By Crystal Land, Head of School, Head-Royce School
I’ve just started watching the remake of the 1960’s show “Lost in Space” whose reruns I watched as a child. Back then (when I was 10), I loved the campy show, the cool-looking set and of course, the intense characters. But most of all, I loved Will Robinson, the small boy for whom everything seemed to converge, even in the darkest of moments. In the new rendition, the young Will Robinson finds himself in unknown and unusual circumstances and somehow manages to view the world with an open, flexible and accepting perspective. He is small, sensitive and extremely resilient. He even manages to turn an angry alien into a devoted robot friend, all due to responding authentically to the moment. Every time he is in danger, he hears, “Warning, Will Robinson!”--if we could all be so lucky!
So, what in the world does this have to do with the theme of “resilience over strength” in our schools? I can’t help but think about the ever-changing landscapes of our schools. In many ways we are exploring different worlds with new kinds of schools (online, blended, one-to-one, semester programs), a diverse population of learners and ever-changing challenges in the hiring, training and retention of our faculty. It’s not exactly “alien” but if we are not careful, we might certainly be outdated in this unusual landscape.
This year my school focused on strengthening our hiring practices by becoming focused and strategic. And we have needed to! Situated in the Bay Area with a high cost of living, we are losing qualified faculty members to other locations where housing, cost-of-living and childcare is more affordable. We’ve also observed changes in mindsets about teachers’ career as those new to the profession (many of whom are millennials) may be embarking on a short exploration of the teaching field, not a 15 or 25 year commitment. In addition, the need for more diversity in our teaching team is also an imperative. According to Whiplash, we need to adapt to the new environment rather than adhering to the way it was: “Over time focusing on resilience over strength may also help organizations develop more vibrant, robust, dynamic systems, which are more resistant to catastrophic failure.”
How do we ultimately hire and then retain teachers who will meet all these needs? I believe we need to adapt our perspective and approach to the hiring process with a laser sharp focus on retention, diversity and flexibility. “Back in the day” schools often focused on traditional candidates--those who were specifically interested in teaching. These candidates often hailed from prestigious universities, were highly focused on content, and were interested in investing in a career in independent schools. As we see millennials move in and out of the profession and navigate costly geographic areas, we need to think about a shorter retention window of three to five years, strong salaries to allow teachers to live in key metropolitan areas, training and mentor programs to help them be successful, and vibrant professional development offerings make staying for longer than a few years more enticing.
Additionally, my administrative team has carefully focused on “strategic hiring”--searching for candidates who can forward our school’s strategic priorities, are able to work with a diverse community, who connect effectively with students and who are exceedingly flexible in both content and programming areas. The research on hiring a diverse faculty and administration is clear--it works to make organizations better at all levels. As Katherine W Phillips, author of “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” (Scientific American, June 2014) states, “The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.”
We may not be able to keep our faculty as long, but perhaps with more flexible, supportive and well-crafted hiring, we can be more nimble in our approach to this key area of success for our schools. Every year I interview seniors as they depart from the school. Year after year they cite their teachers as the the single most important factor in making their school experience stand out. As I continue to watch “Lost in Space,” I’m reminded that we need to meet this new world by learning from our mistakes and adapting to a changing environment. Ito and Howe state that there is “No Fort Knox in the digital age.” The status quo is no longer an option; it’s crucial that we adapt.
By Colleen Schilly, Head of the Lower School, Hillbrook School
Let me set the scene for you.
It's 11:30am on the Friday before Spring Break. The sky is clouded over and the trees are rustling overhead. Leaves shake raindrops that have collected during the day's sporadic downpours onto the ground below. On the sidewalk, two grown adults sit on the ground. I am one of them. I am aware we look ridiculous and out of place. I am aware this is not the best spot for a strategy session...but here we are. Behind me is a classroom of 11-13 year olds I am responsible for. They are busy trying to compile short videos that tell the story of their expeditionary learning experience that week. A short distance away is a young child who desperately wants to be successful, but for many reasons on this particular day is not. A series of bad choices have resulted in removal from the classroom....and now my colleague and I are stuck. What does this child need right now? What do the classmates need? What does the teacher need? What decision best balances the tension between necessary logical consequences and compassion? How will we enact our decision in a way that protects the child's dignity? Also, how am I going to help my group of middle schoolers finish their summative project when we can't properly format the video files? How many emails are piling up in my inbox that will need attention and thought after these things are done? Did I forget to eat something today? Are my jeans going to be all wet when I stand up from this concrete sidewalk? Is it Spring Break yet?
This scene, while unique in specifics to me on April 6, is representative in nature of the challenges of teaching and educational leadership today. Working with humans in community has always been both incredibly rewarding and (unsurprisingly) complicated and sticky. Add to that the proliferation of email and smart devices that, while making many aspects of life and work easier and more efficient, have also made everything faster. it is increasingly difficult to do just one thing at a time. It is increasingly complicated to prioritize taskswhen there are so many avenues by which a new potential problem or proverbial fire might present itself. As leaders and teachers, how do we survive the fast-paced, ever-evolving, and multifaceted nature of our work? The authors of Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, suggest that the answer is resilience over strength. They write, "The classic illustration of resilience over strength is the story of the reed and the oak tree. When hurricane winds blow, the steel-strong oak shatters, while the supple resilient reed bows low and springs up again when the storm has passed. In trying to resist failure, the oak has instead guaranteed it."
