The Right Conditions for School Transformation

Summer 2021

By Jackie Wolking

Terrarium-Draft.jpgSchools were forced to innovate in response to the pandemic in ways they never imagined they could. And as we start to move out of a school year unlike any other, one of the most important questions for schools will be whether they will harness what they’ve learned about their own nimbleness. Will it lead to a higher prioritization of innovation work that seeks to reimagine and create better schools for all students?
By and large, schools’ dedication to and capacity for innovation work is lacking in K–12 education. In 2018, the EdWeek Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of 500 K–12 teachers, principals, and district leaders to learn more about their views on innovation. Among the survey findings: Only 17% of educators stated that innovation was a “very high” priority at their school; more than a third of respondents said that workload, day-to-day deadlines, or time pressures were the biggest barriers to innovation work.
The pandemic has disrupted an education system that many assert was already losing its relevance, notes the World Economic Forum in an April 2020 article, “The Rise of Online Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The article highlights an imperative for a better educational system, citing Yuval Noah Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which describes how “schools continue to focus on traditional academic skills and rote learning, rather than on skills such as critical thinking and adaptability, which will be more important for success in the future.”
The pandemic has also revealed a gap in students’ abilities to direct their own learning—a necessary skill to thrive in the 21st century—as students have been at home and learning on their own. The self-directed learning model, as defined in the recently released report “Self-Directed Learning: A Landscape Analysis and Recommendations for Transforming Educational Practice,” is one that offers learners—in the context of an interdependent community of peers, trained educators, and caring adults—the ability to choose the process, content, skills, learning pathways, and outcomes of learning, with the guidance, accountability, and support of others. 
Now more than ever, schools are ripe for reimagination—the skills taught, the pedagogical approaches, the focus on social-emotional learning, the flexibility of schedule, and more. And there is an even greater imperative to design schools for equity. The pandemic-induced school closures have disproportionately affected low-income, Black, and Hispanic students—populations that independent schools historically have underserved. Transformational visions for the future of school, therefore, should live at the intersection of innovation and equity: Schools must simultaneously cultivate new skills and mindsets that prepare learners for uncertainty while breaking down the systems of oppression that have long fostered inequity in schools.
How will we get there? What’s required for schools to move in this direction, to make these large-scale shifts away from traditional education? Is “innovation” enough?

