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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Why Low Trust is the New Normal

Trust. Several administrators we spoke with at a recent conference for international schools spoken with frustration about the lack of trust they experience from parents of students and even teachers. To a person, each expressed wistful longing for the good old days when high trust was more of a phenomenon at schools. While this conference was in Southeast Asia, we hear similar things from every region in which we work, including private, independent schools in the USA.

The Bad Batch podcast by Wondery (available on Apple podcasts and other sites) about problems in the stem cell industry illustrates why low trust is so and why school leaders should be neither surprised by the present nor wistful for the past. Rather, we need to recognize that parents and teachers have good reason not to trust, given examples like Bad Batch, and become more transparent about how what we do at school prepares students for their futures. “Just trust us,” isn’t enough anymore.

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Another One Bites the Dust: What is it about narcissism and hucksterism that we fail to learn?

By now anyone not living under a rock is aware of Adam Neumann’s status as the latest tech entrepreneur/wunderkind to have a career implosion amid scandal and serious allegations of misbehavior. Whether Neumann joins the ranks of Uber founder Travis Kalanick and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes remains to be seen, but the similarities to these case studies are unmistakable:

  • Meteoric rise as an entrepreneur touting a tech-enabled way to transform an established industry (work space for Neumann, taxicabs for Kalanick, and blood tests for Holmes);
  • Rapturous praise from the business press, venture capital and serious financial institutions (in Neumann’s case, the Japanese SoftBank);
  • Support from leading figures in and out of the business world;
  • Whispers of problems and innuendo that fail to get traction until far too late; and
  • Hyper-positive claims that seem too good to be true and, ultimately, fail to be substantiated by hard data.

When the dust settles, the same media that once praised the entrepreneurial figure changes sides and clucks that the writing was on the proverbial wall and that anyone could see the fall-from-grace coming.

What the WeWork (wonder what this means for their schools venture, WeGrow?) case illustrates more than anything else is that there are always people willing to let charisma and hope supplant hard logic, even in the supposed coldly rational business world.

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