Monthly Archives: June 2015

Adaptability Project, Day 12

This morning the Adaptability Project group explored the strengths and weaknesses of George School’s Quaker decision-making process in order to come to a better understanding of how we might find approval for our two proposals . . . quickly. (Our goal is to get both proposals approved this coming school year.) Two guests, Drew Smith and Chris Kerr, were invited to join us to share their expertise in Quaker process.

We spent the first half an hour of the morning silently responding to three prompts that were projected on the screen. Here’s what I wrote in my Moleskine; these thoughts don’t represent anyone’s opinions but my own.

Q: What are your understandings of the assumptions underlying the Quaker decision-making process?

  • It’s consensus based
  • It includes the constituencies who will be affected by the decision
  • The clerk seeks to discern “the sense of the meeting”
  • Participants are open to continuing revelation
  • You are encouraged to speak your truth (. . . once)
  • Listening is important

Q: What are the pros and cons of the Quaker decision-making process?

  • Pros:
    • maximizes buy-in
    • people feel heard
    • enfranchisement
    • institutional memory is heard
    • conflict is aired face-to-face
    • group’s wisdom often has the advantage (“to proceed as way opens”)
  • Cons:
    • need to find times when everyone can get together
    • folks with bad attitudes are seldom put in their place
    • conservative gravitational force
    • introverts are too often silent
    • tearful appeals are too powerful

Q: What concerns do you have about our next steps?

  • While our group has been practicing agility, the rest of the faculty has not.
  • Paradigm shifts are hard to swallow. Bite-sized doses might be easier to get approved.
  • [Here I summarize what I wrote in yesterday’s blog post.] My blog post explores Rita Gunther McGrath’s “New Playbook” elements. We are “precise but slow,” and we are going to ask the faculty to make a decision that is “fast and roughly right.” They will want details and more details in the meeting for business, but we need them to say yes or no to the broad strokes.

After lunch we met to strategize, and it was a fascinating and far-ranging conversation which I will not duplicate here. My personal contribution was to try to push the group to imagine “outside the box” tactics for achieving approval for our proposals. We talked about “choice architecture” which was a new piece of jargon for me. Although our larger group conversation didn’t yield a clear outcome, my smaller group made some solid strides after we spun off on our own. I’m sorry that I am not going into greater detail, but there is nothing to be gained by giving up the element of surprise!


Adaptability Project, Day 11

As we begin Week Three of the Adaptability Project’s summer seminar, we are moving into the “process” phase. The “process” that we usually talk about at George School is Quaker process. But this innovation lab that we call the Adaptability Project is also an experiment is moving with agility. Can we find a way to get our proposals approved that doesn’t take two years?

To learn more about how this works at other schools, we Skyped today with the senior leadership team from the Kiski School. They have a successful “task force” system for creating proposals to solve challenges that they face, and, compared to us, they move fairly quickly. As I sat and listened to their stories, it occurred to me that they embody several qualities that Rita Gunther McGrath names in The End of Competitive Advantage. For them, “innovation is an ongoing, systematic process,” not “episodic.” And for them, it is enough to be “fast and roughly right” because they know that decisions that they make will be evaluated and then improved via an iterative process. They aren’t afraid to try something for a couple of years and then declare it a failure, either.

The question that is eating at me is whether our innovation process, which is clearly what McGrath would call “episodic,” can be approved quickly through a “fast and roughly right” mindset if that is not what we are used to. We are going to ask our faculty to embrace “fast and roughly right” instead of our usual “precise but slow” process. Will they go for it? Can we let go a little bit and embrace the uncertainty that comes from acting with deftness? I’ve been making the case to my fellow members of the Adaptability Project group that in order to find success with some aspects of an innovative culture, we need to try to exhibit all of them. Some other qualities from McGrath’s playbook that I think we could use would be: “Intelligent failures encouraged [. . .] Experimental orientation [. . .] Broader constituencies involved in strategy process, with diverse inputs.” That last one, by the way, is one of the reasons that I keep on blogging about the project.

Reading “Excellent Sheep”

On Friday the conversation at the Adaptability Project seminar briefly turned to a book called Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. It sounded like something I needed to read, so I downloaded it to my iPad and have spent the last two days devouring it.

