The Conversation: Refining the Vision of Our Future

Fall 2021

Conversation-Fall21-(2).pngEducators around the world have been forced to reimagine almost every aspect of school, from the daily schedule to assessment, to courses, to community. It’s been exhausting and inspirational. It’s also given schools an opportunity to refine their vision for the future.
A new NAIS podcast, New View EDU, is designed for this moment—a moment for us to learn from our past and to be ready to ask bold questions about our future. Hosted by Tim Fish, chief innovation officer at NAIS, and Lisa Kay Solomon, bestselling author, NAIS board member, and designer in residence at the Stanford, the weekly podcast brings together diverse voices and perspectives from inside and outside the education world to shed light on this 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?
The first episode features a conversation with Donna Orem, NAIS president, and Michael B. Horn, co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, and author of several books, including Choosing College. In this edited excerpt, they talk about the purpose of school, leadership, the importance of hope, the higher ed-K–12 relationship, parents, and more.
Michael B. Horn: I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of school in the wake of the pandemic and the challenges that our nation has been grappling with. What seems clear to me is that academic skills and knowledge-building is a critical building block for anything we do. But it can’t just be that. If we’re trying to build citizens who are prepared to go out into the world and contribute civically, economically, in their families, then we need to help them build their passions and fulfill their potential.
Donna Orem: In doing some research a few years ago, I came across an idea about the historical purpose of education: to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be human. Isn’t that just the greatest purpose to think about? What does it mean to be human today?
Just imagine if we could start to unlock human potential in new ways. One of the things that brain research has led us to understand is the central role that well-being plays in learning outcomes. For so many years, well-being took a backseat—it was nice to have. We were more focused on academic rigor. But these certainly are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one builds on the other.
As we look at the trends that are unfolding, they are really concerning. Even before the pandemic, we were seeing rising stress, anxiety, and self-harm levels in students; we were seeing off-the-charts numbers of suicides, particularly among middle school girls. And when COVID struck, we also saw well-being really start to decline for adults and students alike.
When we think about independent schools in the future, we really need to think about well-being as the independent school differentiator. We uniquely understand how to support children and also how to create environments where adults are healthy and thriving, too. We have an opportunity to center on well-being and explore human potential from that place of feeling good about yourself, being able to relate to others, and being able to leverage that to create a better society.
It’s been a tough year for school leaders. Whether it’s their first year or they’ve been a head for 20 years, they’ve been saying “this is the hardest year I have ever faced.” This may feel like the hardest year to start the road to headship, but in many ways, everybody was a first-year leader because of the uncertainty.
But hope is so important. I heard Bryan Stevenson talk about this at our People of Color Conference, and I’ve kept a quote from him up on my wall: “Hope is your superpower. Don’t let anybody or anything make you hopeless. Hope is the enemy of injustice. Hope is what will get you to stand up when people tell you to sit down.” And I think that’s really what we need moving forward.
But hope has got to be realistic—hope that doesn’t seem realistic or authentic causes mistrust. So, I think leaders need to help their communities see a path forward, and they have to do it in a way that allows people to feel confident about that. When leaders really lead with hope, it gives everybody self-confidence. It gives them the confidence that they can do this, and confidence is contagious.
Horn: It’s been an enormously hard year for leaders everywhere and certainly in higher ed, too. We’ve seen a lot of folks leave the profession. But I think the institutions that not just survive but thrive and leave a mark will be those where the leaders are able to take what you said about hope and craft a narrative of what we will be for our communities and what we can be for humanity.
But the walls between higher ed and K–12 need to come down in more concerted ways. The divisions between these two institutions is a function of history but not what we need in the current moment. The more we can have K–12 schools thinking about what it means to serve lifelong learners, and higher ed stretching back into K–12, would be a productive trend for all of us.
Real-world experiences and social capital have to be a critical part of the K–12 experience—you get students showing up as 18- and 19-year-olds having seen the data that it matters more what your major is than what school you go to. Except they have no idea how to possibly choose a major because they have no idea what career pathways exist in the world, outside of the ones that they see on television shows and YouTube—and a shocking number of people, by the way, want to be influencers or entertainers when they grow up—or based on what their parents and their immediate community does.
