Saturday, September 6, 2014

First Thoughts on #EdJourney

     Like many other independent school folks, I've eagerly awaited Grant Lichtman's new book #EdJourney  * based on his massive driving trip in search of educational innovation. In fact, at one point I wrote a blog post in which I expressed my hopes for such a book:

          "that when he finishes the journey, he can summarize the lessons learned in a way that enables to see what these schools have in common. How did they become transformative? Each entry has some of that, but I think we all would benefit from a synopsis from the person who has made the actual journey, because it strikes me that we’re talking about changing the DNA of many schools and educators. Then I hope we would see even more real innovation and not just school as we know it." (full post)

Grant and I have had several interactions since then, and we're asking many of the same questions. Now the book is here, I downloaded it as soon as possible, and it certainly does not disappoint. The temptation is to write a review, and while there will be bits in here that come across that way, I intend the post to be more a reflection of general thoughts in a certain context. That larger context has to do with change and innovation in schools. While some of my points may seem like conclusions, they really are musings that lead to even more and, I hope, better questions. It's also what's boiling in my brain juice after the first read of a book to which I'm sure I will return.
     In a very practical sense, the book is important for many reasons. Grant shares dozens of the examples that he experienced on his trip, and he categorizes them in ways that help clarify the key points. One can find ideas and examples of current best practices, and it's easy to recognize your own school within the frameworks established. I found myself wishing my school did certain things. I also found myself beaming about some of the things we already do.
     However, as important as those examples are, the book truly matters for more philosophical reasons. After all, one can find many examples of innovation via multiple media. Part of the book's power lies in how they are pulled together in such a comprehensive way. That creates a real sense of possibility and hope. The book is also very generous in how it portrays people and programs and schools. It oozes optimism while posing clear challenges. That spirit is too often missing from schools. In that way Grant helps with one of the knottiest issues in changing schools: "reframing the mindset" of many educators (43).
     For many that means not only reframing the mindset but broadening the perspective, maybe even realigning it. Some will read the book and latch on to particular examples. That can be good, but it also can be the sort of silver-bullet thinking which has marked education for so long. Instead, much of the book encourages really big-picture, question-asking reflection and ideation. For instance, consider this passage on strategic thinking rather than the standard strategic plan: "Strategy becomes a continuous process of thinking, and organizational habit and capability that promotes ongoing innovation practices among all of the valued and valuable members of the school community" (40). He also proposes zero-based strategic thinking, a wonderful and healthy process.
     Therein lies another cautionary note for those who may simply grab examples and see them as the real thesis. The book forces bigger thoughts than many educators often consider during their hectic days. From the historical context to the ecosystem metaphor, Grant widens the lens. In zero-based strategic thinking, yes, everything one does is open to question. But your core is not. Early in the book Grant includes real wisdom from Alan Smiley, head of St. Anne's Episcopal in Denver, about the need to balance rapid innovation while maintaining a center of focus for students and adults that does not change. And that's why, while I agree that "each year should be different" (97), in some ways each year should be the same when it comes to certain philosophies and values. Sometimes one has to take "different things that already exist and piecing them together and making them work in a profoundly different way that makes teaching and learning better" (108). But sometimes it's a matter of steady growth and improvement. As much as I worry about schools where nothing changes, I also worry about schools and teachers that seem to grasp onto every new trend, who are always reinventing. I admire the courage and energy and spirit, but I also wonder who they ultimately are and what they stand for. I'm sure they know but, looking from the outside, I wonder. If I could pick one passage in the book to shout from every mountaintop, It would be this:

          "Schools need to rebalance their portfolios to allow more experimentation and more risk that will generate long-term growth. If well-designed, this rebalancing yields an equilibrium between what the school has always done that made it successful in the first place and what they need to attempt to stay competitive in the long run" (456).

It's very similar to one of my favorite lines from Jim Collins' Good to Great: "Preserve the core and stimulate progress." A delicate balance, indeed.
     That core centers around relationships and everything they produce:

          "Nearly everything a school does today can be effectively outsourced except the powerful relationships that grow between students and teachers and between peer students, and the culture and traditions that make a school such a powerful part of young people's lives" (444).

I would add the relationships between school employees and families, and employees and each other. That's part of independent schools' beauty, but it's also one of the major roadblocks. Because we like to think of ourselves as communities and/or families, it becomes quite complicated and painful when we talk of making sure we have the right people on the bus. Especially when those are the people who've helped the school succeed and become what it is, some of which is based on the very things they are now being told have to change. There are plenty of nice, neat intellectual frameworks for this process which are wonderful in theory; but we're talking about really gut-wrenching, very personal things for people. Grant likes to say, in comparing it to events such a D-Day, that change isn't hard, it's uncomfortable. On some level I agree. But on another level the intense human elements of education do make things difficult. Of course, I find that an appealing part of the work.
     Perhaps those people struggling with change and innovation will find inspiration and encouragement--perhaps even permission--through reading Grant's book. They may see what can happen. What should happen. For those of us already on this journey with Grant, the book affirms we're heading in the right direction. It's why I can't wait for him to visit St. John's in January and help us ask even more questions about what we should be doing for students.

*Available Sept. 8 on Amazon. Available on iBooks now!

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