Time and Place Lead Passion for Innovation at Hawken School

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Time and Place Lead Passion for Innovation at Hawken School

The only resources that schools have are money, time, people, space, and knowledge.  Schools are constructed around the units of time, subject, age, and achievement.  It is critical to understand that the one common element of what we need to function and how we are organized is time.  This post is about a lot of things, but mostly it is about time.

I spent an entire day at the Hawken School, a prestigious preK-12 in Cleveland, and I learned a million things.  The main points I will touch on are the use of time, attention to mission, how place and program influence innovation, and courage to go big.  If these interest you (and they should if you are serious about innovation in education), read on.  Hawken is getting a ton of things right, and while I won’t be able to reprise every moment of my visit, there is something here for just about everyone.

Some background: Scott Looney has been head of school for five years.  Soon after he arrived he asked the faculty to look at their use of time and advise him on how well that aligned with what they were trying to achieve in their teaching.  He got a lot of feedback.  At the end of a year he came back to the faculty and pointed out that the use of time in the Upper School did not align with what they said they wanted to achieve.  He also told them that going forward the school would be more deeply embedded in the Cleveland community.  Then he asked the faculty to create a schedule for the Upper School that would align the use of time with these core aspects of self-defined mission.  They had three years to get it done; there were no other options.

I have told this story many times and I won’t reprise every detail here.  The summary is that Hawken now has a remarkable Upper School schedule that includes large blocks of time for “normal” or so-called “rotation” classes, as well as two three-week “intensive blocks” where the students take just one class in the three weeks.  At a high level, this did a couple of mission critical things: it allowed for Hawken to open and use a new downtown campus location (more on that later), and aligned with a 1:1 tablet program, as students spending more time off the regular campus need mobile computing connections.  At the program level it has created an explosion of creative thinking and practical innovation that, I believe, makes Hawken one of the most self-evolving school organizations I have seen.

In speaking to a group of faculty, they cited the following:

  • They take an overall view of program that is tightly based on their mission. Beyond that, people are encouraged and expected to create new ways to use the time and places the school has set up.
  • At the outset of the schedule discussion they took what they were doing before, and poured that into the new schedule.  That worked for some courses, but most courses needed a good re-thinking.
  • Then they broke away and started designing classes that take advantage of larger, more continuous blocks of time, and of the new downtown location and proximity to new experiences for the students.
  • Some people and departments did not change quickly; they needed models to follow. Leaders did not force a radical shift, and used mentors and teacher pairs to explore new trials.  Some courses were piloted over the summer to see how they would work in different time formats.
  • There is an overall feeling that Hawken will look very different 10 years from now.
  • Re-thinking course development has caused them to re-think the use of time at home as well, i.e. the distribution of homework in relation to different types of course blocks.
  • By teaching the same class in different time-use formats, they can look at strengths of these options and select the one that is best for learning outcomes.
  • Failure is expected and supported by the leadership, as long as the intention is with the best interests of the school.
  • The intensive courses allow better student-teacher bonding, much as we know happens on long trips together.
  • They waste less time in transitions, and there is less dead time during the year around vacations and holidays.

I met with some folks from the Middle School, including Director Matthew Young who said that the faculty had developed a “100% understanding of the commitment of Hawken to innovation”.  Matthew credited Scott with providing “both license and direction for innovation, and for being consistent in his requirement that we move to embrace these over-arching goals of forward thinking and increasing our presence in the Cleveland community”.  Scott also called the school back to the roots of their founder, James Hawken, who was a disciple of John Dewey.  According to Matthew, by the time Scott arrived in the mid-2000’s, the Middle School faculty had been involved in a deep discussion of what good teaching looked like, and were therefore primed for some substantial changes.  They have developed a more flexible, team-based teaching approach.  They use the mission as an overall guide, break out time blocks to each grade level, and then it is almost completely up to the grade level teaching teams to decide how to use that time in ways that align with the mission. He pointed out that this gives both ownership and responsibility to the faculty; they have to own the decisions, and they become the chief problem-solvers while the principal largely facilitates program discussions.

Both faculty groups pointed out obstacles, the ones they have overcome and ones they still are addressing:

  • Increased risk as students are off campus more, and the need to communicate those risks effectively to the parents.
  • Maintaining innovation at a high pace.  (As I will note later, Scott insists that major change comes in chunks, with three-year gaps to tweak and adjust before the next major iteration.)
  • Developing trust at the outset of a major innovation, particularly the idea that failure is OK.  The key is to ensure that every voice is heard as innovations are developed and piloted.

Inevitably, some members of the faculty do not like the results of innovation. Scott has made it clear that those who would be more comfortable elsewhere will be celebrated for their tenure, but if they cannot buy into the concept of ongoing innovation, they should not be at Hawken.  The one other thing that Scott will not abide: an employee who snipes with criticism without offering alternative positive ideas.  As one administrator put it, they have been making both “smart hires and smart attrition”.

Before I describe some of the truly incredible bright lights of their program, I must finish off this discussion of the process of innovation and time use with some summary comments from both Scott and Associate Head Doris Korda.  Doris emphasized that they have developed a laser focus on mission, which is forward and outward thinking, and therefore requires innovation.  Every time she feels they start to bog down, she tries to bring them back to that tight attention to their core mission.  Scott highlighted that he tries to be fair to his faculty, to foreshadow, sometimes for years, what lies ahead, so people can both participate and also make good decisions for their own careers.  Innovation is going to happen since it is in the mission statement, so the school is going to end up with people who want that to be part of their style of education.  He also said that they are very good at reactive communication when something inevitably goes awry.  “You can’t let the 5% of the people who want to complain offset the 95% who think what you are doing is great”.  As I mentioned earlier, Scott built in a 3-year window of “no complaints about the new schedule in the Upper School” to allow the faculty to tweak without feeling the pressure to do so in response to managing from the sidelines.

