Category Archives: Vision and Strategy

What Kind of Leaders Are We Raising?

Does your school value students who exhibit character, grit, and leadership?  Is it in your mission to develop these traits in your students?  Probably, and rightly so.  But as I and others have urged educators to step back and think deeply about the meaning of the word “grit”, an important article by Susan Cain, writing in the New York Times, urges us to take a similar hard look at the meaning of “leadership” and how it is pushing our students into perhaps a narrow vision of their best selves.

We value leaders. We know that many elected and business leaders have been nurtured at “the best” schools and colleges. As Cain notes, many of those schools and colleges loudly stake claims to the production of leaders and the inculcation of leadership skills in their students. But Cain says that we now feel believe that leaders spring from many places, regardless of traditional pedigree:

It’s part of the American DNA to celebrate those who rise above the crowd. And in recent decades, the meteoric path to leadership of youthful garage- and dorm-dwellers, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, has made king of the hill status seem possible for every 19-year-old.

 I would never argue that we should de-value leaders and leadership training.  The question that Cain raises, that I think is essential for educators to ponder and act upon, is this: what is the nature of valuable leadership?

At one end of the spectrum, leaders direct, prod, or rule over others. They are first among non-equals. Leadership in this construct is about power and position.  This is not a value statement, but a statement of fact. Human organizations often need this kind of leadership lest they devolve into randomness or chaos.

At the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps the end that has been ignored because it is more subtle, harder to find, or easier to overlook, is the person who leads from a place of humility, or the shadows, from the bench, or out of some deep creative passion.  At this end we find those who do not seek a position of leadership, but rather a path of leadership. We find the moral leader (Ghandi); the explorer (Earhart); the knowledge leader (Einstein); the servant leader (Pope Francis), the inventive leader (Musk).

Cain focuses on the nature of “followers”, who may exist at any point across the spectrum, but not in the spotlight; they are harder to see. They are a subset of those who lead from a position other than power. One of our jobs as educators is to combine the strengths of leading and following into human-social traits that help our students to be effective, valuable, and happy during their lives.  Cain says

So now we have high school students vying to be president of as many clubs as they can. It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.

Yet a well-functioning student body — not to mention polity — also needs followers. It needs team players. And it needs those who go their own way.

 It needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status.

One of the really huge questions for educators as we evolve away from the traditional industrial age model to a deeper learning model of schools is “how might we measure and reward what we truly value?” I tackle this as one of the seven levers of incredible transformation opportunity in my upcoming book Moving the Rock. If high schools largely reward those who get top grades for taking a bubble-test, or are elected to power-based student offices, then that is where students will focus. If college admissions offices are looking for students who demonstrate “leadership” by the titles they have held in high school or the number of “advanced” classes they take, we will have shoved students towards only one end of the leadership spectrum. As Cain says, if

…the outsize glorification of “leadership skills” is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply.

When I work with schools that are interested in transforming away from the rigidity of the traditional learning model, a main area of focus is “distributed leadership” or “leading from where you are”.  We know that human organizations that effectively evolve during times of rapid change (like now) leverage leadership from across the organization, not just from the top. Researchers like Alex Pentland, author of Social Physics, prove that the performance of groups of people is more dependent on how they work together than on the leadership of any one person. In fact, they find, dominance by one person diminishes rather than elevates group performance.

How is your school rewarding the servant-leader, the quiet leader, the non-titled leader, the student or teacher who makes those around them rise through the power of ideas and actions outside the spotlight?  How is your college or university digging deeper into those admissions applications to widen what has traditionally been a narrow view of “leadership”?

Most simply: as an educator, or a group of educators, do you know what you mean when you say that your school values leadership?  In a time when many question the value of political leaders who divide more than unite, and corporate leaders for whom the acquisition of ridiculous wealth is an overriding goal, are our schools contributing to these narrow themes of leadership, or are we “leading” students and teachers to explore vastly richer ways to lead.

How Will Educators Deal With the “Death of Expertise”?

