One Schoolhouse is a fast moving organization; to work with us is to embrace change! Admittedly, we have a faculty that welcomes opportunities to be stretched, but they are also masters of their craft and have strong opinions about best practice. When it’s time to make a change, we work to manage it carefully, because failure to do so has consequences for both the effectiveness of the change and the long-term climate of the school.
We have learned two important lessons: (1) people resist change because they care deeply (that’s a good thing!), and (2) equipping people with the skills to navigate the change constructively is a process (expressing emotions is also a good thing!).
These lessons don’t mean that change is all rainbows and kittens; it’s predictably stormy and stinky sometimes. How about an example? Recently we changed Learning Management Systems. Not only was this a lot of hard work, but it was also disorienting. For an online school, a new LMS is like building a new building--you’re excited to move in, but you’re not sure where the copier is.
For our faculty, who had spent years mastering our old LMS, the worry focused on losing their deep base of knowledge. They worried that the skills that they had spent years mastering in the old system wouldn’t translate, and they worried that they wouldn’t always be able to provide a swift and certain answer to any student questions. As an administrator, I could provide two reassurances. First, we would support our teachers through the process with resources, conversations, and feedback. Second, we would model growth for our students, and that might mean asking for help, sometimes making mistakes, or having a sense of humor about it all.
The sense of loss that we felt in saying goodbye to our old LMS was palpable. But because we wanted the same outcome (the best pedagogy platform for our students), we worked to maintain open communication (meetings and videos and access to information as it became available) so that teachers felt supported through the transition. By welcoming questions and doubt, we got through the uncomfortable confusion and were able to move into focused integration of the new LMS in a few short months. Are there still frustrations? Absolutely, but no one is paralyzed by their skepticism because we have the language to be pragmatic and productive.
Six months ago, we didn’t know what life inside the new LMS would be like. Of course we did all our research in advance, but research only got us so far. We had to make the move to know for sure. By communicating effectively and providing transparency, we maintained strong relationships and supported our teachers. Now that we’re here, we know we’re in the right place--the best place--for our students.
In this transition to a new LMS, it was helpful for us to gain an awareness of how people move through and experience change. So, we worked with Lorri Palko, a Change Cycle™ consultant to better understand the process. Lorri has now created On-Demand Programs that help educators and administrators understand change and communicate more effectively during times of change.
Change Cycle™ - Managing Self Through Periods of Change
Change Cycle™ - Managing Results/Leading Employees Through Change
Change Cycle™ - Communication Strategies For Leading Change
Susanna Jones, Head of School at the Holton-Arms School, shares the founding story of the first ever online independent school, the Online School for Girls - now One Schoolhouse. And, how the unknown didn't stop us from acting!
Idealism has fueled the Independent Curriculum Group since our founding. We envisioned a better kind of educational system, one driven not by standardized testing requirements, the profit motive, or powerful anxieties about things like college admission and institutional prestige.
Above all we envisioned education not as one monolithic structure framed and maintained by giant corporate interests but rather as a highly complex ecosystem in which factors like student interests and needs and institutional beliefs and values would underlie a system designed and operated to produce not just engaged and active global citizens or life-long learners—to pick on the often tired-sounding language of many school mission statements—but curious and competent denizens of a better, more just, more hospitable world. The key, to the ICG, would be each school’s ability to identify the very best in its foundations and aspirations and then to embody its value system in an idiosyncratic learning environment and set of learning experiences reflective of its core beliefs.
We have our own ideas of what this might look like, and I imagine that many readers share the broad outlines of our idealistic vision. But we don’t have a prescription, and we no more believe that there is one best way to educate than that there is one and only one right answer to the question, “What is Hamlet about?”
Whenever I am contacted by a school with a question about “curriculum,” in whatever sense, I go immediately to the school’s statements of values and beliefs. I burrow into the mission statement, the core values, the board statement of diversity, the tagline, and even the motto, seeking the common threads that might be pulled tight and highlighted to help the school identify its own “convictions” and then to find the courage to live them, even if living them somehow repudiates aspects of its “business as usual” policies and programs.
These fruits of my excavations can sometimes feel a bit pat and glib, at other times too clever by half. “Lifelong learning” and “global citizenship” may invite cheap shots because of their frequent appearances, but if a school takes the time not only to define these but to embed them as desirable values into its programs, it’s making the world a better place. Taglines can be cute and mottoes cuter, but if a school really tries to imagine and build their meanings into the experience of students (and families), then the efforts of whoever chose or created these are yielding something greater than just some obscure Latin on a seal or an eye-catching slogan on the landing page.
