Earlier this week, at the Annual Heads Conference of the Independent School Association of the Southwest (ISAS), I had the pleasure of introducing our main speaker, Jim Tracy, Headmaster of Cushing Academy.   As Program and Professional Development Chair of the Association, bringing Jim has been among my highest priorities: I take great inspiration and illumination from his leadership of Cushing and his writings for NAIS, including his work as editor and contributor to the NAIS guide to change management.

Regular readers here may remember a post I wrote about Jim’s presentation at the NAIS Conference in March, 2010, which was a highly informative, interesting, and provocative session.

Below, I have shared some of Jim’s key points in his talk.  My thanks go to him for joining us at ISAS.

On Change in our World:

We are living in a time that is as or more important than any other in the history of our species.  A survey across many disciplines finds a extreme probabilistic curve, where the probability of extreme outcomes both positive and negative are rising rapidly. [Talk about Black Swans!]

Technology is accelerating, and everything is changing more and more rapidly.  There is nothing more crucial than to educate our youth to improve the probability of positive outcomes. We are seeing the power of the individual to influence the collective greatly increasing, and the potential for terrible harm is rising, but also for utopian improvement.   Most our our kids will live to see 2100 and to see the end of disease.

We may have made too complex a society for our limited intellectual capacity as humans to manage.  None of us is safe if we are surrounded by an uninformed and undereducated electorate.

We have changed in just a few swift years from a world of information scarcity to information surplus, and learning must change with it. 

We are on an S curve of change in our civilization, on the vertical part of the S– it will eventually plateau again, but this vertical ascent is bewildering, terrifying, exhilarating.

On educational leadership:

  • Let’s explore possibilities
  • Let’s lower the bar of failure.
  • Let’s take more risks.
  • Let’s prepare kids for the world they are in.

At Cushing, we read deeply as a community about the megatrends of the 21st century, and recognized the way in which our students inhabit the 21st century 18 hours a day, and then spend 6 hours a day in the 19th century, and then we tell them these six hours are the most important hours of their day.  [This is an unsustainable disconnect for our students.]   We need to bring them into relevance.

With our faculty we discussed what we should change, and we built consensus, even unanimity.  We listened to each other deeply, we challenged each other, and we are stronger as a result in our purpose and execution.

Within our administration we developed a “skunks work” department, in which we brainstorm with the rules being that there are no small ideas and no editing of ideas, and we have generated hundreds of ideas this way, including inviting artists to create Earth Artworks on campus and hosting across the country thought-leader conversations.

At every assembly every week with students I as Headmaster begin with the “news from the 21st century:” developments in technology or society.

On 21st century learning:

if our students are bringing laptops to their classrooms and we are not changing what is happening in that classrooms.  Our students, with their technology empowerment, need and can be co-content creators, not consumers.

As seen on an IBM ad, the change from the 20th century to the 21st is a movement from mass production to mass individuation– and what are we doing in schools to honor this?

This is happening, this mass individuation, in consumption and in medicine: and in education we need to help students chart and shape their own learning course.

Khan Academy is a resource and a model for which supports this kind of individuated student learning experience.

We can use skype and other resources now to connect, directly, with any thought-leader or expert anywhere in the world.   Almost anyone, in any field, if you ask them for just 30-60 minutes availability at some time over the course of a semester, will be able/willing to provide that time, and why wouldn’t you have students speak to and learn from the expert?

Students view privacy very differently from how we were raised to think about it.   When I told students about technology allowing a micro-camera to be installed on your shoulder, entirely unnoticeable, which would be able to capture and store an image of your world and experience every 30 seconds for your entire life (imagine if we had such an archive for Caesar, Cleopatra, Socrates, Leonardo, Michaelangelo?), would you be willing to do so?  Many of my students say yes they would.

On faculty development:

Our teachers have lunch weekly in a format they call Food for Thought, and I provide the lunch– a higher quality lunch than otherwise available (!).  Their conversation, which draws many, centers on “how can we make the most exciting and engaging learning available for our students?”

We found the funds for our faculty members, each of them, in small teams, to visit the most innovative and inspiring cool school across the country, and write up what they observe in a wiki format which we will publish on line, open-source and free, and then continue to update.

On Libraries

During the media storm about our Library transformation I was depicted as a pariah and a prophet, and I am neither. Experiencing a media storm does nothing to improve your confidence in the media, which got so much of the story wrong.

When I visited the Googleplex, I was struck by how it could be the model of a new library.

  • Food is everywhere, and no software engineer can ever be more than 40 yards from food.
  • There are microclimates everywhere of interactivity.
  • The walls are all whiteboards with markers everywhere– to promote creativity and sharing.
  • The inside and outside are permeable.

An iphone, or smartphone, or laptop is a portal to civilization.  Whereas we used to have 20,000 volumes, now we have millions of volumes and journals available to students, all searchable, everywhere the student is.

On Independent School education as an Incubator. 

We need to be the change that is so desperately required of the far, far broader educational project.  But as independent schools educators we have lost our way.

We are so much more nimble, and we are so much more well resourced, and indeed, it is much easier to raise money when you have a compelling narrative like we have at Cushing, one where we seek to change so vigorously.

We must become the incubators, we must develop the models that can be replicated.