Friday, April 17, 2009

Innovation--then and now

I've been away for far too long, caught up in some writing projects having to do with school leadership in tough financial times. In the end what is common sense in school management now has largely been common sense forever, although there has been a tendency in recent years even for school folks to toss some common sense out the window. Everything may have seemed a little too easy, and "keeping on keeping on" became the watchword rather than, "let's plan thoughtfully for a future that may be different."

If nothing else, the financial crisis has made a few people and a few schools think about how they might conceive of and do their work differently. I've been listening to people talk to me about the need for all schools, not just those who identify themselves as progressive, to have an authentic community purpose as well as strong, innovative programs to truly differentiate themselves from other institutions and to establish their identities as centers of educational excellence.

A while back I was speaking with the head of a school with an old and very established "winter term" program. Some of us are old enough to remember when these programs--usually a few weeks in December of January devoted to mini-courses, travel programs, and other wholesale departures from the "normal" curriculum--were all the rage. I spent three years in the 70s teaching in a middle school where we stopped pretty much everything and threw all the students and teachers, grades 5 through 9, into intensive and experiential "projects" around such themes as "American agriculture" and "Life in the U.S. in 1840." It was a blast; I learned most of what I ever knew in those days about creating curriculum from having had a role in designing these programs.

Well, my point before I started reminiscing was that this head commented that in some ways the school was resting on its laurels with this program, now probably in its fourth decade. The school has big plans at the moment to move forward in some truly exciting ways around curriculum and pedagogy. "Doing the new work is sort of a way of honoring the work that was done by people who put winter term together years ago," was the head's message.

I thought, Brilliant! Yes! Thirty years ago a new generation of teachers poured their hearts and souls into a wave of curriculum innovation. Even though some of it was conceived and executed by rookies like me, and no doubt flawed in all kinds of ways by the intuitive and sometimes haphazard way we planned, much more was based on the best thinking of the time, whether the inspiration was Jerome Bruner, Robert Coles, or Jonathan Kozol. (It's easy enough to see the genesis of a strong predilection toward social justice here.)

Much of this work was brought to a thudding halt in the financially dreadful early Reagan era, but the programs that survived--a pet curriculum here, a favorite project there, winter terms at a few score schools--had legs because they were sustained by passionate teachers and because they resonated with kids. In time some of these have become as traditional and fixed in their form and content as a Thanksgiving pageant or or an awards convocation, but some have evolved with the times and are as vital today as they were when they were devised by dewy-eyed baby boomers with just enough experience and confidence to think that programs could change the way their students understood the world.

Now, as this head of school was saying, the next generation of educators must throw their hearts and minds into new strategies, new practices, new programs. With schools now being led by many of those idealistic Boomers and a whole host of new, research-based understandings about how children learn and about how communities function, the potential exists for a tidal wave of innovative thinking about what schools are and what they can accomplish.

When schools (independent schools, in particular) start talking about ways to truly serve their communities, to open their doors and programs to their neighbors, and when schools are willing to embrace whole new concepts of curriculum content and design, innovation has established itself again. Just as a major financial scare put paid to much of the innovation of the 70s, our own recession seems to have motivated schools to start finding ways to make their missions, idealistic as they might be, real.

It makes me wonder whether there is some subtly contrary pendulum effect in economic uncertainty. The boom years of the 60s and early 70s gave us innovation in the form of a kind of progressive education that was fairly quickly neutered by the double-digit inflation and unemployment of the early Reagan Revolution, and now were are seeing smart schools using the current crisis as an impetus to embrace the social and curricular principles of the New Progressivism even more strongly.

Whatever meta-historical forces may be at work (or maybe it's just the Internet, for all I know), the result is encouraging. Schools are looking at new ways to be and new ways to do their work, and it's all quite exciting. I'm sure there are schools out there whose panicky boards want them to revert to some notion of education in the 1950s (which we seem to cling to as some kind of Golden Age, before things got complicated), but the best school leaders are responding to the exigencies of the day even as they honor the work of their predecessors by aggressively seeking better ways to accomplish their schools' missions.


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