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.
By Bill Selak, Director of Technology, Hillbrook School
I loved math in school. In middle school and high school, I looked forward to the routine of math class during the school day: copy notes on a board, do a few practice problems in class, and then get stuck. I also looked forward to the homework each night: look at the back of the book for answers to the odd problems, figure out which steps were needed to get those answers, and then complete the homework. It was fun in the same way that a Sudoku book is fun--figure out the pattern, and slowly make your way through the book.
I continued to love math in college. By the end of my freshmanyear, I was already at Calculus IV. It was during that spring class that I realized math, as it was taught to me, was completely useless. The "game" of math--figure out how to do the homework, and repeat those steps on a test--was suddenly complex and useless. I still remember the precise moment when I became disinterested in math: my calculus instructor announced to the class, "We are going to spend the next three weeks working on this problem. The answer could never exist, but if it could exist, we'll know the answer." It was then that I began to question every moment I ever spend doing math.
As an educator, it's fascinating to think back on my experience with this subject in school. By all metrics, I was advanced and successful in math. Any yet, I stopped pursuing it. More importantly, I never saw the importance or relevance of math, beyond the cliched balancing a checkbook argument. And now, as I reflect on this experience, I think I know what was most lacking in my experience: I did a lot of math problems, but never actually did any math. Schools in the United States do this all the time--they teach a skill or an algorithm or a set of facts, but never ask students to do anything with it. So how do we make learning meaningful?
School has become formulaic: the teacher teaches, students practice in class, and students practice at home. This sterile approach to learning simply no longer works. In a world with continuous, accelerating change, schools need to become practice-oriented. This in no way suggests we need more homework or practice problems; rather, we need students to engage in real-world, student-directed learning. It is messy and it is uncertain, but then again, so is the future. This type of learning needs to have context and it needs to be meaningful for each student. In the book Whiplash, authors Joi Ito and Jeffrey Howe share that people learn best when they connect their learning to their interests. We need to connect students with mentors and give learning context.
David Culberhouse beckons us to prepare students to be agile and adaptable. In his book Surviving AND Thriving In a VUCA World, Culberhouse argues that we need to teach our students how "to be able to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us." He talks about a VUCA world, an acronym borrowed from the military: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. In this world, mistakes and failure in an essential part of learning. Too often, schools punish failure. In a VUCA world, failure is a bargain-priced learning opportunity, as Ito and Howe put it.
A shift from success/failure towards iteration may just be the pivot we need in education. Call it design thinking or rapid prototyping or cycles of failure; the goal is to shift the mindset in educators and in students that learning needs to happen through multiple, rapid iterations. This mindset is a prerequisite for the faster future we are experiencing. Ito and Howe note that we are already seeing this in businesses where it is faster and less expensive to try something than to talk about it. This new mindset, which is highly touted in Whiplash, needs to be implemented in schools. The great news is that this shift is free. The bad news is that it takes a lot of work to move a teacher, a school, a nation towards valuing failure. That said, I can't help but think that if my own math education prompted me to struggle with deep math concepts and connect them to my passions, I might have stayed in love with math.
By Erin Cohn, Senior Partner, Leadership+Design
It may be because it's February, and I've spent the past couple of weeks heaving snow up into towering mounds along the edges of my driveway, but I've been thinking recently about polar expeditions. As I encase my neck and head in wool, pull on heavy boots still a little wet from my last outdoor excursion, I wonder: what ever possessed anyone to elect to venture out into the Arctic or Antarctic unknown, and how did they ever know what to bring?
So I looked further into the history of those expeditions and discovered a hilariously tragic tradition of miscalculation, failure, and frostbite. To wit:
How often do we find ourselves doing this in schools? How frequently do we huddle together in conference rooms, debating the finer details of a plan, theorizing for days, tinkering with our ships' manifests to determine how much china to bring and in what pattern, or which variety of pony will best withstand the ice? Planning oftentimes feels safer than implementation - theory is less painful than practice - but we expend precious resources (time, energy, morale) in theorizing about questions that could be solved quickly through experimental practice. Oftentimes our planning never reaches implementation at all, and we've spent a lot of time theorizing about nothing, much to everyone's chagrin.
The problem with privileging theory over practice also lies in our inability to know what is ahead of us. In all of its chapters, Whiplash's mission is to provide us with tools to "survive our faster future," as we enter a world that will always be unrecognizable to us, just by default. We will always be polar explorers, entering unforgiving landscapes, bringing outmoded mental models of what provisions we need to survive. Ito and Howe write that, "Putting practice over theory means recognizing that in a faster future, in which change has become a new constant, there is often a higher cost to waiting and planning than there is to doing and then improvising." What do we do when we find ourselves shipwrecked with a pile of monogrammed silver? Will we shrug and play backgammon as we freeze to death? Float away on an ice floe cranking our hand-organ? Or what if we camped on the edge of the continent and tested our assumptions in small scale - sent out a friend on a pony for the day, for example, to report back on the ride. As the climate changes and the ice melts, that friend might just discover what we really need are boats. Then we'll build them, take them for a spin, and a pony's life is saved.
It's no mistake that Ito and Howe begin Whiplash with an epigraph that is a quote from the Donner Party, predicting a smooth journey across the mountains (and we all know how thatturned out). I'm not suggesting that if we don't get a little more experimental we're going to resort to cannibalism, but I do think that if we're going to adapt to the exponential changes we're facing, we'll need to do a little less theorizing and a lot more prototyping and testing ideas in order to be nimble and adaptable. As we press our students to gain some of these skills - failing forward, taking risks, learning by doing - we would do well to adopt them ourselves.
This month's articles offer some very practical examples of how schools might let go of a tendency toward theory and become a little more experimental, both with students and as adults leading schools into the faster future. L+D Co-Founder and Head of Watershed School Greg Bamford, L+D Board Member and Head of Sonoma Country Day School Brad Weaver, and Hillbrook School Director of Technology Bill Selak all speak to ways we can emphasize - and transform - practice in our schools.
And if you're interested in getting a good dose of practice of your own, you might think about attending one of our upcoming professional development experiences, which are geared toward offering ample opportunities to experiment, prototype, and test out new ideas (rather than listening to us theorize for hours about "best practices" for school leadership). Coming up in late March is our Minneapolis Leadership+Design Bootcamp, which will get you out into the community solving a real-world problem and trying out new ways to engage your team and/or your students in authentic, meaningful work. This summer, we're offering Wonder Women!, a chance for women leaders to actively discover and experiment with their own signature leadership presence. And we've just opened registration 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.
Wishing you warmth in the depths of winter, the best time to try something a little wacky, a little different, and see what happens.