Becoming a Learning Organization

Spring 2017

By Chris Bigenho

In 2016, in an effort to develop a common framework and reference point for independent schools talking about innovation, the National Association of Independent Schools set up an Innovation Task Force consisting of independent school thought leaders and NAIS staff. Together, those of us on the task force embarked on an amazing learning journey exploring innovation in independent schools across the country from multiple perspectives— particularly from the vantage point of boards, administrators, and faculty. In addition, we had the opportunity to hear from innovation thought leaders and visit innovative companies such as Facebook, Dropbox, and Lumosity.

In our work, it became clear that there was no common language with which to discuss innovation across all independent schools. This is problematic. It means that the term innovation has different meanings at different schools and even within a school. And indeed, the term is being applied broadly these days to just about any change in schools — from the introduction of 1:1 laptop or tablet programs to the creation of makerspaces to global programming to more student-driven learning.

Therefore, we understood it would be helpful to establish a common definition that all schools can call upon. On one of our task-force learning adventures, we had the pleasure of meeting John Kao, innovation activist and chair of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation (see Kao’s article on page 30). In our conversation, Kao defined innovation as “a set of capabilities that are possessed by individuals, teams, countries, or geographies that allow the continuous realization of a desired future.”

As we contemplated the role and value of innovation in independent schools, Kao’s definition helped us tremendously. For us, the operative words were capabilities, teams, continuous, and desired future. Using this definition as a lens with which to view our journey, several key findings emerged:

  1. Schools that are innovative are deliberate in their approach, and the innovation is visible as systemic change.
  2. A school must “know itself” before meaningful innovation can occur. While this includes embodying its mission and vision, a school that knows itself also knows its place and role in the market and, more broadly, in society.
  3. Because it leads to change, innovation — from initial conversation to action — creates tension. Schools that are successful at systemic innovation acknowledge these tensions and actively work to address them through communication and the building of social capital through community development.
  4. Innovation is a team sport. Schools engage in meaningful innovation work in functional teams with a prescribed purpose. Teams are diverse, providing broad skill sets and multiple perspectives. Innovation comes from the collective.
  5. Active and supportive school leadership is foundational to successful systemic innovation. School leaders work with the community to set the vision for the future and then empower the community teams to make it happen.
  6. Schools must hire for innovation. With all new hires, schools engaged in systemic innovation deliberately seek the skill sets and characteristics needed to support the innovation teams and lead to the desired future.

I don’t want to belabor the point about the difference between true innovation and incremental changes in school practices. If a school has the funding, it’s fine to construct new STEM/STEAM buildings or find new ways to use technology in the classroom. But I want to make it clear that a tight focus on adding more technology into a school program isn’t, in and of itself, innovation. It may represent a movement toward innovation within the organization but is not innovation as an organization. The latter should be the goal.

I often ask schools: Is your school an institution of learning or a learning institution? Schools with a strong sense of identity and with systemic programs that move the school toward some desired future state are schools that are getting smarter as organizations. These schools are learning organizations. And in an era of such quick and constant change, they are the schools most likely to thrive over time.

To clarify what innovation looks like in schools, I’m offering concrete examples of three schools engaged in meaningful innovation that are producing systemic change toward an explicit desired future state. Each school has been deliberate in its approach to innovation. All know themselves well. In each case, the head of school is deeply engaged in the process and empowers purposely developed teams to make the vision a reality. It is also important to note that all three schools leveraged moments that could be considered “start-up opportunities.” As you read through these case studies, consider what they have in common and how they might inform systemic innovation on your campus.

Parish Episcopal School — Dallas

Parish Episcopal School was founded in Dallas in 1972 as a PK–6 school and has grown into one of the prominent independent schools in Dallas, expanding its programs across two campuses and through 12th grade. Today, Parish finds itself surrounded by several large, established independent schools with rich histories. Three of these schools have combined histories in the aggregate of nearly 280 years. By contrast, Parish is the new kid on the block with its first high school class having graduated in 2007.

