On the Innovation Journey

Spring 2017

By Ari Pinkus

Eight years ago, Tim Fish was collaborating with a task force of administrators and teachers at McDonogh School (Maryland) to solve a problem: how to effectively support and evaluate faculty and staff at the school. To that end, he was a member of a small team dedicated to developing the school’s new process, dubbed Folio. After McDonogh had worked through the growing pains of implementation for two years, other schools began to hear about the work and encouraged McDonogh to create a version of Folio that any school could adopt.

McDonogh’s board of trustees responded to this need by voting to found a separate organization for “the development of the best possible system for managing faculty and staff growth in schools.” Fish and his small team began crisscrossing the country to sell the Folio software solution to other schools. But they weren’t buying, and he was scratching his head to figure out why.

On the train to New York to visit yet another school, Fish got a flash of insight that was inspired by his close reading of Parker Palmer’s seminal work, The Courage to Teach. The book reminded him that any individual — teacher, student, or parent — brings his or her own perspectives, experiences, fears, and goals to any endeavor. One Palmer quotation stood out: “In the community of truth, knowing and teaching and learning look less like General Motors and more like a town meeting, less like a bureaucracy and more like bedlam.”

In this statement, Fish began to grasp that the problem he sought to solve was not about software. He reworked his entire presentation to focus on the transformative power of one-on-one conversations. At the same time, Fish also realized that there wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all solution and that the work of the McDonogh group was only the beginning of the journey. The best solution would emerge from schools working collaboratively to build a flexible process informed by best practice.

In moving from leading a software company to creating a professional growth community, Fish learned a lot about the significance of listening and collaboration. In essence, early failure was the gift that gave way to the organization’s key pivot. Today, the FolioCollaborative is a community of more than 130 schools, with each one experimenting and implementing the Folio process in a way that best suits the school’s needs.

Meanwhile, Fish moved on in his career, joining NAIS as its first chief innovation officer last summer. Recently, I sat down to talk with him about innovation in independent education based on his observations and experiences in the trenches.

Listen to a brief excerpt of the Q&A between Tim Fish and Ari Pinkus. 


Ari Pinkus: Why is it important for schools to innovate today?

Tim Fish: It comes from a few directions. At the core, as independent schools and as schools in general, we’re always trying to create the best possible learning environment for our students and the best possible community for our faculty and staff and others.

But clearly it’s more than that today. If you look around, you’ll see that we are standing in the midst of an educational renaissance, driven by a convergence of forces — especially the amazing evolution of brain science, the emergence of the gig economy, and the sense that we don’t really know what the major jobs of the future are going to be.

At the same time, emerging technology advancements — particularly in areas of artificial intelligence, robotics, and disruptive technologies— are resetting how we live and how work gets done.

And then we’re also seeing great things happening in classrooms, the emergence of a more engaged model where students are engaged in deep thinking and deep learning, where teachers are reinventing themselves and creating a culture of exploration with students.

All of these forces are converging in schools, and what we’re finding is that there’s a huge opportunity for our schools because we have such independence and autonomy and creativity baked into our DNA. We can really be leaders not only for our schools but for education across the world.

Pinkus: Could you share some examples of schools that display innovation based on your school visits? Help us understand the variations out there.

Fish: In every school I’ve visited, I’ve seen elements of a thriving innovation journey. The notion that we have schools within the NAIS membership that are not innovating has not been true for me. Every school has students, teachers, and administrators who are alive with new ideas and who are excited to explore unchartered learning territory.

During the past few months, the innovation team at NAIS has developed a mountain-climbing metaphor to describe the innovation journey in schools. The journey begins in current state, what we like to call Now Town. As we all know, Now Town is seeing some real shifts in enrollment, affordability, and pedagogy. There is an imperative for every school to reach beyond Now Town to find new solutions to big challenges in the foothills and peaks of innovative practice.

When we visit schools, we see lots of examples of “day-hike” innovations, small projects or programs that are enhancing the experience for students in a class, department, or division. These day-hike innovations are key to the long-term success of the school. They create the experiments that lead to more substantial innovation in the future. One example of a day-hike innovation would be a group of teachers working together during the summer to restructure the seventh-grade history course to make it more engaging for students. The creation of makerspaces in many schools is another excellent example of a day-hike innovation as it creates a new experience for many students but doesn’t necessarily refocus the entire program.

I’ve also had the privilege of getting to know schools that are “summiting” with a big idea. Summit innovations involve the entire community. They create energy, momentum, and direction. When schools summit, the community becomes alive with an idea and shared goal. Summit innovations are a priority to the head of school and the board. They create a vision for learning that sets broad goals while still providing teachers and departments with the autonomy to innovate. Summit innovations give focus to day-hike experiments.

Pinkus: Can you give us a few concrete examples of schools that are summiting with a big idea?

Fish: A great one that comes to mind is Singapore American School. A few years ago, the board challenged the teachers and administrators to reimagine learning at the school at a fundamental level. The school launched a multiyear project involving almost every teacher. Teams embarked on visits to more than 100 of the world’s most forward-thinking and innovative schools and worked with a steering committee very much led by faculty to imagine a strategic plan that would fundamentally affect how the school thinks about teaching and learning. The community emerged with a focused plan for implementing new strategic learning priorities in every classroom. Their priorities transcend discipline and grade level and give every teacher a common vocabulary and direction (see page 78 for a full account of the Singapore American School journey).

