, inclusivity, and innovation; values that together cultivate, nurture and sustain the community and the institution, we may well have before us the formula to establish the school/district culture that enables the healthy and delicate balance of thesis and antithesis. This will then morph into synthesis, hence, emerging as a new thesis, only to be repeated ad infinitum, reflecting the organic principle within which substantive and relevant education will thrive.
Innovative thinking about infrastructure and about configuration, about the workplace and how we function within that setting, begets innovative thinking about new designs for teaching and learning.
Judging from the discourse between and among educators and policy makers, as well as engagement in some of these innovative practices, we have already started the migration away from the 1600 years of organizing education around subjects, and toward organizing teaching and learning around skills and values.
In the schools that position themselves to meet the needs of their students in the 21st Century, according to Liz Coleman, President of Bennington College, “we’ll still teach the traditional subjects, but not as ends in and of themselves (to pass an exam and then to be forgotten), not ‘just in case’ there is a remote chance a student would ever need this fact or formula sometime in his or her life. Instead, we’ll manifest the promise from both the earliest days of civilization and the recent days of our laptop programs and access to the Internet: teaching ideas and skills in the service of doing something meaningful. Examples already abound in the best schools.”
But for innovation to truly take hold, it must be led from the bottom, the top, and the middle. We must empower the 20 percent or so of faculty in the school who are early adopters of innovation to continue and expand experimentation in all of the areas noted herein…and in other ways they are inspired to do so. But we must also have the institutional vision that contextualizes and legitimizes such experimentation and transformation.
As Heidi Hayes Jacobs has stated, “Mind shifts do not come easily, as they require letting go of old habits, old beliefs, and old traditions. (Sacred Cows). There is a necessary disruption when we shift mental models. If there is not, we are probably not shifting. Growth and change are found in disequilibrium, not balance. It takes some getting used to.”
We might identify a school that has embraced the idea expressed by Ms. Jacobs as one that has established the following principles and goals:
Bill Gates tells us that “innovation is the means, and equity is the end goal.” I believe that the next decade will be a time of unprecedented and substantial change, realizing much of what we as educators and interested parties read, research, study, and discuss together about 21st Century models for teaching and learning and the infrastructure that supports it. The breadth and depth of change present a challenge not only to pre-collegiate education but to post-secondary educational institutions, as well.
The announcement by Wesleyan College that it will be offering a three-year baccalaureate degree; the announcement by Harvard, MIT, and Stanford that they are each investing approximately $60 million in online programs; the consideration by the New England Board of Higher Education to accept standards/proficiency-based performance on transcripts (not simply grades (A-F) in the traditional sense); and, the passage of laws by various State Legislatures in the United States establishing a proficiency-based diploma by 2017-2018; all of these decisions and a myriad of others represent innovative change that will transform education as we know it. Each of these initiatives represents tangible evidence of the need of all schools/districts to engage in the Dialectic and, in doing so, embrace innovative change.
As you, colleagues, parents, and friends have heard me state on numerous occasions over the years, we can either be intimidated or inspired by this challenge. I choose to be inspired and I invite you to join me in these exciting times in the ongoing journey of education. What higher calling or greater moral responsibility to our students do we have?