Choices that Define Us

This week was one of those moments when everything came together. So often, it feels like I (and my colleagues at GLP) have been out on a limb—carrying a message that seemed hard to grasp, or if understood, somewhere too far to go for so many schools. On one hand, the change conversations stimulated by Most Likely to Succeed and HTH GSE’s Education Leadership Academysurrounding deeper learning, equity, and school reimagined, are compelling; however, on the other hand, the hard work of making change happen may feel too high stakes for traditional school communities. “Blowing up” the status quo would be impossible within entrenched systems. Ah, but this week! This week I felt like the message about change has been delivered, has arrived, has been heard. And I saw this arrival, this fruition of an idea, in person here in Connecticut. Still it was humbling, too: the realization of the moment, the coming to life of a new way to learn for students, teachers and a community.

How did this moment come to pass? Last week the SSATB released its 2015 report entitled Sizing Up the Competition: Exploring Educational Choice in Today’s Independent School Market. (A friend and colleague who knows our work sent it along— knowing I would recognize the message as similar to mine). The “white paper’s” introductory caution underscored that schools mistakenly rely on the quality of their existing program: “I can assure you in every case, there is a cheaper, and often more innovative, educational alternative out there.” The report goes on to delineate four major categories of schools that offer a free or lower cost alternative to independent schools (Academically Rigorous, Deeper Learning, Personalized Learning, and Online). GLP has profiled these schools and options too, but our focus has been firmly on the Deeper Learning schools because we believe in an innovation philosophy, transforming learning in ways that are the most in line with the values of independent schools—and, further, in ways that deliver on the outcomes students will need in our new, innovation-driven economy. Beyond talking about our beliefs, we have sent many of our clients to High Tech High (profiled in the SSATB report) to witness and experience first hand the impact of deeper learning on students and their work.

As the educational partners in the development of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, I had the incredible opportunity to work with Ted DintersmithTony Wagner, and filmmaker Greg Whiteley from the start, an experience that transformed and informed my work over the last three years. During that time, we explored schools, talked with experts and thought leaders, and made a case for why the hundred-year-old model for school as we have known it needs creative rethinking. The story emerged naturally from Greg’s personal experience, and he beautifully captured the questions, the worries and the implications of what is really at stake for our kids today. Since its debut at the 2015 Sundance Festival, GLP has screened the film with most of our clients, and I have attended countless other screenings, first hand witnessing the excitement and power of the impact, and the will of parents, students and educators ready to act. The film’s message spans the boundaries of private, public and charter schools; and schools of all types (high-performing, struggling and somewhere in between) are beginning to have the conversations about why change is necessary. Most inspiring is Ted’s work on the fifty state tour. His most recent interview is a must listen.

For all the excitement, there is the awe and humility of seeing innovation come to life. School change philosophy is an idea, but the reality of innovative learning is the confirming moment. Last night the Greenwich High School Innovation Lab had their very first public exhibition at the Bruce Museum of Art in Greenwich, CT. In that moment of presentation, I reflected on the journey taken by an existing school that has wholeheartedly embraced what change means and successfully found a way without all the advantages of starting from scratch. On this night the school got to display the variety of great work the students and teachers have been doing this fall. And thus, innovative learning became tangible—an idea and a will to execute blossomed into a real and compelling exemplar of school reimagined.

How did this night happen? In the spring of 2013, I became convinced that the best innovation I was seeing in a range of new, at risk, or charter schools might have even more impact if it could be developed in an high performing suburban public school where the status quo was more firmly entrenched. My son had attended Greenwich High, and I had worked with many talented faculty on improving the student experience, so I knew some teachers and students would be drawn to another learning environment. Bolstered by what I was learning and hungry to see it come to life in a place where the conditions might seem less favorable, I approached Chris Winters, Headmaster at GHS with an idea for a “school within a school.” Remarkably, Chris had long imagined an innovative, smaller learning environment as an alternative for students in his diverse 2,800 student high school. Together, he and I made the case for a small, personalized “deeper learning” environment as an imperative for developing and adapting education for the new innovation economy. We focused on the value of deep adult student connections and the opportunity to empower teachers as designers and students as the drivers of project based learning. With the support of Superintendent Bill McKersie, and some sage advice and guidance from Larry Rosenstock at High Tech High, we pushed ahead.

We wrote a proposal and raised the funds to capitalize the yearlong research and development phase. Over the 2014-2015 academic year and a summer, five talented teachers worked with excitement and determination together to design a program and gave rise to the Innovation Lab. In so doing, the team visited HTH and many other schools, interviewed college admissions officers, and built a robust network of educators doing similar work. Now, the GHS Innovation Lab is half way through its first year as a self sustaining program for about 50 sophomores and poised to grow with each year as accepts a new class and rolls forward to 12th grade.

This week the impact of the Innovation Lab was revealed to the community through its exhibition of student work—and I realized that this display is among the most effective and affirming demonstrations of learning that educators and students can offer each other and their communities. Given the challenges that the school faced, what could be more inspiring and gratifying than the reality of students presenting creative work, projects that were as meaningful as they were successfully completed? There was a sort of contagion of learning in the room.

I asked every student I spoke with: “What’s different for you in Innovation Lab?” Everyone had a personal story, but there was one overarching theme: school had become an exciting place of discovery—relevant and personally meaningful to each student. They told me they were actually working harder, but somehow it was better. What was palpable was the camaraderie and support the students and teachers felt with each other—watching one student help prompt another when they were talking about their project, seeing another run over to aid in the demonstration of a friend, or the teacher running by with a smile promising to bring the missing piece for a project. There was such excitement and energy in the room and you could sense the depth of learning that went beyond the display—the scaffolding of the work (explained on a student’s personal website accessed by a QR reader!) was so impressive, and there was a deep personal connection to the student’s identity in every piece.

So where does this leave us? Realizing that the questions and the hypotheses I have been formulating and testing are yielding fruit, now must be the time to double down and move faster. On reflection, I see that I’ve made some choices that may have seemed uncertain and ambiguous at the outset, but those choices are now confirmed for me, revealing a clear prospect and inviting horizon. Three years of work have completed my conversion and will inform GLP work going forward: the pedagogical approaches championed by the Deeper Learning Movement stand as the lighthouse for independent schools struggling to balance what they so dearly want to preserve, with what they must do if they are to carve out a sustainable future. Of course, there is no single “right” solution, but multiple ways to integrate or rebuild with new approaches that best suit the context and community your school lives in. Even so, I am more hopeful and confident than ever that we shall continue to nudge schools to think about their own approach to “deeper learning”.

What about schools? I think if you, as a school leader, have been on the fence, now it’s time to step off and directly address the questions of “what matters most for students” and “how are we ensuring that we can deliver on that in a way that is distinctive, truly excellent, and valued?” For independent schools in particular, it is clear to us that the pace is accelerating for choice and competition in both public and private markets. Strategy has never been more important, and your faculty, staff, and leadership are the keys to your success. The question is, what choices will define you?