This situation has presented a unique challenge, requiring Parish to find its identity within the market. Head of School Dave Monaco has taken on this challenge and, with his team, positioned the school as the “Airbnb” in a land of IBMs, HPs, and Apples. Not being a legacy school, Parish has been able to leverage its newness to reinvent the school without the need to, as Monaco puts it, “overwrite preexisting code.” Through this process, the school has sought to understand family needs and used that as a driving force to create a collection of “Signature Programs.”

Samples of Parish Signature Programs include Parish Extend, which goes beyond traditional extended day programs, offering unique after-school opportunities for the community including: an art academy, dance studio, language classes, and adult yoga. Another signature program includes Parish Virtual — an online campus that enables students to take summer courses in a blended format allowing them the freedom to travel. Parish STEM sets the school up for integrated STEM activities across all grades and multiple disciplines. Finally, Parish Leads focuses on leadership throughout the school and offers upper school students an opportunity to take classes through the school’s Leadership Institute.

This community approach has allowed the school to set itself apart from surrounding schools and establish Parish as a primary school choice for local families.

Change at Parish is iterative and incremental — evolutionary in nature. While most schools do not have R&D programs, Parish embraces in situ R&D that is focused through teams of stakeholders. Parish embraces the entrepreneurial spirit — taking risks and releasing programs before they are fully designed. It is important to note that Monaco has been strategic in his hiring in support of this vision.

Finding its niche in the market, Parish has turned its sights on a systematic process of reimagining teaching and learning at the school. The leadership has established teams that are currently exploring personalized learning pathways using competency-based education practices. The school is currently beta testing parts of this program with a phase-one target launch date of 2019 and more developed iterations launching in time for the school’s 50th anniversary in 2022–23.

The Children’s School — Atlanta

Founded in 1970 as a laboratory school, The Children’s School was purposely located in midtown Atlanta to better serve children from all backgrounds. Today, the school serves nearly 400 students in preschool through sixth grade. Nishant Mehta, the third head of school, joined the community in 2012 and has been instrumental in providing vision and leadership in shaping the school into a community of innovation that supports the school’s long-standing mission to “enrich minds and inspire dreams.”

With innovation as a hallmark, the school was invited in 2014 to create an Innovators Playground at the Atlanta Makers Faire. This makerspace within a makerspace was designed specifically for elementary children and their families to experience and showcase learning by doing.

Opportunity for systemic innovation presented itself again in May of 2016 when the board voted to add seventh grade in fall 2017 and eighth in 2018. Additionally, in spring 2016, the school learned that its entire sixth-grade teaching staff would be leaving. Other schools might see this as a problem, but The Children’s School saw this as a unique opportunity to reshape the future of learning at the school. Making strategic hires to fill the immediate needs in the sixth grade, the school aimed to build a team that included institutional knowledge but no experience in teaching sixth grade and experienced sixth-grade teachers who were not from the school.

The forming of a new sixth-grade team and the future expansion of the school created a start-up opportunity, leading the school to embark on a learning journey to rethink the entire structure of the school. This process included teaming up with a firm that specializes in reimagining schools. With a focus that ranged from pedagogical practices to physical space, the school engaged the faculty and administration in a week of imagining the future of learning at the school. With the need to get sixth grade up and running for fall 2016, the faculty and administration embarked on a rapid prototyping process to develop a new curriculum informed by their work on reimagining school.

With the sixth grade serving as a prototype for the rest of the school, Assistant Head of School Allen Broyles asked, “What would school look like if the classroom was simply base camp and mostly outward facing, community facing?” What emerged from the question were some transformative initiatives. For example, students working on issues related to refugees have gone to Clarkston, Georgia, one of the most diverse square miles in the United States, with multiple refugee centers. In Clarkston, The Children’s School students taught English to younger students and provided day care in the community. Building these relationships opened the door for these sixth-graders to, among other things, attend a naturalization ceremony for some residents of Clarkston. In all, this approach to learning went far beyond service learning by focusing the learning on the development of relationships within and across communities.

Finding inspiration in words from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — “innovation is the means, and equity is the end goal” — the school is now partnering its students with the refugee community to work on a cleanup project of a river that runs through the community. The school sees the activity not as an add-on service-learning program but rather as the core of the learning process — with the lessons in civics, history, math, science, etc. flowing outward from the students’ experiences.

