Friday, March 8, 2019

Reimagining Independent Schools. For Sure. How about the Conference Itself?

Preface: I need to acknowledge at the start that this post is going to bother me, and it may bother you for the same reason. I'm going to point out a challenge; I may even rant a bit. But I don't really offer any solutions, as I recognize just how complicated this is. Sigh...

     A week ago I was attending the National Association of Independent School's Annual Conference. The theme was  "Reimagining Independent Schools: Tearing Down Walls, Building Capacity, and Designing Our Future." I'm very glad to report that much of what I heard suggests that many schools are reimagining, with no aspect of education left unexamined. Except perhaps one.
     The conference was just like so many other NAIS conferences. Except for small additions through the years, the overall format and schedule remains the same. Sessions unfold the same way, with so much sitting and listening, despite presenters' promises to make them interactive. To be fair to NAIS, I can say this about just about any conference I've ever attended. And the NAIS one is of high quality, and I always find it very worthwhile. Still, I think it's appropriate to ask, when we're being challenged to reimagine schools: How might we reimagine the annual conference?
     That's a giant ask, and it would take an extensive team quite a while to dig into it. It could be an incredible design thinking exercise. Meanwhile, the conference think tank changes each year and consists of volunteers with demanding roles in their schools. Logistically, you have to think about several thousand people. You have to book a convention center, presenters, services, et cetera. It is an efficient way for people to share and download information. In many ways the convention format works just fine, even really well; so, you know, there's no reason to re-invent the wheel.
     Some people have tried to do that, at least on a small scale. For a while the unconference was popular. I can't imagine trying that with 6000 folks, though. As I admitted in the preface, I don't have any big, hairy idea for this. I do have a small one, though. A place to start.
     School leaders everywhere have asked teachers to rethink the classroom experience. Whatever format it takes, it shouldn't look like the traditional teacher-centered classroom. We want to see teachers taking risks in how they design immersive, active learning experiences. Yet how many conference presenters do this? Most of the sessions I've attended over the years, even recently, rely on very traditional pedagogy.
     As we're reimaging a conference, consider how so much meaningful change occurs within our schools. Leaders set a direction towards an imagined better, modelling it when possible. Then the teachers in the classrooms bring about the change we need to see. Ultimately, it comes down to brave individuals experimenting as they chase an ideal.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

What Game Are We Playing? The Close of 2019 NAIS Annual Conference

     I eagerly anticipated Simon Sinek's presentation at the 2019 NAIS Annual Conference, and his extended examination of playing finite versus infinite games captured so many of the issues we struggle with in education. While familiar with the concept, I never had thought of how it applies to education. Yet it raises a crucial notion we must consider in taking a hard look at ourselves as we reimagine education.
    Among many of the thoughts that swirled in my mind, one immediately led to this Tweet:

Sinek kept talking about how finite games end, with rigid rules, with a clear winner and a loser.When we preach mission, of course, we imagine students engaging in an infinite game. A mission is aspirational; it's our linguistic attempt to express the ideals towards which we strive. Just as Sinek talked about America growing over time into the notion of everyone being equal, we grow into our missions. We keep finding ways to do better.
    At the same time, though, we must ask ourselves what are some of the traditional practices in school--ones that we hang onto as we consider other innovations--that turn learning into a finite game for students. Think about how a course ends with a test called a "final." Grading and academic prizes. The metrics we use. The celebration on next-school placement. Consider how we design curriculum, with distinct departments, courses, units, credits, scope-and sequence. We could create similar lists about many aspects of school. Many of them are captured in a book actually called The Game of  School: Why We All Play It, Why It Hurts Kids, and What It Will Take to Change It.
     As we're doing all this reimagining, we must reflect on what Sinek calls our just cause. We can't just rush forward with the new without courageously questioning everything and asking what game we invite students to play.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Serendipitous Synchronicity on Day 1 at 2019 NAIS Annual Conference

