There are two reasons that organizations change: because they have to or because they want to. Proactive change from a position of strength is always preferable to reactive change at time of stress. I really enjoy working with schools that recognize the need to change and engage the process, even though some in their community may well ask “why mess with a good thing?”
St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Florida is a beautiful school on 80+ acres, with an excellent reputation and, by all indications, strong admissions demand. Their community has good reason to be satisfied with the school’s past success. And yet head of school Pete Benedict and Asst. Head Philip Cork asked me to come in order to help provoke their burgeoning discussion about the changes in the external world and how their school might best serve their students looking into the future.
I don’t enjoy the morning keynotes at an event like this as much as I do the interactive sessions. I have heard myself give substantially the same talk so many times that it is hard to believe it is new for others. But soon we were in a packed meeting room with eight full tables of faculty and staff ready to think and work together in ways that are, unfortunately rare, even in well-resourced independent schools.
We held three 75-minute sessions devoted to:
- Busting silos and working across boundaries
- Building capacity and opportunities for distributed leadership and taking risks
- Re-imagining the use of time and space and building opportunities for student-owned learning
These were loud, fast-paced, generative workshops! The faculty at St. Andrews are creative and ready to use that creativity to work with their students in ways that, frankly, are probably a bit scary to some of them. In each session we papered the walls with “what if” questions and idea matrices. The table groups rapidly ideated, created, and pitched new pilot programs, including
- An annual FLOP conference of educational failures.
- Half day every week devoted to passion learning
- Three months a year of study abroad for teachers and students.
- “Zero teaching”: what if teachers came into the classroom and just did not talk until the students led the discussion?
And so much more (I am sitting in an airport vexing at late planes and can’t remember all of the great pilot pitches we heard). The great news: staff were photo-archiving all of the posted work, video-taping the idea pitches, and making plans to type up every idea on every post it note.
Where does a school go from here? I repeatedly come back to the vision of Bo Adams who identified that schools need to create a “pedagogical master plan” before they launch into plans for the creation and use of time, space and other resources. When we launch into those other plans before we understand our vision of learning for the future, we do so from within a framework of our legacy assumptions: we don’t know what we don’t know. I admitted to the St. Andrew’s team today: when I was at Francis Parker School, we spent $70 million on new and renovated buildings, won a bunch of architectural awards…and in hindsight did it wrong. Traditional spaces, time schedules, and subject boundaries are the traps we fall into when we don’t have a true vision of what they are for and how they might be used. We need that vision first, then a set of learning blueprints…and then we can start matching time, space, people, and budget to our best and highest purposes. This is a classic horse-and-cart problem, and schools have been putting the cart out front for too long.
I loved the energy at St. Andrew’s, and the clear leadership I heard coming from Pete that teachers, staff, and students need to grab the mantle of risk-taker and active learners. All of the pieces are in place. This is another school, like so many others I have visited and reported on, that may engage their community in innovative change, not because they need to, but because they know it is the right thing to do.