Progressing in a Post(ish) Pandemic World

This summer, as school heads, leadership teams, and teachers enjoy a well-deserved rest, I’m thinking about the work of the past school year—and the work that lies ahead. I can’t help but see the past 18 months as a real test of our ability to innovate and make progress despite monumental challenges. How did our schools fare? How did our leaders design and adapt? And what does all of that tell us about the current and future state of innovation in independent schools?
I define innovation as the capacity to design and implement something new in response to a challenge or opportunity. Innovation is a disposition. It’s a disciplined approach to progress, a highly collaborative, agile, and equitable process that’s deeply integrated with strategy and vision. And by that definition, I’d say that the last year has shown us all how innovation is alive and well in our schools. What school leaders faced in 2020 required mainly reactive innovation, a quick response to rapidly changing circumstances that are out of our control, but that doesn’t reduce its value as a learning experience or diminish the admiration I have for the school leaders and staff who kept reinventing in the face of incredible odds.
The question before us now is: Where do we want to go from here? If we can envision it, we can design a way to get to it. But we also need to design pathways with the lessons we’ve learned from our long season of reactive innovation in mind. Let’s turn the lessons of 2020 into fuel for a new school year of proactive innovation—reimagining what schools filled with joy and purpose can look like, shedding old habits and structures that no longer serve us well, and refocusing our efforts to uplift the things we’ve discovered are truly at the heart of our success as independent schools.
From my discussions with school leaders and observations about how schools have adapted, I think there are a few critical lessons that schools should carry with them into the new school year and beyond.

1. The old “rules” don’t have to apply anymore.

One of the hardest things about innovation, at any point in time, is understanding how to let go of some of our most ingrained ideas about how things are done. A gift of the uncertainty we’ve been living through might be that it forced many of us to move beyond old ways of doing and thinking. One school leader I talked to recently shared that pre-COVID, there “seemed to be fixed laws of the universe” dictating change in our schools. For example, he said that pre-pandemic everyone believed it takes at least two years to make substantive changes to the upper school schedule. Of course, in 2020, changes were made in the course of two weeks, not two years, because we had to be more nimble. We had no choice; the situation required it. Now we can ask ourselves: In what other ways can we boost our creativity, increase our agility, and improve our innovation efforts by going beyond the “laws of the universe” that govern our schools today?

In independent schools, we often hold a necessary and valuable tension between our desire to move forward and our commitment to the traditions that are fundamental to our school communities. Recognizing the difference between tradition and complacency––and how our own thought patterns and comfortable routines might have held us back from trying new things––is a valuable lesson we can take with us into the future.

2. Community is the core.

I have been amazed by the way our schools were able to port traditional models of education—classes, content, projects, schedules, assessments, report cards––to a virtual or hybrid environment. We were able to do school in whatever format was necessary. And when we talk about what we missed and what we have to deliberately nurture in the new school year ahead, the most consistent themes I hear revolve around community, well-being, relationships, and the sense of belonging that is at the heart of the independent school experience. Our deep commitment to community and care defines us; it’s our secret sauce.

We made it this far because our professional teams worked together like never before. And as many school heads have told me, we need to recognize that there are new challenges on the horizon that will require the same focus, creativity, community, and grit. We’re not done doing really hard things on our journey to build the schools our students need.

How else could we possibly stand up to and move confidently through our challenges if not with the strength of our communities? Our schools are messy, diverse, joyful, beautiful, and constantly evolving places––we’re works in progress. And when we stay focused on the journey to become our best future selves, we create irreplaceable, life-altering experiences for our students.

3. Agency and engagement are essential partners in education.

Everywhere I go, teachers, administrators, parents, leaders are talking about agency, even if they’re not using that exact language. It’s the silent partner at the center of school redesign.

In the most fundamental sense, agency is about personal empowerment––giving people the capacity and opportunity to imagine a future, and then design their path to get there. Agency is already a part of our schools; it’s central to self-efficacy, experiential learning, project-based work, mastery-based approaches, constructivist pedagogy, service learning, and more. And it’s deeply connected to the ability to build resilience, engagement, and joy.

When we consciously design our schools around agency, we give everyone in our communities permission to take risks, to challenge themselves, to engage more deeply, and to learn from their experiences. I call this kind of designed empowerment structured agency, and I believe it’s the kind of thinking that will help us expand joy and redefine rigor in our learning communities. Structure and agency are essential partners in transformational educational experiences; when combined, teachers are the designers of the conditions for learning––the content, challenge, assessment criteria, and essential constraint. They are also the facilitators who, in stepping back whenever possible, can unleash the creative energy of students to apply and transfer their learning.

I’m reminded of a conversation with an upper school history teacher about the challenges of teaching in the Zoomiverse. He told me that moving his teaching online helped him see the shortcomings of a largely teacher-directed model. So he found ways to shift from teaching history to designing class projects and experiences that helped his students begin to see themselves as historians. By giving his students guidelines within which they could choose topics and design their own approaches to diving deep into essential questions and themes, he found a new level of engagement and learning that wouldn’t have happened in his pre-pandemic classroom. He told me that he’s never going to return to the way he used to do things.

On the Horizon

As I move along in my own learning journey, I’m continuing to engage in conversations about the future of schools and other crucial elements of our work, such as equity, civic engagement, college, career readiness, and more. And I’m excited to be doing just that with Lisa Kay Solomon, NAIS board member, best-selling author, futurist and designer of strategic conversations, and cohost of the new NAIS podcast: New View EDU. We’re bringing together an incredible lineup of diverse voices and perspectives from both inside and outside the education world to shed light on the essential question: How can we use what we’ve learned to explore the future of what our schools are for and what they can be? There’s so much potential ahead for independent schools. I’m energized and excited to be a part of creating our shared, expansive future.


Don’t miss an episode!

New View EDU launches on August 10, 2021. Tune in weekly for a new episode with guests including Michael Horn, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Baratunde Thurston, Barry Svigals, Sam Seidel, and more. Listen and subscribe by going to Apple Podcasts or Acast.

Tim Fish

Tim Fish is the chief innovation officer at NAIS.