Seeing School As More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Spring 2019

By Allison D. Webster and Kate Reardon

You may have heard the old parable about a group of blind men and an elephant. The men heard that a strange animal had been brought to town, and they wanted to touch it so they could understand what it was. The first man, whose hand landed on the trunk, decided that the elephant was like a thick snake. The second, whose hand reached the elephant’s ear, thought it seemed like a kind of fan. The third man felt the leg and said the animal was like a tree. Another, who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk and was convinced that the elephant was hard and smooth, like a spear. Not until they shared their perspectives with each other did they accurately “see” the whole elephant.

Do people in your school tend to see things in their component parts, or do they see the whole elephant? If you were raised in the United States, your dominant paradigm for thinking has likely been shaped into one that compartmentalizes and divides. Perhaps as a child, you walked the corridors of a shopping mall and learned that candles are sold separately from pretzels, which are sold separately from shoes, which are sold separately from vitamins. At school, you may have learned about geography without discussing how land shapes culture. You may have analyzed a book’s themes of social cruelty and injustice without discussing the economic underpinnings influencing those behaviors. We are often taught to think about things by examining pieces, rather than understanding how these pieces integrate and interact.

Many exciting endeavors are underway in schools, but for them to fully flourish, we need to shift our mindsets so that we consider a school as a living, breathing whole and not just an assemblage of parts. For schools to better serve students, build richer and more integrated programs, and maximize resources between departments, we must move to a new mental framework that prioritizes seeing the connections. We need to function with “the whole elephant” in mind, and there are deliberate things we can do as leaders and teachers to promote a mindset of wholeness.
 

Thinking Holistically

There are several reasons why this shift toward wholeness is imperative today.

First, by articulating a more holistic vision, we can better communicate our value to families. Parents are dedicating a growing percentage of their income to independent school education. Given this extraordinary commitment, we must better articulate our value, which lies in what we can provide as a whole. Any reasonable institution can develop reading comprehension skills or basic numeracy. But how can we show parents the whole value of our schools?
             
We also need to maximize our resources. Consider a neighborhood that sees itself as individual homes where everyone needs to own a lawnmower to maintain their property. If this group were to start thinking holistically, as many neighborhoods now do, such resources could be shared. Similarly, if your school is made up of siloed departments, in what ways are resources being dedicated rather than shared? How could you maximize resources if you had a more holistic view?

By working together and sharing resources, we can also cultivate a sense of meaning, which could mitigate the rising anxiety in our society. Providing meaning is one way schools can attract and keep talented faculty and staff, as well as add value for students and families. When we promote a sense of wholeness and connection, the result is a greater sense of meaning that will energize our schools.
 

Making It Happen

How can school leaders promote a mindset of wholeness and bring faculty and staff members together? To help everyone visualize how their individual work relates to the bigger picture, we created a checklist to build on the good work already being done in our schools. Here are the key drivers to carrying through on a whole school mindset.
 
Build connections. Schools need to intentionally capitalize on local knowledge and use resources to connect teachers, grade levels, and subject areas. At Dedham Country Day School (MA), we devote time, resources, and encouragement to building connections. In recent months, we highlighted this focus through a series of innovation grants. In primary school, funding allowed three individuals—our classroom assistant, yoga coach, and school psychologist—to implement mindfulness routines with our youngest students. Another grant allowed our learning specialist and a third-grade teacher time and resources to develop an auditory-processing assessment tailored to student needs. And our science and technology teachers are using resources this year to renew our robotics curriculum.
             
While funding for connection-building activities can be helpful, the process of building connections begins with an invitation. That invitation might extend from one teacher to another or from the school community to its constituents. Schools can facilitate such invitations by creating space for teachers to come together and collaborate, by clearing time for teachers to think deeply and self-reflect, and by offering support.
 
Question frameworks. To promote wholeness within the school community, we need to ask how and where our mental frameworks or actual structures work against our goals. Identifying these impediments can help us creatively reimagine frameworks to promote wholeness.
             
For example, many schools have found that Advanced Placement (AP) exams drive content in a way that impedes a more holistic form of education. At Concord Academy (MA), not offering AP U.S. History allows time for students to explore Walden Pond, read primary-source documents about the town’s colonial history, go on an archeological dig, and to reflect in the woods. These activities would be hard to accommodate if the school were focused on preparing students for AP assessments.
             
When we apply a lens of wholeness to our structures, we can better identify dissonance in our organizational goals. For example, when we ask our teachers to collectively integrate curriculum, we highlight the structures that divide domains, such as curricular departments and budgetary silos.
             
Leaders at Berwick Academy (ME) realized that the typical board and board committee structure was driving siloed thinking, so they shifted to more thematic committees. In addition to traditional committee work, board members are assigned to the Mission, Innovation, and Policy Committee or the Financial Affairs Committee, both of which were designed to promote more integrated thinking on the board.
             
Even school accreditation structures are being questioned. For example, the Association of Independent Schools in New England allows its accredited schools to provide curriculum documentation that departs from the traditional grade/department silos, ensuring that the documentation can be as holistic as a school’s program.
 
Cultivate curiosity. Humans will always function with a level of self-interest, so how can we encourage our teachers, staff, and administrators to also focus on developing wholeness in our community? We must leverage another innate and perhaps even stronger human trait: curiosity.
             
