Designing schools for maximum impact
By Stephen Dexter
A group of 30 people has two weeks to build a boat. They organise themselves by age into three groups of ten, each led by an adult. The adults communicate with each other once over the two weeks, use a set of instructions designed by someone else, and never have a chance to put the boat in the water to see if it works because there's not enough time in the schedule. Does this sound familiar? (Minus the boats.)
There has been a revolution in the purpose of schooling since 21st century skills, the internet, and disruptive thinking hit the market. We all know it’s not about information sharing anymore. The workplace is evolving rapidly to reflect this; hot-desking, digital nomads, personal branding, start-ups, multiple careers. But for some reason (probably more comparable to government than the marketplace) a lot of schools continue to use the same hierarchical structures and organising principles that they've always used, yet somehow expecting different results. The good news is that 20 years after Y2K, there are some things that can be done better to design schools for maximum impact.
Pilot to buy time and unleash creativity
I used to believe that 'piloting' something was just a shortcut by power-hungry admin to subvert process. "We won't call it a change; we'll just tell people we're piloting standards-based grading." But if it's done properly, piloting builds a safe zone for failure and experimentation without throwing the entire organisation off the rails. There's less pressure and huge upside if things don't work out. Starting small with a dedicated group of people, a data collection system, and a clear mandate can work miracles. The Head of IDEO/Singapore once said to me, "Small x Many = Big."
Consolidate for increased bandwidth
If we have disciplines like Design, STEAM, Coding, etc, that feel like they're here to stay, then something has to give. We cannot just keep adding. Stand-alone subjects have their place (world languages comes to mind) but it's time to make decisions about what has to go. Can STEAM replace science and maths? Can humanities replace English and social studies? Think what this would do to your hiring practices and flexibility. I don't believe there's a law that dictates what subjects you have to offer. If you have programmes like IBDP and A levels, you can still ramp grade 9–10 students up for them if you map the skill sets backwards. Believe it or not, there's a lot of overlap with language and literature and DP world history.
Blow up the timetable and rethink its purpose
This can be risky, but the reward is high. If you're afraid to take on the entire school, you can start small by division then scale up. There are some real innovative thinkers out there on this topic. Imagine a world in which the timetable scheduled teachers, not students? Western Academy of Beijing's Target 12 approach empowers students to flexibly design their schedule as learning takes place (rather than waiting until next Tuesday for maths class, for example).
Words do matter
Job descriptions matter. Mission statements matter. Mottos matter. Have fun with this. Why not? YOLO as I think young people like to say. School job descriptions are notorious for being all-encompassing, uninspiring and impossible to fulfil. They are dumping grounds for everything and no one looks at them except for firing and hiring. If it’s the description of your job, then why isn’t it the most fantastic document in the school? And what about those job titles? Coordinator, Director, Deputy Head, Superintendent. I used to think titles like Chief Learning Officer and Designer (instead of teacher) were cheesy, but they inspire me and remind me of the type of work that needs to be done. "You're being sent to the Chief Learning Officer's office!"
And instead of “develop lifelong learners” (whatever that means), how about “inspiring each student to make a difference in their community each year”; or instead of “ensure the operations of the school” how about “fix at least one system to enable it to better meet the mission of the school.” Empower. Inspire. Imagine.
Once you rewrite the job description or the mission or the statements about the school, put them into a word cloud. If the big words don’t inspire you, do it again.
Schools are funny places. Basically a top-down hierarchy overseeing a team of free agents. I've been in the business 24 years and still can't make it work. I picked up a really cool book in Changhi Airport about something called 'purpose alignment' that seemed more aligned to a tech start-up than a school, but it spoke to me. Are you inspired by committees, central office and division heads? If not, think self-governing teams, empowerment, and new mindsets about accountability and productivity.
At its root cause, schools try to do too much and seem afraid to commit to what they will not do. That's why I love vocational schools so much. Students learn skills, they know what they hope to achieve, and they work hard to train people to get there. Oh, and you can see the product.
So much of a leader's time is consumed with operational tweaking and restructuring within the same systems that the only thing that is maintained is inertia. Attendance meetings, curriculum committees, operations. Need I remind you that we're a quarter of the way into the next century? Design your school for maximum impact. You will not only inspire learning but move your entire organisation.
Stephen Dexter Jr is Upper School Principal at the American International School of Zagreb. He has created systems for impactful learning, developed organisational capacity for change, and served as a teacher and administrator in American public and international schools since 1995. Connect on LinkedIn: @SFDjr1