I ended my last post about our strategic planning process with a concern that we might overreact to the perceived threats to our students that come from addictive mobile devices and social media. My argument was that this problem is tactical, not strategic, and that the tech companies and government regulators will address it. Sure enough, the big business news today is that a well-known activist hedge fund (Jana Partners) and others are applying pressure on Apple to improve parental controls so that parents can limit screen time and protect their children online. And Apple didn’t wait long to issue a response; they say improved parental controls are already in the works and on the way. Therefore, I’m sticking to my argument: our strategic plan shouldn’t overreact to fears about technology at the expense of innovative curricular/pedagogical goals.
We began our strategic planning process today with a brainstorming session for the full faculty and staff. I thought it would be valuable to capture my thoughts on my blog before we get too much farther down the road and my initial, personal reactions lose their freshness. It will be fun to look back at the final strategic plan (next year?) and see how much of it corresponds to my initial ideas.
We were prompted to keep our thinking at the 10,000 ft. level in our morning group brainstorming sessions. Candidly, I agree with Susan Cain that brainstorming doesn’t work — especially group brainstorming — but I enjoyed listening to my thoughtful colleagues’ visions regarding the school they’d like us to become.
A metaphor that our facilitator was asked to share with us before we began: We are going to make a masterpiece, and today’s activity is equivalent to gathering the paint. I have problems with this metaphor because it suggests that, once the strategic plan is complete, and once the school changes to become the school described in that plan, the masterpiece is finished and the school will cease to need to evolve. Clearly, schools in the 21st century need to practice deftness and embrace ongoing change. They need permanent adaptability to rise to the challenge of what Rita Gunther McGrath has called “the end of competitive advantage.”
Despite that objection, the three queries that guided our brainstorming were appropriately broad to generate open-minded thinking and good conversation. Again, my thoughts below are mine alone. I am not publishing my colleagues’ opinions without their consent.
Query 1: What do we think students will need to be prepared for the 21st century?
My honest answer to this question is: I have no idea, and I’m skeptical of people who assert that they do with any confidence. I agree with the Thomas-Friedman-esque argument that American workers need to move up the value chain and plan for the type of careers that AI and robots won’t be able to do. (Our school has many international students, so I’m not just addressing America here. Anyone hoping to have a secure, “first world” career should probably be heeding this advice.) An emphasis on critical thinking skills and creativity should be at the center of an education with this goal in mind.
Given the rapid pace of change, trying to design a curriculum in which the content is an accurate guess at the specific knowledge and skills that will be in demand in 30 years is a futile exercise. The middle school computer programming classes that were forced on me in 1985 taught me skills that were useless before I had graduated from high school. In this context, a broad-based curriculum for generalists strikes me as sensible as any. I admit my bias: I went to a college (Columbia) with a wonderful core curriculum.
Query 2: What would an ideal school for the 21st century be, both in and out of class?
Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk from 2007 is well known to every educator in the English speaking world, but too little has been done to actually respond to his critique of the industrial era/factory model of schooling. I think an ideal school should dispense with the ringing bells and forced march through short class periods. Some parts of the day might still benefit from a tight structure, but students need more open ended time to work on creative projects, follow their passions, and get into a flow state.
Grant Lichtman’s ideas are still bouncing around my brain after the preconference session I attended at TABS. (See my previous post, here.) Lichtman argues that the future of connected computing will lead to a “cognitosphere,” and that schools should be preparing for a future in which their value will come from their status as a “node” that generates original academic content. While I’m not so sure that this whole cognitosphere thing is going to come to pass, I like the direction in which we would be led if we wished to become a such node. I imagine that we would need to build learning experiences for students that were authentic and involved deep dives, not just superficial content coverage.
Query 3: What pedagogy or pedagogies would the ideal school use?
While my responses to the first two prompts were on the vague side, I have much more concrete thoughts about Query 3. The ideal school should feature an emphasis on project based learning, explicitly address non-cognitive skills, and integrate technology such that it is both ubiquitous and invisible. If we aren’t willing to embrace PBL across the curriculum, I’d be happy to see a school-wide “genius hour” (a.k.a. 20% time) initiative to unleash students’ passions and creativity.
An ideal secondary school would also be one that is not backwards-designed from the college admissions process. That might mean doing away with grades, GPAs, and AP/IB classes. Obviously, William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep continues to resonate with me.
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After our morning of brainstorming, the groups all reported back over a communal lunch. Those themes are not my intellectual property to publish here, but I would like to address one that matters to me a great deal: digital citizenship. I agree completely with the need for us to integrate the teaching of digital citizenship skills more broadly across the curriculum, but I worry that the drumbeat I heard about this during the report-back session is an example of non-strategic thinking. Yes, we (by which I mean all adults attempting to raise children these days) have quite a headache on our hands as we react to the intrusions of mobile tech and social media, and all the bad behavior that has come with them. But this is an immediate problem that isn’t likely to be this bad for much longer. Tech companies are building better parental controls, the government is going to write new regulations, etc. I hope our strategic plan doesn’t just react to childish behavior on Instagram and Snapchat. We need longer-range thinking.