Tag Archive for schoolchange

Implementing “A New Culture of Learning”

"Team Sisyphus," from Nichomachus on Flickr

Independent school staff recently gathered for an online chat about A New Culture of Learning, which addresses the growing gap between real-world and school-based learning and considers the implications for schools. In the first part of the chat, participants summarized some of the book’s recommendations: teaching 21st-century content domains, emphasizing play as a form of inquiry, and teaching and assessing creativity, communication, and collaboration. Individuals noted some positive, incremental curricular innovations at their institutions.

The conversation quickly turned to a popular topic among school technologists: how to facilitate¬† significant program change toward the ideal expressed in the book. Some participants expressed frustration at low teacher enthusiasm for change, lack of administrative support, and the difficulty of finding allies for change. Some characterized teacher reluctance as “fear.” We explored the concept of urgency and its relationship to the pace of change. One suggested that external factors were more likely to create urgency than internal factors.

Those who had experienced some success in facilitating change cited the following techniques: connecting innovators, forming critical friends groups and professional learning networks, sharing examples, building collectives. These methods have something in common: gathering professionals in highly personalized, trusting learning environments with a commitment to introspection and change. In other words, change occurs within individual, group, and schoolwide contexts.

Today, Pat Bassett, President of NAIS, published a view of school change titled “Change Agency Leadership.” Bassett plumbs family therapy and other sources to compile what I find a fairly pessimistic view of institutional change. He likens school change to stages of grief, including mourning and depression. While school staff may react to top-down, unexpected policy changes in this fashion, I do not think that school change must proceed through these steps.

The grief model for change presupposes that the change is external. Highly personal, inclusive school change vehicles such as critical friends groups and professional learning networks alter this equation. Internet connectivity provides more opportunities for individuals to find external affinity groups and other models for change.

School leadership has the greatest responsibility to help a faculty internalize change. Leaders can help define the essential questions and create the necessary time and space for school staff to adopt meaningful steps toward change. Leaders can facilitate the formation of affinity groups and sharing of their work so that school innovators can build the necessary momentum for meaningful change. Leaders can help prevent a few fearful individuals from blocking a proposed change that most staff find acceptable.

NAIS provides several case studies of schools making meaningful change in A Guide for Becoming a School of the Future. James Tracy and Cushing Academy are earning attention for their international studies and leadership programs and other student-centered partnerships. Jonathan Martin and St. Gregory School have molded their program around 21st century learning content and skills. I would like to add Catlin Gabel as we grow our innovative co-curricular programs and think seriously about what it means to call ourselves a progressive school.

It will be exciting to watch new CFGs and PLNs work together with school leaders on change projects. If they are successful, we may expand our set of great examples of effective school change.

School Change Through Experiential Programs

Independent schools have increasingly created specialized positions to lead or facilitate new, experiential learning opportunities for their students. Do you have these positions at your school?

Director of service learning
Director of global programs
Educational technology specialist
Urban studies program director
Director of student life
Outdoor programs coordinator
Director of diversity

These programs feature a common thread: experiential learning. Students engage in hands-on activities grounded in an authentic context such as service, the outdoors, global travel, or multiculturalism.

Where do experiential programs live within the school? How do students access them?

One model: students experience two separate courses of study, a “core” of discipline-based study plus a “peripheral” set of experiential programs.

This structure implies an “influencer” model of school change. The school creates new positions for experiential program leaders. Students participate in these special programs outside of the regular class schedule. Most teachers observe from a distance. If the experiential programs are exciting and the program specialists effective at outreach, then teachers may increasingly partner with the programs to introduce more experiential elements into subject-based instruction. Experiential programs only affect the core as much as they influence from a distance.

The contrast of teaching methods may send students unintended messages. Discipline-based classes may use more recognizable forms of teaching: holding classes, facilitating class discussion, assigning readings, and assessing student mastery through papers, presentations, and tests. Experiential programs may take place in the woods, on Skype, or through a blog. They may emphasize student construction of the learning environment, partnerships with local organizations, special events, and interdisciplinary study. Experiential programs may gain a reputation for being optional or less rigorous.

Another model: students experience a “core” program that incorporates experiential components.

This structure adopts a rapid, comprehensive model of school change. The school makes a decision early on to broadly adopt specific experiential learning themes. All teachers are involved, and all courses integrate experiential learning in some manner. If the school creates special program director positions at all, then these individuals are few in number and partner closely with teachers to create student learning experiences. They do not offer separate programs to students. The weekly timetable is organized to facilitate experiential learning opportunities. Students experience a relatively consistent learning experience across the school program.

How may an existing school integrate experiential programs without completely reorganizing itself?

1. Assign experiential program responsibilities to core teachers. Partly discipline-based teachers, partly program specialists, they are more likely to influence their colleagues to try something new.

2. Mandate special, schoolwide initiatives to introduce more experiential learning, supported by program specialists.

3. Facilitate democratic, teacher decision-making processes to introduce specific types of experiential learning into the school program, facilitated by program specialists.

4. Provide program specialists greater access to school change vehicles, such as administrative leadership and curriculum review committees.

Case studies: schools trying different experiential programs

I would like to list these schools now and write short case studies in the future. What other independent schools would you add to this list?

Urban School: Innovative Teaching

Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences

Lick-Wilmerding School: Public purpose

“Leading from the Middle”

A summer institute offered by the Santa Fe Leadership Center