The book is a deadly accurate takedown of the ridiculousness of elite education in the United States, which, as you probably already know, flows backwards from U.S. News and World Reports “Best Colleges” to the admissions offices of the elite colleges and universities, to the test-prep industry, and finally to high schools. Deresiewicz’s particular contribution is to focus on what this system is doing to the intellectual development (and psycho-emotional development) of the students at the top of the heap, the students who are at the elite institutions, earning straight A’s. Deresiewicz provides ample first-hard evidence, and heaps of anecdotal evidence, that those students are unhappy, not intellectually engaged, and missing the only opportunity they’ll get to develop a life of the mind.

Deresiewicz is a sympathetic guide for me, since we both attended Columbia (albeit eleven years apart) and both have taught English (him at Yale, me at a couple of prep schools). He doesn’t need to work hard to convince me that all students need to study the humanities. It is interesting that he goes out on a limb and seriously counsels students today to avoid the Ivies, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst, and suggests that their best chance to receive a serious education in college probably lies at the second-tier liberal arts colleges. (He mentions Kenyon, Wesleyan, and Mount Holyoke as examples. Good schools, if you ask me.) Exactly who his intended audience is seems to keep shifting; sometimes I feel like the book is being written for other educators, sometimes it wants to address students, sometimes it reads like a warning to parents raising teenagers. That’s okay; I’d recommend that everyone connected to a preparatory school read it.

Ultimately, the book affirms the choices that I’ve made for myself. I didn’t chase after grades in college, didn’t throw myself at competitive internships, and didn’t take a job in consulting or on Wall St. just because everyone else was doing it. I dropped off that path, as Deresiewicz recommends, and ended up as a humble school teacher. Deresiewicz is right: you aren’t a “loser” if you aren’t the CEO of a Fortune 500 company by the time you reach middle age. Framing adult outcomes for our teenagers as a binary with only “winner” or “loser” as the possibilities is no doubt contributing to the increased diagnoses of anxiety and depression that we are seeing among high school and college students. (Once you get over the homesickness, if you experience any, college ought to be the best cure for depression available!)

I’ve been reflecting on the issues that Excellent Sheep presents all year during the run-up to the Adaptability Project’s summer seminar. I keep coming back to the insidious wickedness of the college rankings racket and the negative distortion beam that they cast on America’s phenomenal higher education industry. Solving this problem is beyond my limited influence, but I must continue to think about ways in which I can use my career to lessen the impact of the collateral damage.

Flying the Flag (Adaptability Project, Day 10)

Sorry for the tease: This post isn’t about the controversy over the Confederate flag or a celebration of SCOTUS’s decision regarding marriage equality. It’s about flying the flag of my tribe. On Day 10 of the Adaptability Project summer seminar, we discussed whether or not it was okay to blog about some of the details of our work; especially since part of our process is “stealthstorming.” There are good arguments on both sides of the issue, with some folks favoring stealth and some favoring transparency. In the end, I feel compelled to blog about the Adaptability Project because I am who I am: Hoist the Jolly Roger! I’m a Connected Educator!


Many Connected Edus are influenced by Dave Burgess’ book, Teach Like a Pirate.

On the first morning of the Adaptability Project’s summer seminar, I shared a chart with my colleagues that showed the structural problem with independent schools’ business model. (See this post.) The chart ended up in the presentations of both of the teams who were selected as the winners by the shark tank. Where did I first see that chart? I found it (via Twitter) on the blog of a fellow Connected Educator a few days earlier. (Tap –> Send to Pocket . . . trigger an IFTTT formula –> Send to Evernote) My fellow Connected Edus are out there sharing the best of what they know, night and day, and their knowledge and inspiration strengthens me. But it isn’t enough to take without giving. The dues you pay to be a Connected Educator are simple: You have to share, too.

Why do we do this? Why do we stay up late into the night hammering out blog posts that might be read by five people? Why do wake up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to participate in #satchat? Why do we get to conferences early to participate in an “unconference”? No one is paying us to do these things, and to most of our colleagues, these activities go unnoticed. What’s the point? Why bother?

