A Conversation with Tyler Thigpen on School Transformation
June 22, 2020
Times of great change afford a unique opportunity to pause and ask what could be. School leaders today are asking that question with both a short- and long-term perspective: What can school be in the midst of a pandemic? What are the systemic inequities built into our system, and how can we address them? What could schools be in service to our children?
I recently chatted with Tyler Thigpen, an educator and leader whose career has focused on education transformation. Thigpen is co-founder of The Forest School: An Acton Academy (GA); founder and executive director of the Institute for Self Directed Learning; and instructor and faculty chair at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He also has worked at Transcend, a nonprofit focused on school design, and as head of the upper school at The Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (GA). In this edited exchange, we talk about the changing education landscape and the opportunities Thigpen sees for independent schools today.
Donna Orem: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me and for the work you are doing to rethink what education could be in service of students today. There is so much uncertainty for our schools right now. As you look at the changes on the horizon, what are some opportunities you see?
Tyler Thigpen: The pandemic is unfortunate in terms of the impact on people’s health, but it is an opportunity to reinvent. If we don’t take this opportunity to reinvent, we will go back to the status quo. I am seeing lots of interest right now in self-directed learning. For example, one of our families has two of their three children at our school. When everyone transitioned to e-learning, the two students from my school were up early with their Chromebooks with a plan for the day. The other student was just waiting for the teacher to tell him what to do. It highlighted the impact of working on e-learning platforms in responsive and adaptive ways. The pandemic seems to be revealing whether learners have shouldered the responsibility for their own learning or if they have been spoon-fed. The interest in e-learning platforms is huge now, and I think a lot of school leaders and educators are realizing some facilitate deep learning. Everyone is becoming more open to these e-learning solutions and the possibilities they reveal.
Orem: You have had the opportunity to work with all types of schools. What do you think are some of the more interesting models out there right now? Where are educators innovating in ways that make a significant difference in children’s lives?
Thigpen: I see emerging school types as falling into five different approaches:
Pedagogical: Schools in this modality closely link 21st-century education implementation with robust delivery of a particular pedagogy. Educators working in these schools believe that students best learn when they develop breadth and depth of prior knowledge and provide opportunities for students to practice applying that knowledge in a variety of situations.
Capstone: These schools have students participate in substantial projects, often self-directed and with public presentations, that require them to draw upon, demonstrate mastery of, and apply content learned in traditional classes to solve a problem, make an argument, defend a thesis, complete a venture, or make a product. Educators in schools with this orientation believe that empowering learners with genuine autonomy fuels students’ feelings that they are in control of their learning and advancement.
Personalization: These schools make individual students’ learning preferences and pathways the focus. These schools are often competency-based, emphasize social and emotional health, and orchestrate learning environments where students learn at their own pace. Educators in these schools believe that learning environments are organized optimally when students are able to progress through clearly defined goals with constant assessment; have a customized path that responds and adapts to their individual learning progress, motivations, and goals; and have access to up-to-date records of their individual strengths, needs, motivations, and goals.
Career-based: Schools in this mode position real-world internships as integral components of the school week. Educators working in these schools greatly value students’ sense of belonging, especially in a career context. For them, developing a sense of belonging (“I belong to this work community”) helps students develop a stronger, more connected sense of identity, thereby helping them to be more willing to adapt to norms and apply effort to tasks.
Curricular: Schools with this focus incorporate 21st-century themes—such as global competitiveness; science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM); international cultures and/or languages; the environment; or social justice—into nearly every facet of the learning experience. A key belief of educators in these schools is that students addressing real-world scenarios in an integrated way, across contexts, and in authentic settings will help with generalizability and knowledge transfer.
Orem: Very interesting. As schools consider different approaches, such as those you described, how do they get there? What advice would you give them about creating conditions in their schools that drive transformation?
