Some organizations innovate because someone comes up with a brilliant idea. Some innovate because they are facing existential risk and failure to do so means closing the doors. At the venerable Marymount School just off Central Park in New York City, a wave of intentional and highly successful innovation started with a problem: “no space”. The first part of this post will be about process and filled with paraphrased quotes because I just can’t say it better than head Concepcion Alvar and her team. The second will be about some truly exciting new design thinking-type programs that are growing today out of the questions and process that have pervaded Marymount for the last several years. Innovators will want to read both parts!
The Marymount program has been innovative for many years, but led by Ms. Alvar, (who I only just met, but believe is probably a force of nature) the opportunity to acquire a new 42,000 sq ft building in Manhattan prompted them to ask, “How can we make a real transformation? How can we actually improve education for girls by replacing primarily content-driven curriculum? What do we replace it with?” As you will hear through my discussion with the senior leadership team, all of the factors of innovation—leadership, taking risks, questioning, right people, networking—have come together for Marymount to create an impressive engine of testing what a new learning experience can look like.
- “Marymount should be a showcase of a school that tries new things all the time.”
- “I gave one direction to faculty when they got their new technology: ‘play’. We are giving you a tool; take it as far as you want”.
- “With adults, new things can be scary, but that is OK.”
- “Innovation here is pointed toward developing a mindset, not a specific outcome.”
- “We are trying to disassociate kids’ self worth from SAT scores and college acceptances.”
Concepcion admitted that big conversations like these can polarize a community, but “traditional teaching is killing the joy of learning. Academic leadership is steeped in asking questions, some of which may not appeal to parents”, but that did not stop this dynamic leader and her team from asking them. Over the last 6-7 years they have given their faculty time, space, and resources to imagine how they might use their new building, and to create options and opportunities for their students that just did not exist before.
According to both Concepcion and her team, she pushed: “Use the new space; maybe not every day or every minute at first but use it.” As a school they changed the length of the school day, where the girls arrive in the morning, and solved the transportation logistics. (More on program details later.) As they opened their mind to the new use of space, it allowed them to embrace other new ideas that aligned with their desire to provide a truly experiential 21C program. The joined the Online School for Girls. They developed new partnerships outside of the school to allow girls to pursue their individual passions. They are fully integrating new technology into all their classrooms. They are replacing the AP’s, not all at once but as they develop new courses with deeper context. “We want to educate the girls to question and grow. We need to model this behavior ourselves for the students.” I was so impressed by the willingness of this group to ask hard questions, and go where the answers lead.
Concepcion has pushed faculty to be leaders, and then teach their colleagues what is possible. They did not take a picture made in whole cloth from anyone else; they are painting their own as they go. Concepcion: “We’re moving. Don’t ask me what we will find at the end of the road, but we are moving.” All of this came with some tension. Faculty asked for a clear vision and Concepcion told them the truth: “I don’t have all the pieces in front of me, but we have enough to start.” A few faculty could not buy in to this, and there were a small number of respectful separations. The leadership team communicated with parents in overdrive, and the vast majority of their parents see the wisdom and the inevitability of changing the nature of K-12 curriculum. The admin team pushed back at Concepcion, sometimes pushing back hard. Concepcion credits those hard discussions with creating more success. “I grew as a leader because I was seriously questioned by all of these very smart people.”
- “We were not looking for another school that had “done it”. But this is also nothing completely new. Recognize it, claim it, name it.” (How is that for a great summary of how to change a school!)
- “If it works, great; if not we will change it.”
- “This is our professional challenge. If you do the same thing year after year, you should not be teaching.”
Kim Field-Marvin took me by cab the dozen or so blocks uptown to the new building, which was renovated over a summer from a deserted ex-school. It has a gym, a cafeteria, and some classrooms, but what is really going to start to sing for Marymount are the creative and flexible lab-type spaces. Some are dedicated spacious new science labs for the Upper School. Others are nodes of creative space that teachers and students are just beginning to figure out how to use. The students get unassigned time to just be in these spaces and be creative. There is faculty oversight but there are no specific outcomes. The process is the outcome. There is the School of Rock room, full of instruments and recording equipment. There is the Media lab with cameras, green screens, and editing computers. There is a dance studio, and in the speech class the teacher is incorporating video technology to combine the confidence of oral communication with the leverage of persuasive videography. There are flex spaces with big video screens and comfortable furniture and art on the walls where the girls can hang out. The space will evolve over time as the students and faculty together get creative.
The flagship of the new building is the design lab that is a catalyst for both classwork and just pure “play”. We visited a 6th grade graphic and material design class where the girls were creating art on computers, which could then be routed upstairs to the Fab Lab, house of a 3D printer and laser tools. Last year they designed toothbrushes, and then brought the brushes to life in the Fab Lab. I saw them on a shelf; some were funny and impractical; others looked like really good ideas. All were completely original. The Fab Lab is a Skunk Works, a place to bench test circuits and build prototypes. It is the up-to-date version of a lab I built at Francis Parker School, which has now become the foundation of an award-winning robotics team. Five years from now, the Marymount Fab Lab is going to be the messiest, most creative place on both of their campuses.
Creativity needs space, but space does not guarantee creativity. It needs a whole suite of nutrients, and those are present at Marymount. There are a thousand reasons why forward-thinking learning did not have to blossom at Marymount, and the leaders could have used any of them. They chose the hard path because they know we need to teach our students differently now than in the past. Yes, getting a new building was a key, but this group would have found that new building sooner or later in order to house their spirit as inspirational educators.