Bold Design Thinking Process To Lead Change Discussion at Pomfret School

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Bold Design Thinking Process To Lead Change Discussion at Pomfret School

The first step in innovation at this time for our schools is recognizing that the world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace, and that these changes are highly relevant to what and how we teach.  If a school is not having this conversation, they will not innovate; if they are having this conversation they have at least started down the path. As we have seen already in the four weeks of this journey, the pace and style of innovation is highly variable at schools, but all I have visited have recognized the fundamental premise, and the importance, of change in the world for which we are preparing our students.

I spent all day at the Pomfret School, an old co-ed boarding-day school of about 350 students with more than a solid reputation.  I had two big takeaways from the day, in which I had a chance to sit and talk, and also visit a number of classrooms.  First, this is a community launching boldly into big discussions about the future of what and how they teach.  They are not far down the path, but they are creating the path, and that is what is critical.  The first part of the post will be about some really solid work they are doing to prepare for a successful process.  Second, they are doing some interesting things right now at the classroom level, and I will share what I saw for those of you who are looking for good classroom ideas.

I sat down for an hour with second year Head Tim Richards.  Before I got to the school I read his extremely good piece on their web site about why we need to consider significant change, even if we are good at what we do. I won’t reprise the arguments here because he said it better than I can; it is worth downloading and “borrowing” from if you are communicating these ideas to your community.

Tim wants the school to be bold in their thinking.  Last year he created three teams of faculty to look at and report back on brain-based research, adolescent emotional development, and 21C skills (Tim is now on my bandwagon of calling these NthC skills, because they are timeless).  The faculty are getting up to speed on the need for innovation, as they keep informed by reading and attending to their personal professional development.  After bringing in some outside speakers, Tim feels there is fairly good support for the rationale that he outlines so well. Tim told me, “If you are an informed educator, you know that change is coming. There is a real risk if we don’t evolve.  Our relevance as a school will be linked to being distinctive.”

Tim is confident that he has a passionate faculty that both love what they are teaching and are excited about engaging students.  He has posed some great questions for his faculty to ponder to help get the innovation discussion kicked off (these are not word-for-word quotes, but I think pretty accurate):

  • How do I as a teacher connect the dots of what I do to what I have to do in the future?
  • Why do we teach what we are teaching?
  • Why do we teach how we are teaching?
  • Are our desired outcomes something more than knowledge acquisition?

Pomfret is in a strategic planning process, and Tim feels the plan they create will be versatile, changeable, and fluid.  In a year they may look at it and make big tweaks.  He recognizes that strategic plans should be less static than they have been in the past in order to match pace with external rates of change.

Later I met with Patrick Andren and Kate Caspar, two senior academic administrators.  They outlined the process that Pomfret is going through to tee up the strategic plan; it is bold and will hopefully really uncover some exciting options for the school. They are forming several design teams consisting of faculty and staff volunteers to employ design thinking and create options for what the school might look like down the road.  Only two fixed points are handed to the teams: Pomfret will continue to be a day-boarding school in the town of Pomfret, and it will use the same physical plant and continue to serve the same general demographic population. The teams will present their designs to a committee overseeing the strategic plan.  This is an exciting approach that should yield two positive results: some great design options to consider, combine, and implement; and experience with the powerful systems thinking and problem-solving tools of design thinking.  I am really excited to watch this process unfold over the next year!

Now some notes from my day around campus.  Thanks to the many teachers who we observed and who welcomed me to campus:

  • As I reported from St. Andrews in Delaware, Pomfret has a tradition of twice-weekly student/faculty gatherings for reflection and sharing.  Seniors all give a talk once during the year, and these are from the heart.  They have created time in a very busy schedule for these meetings, and I find them to be powerful expressions of the community spirit, and learning experiences for both students and teachers.
  • Ellen Browne’s algebra math class would be a stop for any math teacher who wants to know how to teach math via 21/NthC.  She has a TI Navigator system, which seemed to be like a clicker on steroids, but her use of technology is not what impressed me the most.  The students were working problems together, some at their seats and then on several white boards.  Her worksheet for the class asked students to “choose data that interests you, and cite your source”; and then to “predict some future event of your choice with your data”.  For those who think it is tough to work 21/NthC skills into math, think again. Ellen says, “They are doing math, not watching me do math”.
  • The art studio walls are covered with self portraits done by years worth of students who have come and gone, creating an evolving mural, that is both lively and really well done.
  • In a senior English class the students and teacher were critiquing student’s college admissions essays with open, honest feedback.  Do others do this?  Seems like a great idea.
  • In a class called The Power of Story, team taught by the pastor and the drama teachers, students were asked to reflect quietly for a few minutes on something they had learned and then go up and get it on the white boards for all to see and think about.  The teachers added their own reflections to the board.
  • Science teachers use Mathematica, a program that does calculations after the students set up the problem.  They believe math classes should teach math, but they then want students to focus on the why of science rather than spend time grinding the calculations.  We watched in a physics class as the students each worked the problem on their own PC, and then shared out results, letting the computer get the math right. We also saw as short piece of the teachers video he is using to flip the classroom, and when he suggested to the students that he might video their lab reviews, it was met with a lot of enthusiasm.
  • I got to intrude on a religion elective called Worldview, and could not keep my mouth shut, since that is one of the key parts of my teaching and book, The Falconer.  The students were discussing nihilism and I appreciated joining in with some discussion of the duality of subjectivity and objectivity.

Finally, I got to sit down for a few minutes with Dean of Faculty Bobby Fisher and Steve Davis, Director of Diversity and Community Relations.  We talked about a number of subjects but the one that really resonated for me was this from Bobby: “We want to have those really big discussions, but we need to identify and put on the table the anchors that keep us from thinking of what is possible”.

Here is my take away from Pomfret, which is a mix of what they told me and what I hope we will see from organizations like them that are bold enough to think about asking the right questions: we need to ask what are the real anchors of our mission and what are the myths that impede change?  I have been through a lot of strategic planning in my career and have seen the results of many such plans at schools.  Here are a couple of pitfalls I was reminded of by listening to the extremely thoughtful team at Pomfret:

  • People generally can’t imagine what they have never seen.
  • Lacking any other important experience or expertise, people will focus on what they know and what is important in their daily lives.
  • Most strategic plans take risky ideas and trim them down because of one of those anchors.
  • If we don’t honestly surface the big anchors, we will never get rid of the ones that are holding us back for the wrong reasons.

I also advise that just because this is an old and well known boarding school, that does not mean the lessons are invalid for any other kind of school.  They are coming up against the same obstacles encountered by all of us: not enough time in the day, not enough opportunities for professional collaboration, etc. By forming teams, encouraging adults to engage in the greater world of education thinking outside their own walls, and embracing the idea of a self-evolving organization, Pomfret has set up a process that may lead to some really interesting innovations down the road. Special thanks to Associate Head Pam Mulcahy for setting up this big schedule, for sharing with me her own thoughts which are spread through this post, and for walking me around to classes!

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