The other day my colleague Corinne Dedini wrote here about issues of time and space and the opportunity that schools have been given by the disruptions of the pandemic to reimagine and recreate the ways in which they use these traditionally precious “school day” resources. Corinne nails the issue, as always.
At various times in my working life I have been called upon—as have most academic leaders—to engage with matters of schedule change. Several times this was at the schools where I worked, but on a few occasions I have been asked to offer guidance to other schools based on my own experiences, and I tried to synthesize these into some coherent advice.
Corinne used “time and space” as shorthand that most academic leaders will translate into “schedule,” and this is absolutely correct—schedule broadly (and properly, IMHO) conceived. Time and space are the obvious variables in most school schedules, but schools that get into the work discover that the ways in which people—students and staff—are organized and in which programs are conceived, delivered, and—this is new, reader, so hang on—recorded and credited are equally important elements in how “schedules” are created.
It’s intuitively obvious that the size of a faculty and the relative size of the student body matter in the creation of a workable academic schedule. Financially prudent “critical mass” for section sizes can matter, and many independent schools have long ballyhooed ”small class size” as a selling point for themselves. Specialized courses (to which Corinne refers) can have an outsize impact on scheduling as “priority” programs. And how student academic progress and performance are recorded and described—credits and transcripts, in practice—impacts the matter of which students take which courses and when. To exacerbate matters, the ways in which students’ academic experiences are segmented and even siloed into traditional “academic disciplines” and departments militates, in a practical sense, the traditional academic schedule where seat time by “discipline” adds up to “graduation credits.”
It is axiomatic in conversations about school schedules that the schedule must serve the program, but the a priori conditions under which most schedule conversations begin are too often predicated on notions of “disciplines” and crediting that date back to the work of the Committee of Ten, the group that codified American curriculum around the academic disciplines with which we are all familiar, circa 1892. Since that time those defined disciplines and time-bound “levels” within them have defined how we think about the elements of education and all conventional and familiar ways of describing students’ paths through the systems that have been handed down to us, modified and tweaked but little changed in essence.
Yet in the past three decades we have been talking excitedly about interdisciplinary learning, new kinds of competency-based student performance evaluation and crediting, and the need for learning experiences to be relevant and socially meaningful to all students—all concepts that cry out for whole new ways of imagining and delivering “school.”
To echo and support Corinne’s points, let us start right now to think differently about the ways we organize our programs, our people, and our use of time and space in the service of meaningful learning. I believe that as academic leaders and educators we are by definition committed to the idea that schooling is an essential and powerful tool in creating a future in which our planet and its people might survive and thrive. Let us, in Corinne’s words, think hard about how we can organize and build every aspect of the learning environments we create in order to promote—to use Corinne’s words—growth, exploration, kindness, wellness.
Teachers have been tinkering with how to use time and space since they were managing kids in one room schoolhouses centuries ago. I’ve always found that the more latitude teachers have to organize time and manage space, the more they get right -- how to personalize learning so each student can make measurable progress, how to make learning relevant to inspire the intrepid and keep the squirmiest engaged, how to reset the mood. (Can we agree that whoever invented recess was the best teacher of all time?)
Somewhere between regionally organized village schools, Thomas Jefferson’s idea that white boys should be educated, and Horace Mann’s plan for free public education, the schedule was largely taken out of the hands of the teachers. We make choices so we can scale, but COVID-19 brought centuries of largely unchanged school schedules to a screeching halt.
We shouldn’t go back. We should seize this moment to rethink time and space.
More than ever, independent schools have to work within constraints ranging from resource and staff shortages to physical plant, transportation, and enrollment challenges. We have the additional challenge of the increasing number of families who would enroll “if only you had... [fill in esoteric program of your choice].” "To respond to external demands, schools have attempted to cram more into their schedule: more arts, more athletics, more SEL, more advanced coursework. The density of these demands translates into an increasingly inflexible schedule for students, faculty, and staff.
Let’s do a little thought exercise: Grab a piece of scratch paper and jot down what you missed most about your school community during COVID-19 distance learning. Now pull out your weekly schedule grid and highlight just those things. Wander over to the break room and find a colleague; ask them, “What if we redesigned our schedule around just these things?” Sure, school is about classes, but the most meaningful time together happens when we share space as a community.
Having deja vu? We’ve dabbled in rethinking time and space before. This idea definitely harkens back to the best of block scheduling, project-based learning, and the flipped classroom stuff of the mid-2000s. Why weren’t those disruptive innovations? Because we built yet another cinder block schedule grid and then poured the most important community activities into the crevices that were left over. Let’s not do that anymore. Build time and space for growth, exploration, kindness, wellness. Today, unlike any time since one-room schoolhouses, schools have the tools and partners to make courses work with less time and in less constrained spaces. Let’s start with recess.
