I returned from the TABS Annual Conference in Boston two days ago, and I’m still ruminating on it. TABS is the professional association of boarding schools, and my school typically sends a cohort to the conference every three years. Therefore, the last time I attended was in 2014. (You can read about that experience, which was defined by our participation in the street protests, here.) I wasn’t sure that I wanted to attend this year, since I’m a Connected Educator and believe that the best professional development happens on Twitter, but then I learned that Grant Lichtman was leading an all-day preconference workshop, and I knew I had to go.
Grant Lichtman‘s thinking on school change and the forces threatening independent schools was a key ingredient in my work on the Adaptability Project two years ago, and a recent video I had seen of him talking about where our industry will be in 25 years really grabbed my attention. (A lot of my affection for Lichtman’s work is confirmation bias: I have similar, pessimistic ideas about what the future holds for independent schools.) Lichtman argues that in 25 years, independent schools will fall into one of three categories:
- Doing great as a result of insulation from market forces due to financial independence, reputation, brand, etc. (e.g. schools with $1 billion endowments today.)
- Surviving because of distinctive programming that sets them apart.
- On life support/dying/dead.
Schools that know that they aren’t in the first category (and among boarding schools, there are only about a dozen that should feel confident that they are) should take heed! We must start laying the strategic groundwork to be among the schools in the second category, or else discover (too late) that we are in the third.
Lichtman also puts forward some techno-futurist prognostications that I am not sure that I buy. He argues that we are moving towards a future version of the internet called the cognitosphere, and we should be preparing for that shift by changing our mindsets as schools in the direction of information creation. I haven’t spoken to the experts that Lichtman has spoken to that lead him to this conclusion, so I don’t feel qualified to offer much analysis. But Lichtman stressed the importance of A.I. and V.R. in the school landscape of the future, and I’m the dude who created a chatbot for his office about 15 months ago. We should be doing more to work with A.I. and V.R. technology as it exists right now.
Lichtman’s prescription for rising to the challenges of the future is strategic planning using a design thinking process, stressing a time horizon much longer than the usual five years. My school is about to launch its strategic process in earnest, so this was a very useful session for me.
The other session that resonated with me was led by Greg Martin of the Perkiomen School. Martin was sharing his PhD research regarding the “triple threat” faculty model used by boarding schools. In brief, our schools ask many employees to teach academic classes, coach one or more sports, and do dorm duty caring for the students at night and on weekends. As Martin explained in the session he led, we have collectively felt like this model has been under threat of extinction for decades (back to the 1980s at least), but actual boarding school people continue to have faith in the model and believe that it is sustainable. Martin had senior administrators from three schools (Peddie, Perkiomen, and Holderness) serving as a panel to share their experiences/views on the topic, and all three were wonderful to listen to. What I really loved was Martin and the panel’s takeaway: Our schools should be trumpeting the triple threat model as something that makes us distinctive and generates value, not retreating/apologizing for it. I left the session reminded of the ways in which I am fortunate to work where I do. We have already made a number of adjustments over the years to maintain the triple threat model but to also give flexibility to our faculty to account for their age/family need/talents, etc.