I would add that in order to truly be of service to children as educational leaders and teachers we need to cultivate a form of resilience that allows us to do more than just survive the work. The day I described above is excruciating and exhausting if I am merely seeking to survive it. Instead, I propose that there are 5 key behaviors that resilient leaders and teachers can practice to maintain balance and thrive in our profession.
Resilient leaders and teachers anticipate disruption. We expect that things will not always go according to plan and are agile enough to pivot quickly. We start "from the assumption that however strong your system is, it will be compromised... Resilience doesn't necessarily mean anticipating failure; it means anticipating that you can't anticipate what's next, and working instead on a sort of situational awareness." We recognize that no matter how skillful a leader or teacher we are, we WILL face opposition, challenge, and people who just plain don't like us. There will be difficult parent meetings, students who challenge and confuse us in new ways, and lessons, meetings, or projects that don't go quite according to plan.
This means that resilient leaders and teachers also normalize discomfort. They accept that in life and work they will encounter the disruptiveness of friction, frustration, and challenging emotions. They do not lead, plan, teach, or coach with the goal of avoiding or preventing uncomfortable moments. As Jeff Howe writes, "By trying to win, I'll always lose. Only when I accept that there will be no winning or losing, just events unfolding and the way I choose to react to them, do I succeed." Resilience is not an easy muscle to build. Like everything it requires practice and, by nature, truly practicing the art of resilience requiresdiscomfort. Growth requires feedback and feedback requires a healthy level of familiarity with uncomfortable moments and feelings. Brené Brown puts it best in her book Daring Greatly:
"I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not getting comfortable with hard conversations but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized. 'We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable... We want you to know that it's normal and it's an expectation here. You're not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.'"
Accepting and normalizing the sometimes uncomfortable nature of existence allows resilient leaders and teachers to cultivate mindsets that are open to possibility. This is the heart of the "teachable moment", the opportunity that presents itself that is, at best, peripherally related to the original plan but more often than not is completely tangential. An openness to possibility allows for creative, positive, and unforeseen new strategies, connections, insights, and more.
As Ito and Howe point out, "A resilient organization learns...and adapts to its environment." When we are open to possibility, resilient teachers and leaders are able to adapt through listening and reflection. As poet Alice Duer Miller writes, "Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us." When we are careful, vigorously interested, present listeners we are able to more deeply understand and empathize with those in our care. Habits of reflection keep us from stagnancy and reflection is the practice most likely to safeguard against repeating the same mistakes and failures time and again.
Finally, resilient leaders and teachers need to prioritize effective self-care. This means something different for every individual, but I firmly believe that unless we take care of ourselves by setting and respecting the boundaries we need for wholeness, rest, well-being, and joy then the siren song of notifications and news feeds and updates and email and other people's "emergencies" will almost always end up dictating your inner world and priorities, and at worst color your perception of your own effectiveness. Intentionality has impact. Resilient leaders and teachers are intentional about what we give our life's time and energy to.
These practices don't promise resilience, but I do believe, as with all things, that practice makes better and will result in a steadily replenished well of stamina to joyfully, thoughtfully persevere in the profession. Empathy, flexibility, and gratitude are more powerful sources of fuel for the journey than rigid, uncompromising rules and systems.
By Carla Silver, Head L+Doer, Leadership+Design
April is nearing a close, and May is about to sneak up on all of us school people - throwing the inevitable curveballs at us. It is actually a perfect month to dig into the eighth chapter in Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Jeff Howe and Joi Ito. We’ve been enjoying this book all year, but somehow the topic of “Resilience over Strength” seems to be timely as we prepare for the most relentless month of the year.
As an originator and neophile, I rarely read the same book twice or watch the same movie over and over again. Why would I do that when there are so many other books to read, and movies to watch? I make a strange detour from this behavior when it comes to podcasts. I will sometimes listen to the same podcast two or three times - maybe it is because I can’t easily look back at my favorite parts (although the transcripts are often available) or maybe it’s because I am an auditory learner. Regardless, there is one podcast I have listened to about a dozen times - a Freakonomics episode from March 2016: How to Be Great at Just About Everything which is essentially an ode to the resilient and persistent learner. I guess I listen to this one on repeat because I am ever hopeful that I will become truly great - at something.
Freakonomics host Steve Dubner, builds this podcast around the work of Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University who has studied this topic for most of his career. His work has inspired the 10,000 hours idea that Malcolm Gladwell write about in Outliers and the “growth mindset” theory of Carol Dweck. Ericsson’s research has supported the idea that with enough “deliberate practice” humans can achieve a high level of skill in almost anything. While Gladwell prescribes a magic number of hours, Ericsson believes that 10,000 hours alone is futile and that it is all in the kind of practice we do and the coaches/guides we have along the way. It helps to have some innate talent, but talent alone is no guarantee of greatness. In his 2015 book Peak:Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson writes about the highest achievers in any given field. “The clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have-the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.”
The most important distinction of Anders Ericsson’s work is that the simple act of repeating a task will only get you so far. You can get to a point of automation and general competency, but simply running 5 miles a day or even 10 miles a day, will not improve your running after a certain point. Instead your practice must be purposeful which according to Ericsson means it is focused, requires feedback and forces you out of your comfort zone. It requires a certain amount of resilience to imperfection and the ability to of fail forward. The brain is amazingly adaptable when put to the right training conditions, and with these three elements in place, anyone can drastically improve.