More than 25 years ago I had a strange experience. It started on a professional day.
Well, say you, what’s interesting about that? We’ve all had those experiences, generally out-of-body moments as we imagine ourselves anywhere but in a dining hall crowded with our colleagues being not very entertained by a strategically overdressed person with an easel.
The setting of my experience was just this. There we were, not knowing quite what to expect, with the added mystery of a box of colored markers and a sheet of poster paper on our table. Easel guy was introduced, and then the strange thing happened—and its effects inspire me to this day.
Our facilitator was David Grant, then a colleague of the late Grant Wiggins. Wiggins had introduced the independent school world to the counterintuitive but paradigm-changing idea of “backwards” curriculum and assessment design. “Understanding By Design” was not quite yet a book, but our head of school and a few explorers had found it a compelling concept. (David Grant was already a personage on his own as one of the founders of The Mountain School, and his fame lives on in his 2015 work, The Social Profit Handbook, an essential text for anyone managing a mission-driven nonprofit and looking for ways to better set organizational goals and assess progress toward them.)
The morning began with a review of the school’s mission statement, which was a model of its time, circa 1993: unexceptional and unexceptionable, although as I recall (having been a small part of the drafting process) the “lifelong learner” advocates hadn’t managed to insert their pet phrase.
The next thing we knew, we had a sheet of simple instructions in front of us and instructions: draw a picture of the graduate of our school (coed, day, grades 6–12) as we might idealize this person. Give as much indication as we could of what this graduate believed in, aspired to, cared about, found interesting, found meaningful.... The exercise was titled, “Picture the Graduate.”
A few of us approached the exercise as if we were creating a yearbook page for this gender-neutralized, de-racialized eighteen-year-old. How could we possibly represent the manifold diversities of our community in one imaginary kid? David’s suggestion: What did that mission statement offer by way of guidance? What about the school’s other professed values and beliefs? Did our history offer any help?
By the time of our lunchtime gallery walk, the walls were festooned with a dozen or more portraits, representing degrees of artistic talent and depth of analysis. Many of the pictures were illuminated with text—favorite quotes, “greatest accomplishments,” “things I care about,” and more. But they had us talking over whatever lunch might have been. Really talking.
Well, the markers were collected, and we reconvened. What implications, David asked us, did these idealized (or whatever they were) figures and their lives as we hoped they might turn out have for the work we were doing in our classrooms? What would a truly mission-and values-aligned curriculum look like at our school, if we were to work backwards from these pictures and the texts and beliefs that had informed them to reassess, realign, and rebuild our school’s academic program so that we would actually be practicing in our work what our institution preached?
That school, from which I am now thrice retired, has been working on that very proposition since that day. The curriculum review we had only just begun that day became in time the keystone of the school’s professional culture and inspired my own ongoing passion for this work. As an educator who has occasionally found my opinion being sought (and who has not been shy about offering it, anyhow), I have continued to evangelize for the idea that independent schools—the world with which I am familiar—, as mission-driven organizations, must build every aspect of their programs, practices, and policies around the beliefs they present to the world in their statements of mission and values.
Recently in these pages my colleague Sarah Hanawald mentioned the Pictures of the Graduates (perhaps more commonly called Portraits of the Graduate) that schools often create to drive identity and messaging initiatives. These have their value, but I believe that the old-school “Picture the Graduate” exercise of the kind we did all those years ago, followed by a focused, intentional, and open-ended program of curriculum analysis is the key not only to improving the learning experience of our students but also to building the voice and perspective of teachers into the essential work of planning and executing the school’s programs.
And of course the exercise and a subsequent and ongoing review can also help a school to discover itself, to see how mission and values—made manifest in academic and other programs—could inform its identity in ways that might truly differentiate the school and the experiences of its students in ways that “pay off” in instrumental and material ways for the institution, for those it serves, and even for its faculty and staff.
Markers and poster sheets are relatively inexpensive. We’re happy to talk to anyone about how to make a “Picture the Graduate” exercise the first step in a process of program evolution and improvement for your mission-and-values-driven school.
It really works.
Most independent schools began their history surrounded by a wall. For many schools, the wall was literal, but even schools without a brick or stone wall had a metaphorical one. Both served as boundaries, and far too many independent schools systemically excluded students of color, poor and working class students, gender-nonconforming students, and many more without privilege. The walls served a second function, too: they kept the practices of the institution private. Even as schools began to tackle histories of exclusion and bias, they still attempted to keep their culture and practices behind a boundary, setting the terms of accountability only within the rules and norms of the institution.