Testing Assumptions

When the NAIS Strategy Lab team thinks about the future of schools, we think about the necessity of nimbleness in our innovation work. We’ve attempted to cultivate nimbleness in all of our Strategy Lab work to date; in our workshops and sessions, we teach this through our “project-level innovation design” process in which any school can filter an unpacked challenge or opportunity through a series of frameworks to create prototypes that test small-scale solutions. The ultimate goal is that over time, as this iterative and creative process is repeated, schools build an innovation disposition, which results in a more responsive culture and an increased rate of growth. While honing this practice is key to any innovation work, it assumes that schools have the time, capacity, and momentum to continuously innovate, and that a school’s incremental innovations are tied to a larger vision that improves outcomes for all students.
But we realized—especially in light of the pandemic—that we needed to test these assumptions. We were curious about how to define an innovation disposition, which included big questions about schools’ readiness to innovate and how they maintained momentum toward lofty goals. In the fall of 2020, the NAIS Strategy Lab team partnered with the Institute for Self-Directed Learning, an organization focused on innovatively redesigning traditional school models with the student at the center. Our work with the group included a consultative, deep dive with four independent schools from across the country to uncover their innovation disposition through a framework originally developed at Transcend Education called the Conditions for Innovation. The framework outlines five conditions related to innovation work: conviction, clarity, capacity, coalition, and culture. While it can be used in a number of ways, we used the framework as a team reflection tool to explore our assumptions about schools’ innovation work, build consensus within school teams, and support strategic priority-setting depending on what the school uncovered. We turned the framework into a team reflection tool with numerous thought-provoking questions that aligned to each of the conditions’ indicators. School teams reflected on these questions collaboratively and asynchronously before coming together to discuss with us their self-identified strengths, areas for growth, and the conditions they wanted to prioritize to make progress on their innovation cultures.
Our work with the pilot group of schools helped us deeply examine the multitude of issues that linger below the surface of innovation work. The capacity condition helped us understand what was at the heart of our first assumption—that schools are dedicating time, funding, and personnel to innovation work.
The pandemic has understandably overwhelmed and exhausted everyone, so it was no surprise that high-level innovation work had slowed in many schools. But the school leaders we spoke to had, in pre-pandemic times, dedicated innovation funds, strong or budding cultures of risk-taking, and diverse stakeholder committees serving as the catalyst for well-scoped innovations. They were hopeful these structures would not be lost in the pandemic, but these leaders understood the dire need to lead with empathy and focus on trust-building to maintain buy-in for their innovation goals during a crisis. The schools built consensus on this leadership strategy to keep their momentum, yet it begged the question: To what end were they now innovating? Were their innovation agendas linked to pre-pandemic and, in some ways, outdated school models? What would a new innovation agenda look like if it were grounded in what the pandemic forced schools to reconsider: the use of time, the design of physical space, the focus on social and emotional well-being, the ubiquity of technology, the equity of systems, and more? 
These questions revealed a fundamental tension about whether incremental change actually paves the path toward transformational change, and it ultimately helped us dive more deeply into our second assumption. The schools we worked with had the conviction for the transformational vision of a future school—one of the schools we worked with described “blowing up the system.” However, when we examined the means to achieve a large-scale, transformational overhaul of a school model, we uncovered some key constraints. The clarity with which that transformational future school model was outlined varied across schools in how crisply it was articulated, either in writing or in beliefs held across stakeholders. It also varied in how strategically it was guiding current incremental innovations.
For the schools that did have clearly stated and widely held future school models, the constraint that mattered most was simply whether they were a startup school or one that had long been in operation. The obvious point and the toughest to grapple with in true innovation-driven transformation is that most, if not all, of our schools are not startup schools and were built on the traditional education system. The tradition of education—the academic calendar, bell schedules, age-based grade levels, assessment practices, content coverage, admission policies, tuition structures, histories and identities—influences the rituals and mindsets of the families our schools serve, making it much easier for schools to focus on incremental changes, or innovating around the edges, rather than disrupting their core models.
Often schools will disrupt the “low-hanging fruit” of transformation like tweaks to daily schedules, yearly academic calendars, seat time requirements, entrance exams, and current assessment methods. These are often created as choices that families can opt into rather than systemic structures built into the fabric of the schools. To be systemic, these changes are often implemented in the form of a completely new school, which explains the prevalence of microschools and online schools that deliver education differently, separate from the way education has always been done.
Knowing this only makes the need for a truly transformative future school model, one based in innovation and equity, more urgent. As Ann Mei Chang writes in her book Lean Impact, schools should “Think big. Be audacious in the difference you aspire to make, basing your goals on the size of the real need in the world rather than what seems incrementally achievable.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Starting with a team-based reflection tool like the Conditions for Innovation will help school leaders develop a deeper understanding of how their school is situated in response to the real need in the world that Chang writes about. The reflection process will also force schools to ask and answer the necessary questions about whether their current school model is perpetuating a system of oppression and whether the implicit decisions school leaders make every day need to be reevaluated.
This continuous interrogation of the innovation and equity landscape, coupled with the dedicated capacity and processes to do the work, can lead to a creative, supportive, and liberated school model for the future.  

What Does Transformation Look Like?

For school leaders and educators to craft or refine future school models, it’s important to see existing examples of equitable, transformational schools out in the world today.
Transcend Education’s Canopy Project allows users to search for innovative school models and filter for core practices like designing for equity or creating a culture of anti-racist action.

The Innovative Schools Cooperative is a national network of independent schools representing the leading edge of education research, theory, and practice.
Project DEFY is an organization challenging conventional mainstream education by enabling communities around the world to create their own self-learning spaces called Nooks, where each individual can design their own education.
100 Roads is a colearning movement that envisions the school of the future as a combination of online and offline communities where families come together to help each other build the unique education that serves their needs.
These frameworks, tools, and communities can help schools’ collaboratively navigate this challenge.
The 228 Accelerator is a community dedicated to scaling transformative ideas with an equity focus.
The Co-Designing Schools Toolkit shows the collaboration of School Retool and the Teachers Guild.
Jackie Wolking

Jackie Wolking is director of innovative programs at NAIS.