D-Thinking, Student-Teacher Collaboration Highlight Innovation at Woodward Academy

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D-Thinking, Student-Teacher Collaboration Highlight Innovation at Woodward Academy

We all know that turning an aircraft carrier is harder than turning a speedboat, but even large ships do turn, and they do so with someone calling the instructions, and a lot of critical pieces in the mechanics.  With 2,700 students, Woodward Academy is one of the largest independent schools in the United States, the largest I will visit on this trip, and clearly one of those aircraft carriers of education.  But with strong leadership, and a critical piece of mechanics named Shelley Paul, who the senior team respectfully and affectionately call “our chief irritant officer”, I can report on unique teacher-student co-learning, design thinking implementation, veteran teachers inventing new approaches to their trade, and more.  Read on!

My hosts in Atlanta seem committed to killing me with a fire-hose on full, and Shelley led off on Tuesday, running me around Woodward to meet with a number of faculty, student, and admin groups (for which I was rewarded with a wonderful Thai dinner with the group!)

Several years ago the school started a leadership-training program for selected faculty and administrators.  It is held internally but uses outside consultants, and takes cohorts of about 16 at a time through an intensive year-long program that has “inspired a lot of people to do things they would not have dreamed of.  It gives you a feeling of freedom and inspiration to try something new”.  A year or so ago a group of faculty came out of the program recognizing a lack of collaboration in the Upper School. There were a lot of good things going on, but the severity of their silos prevented most from knowing about, and leveraging, the good work.  So they created Woodward Academy Innovation in the Classroom, or WA, Inc., a voluntary group of faculty that meets once a month, and each teacher brings at least one student to the group.  In this inaugural year, they will address issues of pedagogy and practice, essentially as a teacher/student PLC.  Interestingly, the teachers who have joined have not been just those who might be labeled the most progressive. It is a broadly ranging group of divergent viewpoints, and the students are often the most vocal. From one of the faculty leaders: “We are all surrendering a little bit of control”.  As we will see, this authentic student-teacher collaboration is percolating rapidly at Woodward, and is a critical pilot for us to follow.

Like most schools, Woodward has had a long tradition of community service, but club-based projects had lost focus.  The school created a student-led Service Leadership Board that meets and decides how and where to address community needs.  They used design thinking to identify three strands in their decision process: define the importance of a need; understand how it fits with the school; understand the needs of the local community.  It has been hard to let go of legacy projects: Woodward is the largest single contributor to a local food pantry. At first the relevance of “just collecting cans of food” was questioned, but rather than letting go the project, now older students go to the Lower School to provide authentic learning and context, teaching the younger students about “how many cans it takes to make an elephant”.

We met with veteran 6th grade teacher Debbie Stephens, and those who think it is just the young who are nimble enough to make major shifts in their teaching should spend some time with Debbie.  Like any good student, I will shut up and just quote and paraphrase her great ideas:

  • “We need to learn from the outside world, from business models that show the impact of collaboration and managing ambiguity.  I have brought those to my teaching.”
  • “I started playing around with erecting a new environment for learning, with more project-focus, but it was still me in charge of the learning. Then I got into the mind of the children in terms of real discovery.  I started seeing how effectively the students could make connections without me in the way.”
  • “I got connected to other teachers via Google Reader and Twitter and knew I wanted to provide that level of connectivity for my students.”
  • “Students really struggle when they come into a situation where they have to develop their own learning.  So we focused on ‘how’ to learn and suffered through that before worrying about ‘what’ to learn.”
  • “We focus on empathy, and that is where they really engage.  Students realize that the decisions they make will have impacts far beyond themselves.  After that, they took real ownership, stopped looking at the teacher, and started looking at themselves.”

Debbie says that all of this has percolated up in many ways.  In reading and reflective writing the students articulate ideas of empathy and are much more comfortable expressing the views of others.  “They see that construction of the Sumerian water system did not just happen; it was the result of highly complex interactions amongst people of diverse views and needs.”

Shelley and others took over an unused classroom and turned it into a “beta version design lab”, with hopes that a next phase of construction on campus will include a new design lab space.  The room has multiple writing walls, a rack full of dry erase markers, sticky notes, and game-play pieces, and a wall of windows open to a well-frequented walkway.  I first heard about student-teacher paired design teams that are working on issues related to “building a stronger school community”.  The students told me how the process involves setting goals, interviews, analysis, ideating, mapping ideas, selecting priorities, and prototyping.  Right now they have four student-teacher teams competing in the challenge, each working from a different angle.  They highlighted the kind of creativity that is evolving, including an idea to start a “student-teacher speed dating opportunity”.  They define success as “building stronger relationships between students and teachers and becoming more comfortable with each other.”

Another group of students and faculty joined us in the design lab.  The Environmental Science classes are now working in the d-lab, learning the skills of d-thinking while focusing on sustainability issues around the school.  This group had identified and taken on the issue of disposable plastic eating utensils on campus and have built a prototype of a dispenser to reduce waste use of these utensils.  “We looked at the issue from the point of view of the user, who wants just one utensil but also wants to make sure it is clean.” They have talked with a major vendor of utensils about their prototype dispenser, and before we left, the students had enthusiastically  agreed to prepare and deliver an initial training in design thinking to members of the faculty. (For those who think PD has to always mean a lot of money, take note of this!)


Unique brushfires like these do not start and grow in a vacuum.  I met with the senior leadership team, including President Dr. Stuart Gulley and new Head Marcia Spiller.  Dr. Gulley has set a vision of Woodward establishing a “national model” for college preparatory schools that includes both strong academics and an increasingly strong component of civic engagement and leadership.  Dr. Gulley: “Good change is evolutionary; imposing a top-down solution would be a disaster.”  Ms. Spiller: “We are in the process of tying these threads together, including articulating the essential qualities of a graduate and aligning our faculty assessment practices with an even stronger program of PD to help all teachers through change.”  The team offered these keys to the process:

  • It is OK to start with innovation within a traditional model: PBL and classroom flipping are two such approaches that many more traditional schools have already engaged with relative ease.
  • Leading by example, not by use of positional authority.  Showing colleagues what is possible is a key pathway.
  • Modeling risk helps others to overcome the fear of risk and of making mistakes.
  • Student engagement is universally enhanced through the application of authentic assessment where the students know what is being measured, help design the assessment, and are more involved in the process than just taking a test.
  • Invite colleagues in to watch.

The team agreed that over a period of just several years there is vastly more conversation across silo boundaries and a more unified voice towards what differentiates Woodward’s value proposition.  There is an increased sense of both ownership of personal professional growth and that it is OK to “let go” to the students in the classroom.  “Student excitement is a great driver for getting us to change.”

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