Big Dreams and Skunk Works Model of Innovation Re-frame Learning at Hathaway Brown

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Big Dreams and Skunk Works Model of Innovation Re-frame Learning at Hathaway Brown

As schools think, discuss, and plan what they want to look like in an uncertain future, my sense is that how we get there is at least as important as what a school decides.  Hathaway Brown in Cleveland has developed a well-deserved national reputation as a model of intentional innovation, due in large part to their multiple Centers that comprise the Institute for 21st Century Education.  They now support an annual Education Innovation Summit that is attended by hundreds of educators from around the country.  I am not going to go into great detail about the Centers and what they each do; you can learn it better from going to their website (I will note some highlights I learned about a couple of the Centers later in this post).  My main takeaway is that their style of both leadership and faculty collaboration successfully changed the fundamental structure of a historically very successful school.  The really short summary is that Head Bill Christ created a tailored Skunk Works.  If you don’t know what that means, or if you do and want to know how and why it was such a successful process for innovation in a school, read on.

HB is a very different school than it was 20 years ago.  Those changes have been steady and intentional, not the sort of rapid ideation, iteration, and design thinking that some people associate with the term “innovation” today. It did have a starting point, and according to Bill that point came when the school felt they had to do more to prepare their young girls to participate and compete fully in a changing world. They conceived of a model akin to a liberal arts college, with purpose, people, and even places dedicated to large thematic issues that would serve to contextualize the “regular” classroom curriculum.  The Centers started out as separate entities but are now tightly woven into the fabric of what we consider normal classes.

I asked Bill to identify some of the processes that went in, over many years, to making the Institute a success:

  • Dream big; they took on the concept that girls were not adequately prepared for full and equal participation in any field they might choose.
  • Start small; they started with just a couple of Centers, and used those to help nurture and build on additional Centers over time.
  • No real permission required: anyone with a good idea could propose a Center and test it out with their colleagues and the students.
  • Skunk Works: Bill found seed funding and put the right people into the roles of developing the Centers.  This is what a Skunk Works is: a place with the right people and resources to test new ideas, to fail, to tweak, in ways that are not mission critical today but may be big mission drivers in the future.
  • Special definition of success: success is not defined by letter grades or how many girls signed up for a Center, but by how it contributes towards the mission of preparing the girls within the context of the whole learning experience.

As the Center concept grew, Bill feels they recognized deeper layers, that discovery is the true key to learning, and discovery does not happen in a class where the students are always the recipients of knowledge.  The Institute is a machine that addresses many non-cognitive skills and creates both academic and non-academic transformation.  Bill also notes that the structure is simple, and that is one reason that some other schools have begun to adopt similar programs.

I met with Koyen Parickh Shah who leads the Center for Girls’ and Women’s Leadership.  She describes the goal of her Center as “developing feedback mechanisms about what leadership looks like”.  They are not trying to crank out CEO’s; they believe that leadership is an infinite concept and happens in many capacities.  It is a complex skill but one which improves with practice.

Koyen has been at HB for 15 years, and I asked her why she thinks the Institute developed successfully at HB.  She said three threads came together at the right time:

  • A strong but energetic diversity of opinion that supported the key goals.
  • They raised money to support the Skunk Works testing approach.
  • Bill was really instrumental in articulating that a school must evolve as the word changes, that standing still is not a good outcome. She says that Bill has a simple philosophy: “Name it, organize it, see how it goes.”

The community has grown comfortable that a strict chain of command is not required for teachers to do their work.  Busting the rigid silos of department was not without a bit of pain, but Koyen feels it was a modest level of pain, and well worth it.  It sometimes is messy to know who must be included in what decisions as the interest of the Centers intersect with the interests of the academic departments, but the faculty works it out and have grown stronger in the process. Koyen says “It is pretty obvious that there is conflict between traditional teaching and the way the world works”.  The difference is that HB has surfaced that dissonance and created a fantastically successful mechanism to deal with it.

Koyen says that innovation at HB is now a constant.  Many teachers try new material based on new conversations and new ideas every year.  She even had a girl retake the same class from her for a second year because the material was essentially all-new!  But the school and Centers now move in concert.  They have activities for all three divisions, so even the youngest girls can look forward and up to a future in one or more of the Centers. Decisions do not flow from a committee that has to meet and discuss issues for a long period to develop consensus; in fact they do not have to be inclusive as long as those working with a Center can move forward together.  There is also no guidebook or model to follow

One more important characteristic of the Centers:  they have real institutional weight.  Projects that the girls concoct, discover, research, or try are used to generate questions in the school as a whole to the limit that the system will tolerate.

Studies on sustainability have driven policy.  Research into community issues has opened up new and long-lasting partnerships.  The Centers’ goal is not for a girl to get an internship and report on it; they want the work to be meaningful to HB as an institution.

I met with two other Center Directors, and here are a few highlights if you are interested in these areas of study and expansion:

Joe Vogel is the Director of the Center for Global Citizenship, the most popular Center at HB.  About 90% of the girls engage in overseas travel, and many take the full four-year course of study.  The courses engage in an understanding of the roles of international players: states, governments, NGO’s, geography, history, and current events.  They deal with major pressing themes as those evolve over time; Joe brings in material from major news sources from around the world.  In their senior year the girls do a capstone project of original work, and write and defend a 25-30 page thesis.  The Center operates about 10 1-2 week overseas trips a year.  Joe feels the work of the Center is built around a base of content, but it changes the center of gravity of their thinking to a far more contextual plane.

I also spoke with Stephanie Hiedeman, the Director fo the Center for Civic Engagement.  Her center grew out of the school’s community service program and has developed over more than seven years.  It incudes a series of classes that introduce and develop the concepts of community organizing, agencies, and civic leadership.  The girls engage in sometimes multi-year projects in the community and often bring that work together within the framework of their other classes.  Last year a group of girls developed an exciting massively multi-media presentation of their findings and put it on as a dramatic show.

The overall Director of the Center work is Terry Dubow, who was kind enough to organize my visit to HB.  In addition to the history I have already related, Terry made some really key points about how the Institute has added value to the school.  Cleveland is a competitive market for independent schools, and parents want that “something extra” beyond just a good chance for college admissions.  HB has developed their habits of self-evaluation both as a way to meet their mission but also in response to a demanding external market.  The Institute has helped to keep the entire HB community focused on the mission in a way that is very tangible and evident in also creating value amongst their clientele.

What do we take away from the Hathaway Brown story?  “Just do it”.  Or, “Yes we can.”  Are those slogans taken?  Make up your own.  My take away is to dream big and get started.  There are a million reasons why innovation is hard, but if something is the right thing to do, then we have to do it and timidity is not a trait we want to model for our students.  HB chose to be bold, they got through some growing pains, and are evolving a completely different type of learning experience that is authentic, and far better tailored for the 21st Century than the old model.

By | 2012-09-27T17:59:46+00:00 September 27th, 2012|Uncategorized|1 Comment

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