What If...?

In her beautifully written book The Rise, art historian and Yale University professor Sarah Lewis explores “creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery.” Among other revealing examples of creational success, Lewis decants the story of the Hollywood “Black List,” not the 1950s McCarthy-era Communist witch-hunt, but rather a modern experiment by script reader Franklin Leonard.

In 2005, Leonard sent out an anonymous email to 75 Hollywood colleagues and simply asked for feedback on scripts that they loved but that had not been made into films. Leonard tabulated the results. Since that initial compilation, 40 percent of the scripts that made the first annual Black List have been turned into feature films. Compare this, Lewis notes, to the average success rate of 0.3 percent for scripts that get pitched through the Hollywood grapevine. Not only were the films produced, many - including Juno, Margin Call, Argo, American Hustle, and The Social Network - have gone on to win multiple Oscars and other top awards.

The Black List is now a favorite film-industry hunting ground for movies with great future prospects.

What is the lesson here? These were scripts that the most successful movie producers in the world turned down, some several times. Lewis writes, “The list has exposed a fissure in the film industry that would be present in any field with pressure to conform to a particular formula of past success” (my italics). In a nutshell, even though veteran moviemakers “loved” the scripts, they could not find an analogue of past success that justified the production risk.

Lewis goes on to connect the dots to the groundbreaking 1950s work of psychologist Solomon Asch, who revealed that we tend to “abandon our own opinions altogether under two conditions: (1) when we anticipate that our opinion differs from that of a group, and (2) when we have to state our dissent out loud.” In creating the Black List, Lewis reminds us, Leonard was “not asking what scripts would be most successful commercially. He was simply asking which ones they loved.” Collective “love,” announced without the fear of a skeptical crowd, turned out to be an incredibly strong indicator of future success.

During 2012, I visited dozens of schools and interviewed hundreds of educators about what they see as the future of learning and of schools - and published my findings in #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education (Jossey-Bass, 2014). Since then, I have been asked to share these findings with many independent school teams and independent school associations around the country. Through a series of design thinking-based workshops, I was able to gather, archive, and synthesize some of the additional questions and ideas generated by diverse groups of education-focused attendees. As for the results, I had no expectations; I simply collected this crowd-sourced data set with faith in the power of smart minds and large numbers.

As with the Black List, the results raise interesting questions about the tension in schools between new ideas and past traditions - especially the question of how we move forward with ideas that we profess to love.

What If?

One activity was common at every workshop. Armed only with sticky notes and blank wall space, attendees were prompted to ask questions that start with the words “What if.” We were looking only for questions that would break, discard, or fundamentally change something that currently exists at their schools. Writing one question per sticky note, they had about six minutes to generate as many questions as they could.

We then posted the notes on walls and white boards, sorted the notes into common themes, and created new, sometimes quirky action ideas that were quick-pitched to the crowd as if to a group of skeptical equity investors. At the end of each workshop, I gathered the sticky notes, packed them in my briefcase, and, usually on the airplane home, typed every one of them into my growing database.

In total, approximately 1,700 members of the independent school community contributed to this knowledge base, including classroom teachers, business officers, heads of school, technologists, academic and nonacademic administrators, and a smaller number of students, parents, and trustees. Because regional independent school associations organized many of the workshops, the participants represent hundreds of different schools, of all kinds and sizes, from nearly every region of the country.

By June 2014 I had gathered about 2,000 “What if” questions and started sorting them into what I believed to be “buckets” of similar ideas. There is clearly a subjective component to this sorting, which is why I focus on what is common among the ideas, not what separates them. I was able to place more than 1,500 of the roughly 2,000 responses in one of about 40 buckets. The remainder related to very specific conditions at individual schools or fell into a category with just one or two other similar responses.

I hope every school leader will ponder the aggregate results (see list on page 106). Given absolutely no preconditions, more than 70 percent of these expansive ideas, representing all of our school stakeholders, fell into groupings that describe dramatic, sometimes radical changes to the fundamental structures of learning at our schools. They posit major changes in how we use time; how we work together as educators; the nature of learning based around subject; how we teach and assess students; and the role of students as the primary owners of the learning process. 

None of the top dozen categories of ideas is among those that frequently dominate traditional strategic plans: recruiting and compensating excellent faculty, building better facilities, increasing endowment, enhancing diversity, keeping up with technology, or developing the school’s brand.

What follows is an expansion on the topics that form the top 70 percent of these expansive questions.

