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.