The implications for us as educators from this research are profound and go beyond promoting a growth mindset in students. While growth mindset is probably a prerequisite to deliberate practice - one needs to believe they can actually learn something and get better at a skill or knowledge - it is really just scratching the surface. As educators, it means we also need to design the right kind of practice - not simply repetition and regurgitation - and it means we need to be giving feedback - lots of it. Most importantly, we need to be prepared for our students to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. John Kotter calls this the “productive range of distress” and it is necessary for growth to occur.
This isn’t just about student learning either. I believe it means that as the profession of teaching evolves, we are all going to need to engage in deliberate practice if we are going to be truly great at our work of designing meaningful, relevant and engaging learning experiences for our students. And as leaders, we will need to hold ourselves and our faculty and staff in that same “productive range of distress.” Like a good coach, we need to know how hard to push and when recovery is necessary, but we can’t expect growth and improvement without discomfort.
My friend and colleague Christian Talbot of Basecamp often asks whether a school seems to operate from a position of scarcity or abundance. In other words are there a finite amount of leadership opportunities or awards or experiences that are limited to the “top tier” of students - the innately strongest? Or are there ample opportunities for those who might have a budding interest and are willing to work hard to improve, excel or even do what it takes to become truly great at something? What does your school do to provide opportunities for the students who may not be the strongest, but just might be the most resilient - and what are you doing to cultivate that resilience and allow it to emerge? This is not the same as giving everyone a trophy for participation. This is about helping every student to pursue a level of greatness at something.
Meanwhile in our organizations, we need to be more resilient than ever as we adapt to rapidly accelerating world with paradigm shifts. As Ito and Howe smartly write, “We are all infallible. No matter how strong we try to appear, something can take us down. There is no institution or person that is too big to fail. We know that now, in an age of disruption and dislocation.” Therefore, none of us personally or institutionally can rely on what have perceived as our strengths simply because those are things we have always done well. How can we be so sure that those same attributes still hold the same value to a new market, and what if some other school or organization or individual can simply do those things better and add more value? We need to develop greater adaptability, a willingness to take risks and try new things, and a tolerance for failure. These three things will provide us, as Howe and Ito write, an “immune system” for the future. We don’t always need to be proving our strength, but rather practicing resilience if we want to thrive.
By Steve Morris, Head of School, The San Francisco School, Originally published in Headspace, the Blog of SFS
Last week I had one of the absolute best days of my 14-year SFS career - I had the great privilege of shadowing a 2nd Grade student from drop off until pick up.
For those of you who are not aware, this past January, SFS embarked on a year-long Schedule Redesign process. Under the guidance of a firm called Leadership+Design we convened a committee of thirteen faculty and administrators to reimagine our schedule from preschool through 8th grade. Our plan is to reveal our new schedule in January of 2019 (to be put in place for the fall of 2019). However, we are prototyping small tweaks to our existing schedule already as we truly hope to make an impact that serves our students as soon as possible with this process.
As part of our Schedule Redesign process, committee members are taking an empathy-based approach. What that means in this case is that each committee member, plus me, shadows an individual student for an entire day (spanning all of the grades). This will give us an opportunity to gain insights from the perspective of the lived experience of our most important “users” - our students. In becoming anthropologists in our own school, we are gaining an understanding of a student’s day from start to finish, allowing us to gather stories and snapshots that will ultimately help us frame student needs and opportunities for growth while creating our new schedule.
So - back to one of the best days of my time at SFS... My day-long shadow of a 2nd Grader revealed so many wonderful things about SFS. I had many takeaways, and below are a few:
Master teaching : The first lesson of the day was a 60-minute math session. This was wonderful on many levels because I got to see 2nd Grade co-teacher Maggie Day teach a “Units of Measurement” lesson. Maggie had an incredible “tool belt” on display during this complex lesson. Throughout the class, Maggie facilitated at least five different student transitions that incorporated direct instruction, group and individual learning, and student collaborative time. In the end, I was thrilled to see that every student was challenged where they are as a learner.
Student engagement : It gets no better than hearing student exclamations like, “Yes!”, “Wow!”, and “How cool!” as a teacher describes an in-class activity. This is exactly what I heard as the 2nd Graders listened to the description of the upcoming science experiment. I sat with my shadow student and her partner while they carefully dissected an owl pellet, and I honestly got lost in the belief that I was watching real scientists at work. The students carefully used the tools and materials they were given, made insightful hypotheses about the insect parts they were discovering, and beautifully collaborated in figuring out the best way to manage their process. “Look, Steve, we found another bird skull...holy mackerel!”
Importance of play : OK...I have to admit something. During my time at SFS, I have only gone on the adventure playground slide once (when I first started) and I have never held one of the chickens. Does that surprise you? There was no turning back on this shadow day for me. As we raced out of the classroom door, I was immediately shepherded by a group of students to the slide, instructed on the various ways I could go down, and I was off...not once, but twice! Once I reached the bottom, the students brought me to the barn where I was shown how to properly hold a chicken, and all of the sudden Tamsley, the chicken, was in my arms. Meanwhile, a middle school student had brought her iPad to the barn with instructions about how to diagnose our bunnies for heat stroke (For what it is worth, I have held the bunnies many times!). The rabbit was, in fact, suffering from minor heat exhaustion according to this 7th Grader, so the students took the bunny to the air conditioned library, where, yes...the rabbit spent the rest of the day. My time with the students in the Adventure Playground seemed to come just at the right time. After two plus hours of deep classroom learning, I was a bit surprised how much I too needed the playtime. This offered us a time to recharge our batteries, and prime our pumps for the second half of the day.