With the exception of those places that occasionally throw mottos in the faces of their students as behavioral correctives (to wonderful ends sometimes, we happily admit), how many schools have regular and serious discussions of their own ideals and how these might—and must, we think—inform the development of policies and programs? How many department meetings start with the mission statement to drive conversations about not just course offerings but even assessment and the evaluation of student work?
This is not just an independent school conversation. Public school systems have their own mission statements and other proclamations of aspirations, and we cannot forget that public education is on a profound and urgent quest for a “positive social good” whose beneficiaries are every child and every being. Warped and distracted as public schools and their leaders may seem under the scrutiny of the media and political critics, public schools must truly be all things to all people. And they must first and foremost represent the highest ideals for community membership and the living of active, empathetic, and productive lives in the community. (If you’re in an independent, private, or charter school with a narrowly defined mission, try imagining how your school would go about educating every student in your community!)
I’ve always like the idea behind the Mao quote, “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” Allowing a multiplicity of ideas and ideals to take root, and then to bloom, is what the ICG has had in mind, too. We know that for every blossoming ideal there are countervailing constraints thrown up by the “real world,” but we know that ideals are worth fighting for.
Ideals worth fighting for can’t just be words on a page or a website, vapid truisms used to make people feel better. These words—missions, pillars, standards, whatever—must be the subject of ongoing exegesis and analysis, like the words of a sacred text. Which, in fact, is exactly what they are, in their way.
Maybe your founders just hired some graphic artist to design the seal, or maybe a consultant marched the board through a mission-statement “exercise” to appease accreditors. Maybe those “core standards” are just intended as feel-goods for prospective families. Maybe that board “diversity statement,” however well intended by its creators, is really only regarded as another box, checked.
Is this the best you can be? Is this what you wanted from a school and from a career when you became an educator? Boxes checked, feel-goods, appeasement? Is this what you believe in when the kids walk in?
Yes, yes, the constraints. But those constraints, whether they look like financial sustainability or imperatives around “preparation,” are only constraints, and they do not have to be prison walls for ideals. Can a student be well prepared for Ivy University and at the same time have had a school experience that that has supported in every way their becoming a truly wonderful person with a probing mind and a heart as big as the world? Cannot a school be full and thriving without its programs damping the passions or crushing the curiosity of its students en route to instrumental outcomes craved by families?
I often make the point that Advanced Placement courses, often seen as soul-crushing and an early ICG bugbear, can be taught as vibrant, engaging, and mission-aligned experiences that yield both passing scores and excited students. Teachers who can pull this off know how to work around constraints in the service of their hopes and dreams as teachers. They know that constraints do not have to be a dead hand on passionate learning.
Where does your school stand on this? How often does your community interrogate its foundation and aspirational words in search of guidance toward more effective and heartfelt programming? And how can you help it key its actions to its ideals?
Last month, I promised to share ten insights from ten years in independent online education. Every month, I’ll tell you about one of the lessons we’ve learned from creating and growing our program. This month, I begin with our first insight: don’t let the unknown stop you from acting.
Sometimes, in independent schools, deliberate is translated as “slow.” We’re planners. We like to have our ducks in a row, and have all our questions answered before we jump into a project. Generally, that’s a good thing. As schools, we have high expectations for ourselves, and so do our students and their families. When we started with online learning, we were the first independent schools to enter the space. What should we do when the answers simply didn't exist?
If we tried to answer all the questions about online learning before we started creating the Online School for Girls (now One Schoolhouse), we would have spent two years spinning our wheels and then still would have been disappointed by the lack of answers. In new spaces and ones that are constantly evolving, we have to be ready to jump and and try. So, that’s what our consortium of schools did--quickly.
Inspired by design theory, before we really had terminology like “design thinking,” our structure for building was highly iterative. The idea for a first ever online independent school was formed in February 2009. A group of four schools met for dinner in March 2009 to discuss the possibility. For the next three months, two administrators from the schools involved (sometimes joined by the heads of schools) met every week in online conversations to work through an agreement, a plan, an announcement, and, eventually, a launch.
We started small, designing an Alpha test for the fall of 2009, with two courses and fifteen students. In winter 2010, we started a Beta test with an additional four courses and 35 students. By fall 2010, we launched on a bigger scale, with 135 semester enrollments in eight classes. By 2011, we had more than 300 enrollments.
Starting small allowed us to iterate frequently. For example, the first year of courses taught us that there needed to be much more oversight and training for faculty members in online spaces than we had imagined, and that students needed staged on-ramps to online learning spaces, too. In response, we created training courses for our teachers and a full week of orientation for our students. We also learned that reliance on existing research, mainly from outside the independent school space, could guide and accelerate our work. I’ll write about that part of the journey next month.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)