From Wednesday-Friday, February 23-25, I attended the National Association of Independent School Annual Conference in National Harbor, Maryland (just outside D.C.) I’m a bit behind the curve here, as I know that many attendees already have shared their takeaways. So for some of you this may be old news. Sorry. But I never really know what those true takeaways will be until I reflect on an experience and see what still resonates a few days later. I also want to share this with any readers who may not have read anyone else’s thoughts on the conference. Plus it’s nice for people at St. John’s to know why the Head of School vanished for three days.
· The Conference Theme of Monumental Opportunities: Advancing Our Public Purpose
Numerous people, including me, have commented on the irony of the conference setting in lieu of the theme. While the theme was about public purpose, we were set up at The Gaylord National Harbor, which is like a cruise ship on land. D.C. shone like a faint beacon across the harbor. I’ve decided to take a more optimistic view of this. I hope it cements in our collective memory as a constant reminder of how, for too long, independent schools have detached themselves.
I appreciated the theme in that in reminds us of a question we always should be asking about education: To what end? I think that is especially important given that so many of our students will be blessed to have massive opportunities to make a difference in the world. Our type of schools can provide a strong academic preparation, but we can be particularly powerful in helping young people develop a sense of meaningful purpose.
· The Need for Both IQ and EQ
Yes, no doubt—hasn’t this always been true? Maybe we’re simply becoming more aware. For me, the key is that we stop thinking of them as separate and consider how they intertwine. Let’s take the notion of innovative thinking, which most people agree is becoming more and more essential, perhaps even a core competency. To envision and create, the rational and intellectual surely matter. At the same time, we must be aware of what people want and what will resonate with them on a visceral level. Apple seems to have mastered this.
On a more individual level, this lies at the heart of the role diversity should play in education. Too often it’s reduced to demographics. But it has to be more than that. In a community that truly has embraced diversity, the unique experiences of an individual help to inform and educate others toward a deeper and wider perspective. Children need to ponder the wonder and complexity of the differences and similarities that make us uniquely and collectively human. Each child thus grows emotionally, spiritually, socially and intellectually, and is better prepared for the challenges of higher education, the workplace, and our increasingly connected and complex world.
· The Importance of Choice
Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, gave a wonderful presentation on choice. I must read her book, The Art of Choosing. Her basic premise is that choice is always present and that leaders embrace that; in fact, leadership in many ways involves making a series of choices. The key is that we always have a choice, although we may not like the alternatives or consequences. Along with being judicious in making those choices, we should teach students this point. Too often people will resort to victimization or invoke a damning determinism. We can help students by empowering them through the amount and type of choice we allow them to have, then prompting guided reflection. That develops both the IQ and the EQ simultaneously.
· The Elephant in the Room
Dan Heath, whose work I follow closely and have used extensively, gave a presentation on the basic principles from his book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. His controlling metaphor is the rider and the elephant. The rider is the rational side; the elephant is our emotional side. Heath put up a picture and asked rhetorically, “If these two get in a fight, who’s going to win?” We almost always appeal to the rational, but emotions usually determine our reaction. It’s quite easy to see how Heath’s point applies not just when it comes to change, but to most of our lives. In the classroom, we have to create safe, joyful atmospheres before we can reach the brain.
· Power of the Visual
Perhaps because the past few years I’ve focused so much on developing my presentation skills, but this year seemed to highlight the power of the visual. Graphic artists captured so many of the large presentations in wonderful murals. In those presentations many of the speakers used powerful graphics. Even Prof. Iyengar—it took me several minutes to recover from my shock that she is blind—used PowerPoint really effectively, with few words and strong images. One of the best sessions I attended was about effectively portraying key markers through compelling dashboards. I was reminded of Daniel Pink’s emphasis on design in A Whole New Mind. Again, we see that blending of IQ and EQ, perhaps with the latter being more important in that gut response.
Why are these my takeaways? I think it’s because of how they seemed to feed into each other (kudos to the planners!) But it’s also because of how they simultaneously fit into my philosophical framework but stretched it in some areas. When I condense these points into one big idea, I’d say they beg one giant question: How can independent schools continue to become more human and more humane?