Specialty classes play an essential role: The second half of the day was filled with two speciality classes - art and music. In addition to seeing wonderful teaching on display, I think what surprised me the most is how much these two classes gave students the opportunity to shine in different ways. For example, students who may have had a quieter voice in one of the earlier academic classes, were differently engaged during these sessions. There were new leaders in these classes, and roles and responsibilities seamlessly changed for some. Additionally, I was so pleased to see that history was alive in music when James gave a lesson on the Boston Tea Party, and science was very present in art as Tiphani discussed the various dynamics of bird life as students drew their birds. The integration of our speciality classes into the overall school day clearly plays an essential dynamic in student learning.
In closing, one of my biggest reflections is that the students were “all in, all day.” They rarely slowed down, and were always eager for what came next. Meanwhile, I was exhausted by day’s end! I learned so much about our students, teachers, time at SFS, as well as the fact that I too have a friend in Tamsley the chicken. I can't believe it has taken me this long to do something like this, and although this day had a specific purpose for our Schedule Redesign, it is something that I plan to do every year going forward!
Recently, I facilitated a focus group exploring the creation of a bus program to serve our local public schools. The town, in collaboration with the school district, is looking to pilot a program that would help mitigate traffic around the schools. While the primary program under consideration is a traditional school bus model, the town staff also was seeking feedback on programs that might utilize existing public transportation.
"What would people think about that?" I asked. "You mean students would ride with the general public?" someone asked for clarification. "Yes, the system would be open to anyone who was willing to pay the fare." "Seriously?" one person scoffed. "Come on. No one would be willing to let their child ride a bus that included the general public." Other focus group participants nodded their heads in agreement. "Would anyone be willing to let their child ride on public transportation?" No one raised their hand.
While not necessarily shocked by the response, I was struck by how different the responses might have been if we had been in a different setting. I suspect that if we had been in a major urban center with active public transportation networks - New York City, San Francisco, Boston - parents might have offered a much more measured response. Certainly parents might have been wary of young children riding a public bus, but middle school aged students and high school students? I'm suspect that many, if not most, parents would have expressed no concerns.
As schools, we continually espouse the importance of diversity and inclusivity. Historically, the argument has often centered on the importance of addressing social inequality and providing access to historically underrepresented groups. In more recent years, we have also come to understand that there is an academic argument for how creating a diverse environment benefits all students. Indeed, a growing body of research has emerged in the past few years arguing that diversity makes us smarter. An article by Katherine Phillips in Scientific American in September 2014, "How Diversity Makes Us Smarter," for example, described a series of studies that show that individuals respond differently to ideas when they come from diverse individuals. In one study, for example, university students were asked to discuss a social issue for 15 minutes. Researchers then wrote a dissenting opinion and had it delivered by a white or black member of the group. Phillips writes, "When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us." Viewed collectively, the studies in Phillips article make a compelling case that "we need diversity -in teams, organizations and society as a whole-if we are to change, grow and innovate."
In a New York Times article titled, "Diversity Makes You Brighter," Sheen Levine and David Stark described studiesshowing that people in diverse groups make smarter decisions. They write, "When surrounded by people "like ourselves," we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation." In the end, they argue, "Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it."
It is this component of diversity - that it makes groups brighter and leads to better problem solving- that Joi Ito emphasizes in Whiplash. Indeed, he pushes it even a step further, arguing that having diverse people solve problems may be more effective than having a group of experts. His chapter reminded me of Tom Wujec's findings in the marshmallow challenge, where he notes that kindergartners routinely outperform business school students. While the business school students spend the entire time planning, the kindergartners immediately try things. When that fails, they try something new until they finally find some type of solution. Often, the business school students try one thing and, when it fails, they have run out of time.
Neither Wujec or Ito are suggesting that experts are never helpful for problem solving. They are, however, making a compelling point: the less diverse a group of people we engage in a problem solving activity, the more likely we are to find our solutions fit into a narrow band of possibilities. I suspect most people have heard the supposed Henry Ford quote, "If we had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."
It makes me think about some of the most persistent challenges we face in independent schools, and how we might be well-served to bring together radically diverse groups of individual to address them. For example, I have been part of several different efforts to reimagine the independent school business model. While several have been engaging and thought-provoking, none have generated, to my mind, particularly ground-breaking solutions. Perhaps we are just not engaging a diverse enough group of participants?
More recently, we have been focusing as a school on how we can increase the number of Latinx families at Hillbrook. Living in a state where more than 50 percent of school-aged children are Latinx, we realize this community is significantly underrepresented in our school population (around 5 percent). We are not alone in the quest, as the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) has made this one of the main pillars of their strategic plan. Clearly, the majority of CAIS schools have struggled to get this right. Who might we include in this conversation, both as a school and as an association, to really push our thinking?
As you think about your own school, I would challenge you to think - what problems are we currently facing? And, more importantly, who are we bringing to the table to identify and help you find solutions? Beware the group that when asked, "What do we need to get from point A to point B more quickly?" answers with confidence, "The fastest horse in the county."
