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Buzzwords, Beehives, and School Leadership

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Global – Interdisciplinary – Green – Technology-mediated – Multicultural – Design-thinking
What do these have in common?

They’re all buzzwords that have been hovering and swooping around independent schools like a persistent swarm of bees for the past couple of decades. Some are older, comfortably familiar, while others are newer, seemingly more urgent, potentially disruptive in ways that make some educators want to head for the hills.

All of them, one way or another, are mandates for our time, words or phrases that represent an educational zeitgest that in turn reflects the moving trendlines in social, cultural, and—in times of uncertainty, especially—economic thinking and concern.

More importantly, none of these are concepts that are easily embraced and “implemented” (whatever that might mean) by a single teacher at a school or even meaningfully realized by a handful of teachers or a single department.

To truly infuse students with their power, these buzzword concepts require institutional backing. To offer students an education that is authentically global in scope, is truly interdisciplinary, is steeped in the concepts and practice of environmental sustainability, fully leverages technology as a tool for inquiry and learning, prepares students to thrive across a range of cultural terrains, and fully embraces creativity as an engine of intellectual exploration, schools cannot rely on a teacher here or there, a single workshop, an intriguing article passed around, or even a series of mission-statement bullet points.

Buzzwords reflect both a yearning and an uncertainty or anxiety—they pop into usage because they stand for, or encapsulate, both the definition of a problem and some promise of its solution. “Global,” for example, serves as shorthand for an understood need for students to see themselves as part of a connected—or flat, to use Thomas Friedman’s version of the buzzword—world culture, polity, and economy, where no nation and no individual is entirely immune from the effects of discovery, boom, bust, or tumult on the other side of the globe. Educators have instinctively embraced the concept to be engaged in authentic and effective ways, through curriculum, extracurricular programming, travel, and exchanges, and schools continue to seek ever-better approaches.

A teacher may of course “take on” a buzzword as a kind of theme or cause, of course, and may accomplish much good by doing so. But his or her students will only gain a kind of fractional experience, a limited perspective.

Most schools have realized—or at least have had plenty of opportunity to realize—that learning with a broad perspective requires something along the lines of an immersive experience. One classroom cannot truly be “multicultural,” for example; it takes a school, and discourse involving all of its constituencies, facilities and systems, to fully prepare students for the multidimensionally diverse world in which they will live and work. By the same token, one teacher’s recycling bin and constant reference to environmental issues can’t spur critical thinking and action in the ways that making environmental awareness part of an entire school’s culture can. The same is true, we know, for “leveraging” (to use yet another buzzword) the potential of technology.

My point here is that schools, not just teachers, bear the responsibility for exploring the buzzwords of each era, determining which are worthy, and then building the best of them into their programs and policies. This means that leaders must shoulder the burden of learning about (I want to say “unpacking,” if we can stand another buzzword here) new ideas, and as they find them worth embracing, they must become evangelists for them within their school communities.

This is nothing new, of course, but the challenges of our time—the knife-edge on which cultural survival seems to be balanced some days—make this work ever more urgent, and ever more the institutional mandate of which I wrote above. Schools need to move quickly and strategically to become the beehives in which real value is extracted from the promise of the buzzwords and added to the experience of students.

This means, incidentally, that the key ideas behind the buzzwords must be front and center in strategic thinking and professional and curriculum development initiatives, and that exploration and implementation must be supported by the allocation of sufficient resources and by active leadership from the highest levels on down. From trustee to department chair, from school head to classroom teacher, there must be an understanding of—and an active and well communicated belief in—these ideas as significant, even fundamental elements of the school’s reason for being.
School leaders, this means you!

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1 Comment
  1. Peter, I agree that investigating/evaluating/implementing requires more efforts than an individual or small cohort can provide, particularly at a time when things seem to be changing so fast. I think the time for collaboration amongst educators in independent and public schools has never been more critical…essential, I would say.

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