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.