These days it is difficult to find an independent or innovative school that doesn't tout the inherent value of Diversity (capital D). Diversity is central to our mission. We celebrate diversity of all kinds. Yet when Ito and Howe recommend Diversity Over Ability in Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, it's likely that many of their readers aren't sure (a) what exactly "diversity" means, OR (b) whether diversity is truly the be-all-and-end-all of successful outcomes 12.
Diversity is a modern day Rorschach. The inkblot looks like gender to me, race to you, socio-economic status to your colleague and sexual orientation to your department chair. Wethink of diversity in terms of various identities. However, when Ito and Howe recommend diversity over ability, "the claim is not that identity differences produce benefits directly but rather that they do so through the diverse cognitive tools that the various identities foster." The idea is that your life experience--- which is profoundly impacted by your identities--- contributes to how you see and interpret the world. Experience determines what ends up in each person's toolbox of capacities.
More tools, different tools, better toolbox, right? That depends.
Thirty years ago one of my professors in graduate school invited me to join him on a consulting job. The client, a huge global advertising company, wanted help training middle managers to lead their teams more effectively. There were 60 participants from around the world, representing multiple nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, languages, races, genders and ages. We randomly assigned people to small groups, gave them a 20 question multiple choice quiz on principles of leadership, and videotaped them working on their task.
When the groups convened, participants quickly recognized the quiz as one they had completed individually the night before and had handed in at the beginning of the day's session. The familiarity of the task elicited laughter and an easing of anxiety. Several groups finished the task in just 10 minutes, though others complained that 30 minutes allotted was not enough time. Regardless of how quickly or slowly they worked, most groups were dominated by 2 or 3 participants (typically white, American or European, English-speaking men) while other members were ignored or remained silent.
What did these managers learn from this experience? That their group score on the quiz was lower than the highest score by an individual member of the group. Translation: there were members in the group who had the correct answers but the group failed to access this knowledge. In reviewing the videotapes participants saw that those who appeared to have the right information quickly dominated the process while others were marginalized. And the "others" were typically women, people of color, those for whom English was a second language.
Ito and Howe assert that the diversity of a group (or team, or class, or community) is essential for creative problem-solving and achievement. Yet the mindset that expertise and competence are best for solving problems is hard to shake. In those groups of middle managers, the central actors were quite confident in their answers and were sure that they had led the group to "success." They wielded a hammer comfortably, saw the problem as a nail, and believed their dominance was a by- product of their superior ability. They also believed that if someone else had a better tool (Screwdriver? Measuring tape? Level?), that person should speak up and step in. (Does this sound like a department meeting, perhaps??)
Maslow and Kaplan's "law of instrument" cautions against the overreliance on a single tool. If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But in these manager groups, there were plenty of other tools/experiences at the table. Lack of diversity wasn't the issue; the toolbox was well stocked. So what happened?
In her article Active Inclusion: The eighth mindset of design thinking, Emi Kolawole asserts that in order to work effectively, teams "...must be more than diverse and radical. They must be inclusive." (emphasis mine) Many independent schools have tried/are trying to achieve equality by giving everyone a spot on the project team and should most certainly keep working towards this goal. Kolawole, however, maintains that membership on the team is not enough. Everyone on the team must also be actively involved in planning for and executing the project. Harnessing the knowledge and experience of every "one" in the group leads to the desired cognitive diversity of the "whole."
Recognizing that creating a diverse community is not the same as creating an inclusive community has led some schools to replace the Director of Diversity position with the Director of Equity and Inclusion. Yet confusion and bias remain. If you ask every member of your school why diversity matters, many will point to values, ethics and justice, which are certainly important cornerstones for any community. However, not enough people understand or believe that diversity + inclusivity = the most effective approach to the challenges we face in schooling (and the world) today.
In addition we do not appreciate that having access to the most effective approach is a privilege. Robust endowments, pedagogical freedom, access to all kinds of resources...those are independent school privileges, yes? Consider this. The diversity of our school communities positions us to do the very best kind of work in Education: innovative, adaptive, creative, inspired. Plenty of schools lack a toolbox full of such options. What prevents independent schools from making the most of the privilege that comes with creating intentionally diverse communities?
Affirmative action naysayers fear that filling "diversity quotas" weakens the capacity of the whole rather than strengthens it. When every problem is a nail, don't you just need a lot of hammers? Not only do we need a variety of tools for our educational endeavors, but we also need to bear disruption and uncertainty as we learn how to work with new and unfamiliar tools. "A human-centered team must constantly be engaged in the act of inviting, empathizing, discovering, learning from and teaching other members in the group."4 When this happens, our expectations and assumptions about who people are and how the world works are challenged. And being challenged in this way leaves people on the team feeling uncertain, vulnerable.
Leave it to the L + D psychologist to land on vulnerability! Remember that trust- fall exercise you had to do at some retreat or orientation? You closed your eyes, fell backwards, stiff as a board, and prayed that your group members caught you?
When we are actively inclusive in our diverse work teams and communities, we become vulnerable; we have to trust others to do their part. And we have to believe there is more than one way to approach a challenge. Sure, everyone in the group can link arms and catch you that way. But one team member knows just how big a pile of leaves will do the trick equally well. Or this one has a sturdy tarp on hand.