Thigpen: I think it starts with conviction that the traditional design of learning is no longer relevant for 2020 and beyond. The best way to build conviction is consistent adult learning journeys to expose school communities to learning science, the latest brain research, systemic inequities, new and inspiring learning models, and future trends, and to ask them to reflect on the implications for school design. It often takes 10 months to a year to lead adult communities through this type of journey, but after they consume the knowledge and experience, they’re hungry for a transformative model of learning. It is also important to have a clear vision of your school model and a strategy. Lastly, to build a culture of innovation, you must create an environment that encourages risk-taking.
Orem: School leaders often feel like they are responsible for everything that happens at their school. For the process you describe to work, do heads need to let go and let others shoulder some of the responsibility?
Thigpen: Absolutely. In fact, when it works well, it is usually because a design team is leading. That team includes the head, division heads, curriculum leaders, board members, parents, and some students. The head gives up some control and autonomy in the process and embraces the concept of co-designers. Also, it is crucial that there’s strong communication between the design team and the community so the design team brings the community along in the process.
Orem: What are the first steps a school leader should take in building a design team and moving the community along the path to transformation?
Thigpen: That is a complex question that has nuances for every community. I would first differentiate between business model realities and getting conviction on that and getting conviction on a transformative learning model because that’s what kids deserve. I don’t think the desire to change the business model is enough. I see it like this: The way purpose in education used to be framed is if you understood math, history, English, and science, you were ready for life’s next steps; instead, school should be designed to cultivate a much broader, holistic set of learner outcomes, social-emotional factors, academic skills, global competencies, and transferable skills. I think step one is building conviction for that. If the conviction is there, the next step is designing a conceptual model or blueprint that can be used to rally your community, raise funds, figure out what to build and plan for, and hire and recruit. Then you can roll up your sleeves to build, pilot, and launch the new model.
Orem: I have been carefully watching what is happening in higher education and feel that this moment is ripe for alternative future pathways, not just college as the end goal. Do you see opportunity for schools here?
Thigpen: I love that question. Have you read A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College by Ryan Craig? This is a book about the many ways colleges are being disrupted today. Take for example the company Caterpillar. It hires high school graduates and pays them to attend Caterpillar University, where they learn how to drive equipment using augmented and virtual reality. Goldman Sachs also has started its own university. It’s hiring fewer graduates from Harvard and Yale business schools and instead hiring younger students and training them. At my school, we ask freshman applicants, “What do you want to do when you are 18?” Based on their responses, we customize an education plan for them. We revisit that plan every six months to make sure that it is still the pathway that’s right for them, and make pivots if and when needed. I think the opportunity is to think of school less in terms of a place to get the knowledge needed for life’s next steps and instead look to cultivate a student’s own purpose in life, and support them in pursuing their goals and interests.
Orem: I want to get your views on the role that governance plays in school mission and growth. I’m curious as to how you approached governance when starting a new school.
Thigpen: I built my board for leadership, vision, and culture setting. They are the biggest champions for our school’s work, and they are just as hungry for transformative school design as I am. They have an innovation mindset. The board is intentionally very small so that we can remain nimble but have the flexibility to grow larger if needed. I am building out a separate entity for fundraising so the board can focus on strategy and vision.
Orem: One final question. What role do you see parents playing in the school transformation process? Many school leaders fear that they will alienate parents if they push for too much change. What are your thoughts on this?
Thigpen: I would include parents in the group of people that have to have strong conviction for new learning models. Schools today also need to be about adult learning and leadership. At Mount Vernon, we saw encouragement from the parent community who saw the real-world needs of the skills we taught. This was not an outlier group of parents. We started Parent University and held multiple design thinking challenges to get parents to understand why what we do is awesome and relevant. They need to go on that journey of conviction just like anyone else.
Orem: Thank you for your time and insights.
In the coming months, Thigpen will be working with the NAIS Strategy Lab team to help schools incubate ideas around new models of education that are sustainable during these volatile times and aim to equitably serve a diverse population of students.
Donna Orem is NAIS President.