     A common question after a meeting or a conference is: What were your three key takeaways? Often this means something concrete. When I come to an event such as the NAIS Annual Conference, I hope for an idea I can implement right away, whether at my school or in my own development.Yesterday, while all the sessions were fine, I didn't get any of those gems. However, and perhaps more importantly, through pure serendipity I was reminded of a larger, imperative truth.
    I began the day with a session on the link between leadership and cultural competency. A key point is not only making sure that we recognize what diverse members bring to our communities, but also creating environments where they feel respected enough to share their gifts. After that we heard Viola Davis, whose story is one totally removed from most of our schools, and I found myself wondering how she would have fared in one of them, particularly with how many of them were when she was a child.Yet consider how she has impacted the world through her gifts. Then I ended the day hearing Franz Johansson's keynote on the link between diversity and innovation. In an oversimplified equation, I'll summarize his message as more diversity equals greater innovation. At least in the right circumstances.
     As I walked around the conference yesterday, I also found myself reflecting on how wonderfully different this conference looks than when I first attended over thirty years ago. That's another massive reason why so much reimagining is occurring. In so many ways we are learning not to reject the different,but to embrace it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Questions and Possibilities: The Best Part of NAIS Annual Conference

     One of the most challenging aspects of attending events as rich as an NAIS Annual Conference is determining which workshops to attend. So many look so good. Many measure up; some inevitably don't. Now, with so many people live Tweeting as they sit in sessions, buyer's remorse has become part of the experience. I'm also torn between choosing sessions that I believe will yield information I can bring back to my current school and what I can use in my upcoming role as the incoming executive director of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools. But the more I think about that, the more I realize how much they overlap in terms of my choosing. That's because, tied to the conference theme of  Reimagining Independent Schools, everything is open to question. At least based on the descriptions in the program, sessions will touch upon, whether directly or indirectly, every aspect of school life. And it's up to leaders to keep asking questions about everything. Why this? Why that?
     Why? Why ask why? Simon Sinek, who will close the conference, preaches that everything comes back to the why. Many of us have been preaching a similar idea for a long time: the idea of being mission driven. We will claim--rightly, I think--that we know our why. But larger, harder questions remain about what our why means in a VUCA world. What does academic excellence mean? What is the role of the teacher? What should classrooms look like? How do we distribute leadership? How do we maintain core values in a world increasingly both divided and more connected? What makes for effective governance? How do we embrace diversity while forming communities? How do we protect healthy childhood? Is there really a place for an explicit curriculum based on the usual disciplines? Of course, each of these questions spurs endless others.
     It can seem rather overwhelming. And while these are somewhat eternal questions,for a long time we saw no need to ask them. Then, for a while, many avoided them. Now, though, more and more people are asking them, more frequently by choice rather than necessity. People attending this conference are so fortunate to work in independent schools. We're not subject to tangles of regulation, and we have the freedom to develop the schools we can envision. We can ask the important questions and chase the best answers. Our mindset as we do so largely determines what we find and what we create. It's about openness to the possible, whether adjacent or possible.
     That may be the best part of the annual conference. It highlights the possible, nourishing the idealist in each of us.

Monday, February 25, 2019

As I Head to NAIS Annual Conference 2019...

"If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." --Lewis Carroll

"If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else." --Yogi Berra

     As the 2019 NAIS Conference theme and introductory blurb promotes, we're "Reimagining Independent Schools: Tearing Down Walls, Building Capacity, and Designing Our Future." Evidently no aspect of school life isn't being questioned, and I find that exhilarating. Change is happening, faster and faster, even if some of the daily realities don't always live up to the rhetoric. Many schools look and feel different that they did just a few years ago; certainly than they did twenty years ago. At the same time, some things feel too familiar, whether within a single school or as one compares schools. "Innovation" often means adopting what has worked somewhere else. Some of that occurs because we learn from each other. Some of it is market expectations. I think, more than anything, it's because we're figuring it out as we zip along.
     For just that reason, I may be most excited about hearing Simon Sinek speak at the conference. I've admired his work for a while, and in 2015 I led people here through some workshops based on his book Start With Why. If we're really going to take advantage of this moment in time and create meaningful change--even foment a revolution--we must be clear on the reasons. That demands deep reflection. We have to delve inward and outward, backward and forward. We must question our questions. The process of discernment never ends, yet it swirls around solid core. Without that, we risk losing ourselves along the way. Indeed, we may become more similar than truly unique.
     Thus, I hope to hear more than the details about programs and positions and facilities. I can tap into plenty of that from myriad other sources. I admire what those schools have done; I even feel tinges of jealousy at times. But that doesn't inspire. It's not visceral enough. As I head to NAIS Annual Conference, I crave stories about how schools bared their souls, embraced the angels, and grappled with the demons while reimagining themselves. Therein lies the real courage.