A primary role of education is to give students the skill and wisdom to know how to gain knowledge. A key element of that process for centuries has been the reliance on experts who have invested enormous time, money, and intellectual resources in gaining knowledge and understanding that is deeper, more detailed, and often more nuanced than that of non-experts. We may not always agree with experts; we may question their data or the conclusions they draw; and we are free to interpret their expertise alongside other sources of information and ideas that we value. But the critical role that expertise has played in the rise of human civilization, and particularly democratic institutions, of which education is one of the foundational piers, is indisputable.

There is increasing concern from across the political spectrum that experts and expertise are under threat. To be blunt, a significant segment of American (and likely other) society, mostly on the distal but powerful margins of the political spectrum, has replaced principled disagreement with the rejection of reality. Rather than proving a point based on facts, they just make stuff up.  

Tom Nichols is a respected author, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. Writing in The Federalist, Nichols says that highly vocal and politically potent groups of Americans increasingly decry almost any evidence-based argument coming from  “elitist” experts when such expertise is contrary to their political or social viewpoint. When observable and demonstrable facts are subject to intentional manipulation, experts, who we have have relied on for centuries to help us all make informed decisions, may become an endangered species.  The foundation of our democracy, says Nichols,

…denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge.  It assuredly does not mean that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.

Experts are not infallible, but they are vastly more accurate at describing the realities of the world around us than are lay people. The weather is fickle, the stock market is unpredictable, the movement of armies and economies are complex, favored sports teams do not always win, and new inventions, medical procedures, and businesses often fail despite the best efforts of entire teams of the best experts on the planet. Experts even change their minds; what they told us one year about cancer screenings or cholesterol is reversed another year based on a study about which not all experts agree. This frustrates us. If they are experts shouldn’t they get it right? But this demonstrates perhaps the most important difference between experts and those who want to cast them out or diminish their authority: real experts are smart enough to know they are not always right, and diligent enough to know how to get closer to “right” the next time. Those who decry the value of expertise because they don’t agree with or want to hear the conclusions, are not.

The dangers of discarding expertise reach every person on the planet. We risk slipping back into a Dark Age where those with political or social power control what we know and think, untested by science or scrutiny, unaltered by actual facts. Because we disagree about how those facts might be used, the anti-expert factions claim they do not exist. Nichols says that marks the point at which

everyone becomes an expert on everything. Take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine.

What Nichols warns of as the current “death of expertise” is a rejection of one of the key functions of education. The role of expertise is one of the really big, perhaps even existential challenges, for educators going forward. It forces us to ask and perhaps redefine the boundary between pressing a teacher’s “political” views on students, and encouraging, or in fact insisting, that students investigate ideas and content to the degree that they can discriminate between expert, authoritative sources and unsubstantiated personal viewpoints. Should this boundary be up to the individual teacher? The school? Parents, The district? The government state house? The loudest attendees at the school board meeting?

In my view, we simply cannot allow education to fall into the trap that somehow facts are mutable and experts are no less “expert” than anyone with access to a blog or a social media megaphone. It is up to us as educators to teach our students the value of expertise, and how to find and learn from experts who provide that value, even, and perhaps particularly, when the expert opinions run contrary to our own, less-expert worldview. As educators, we should be helping our students to frame the big challenges they might face in the years ahead, and giving them the tools to succeed in those challenges. They need baseline knowledge to understand the difference between the fiction of political rhetoric and the realities of a complex world. As Nichols argues:

…every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.

These, then, begin to form a measurable rubric by which educators should continue to help their students to find and wear the mantle of enlightened learning in these tumultuous times. Are our students capable of forming and defending an argument with baseline knowledge of both or many sides? Do they know basic facts of history, geography, economics, law, and science that intersect with recent news? Are they capable and willing to enter into discourse, not to win a debate, but to learn and inform? Can they find and separate expertise from loud, uninformed banter? If so, then they have the tools to gain value from experts. If not, then their future is, as Nichols says, “endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight.”

Think You Know Disruptive Innovation? Read On!

From Dumaguete City, Negros Island, Philippines

Changing what we do in schools is uncomfortable, even hard sometimes, certainly complex.  But as you ponder the “why, what, and how” of change at your school, in your district, or by your community, as you struggle with the inevitable discomfort and disruptions, take a look at what REALLY complex school change might be, and how those with the tiniest fraction of your resources are finding ways to succeed.

