Day 3: Innovation in Action at Colorado Academy

Day 3: Innovation in Action at Colorado Academy

Wow, what a way to start my three-month journey.  If you want to know how a school has made real progress at the process of re-inventing themselves to meet the challenges of the future, visit with the folks at Colorado Academy (CA). In this post I will try to summarize two main areas I learned about today at CA: how they have been successful at innovating an already outstanding academic program, and some of their specific classroom highlights. This is the longest post I have ever written, but if you are interested in specific examples and markers of successful innovation, read to the end.

Before I get too far into this, I want to mention that last spring CA held a very successful design thinking workshop for their own and visiting attendees from public and private schools.  They have two more opportunities on tap that others might want to take advantage of.  This December they will hold another design-thinking workshop, and in March 2013, they will host a major TED-X Denver program in conjunction with ACIS and Denver Public Schools to showcase ideas surrounding educational innovation.  Contact Bill Wolf-Tinsman at CA if you are interested.

CA is a highly respected, mid-sized, K-12 co-ed day school in the Denver area. Several years ago, new Head Mike Davis led the school through what has become a multi-year, systematic, thoughtful, strategic evaluation of how they could better serve their students for their own futures.  In our current short hand, they decided that they needed to become a truly 21st Century school. What I learned today at CA could fill an entire chapter, so I am going to have to just hit some high points here or I will be up all night.

By all accounts, this is a school that, through truly visionary leadership, overcame the natural fears of change and risk aversion.  Mike set a broad vision, and convened a serious of collaborative opportunities of teachers, trustees, and administrators to decide and validate major program shifts within their strategic planning process.    As Middle School Head Bill Wolf-Tinsman said, “Mike made it really clear that we really believe this; it is essential to who we are as a school.  We are moving from aspiration to implementation”. The parents and trustees I interviewed added these observations about how Mike has led the school towards what will, ultimately be some quiet significant program changes:

  • He never goes beyond a strong set of ethical boundaries
  • He is credible; he exposes the school to outside experts and knowledge base
  • He has brought a sense of urgency; these are things we need to do
  • He is willing to learn new skills himself
  • He balances a high level vision with singular focus to ensure implementation follows planning
  • He supports failure
  • He distributes authority to where it is needed for piloting and design

I asked the administrators, faculty, and parents about the keys of changing a school.  Their common themes: they have been persistent, relentless, and committed to making steady progress.  They have not thrown out everything they had done in the past.  For example, they have deleted some AP courses from the Upper School, but not all; they make these decisions based on how closely the particular course fits with the overall vision statement of CA.  They communicate massively about contemplated changes, both to their own faculty and to the larger parent community.  They recognize that not every decision will be without controversy, but they trust themselves as thoughtful educators, and their community has shown overwhelming support.

A key driver for CA has been to differentiate themselves from other schools in the area.  They take very seriously the discussion of value proposition: they ask what added value their program changes make in the eyes of their current and future clients.  The business side of program evolution is discussed broadly with the faculty so everyone “gets it” and can communicate why the school is investing in innovation at all grade levels.

Importantly, CA does not see the development of innovative 21C programs as something largely reserved for capstone courses or focused in the Upper School.  They believe that they can and are teaching dramatically re-focused curriculum at all grade levels, and that in the next few years they will see the results in the upper grades.

Over a three-year period they have:

  • Focused on professional development, including design thinking training. They have not increased the total resources allocated to professional development; they have focused existing time and budget to make sure PD efforts align revised curriculum with the core values of their mission.
  • Consistently communicated the core values of the school vision to the entire school community. They are relentless in reminding faculty, students, and parents about the goals of their program.  One example cited: when the Lower School started using a different approach in math, they held sessions for parents, led by the classroom teachers, to go through the new process.
  • Built from the inside out, using their own talented teaching staff, supported with PD resources. The teachers developed the major values of the vision, and are responsible for developing curriculum units and mapping them across the divisions.
  • Developed a culture of cross-divisional collaboration and mutual support. The principals reported that they each are very comfortable attending and speaking at each other’s faculty meetings and endorsing cross-divisional coordination and communication on new program development.