K–12 has to do a much better job of building people’s sense of how does this connect? What could I be? Who can mentor me? And then developing that. It’s important to develop skills about how to manage yourself as a lifelong learner so that you can develop agency, so that you can keep learning—because you’re going to have to as you grow up. From my perspective, higher ed would tell K–12: This is what you need to develop in these learners because there’s a lot of them showing up to higher ed’s doorstep because someone told them to go to college.
Their intrinsic motivation is extraordinarily low. And we know that if you go to college, you take on debt, which can be a great return on investment if you graduate. But if you don’t, that’s punishing.
And I really do think a lot of that is because of the intrinsic qualities that we’re building in individuals in the K–12 system. We’ve got to develop that purpose and passion much earlier in students.
Orem: Some of our school leaders would say they’ve always prized these things but that higher ed has not. They’ll say, “We’ve always had this problem, and we think social-emotional skills, a sense of purpose, all of these things are really important, but so much of what we do, particularly in secondary school, is to get kids into college.” And that’s really what parents—some, not all— are wanting when they choose an independent school education. I totally agree that we have to break down these walls because there shouldn’t be these pathways that are so rigid.
I think we’re going to start to see that what we’ve been doing—grouping kids by age—doesn’t really make sense as we learn more about how the brain works. Kids need to make choices. And I think too many of them, for such a long time, just as you say, don’t know that there’s another option.
Schools will start to open their eyes to the importance of purpose. Having a sense of purpose is what I think our students need more than anything else. We’re going to see some alternative models and pathways. We’re not going to see school and work necessarily being such different domains, but students will have a chance to try on careers and get a sense of what it feels like at a much earlier age. We won’t have so many students who go off to college because there simply doesn’t seem to be another acceptable choice.
If K–12 and higher ed can together figure out how to open up these pathways, how to help students really explore their purpose, and meet that potential head on, it’s going to create a different society. That’s my hope. That’s how I want to use my superpower, in creating the world that looks like that.
Horn: There is an extraordinarily important part where K–12 and higher ed need to collaborate, which is educating parents about what they really value. Otherwise, the parents keep coming to the secondary schools with the “get my kid into the X college” mentality. And because there are limited slots at that college, we get into the zero-sum game.
There needs to be more clarity about what higher ed is looking for in applicants—that it’s not just breadth of activity and hitting the numbers, but that it’s commitment. That it’s showing passion in a couple areas. That it’s depth, and that you get to define yourself as an individual—that you’re the most unique you and that you have purpose. Higher ed and K–12 need each other to build that message together.
We also have to blow up the system that focuses on time. You were talking about eliminating grade levels—I totally agree. And that means moving to a mastery-based set of progressions. Where you’re going to master something and not move on from it just because it’s April 1 and it’s time to move on from this particular unit. By doing that, we undermine all that we say we value around growth mindset, grit, sticking to something. Talk is cheap if we don’t live up to it. We just have to do it. But we have to think bigger and not just accept the current construct, because you can’t always do it in those constructs.
Orem: You’re so right about parent education. Part of what permeates through this entire ecosystem is fear. I feel for parents today. When I was a parent, we didn’t have social media; my parents didn’t even know where I was applying to college. We hear this fear in the parents—if they don’t make the right choice, and they don’t make those choices early on, you know, game over for their children. And they bring that fear to school.
And school leaders are looking at these parents paying tuition, with high expectations, and wondering how to balance what they know is great and right for kids in those environments with pleasing parents. This is part of the challenge for school leaders today—how to walk that line.
We have to go back to the foundation. If school leaders want to make progress in this area, they need to really partner with parents and students. And that begins with creating communities of empathy. That’s something else we don’t talk a lot about. There’s been a huge decline in empathy, and I think it opens the door to stress and anxiety and loneliness and fear. And going back to the idea of building schools around well-being, I think that begins with building communities that know how to empathize. They know how to understand what others are feeling.
When we create that community where the empathy is soaked into every pore of the community, we can grow together. It will give school leaders the runway to be able to enact a lot of the changes that we’ve spoken about because I think parents can let go of their fears. I think students can let go of their fears. And we can be places that allow children to grow and become who they are uniquely destined to become.  

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Listen to the first episode excerpted here in its entirety—and all 10 episodes of New View EDU. Subscribe by going to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.