Another example is Washington International School, where they began with small brown-bag lunch groups and ended up with an incredibly strong partnership with the Project Zero team at Harvard University and the creation of a dedicated team in the school that is leading an international conversation about teaching and learning. Like Singapore American School, Washington International School created a common language for how administrators and teachers think about learning that allows them to unleash the magic and autonomy of the individual teacher and provides a common pedagogical lens through which everyone can examine and talk about their practice. Their focus on the Teaching for Understanding framework that was developed at Harvard builds on the school mission and provides direction.

Another example is Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. The faculty and administration fundamentally stepped back and asked themselves how they continue their mission of being a school that’s guided by Christian values in a way that is also relevant for students today. The “summit” process at Mount Vernon resulted in a new school mission that focuses on three guiding elements: inquiry, innovation, and impact. Every teacher in the school is on a journey, both personal and collaborative, working to more deeply weave inquiry, innovation, and impact into his or her classroom.

The school made some structural changes as well —transforming the libraries into innovation labs, creating a signature innovation diploma program for upper school students, and adapting its upper school schedule to provide students with time to work on projects that are connected to their personal passions.

Pinkus: Could you talk about the pace of innovation from your experience and observations? Is there a natural time frame for the innovation process? Should it ever be rushed?

Fish: I don’t think it should be rushed. But I do think that it should be deliberate. I do think there’s an imperative for schools to seize the opportunity to innovate. So when you think about this notion of an innovation journey — day hikes and a summit — the motto I like to use is just put your pack on. Do something; think about creating a culture where ideas are welcome, where risk is tolerated, where failure can be accepted. Start small; think about executing on something attainable. Reimagine a course, create a new freshman orientation process, refresh the admissions visit day schedule for new students.

In the entrepreneurial world, there’s something called the creation of a minimal viable product, which is about just get something out the door. One of my favorite thinkers, Seth Godin, talks about the power of “just ship” — just get something in front of your customers, see what it feels like.

When I’ve seen schools that are innovating really well, it never is the actual innovation that is the driver as much as it is the culture of innovation that’s been created in the school.

So what I think schools need to be deliberate about is creating that innovative culture — being open to new ideas, trying things out.

Pinkus: What roles can key stakeholders play when schools embark on an innovation process? How should heads and boards work together, and how can schools create a culture that promotes innovation from the bottom up?

Fish: I think heads and boards need to be modeling that innovative thinking is very important to them. A good first step is to make sure that the board is up to date on current thinking and best practice about education, school finance, technology, etc. I was talking with a board chair the other day who was looking for a provocative speaker to lead the board in a winter retreat. He said he wanted to make sure the board fully understood what is going on in schools today as they begin to think about a new strategic outlook for the next several years. We talked about how a provocative retreat can be a very effective first step, but how the next five steps are what really matter. That’s why I like the mountain analogy so much. Getting to an innovative big idea involves leadership from the head and board and engagement with the larger community. Some schools are appointing committees to work on leading their summit process, and others are hiring outside experts to guide the work.

Whatever process the school decides to take, we have to be careful of what we like to call Moses moments, where the head of school goes to the top of the mountain and comes down with stone tablets on which are inscribed the vision for the future. I don’t think that’s what we need in our schools. We need to build expeditionary teams that are inventing and working together to see the future of the school emerge.

Pinkus: How does a school maintain its identity and keep alumni engaged while it’s in the process of innovation?

Fish: This past summer, the NAIS Innovation Task Force, which is a group of innovation leaders from many member schools, got together for a capstone event in Silicon Valley. The group talked a lot about how innovation works best in schools. And one of the ideas that emerged from the conversations that I think connects directly to this question was the idea that to really innovate, you have to know yourself. You have to truly understand your school, your culture, and your mission. And you have to think about ways that innovation is going to accelerate and enhance and further the work of your mission, not distract from it.

I think it’s very important that innovation build on the wonderful culture that already exists in the school and doesn’t come in as a force that’s trying to fundamentally reinvent the school.

So when it comes to innovation two things that schools need to think about are these core questions: Who are we, and what are we really about? Then the other piece that often doesn’t get addressed enough is the question of focus: What’s the problem or the opportunity that we’re really trying to solve or seize? What are we really trying to do here?

I love the quote from Albert Einstein that goes something like this: If I had an hour to think about a really big problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.

When it comes to innovation in our schools, we don’t spend enough time thinking about what core problems we’re trying to solve. So for me, it’s not about fundamentally changing the mission of a school; it’s about looking and applying innovation and innovation practice to enhance the mission and to continue to become better at being who we really are.

Pinkus: How do you see NAIS’s role in helping schools innovate?

Fish: There is so much that NAIS does to convene the conversation on important topics. We are doing this with the annual conference, the People of Color Conference, and many other professional development programs.

We are also creating new opportunities for schools. For example, beginning this spring we will launch SummitHack, a multiday experience for school teams to come together in Washington, DC, to take a deep dive into the innovation process and to make a plan for creating or advancing a summit idea in their communities.

We’re also working closely with the DASL and research teams to enhance every school’s ability to understand data and trends that are impacting their school communities. More specifically, the DASL team is hard at work on a complete upgrade of the NAIS demographic center, and the research team is conducting a market research project that will help schools understand the market forces that are impacting enrollment.

I’m looking forward to seeing these projects through and experimenting with new ideas to help schools innovate.

Ari Pinkus

Ari Pinkus is a former digital editor and producer at NAIS.