In 1981-82, as a recent Stanford graduate, I was invited to teach at Silliman University, a highly-respected English language university on Negros Island, about an hour flight south of Manila.  Forward many years, and for the last decade I have partnered with Silliman, first leading the flagship annual experiential  student trip for Francis Parker School, and carrying on with a number of small school and community development projects. So, it is with a great deal of interest that I have followed the path of a MAJOR disruption to the education system here in the Philippines.

About six years ago, the federal government, with input from educators around the country, including those at the Silliman College of Education, decided that the Philippines had to finally disrupt the historic system that ended in 10th grade, and shift to a K-12 system.  Just think about that for a minute: in a nation of 90 million people, 5,000 islands, with huge modern cities and rural villages of subsistence fishermen and farmers, add two grades to every high school and take all graduates out of the college system for two years until the system normalizes.  Oh yes, and at the same time, let’s rewrite standards for the entire system to focus on 21st Century skills, content, and pedagogy.

That, my friends, is a disruption.

I have had only a small window on this process; for example, I watched as my Silliman colleagues designed and facilitated a five-day workshop last year for 1,000 teachers from their region. They had a week to convey new content and pedagogy covering 10 months of school time to teachers who have been teaching in a rigid, static system for their entire careers.  (They also had to kit out classrooms as sleeping quarters for those five days because there are not nearly enough hotel rooms for 1,000 visitors in the entire city of Dumaguete.) Talk about building a plane in flight! Did they get it all right the first time? Of course not. But they are iterating new workshops this year.

The results may already be remarkable to those of us who try to shift one school or district through much less daunting transformations.  I chatted with the principal of the small high school on Apo Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Negros that I have frequented over the years.  Ten years ago, the high school was one classroom; today it has eight concrete classrooms; in two years, it will have at least twice that many.  They have wooden desks, a few books, and meager supplies. They finally have internet access for the two or three working computers…when the computers are working. Teachers bunk together in a small one-room house, cooking on a gas ring and sharing one toilet and one shower.

The principal is 27 years old, and I would hire her in a second to teach at my school. In a system that five years ago was as tradition-bound and rigidly teacher-centric as you could imagine, she estimates that now, just two years into the real changes, in the average week “teachers are lecturing from the front of the classroom only about 25% of the time”.  They have self-developed group collaborations and project-based learning; they have created a nascent STEM program; and she wants to build a maker-space-like “workshop”…if they can find a few square meters of build-able land in the village.  They are worrying about post-traditional student assessments.  They are asking “what parts of the Finland model will work here?” In other words, I had the exact same conversation with the principal of this high school on a tiny islet in the middle of the Visayan Sea that I frequently have at wealthy American private or public schools.

I asked her and the team from Silliman if the experience on Apo is typical or not.  Their response: “it all depends on the principals”.  Some are digging in their heals, and resisting the changes in program and pedagogy.  Others are moving forward because they see the world changing so fast around them and they know what they have to do.  On the whole, they are just six years in to a reconstruction of the entire system, and the needle has moved dramatically toward what we would call “deeper learning”.

And (here’s the kicker if you want to take the long view), the students and teachers in the Philippines have one HUGE advantage over American or school systems in the developed world. They are born tinkerers, makers, and fixers.  Most have nothing growing up, so they create.  There is no “sit and it will come to you” in their DNA. The teachers don’t yet know what the final product they are building will look like, but they are moving forward anyway.  They are courageous innovators.

Would you and your team like to video chat with some really good educators in the Philippines who are crossing the same bridges as you are, with perhaps some very different insights into how they are doing?  Might you like to share some of your own trials and successes?  Might the students get some value out of that kind of interaction with peers a world apart?  Let me know and I can set it up.  (And if you want to spend some time on “my beach” per this photo, that can be arranged as well!) The stubborn rock of education is moving, and despite the seemingly complex path ahead of you, the lessons of success are all around us.  Even on a small island with a poor, concrete school, but surrounded by one of the great coral reefs in the world!