Bust Silos

More than any other topic, educators see the value in breaking down the artificial walls and boundaries that separate learning into artificial quanta of subject, age, and time. They seek increased depth of learning for both students and adults through a dramatic, perhaps even universal, adoption of interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or nondisciplinary courses. They suggest ways we might promote, or even require, team teaching by getting rid of subject-based departments and by building learning around big, broad projects, themes, and the passions of colearning students and teachers. Many found the vehicle of silo-busting interdisciplinary work to be a key to creating a school system with greater levels of collaboration among school colleagues and increasingly distributed authority, which we recognize as a critical success factor in innovating organizations.

Student Ownership of Learning

Educators recognize the importance of increasing authentic participation by students in the framing and development of the learning process. They suggest that students have a larger role in determining the content of classes and in what classes they take. They want to try “negotiating” the content and schedule of classes among students and teachers based on their interests and passions rather than a legacy formula of “what we did last year” (some schools are already doing this). They want to engage students as designers and creators of curriculum and materials, including in the development of digital textbook-like resources. They see the value of promoting opportunities for students to take on the role of teacher - within their own classes, as teacher-mentors to younger students, and within areas of personal interest and expertise.

Student Assessment

Educators collectively lament that schools have developed a unique method of student assessment that is largely absent from the rest of the world and often acts in direct contradiction to the characteristics of good learning and social development that we want for our children. Respondents called for the elimination of letter grades, replacing them with a system of assessment based on “body of work” and “demonstration of useful knowledge and skills” through the compilation of portfolios and community and peer presentations. Many also suggested that we either significantly decrease or eliminate the use of standardized or high-stakes tests that, purposefully or not, have become the driver of many elements of the learning process.

Use of Time: The Daily Schedule

Our use of time in school is seen as one of the biggest obstacles to the kind of learning the educators most value. By far the most common perspective among the educators took some form of a frustrated call to “blow up the schedule and start over with one that is built around learning” rather than engage in marginal, piecemeal tweaks to a schedule that leaves time divided into fairly rigid, subject-centric units. Interestingly, and recognizing that many respondents were teachers for whom longer days mean more work, there were numerous calls to lengthen the effective school day, particularly in the afternoon, to mitigate some of the early-morning sleep issues that we know are common, particularly for older students.

Differentiated Learning

Schools, particularly independent schools, are famous for suggesting that we focus on the learning and developmental needs of the individual child. Yet we also know that most classrooms are still organized in ways that default to the mean, not to the learning style or pace of each child. In this exercise, educators imagined that we break away from grouping students in classes based largely on student age and focus instead on each child’s unique development and performance. They envision multi-age classes, performance-based assessments, and the use of rapidly evolving technologies to tailor different paces and modalities for fluidly changing student groupings based on real-time rates of individual learning.

Professional Development

Many stakeholders recognize that if we want to distribute authority, innovate the learning experience, and increase networked collaboration, we absolutely must create more time in the daily schedule for professional development. They also believe that at least some of this time should directly connect professional development with transformational teaching practices. A number of respondents in this category suggested that we require ongoing professional development plans and collaborative sharing as conditions of employment (a requirement already in place at some schools).

Use of Time: The Annual Calendar

Why, stakeholders asked, is our school year driven by an utterly outdated agrarian calendar? While recognizing the need for vacations and family time, we see opportunities for learning by extending the school year into or across what is now the traditional summer break. Stakeholders point to the powerful learning experiences that successful summer schools and summer camps develop around student and teacher passions and large blocks of time, not traditional or required subjects. Contributors in this area suggest that the only way to capture these experiences in our schools is to rebuild the annual calendar around the learning experience, not weather or the planting of crops.

Role of the Teacher

Educators want teachers to move beyond their role as purveyor of knowledge to students. They want to find ways for teachers to engage in the learning process alongside their students as colearners and lead learners in the classroom. Surprisingly, one of the more common area of ideas involved increasing the number of students in each class. We know that the overall student-teacher ratio at a school is one of the largest cost drivers we have, and both teachers and administrators expressed that, in their experience, true project-based and collaborative learning can be enhanced with more, not fewer, students in the classroom.

What We'd Change

When I reviewed the 2,000 “What if...?” questions developed by educators across the country as well as from some parents and students, they sorted well into what I believed to be 40 “buckets” of similar ideas. Here is a list of the leading buckets.

