I love working with school principals. Perhaps it’s just me, but I simply prefer grizzled optimism borne from real experience over idealism. Most principals have buckets of this type of energy and perspective. These are people who have been around the block more than a few times. They love kids. They respect teachers. When things don’t go according to plan, or when they go completely sideways, they have the emotional fortitude to provide stability and direction – even if internally they are suffering. Over time, they develop a strong leadership intuition informed by both research and experience. Student learning is their North Star, and they know how to laugh at the same time they are pushing hard for results.
So you can imagine my delight at getting an hour with over 50 school leaders to mine their thoughts and design considerations for our XQ super school design. While our session together was explicitly designed to gather data and insight into our new school design, we also hoped the learning would be reciprocal and provide impetus for building momentum in the redesign and transformation work our principals do at their own schools. Indeed, the entire XQ theory of action for transforming education stems from a desire to disrupt the status quo for all 50 million high school students in the country, not just the students who enroll in the 5 schools that ultimately win the prize.
I started our session showing the XQ: Rethink video. It’s provocative; a direct repudiation of how we’ve allowed our high schools to stay frozen in time. It calls our schools “outmoded” and invites us to “throw out the blueprint” for traditional high school design. Those could be considered fighting words when your livelihood and daily leadership struggle are situated directly in the institutions that are coming under fire. I asked our principals to quickly journal about their reaction to the video, and then to stand and array themselves physically in the room in order of strongly agree to strongly disagree. My initial assessment was that the activity did not work very well. Almost everyone clustered around the strongly agree end of the spectrum. I thought perhaps they associated too much danger in strongly disagreeing with a video just shown to them by a district official (me), despite my efforts to encourage honesty in their reactions.
Then the principals started talking. One by one they articulated their aspirations for meaningful, authentic learning. They voiced their disdain for the structural impediments that keep us collectively from unlocking the full potential for student engagement and learning . They were eager to engage in the design process, and insightful in their contributions to it. Frankly put, school leaders are deeply, if not painfully, aware of the struggles in their schools, and their desire to bring about meaningful improvement is tangible and persistent. Even those in the middle of the spectrum shared a strong desire to disrupt the status quo, although with major concerns over the policies and institutional disincentives that mitigate change.
In the end, we enjoyed a productive conversation focusing on critical elements of our school design. As we’ve done in previous design engagements, principals individually brainstormed design elements, and then engaged in an interview protocol in an attempt to truly understand the primary design considerations of their colleagues. Then we transferred those ideas to post-it notes and organized them according to the six development categories outlined in the XQ proposal materials. It’s just another step as we journey together towards a school design that reflects our best thinking around what it means to completely rethink the high school experience.