Passion is the answer. Passion for our students, passion to build a better education system, passion for self-improvement, passion to use the most effective methods, passion to know what’s going on, passion for true comradery. We believe that there is strength in numbers, and when we get together to talk to each other on Twitter, we are usually trending. Is the American education system broken? If so, we’ll fix it. This isn’t a movement that’s content to sit around and accept the world as we find it. We challenge the status quo, we push for evidence, we are never satisfied. And when we see something that’s awesome, we retweet it or repost it, one thousand times if necessary.

These days I have two sets of colleagues. There are my fellow faculty members at George School, and then there is my PLN. The faculty at GS is limited to the number of people we need to run the school and educate 540 students in a residential setting. The potential pool from which to recruit one’s PLN is staggering.

Looking for a Head of School? You can’t do better than the enlightened (and argumentative) @JosieHolford. [blogs at] Or check out @gregbamford or @zacklehman or, of course, @daar17.

Need to see what great teachers are up to? You better check out @Smacclintic. [blogs at] Or check out the tireless @mssackstein. [blogs at] Or my new PLN-pal @TrNancy13. [blogs at]

Need a new dean for your Quaker school? I’m a little jealous of my FSL rival over at Westtown @lindamcguire_ . [blogs at]

Now that I’ve gotten started on this list, I realize that I need to include about a hundred other people. All of my old #TABSchat friends, the moderators and contributors of #edtechchat, definitely the usual group at #isedchat, the deity @cybraryman1 [], @thenerdyteacher [], @TheWeirdTeacher [], and on and on. And you better follow The Pirate Captain @burgessdave []!

Some of these folks blog and microblog for an audience of their peers. Others are blogging for their students, or for the parents of their students. Some are blogging for an academic audience in higher ed. Some just want to get their thoughts down, and a blog beats paper because you can search it and hyperlink it. Maybe some of these folks want to be “thought leaders” or “build their brand” or whatever. That’s a fool’s errand, but if it leads to a generous sharing of ideas, I’m not going to judge. It takes a lot of fuel — emotional, intellectual, and spiritualĀ  fuel — to get out of bed every morning and work in the field of education. The Connected Educator movement is my I.V. drip of pure passion, and when I’ve got a bag of serum to spare, I need to get that thing hooked up to help all of the other teachers and administrators out there.

The school world would be a better place if everyone got connected. Sure, there would be more noise and tedious repetition. But the good ideas rise to the top. The ideas I’ve been working on with my teammates in the Adaptability Project were fueled by the Connected Educators movement, so I feel obliged to report back to my PLN on how their influence finds expression through this work. I’m proud of what we’re doing at George School this summer, and yes, I want everyone to know about it. We should fly our flag proudly.

Coda: I’d like to dedicate this post to the memory of Grant Wiggins. [His blog, now silent, is here.] I first became aware of Grant’s work at the Klingenstein Summer Institute in 2004 where he gave a day-long introduction to UbD. Then I worked with him briefly when he was hired to do some training for the faculty at The Hun School of Princeton when I worked there. Finally, when I came to George School in 2006, I discovered that Grant was a current parent, and three of his children are now GS alums. (I mentioned my proficiency with UbD in my interview when I applied to work here. I had no idea that Grant was part of the GS community at the time. I’m convinced it helped me get the job.) There are countless teachers online trying to break through the clutter and become “thought leaders.” As far as I’m concerned, Grant was one of the tiny handful who deserve that moniker. He was generous in his online interactions with scores of teachers who looked up to him, and he modeled civility in a Twittersphere that has no referees. I haven’t entirely finished processing the fact that Grant is no longer with us. His passing has left a giant hole right in the center of the educational blogging community. I don’t see how anyone is going to be able to fill that void.


Exhale! Adaptability Project, Day Nine

I am spiking an imaginary football as I write the opening sentences of this post. Sometimes when things get messy, they still work out for the best. If you’ve been reading my posts about the Adaptability Project over the last week and half, then you know that I had a lot of worries about my group’s presentation. I can breathe a sigh of relief now. Here’s how things played out.