In analog times, this insularity was made possible not only by the wall, but also by the role of the gatekeeper, who sits at the intersection of the private and public, deciding what people, concepts, and issues are allowed to permeate the private world of the institution, and what news of the institution is appropriate to share in the public sphere. All too often, the only information allowed to flow outward was in the service of burnishing the school’s reputation, and the information that came in propped up the systems of privilege that maintained both the material and cognitive comfort of the predominantly white and wealthy institution.
In the digital age, the walls have tumbled and the gatekeepers are gone. This isn’t just true for schools--self-publishing, citizen journalism, and social media platforms all disrupt the traditional structures that mass media was founded upon. What would have once been an internal matter at a school now becomes a news story. At the same time, in this era of increased political polarization, school policies and syllabi are being scrutinized for partisan implications.
Most independent schools aren’t used to this expansive visibility. In response, they’ve attempted to rebuild those walls. Sometimes that’s seen in how schools interact on social media, and how they attempt to control and restrict the impact of these platforms in the community. Others have handled larger conflicts with settlements and non-disclosure agreements in an attempt to control the narrative.
The only ethical response to transparency, however, is to embrace it. This visibility doesn’t make the work of leading a school easier. When everything is on display, your community sees the messiness that process requires, and even after the process concludes, leaders’ choices are questioned. In the end, however, transparency requires leaders to be accountable to the values of their institution.
Independent schools have long held aspirational values--to be good, to do good, to serve, and to lead. Whenever a community strives towards goals like these, there will be times they fall short. Those shortcomings are not well served by secrecy. Transparency and accountability are essential to becoming better schools.
Last week, our Head of School, Brad Rathgeber, warned that institutional loyalty is eroding. He challenged school leaders to consider “whether families will continue to see the value of the independent school experience” when they make their enrollment decisions in the future. The question of value, in the end, boils down to families asking the question, “What can I expect my child to gain from attending an independent school?” When faced with that inquiry, Academic Leaders need to have the information available to provide a persuasive answer.
The good news is that many independent schools are well on their way to answering the question. Independent schools have spent time developing documents they call “pictures of the graduate” in order to inspire the work of the school. These provide Academic Leaders and faculty with a shared vision of who their students will be in the future, and help guide curricular and pedagogical decisions. Communications teams share the vision with alumni, potential families, and donors. These pictures, however, are qualitative and aspirational. Is there a way to respond with more than anecdotal data?
Academic Leaders need to be confident that the aspirations and visions of their graduates are able to come to fruition in the lived experiences of their alumni. One way to answer the question of what students will gain is to become more outcomes based, not only in its vision, but also in the assessing and reporting of individual and collective student growth.
An essential step is to define the observable and measurable markers that indicate students are growing in the areas identified as important by the school. At its best, this work involves backwards design, interdisciplinary rubrics, and a high level of collaboration. Then Academic Leaders, instructional coaches, and faculty plan the classroom practices that deliver the types of learning experiences that, according to both research and classroom expertise, will lead to the outcomes the school has chosen. Transparency means that the outcomes are published openly and referenced widely in assignments and reporting to parents.
Once assessment is aligned with the outcomes, the next step is to determine how to communicate the achievement of school-wide outcomes in a better way than just publishing the college acceptance list or a list of students’ honors. How can schools share concretely that graduates are prepared for life beyond school?
Traditional GPAs and standardized test scores, meant to be a shorthand for achievement, can fall woefully short in communicating what students know and can do. Indeed, this is why many independent schools have long relied on a narrative reporting structure to accompany the numerical grade. Academic Leaders are increasingly re-thinking grading practices with their faculty, with good reason. Research on the relationship between grades and long-term outcomes shows that grades are actually a pretty dismal indicator of future accomplishments within a field. Study after study demonstrates that grades are not a good predictor of future understanding in a discipline. This NYU study even found that high grades were inversely correlated with innovation and creative thought!
Academic Leaders could consider publishing a profile of a graduate that truly represented achievement, not just aspirations. A term such as “life long learner”could be accompanied by statistics on the number of books checked out of the library prior to a holiday weekend. Perhaps a total number of hours spent in internships for seniors would represent real-world experiences. Surveys of recent alumni experiences in study abroad could inform inquiries about the success of a global citizenship initiative.
Outcomes that aren’t aligned with your school’s mission run the risk of devolving into a list of GPAs and college acceptances--important information, to be sure, but information that only captures a small part of what students gain from attending your school. By collecting data that affirms and supports your mission, your outcomes emphasize the values and unique experiences that define your school.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)