St. Christopher’s School is a K12 boys school in Richmond, VA. They celebrated their centennial last year, have strong admissions demand, and are considered in the top tier of schools in the Richmond market. So why does a school like St. Christopher’s embark on a path of innovation to change what and how they teach? Why fix something that clearly is not broken?
Because they have thoughtful leaders with as much of an eye on the future as they do on today. Head Charley Stillwell asked me to come speak to his board during their annual retreat. Charley had talked to Pat Bassett about getting input for his board on trends in innovation and pedagogy around the country; Pat suggested he give me a call based on the reporting I am doing from my EdJourney last fall to visit 64 schools around the country. Not only did I get to speak with the board, but also I got to spend the entire morning meeting with members of the talented, thoughtful, and forward-looking faculty and staff who will implement what the school is calling their 2nd Century Vision. (But before I go on, I just have to tell you this: the afternoon board session opened with Pat Bassett calling in via video teleconference from this vacation in Boulder, CO. My resume may never be further aggrandized than on the day that Pat Bassett “opened” for me!)
What better way to start a school day than with a few quiet minutes of reflection at morning chapel? Many schools don’t do this, of course, and I am not a regular churchgoer myself. But finding time in the busy school day to be quiet and share a few minutes of community reminds us that we make choices about how we allocate that most precious resource: time. St. Christopher’s is a high-powered college prep school with all the attendant pressures on the daily schedule. Yet they manage to carve out up to two hours a week for morning reflection time. Can you find time in your schedule for something that is a truly high priority?
Charley and his team have been through the discussions of what constitutes the essential qualities of a St. Chris graduate. They know what their core values are. They see the major changes taking place in the world around them and know they have a fiduciary responsibility to the school, and a moral obligation to the students, to not stand pat on a winning hand. They have embarked on intentional discussions of what they feel are innovations to prepare their boys for a future that is fluid and changing. Over the last few years they have become increasingly embedded in the Richmond community, working with the University of Richmond to create student internship opportunities; hosting a remarkable speaker series with presentations for the likes of Colin Powell and Google CEO Eric Schmidt; and starting a winter X-term program with overseas travel opportunities for the Upper School. They have crossed over the threshold on technology integration by going fully 1:1 and adopting the idea that technology in schools is as much a part of the natural learning environment as air and paper. And I love this one: at a faculty meeting recently, rather than the old sit-and-get, Charley had the teachers jump into this exercise: if you were in an elevator in New York City and had to tell someone else in the elevator what is special about our school and why they should send their child here, what would that be? What a marvelous way to engage the teachers, in a very tangible way, in the discussion of the school’s organizational value proposition!
The discussions I found fascinating today were about that critical middle ground of innovation, the systems level, and the fact that the faculty and staff I met with were talking at this level is credit to them and their board. Here is what I mean. It is one thing to agree on a vision. What happens next? At many, perhaps even most of both the private and public schools I visited, at least some group of teachers are eager to “get going”, to pilot new programs and try out new curriculum or pedagogy. St. Chris has a strong group of those teachers. Another group of faculty are willing, and in many cases eager, to meet with curriculum coordinators, academic deans, Chief Innovation Officers, principals, and others tasked with implementing innovative practices, but they are busy and tired and really want to just be told what to do. For this group, checking the box is important. They want to do what the school asks of them, but they really don’t have a clear idea why. This is a critical group to bring along on the innovation pathway, so we talked about how to do that.
If a school organization asks people to implement classroom tactics aligned with a vision of innovation, asks people to do things differently than they have in the past, the school needs to provide three things: a clear, overarching articulation of how these changes en toto support the vision; a picture of what innovation looks like; and the time and resources to learn the new skills they require. The second two are a matter of resource alignment: spend some money and send people out in to the world to see what analogs are working for other schools. The first issue requires a critical step in planning between the vision statement and the classroom tactics. The school needs to make sure that their systems are compatible with the new pedagogy.
What do I mean by this? Here is an example. If a school wants to have a more global curriculum, they can open opportunities for students to travel abroad, and check that box. A systems-level approach would look at the school wide support of the new program: are the other divisions involved; do all students have financial access to the program; is global learning embedded in subject-area courses; do many faculty have the opportunity to travel with the students and learn alongside them; what are the long term financial implications and opportunities to communicate the added value of the program to the larger community? When a school looks at a program change in insolation, they are nibbling at the edge of the cookie. When they map out the supporting systems of a different learning experience, they are building a thoughtful, intentional model that will sustain change over a long period of time. After just a day at St. Christopher, it is pretty clear they don’t intend to nibble the cookie.
Those of you who follow this blog know that I think others are thinking on these same lines, particularly Bo Adams at Unboundary, with their Pedagogical Master Plan approach. As Bo has said, we spend lots of school treasure master planning things like campus facilities, capital campaigns, and marketing and branding. We need to take a similarly holistic, system-wide approach to mapping out what, for many of us, is a new and evolving pedagogy. It is a big task, and it is not just happening in private schools. I met this week with the Director of Instructional Support for a 35,000 student unified district in California, and they are tackling the exact same issues at exactly this systems level.
I presented a summary of my trip findings to the St. Chris board, and the questions and discussion were lively and thoughtful. How do we assess? How do we understand the cost implications? How can we support the educators? There did not seem to be much dissonance on one point: the world is changing whether we in schools like it or not, and great schools recognize and deal with those changes, even when the near term picture is as rosy and all dashboard indicators are green.