At the risk of being redundant for those who have read my blogs in the last week…wow. I visited the Barstow School in Kansas City for five hours yesterday, and I feel this is a school bent on regional, national, and even international leadership. If you have interest in global initiatives, technology, or hybrid/blended learning, read on. And if you want to know how to work the critical discussion of value proposition into your all-community mindset, definitely read on.
How does Barstow view innovation? “We are dancing as fast as we can”, says Middle School Head Kate Bradley. And then Upper School Head Liz Bartow led me trough one of their truly signature programs, a highly intentional launch into global experience and learning started by Head of School Shane Foster. For several years they have had Chinese students studying full time at Barstow, and now they have established bilateral relationships in China so their students can study abroad for a semester or a year. They also have introduced overseas faculty exchanges, an enormous opportunity for their faculty to work overseas and bring back diverse perspectives, as well as to invite foreign faculty to teach at Barstow. In both the global programs and their extensive student-centered service learning projects, Liz says they are asking students, “Is this outside of your comfort zone? How is this going to change you?”
Student-input is also present in their Upper School curriculum, as they have introduced student-requested courses in the History of Africa Through Film and a freshman seminar in Ethics and Leadership, where topics are student-generated. Their service-learning program had more than 35 student-generated and connected partner organizations involved last year.
One of my most impressive conversations at Barstow was with Sarah Hofstra, Director of Hybrid Learning. (How many of you have someone with THAT title at your school?) Sarah used to teach Lower School but then got a distance learning master’s degree from Michigan State and Shane has given her full reign to design and implement a truly impressive distance and hybrid learning program. The goals of the program: offer fully online courses; increase collaboration with distant partners (including universities and industry); increase flexibility in the daily schedule; increase course opportunities; prepare students in the middle and lower schools to become familiar with the blended learning model.
“Yes, we are designing the plane while flying”, says Sarah, but easily convinces me that this is not only possible, but right. They looked at buying into a number of the services and consortia offering blended programs, but felt they wanted something uniquely Barstow. In the Upper School they have started to offer teacher-developed credit electives, and it is happening in almost real time. Last summer they had training in online course development; courses were built by spring; and this fall they launched. Sarah says she has full support from Shane in that they don’t know how it will turn out, but that is not stopping them from moving forward. Their vision is that in the not-distant future, students will be moving seamlessly through a mix of traditional and online or blended courses, Barstow will have linked-in partners around the world, and they will have preserved those important personal contacts between student and teachers as the tailored courses are all overseen by a teacher on campus. They believe this bold foray into the evolving-known is another program that sets Barstow apart from other options in the market.
A last great idea from Sarah (paraphrased): “I think educators, and maybe even Americans in general, have a hard time letting go of the ownership of anything, including knowledge. In the future, we are going to increasingly share knowledge because it benefits all who participate. It will not be about “my” course, but a much more fluid exchange.” This understanding is completely aligned with my ideas of the cognitosphere, that seamless neural network that creates and manages knowledge; I think the leaders at Barstow agree that is the future in which our students will be working, and we have to prepare them for it, even if we don’t know exactly what it will look like.
I met with Scott Daniel, their IT Director. Barstow started looking at 1:1 back in the 1990’s, so they have a long history of classroom technology integration. Now they have iPads in the Lower School, 1:1 tablets in the Middle School, and are BYOD in the Upper School. Scott feels that teachers who initially shy away from changing their teaching styles often see the direct link between technology and PBL, which most teachers view as a good idea. Once they begin to adopt use of technology in the classroom, second and “nth” generation updates are much easier. Their experience with students mirrors what we have seen at other schools: the students know and can adapt almost instantly to any new technology; technology use is an issue of adult adaptation cycles. Support from the top is critical in getting teachers to step away from the front of the class and use new tools to re-form the traditional student-teacher relationship. Scott credits Shane and the board with providing that support. They hired an Emmy-winning digital literacy specialist and now have digital journalism and student-managed live-streaming school events through their website. As Scott puts it, technology has just added an enormous knowledge base for teachers to leverage. “Our role as teacher is to get students excited: look at the world and ask “why”. Now we have an immense number of tools to stimulate those discussions”, and teachers are just beginning to scratch the surface of those resources.
These and other innovative initiatives at Barstow are happening within an important context. Shane has told his faculty that they have to clearly define how Barstow is different. This is the value proposition discussion that I have been writing and talking so much about, the critical descendant of traditional strategic planning. Kansas City has a competitive school market, including both strong public and private options, so Shane and Assistant Head Judith Yount are getting faculty and staff to learn to “crow about their success”. This discussion has some important aspects: it identifies how the school is different at all three divisions relative to the market; it creates community-wide discussions that break down silos; it forces a dialogue that creates the opportunity for understanding the context of the whole school, by all members.
Like any thoughtful group, the leaders at Barstow identify obstacles to their trajectory as well. Many of these are common to other successful independent schools and to other schools in general, but I will note some here as a reminder:
- Concerns that increasing use of social media amongst students is keeping them from being “in the present” at school.
- Trust from parents that, even though the school uses a great deal of technology, “unplugging” students is also OK.
- Concern amongst the parent body that any move away from traditional curricula like AP’s may hamper college admissions.
- “We have been on an island. We don’t know another way.” Like many schools, they feel they have been more inward than outward looking and need to investigate a broader set of possibilities.
- Fear of distance learning amongst some faculty; “We are the experts; is this a threat to what we do best?”
Clearly, Barstow is tackling these obstacles head on. Judith told me that the push for globalism is not natural to their core community, but Shane and others have rallied the community in support of the idea that they can’t continue past success if they do not look outside themselves. Today and in the future that “outside” includes a very broad world of both experience and knowledge that is now accessible to those who dare to access it. Change like this is hard, Judith says, but the steps they are taking will expose the community to these broader perspectives over time. Faculty who teach abroad, for example, will report back to those who may not be comfortable right now with the concept. Those who pioneer distance learning courses will mentor those who are wary today. To paraphrase Judith, “Five to seven years from now the school community will look back and think that this was not a big deal, but the school will have really changed.”
Thanks again to the outstanding team at Barstow for this informative visit, and we will continue to watch them as they lead on these important fronts of 21C education.