New Short Video: “Why, What, How, and Inevitable Future of Education…in 45 Minutes”

I was recently honored to give a short presentation and host a dinner discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. with a group of business officers of independent schools, hosted by First American Education Finance.  The theme  was “The Why, What, How and Inevitable Future of Education…in 45 Minutes”. The “how” and the “future” are primary points of focus of my new book, Moving the Rock, which is coming out this summer.

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Here is the link to the summary video and topics, as well as links to some additional cited resources you can use to help launch these critical discussions at your school.

Nothing Like Seeing Deeper Learning in Action

NOTHING is as effective in transforming schools as seeing “it” in action.

IMG_3086I spent Monday with a visiting team of elementary school teachers from Albermarle County in Virginia as theytoured four elementary schools in Cajon Valley USD, just east of San Diego. Albermarle Supt. and national edu-leader Pam Moran sent the team out to look at deeper learning in action as they develop a plan to gut an existing school and re-build it for the future. As I have written previously, Cajon Valley is a highly diverse district of about 17,000 students. School demographics range from largely Caucasian upper-middle class, to highly underserved with some of the densest concentrations of immigrant, refugee, and ESL students in the country.

Now in his 4th year at Cajon Valley, Supt. David Miyashiro and his team have made changes that others think are impossible.  In classroom after classroom, with student-teacher ratios ranging from 28-38 to 1, we found focused, engaged students learning in highly differentiated modalities.  Since they became a 1:1 laptop district, teachers have begun to adopt a completely new relationship to their classroom. Students down to the level of kindergarten clearly have and take responsibility for their own learning.  Teachers spend vastly less time talking to whole classes at a time, and much more working with small break-out groups for short periods.

IMG_3080Students are not required to sit at their desks. In almost every room we visited, students were grouped and sprawled where they wanted and needed to be, on the floor, on couches or pillow, under tables.  But we did not see a single student doing nothing; they were all on task.  We asked students repeatedly some version of “what are you doing; why; and how do you know if you are being successful?” Every student had a good answer appropriate to age and grade level, even students for whom English is pretty new ground.

I had two big takeaways from the day:

IMG_3089First: I was overwhelmed by the calmness in these classes. I did not see any students bouncing around, noisily bothering others…and these are little kids! Some of this is due to the personalized routines that largely have students working at their own pace on their computers. But they are not glued to computers all day; much of the work is in collaborative teams, and I frankly was amazed at how well all the students were working with very little teacher direction. These students are not constantly asking the teacher “should I do…?” or “what should I do next…?”

Second, I asked David his response to those who say “this system is like an aircraft carrier and just takes sooo long to change…”. He said, essentially, “you can change what you imagine and believe you can change”.  And the district is proof.  They have no advantages in terms of money, demographics, or facilities. They have HUGE advantages when it comes to leadership, vision, communication, and growing community support of what is taking place in these schools.  And ALL of those are within the control of every educator and community in America.

The Albermarle teachers’ heads were spinning with ideas and confirmation of some of their own initiatives, and I am sure that is only increasing as they visit other schools this week, including a tour I will help lead at Design 39 Campus on Friday.  Yes, it is an expense to fly a dozen people across the country for a week, but it is a small expense compared to what we spend in our schools every day, and a uniquely powerful investment if we really do want to turn these aircraft carriers around.

Two Big Takeaways From Week Focusing on Innovation

I have two big takeaways from a fast-paced, roiling week of interaction with hundreds of education colleagues in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore this week.  The first is a powerful reinforcement of a paragraph early in the introduction for my upcoming book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education (Josey-Bass Education; coming out this summer):

My head hurts every time I see another article, vodcast, or TED talk preaching that education must change. That train has already left the station! All of the arguments about why education must change can be summarized in less than a sentence, a simple paraphrase of the godfather of modern education, John Dewey, more than a century ago: the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate and we have to prepare our students for that future, not for the past.  We desperately need to move beyond the discussion of “why” education must change.

I have a great deal of respect for Sir Ken Robinson, and what he has done over the last two decades to elevate awareness that schools must change. And he continues to be an entertaining and witty speaker. But it borders on tragic that an audience of 5,000 educators perches on a talk that is, or by rights should be, long in their rearview mirror.  Partly this is due to the turnover in teachers; young teachers are still being prepared by our colleges of education for an outdated learning model, so when they hear Sir Ken for the first time, their natural reaction is “Yes!”.  There is no such excuse for those of use longer in tooth.