Some of Hawken’s other specific program innovation, and then I will wrap up with the overall takeaway:

The Gries Center for Experiential and Service Learning at University Circle is an old home they have converted as their third campus.  It sits on a shady street within a few blocks of Case Western Reserve, the University Medical Center, a burgeoning high-tech business community, all of the main city museums, and “about 200 of the regions largest non-profits offices”.  It also sits a few blocks away from some fairly impoverished neighborhoods. The goal for the center is for all of their students to develop an interest in themselves and in the world, to break away from the constraining habits of a traditional educational model. All grades use the seven converted classrooms and grounds, but really it is a home base for working in the community, from urban design classes, to service projects, to work with professional artists and musicians.  Upper School intensives are based here, so students have immediate access to the community they are studying or working in.  I won’t try to mention the range of programs they are hosting out of the Gries Center, because they are inventing new uses all the time.  Corporate and non-profit partners are lining up to work with the students.  They are exploring neighborhoods and relationships in student-designed projects that they just never could create if they had stayed in their suburban location. And, since even Lower School students are using the campus as a jumping off spot, by the time students get to the Upper School and are doing independent intensive projects, they are highly familiar with the neighborhood and partners.   As Doris said, being involved with the Center “feels like the cowboy days of the software business”.  My takeaway from my visit at the Gries Center: it has created a renaissance of creative thinking amongst the entire Hawken community.  In tandem with the revised use of time, they are re-imagining what learning can really be.

I also spent time with the early childhood education group, and there were two big takeaways, and interested parties should pursue both of these directly with Brad Gill or Mary Beth Hilborn.

  • They have developed and are tweaking a novel scaffold of skill expectations at each grade level and subject.  They want to track how students are progressing up the ladder of skill attainment, and are building a system for gathering and accessing digital inputs that will support a formative assessment over time.  Contact them for more details as this is not my area of expertise, but it is crystal clear that the lower grade levels are highly and intentionally aligned with the overall mission goals of the school.
  • They have developed a truly INCREDIBLE space for their early childhood students.  I tried to take pictures of it all, but it is just hard to capture how warm, comfortable, spacious, and engaging the spaces are.  Classrooms open up to an enormous indoor multi-use area that looks like something out of Candyland, and has marvelous areas for art, science, building, and play. There is even a bench in front of a glassed-in waterfall with real water noise for reflection and calm.  If you are thinking of designing a new place for young kids, check out Hawken.

In the Upper School they will roll out a semester class in entrepreneurialism, much like what I reported on from Culver Academies last week (I suggested they get in touch).  This will be taught at the Gries Center downtown in order to connect with the business community. It will be an interdisciplinary course that includes aspects of economics, social studies, and writing.  The definition of success of the instructor: “if the students fail many, many times and keep getting back up to try again”.

I need to go to bed.  Thanks to all the many folks who talked to me today at Hawken; sorry that I left some of your comments out, but you overwhelmed me with great stuff!  Here are my major takeaways from Hawken, and I think they are important for any school, but most importantly for those where leaders are being really cautious about making changes for fear of upsetting faculty or parents.  First, with clarity, inclusion, and adequate preparation, our organizations can withstand a lot more change than we think. As Scott left me with, “if you are going to make some changes, go big”.  Second, taking on an issue like time and taming it to your needs instead of the other way around will change mindsets at your school.  People will get comfortable with change where once they feared it; they will embrace evolution where once they were stuck in the familiar.  These are critical traits for surviving in a changing world.  It takes courage to do these, but examples like Hawken prove what is possible, and the possible is what we should be all about.

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  1. […] The only resources that schools have are money, time, people, space, and knowledge.  Schools are constructed around the units of time, subject, age, and achievement.  It is critical to understand t…  […]

  2. Laura September 26, 2012 at 1:31 am - Reply

    This school seems like an incredible place! Thanks so much for sharing these ideas.

  3. […] Time and Place Lead Passion for Innovation at Hawken School, September 25, 2012. […]

  4. Hawken Alum October 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    The 1:1 tablet program is not as positive as it sounds. As a member of the Hawken Community I have heard many stories about how the students are actually doing worse in their classes because of access to social media sites such as facebook during class. The bottom line is that high school students are not mature enough to be trusted to stay focused in class.

  5. Hawken Alumni 2 October 16, 2012 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    The tablet program is actually the most annoying thing in the world. The work gets deleted as the computers the school gives the students are old and slow. Teachers have abandoned the tablets due to their own impenitence and inability to understand it themselves. These are the Yale and Harvard teachers we are promised? Come on now!

  6. Hawken Alum 3 & faculty member October 17, 2012 at 12:46 am - Reply

    Not all teachers have abandoned the tablets. They can be an incredibly useful tool to help with organization and communication between students and faculty. Who said innovation would be easy & perfect? Aren’t there skills in learning how to deal with the frustrations that come with computers? We have to face the fact that social media & computers are here to stay. Isn’t it better to have our students learn how to deal with the downside before they hit the freedom that comes with college? What did our grandparents say about the “ills of TV” & other new technologies? Open your eyes & look to the future!

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