One of the most impressive things I’ve discovered about the Cary Academy community is the depth with which our mission statement permeates the life of the school.

Every employee and student knows about DICE: discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence. We link our vision statements and our actions to furthering these ideals. We use them when setting priorities for the school as well as classroom instruction.

However, what the convenient short-hand of DICE leaves out is the beginning of our mission statement: “Cary Academy is a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence” (my emphasis added).

This past week, I had the chance to reflect more deeply on this while at a leadership retreat in Boston.

The gathering was not a conference. It had no outside consultants. No sponsors, keynotes, or nametags. Instead, a group of leaders from schools in Brazil, India, Bulgaria, Bangladesh, South Korea, and the United States got together for a day self-facilitated discussion and reflection on issues that were on our mind involving teaching and learning and school leadership.

The group was comprised, at its core, of individuals who at one time during our careers had worked together. Because that was formative time in our development as educators, we have stayed in touch and collaborated on projects over the years, even as as our careers have taken us around the world. Our group expanded for this retreat as we included others who we have worked with more recently, building new relationships and increasing the power and value of the learning network. Our Upper School Principal Heather Clarkson joined me as a representative from CA. In a few weeks, she will head to India with Assistant US Principal Robin Follett to participate in an educational technology conference with some of the same folks at our mini-retreat.

A few of the items on our 9-hour agenda were:

  • A case-study on governance and leadership, with a focus on communication and trust building.

  • A reflection on keystone habits the impact our personal growth as well as organizational culture, based on the work ofCharles Duhigg.

  • An examination of protocols for teachers and leaders to use data to inform decision making in our schools.

  • A discussion of the purpose of goal-setting in our personal and professional lives and the use of coaching to improve performance.

The part of the day that got me thinking most about learning communities was a reading and discussion focused on the work of John Hattie, an Australian researcher whose book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement gave us all some new insights into what it means to be a school focused on learning rather than on teaching.

That seemingly small switch in verbiage has some profound impacts on how we view schools and our profession. While it will take much longer than just a few hours to fully digest all of Hattie’s research and contentions, I remain struck by the big takeaways of his work. We are learning more and more about learning, and to be successful as teachers and a school we need to continually reflect and refine our practice to align with this new information — some of which runs counter to conventional-wisdom or the ways in which we were taught. For example, Hattie says that assessment needs to happen for teachers, not students. Students should know before an assessment how they are doing, with the assessment giving teachers the information needed to change or alter instruction to meet the needs of future student learning. When we use assessment simply as a unit capstone before marching into the next area of study we are missing an important opportunity to tune future instruction to match the needs of students.

Thankfully, when you examine Hattie’s list of factors that have a positive effect on learning, you see much that is familiar to independent school, such as rich class discussions, formative ongoing assessments, and positive and trusting student-teacher relationships.

I was very grateful for this day of reflection with a group of educators I admire and trust. As I seek to continue my growth as an educational leader, I cannot imagine doing so without connecting with peers. By being deliberate about our conversations around our needs and expanding our network to include others we respect, we have started a new learning community that I look forward to seeing again.