The chapter after "Diversity over Ability" in Whiplash is "Resilience over Strength." I'd like to humbly suggest a slight modification. As individuals and groups we need resilience in the face of mistakes, defeats, and setbacks, all of which leave us feeling vulnerable. It is our ability to tolerate and work with vulnerability that sends us back to the toolbox to try again. "Resilience (Vulnerability) over Strength" allows us to make the most of the privilege of our diversity.
Whether by watching too many cooking channel challenges or just sheer obsession with great food, I can't help but think about this month's topic using a cooking metaphor. At L+D, we often get asked, "What makes your organization different? So, here it is...the recipe for one of our secret sauces, however, unlike most grandma-guarded secrets, this one needs to be shared.
As many of you know, at L+D, we have taken this year to focus on the book, Whiplash by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. Each month, we focus on a different chapter, and we make connections to our work in schools. This month, I want to build on what Ito and Howe discuss in their chapter outlining how diversity often outshines ability. If you have read the book, they do a nice job of showing how the field of crowdsourcing has changed the way certain complex problems are solved, and they show evidence that certain problems are better tackled by the crowd instead of the trained professionals with fancy letters after their names. For example, they tell the story of InnoCentive, a company that outsources their problems to the internet, and allows the power of crowdsourcing and the growing movement of citizen science to go to work. Their findings show that about 85% of their problems get solved, impressive given the complexity of the problems. But further, of those solutions, about 40% of them come from untrained individuals who would never be invited to the problem-solving-table if not for companies like this that are embracing this concept.
More relatable for those of us who are food people, we all know the difference between five stars on Yelp with 2 reviews and 5 stars on Yelp with 2000 reviews. Much like IBM's Watson, the simple power of adding to the diversity and computing/people power via the internet leads to all sorts of problems that can be solved better and more quickly. This is exciting in and of itself and has huge implications for schools. The ivory tower era is dead, and it is time that we open up our school problems to more people from different backgrounds. I am not trying to take away from the gravity of this finding, but I see one glaring issue that L+D spends a good portion of its time addressing, and this issue happens to be present in every school we have worked in partnership with.
That issue is that Ito and Howe's concept of crowdsourcing is built on the foundation that these citizen scientists or genius plumbers working out of their basement labs on behalf of mankind never have to meet each other and collaborate. As long as they can help solve the problem without having any human interaction beyond posting their solutions to an online board, this model works. If they did meet, I often think a little bit about how that meeting might go. My guess is that they would struggle in the same way that you see your students, faculty, staff or board struggle when they bump into people that think differently than them. This asynchronous collaboration has a place in our schools, and I hope we consider how we can leverage it more. But what about those of us collaborating with a growingly diverse group of thinkers in schools together, in person?
We know, both from science and from common sense that we are better equipped to solve problems with diverse groups of people leveraging different skills, opinions, and levels of experience. We also know that as you introduce diversity into any community, and you ask people to interact, before you get incredible results based on that diversity, you get assumption, misunderstanding, tension and sometimes even hostility. Sometimes this conflict goes unaddressed to the point that groups fracture, initiatives die, or worse, people start to dislike working in teams and instead form small groups of like-minded individuals that are capable of getting things done. This sad efficiency model kills innovation, and those great ideas, borne of radical collaboration, are left dormant and not nurtured because we lack the skills to manage the tension needed for them to germinate.
In 2018, we still break teachers and students into groups without giving them any scaffolding for how to work well together. We don't grade collaboration, we don't teach it enough, and we, as educators are not very good at it. Over the last fifteen years in schools, I have seen more collaboration, and there is definitely consensus around Ito and Howe's point, however, we still see teachers that look alike, think alike and with similar skills doing the most collaboration, and this isn't really what Ito and Howe are talking about.
The secret sauce at L+D is teaching people how to collaborate. Educators in 2018 should be able to tell you or demonstrate:
Here are the top three things school leaders can do right away:
If there is one message we hope you hear from this month’s Recharge it is this: in 2018 diversity is not just a “nice to have” quality for schools, but rather it is an essential condition for any school preparing students to thrive in a global economy and rapidly accelerating world. The social, political, and environmental challenges of the future will require diverse teams of problem solvers who can leverage the skills, talents and perspectives within their groups in order to develop impactful solutions. While diversity is partly about who has a seat at the table, it is increasingly about how each individual at the table is valued, given an authentic voice and how their motivations, values and perspectives are incorporated into the conversation. The diversity conversation is no longer about numbers or achieving critical mass - its about harnessing the diversity that already exists in your community and leveraging it. And the ability to work collaborative with people of different backgrounds, cultures and values is increasingly essential, highly effective, and ultimately, more joyful.
In our year-long exploration of Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Joi Ito and Jeffrey Howe, we have reached the seventh principle - Diversity Over Ability. (Click here
to heck out all our newsletters to read about the other six principles.)
The articles in this month’s newsletter reflect on how this theme of diversity plays out in the author’s schools and organizations and in their experiences leading diversity work. The authors share how, in their experiences, the richness of diversity enables breakthrough thinking and better ideas. I loved these articles so much and struggled with what I could contribute to the dialogue. So I am adding “three things” to the conversation which I hope will “Yes And” these authors who have teed up this topic so thoughtfully. So here are three thoughts about to move your school community beyond conversations of critical mass and more towards conversations (and actions) around critical impact.
1) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Anyone who thinks group life of any kind is easy and should be free of conflict should look no further than their own family gatherings to know even homogenous groups are fraught with tension and discomfort. Group life is “messy” as our collaborator Ryan Burke often reminds us. Add to the mix a diverse set of cultures - which might mean different core values and ethics. As caring communities, we too often look for ways to bring comfort and ease into conversations that are not simple or easy. When you are dealing with divergent cultural values, motivations and perspectives, there is bound to be friction and tension, which may never be resolved but rather understood and respected. Sometimes the temptation is to resort to our own corners and our “affinity groups” because that is where we can feel safe and comfortable. Adopting a posture of curiosity and wonder about our peers and colleagues is much more helpful in moving us closer to equitable communities where everyone feels like they have equal membership and authentic voice. It’s okay to get messy and not get it right all the time. In our cultures of “being right” we miss out on how sometimes being wrong or always just being curious gets us further and makes us better.
2) Beware the diverse school with a monoculture. We often share our diversity statistics on our websites in a well-intentioned effort to welcome and attract even more families of diverse backgrounds. “We have 41% students of color.” “Our families come from 12 different zip codes.” “25% of our families receive financial aid.” But sometimes that data only tells a very small part of the story. I routinely see schools that have achieve a very high level of racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity but still display a “monoculture” where it feels much more like the dominant culture has invited other cultures over as dinner guests. There are insiders and outsiders and this can play out in very subtle ways and can be made even more invisible when minority cultures use code switching and covering in order to fit into that mainstream or dominant culture. Doing a holistic “culture audit” can be a place to start identifying ways to transform your school from a mono-cultural community to a truly multicultural community. What do you audit? Space (Are your classrooms and spaces reflective of one culture? What hangs on the walls in public spaces?) Time (How do you use time in your school to consider students and faculty who come from far away? Is there regular time in your daily or weekly schedule dedicated to conversations about race, identity, sexuality?) Curriculum and Pedagogy (How are many cultures represented in the curriculum? Whose stories are being told? Who are the heroes that students are learning about? Are they represented in these stories?) Community events (Who comes to events? What time are these events being held? What’s the theme of the event? How much does it cost to attend?) It’s no fun to be a “partial” member of a community or to have to cover in order to pass for the mainstream culture. It’s so much better for everyone and so much richer when everyone brings their “uncovered” selves to the dinner party that is more of a potluck than a hosted event.
3) Strive for “pluralism” not “diversity.” My colleague, friend and collaborator Christian Talbot, the founder of Basecamp (and definitely sign up for his newsletter), believes we may be striving for the wrong goal in our communities when we use the word “diversity.” Instead, he suggests that striving for pluralism in our communities will ultimate result in greater equity and a collective culture rather than a monoculture. E Pluribus Unum literally translates to “out of many, one” and offers a more integrative approach to building a unified community from many different cultures. There are schools that are grounded in pluralism like Pluralistic School One (PS1) in Los Angeles and this philosophy is deeply ingrained in the design of every aspect of the school. But for the rest of us who have been using the term diversity and have actually made some progress on the numbers, shifting the narrative from diverse to pluralistic, might be a more accurate representation for what we are really trying to accomplish as a community.
Once again, if one of the primary goals of school is to prepare our students to be contributing members of society, then we need to be providing opportunities for students to be part of hard conversations, to get curious about cultures other than their own, and to work collaboratively with people who have different stories, values, and perspectives than they do. If we want our democracy to survive, we need future leaders and citizens who value pluralism - a founding principal of this country. While diversity is a lovely thing to have in a community, it’s what you do with it that actually matters.
PS - Despite rain and snow around the country, we have actually reached spring which means summer is around the corner! We're offering Wonder Women!, a chance for women leaders to actively discover and experiment with their own signature leadership presence. And registration is open for the November 2018 Santa Fe Seminar, which provides an introspective and supportive space for school leaders to examine their own practice and plot a course for experimentation in their lives and careers.
By Greg Bamford, Head of School, Watershed School
Our schools have academic cultures, so it's no wonder we foster a passion for research, analysis, and debate. When it comes time to plan a new initiative, that can mean a year of meetings and research to create one perfect plan - whether it's a new schedule, program, or policy.
But how can we get the best out of that kind of critical thinking, while avoiding the pitfalls of "death by debate"?
One answer lies in the book Whiplash, which calls for acommitment to "practice over theory." I agree. One "perfect" plan will be never be as good as what emerges from many imperfect plans, provided that they start on a small scale, change in response to reality, and grow in scale as they get better.
Not that theory in itself is bad. But I'd argue the best theories are empirical, rooted in a careful attention to practice. And we can accelerate the benefits of that learning by launching prototypes that allow people to see, touch, and respond to new ideas for our schools.
One example: Watershed, my current school, faced a challenge in communicating the value of our unique middle school program. Rather than hiring a marketing firm to research the needs of middle school parents (theory), we launched two web pages with two different sets of messages (practice). These two pages were hidden for people who didn't know how to find them, but were live for the people we shared them with - allowing us to solicit feedback and iterate until we landed on a single page that hit the most emotionally resonant messages for our audience.
Another example: when developing a new transcript to describe our unique program, we researched what other progressive schools were sharing with colleges and universities (theory). However, we used that research to quickly develop a prototype, sharing it with parents and colleges for feedback (practice). Critically, it allowed us to identify possible parent flashpoints - some of which we honestly wouldn't have seen coming. Rather than being blindsided by a community pushback, we were able to make early revisions and avoid a political landmine.