About my second big takeaway I am far more salubrious.  Pushed in large part by true, transformational innovation in some public, charter, and independent schools, the National Association of Independent Schools dramatically elevated their focus this year on how schools can effectively transform…and those sessions were packed.  In my talk to 60 business officers on Tuesday night in D.C., I commented on the dramatic change in just a few years about how fluent those “non-academic” administrators are on the language and need for substantive change.  In my three-hour workshop on Wednesday with 90 edu-leaders from 30 states and six countries, there was a palpable recognition of the problem and thirst for getting to work.

In listening and speaking with dozens of educators from many schools, I came away with two big points that are driving success at successfully innovating schools:

  • They realize that innovation is not a thing, it is a process.  It is not the bits and pieces, the isolated good ideas being tried here and there in a school.  Those are great, but they will not lead to sustainable transformation.  Successful innovation is the glue that hold those pieces together.  Yes, schools are “people” places, but if you do not have an operating system in place that allows those people to reinvent their respective roles in service of their students, your school will not transform.
  • They are radically inclusive in the processes that create and nurture innovation culture.  Innovation is not something handed down from a board, principal, head of school, or superintendent.  It includes and is done by “we”.

There is tremendous agreement and understanding about the need to change that did not exist ten years ago.  There is a less-pervasive, but very rapidly spreading agreement about “how” schools can transform, the steps, activities, and relationships that lead through the messiness of change to a better place.  We have reason to be optimistic.  But to quote from the last paragraph of the introduction in my new book:

I can’t count the times over the last five years that I wished some smart marketing team had never suggested the slogan “Just Do It” to Nike, Inc.  It is the perfect call to action for all of us who have a stake in great education. But who wants to risk a copyright lawsuit from one of the biggest companies on the planet? So, alternately, and with complete respect, I remind us of that morning in September of 2001, after two planes had slammed into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, that on a fourth plane, United Flight 93, passenger Todd Beamer courageously asked his seat mates “Are you ready?  OK. Let’s roll”.  The first entry in Wikipedia under the topic “let’s roll” says that it is a “colloquial catchphrase that has been used extensively as a command to move and start an activity, attack, mission, or project.”  Well, it is time to stop pushing the education rock back and forth, to stop inactive talk, to stop obsessing over the fine points of disagreement, and to stop pointing fingers of blame about why schools are failing to serve all of our students.  This is our responsibility, our critical mission, not someone else’s, and we can’t shrug it off.  It is time to roll.


Major Education Game Changer Launches: The Mastery Transcript Consortium

Two years ago, Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, told me about an idea they had to dramatically enhance high school student assessment and how that might revolutionize the outdated drivers of college admissions.  He asked if I thought it would attract support from like-minded school leaders. I told him, simply, “get the first ten schools into your group and you will fundamentally change our system of education.”  Two short years later, with the official launch this week of the Mastery Transcript Consortium and 55 independent schools already on board, they are well on their way.  You REALLY need to know about this!

The MTC is “a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.”

Simply, the MTC will design, test, construct, disseminate and help schools prepare for a new set of assessment options that measure what we actually value in student learning.  As I was granted some informal access to the genesis of the group, I was able to focus on the MTC in a chapter in my new book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education, coming out in September:

There is an enormous, rigid dam that stresses students, constrains and frustrates teachers, frightens parents, and kills innovation at most schools. At school after school, district after district, I hear a variation on the same anxious theme: “We can be innovative in elementary and middle schools, but our parents are afraid of changes in the high school because it might jeopardize their kids’ chances at college admissions.”  The twin blocks in this dam, how colleges admit students, and how college admissions in turn drive K-12 student assessment, particularly in high school, kill innovation in schools, even where entire communities want that innovation to explode.  We, the community of school stakeholders, have been complicit in erecting and preserving these blocks, and we have total control over them. We built the dam; we preserve the dam; and we can bust it wide open with no permission from anyone and no threat other than to our own fear of change. The dam is rotten to its core, needing just a stick or two of well-placed dynamite to breach it forever.  Why? Because just about everyone–educators, parents, students, college professors, university presidents and admissions officers, and employers—knows and agrees that the system is wrong and is only getting worse.

