Slow Is Fast: Approaching Innovation With Intention

Summer 2021

By Nolan LaVoie

ISFinal_Interior.jpgThe pandemic has unearthed the good, the bad, and the ugly in our schools and in our approach to educating young people. And while the 2021–2022 academic year is likely going to look like a gradual down-sloping trail following a horrendous climb, our packs will still be heavy with critical issues like teacher burnout, delayed changes, political upheaval, racial disparities, lower enrollment, and depleted budgets. Now it’s time to reckon with the problems that have surfaced because of this disruption, and no doubt, given the gravity of the year that was, we will want to move swiftly to find solutions, to move quickly with sweeping change. But we must be intentional with this urge and approach change like a tinkerer, always improving by failing small and building on success.
In 2010, NAIS published a report on the future of independent schools. In the opening essay, “Making the Case for Schools of the Future,” the authors describe the new mindset of students: instantaneous, entertainment-oriented, multitasker, parallel processor, and digital immigrant who demands independent work, wants learning to be fun, and scoffs at experts in deference to “collective knowledge.” There is an assumption that schools of the future will harness this mindset to become more student-centered, produce better learning, and create lasting impact. The lasting impact we all want for students, however, will be made by challenging this mindset, not by honoring it.
Are students well-served by demanding anything instantly? What is the value of learning that is instant? Is learning ever instant? Educators must begin to design programs and curricula to push against the way students are being manipulated into thinking that what isn’t fun isn’t worth doing, to design experiences that employ “sleep as an instructional strategy” (a phrase the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning coined), and that disincentivize multitasking as a functional approach to learning that sticks. Schools will not thrive post-pandemic if they continue to bloat their programming to an unmanageable and ineffective size because students, parents, administrators, and teachers have either hedonically adapted to what’s currently en vogue or ignored the school’s mission and vision to demand experiences beyond the school’s scope. The schools shaping the future post-pandemic will practice austerity, get back to what they do best, and avoid being engulfed by the alluring prospect of reacting to an unknown future by promising the moon and not delivering.
This future of schools report also argues that schools should avoid “slouching” toward the future, referencing William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, and that they will do students a disservice if they straddle the fence between 20th and 21st century teaching and learning. It’s time to put this unhelpful dichotomy to rest; its existence pushes schools to make sweeping change not necessarily because the changes produce better learning, but because of an ungrounded fear of being left behind. It seems the authors of this report forgot the fable of the tortoise and the hare—the tinkerer, not the bulldozer, wins the long game, though the tinkerer is less fashionable these days. As school leaders continue to think about the future, they must think with clarity, not certainty. They must build trust with multiple constituents, and to do that, they must be the tortoise who stays the course.

What Tortoises Do

Innovation; mind, brain, and education research-informed pedagogy; student-centered programs. These practices are essential for schools to best serve students, now and in the future. But we should also be cautious as we enter a post-COVID-19 world. There will be plenty of edu-prophets trying to predict the future; many edtech companies and entrepreneurs will work hard to sell educators and school leaders on the idea of changing who we are for who we could become. This brand of certainty is a mistake, an example of hubris.
The pandemic has revealed how amazing our teachers and teaching teams are, and we should create space for our current teams to brainstorm the future of our individual schools. To do that, it’s critical to scale down and be grassroots. We must iterate and build teams of faculty and students who will tackle the problems that currently exist at our schools, including everything from addressing racial inequities and student wellness to creating more accurate grading practices and inclusive curricula. Using design thinking methods, like design sprints—part of a process to develop multiple solutions to test small, robust, or lingering problems—is a start. The resulting pilot projects are meant to have a short shelf life, and by failing forward, we will be able to “turn bullets into cannonballs,” as author Jim Collins challenges leaders to do in Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. Fire bullets using design sprints—less effort, time, and commitment—until you find the right target (i.e., direction), then send in the cannonball and make the sweeping change. But during the pilot period, gain clarity, solicit feedback, and measure outcomes to identify which programs best serve students and which should be set aside. Small epi-cycles within the larger school universe—that’s the atmosphere of the future. Though it would be nice, there is no real demarcation line between the past and the future, between 20th century and 21st century learning—there is always only the present and the horizon. This is not an argument for malpractice or the continuation of ineffective pedagogy, but an important opportunity to acknowledge the messiness of change, its human side and all of the beauty and obstacles that come with that.
By approaching change in this way, solutions often get more buy-in, are more mission-aligned, and are more affordable. School growth becomes part of the curriculum—we treat our programing like we do our students’ writing assignments. We must create draft after draft, always learning from our mistakes and knowing we will never be fully satisfied with the end product. Get rid of labels like 20th and 21st century learning. We educators do love acronyms and labels, but let’s face it, STEM is just good science and math, and we’ve been doing that for years and continuing to grow.