Our Head of School, Nancy, put together a panel of five judges (“the shark tank”) to assess the proposals generated by the Adaptability Project’s four teams. From left to right, they are Katherine Falk, Peter Vari, John Weingart, Drew Smith, and Gloria Denoon. The judges are mostly former George School parents and board members with a range of relevant business experience. Drew Smith is the current head of Friends Council on Education, so his participation was especially meaningful as it helps shine the spotlight on GS’s innovative summer work. The pitches were each roughly half an hour in length, with about ten minutes permitted for Q&A. Things ran a little slowly, so the presentations began at 9am and ended at 12:15. A summary of the four proposals follows:

Group 1 (Michael and Travis) — “Leadership Institute for Direct Action and Social Justice” This duo proposed a summer program to expand/revive George School’s erstwhile leadership position in service learning. Hopefully the summer pilot would expand to continue into the school year over time.

Group 2 (Alyssa, Kevin, Melaina, and me) — “Technology Renaissance” Our group proposed embracing blended learning, joining an online consortium, hiring an academic technology integrationist, and allowing more independent study opportunities for our students. We argued that we could halt the growth in FTEs and improve the depth and breadth of our academic program at the same time.

Group 3 (Colette and Debbie) — “Proposal for a Fourth Semester” This duo proposed scaling up our summer offerings to become a legitimate term. Students and teachers could study/teach over the summer, perhaps in place of another term. We would pair with a college (or several) to offer classes that might earn students college credits while they are still in high school. Non-GS students would be able to participate.

Group 4 (Ben, Kim, and Rebecca) — “Re-visioning Curriculum for Agility, Advantage, and Real Value” This group asked us to imagine how we might best serve each individual student and support his or her passions. To do this they propose changing departmental distribution requirements to create more opportunities for students to craft individualized paths through the curriculum. This would align our curriculum and requirements much more closely with our peer schools, some of which we perceive to be outpacing us in assorted areas.

As my colleagues and I chewed nervously on the lunch provided to us from 12:15 to 1:00pm, the sharks deliberated in secrecy. When we were called back into the conference room at 1:00, Drew Smith wasted little time in announcing that Groups 2 and 4 had the winning proposals that have been selected to go forward. Now last Wednesday, on the third day of our our three-week seminar, I wrote on my blog that it might be very interesting if the sharks selected my group’s proposal and the proposal from the group that was working on graduation requirements. That is in fact exactly how things played out, so if the faculty approves these two plans at some point this year, we will have a dramatic new vision for our academic program. Students will have far more choice in how they want to follow their passions and interests, and we’ll have a more student-centered pedagogy with a ton of cool interdisciplinary classes available for them to take. Getting from here to there is scary as heck, and I have to admit that I am probably not the best person to steer that ship.

“The changes aren’t going to be disruptive; they are going to be adaptive.” — Nancy

It would be petty of me to dissect the reasons why my group was selected as a winner, but I do want to confess that I think we had two advantages. For one thing, the sharks selected the two largest groups, and my quartet of teammates was the largest group. This meant that we had more personnel to do research, think through ideas, and create the presentation. The two groups that were not selected were both duos, and it was harder for them to shape a complicated proposal with many moving parts in just eight days. Our other advantage might have been . . . this blog. Two of the five sharks have been reading my posts, and even though I am sure that they were completely unbiased in their judging, I feel like I helped myself by controlling the narrative. My victory today was therefore a victory for the Connected Educators movement, whose inspiration is the reason why I write these lengthy missives. (And thank you, John Weingart, for the CD you burned for me of tracks that match the tone of my blog. I need to listen a couple more times to think deeply about the message you are trying to send me!)

Everyone agrees that the social justice institute concept proposed by Michael and Travis (Group 1) deserves to become a reality, too. The proposal didn’t necessarily offer a solution to change our unsustainable business model, but it presented a vision of who we want to be that all of us embrace. I imagine that it will become a reality regardless of whether or not it has the official endorsement of the Adaptability Project. In fact, it could fit well into the “Contemplative Studies” structure that Group 4 is suggesting is the future of our Religion Department. And Colette and Debbie’s proposal (Group 3) isn’t just going to die, either. Colette is always doing innovative things with GS’s summer programs, and I expect that some of her proposal today will find expression in programming we offer in coming summers.

