This particular student’s first year HS schedule was familiar: English, algebra and geometry, physics, ancient and medieval history, and Latin. I might have counseled towards a language such as Spanish or Chinese, but otherwise it was a pretty unremarkable.

Except that it was pretty remarkable.

This wasn’t a schedule from one of my students; it was a schedule from a student in 1912. I wasn’t building a plan for the current school year, I was preparing a presentation for my previous school’s Founders’ Day assembly. Schools today are under remarkable pressure to adapt for the future, and I was holding a piece of paper that dramatically illustrated our lack of change.

How can this be, though? Our country has been in an “educational crisis” for all 23 years I’ve been in the field — non-stop, in fact, since the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk.” This covers the career of just about every educator working today.

No wonder morale in the teaching profession is at an all time low. Decades of non-stop, top-down initiatives will do that to folks. As school leaders, we need to stop believing that we will find the magic initiative that will bring us some sense of normalcy.

Reform is the new (old) norm.

A Culture of Continual Momentum
Instead, we need to tune our school’s cultures to embrace this reality. I am all for developing programs and measuring outputs, but I believe that the most important thing we can do for our organizations is create a culture that embraces continual momentum.

(Notice that I did not use the phrase “continual improvement.” This implies that each step will take us forward along a known path, which paralyzes educators and mocks what we tell students but don’t really mean: We learn through failure and need to prepare students for a future that is not wholly understood.)   

At this year’s IEI Emerging Issues Forum “FutureWork,” authors from the Institute for the Future shared a report on 10 skills graduates today need: sense-making; social intelligence; novel and adaptive thinking; cross-cultural competence; computational thinking; new media literacy; transdisciplinarity (literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines); design mindset; cognitive load management; and virtual collaboration

Aligning around Innovation
There is nothing static about this list, and an organization that thinks it can deploy a singular “roadmap” will continue to spin its wheels. This is a mindset thing, and school culture is the engine. At Cary Academy, we’ve been focusing on this since our founding in 1996, with a mission that puts discovery, innovation, and collaboration front and center. Our latest strategic plan re-commits our focus to an innovative school culture at the core of everything we do. We are organizing across the school around three key aspects of innovation: sustaining, disrupting, and diffusing.

It is significant that the first goal in our plan is to embrace the “institutional flexibility” necessary to create modern learning environments. We too often find ourselves advocating for a growth mindset for our students but fail to embrace this as an institution. Schools need to be very deliberate about modeling the same type of thinking we expect from our students. Your culture is at odds with your goals in a “do as I say, not as I do” environment.

Our second strategic goal hits hard at what we know about deep learning — that it is meaningful and authentic. This part of our plan was built from our “We Believe” statements about learning, which were informed by compelling research from the OECD into what makes an innovative learning environment. The key learnings for this discussion are to:

  • Put learners at the center and encourage engagement.
  • See learning as social and collaborative. 

  • Understand that emotions are integral to learning and learners’ motivations matter. 
  • Recognize individual differences.
  • Build horizontal connections across activities and subjects, in- and out-of-school.

Among other things, achieving the goals of our strategic plan will lead us to new approaches for curriculum and employee development, new uses for instructional technology that disrupt the pace, path, place and time of learning, interdisciplinary and international programs that connect students in meaningful ways to their wider world, the creation of an research and development team that can nurture, test, and refine promising ideas, and the remodeling our physical spaces to support these new dynamic learning environments and our culture of collaboration.

Of course, any one of the these approaches could likely to be found in another school’s strategic plan. It is the collective force of these efforts that will reinforce our shared values and establish a future-forwards mindset. We believe a strong, diverse, and inclusive organizational culture is a force multiplier for our individual and collective growth.