Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Challenging Indy Schools to Take Advantage of Independence

     During some various Twitter chats on assorted subjects, I've often asserted that I believe independent schools (including mine) should take greater advantage of their independence. Out of all my tweets, these seem to generate the most positive responses, retweets, and favoriting. Clearly this notion strikes a chord, at least with a certain audience, one I believe is fairly representative.
     The question becomes rather obvious. Why don't we?
     Let's first consider the answer from a rather sweeping philo-psycho-socio-historical perspective. Recently I've been reading Frederic LeDoux and Ken Wilbur's Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Generation of Human Consciousness. The basic premise is that each major shift in human consciousness has led to giant leaps in our level or collaboration and thus how we set up institutions. Under-girding it is how we perceive humans and how we measure value. Each stage is assigned a color. Currently most of our organizations (and I'd say much of how we live) is based on amber and orange type thinking. This emphasizes power, authority, hierarchy, measurable outcomes--that which we associate with the "business" world but dominates so much of human establishments. It's obvious how this links to the factory model of education that has become so entrenched over the past 150 years. The authors believe we are moving into the teal stage, which is more about extensive collaboration, transparency, and self-management of individuals and teams. It's much more soulful. They cite 22 businesses, both profit and non-profit, that operate in teal fashion, the best known of which may be Patagonia. They do refer a few times to a school in Germany. All, of course, sound like wonderful places.
     I'm not going to question Ledoux and Wilbur's general thesis. In fact, I think it makes great sense. We know, for instance, that schools operate as they do because of large cultural shifts and needs. Now they're changing, albeit slowly for the same reasons. And therein lies the real reason that, in this broadest of senses, we don't take advantage of that independence much, much more than we do. We're rather trapped within a strong historical framework, and such shackles are difficult to break off. Especially if we're not fully conscious of them.
     Even if we are aware, it's all many of us know when it comes to education. It's how we were educated. It's how our parents were educated. It's how much of the world has been educated. And, to a certain degree for a while, it's worked well enough. That's particularly true in independent schools, where we serve a clientele that is highly motivated and thus basically compliant. Tied to that, it's how many of our families want their children to be educated. As some parents have told me, they don't want their kids being used as guinea pigs in an educational experiment. So, yes, it's what we know and what we know is safe.And there, for independent school leaders, reality hits. Like it or not, we are a business; and we need for enough people to buy what we are selling. For us, full enrollment is safe. Glowing next level placement, high test scores, prizes and honors--those are assurances of safety. For us, anyway. Or, I should say, some of us. At least in the immediate and short term.
     The problem lies in a certain failure, or lack of imagination. We know the world is changing, but we do not fully conceive what this means. In fact, we can't except in abstract ways, and that troubles us because we can't fit in in our existing schemes. Similarly, it requires true vision to conceive of truly different ways of doing school. Then come the challenge of actual implementation and courage.
     I realize this post may suggest frustration, even hopelessness. There is some of the former, but none of the latter. Quite the opposite actually. We see wonderful innovation happening in independent schools around the country, and I'm very proud of the strides we've made here at St. John's. I expect even more this year as we focus on creativity in our professional development. As we all work on rethinking and re-imagining education, it's essential to understand the deep and broad complexity. Then we'll be better poised to take full advantage of our independence.


mmshepherds said...

Very well said.
One of the more ironic things about an 'independent' school is that it is often held to more conformation standards than public schools.
But I also know independent schools have much more power to say yes -- to allow and encourage the faculty to grow their students and programs individually and to act like the independent professional educators they are.
Encouraging faculty ideas instead always oppressing their ideas with 'NO" might be one step toward the larger picture of change.
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

Mark Crotty said...


Thanks for you comment. I agree and would say that at the best schools, teachers are given the space to be creative and become great.