Gayle Allen models this concept in her Curious Minds podcast. She asks her guests what makes them curious, drawing out their interests and expertise and illustrating how a guest’s focus connects to the larger world. Her interview with Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, explored how we can “build remarkable teams, the kind that are more than the sum of their parts.” Coyle discussed what kindergartners, who operate without the constraints of social frameworks and divisions, can teach us about group performance. “Kindergartners are completely safe,” he says. “There’s no status, there’s no status management … and they iterate faster and innovate better.” This nimble and connected way of functioning is imperative if schools are going to maximize their resources and adapt—and curiosity is at its root.
             
At Dedham Country Day, we encourage curiosity well beyond kindergarten. Our fifth-grade Genius Hour project asks students to be curious at a time when they are beginning to recognize existing social status and societal frameworks. Genius Hour is modeled on Google’s 20 percent time, in which Google employees can dedicate one whole day each week to exploring their interests and then share them with the Google community. We dedicate time each week for fifth-grade students to learn more about any topic that interests them and then share what they learned with the community. As students explore how animals communicate, or what makes a Sharpie pen permanent, or where our language began, they are embracing their natural innovative thinking.
             
When we strip away entrenched divisions, curiosity can flourish. We can add value to the whole, become open to those around us, and more meaningfully connect to the collective good. Professional development structures that ask teachers to stay focused on their own curiosity and passion can help fuel a culture of connection to the whole and help teachers develop the habit of meeting new information with curiosity as well as judgment.
             
Engage in empathy. By creating opportunities for our community members to understand and share each other’s feelings, we can better identify and work toward our
common goals.
             
ThinkGive, based in Concord, Massachusetts, is a nonprofit that inspires young people in grades 4–8 to use kindness to engage with their world, building empathy, compassion, acceptance, gratitude, and connection. The group’s character education program is called the Challenge.
             
Last year, two Dedham Country Day teams, one made up of faculty and another of fourth-grade students, participated. We worked on developing a deeper awareness of our actions and our perceptions of others as well as expressing empathy and kindness to friends, family, strangers, and global causes. Simple acts, such as listening fully to a friend or thanking a coach for being there, reminded us that we are connected to a greater whole and that each action we take is an opportunity to positively impact those around us.
             
By taking the time to step into others’ shoes, we can understand other perspectives. Last year, a group of Dedham Country Day teachers participated in the National Shadow a Student Challenge to better understand the student experience. One faculty member noted that she not only got to see the day through a student’s eyes but also experience the work of her colleagues. Shadowing a student allowed her to build connections across the curriculum and better understand the wholeness of the student experience.
             
Make meaning explicit. Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, illuminates the research on why meaning is essential to our well-being—and essential to the well-being of our schools. She writes about cultivating meaning through belonging, purpose, moments of awe, and deliberate storytelling. Through these actions, schools and individuals can be fueled by their ability to belong to something larger than themselves.
             
Many schools have made the shift to thinking about the whole child. Now we are ready for the next iteration of this change: a whole-school mindset. To flourish in the future, schools must be more than the sum of their parts. A mindset of wholeness builds synergy, creates more integrated ways of thinking, models the types of organizations to which our students will no doubt belong in the future, and makes school a whole lot more fun.
             
If we continue to focus on strengthening each individual part of a school—and expect this to lead to a nimble institution—we will miss the chance to build a better, more integrated, relevant school. We all know the old saying that elephants never forget. Perhaps if we never forget the whole elephant, then we can build connected, energized schools—ones that students will remember with joy and appreciation.

 
 
Conversation Starters
Want to begin thinking more holistically at your school? Here are some questions to discuss.
 
Think of someone with whom you don’t typically collaborate. Can you think of a way to connect your work to this person’s or department’s work? Who would you reach out to, and how might this connection improve the experience for you or for students?

Draw a diagram of your school’s divisions, departments, grade levels, and administration. Where are the lines of connection strong, and where are they weak or disconnected? How does this structure influence the experience at your school for students, teachers, and families? What would your ideal diagram look like, and how can a whole school mindset help you work toward this goal?

Brainstorm a list of who is not at the table. If you wanted to broaden the voices and perspectives that are impacted by your work, who might you learn from?

Are there pieces of the school that need to become stronger so they can better connect to the whole?
How might you use the connectivity of other parts of the school to add vitality to the pieces that need support or strengthening?

If you were redesigning the physical space of your school to foster connectivity, what changes would you make? What is the smallest step you can take toward this goal tomorrow?

How do your meeting times foster wholeness or division? If you were creating some “pop-up” meetings to better foster whole school connectivity, what combinations of roles would you put together and toward what end?

How do the structures of your board meetings and board committees foster whole school thinking? Can you think of one change you could implement to make your board even more focused on the school as a whole?

How do students experience your school? What would it look like if they drew a diagram of how the pieces of their day fit together and interact? What would this diagram show about what is working well? What would it show about how you might better serve students?
Author
Allison D. Webster

Allison D. Webster is head of school at Dedham Country Day School in Dedham, Massachusetts.

Kate Reardon

Kate Reardon is director of academic technology at Dedham Country Day School in Dedham, Massachusetts.