The challenge for the school embarking on innovative practice is to communicate clearly and concisely what it is they are doing that sets them—and that will set their students—apart from the crowd. In the first part of this series, back in early September when summer’s glow was still upon me, I suggested that colleges are actually pretty smart about appreciating educational practices that differ from the mainstream; they want to understand what secondary schools are up to, and they are looking for factors that differentiate students within applicant pools that, viewed from a certain distance, tend to look pretty homogeneous in terms of programs and numbers.
Last time out on this topic I addressed the matter of getting faculties on board—perhaps focusing as much on what not to do as on approaches to take. Embed the new practice in a positive, encouraging vision of how it will make teachers more effective and student learning authentically deeper.
If colleges and faculties may seem like toughest audiences for innovation, the toughest of all may be “the marketplace”—current and prospective families.
Throughout much of Greater Red Sox (and Yankee and Dodger) nation, four years at an independent school can cost well in excess of a hundred large; a full 14-year stint at a PreK–12 can run into some real money, even in markets where annual tuition levels are less likely to induce vertigo. The long and the short of it is that schools need to present themselves to families—those they have as well as those they want—as offering excellent value (or an excellent “value proposition,” in the business-speak educational leaders seem to favor): that combination of cognitive, social, emotional, creative, and civic learning that gets students to the best place they can be, the best and most engaged versions of themselves at any developmental point.
Of course, what every school must do in order to thrive is to provide a reality—that is, an actual student and community experience—that matches the claims or implications made in its promotional and self-descriptive materials, from the mission statement to the “Head of School’s Welcome” to the viewbook. It needs to deliver on its “brand promise,” whether that promise is of all-innovation, all the time, or a stately traditionalism.
There are a handful of descriptors that schools already use to explain themselves in ways that most audiences understand, or at least think they understand to the point where explanations are generally regarded as not being required: the words Montessori, “Quaker” (the Religious Society of Friends, of course), Waldorf, and a few names relating to orders within the Roman Catholic tradition—Jesuit, Sacred Heart—telegraph essential values that tend to clarify and differentiate aspects of the kind of experience that students are likely to have in schools featuring these terms in their names or other identity messaging. Many St. Somebody’s schools, whether they remain so or not, started life with a certain relatively traditional faith-based program and still communicate in their names a kind of Old School-ness that is comforting to some (and perhaps off-putting to others).
Other terms are more fraught with the possibilities of misunderstanding. “Country Day” schools, a term that initially described location and (more or less) schedule and program, has come to imply in some places a kind of informality bordering on “progressive” and often, again by region, schools for younger students only. It ain’t necessarily so, but the schools must explain what they mean. “Progressive” itself can be even more confusing.
By the same token, schools need to explain to prospective families what they mean when they propose to deliver educational programming that doesn’t look quite like their father’s school. There are buzzwords a-plenty these days—design thinking, student-centered, STEM and STEAM, project-based learning, flipped classrooms, to name just a few—that mean varying things even to those of us in the biz; how parents are supposed to make sense of these, I don’t know.
Or rather, I sort of do know, and so do you. We help parents make sense of practices that weren’t around in their own day either by not employing them, or at least not relying too heavily on the terms alone, or by providing concrete, real examples of what they mean, what they are actually like, when they are lived by students in classrooms. Stories, authentic stories, preferably told by students themselves, are what will allow a school undertaking an innovative or at least novel practice to explain itself.
Recently I heard Australian educational guru Bruce Dixon say that people will embrace change if it is presented in ways that are congruent with the way they see the world and if the change has meaning for them. What parents want for their kids is an educational experience that validates them and fortifies them to move forward in life, in ways both concrete (they learn things that will help them succeed in their next educational experiences or in other aspects of civic and vocational life) and abstract (they learn how to create conditions in their lives that bring happiness and meaning to themselves and those around them). This is a parent’s framework for understanding the school, and this is the meaning they seek. Since this is more or less what schools, including independent schools, purport to provide, the narrative of schools’ stories should focus on how the new practice will meet these two goals. Evidence is good—even anecdotal evidence.
A last thing I would urge upon a school seeking to present a new approach to its constituencies, including families both current and prospective, is confidence. A school that is doing well and has amassed a pile of market capital by virtue of a long record of success should consider (as I have written here before) the benefit to be gained from using its reputation to leverage innovation: not just “It’s a good idea, so we’re doing it” but “It’s a good idea because we’re doing it.” A school with less market clout will need to be a bit more circumspect, but a thorough understanding of the practice and its implications for kids’ success will help communicate the value. Good stories that specifically and confidently address anxieties can help. Pretending that everything will be just fine or stonewalling (or obfuscating) will not.
It’s not a sign of weakness to put serious thought into how innovation is to be presented to its audiences, especially as we enter a time (John Seely Brown calls it The Big Shift) when innovation will become a kind of norm as we learn to respond to the possibilities of education in our time and build what Bruce Dixon calls Schools for Modern Learners.
The real weakness will be not to innovate, or not to seek out and incorporate new practices at all, protesting that the school’s “markets”—colleges, its own staff, families—will never accept change. Educated properly (and that’s what we do, isn’t it?), they will.