How are three school leaders and their respective schools staying at the leading edge of the innovation wave? How are they successfully transforming away from the assembly line model of “school”? I had a 90 minute video chat yesterday with Bo Adams of Mt. Vernon Presbyterian in Atlanta, Thomas Steele-Maley of the new GEMS World Academy in Chicago, and Steve Mouldey of Hobsonville Point Secondary in Auckland, New Zealand. Here are a few notes, and reasons to follow these three closely:
Bo reminded us of the work that has led him for the past decade. While helping to lead a project of new building design at the Westminster Schools, he realized that architects and builders use a system of design activities and visual tools to articulate and coordinate the dreams of stakeholders along with the pragmatic constraints of things like plumbing, structural engineering, and electricity. He asked “why don’t we do this kind of coordinated systems planning” for the core of our schools, the learning process? This has led to his advocacy for the creation of meta-teams of school stakeholders and the use of extensive, ongoing instructional rounds to collect and use data on just what is taking place in the classrooms, and how to align with all-school goals. Over the last year, the teams at Mt. Vernon have collected more than 350 observations from 24 educators on these rounds. One outcome that Bo shared is that leadership structures at the school may not be optimized to support their essential learning outcomes.
Steve told us that the new and growing Hobsonville Point Secondary has also developed teams that transcend traditional silos of department and subject. Their teams are tasked with developing and coordinating focal areas of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment, much like the “window teams” that I have started using in conjunction with The Miami Valley School, and the non-traditional governance structure we have built for Design 39 Campus. As a community Hobsonville Point has developed a basket of eight core sets of skills and concepts around which learning should take place. Within these framing areas, courses are co-developed on a negotiated basis with students in ways that meet student/teacher passions, the school’s core areas of focus, and national learning standards. Teachers do not actually develop a “class” until both teachers and students decide what they want to learn about. Steve said that they have recognized the key role of hiring the right people who can deal with this kind of rolling evolution and ambiguity…which we all agreed is vastly more like the world outside of school works.
Bo said that at Mt. Vernon they are trying to take the kind of learning that he and Jill Gough pioneered with their Synergy class several years ago up to scale. They have started to bust traditional silos; there are no department chairs in the Upper School as they build an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum assessment and courses of study. Last year they started a “negotiated” curriculum in the Upper School: students helped decide that learning would take place around the themes of genetically modified organisms in 9th and 10th grades, and land and water use in 11th and 12th grades.
Thomas is helping open the new GEMS World Academy, so they have a largely blank canvas on which to paint the structures they want for their faculty and students. They are interested in the kind of models we discussed: fewer subject-based silos; a large role for students in helping to decide and create the actual courses and curriculum; fewer requirements that students learn a certain packed of information each year; performance based assessments.
We talked about the difference between changing an existing school and opening a new school; about the silos teachers place themselves in by labeling their work by grade level or subject and how to change that language; about the tools to truly understand and work with community stakeholders.
Do any of these issues resonate with you? Connect with these three and others. Some of this work is “hard”; sometimes we think it is too hard and we turn away. But schools like these are making enormous strides and proving that in both public and private school settings, we CAN turn the aircraft carrier, and sometimes more quickly and nimbly than we have been told in the past.