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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The Smart Money Bets on Culture

This item by Matthew Tzuker in the Chronicle of Higher Education brings up an almost metaphysical question for those of us in the education sector: Just how different are we from other sectors, and which differences are endemic—must be honored no matter what—and which are malleable—subject to change given the right convergence of forces. Tzuker, an executive recruiter who used to work in higher education, argues that the industry standard model for recruiting university presidents, like that for independent K-12 school heads, is dysfunctional in that it allows rank-and-file faculty to weigh in on who will be their new boss. Instead, Tzuker would have recruitment, interviewing and placement be a quick, private thing, entirely outside public view, much as is the norm in the for-profit corporate sector.

We understand Tzuker’s frustration, having orchestrated searches ourselves, only to watch things derail on subjective and openly hostile feedback from a rogue faculty member. Tzuker’s quote above could have been my sentiments late in the evening after a long day of chaperoning candidates through interviews at a school. However, I am also mindful of Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and faculty engagement in the executive hiring process is part and parcel with independent and international school culture. As long as this is the case, boards and search committees should think twice (or three times) before trying something blatantly counter-cultural. Such acts rarely go well, and, in several international school cases of which we are aware, have ended quite disastrously.

Almost no corporate middle manager, let alone front-line worker, expects to have a say in who should be their next CEO. Almost all teachers (at least in the western world) fully expect to be consulted and behave as if they own the school. Interestingly, many CEO’s I have spoken with over the years wish their subordinates felt more ownership of what happens in the company. They wish their front-line retail personnel (for example) acted as if they owned the place. Maybe there are no unmitigated goods; that is, in exchange for employees that do act as owners, as a great many academicians do, the price we pay is inefficiency and frustration in giving them a say about important matters like who will be the next boss.

In any event, tempted as I am to chuckle at Tzuker’s quips and agree with his main premise, I quickly pull myself back from that abyss (and it is very much an abyss) as I remember Drucker. In academia, it is never a good idea to be counter-cultural, and in organizational life it is always prudent to respect someone like Drucker. The bottom line is that stakeholder input into leadership search is cultural to our sector whereas it is not in the corporate sector. 

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Embedment and Diagnosis as Keys to Leading Change

Todd M. Warner’s recent manifesto on the Change This website, “Rethinking Execution: The Salsa Scale of Embedment,” makes two crucial points that are often neglected by those seeking to effect change in independent and international schools. First, Warner writes about the importance of “embedment;” that is, the process whereby a change becomes part of the warp and woof of school culture. His point is that larger scale changes (school-wide or cultural) require more effort to become embedded and therefore likely to stick. Inattention to this fact is why so many organizational changes founder or fail to survive the head who implements.

The second point is about the importance of diagnosing the status quo at the front end of change; e.g., understanding and working with those who have informal power (and we at Triangle find that this is the most important power in schools). Push come to shove, as it often does around large-scale change, and informal power holders usually win. Failing to have a strategy for them means embedment is doomed from the start.

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