After the announcement of the winners, the sharks lingered for a while as we debriefed the process. Eventually, only Drew Smith was left, and he stayed to speak with us for about an hour. (He is coming to do a session with us on Quaker decision-making next week, and he has lots of professional reasons to be interested in this project). We talked for a while about how we might go about selling the two winning proposals to the faculty. Peter Vari was especially helpful on that topic, and he reminded us that we had done a sales job today, and we just needed to reconfigure it for the new audience. Drew reminded us that Quakers are supposed to be good at continuing revelation, so we shouldn’t be so pessimistic about our colleagues accepting change. We got on a long conversation about the health of Friends schools across the country, and what the future might hold for them. (Consolidation?)

Finally, Nancy asked us all for takeaways from the first half of the three-week seminar that we might want to write about as we seek ways to promote our work. (I don’t seem to have a problem in that area.) Many of my colleagues spoke about the value of collaboration, and I certainly echo that sentiment. My teammates carried me, as far as I tell. Alyssa is the most technologically skillful member of the Adaptability Project group. Without her, we would have been nowhere, and she probably reduced the amount of time it would have taken us to put the presentation together by 50%. Kevin is a former professional actor, and his opening narration for our presentation was a highlight of the entire day. Melaina has done the most research on blended learning, and she kept our feet to the fire when it came to making claims that were backed by sound data about outcomes. Since I’m moving into a non-teaching role next year, these are the people who are going to have to wave the flag for blended learning. I was very proud to work with them.

There are six days left before the seminar is over. We have more guest speakers coming to work with us next week, and we need a plan to get these two proposals through the faculty. I know that Nancy has a plan, so stay tuned, and we’ll all find out what comes next.

Adaptability Project, Day Eight

It’s 5:40pm on Wednesday night as I sit down to write this post. The Adaptability Project is supposed to let out at 3:30 every afternoon, but my three teammates and I stayed in the MDA Library for an extra two hours to work on our presentation. The other three groups that are presenting to the judges tomorrow were done way ahead of time, but even with the extra prep time, we are worried that we aren’t quite as polished as we would like to be. Our proposal is a big one, an audacious one, and we need to choreograph four people handing off to each other through several transitions. We have two embedded videos that we are going to show, too.

Nancy, our Head of School, has repeatedly stressed storytelling and the emotional appeal, so we are starting off with a snippet of George School’s winter greeting video from last year, which is a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It is kind of hokey, but we’ll get a chuckle from our audience and the judges, plus we’ll set the tone for our dream-big ideas. I’m not completely aware of the specifics of the other three groups’ proposals, but I know ours is the biggest. We are suggesting that we hire an academic technology integrationist, make a major push into blended learning, join an online consortium, and scale up independent study opportunities for our students.

Do we think that we are going to be one of the two proposals selected? Frankly, we aren’t that confident. If the “sharks” pick the winners based on the quality of the presentations themselves (one of the six criteria on the rubric), we aren’t going to win. On the other hand, if they select the winners based on which proposals truly set the school on a path to financial sustainability by reengineering our business model, then I think they will have to pick our proposal. Our proposal offers a pathway to grow academic offerings without adding FTEs and additional expenses; I don’t believe the other proposals can make that claim. I’ll be very interested to see what my colleague Colette has whipped up, though. I know that she is working on a plan to go to a 12-month model and add a summer term to our academic year, and depending on how she has envisioned the finances, that could be very, very interesting. Do I want to teach over the summer? No, but some people do.

Melaina discusses blended learning at her alma mater as our team rehearses for the big day.

Melaina discusses blended learning at her alma mater as our team rehearses for the big day.

This is a short post tonight — I need to decompress! Tomorrow I’ll take notes on the other presentations and summarize them on my blog. We’ll know whom the judges selected, and we’ll have debriefed the process. Our group is presenting in the number two slot, so we’ll have the heat off of us by 10:30am. I hope I don’t choke. By the way, my little side proposal isn’t going to be presented to the judges tomorrow, but it may yet live to see the light of day at a faculty meeting next year.

