Preparing for Coronavirus

We start by assuming that each school already has a disaster plan in place. This may be for how to handle a weather event or how to deal with a measles outbreak that affects a quarter of the school, or it may be related to post-9-11 events. Dust it off. Now.

Here are the basics we suggest for school leaders:

  • Be calm so that those around you will be calmer;
  • Let you parents know you have a plan to do school remotely;
  • Get your faculty working on how to do the rest of the year when you can’t teach in person – pair them up or work in small groups and brainstorm ideas and share approaches;
  • Get your technology ready and test it;
  • Think about how you will pay the bills and make sure your faculty and staff get paid when the business office will be closed;
  • Once your plan for teaching is clear, share it with the community;
  • Link the community to reliable resources on preparation- CDC website and others – and suggest they follow the advice there; and
  • Remind families that every year there is a flu epidemic and every year kids and parents survive it by being smart.

Above all else, remember that people take their lead emotionally from the leaders. Exude calm and confidence that your community will support each other, and school will go on one way or another. Assure high school juniors that their college admissions will not be affected by learning remotely. Assure the seniors that there will be a way to honor their success. Teaching and learning are not inextricably tied to bricks and mortar, nor to any one specific location. Learning opportunities often present themselves in unlikely and sometimes unwanted ways. It is the responsibility of school leadership to identify the opportunities and to marshal resources effectively to ensure that learning continues unabated. The norms and expectations that your school has established will sustain the community throughout a crisis as long as leadership is visible, processes and procedures are in place, and communications are clear.

[NOTE: NAIS members can view a special live stream on coronavirus this evening, Wednesday, February 26, 2020, at 8:00 pm EST.]

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How Bold Strategy Gets Watered Down

The authors of Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick, Chris Bradley, Martin Hirt, and Sven Smit, McKinsey consultants all, tell us that the biggest problem with strategy-making is that it usually results in strategies that are insufficiently bold to do the job. We have seen how the usual sort of strategy-making process grinds away at the bold until it is rendered bland or worse.

This blandification of otherwise bold statements happens when qualifiers enter the words on screen as the result of an iterative cycle of draft and review by various stakeholders to the result. Take, for example, the following draft strategic goal: “The [school] will create a unique, differentiated educational experience for every student.” This is ambitious and aspirational; it has many implications, including that every student be known well as a learner and as a person. Now consider what happens when an academic administrator objects that it sounds like the school isn’t already doing at least some differentiating. “Maybe we could say, ‘Continue the school’s efforts toward a differentiated learning experience for students’.”

Look at what just happened: The word “continue” crept in while “for every student” got pushed out. Qualifiers such as these water down the strategic verbiage and make it sound to the reader like the school will just keep doing more of the same. It’s like telling the audience to keep moving along as there is nothing to see here.

To those inside the school complaining that strategy too seldom takes their already good work into account, I would say that their good work is terrific, but totally expected, and that strategic statements must name the aspiration behind the effort. To use qualifiers like “will continue” or “maintain” in goal statements renders strategy meaningless, not to mention insufficiently bold for the challenges facing today’s schools.

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The Question No One Asks

Until now.

A board member at an extraordinarily successful school where one of us conducted a strategic planning session last weekend wrote in an email, “How the school might defy the laws of organizational gravity and stay at the top of its game on an ongoing basis?”

Great question and one that we have had precious few board members ask. Most, when their schools are strong, want to sit back, take a breather and, as a result, let the market catch up.

Our answer? “Keep challenging your executive team to push the school further; ask [the head] what is next and how [the school] can not only be a big dog but lead the pack. The usual state of affairs is that boards become complacent and decide that the status quo is good enough.”

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Are We At the Podcast Tipping Point?

Item 1: Podcasts can now win Pulitzer Prizes, according to this story in Engadget.

Item 2: Spotify’s 2019 half-billion dollar bet on podcasts is already paying off, according to this item in The Verge.

Item 3: A board member at the school where I am a trustee remarked last evening that we are all listening to podcasts rather than reading books these days.

Some would see all three items as signs of the apocalypse, but we see them as increasingly frequent harbingers of a trend schools need to consider: Podcasts are fast becoming the way people in the demographic likely to buy an independent education consume news and information. Blogs seem increasingly quaint.

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Face Time

We include facial recognition and artificial intelligence algorithms that detect emotion among the trends we are tracking this fall. Most board members and administrators react with either horror and disgust or disbelief to the notion that software developers are combining facial recognition and emotional cognition algorithms to predict threats from students. This item in the November 19 Ad Age shows just far facial recognition + AI has come and how unaware most of us are of its ubiquity.

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What Students Know Matters (Still)

We have long championed the notion that because information is essentially free, it matters less what a students knows in terms of facts and concepts and more how adept they are at certain skills (or habits of mind and heart). This thinking follows from the premise that schools and teachers were once sources of information which they poured into students. Those students who learned the most received the highest grades, and so educational outcome was really about assessing how much one had learned. With the Internet, information acquisition becomes cheap and easy (think just-in-time) and what value schools provide must now focus on skills or what one does with that information.

Jonathan Haidt’s article, “The dark psychology of social networks,” in The Atlantic (December 2019) says, in effect, to not be so quick to discard the value of information, particular the ideas that have survived the filtration test of time.

“Our cultural ancestors were probably no wiser than us, on average, but the ideas we inherit from them have undergone a filtration process. We mostly learn of ideas that a succession of generations thought were worth passing on. That doesn’t mean these ideas are always right, but it does mean that they are more likely to be valuable, in the long run, than most content generated within the past month. Even though they have unprecedented access to all that has ever been written and digitized, members of Gen Z (those born after 1995 or so) may find themselves less familiar with the accumulated wisdom of humanity than any recent generation, and therefore more prone to embrace ideas that bring social prestige within their immediate network yet are ultimately misguided.” [Emphasis mine.]

Without wanting to restart the canon wars, maybe we should revisit the role education plays in cultivating wisdom and discernment in addition to skills. After all, the very skilled pilot flying the plane on which I am traveling while writing this will see those skills rendered pointless if she is not able remember basic physical science or discriminate accurate from faulty instruments readings.

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