One of the most powerful elements of the MTC design to date is the input they received from colleges in advance of launching the initiative. In discussion with directors of admissions and college presidents, Scott and his team found a receptive audience “if you can give us something that we can initially scan in two minutes”.  It is also more than serendipitous that this effort was launched the same year that dozens of colleges and universities signed on to the “Turning the Tide” manifesto that refocuses college admissions on depth, interest, and passion, and away from multiple advanced placement courses, grade point average, and shallow community service experiences.

Another powerful argument for the MTC lies in what we know about the health and wellness trends amongst high school and college students. I go into some detail about this in my book, based both on data collated by the MTC team, and from a number of other research-based sources.  We know that current forms of assessment lead to elevated risks of an enormous range of negative lifestyle and health issues amongst our students and, as Scott emotionally put it to a group of school leaders last year: “We just have to stop doing this to our kids”.

“The mastery transcript is about acknowledging that we live in a changed world,” says Scott. “The MTC believes that the tools of the past may no longer work for students, teachers, colleges and our society at large. We believe it’s time for a change.”  With the overwhelming response to date, it appears that Scott’s timing could not have been better.  I predict that within a year or two school membership will be in the hundreds; this is a club that you absolutely want to join, and many of us eagerly await the day when a fully designed transcript of student mastery will be available to every public and private school in America.


Hill School is Breaking Some Traditional Independent School Paradigms

IMG_3057I am at The Hill School outside Philadelphia today and tomorrow; I have been working with the humanities departments this year on reimagining their program, offerings, and departmental structure.  But this post is not about the humanities; we are prototyping solutions later today and will have have a lot to report by the end of March.

In discussions and classroom visits today, I learned about the economics course that has test-piloted-busted some core assumptions about the student-teacher ratio.  Starting a year ago, an introduction econ class has a single principal faculty member who provides lectures to up to 48 students.  Eight students who took the class last year act as “TA’s” to this year’s cohort. Initially there was fear that parents would rebel against a class of this size with just one principal teacher, but that has not happened.  The students are working on a more self and group-directed basis, and there has been little pushback and a lot of positive feedback.

At lunch I spoke with a junior student who had just come back from “City Term” in New York City.  I asked her to think about what elements of that program might be applicable to Hill, nestled in historic, semi-rural Pottstown.  Len Miller, Hill’s Associate Headmaster, agreed that it would be invaluable for her to present some of her experiences, reflections, and ideas to a group of Hill faculty who have not had a similar experience themselves.

IMG_3058I visited a newly renovated space that houses Hill’s three-year engineering arc.  Students work in pairs and small groups to learn some basics of engineering, and then proceed through a series of design-build challenges.  It is not terribly tech-heavy: some desktop computers, small leg-style robotics kits, one laser cutter and one 3D printer.  There is one principal teacher handling more than 100 students, assisted by two other faculty members  a couple of periods a day, who are learning the program.  They anticipate by next year or the following year they will have 150 students in the program, which is enormous for a school of this size.

I asked the students what they liked about the class, what was different, and what elements might carry over to their other course work.  All of the responses were variations on a theme: “This class is different in that there is not one set answer; we like that we get to figure things out on our own; we are learning to think for ourselves, and that is a more important skill in the real world than learning something for a test.

I will challenge the humanities teams to import these lessons as they re-think their own programs and pedagogy. Chalk up The Hill School as another leader in re-thinking the industrial-era school paradigm, moving teachers out of their traditional roles, and allowing students to own more of their own learning.

What is the Traditional Breaking Point of Leaders’ Thinking?

What is the point at which people are not willing to look beyond the horizon?

Next week at the annual NAIS conference (#NAISAC), John Gulla and are are giving a three-hour workshop with the primary goal of pushing education leaders’ thinking beyond their current horizons.  We will have between 85-100 leaders from something like 60 schools, 26+ states, and at least five countries in the room.  John says that he has visited more than 200 schools in the last couple of years, and every one of them has tried to impress on him that they are “innovative”. His honest view is that almost none of them are; they are not pushing their thinking enough to keep up with the changes in education and what is required of us in the predictable future.