In short, the school has moved community relationship work into the core of its program. Not only do the school leaders believe this approach to be good pedagogy, they understand that it necessitates the need to rethink the whole structure of school— including scheduling, lesson structure, and learning experiences.

Today, the sixth-grade team continues to work with Broyles, Mehta, and Melissa Scott, the director of learning design and innovation, to build a model they can use as a framework for developing similar curricular approaches across the entire school.

A key to their success has been the courage to innovate. While Mehta had the courage to set this new vision, he recognizes that teachers must be courageous every day as they work within this new framework. In the end, the school community must trust the process and be open to the outcome.

The Lovett School — Atlanta

Founded in 1926, The Lovett School serves students in grades K–12. The school has enjoyed a rich history of progressive education, including research partnerships with the Georgia Aquarium and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Head of School Billy Peebles, along with Laura Deisley, Lovett’s director of strategic innovation, saw a new path for the school through posing the question: How might we get our students outside of “the bubble”— beyond traditional service learning?

Looking at the needs of the city and the opportunities provided by the school’s location in Atlanta, Lovett submitted a proposal to The Edward E. Ford Foundation and was invited to apply for a challenge grant, which it received. The school’s vision was bold and new: enable honors-level, 10th-grade students from throughout the city to attend a semester of transdisciplinary studies through an immersive city-based innovative experience. The school won a $250,000 Educational Leadership Grant from E.E. Ford and raised additional funding, bringing the total to nearly $1 million. With this funding, Lab Atlanta was born in 2016.

Deisley was named founding director, with Mike Pardee serving as associate director. Together, they went about assembling a team of diverse educators to serve as founding faculty and to develop a unique curriculum for a program scheduled to start in spring 2017. With the stated mission — “We develop civically engaged, design-minded leaders focused on building a vibrant, sustainable future for themselves and the city of Atlanta”— the program sought to assemble a cohort of students for the inaugural class that reflected the diversity of the city. Knowing it would be best to start small, the first cohort consists of 10 students of varying racial and economic backgrounds. The students come from six different schools, with nine of the students coming from public schools. The hope of the program is that, through this unique experience, students will return to their home schools changed in ways that can spread to others on their home campuses. While this first year is a smaller pilot, the school has made a commitment of significant funding for at least three years and will increase cohort sizes to between 30 and 40 in fall and spring.

While students are away from their home campuses, they will engage in transdisciplinary study exploring questions about the city of Atlanta. During this time, they will have a chance to investigate real problems and explore workable solutions that could have the possibility of making the city a better place for everyone. Courses for this first session will include Global Urban Literature “emphasizing place-based literature and the literature of cities (featuring Atlanta).” World History will focus on the rise and fall of cities and “introduce students to the role that globalization plays in shaping cities in the 21st century.” Students will also take Digital Photography and explore its use as a means of storytelling as they explore Atlanta. In addition, students will have elective choices that offer them a chance to explore issues related to Atlanta through the lenses of either engineering applications or sociology— both enabling them to examine how societies function. Lab Atlanta will also leverage online/blended learning as a way to differentiate learning for students studying different languages and at different levels of math education.

In recognizing that the world is changing, the school has set a vision for the future that is bold and allows a diverse group of students to develop as leaders. Last fall, Lab Atlanta announced a new partnership with Leadership Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that supports emerging civic leaders in the community. “Building bridges across difference, and leading with empathy, deep understanding, and strong design skills will empower these students to effect positive change and create a vibrant Atlanta for everyone,” says Deisley.

There is no doubt that Lab Atlanta will be very visible in Atlanta and across the country.

The common denominator for these three schools — and many others that are creating innovative programs — is an institutional commitment to being open-minded learning organizations. Through the process, they keep the question of educational and institutional excellence on the table at all times. In doing so, they ensure that they remain vital, vibrant, and highly valued schools — today and tomorrow.

Chris Bigenho

Chris Bigenho is the director of instructional technology at Greenhill School (Texas).