INNOVATION: AND WHO’S THE CULPRIT, NOW?

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In today’s NAIS Bulletin blog post, National Association of Independent Schools president John Chubb asks, “Are Colleges the Culprit?” For generations, he notes, schools—independent schools chief among them, often enough—have laid the blame for congenital curricular conservatism at the door of colleges.

The fact is, “what colleges want” has achieved a kind of mythological status at many high schools, where faculties and leaders educated (and usually pretty successful) in a traditional university milieu cling to the notion that—whatever the evangelists of design thinking, coding, interdisciplinary learning, or whatever other sweet scents might be drifting on the winds of change—college professors and college admission offices want more of the same-old, same-old, only better: more Advanced Placement courses, higher GPAs, higher test scores.

John Chubb’s experience at a recent Harvard University institute on “”The Future of Independent Schools” pretty much smashes that notion, using as a rhetorical hammer some basic facts about Harvard today. Harvard is about twice as diverse, for example, as the average independent school student body, and concepts like global education mean something there well beyond a service trip to El Salvador and an economics course. Harvard students are awash in opportunities to explore entrepreneurship, and Harvard is pouring big money into its School of Engineering and Applied Science. Yes, yes, it’s Harvard and they’re rich, but most colleges are trying hard to head in similar directions.

Colleges are doing more, exploring more, and in short order they’re going to be expecting much more from the schools that send them students; colleges are no longer the brake on educational innovation that they’ve been cracked up to be. If you don’t believe me, send a delegation of faculty to explore what’s going on at some dynamic college or university near you—or just start subscribing to its newsletters, bulletins, or even student newspaper.

Independent schools can no longer make a plausible claim that doing things differently, embracing new ideas and practices, will doom their students in the admission process. Colleges are looking very hard for applicants who will bring, sustain, and build on new kinds of thinking, new perspectives, and most of all the kinds of work they’re doing and extolling as “the new university.”

If we’re looking for a culprit for something, it’s not colleges. I’d put forward that the true culprit in all this is the economy, and its deed is not acting as a dead hand but rather changing the focus of education at every level, right down to Pre-K, away from the traditional values and expectations of a “liberal arts” education toward a more vocationally focused, even careerist, view of education—college education, especially. Colleges, appropriately running scared from government and private voices insistently asking whether the rising dollar cost of their already expensive product is justified by the dollar payoff in the workplace, are falling all over one another as they work up new MOOCs, new “design” programs, more and better STE(A)M programs, and plain old engineering and computer science courses in every form. Even teaching—teaching!—is becoming a focus of professional development at many, if not most, colleges.

Unlike previous iterations of colleges’ influence on secondary teaching and curricula, I think in this case the pressures have actually landed directly on colleges and K–12 education at the same time. The impetus behind, say, design thinking, coding, STE(A)M emphasis, and “entrepreneurship studies” in our schools is exactly the same as the impetus behind colleges’ initiatives in these same areas, and arguably our interest in these things crystallized in the aftermath of the 2008 Crash. Ultimately it’s a consequence of our national anxiety that kids won’t get jobs and the economy won’t grow. The numbers may be telling us to worry a bit less, but the zeitgeist still says, Panic!

Whatever the cause, whoever the culprit, things are changing at the college level at a rate with which even our most innovative schools are just barely keeping pace. We can’t let the continuing existence of hoary 300-person lecture courses at colleges lull us into believing that all college academics are just the same as they were when we (or maybe our parents or grandparents) were at the U.

And not to put too fine a point on it, if John Chubb can cite Harvard as a bellwether of a major cultural change in American colleges, we’d all better wake up and take notice. How ironic it would be if in a few years we’re blaming colleges for all this pressure to innovate!

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