A bias toward action doesn't mean acting blindly. Organizations that embrace practice over theory should ask what peer schools have learned, and use that information to inform their prototypes. Similarly, we need to be committed to measuring progress, to making changes quickly in light of feedback, and to communicating our process and goals with your community.
Here are some steps I've found useful when leading with a bias toward action:
1. Enter into your experiment with a "theory of action," which could be an insight about an unmet need, a pattern that needs to be disrupted, or an opportunity that can be seized.
2. Develop a prototype before you launch on a small scale, and use that feedback to plan a pilot project.
3. When you launch a live pilot project, don't turn your back on it. The point is to learn! Expect that some things will go well and others won't - watch for what's not working, and use that to make changes quickly.
4. Communicate with stakeholders when you've received feedback that led you to make a change.
5. Run experiments at a scale where failure is both survivable and a source of learning for your school. For example, we're currently experimenting with a new mid-semester narrative about student progress, and we're trying it with our entering class because it was perceived to be the lowest stakes moment to tinker with anything related to grades.
School leaders often avoid a robust process of experimentation because we worry we'll fail, thereby garnering community backlash. My experience is that by engaging in experimentation transparently, you build trust in your commitment to a better school. When we finally launched our new transcript and grading system, we were able to communicate all of the ways we had solicited and responded to feedback. That transparency sped buy-in and led to one of the easiest parent meetings I've ever been a part of.
But crucially, the same can be true when things don't go according to plan. Last year, I gave a green light to a new arts elective that just didn't work and left some parents feeling that we hadn't lived up to the quality of the experience they had come to expect from Watershed.
I was left wishing I had experimented with this curriculum on a smaller scale first - for example, by running a four-day course during our spring Intensive Week rather than moving straight to a full semester course. I also wished I had paid more attention to the experiment early on, allowing us to pivot.
But when I wrote the parents in that class, acknowledging the mistake we made, I was able to call upon our commitment to experimentation. And I could outline the steps we'd take to make future experiments more successful. In the end, this kind of ownership heightened trust with our parents.
You can't be a school of the future without your mistakes. But a well-executed bias toward action allows your community to try new initiatives at a scale where mistakes are survivable, learn, and scale when ready. This process moves more quickly - and achieves a higher level of quality than you would have reached through a deliberative process alone.
But it also requires leaders to be learners, not knowers - to be comfortable searching for the right answer, rather than knowing it.
By Brad Weaver, Head of School, Sonoma Country Day School, L+D Board Member
"Fail often to succeed sooner" is an oft-quoted design thinking axiom attributed to IDEO founder David Kelly. An article from The Economist that I like to reference explores how often failure is a part of business with these statistics compiled from Deloitte's Center for the Edge:
Imagine if schools piloted ideas at rates described above. I suspect failure at that pace would not result in much success at enrollment time. As The Economist staff assert: "simply 'embracing' failure would be as silly as ignoring it. Companies need to learn how to manage it." Educators exclude themselves from learning to manage failure at their peril. We need to improve in our capacity to allow for failure as an integral part of student and organizational learning and how to manage and articulate our way through failure.
A year ago, our faculty at Sonoma Country Day School found themselves asking the question, "How might we give students greater choice and voice in their learning?" We were exploring making changes to our school schedule, and this question emerged as a recurring theme in the conversation. As an aside, we have gotten much, much better at asking questions after our administrative team worked with Carla Silver and Leadership+Design in 2016 during a summer planning retreat. As advance work, she recommended for us to read A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spur Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger. Asking better questions at the onset is one way to limit risk and improve learning when failure occurs.
A task force of teachers and administrators studied how to bend, not break, the schedule to allow for greater student voice and choice. We asked teachers and students what mattered most to them in this process, and we kept returning to Google's "20% Time" concept. We asked, "What if we used a part of each day to allow teachers and students to explore an area of interest? How much time could we create by eliminating passing times and shaving a couple minutes from each period?"
What resulted was a daily space in our schedule that we now call "Flex Time." Teachers and students alike pitch ideas for Flex Time and recruit other participants to join them. Successful Flex Time activities to date have included yoga and mindfulness, soldering and making, jazz jam, film appreciation, making slime, animal appreciation, improv and glee club, outdoor sketching, knitting for a cause, figure drawing, school spirit club, just to name a few. Most of the most popular ideas are student generated and led.
In order to test our initial Flex Time concept, we identified a two-week period late last spring and communicated to families that we were experimenting with a new schedule and explained why. We offered a time in advance for parents and guardians to ask questions, and we collected feedback from both adults and children involved at the end of the pilot test in response to the prompt "I like.... I wish... What if..." Here are some sample responses from our students:
We allowed for iteration and the risk of failure, yet we managed its impact through proactive communication, ample opportunity for questions and feedback, and a clearly articulated time frame for experimentation. We said, "There is a hard stop to this test, and an opportunity to provide feedback before we decide to continue." Had we experienced a lack of success, we could have easily left the idea behind, learned from our mistakes, and moved on with little fanfare. It helps that we have a strategic plan with the tenet of Cultivating Innovation - we have staked out the cultural ground that trying new ideas is what we do.
As we look ahead at further breaking down the barriers imposed by schedule, I now wonder if we might live in the space of a "20% organization." As a school, at any given time, 20% of what we are doing is in flux, iterating our way to a smarter, nimbler future.