THE NEW NORMS? (or, Look Outward, Angel)

I have lately spent quite a lot of time delving into the world of specialized programming, what we might once have called “centers of excellence,” in independent schools. I’ve simultaneously been working my way through Kevin Kelly’s amazing What Technology Wants?, which contains among its opening chapters some persuasive arguments for a kind of determinism in realms ranging from evolution to invention. Some solutions, and some ideas, seem so inevitable that they just have to happen at a certain point. With invention, this point is a confluence of ideas, materials, and something vaguely resembling need. There is borrowing and inspiration, yes, but there is a kind of overarching synchronicity.
The independent school world is only slightly less separated in its parts than were the labs of, say, Edison and Tesla or the desks of Darwin and Wallace. We have publications, listservs, and conferences via which the interested can see what other schools are up to and where we can share our own ideas. But we also have schools and teachers who labor in relative isolation, solving problems and making policies that suit the needs of their schools and their times with little knowledge of the world around them.
In particular, my research has suggested to me that independent schools are currently developing a body of practice, if not standard practice at least best practice, that shares enough characteristics across the range of schools that its elements qualify as elements of not just a new normal but of new norms.
There are others, but these are the big themes around which I see practice coalescing in what I will call “leading schools”—schools whose work might be seen as exemplary and who are either now or on the road to becoming thought-leading institutions:

    “Centers” that serve as umbrellas under which are gathered initiatives around service learning, community engagement, social justice, and multicultural education. Often named and funded by grants or gifts, these centers provide not just a locus and administrative coherence for such work but a mechanism by which efforts in these areas can be strengthened and ever more deeply embedded in the work of the school. And if this sounds like so much left-leaning cant, the higher purpose is to focus on creating alert citizen activists and advocates—a goal that spans the political spectrum. Furthermore, these centers can also serve as explicit expressions of their schools’ public purpose by building community connections.

  2. Building, teaching, and focusing operations on environmental sustainability. New construction with LEED certification of some sort is de rigueur these days, even with higher initial costs. So is developing ways to make the actual functioning of new construction a teaching tool, either by measuring energy use or building specific scientific or ecological processes and resources into the facility. Operational exercises include acquiring materials, including food, from green and often local sources—including school-operated gardens, which are a teaching tool in themselves.
  3. Design thinking. Two years ago almost no one had heard of design thinking, but in the summer of 2012 it is possible to send teachers to any number of design thinking workshops around the country. As a teaching tool to support, in particular, project-based learning and as an administrative tool to support institutional planning and decision-making, design thinking is regarded as having great promise as a way to harness creativity and the innovative spirit of students and teachers; as a corollary, “entrepreneur” and “maker programs” are beginning to find traction in many schools.
  4. Global education. Logistically challenging and often expensive, “global ed” for many years has been localized in school travel programs that have had relatively short reach within schools. More and more schools, however, are beginning to look deeply across their programming and find areas of authentic global learning that can be brought together, harmonized, and enhanced to create opportunities for true global education. Coursework, the use of tools like Skype to connect students and classrooms around the world, and of course travel programs—increasingly funded in ways that don’t exclude less affluent students—are giving students the chance to experience a clearly defined and comprehensive global learning experience.
  5. STEM and STEAM learning. For a number of years now the buzz has been that American students lag behind their global counterparts in areas like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Independent schools are increasingly expressing their strategic interest in enhancing the ways in which they prepare students in these areas, often drawing (sometimes through “centers”) on local resources in higher education and industry and generally thinking more creatively about the ways in which science and mathematics curricula are organized and delivered. STEAM, with the added “A” for arts, bridges more technical subject areas with opportunities for creative work; design thinking and STE(A)M often go hand in hand.
This list is not exhaustive; I could also add the resurgent power of “backwards curriculum design” or the hard work being done in many schools around “character education.” I could speak of the increasing reach of technology as a tool for teaching and learning, or of the ways in which independent schools are expanding their overall programs in the arts. I could speak of a growing interest in assessments that transcend the limitations of classroom tests and quizzes or of the kinds of standardized testing associated with secondary school and college admission.
But for now, I would suggest that the five areas listed above are new norms, models that most if not all independent schools should be aware of and working on. What has been especially interesting to me is to see a number of what we might call “old line” schools, places with established reputations and global prestige, that are beginning to leverage the very gravitas of their institutional prestige and brand in order to move change forward in the kinds of directions we believe “schools of the future” need to go. When St. Grottlesex puts its resources into global or environmental education or design thinking—not just giving lip service but making a big institutional commitment—it might be a signal to us all that these are ideas whose time has indeed come.
Furthermore—this may seem like a reach, but I think not—it is getting to be time for independent schools to begin showcasing their exemplary and most forward-thinking programs in the service of education as a whole. There are those who believe that independent schools have been too silent in the face of the decline of American public education, but, by telling the stories of ideas that have worked and that offer legitimate and effective alternatives to the cram-and-test culture of too much public education, here is a way for independent schools and their leaders to enter the conversation, not just to cry “Woe is us!” but to offer real ideas.

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