A few of the signature programs that CA has developed in-house are truly bright lights that would be of interest for any school interested in re-tooling age-appropriate learning experiences.  In 7th grade, they made room in the program for a yearlong Problem Solving class by taking out the traditional class in the history of the American West.  This class teaches a rich sequence of skills that are key to filtering and managing knowledge, and thinking systematically through problems and contrasting data sets.  In one unit they provide the students with large sets of data from surveys on character issues derived from real school settings. The students filter and use the data, and then develop programs to mitigate the weaknesses they find in exhibited student behaviors. Along the way, the students use their applied math skills in graphing and data interpretation. In another, the students have been hired by a Denver museum to interview visitors, find out what they think about some new exhibits, recommend design changes to the exhibits, and report back to the museum management.  Yep, that’s right; 7th graders!

In their new 9th grade class on Design Thinking, designer and teacher Paul Kim outlines the core method in his syllabus:

Using an inquiry-based model of learning, students will explore some of the ideas that inform the modern world and work toward solving a problem in a 21st century global context.  As they work toward this project, students will learn the design thinking process popularized at Stanford University and in business to develop more generative and expansive insight into human experience. 

Students recognize that iteration and prototyping yields stronger results than the old “write it and turn it in” approach.  At the end of the year, the students work in groups to design a city based on the themes that have driven human civilization, while using their design-thinking approach to problem solving.

And in the Lower School, the faculty are expected to all develop teaching units around the core ideas of a thinking laboratory.  Over the next few years, they will have re-structured their entire curriculum to focus on the development of contextual thinking rather than specific content.  For example, in a math class the students are invited to think like packaging engineers with the challenge of transporting and displaying toys at a large store during the holiday season.  Over time they learn the basics of computing “volume”, but there are no specific right and wrong designs to solve the problem.  They are learning by doing, not by sitting and listening.

A few additional keys to this program evolution:

  • Project-based learning is a tool, not a goal. Yes, the students conduct a lot of collaborative project work, but the key focus is on developing a mindset that discrete answers are not as critical as is the process by which we learn to address problems.
  • Introducing skill sets at the lowest grade levels is important to successful application of the skills in later years.
  • Some teachers will struggle with the conversion from how “they have always taught to how we want them to mentor and co-learn with students”.  Teams mentor and work with these teachers, and failure is not a huge negative; it is another step in an inevitable process.  But application of the new core goals in their classroom is part of the faculty assessment rubric.
  • The school is willing to sacrifice some material and content for new programs to evolve.  The schedule now includes a daily study hour to reduce the homework load, and homework free weekends.  If there is not enough time to teach both content and context, the later usually wins out.

How does CA know that it is working?  They use the CWRA tools, but those are mostly relevant to older grade levels, so CA has started developing their own set of similar tools for the lower grade levels.  It is not perfect yet, but it is a major start.

Thanks to Colorado Academy for hosting me and sharing with the rest of us. Good things cooking at CA!  There was much more, but I have to download video clear my emails, and get to bed; I have two more meetings tomorrow and expect just as much great input.

Disclaimer: I encountered a TON of great information today, and if I have misrepresented any of it here, the fault is mine!

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  1. Amanda Greenwald September 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this post. We are approaching a major innovative schedule change at our PK-12 independent school and are embarking on a similar path as you describe. The more resources we can find as to how other schools have approached these kinds of conversations with faculty, students, and the community the more helpful!

    • glichtman September 11, 2012 at 6:33 pm - Reply

      Thanks for following Amanda. Hopefully you can make lots of connections via this blog and my journey. If you want to talk about your needs outside of this comment field, you can always email me at Regards,

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