Goals Merge Successful Learning With Innovation at Episcopal Academy

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Goals Merge Successful Learning With Innovation at Episcopal Academy

On this journey I want to visit schools of all kinds to find out what innovation means, and how it is, or is not, taking root.  Today’s post is about a school with more than 200 years of tradition, history, and success at fulfilling their mission.  Why would a school like that worry about innovation?  How does change happen and what are they doing to ensure ongoing success?  Are they largely standing pat on a great hand, or are they really setting up for significant change?  Read on.

Episcopal Academy was founded in 1785, and were located close in to the center of Philadelphia until moving about five years ago out to their beautiful new campus in Newtown Square.  Cathy Hall, Academic Dean, helped me to understand what innovation means to a school steeped in the rich traditions of Episcopal education.  They have been engaged in a long and deliberate, 5-7 year discussion with all of their stakeholders about what the dramatic changes in the world mean to them as educators.  They are asking fundamental questions like “what do we hold on to and what do we keep?”  I asked her why a school like this should change what they have done so well.  To paraphrase Cathy: “Fifty years ago, excellence in teaching meant ‘I know what I am doing in my classroom; leave me alone’.  Now it means being adaptive to new ideas, technologies, understanding of how the brain works, are in the context of a changing world.  We want to meet every student where they are and how they learn best, and we think that requires a really solid academic program combined with different teaching modalities”.

First the traditions and obstacles to change in a successful school like this:

  • Some teachers feel they are being pushed in the wrong way, and this can create morale issues.
  • Getting everyone on the same page, from board to admin to faculty takes time as there is no perfect crystal ball of what the future holds.
  • Pulling things off the table as new things are added threatens turf.
  • Distilling a lot of great ideas and discussions into a simple, concrete vision.
  • Ensuring the traditions of democratic faculty inputs are honored.
  • Traditional college prep programs like the AP’s have been successful, and success is a good reason to not change.
  • Time remains a real problem when it comes to faculty collaboration.

In summary of what Cathy and several others told me about the importance of tradition at EA, there is a strong sense among many stakeholders that “slow and thoughtful” is a very good pace of change here.  They made a radical move to their new campus, and are absorbing the many new opportunities for program that move created.  To be clear, I did not get the sense at all that there is any bulwark opposing educational innovation at EA.  I heard several times that this is a community very interested in meeting the needs of a changing world. EA supports, but does not “force feed” innovation in the classroom. In fact, as you read on, you will see that they have set in place some interesting and appropriate mechanisms that are working within their time frame to test just what innovation means.

A year or so ago, EA set up a faculty Innovation Committee (as I have noted often, does your school have something with this name and charge?) that is tasked with tracking and bringing together various threads of programmatic change.  They set up a tab on the school website where they describe and update these innovative bits and pieces (check it out for a full range of good ideas).  It turns out there were many nodes of change, and just getting all of those in one place really helps the community understand that change is, in fact, taking place. The Innovation Committee is discussing new initiatives like getting more faculty to take visits to other schools, and creating more partnerships off campus with community and alumni partners.

Many members of the faculty have taken training via Professional Learning Practices, and have brought that training back to EA. Part of the PLP program is to share out and grow the community knowledge base, primarily with the use of technology in the classroom.  The teachers who take the PLP training develop mini-sessions, and EA asked every member of the faculty to sit in on two 40-minute sessions offered by their colleagees to hear about new technology applications.  This is a powerful and inexpensive use of peer-to-peer professional development.

Middle School Head Steve Morris told me that his division is really trying to dial up collaborative experiences, and that many of these fit in with the strong Episcopal tradition of openly sharing ideas with the entire community.  He gave me examples from each of the three MS grade levels that combine so many of what we think of as critical skills, and all of which include strong elements of authentic reflection and public discourse:

  • The 6th grade took an existing unit on “understanding another country” and turned it into a student-directed multi-media exploration and presentation.  They are connecting live with people in the other countries and have expanded the time allocated to the unit.
  • In the 7th grade Earth Force program, students identify and research local needs based on sustainability.  They create ways to take their findings into their homes to create habits of conservation outside of school. Several of these projects have found their way into important all-school conversations, including construction of a green roof on one of the buildings, and improvements to the school’s recycling and composting programs.
  • 8th graders make a capstone project out of writing papers based on aspects and reflection of personal faith, founded in religion or lack thereof, and share those in public presentations.

Steve says that the Middle School is not as concerned about content drivers as they used to be.  They want students to connect and understand the importance of empathy by developing critical points of view that are more important and long-lasting than retention of any specifics of content.

I finished my day talking with Geoff Wagg, Head of the Upper School, an articulate and knowledgeable source on issues of innovation.  Geoff does training in educational innovation and is emphatic that innovation is about people, not gadgets or programs.  To paraphrase Geoff: “We need to engender in our faculty a culture of growth.  Failure and moving on from failure is a core ethic in business, but in schools trying things that might fail is not in our culture.”  I shot some great video of the interview with Geoff, which I don’t have time to edit and upload right now, but some of his other key points:

  • Technology has changed the way we work in schools, but the important point is that it has allowed us to piece information and processes together in new ways.  People need to learn they are free to make those connections.
  • If people shift their mindset to accept SOME innovation, they start to see it, including the use of transformative technology, as less of a threat.
  • The value proposition of schools involves yielding to technology that which it is more efficient at providing, and focusing resources on that which only a school can provide: the personal and social interactions that are crucial to developing the whole child

Geoff feels that EA is really changing more than many think.  More than 50% of their faculty worked over the summer on some kind of curriculum development, supported by small PD stipends. (That is an impressive demonstration of aligning resources with the idea of change.) This has created a “tilt towards innovation, while staying grounded in the school’s core traditions. Reinvention fatigue comes from constant innovation without grounding in traditions and something static.  That fatigue can cap how much excellence is really captured.”

I will end with one more quote from Geoff which sums up how I think EA is effectively tackling change:  “Good innovation avoids burn-out.  The goal is successful learning, not fast innovation.”

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