What Makes a School Great?

Almost a month has past since the NAIS annual conference, and many of the ideas shared are still present in the back of my mind. The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great,” and outgoing president Pat Bassett asked us to come up with our list of 25 factors that make schools great. His list is quite impressive, and it was hard to come up with 25 of my own. Instead, as I read each one, I began to see some commonalities among them all.

Relationships: Whether the focus is on students, teachers, families, administrators or the greater community, the things that make a great school on Mr. Bassett’s list all depend on forging strong relationships.

Communication: To achieve all those factors, a school needs to have excellent communication among all constituents.

Values: Whatever the values are for a particular school,  a school needs to be purposeful in its endeavors and have that work shaped by its values.

It’s hard to come up with a list of 25, but if you click on the link above and look at Mr. Bassett’s, I think you’ll see these three things woven throughout. Maybe you’ll see more.

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“If We (Teachers) Can Be Replaced By A Computer Screen, …

…we should be.” Cathy Davidson

That was pretty much how the NAIS conference ended. It was the last slide for Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote. I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

For some teachers, it may seem a scary thought, but for most in attendance, it was validation that the we live in a very different world than we did even five years ago, and we need to adapt and prepare our kids for an unknown future.

Her most recent book is called, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. I recommend you visit her website and check out some notes from her talk here.

I am a big fan of Davidson’s work, and Davidson’s ideas resonate with me a lot, but I feel she can sometimes back herself into a corner with her beliefs, and rather than present her ideas with a more balanced approach, her arguments often come across polemical.

Take her statement, for example:

Move from critical thinking to creative contribution.

Both are important. I agree with Davidson that students need to build, make, do, invent, and so on, but they must be able to discern, analyze and evaluate while doing so. I think I know what she’s trying to say in that statement, but it still evoked a reaction from me.  Prior to mentioning this, Davidson talked about a website that appeared to be a great kid friendly resource on farm animals. It turns out that this website was an ad. We need to instill a healthy dose of skepticism in our students, prepare them to think critically.

I liked one of the tasks she gave the audience which was to list the …

Three Most Important Things We Can Do To Help Prepare Students For Their Future (Not Our Past)

Here were mine:

1) Develop a sense of wonder, play, and inquiry.

2) Learn how to find and use the resources needed to grapple with the questions they encounter.

3) To empathize, listen, network, and collaborate with humility and be able to discern between what is useful or purposeful, and what is superfluous or meaningless.

I know, there are a lot of things going on in the last one, but it was hard to come up with just three. I also had another response: Though I’m not religious, the following three things come from a prayer I learned as a child.

Serenity – to accept the things we cannot change

Courage – to change the things we can.

Wisdom – to know the difference.

 

I think we can prepare students for the first two of those, but the last one is something we have to learn on your own. I know I’m still working on it.

One of the things I enjoyed both this year in Philly and at home last year in Seattle was that the featured speakers were accompanied by “graphic recording artists” who captured visually, in real time, what was being said. Here’s a pdf of Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote.

Click for larger view.

All It Takes Is One Person

There were so many great ideas shared at the NAIS conference. Some were new, some validating, and some that challenged my own philosophy about education. While I need time to process and reflect, I also want to dive right in and push myself to try new things.

The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great” and the main keynote was Jim Collins, known prominently for his work “Good to Great.” He left the audience with 12 questions to ponder which I hope to do in the coming months. Rather than summarize his entire talk, which you can find here, I want to highlight something that stuck with me. He said that a great enterprise, be it a business or school had to pass three tests:

  1. Superior performance relative to your mission.
  2. Makes a distinctive impact on the world it touches. (If your school went away, would it leave an unfillable hole? Who would miss you truly and why?)
  3. Achieves lasting endurance, which means it’s great beyond any one leader. (Your school is not great if it cannot be great without you.)

Throughout the conference, I was reminded about these three things several people I heard speak. Here are two examples:

One of the general session speakers was Tererai Trent who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. Married at 11 and mother of three by 18, her biggest dream was to get an education. She earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary evaluation. With the strong belief that education is the way out of poverty and a way to stop the mistreatment of women, she wanted to start a school back in the village where she grew up. As of today, she has helped build 8 schools.

