Dystopia and You: What the Contemporary Mood Means for Schools

A fascinating reveal of the dystopian angst in contemporary affairs comes from J. Walter Thompson’s review of Milan Design Week 2019. Reflecting the current uncertain zeitgeist, mainstream designs focus on environmental and societal apocalypse. It doesn’t get more dystopian that this quote:

We are headed for extinction.

We see this fitting in with the mood of the moment—one that may well show up in re-enrollment decisions and parental expectations of schools. When the psychology takes a dark turn, parents will be looking for reasons to reject the school. Time to make sure you are taking care of business in every way.

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What Leverages Innovation

Building on our recent post on innovation, this item from Kaihan Krippendorf’s Outthinker newsletter further unpacks the difficulty in even defining what we mean by that term. Through analysis of the actual performance of companies commonly regarded as innovation leaders (Alphabet, Fast Retailing, Tencent, et al.), only a small subset translate innovation into superior results. Looking is side the high-performing group, Krippendorf argues that …

While their competitors focus on product innovations – the thing we can touch, visualize, and put on display in conferences – these companies focus on people, culture, and organization. To out-innovate your competition, then, stop striving to create innovative products and instead strive to create innovative people.

Translated to schools, this means that iPads, STEM centers and  are merely the tools that innovative teachers and coaches use to accelerate and deepen teaching and learning. Perhaps this is why education has seen so little true innovation—we have missed the main point by focusing to excess on the tools. It’s the people that innovate. And maybe they can make it cheaper, too.

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Understanding the Innovation Challenge in Education

Innovation is all the rage in schools. Almost every web site and strategic plan contain something about innovation and nearly all school leaders think that there is something innovative about their schools. Even those with traditional pedagogies or practices tied to a tried-and-true curriculum (think British National Curriculum or AP courses) find a way to mention innovation.

While reading (and hearing) about so much innovation, we cannot help but wonder why school still looks so much the same? Why does innovation often seem like incremental process improvement? What would real innovation look like? Are there any thoroughly innovative approaches to education already in play?

Some “innovations” aren’t really thus. Technology is a good example of something that makes school different but usually in a step improvement kind of way. It was a step to go from typewriters to word processors, from paper records to online files, or from libraries with reference books to doing online literature search. Taken as a whole, technology has been transformative in the way students work and communicate, but less so in terms of what constitutes school itself. In this way, technology (so far) is more like the advent of pen and ink—a shift in the process of doing school work.

Something innovative would shake up the traditional scholastic paradigm of students, teachers, classrooms, school buildings and athletic fields interacting for 12+ years. It wouldn’t just be different, it would be faster and deeper. It might also be cheaper, delivering more value for the same or less money. It wouldn’t be a step improvement; rather, it would make a quantum jump in some way.

On the other hand, maybe we have found it; maybe the standard scholastic paradigm is the very best educational model that could be and all that remains is to fiddle with improvements as we go along. However, if this is the case it would make education one of a very small number of industries immune to innovation and disruption, more like a craft or even a religion than, say, medicine or manufacturing.

Assuming this is true, we are still left with the near-universal lament that our business model is unsustainable and broken in that tuitions continue to rise at a rate in excess of inflation. Tuitions in the nonprofit sector do not rise as a result of greedy profiteers; rather, because operating costs (primarily salaries and benefits) also outruns inflation. As Baumol’s Cost Disease model shows, one cannot innovate in the business model area without also innovating in the pedagogical realm, given that 75% or so of school operating budgets are people.

In the same way that society has not yet reconciled itself to the fact that we are all likely to need and consume vastly more health care services than we can afford by ourselves, independent schools have not reconciled themselves to the tension between our means of production and business model. The usual solution is not to innovate by doing school in a novel way, but to find someone else to pay the bill through philanthropy.

Our search for innovation turned up various lists compiled by different sources. Some “innovations” were modest at best; e.g., online courses to supplement the curriculum in a small school. Applying our criteria of faster—deeper—cheaper, a surprising number of exemplars emerged, including schools such as Green School (Bali), Orestad Gymnasium (Copenhagen), the Steve Jobs School (Amsterdam), Blue School (New York), the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (Hong Kong and Singapore), and Big Picture Learning (Rhode Island). The two elements each of these shares in common are instructive: they are relatively small and are all quite new.

This begs the question of whether so-called legacy organizations, schools with substantial histories and investments in bricks and mortar, can innovate much at all. When you are a small school just starting out, virtually everything you try is an experiment. The bigger and/or older you get, though, the more you have to lose, and the less tolerant to risk-taking (read: innovation) you can become.

So, be careful what you call an innovation. Reserve that term for initiatives that transform learning (faster or deeper) or that change the business model. But, don’t even think about business model innovation unless you are willing to seriously innovate on the teaching and learning side of things.

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The Weird Psychology of Personal Affluence

An item in Fast Company today explains some of the strange psychology around family income. Admissions officers have long known that parents with substantial incomes often categorize themselves as solidly middle class. Citing Pew data:

There is little consensus on what middle class really means, but everyone certainly wants to be middle class: Nearly 70% of Americans consider themselves middle class, but only about 52% would qualify based on income.

We keep seeing a seeming disconnect between the objective reality of a family’s circumstances–multiple homes, luxury cars, frequent travel–and the emotional reality of how they view their lives. Despite obvious signs of affluence, people just don’t feel very well-off, and this profoundly affects their decision-making calculus when it comes to private school enrollment.

Compounding this is the “lifestyle creep” effect:

The things you might have considered luxuries as a middle class American may feel necessary once you’ve ascended to the upper middle class.

As “necessities” expand, each begins competing with the others and some may lose out in relative terms. As the Millennial generation of parents begin making there way into elementary schools:

Another key component? The $1.5 trillion in student loan debt that hangs over 44 million Americans.

Taken together, all of this means the enrollment conversation is more fraught than ever.

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Great Boards Are Boring

We have long thought that the best boards are invisible. Not absent, really, but certainly not in the public eye clamoring for attention. They do their work quietly and competently, eschewing a prominent public profile. Management does the up-in-front-of-the-room stuff.

Some boards seem purpose-built to be in the spotlight. The Theranos case, as recent books, documentaries and podcasts have made clear, is a good case in point. Elizabeth Holmes, the now-notorious Theranos founder, was fond of pointing out the star chamber of characters that populated her boardroom, but apparently curiosity, critical thinking and competence at oversight were not among their collective virtues. By contrast, the best-run and most enduring companies have the least prominent and visible boards. Everyone knows who Tim Cook is; almost no one knows who sits on the Apple board. We find the same to be true of schools.

Smart boards get the job done with minimal fanfare, no drama and little in the way of public presence. It is never a good day for a school when the board is in the spotlight no matter the reason.

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Ready for the Inevitable

As news reports in recent days point toward a global economic slowdown, inevitable given the long boom we have been riding, we point readers to our December 2018 Leading Trends briefing on exactly how schools should prepare.

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