A Problem That Needs Tinkering

In Jean Twenge’s controversial but seminal book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us, she acknowledges the continued rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide in our young people today. Whether that’s caused by the use of social media and smartphones or the decline in religion is not the point here; it’s that many of our students are suffering. As we continue to learn more about the machinations of social media platforms and the kind of mind control they have (watch The Social Dilemma), we see that technology is designed to develop mindsets that benefit the producers of technology, not necessarily the mindsets that make our students successful and happy, now or in the future. Our students aren’t helpless in this, but they do need our support.
In Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, the positive psychologist Martin Seligman makes a compelling argument that helplessness can be learned and that pessimists are more likely than optimists to be affected by feelings of helplessness and mild depression. After familiarizing ourselves with the book, we recently asked ourselves, “What if schools tinkered with this problem—the rise in anxiety and depression—by creating an applied problem-solving class?” We could assign Seligman’s book to a small group of faculty and students who participate in the class and pose the following questions: What structures do we have in place at our school that might make a student more prone to learn helplessness? What can we do early in a student’s career to identify a tendency toward pessimism and teach them the skills to be more optimistic? As we come out of the pandemic, students and adults will need to spend some time learning how to be optimistic again, and this is exactly the sort of bullet that can turn into a cannonball and address a real issue we will face in the 2021–2022 school year and beyond. 
Anxiety and depression have been among our greatest concerns with the forced switch to remote learning. When students had to be in a room, alone, sometimes quietly, many of them struggled. Where were their resources? How had we prepared them for this moment? There will be moments, without a pandemic, when students find themselves in this position again, like in a dormitory on Friday night, alone and far from home. What students have been doing in response to those real problems, their “explanatory style” in Seligman’s words, has not been good for many of them. For example, how many students, after accruing several Zoom absences, have decided to completely disengage rather than connect with the teacher and try to create a plan for their success, telling themselves that they are a burden? And if Seligman’s research is accurate, that our explanatory styles can lead to happiness or depression, then schools of the future must take this into account. It’s not enough to combat the “personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations” Seligman says pessimists use “for bad events,” though that will help significantly. Seligman also advocates for the development of a life of meaning as a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety, defining a life of meaning as “attach[ing] [yourself] to something larger than you are.” Independent schools are best positioned to help students find this greater something. It’s an obligation for mental health. It’s an obligation for a healthy future.
“All of humanity’s problems,” Blaise Pascal explained in Pensées, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Though almost 400 years old, this wisdom still has teeth, despite the calendar year or the new tools we hold. What is required to sit quietly in a room alone? Patience, attention, comfort with silence, the ability to sit with one’s thoughts. These are good things, necessary abilities to live a good life. How are our future schools designing their programs to build patience? To practice sustained attention? To allow for silence? To push against the instantaneous, entertainment-oriented, multitasker? 
We are the designers of our future, and it will take time and energy and will not happen overnight. Slow is fast. Be the tortoise.

Go Deeper

“Our faculty and staff are tired, but innovation and movement energize,” Brent Kaneft and Nolan LaVoie write in “Beyond Survival: Reimagining Why Independent Schools Exist,” a July 2020 Independent Ideas blog post. Read how they assess their schools’ basic needs in a crisis and reexamine their purpose to make an action plan for the future.
Nolan LaVoie

Nolan LaVoie is dean of students and assistant headmaster at Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, Virginia.