This spring I was invited to the American School of Rio de Janeiro to talk at the annual Association of American Schools in South America educators’ conference. I’ve spent a considerable portion of my career working overseas, including 10 years at Graded School in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I actually helped to plan this very conference twice when it was held on our campus. I was delighted to come back and share with my former colleagues.

The theme of the conference was (Re). Its focus was on innovation — on revisioning education for the 21st Century. As a relatively young school with impactful technology integration, Cary Academy has a strong reputation in this space. The focus of my keynote, however, was not about technology. It was about culture.

The more I think about the challenges ahead, the more I am convinced that we need to have school cultures that model the mindsets and behaviors that we want to instill in our students. Cary Academy has lived this part of its mission since the school’s founding, but as the world continues to change we’ve had to double-down on our efforts. This is why the first two parts of our current strategic plan focus on institutional flexibility and authentic engagement. The further we move into this work, the stronger I feel that we are on the right path.  

Three Things
As such, the school gave me a rich set of experiences to illustrate my point. In fact, most of my message was conveyed through story. Here’s one:

Earlier this semester, I was out in Silicon Valley meeting with one of our more entrepreneurial alums. He had sold his startup and had been asked to stay on as CEO and help the new owners manage the spectacular growth of the firm. He spends most of his time hiring and trying to manage the culture of the organization. Curious, I asked him what he looks for in new employees.

Without skipping a beat, he said people who are:

  • smart,
  • nice,
  • and get things done.

I love this. There are a lot of people studying the skills needed for the future workforce, and you can find many outstanding (and often dense) lists. In addition to its brevity, what I also loved about this take was how it challenges us in schools.   

You expect your good schools to develop intellect. You want your outstanding schools to nurture character. Too often, though, I think schools get too wrapped up in measuring student success as the ability to follow directions and meet deadlines. Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz decried this mindset and said that what these schools produce are excellent sheep.

What this third point really means is that the companies of the 21st century need employees who can operate when things are ambiguous and who will ask their own questions and work together to find solutions. As Harvard’s Tony Wagner has said: The innovation economy requires us to help students go from problem solvers to problem seekers.

Often times, this mindset is nurtured through problem- and project-based learning in the classroom and involvement in athletics, arts, and school activities. For our young CA alum, this particular mindset was honed through his involvement in a school club that developed web sites for local businesses. There are countless other stories that illustrate the power of such experiential learning.

School culture is important because it is the living manifestation of our real beliefs, not just what we put on a website or brochure. We all learn behavior and adopt mindsets by watching those around us in action. Students spend a lot of time in school, and therefore it is imperative that they see the adults in school embrace change and learn from setbacks too. In the language of design thinking, this is called a bias towards action.

It was a joy to share some of the exciting things happening at Cary Academy with colleagues from around the world.