Community Integration

Educators understand that our schools have been physically, socially, and in many cases intellectually isolated from the world beyond the campus perimeter. Our stakeholders want our students to spend more time off campus, using the community much more intentionally as a valuable learning resource beyond the laudable but often shallow engagement of infrequent service-learning projects. In my workshops, educators suggested that this learning might increasingly take place via traditional partnerships with institutions like museums, universities, and corporate internships and in more innovative ways by just having students spend time observing and engaging in their communities and coming up with their own self-directed projects. They also want to increasingly engage community experts in both on- and off-campus learning opportunities.

Promote Innovation

Educator-leaders recognize that successful organizations today operate in ways that can be very different from the ways they’ve operated in the past, and this involves the learning and adoption of a different set of organizational skills. They want leaders to model and support creative risk taking. They believe that our schools should provide professional development in the skills of innovation and change management. They see the connection between increased transparency in governance and school administrative roles and the development of real trust between teachers and administrators.

Decrease or Eliminate Advanced Placement Courses

While the other top buckets represent groups of ideas, this one is a single-issue bucket. Workshop educators believe that courses of study such as Advanced Placement (AP) are antithetical to our stated goals of essential outcomes for students, yet drive a great deal of what we do in terms of schedule and curriculum. They suggest we eliminate these courses and instead design and offer rigorous courses that allow students to pursue areas of individual passion and interest.

Three Takeaways

The specific questions that these educators posed ranged from highly pragmatic and simple to far-reaching, quirky, and revolutionary. I think there are three overarching takeaways from this exercise: 

  • The ideas that underpin these questions diverge radically from most or all of the major foci of many school strategic plans: hiring and retaining faculty, building campaigns, financial sustainability, diversity, communication, fund-raising­, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM/technology. None of these traditionally highlighted issues is represented in the top 70 percent of responses. Does this mean that the hundreds of educators who contributed their questions don’t care about the traditional goals in their school’s last strategic plan? No. But given the latitude to ask one or more simple questions that expand the frame of our thinking, most of us quickly focus on fundamental changes to the learning systems at our schools.
  • The need to change the learning process at a foundational level is deeply shared by all groups. Our traditional methods of surveying our communities and gathering ideas for how we can improve have largely missed out on the collective imagination we unwrap by merely asking a more expansive set of questions. Most stakeholders recognize that learning represents the core of what schools do, and that future success in a rapidly changing world requires that we rebuild the learning process and outcomes in ways that are fundamentally different from the past. They want to retool learning along the lines of a progressive, student-learning-centric pedagogy, fueled by collaborative and transdisciplinary experiences and measured through authentic performance-based assessment.
  • Groups across our school communities are more knowledgeable and empathetic with their colleagues’ “business” than we often give them credit for. Teachers recognize the financial pressures of operating an independent school and do not shy away from suggesting longer working days, a longer school calendar, student assessment practices that would mean more work, and even larger class sizes. As author Daniel Pink observes in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, we find that many workers, particularly in knowledge-based industries, are motivated by something other than higher pay. Similarly, while business officers, parents, and nonacademic administrators may be viewed by teachers as less expert in what takes place in the classroom, their responses demonstrate the importance they place on evolving pedagogy to meet the demands of what we have come to call 21st-century learning.

Is this crowd-sourced compilation of free-range questions an education industry analogue of Leonard’s Hollywood Black List? Perhaps it is a start. Like the Black List, it is unfettered by what is perceived as success in the past. Our traditional methods of strategic visioning and planning fail today for several reasons: They take a long time; are infrequent relative to the rate of change; tend to couch future options within a framework of past success and failure; and fail to consider significantly disruptive changes. A less formal, rapid, crowd-sourced style of expansive thinking can highlight what our communities really think when they are not bound by the constraints of more traditional processes, including pressure to not offer solutions from well outside the frame of past experience.

There is a problematic gap - perhaps more an existential chasm - between what we say we want and what we actually do in schools today. Given the freedom to imagine how school could be improved, the majority of us aim straight at the heart of major, often radical, changes to the learning structures and processes that have shaped K-12 education for 150 years. Given the freedom of anonymity, we collectively put forward suggestions with blockbusting potential for a learning ecosystem that has been passed over by educational leaders and systems for decades. The question ahead: What if we had the courage to aggressively, sustainably, intentionally implement these ideas?

Grant Lichtman

Grant Lichtman is a senior fellow at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence. He shares resources and blogs about every school he visits and works with at www.grantlichtman.com. His book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, is available via most major online book retailers.