As Jamie Reverb and Lee Burns write in this fine and valuable piece, among the most important in NAIS Independent School magazine in recent years, it is not enough any longer to discuss what might be aspects of 21st century learning, it is time to “actually start being 21st century schools.”

There’s a tendency to continue to do school as usual — tweaking things, rather than embracing serious and necessary innovation.

The authors organize their article, and their work at Lee’s school, Presbyterian Day School (PDS), around Google’s Nine Principles of Innovation.

Ideas Come from Everywhere.

At PDS, they are cracking open the walls of their campus to engage with and study cool developments happening all over the world.   For me, the most important suggestion here is what they are doing with faculty meetings:

At PDS, we have restructured faculty meetings and retreats so that the focus is far less on logistics and far more on provocative questions that engage all of us in discussions.

We are working to reinvent faculty meetings too, at St. Gregory, in these same ways– both in full sessions, and in our incredibly valuable Critical Friends Groups, where there are many “provocative questions” being pursued.

Share everything you can

The argument here is for transparency in schools, and that we find every way we can to put ideas and actions out into the ether to be seen and considered.

Schools are siloed geographically with their egg-carton designs and siloed psychologically with their role-specific emphasis.

Knock down the opaque walls, I frequently call for, literally and metaphorically.   I adore our series of classrooms with glass walls along the walkways because of the signal that they send that learning is visible at St. Gregory.   We too, like PDS, are working to create many and multiple cross division and cross discipline conversation groups so as to share across boundaries and cross-fertilize.

[At PDS] we draw them into this conversation through blogs, tweets, and articles that members of the administrative team share.

No one reading this post needs to read me write that I believe in blogging and tweeting as a form of sharing!

You are brilliant, we are hiring

Nothing is more important than recruiting and retaining brilliant people.    One great piece of advice in this discussion, which I believe we are practicing effectively at St. Gregory, is this:

When it comes to retaining brilliant people, we have found it vital to give them a voice and leadership opportunities early on. Even our relatively new and young employees serve on (and sometimes lead) task forces and committees and make presentations at faculty meetings.

A license to pursue dreams

At its core, 20 percent time is about time to be generative and creative in your thinking.What if every meeting, from the board meeting to the classroom teacher’s meeting with her students used 20 percent of the time to think big, to ask new questions, the kind of questions that lead to innovative projects?

At PDS, the authors explain, meetings are being used for consideration of just a few provocative questions.  (Amusingly enough, as I read this, that is almost exactly the kind of meeting I led this morning with our middle school faculty, just asking two challenging questions and then facilitating conversation.   What two?   First: what is the role and purpose of awards in our learning community which affirms the dignity of each and every member?   Second:  what role can “walkthroughs” play in improving the quality of conversation about classroom conversations for teachers and administrators?

PDS, eerily, has also used it academic committee to “blow up” and reinvent the report card, something we have been working hard on at St. Greg’s.

Creativity loves constraint.

It is not a matter of dreaming ideas nobody has thought of before, it is about identifying effective and ingenious solutions to problems we confront with the tools available to us.   Putting constraints enhances, not squashes, creativity, but it is so important we value risk-taking and innovation within our schools– because bluntly, for far too long education has been far too sterile and static.

Schools are places of limits and restraints, but not so much of creativity. Teachers often feel they lack permission to create, vary, or improvise.

Our authors celebrate the way at PDS, teachers are invited, encouraged, and honored for their experimentation, and welcomed  “to move away from worksheets to performance tasks, to embrace new social media tools.”  This is excellent, and I am pretty confident faculty members at St. Gregory feel this same degree of empowerment to try new things and even to make mistakes as they do.

But I want to circle back to constraints: at the very same time that I have tried to lead by urging and encouraging risk-taking and experimentation, I have, perhaps bizarrely to some points of view, increased the amount of standardized testing and assessment we are doing, in the form of the CWRA and MAP.   Both tests measure our students success at academic standards which matter, and while I believe fervently that our teachers can and should be more creative in how students develop these skills and master these standards, I need to have tools to track our success in this experimentation: I need these “constraints” on the creativity so the creativity is aligned and harnessed toward a particular direction: higher academic achievement.

Users, not money

“At PDS, we are trying to shift the conversation from that of teaching to learning.”   Yes.  Keep the focus on learning, not on teaching: move toward a learner-centric view of how to advance our schools, and be very clear that what we are doing is best for students in their present learning environments and for their future success.   Do so, and success (and money) will follow.   I agree.

Innovation, not instant perfection

As I have written about recently, in my examination of the implications for educators of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, forward progress is a messy, non-linear, process.

Quick prototyping or product development, relinquishing control, risk-taking, and a good-enough-for-now mindset are not usually words that describe schools. However, today’s operating environment necessitates these very things.

This is, has always been, and I think always will be a core component of my leadership style: go and do it, and take lessons from your practice to keep making it better.   We are doing so this year with our laptop program which we jumped to after only 3-4 months of serious planning  (but years of consideration and observation), and we are tweaking as we go, but great things are happening.

Data is apolitical

Google uses data, lots of data, (perhaps frighteningly too much data);  public schools use data narrowly but distortingly too heavy-handedly; independent schools (often) use far too little data, or even resist data.

“Narrow standardized tests can be given too much weight in constraining our curriculum, yet many schools don’t carefully study the data for potential ways to improve instruction.”

PDS, however,they report,  is commendably working to become serious about data, and so are we at St. Gregory.  Regular readers here don’t need reminding, but for the record, I believe St. Gregory is one of fewer than five (out of 1400) NAIS member schools to be using all three data sources urged upon NAIS member schools in a recent monograph: HSSSE, MAP, & CWRA.

Don’t kill projects; morph them.

When launching a new product or project, it is impossible to know, predict, and control everything on the front end. Things happen. Mistakes are made. Projects falter. Google advises that if a project has not made its way to fruition, there is a kernel of truth in the product or project that deserves to be preserved and re-articulated.

Good advice: we have a lot of ideas in development at St. Gregory that continue to morph and morph, but we are not abandoning them just because we haven’t yet found exactly the right form for them: we are continuing to work to modulate them until they do because we still believe in the kernel of truth within them.

My warm appreciation goes to Lee and Jamie for their inspiring piece!  Let’s all, in each of our schools, use the power of Google’s lessons to transform learning in our schools to meet the demands of our fast-changing world!