Today I tweeted that John and I want to push these leaders a bit beyond their breaking point. Thought leader Gary Gruber just responded: “What is the traditional breaking point?”  My answer: “That point at which people throw up their hands out of fear, discomfort, or uncertainty of what is over that horizon.”

Every single indicator we can find screams that almost all schools are not on a trajectory of change that intersects the future needs of our students, and therefore the future sustainability of our schools.  For many schools, the wolf is not at the door today, so leaders ignore these signs; they incorrectly assume that the past is a good indicator of the future.

Horizons change. It is only those who think that the ocean goes on forever who fall into the trap that the horizon always looks the same.  We are going to learn a TON next week in those three hours: all of those smart people with diverse viewpoints, sharing ideas and “next horizons”.  I will have a lot to share with you!

What Oroville Dam Tells Us About the Rate of Change

imgresThe pictures of water exploding through the eroding spillway of Oroville Dam is an opportunity for us to think about the nature of time, and the inevitable forces that control our collective destinies. It is a chance to back away for a moment of learning from the human-centric view of our world that governs most of our lives. At a time when the rate of changes created by human institutions is rising exponentially, we need to understand how REAL disruptive change actually takes place.

As a former geologist, we know that the landforms around us did not take shape through even, linear, gradual change.  The vast majority of changes take place in what, in human terms, are large, episodic, catastrophic events: really big earthquakes that displace enormous pieces of the earth’s crust be many meters; enormous floods; landslides that bring down entire mountainsides; volcanic explosions like Mt. St. Helens that changed an entire region in a second.  Yosemite Valley was carved in a single ice age, a blink in the eye of geologic time. The soils that nurture most of the food we eat, that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, can be blown away in a few years of Dust Bowl winds.

imagesIn the middle of the last century, environmentalists railed against the building of the Glen Canyon dam, and eco-terrorists dreamt of blowing it away.  In 1983, heavy snowfall and rapid melting in the Rockies filled Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam, forcing release of water through emergency spillways, much like what is happening this week at Oroville Dam.  The spillway pipes started to erode.  There was nothing anyone could do to stop the erosion, so they let the water flow at record levels…the only way to hope to save the dam itself.  Luckily the rate of melting slowed, and the dam did not fail.  It could just as easily have turned out otherwise: the explosive release of trillions of gallons of water in an epic flood that would have wiped out cities, towns, and huge chunks of three states and Mexico.

Events like this will happen; it might be later this week at Oroville, or that dam might hold for centuries.  But ten thousand years?  Not a chance.  Things happen that are beyond our control, or at least beyond our ability to see and react in time.  We built an enormous dam we thought would last forever, but it is a relatively small spillway that can start a cascade of failure. For years, the weakness in the emergency spillway at Oroville has been noted…and ignored. We can blame that mistake on our government, but our government pays attention to the things that we tell them to. After the disaster we will point fingers and say that “they” should have known better. Well, we did know better, but we were not collectively paying enough attention to the touch-points of true disruptive change.

We THINK we are sweating the big stuff in our increasingly divisive socio-political landscape, but we are not. While we are fighting about building a wall (and I don’t for a second diminish the real human, social, and economic impacts such a wall would create), it is the Hurricane Katrinas and Sandys, the lost nuclear material, the Ebola outbreaks and Fukoshima-region tsunamis, the Oroville Dams, the melting Greenland ice caps that will mark the major disruptions in the human continuum.  We have the ability to significantly control many of them; we just choose to ignore them and hope they won’t happen.  But that is not the nature of change. It does happen. Reenforced concrete lasts a long time…until it doesn’t. That failure happens in an instant, but the lead-up to the failure is often something we see happening and choose to ignore.

That is the lesson I hope we learn from the pictures of the spillway at Oroville dam. Real disruption happens very quickly. We can often predict what will happen more accurately then when it will happen. But just hoping that real change will be slow and manageable, is really quite naïve.