School innovation is exciting. Passionate teachers work together on creative new ideas, imagine, test pilots, fail, tweak, and connect with each other and their students in new ways. It creates a buzz and energy at the school, infectious to colleagues, students, and outward to parents and the community. Many of the schools I have visited over the past two weeks are in this phase of innovation. Others have been grounded in what we now call 21C pedagogy for so long that they already model what more traditional schools want to be. But there is another, very critical layer to innovation, and that is what this post is about. That layer is what I call the time of heavy lifting, of building the solid foundation upon which a relatively higher frequency of change and innovation becomes comfortable and a good overall fit for the organization. I know about heavy lifting; Francis Parker School, where I have spent 14 years, was in that phase for most of my tenure, and I was at the center of most of those elements of foundation building. Sometimes it is not as visible as the exciting examples of classroom innovation we have been sharing the past two weeks, but it is completely critical to long-term sustainability.
If you are an administrator who has to worry about creating the basis for innovation, read on. If you are a teacher who wants to know how your creativity will truly take root at an institutional level, read on. Towards the end of the post I also report on some great bright lights in arts, science, and a unique two-year course in Philosophy of Knowing.
Park Tudor School in Indianapolis is a large, highly respected independent K-12 with a campus of stone buildings and filled with energetic, talented, college-bound students. Nervous parents worry that if their student does not get in to PT at age four, their future is in danger. By all or most measures, this is a successful school with a comfortable future. Why innovate?
Second year head Matthew Miller knows that the world does not stand still, even for those with a history of success. He is one of a breed of bright, young, dynamic, energetic, and highly engaging leaders who understand that the world is changing at a dramatic rate, and that in order to meet our missions in the future, we need to make some changes now. Matt asked me to visit a number of classes, talk informally with many faculty, and just walk the halls and observe and reflect with him at the end of a full day. There are bright lights of innovation at PT, but my main takeaways are the degree of really heavy lifting that is going on to intentionally set PT up for an incredibly bright and innovative future.
When Matt came to PT, he brought in Peter Kraft as Associate Head for Academic Affairs, essentially an executive officer to handle day-to-day academic issues. Peter formed an Academic Affairs Committee of department chairs and has created a very strong faculty body that meets frequently and tackles meaningful work throughout the school year. I won’t go in to details; many of you know the power of a group like this if it has a clear mission, and this one does. It is utterly critical to a foundation of change. PT now has their faculty organized in a way to validate and support innovation at the classroom level.
Having someone like Peter to manage so much of the work of the faculty, Matt has been freed up to work at a very institutional level. Schools like PT operate like a small school district or college. I have argued for some time that the head of such a school needs to look a lot more like the president of a small university, than the principal of an old-time school. Matt is really putting this model to work. He estimates that he spends 50% of his time with an external focus, with community outreach, parents, board, fundraising, and the like. He can do this because he has Peter, and the two work hand in glove. It is working. PT has raised a lot of money in the last year; Matt has orchestrated the acquisition of a parcel of adjacent land, which is critical to their future vision; and admissions demand is at an all time high. Those represent three more critical pieces of heavy lifting that will result in long-term sustainability for the school. What was fabulous to see, was that, as I walked around campus with Matt, he chatted up more students than I could count, knew them by name and interest, and they knew him. Many heads say they are going to spend 50% of their time raising money and helping with admissions, but they don’t. They can’t stand being away from their first love, the teachers and kids. Matt has figured out how to do both.
Now for the real heavy lifting to come. Over the next year or so, PT is going to complete a strategic plan, a facilities master plan, an accreditation review, and a facilities audit. That means a ton of committee meetings, organization, talk, and paperwork. Few people who commit their careers to education enjoy a year with those demands on top of the real work of teaching. But Matt and his board know that this is the kind of foundation building that needs to be done. It gets the organization on a common page, with common goals and time lines. Heavy lifting like this, for those who think in quasi-scientific terms, is “low frequency, high amplitude”. That means it does not happen often, but it has enormous impact. Once completed, it allows for “high frequency, low amplitude” innovation, the kind that happens all the time and is no longer viewed as radical or disruptive. The key is that this is the right work for PT at this point in their history and vision cycle, and they have the right leadership in place, both at the top and in the leadership team, to gain real traction.
I can’t leave PT without mentioning some of the real bright lights I saw in the classrooms, the kind of organic innovation that will spread rapidly as the organizational structure adapts to support them:
Heather Teets teaches graphic design. She is working on an idea to connect digital graphics through data visualization with the science department. She sees real opportunity for cross-department program development that will improve student outcomes as they find new ways to visualize and use data from science classes. She also plans to work with the administration to use the techniques they develop to help improve how faculty understands the school finances.
Jan Guffin had retired as a long-tenured high school teacher when he came back to Park Tudor to develop his Philosophies of Knowing class within the PT Global Scholars program. The course evolves over two years with the goal of developing students as self-directed learners who understand the power of a complete liberal arts background, outside of what Jan calls “constrained scholarship”. Jan believes that “we dance around the idea of true scholarship at our schools. Students can figure out how to achieve and excel, but real scholarship is messier, it values vulnerability, even failure. Our goals should be to get students to be comfortable with who they are not as well as who they are”.
Scott McDougall is the new chair of the science department (departments at PT include faculty from both Upper and Middle Schools, and also some teachers from the Lower School), and I sat in his 9th grade biology class as he used iPads on the floor to lay out and maneuver elements of a food web. Scott and his team have plans to dramatically increase the elective offerings for high school students, as they are looking at courses in organic chemistry for post-AP students, microbiology, and possibly a bioinformatics/genetics class. They have just launched a robotics team and anticipate growing that into a class as well. They want options that are less rigid than the AP’s and offer students real lab opportunities before going off to college (like we heard from Culver Academies last week). They are looking to a future that will weave into the strategic plan and campus master plan as they envision how new facilities and new courses will revolutionize how and what they teach.
As always, I am leaving more notes on my yellow pad than I can possibly capture here, but each school has a unique story to tell, and I think the story of Park Tudor is the foundational work they are doing. They have a lot of really good people who are growing ideas and programs that will keep their teaching up with the changes around us. The heavy lifting that Matt is orchestrating will build a long-term scaffold for success, within which, classroom innovation will increasingly take the front of the stage.