Another session I attended was led by Lee Hirsch who made the documentary “Bully.” You can see the positive impact the film has been making at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 page here.

Both these speakers set examples that pass the three tests mentioned by Jim Collins. Whether their intention was to impact one life or hundreds of thousands, their mission remained focused. It was clear to me that they let their projects become bigger than themselves, big enough to endure without them.

Both speakers did not do it alone. Tererai Trent, for example, received help from Oprah. Their dreams of change, however, were their own, and their belief that this change was achievable never seemed to wane.

The kids we teach are all dreamers. For lack of a better analogy, those dreams are like seeds. Maybe we play a role in planting some of those seeds. Maybe we don’t. Whether those dreams impact one person or many, part of our jobs as educators is to nourish those seeds and help them grow.

Tech Tools are Great, but Nothing Beats Face to Face Interactions

I remember at time when there were classes for specific products like MS Word. Apart from very specific programs that are fairly intricate, those days have long past. With new tools and apps arriving daily, and new ones getting updates by the minute, the idea of teaching a certain technology seems a little dated. Unless of course one is talking about coding, but even then, the most industrious and resourceful student will be able to figure out a lot on her own. 

Students need to know when and how to use technology that is appropriate to the work they are doing. They need to learn how to find out on their own, be discerning of the information they get, and try things out several times until they get it right. 

It’s not that google, bing, yahoo, or something else is better than the other, but which one you’re more comfortable with or which one has more features that you personally use. Same with web browsers, office documents, creative platforms, and others. It also depends on the group of people you’re working with and what tool set they’re using. 

If a student needs to use a spreadsheet for whatever reason, they should be able to figure out whether excel, google docs, numbers, or another program would be right. They would then most likely teach themselves how to use it. 

I’m really excited about the opportunity to present at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference in a few days. I’m presenting with colleagues from Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. 

Being from different regions, we relied on various technologies to plan and communicate. I was beginning to think of the different ways we have interacted and the different tools we used up to tonight. 

Twitter – Before meeting my colleagues in person, I found them on twitter first. It wasn’t until 3 months after that I met them in person. 

Email – This is a pretty standard form of communication, but we rarely used this as we wanted to share documents and it was easier to house them somewhere (we used google drive and dropbox) rather than send version after version back and forth. 

Google Hangouts – Video Conferencing has been around for a long time, but for people like teachers who don’t have boardrooms or expensive equipment, google hangouts is free and worked like a charm. It even worked on my smart phone. 

Google Presentation – when we were first building our slides, we wanted one single document for our draft. This let us create the bones of our presentation without having to worry about several of us working on separate documents. This helped reduce any redundancy in our collaborative efforts. 

Power Point – While most people shudder at this tool for a presentation, it’s not the tool’s fault. Most people don’t use it well. The slides are there to enhance your presentation. To help make what you say clear. Any text on the slide is for your audience to read, not your written outline. Text needs to be big enough for people to read. Graphs have to enhance the data you’re describing. Power Point is a great tool, it’s just that too many people fall into the trap of using its built in templates. Start with a blank canvas and know what you want to say. 

iMovie – we just needed to trim a video by a few seconds.

image editing – we needed to make some images appear less pixilated, shape others differently, remove backgrounds, etc.

I’m sure there were other tools we used, but the point is that none of us went to a class to learn any of these tools. We picked ones that worked for our group – for most of us, google hangouts was new. We used the opportunity, not only to video conference, but to learn how to use some of its other widgets by playing. 

And of course, none of this replaces face to face interactions, which is why I’m excited about seeing everyone I’ve collaborated with on Wednesday when we make our final revisions before Thursday’s presentation. 

I think the same goes with kids. Face to face interactions are the most important. Technology is just a tool to help get a job done. Nonetheless these tools are crucial to extending the learning process and teachers have to be judicious in discerning when to use them for maximum benefit to students.