To borrow a phrase from George School’s Quaker founders, please “hold me in the light” tomorrow morning. And if you can get to Newtown, PA at 9am, come to the Molly Dodd Anderson Library and join the audience!

Adaptability Project, Day Seven

The noose is beginning to tighten, and the Adaptability Project group is feeling the propinquity of Thursday’s presentations. It feels like angst.

Nancy continued her pattern of starting our day with a TED video. This one is from Julian Treasure on the topic of public speaking.

As she did early last week, Nancy stressed that a good presentation/proposal needs an emotional appeal (pathos). I just love that Treasure’s talk uses the word “prosody” and assumes that people know that that means. (English teachers do!)

After the TED video, our teams split up to get down to work, but I lingered in the conference room to talk to Scott, our Assoc. Head of School, about my side project (a proposal to bring adaptability to George School in an ongoing fashion). Nancy came over and joined us, so I spent about 30 minutes sitting between the HOS and Assoc. HOS giving a pitch about how we should change our internal committee structure to encourage innovation along the lines of what Rita Gunther McGrath lays out in The End of Competitive Advantage. Scott and Nancy agreed with most of my ideas, and Nancy thought I should present this to the other members of the Adaptability group tomorrow. However, when the entire group met up at 3pm today, Nancy asked me to explain it right then and there. I didn’t have my computer plugged into a projector, so I just gave a two-minute summary without my slides. My colleagues agreed with my assertion that our existing committee structure makes it difficult for innovative ideas to ever reach faculty meeting for approval, and they would support my ideas for fixing that in principle. I apologize for writing in such generalities; if my presentation ever gets a formal airing, I’ll post it to my blog. In the meantime, I gave my colleagues food for thought.

Upstairs in the MDA Library, my teammates were working to try to get our presentation ready for Thursday. Our group is the farthest from being ready to present (there was an informal poll taken at the end of the day), but we feel like that indicates the complexity and depth of our proposal, not a lack of organization or diligence on our part. I spent about an hour today making a five-year financial impact chart for our presentation, and then I worked on a five-year roadmap for how our proposal affects FTEs. As I’ve written before, we’ve come to see that the potential cost savings in online education and blended learning are small, but embracing these models could ultimately have a large impact on the structures of our business model. We could potentially break out of the vicious cycle in which independent schools find themselves. Families want more services from us and more academic offerings, but to provide those things we have to keep staffing up. This causes tuition to rise faster than CPI year after year. Obviously, the trend is unsustainable.

Our team met with Scott in the early afternoon to talk about the weakness I mentioned in last night’s post: How will we assess the success of our plan over the years after it is implemented, and whose job is it to do that? Scott allayed our concerns and felt that there is enough administrative bandwidth in place to do that. (I read a listicle recently that was bashing overused corporate jargon, and “bandwidth” was on the list. But I love it!) Online courses are externally assessed by their very nature, and many of the courses that our students might elect to take are AP classes, so we’d get those scores. Since we recently started giving the PSAT to our sophomores (our juniors have taken it forever), we now have more data that we can use to assess changes in our students’ verbal and mathematical abilities, at least. Also, beginning next year, we’ve spun out some administrative duties into a new Director of Professional Development and Evaluation, so that admin can help monitor the progress of our plan should it be selected as a winner.

We spent the rest of the afternoon dropping our slides into a rough order, blocking out the major parts of the presentation and who will say what, when. As we worked on the introduction, which, alas, I will be tasked with delivering, we went searching for online videos that introduce the concept of blended learning. I think we will end up showing a couple of minutes of this one:

I’m very worried about making it to the finish line. I’m going to be pulled out of the Adaptability Project for several hours in the middle of the day tomorrow because I need to interview some candidates for a couple of positions that we still have open. Also, our wonderful new Interim Dean of Students will be on campus tomorrow, and I need to meet with her. It’s poor timing since tomorrow is the last day to prep before we face the “shark tank.” My teammates and I will probably need to act like grad school students, schedule a working dinner, and keep going well into the evening. We are all passionate about this project and don’t want to fall on our faces, but we have family members who were hoping to see us now that “vacation” has begun. We give a lot of ourselves in boarding school land.