Closing this chapter…

Well, I’ve been blogging on and off at this site for a decade. I did not get into blogging to build a following, shape a brand, or sell products. It has been a great outlet for me for reflection and for sharing. Since I am changing jobs schools, I imagine this site will come down in the near future. If you have benefited in any way from what is written here then I am glad. I have no doubt I will be writing again in my new role as Head of School at Augusta Preparatory Day School, but it will be a few weeks before my blog is up and running.  Best of luck to you!

Derrick Willard

NAIS Strategy Lab: A New Approach to School Innovation

In March 2019, Providence Day School had the opportunity to host a NAIS Strategy Lab, the latest iteration in a series of frameworks designed by the NAIS Innovation Team to help independent schools make strategic progress.

NAIS Chief Innovation Officer, Tim Fish, addressing the Strategy Lab participants

The NAIS Innovation Team (from their website) “supports schools in solving pressing challenges and seizing the opportunities in order to live into their missions and secure sustainable futures.”  If you are not familiar with the work of the Innovation Team, let me give you a little backstory…

About four years ago, NAIS assembled an Innovation Task Force largely made up of technology director representatives from member schools with oversight by two NAIS representatives.  I recall the group touring innovative Silicon Valley businesses around the time of the 2016 Annual Conference and publishing some account of the experiences online.  Shortly thereafter, NAIS had a Chief Innovation Officer in Tim Fish and was fleshing out something called the “Innovation Kitchen.”  I had the good fortune of leading a PDS team to the first NAIS Innovation Kitchen “Summit Hack” at NAIS Headquarters in the summer of 2018 (read more about that experience here).  Using a “Magnetic Mountain” metaphor, the early work focused on helping schools develop aspirational goals (“summits”) and lean into prototyping designs (“day hikes”) to help schools achieve those goals.  At PDS, we leveraged this work to innovate within our organization and some of that work on private-public partnerships was featured by NAIS at the 2018 Annual Conference (read more here).

The NAIS “Magnetic Mountain” Metaphor

…now, back to the present. As a participant in this most recent iteration of an “innovation incubator” I was thrilled to see how the NAIS approach has evolved.  First, the NAIS Innovation Team has dropped the mixed metaphors (the innovation kitchen is on the way out) and sharpened their focus on work around the value proposition of a school.  The Magnetic Mountain remains a potent aspirational framework, but the work is now much more focused around Jobs to Be Done Theory as applied to independent schools.  The winter 2019 Independent School magazine has a great article by Amada Torres that summarizes the research NAIS has done around this theory and the four reasons parents choose independent schools.  Second, the NAIS Innovation Team is using the Kano Model (read Wikipedia summary and study the graph), a theory for product development and customer satisfaction, as a framework for helping schools clarify their greatest challenges.  While developed in the 1980s for business applications, the Kano Model is an interesting lens through which to view areas for strategic innovation within a school.  Third, the Team has developed a great template to help school teams move from generative, divergent thinking to implementation–including a simple project charter.  You can get a better sense of what I am trying to describe in this spring 2019 Independent School magazine article by NAIS Innovation Team members Tim Fish and Jackie Wolking.

NAIS has held five of these Strategy Lab workshops over the last few months, and they plan to do more. For schools that cannot afford to send a team to a physical site for the three-day experience, the NAIS Innovation Team is also working on “just press play” modules that teams can use on campus.  NAIS member schools can find more resources at the NAIS website.

The Learning Curve(s)

Well, it is that time again…the start of a new school year!  As the 2018-2019 school year begins, I have been thinking a lot about teachers using the expression “there’s a learning curve.”  In particular, I was thinking the images that phrase could produce in a student’s mind…

Of course, anyone can quickly school themselves in the origins of “learning curve theory” on Wikipedia or via other online sources.  I grabbed this image of a typical “S-shaped learning curve” from the  August 24th, 2018 version of the Wikipedia Learning Curve page:


Maybe a student would picture this S shape…the gradual accumulation of knowledge (or skill) until one feels they have mostly mastered the topic (or task) and there is less and less to learn until they know it all!  Pretend you asked your students to draw “the learning curve” on day one of class this year and the majority drew an S shape.  Maybe you would pause and draw this version of the “curve:”


Hopefully, this one seems more realistic to you as a teacher? I think it better reflects that learning is messy, that sometimes it happens in fits and starts and after a setback (dare we say “failure?”).

Then I started thinking about teachers and their learning curves…and I start thinking about all the change teachers see over a career.  I have felt and witnessed “initiative fatigue” over my 23 years in education.  Is it tricky that we ask our students to show up every day and learn something new, but as adults we tend to balk at it?  Of course, that assertion is overly simplistic as not everyone is uncomfortable with change, but the pace of it or the magnitude of it may make anyone uncomfortable with a particular change.

Over the years I have grown fond of using “The Implementation Dip” graph (shown below) to help students and teachers picture the learning curve:

If you are not familiar with “The Implementation Dip,” the term was made popular by Michael Fullan  while writing about change management.  The graph above can by widely found online, but I am not sure the original source.

Then, I started thinking about picturing what is going on within the dip on that graph…and I stumbled onto this graph from a Center for Public Education blog post about the effectiveness of teacher professional development:


Of course, we feel awkward/uncomfortable in the dip.  And how do we feel more comfortable being uncomfortable? That has everything to do with the coaching (or teaching) we receive in the dip.  Then I found this neat graph in the book Results Coaching: The New Essential for School Leaders (2010), by Kathryn Kee, Karen Anderson, and Vicky Dearing–and they reference Michael Fullan’s work as well work by Eva Wong at Harvard (the graph is actually adapted from Wong’s work):

Source: Results Coaching: The New Essential for School Leaders (p. 16)

So, it IS a new year and time for a fresh start.  How might we help our students and teachers visualize learning and coach them through the frustration and anxiety of the dips?  How might might we, as faculty and leaders, be more comfortable with being uncomfortable? How might we be great coaches–and allow ourselves to be coached? How might we best create a coaching culture in our schools?

Best of luck on a great year, coach!



Innovation: Ideas & Execution

Last July I had the good fortune of joining teams from other independent schools at the NAIS Headquarters for a unique opportunity and I shared those lessons shared in a previous blog post.  At the time, myself and other leaders at our school were trying to evaluate a pilot of our Center for the Art and Science of Teaching, Learning and Entrepreneurship (CASTLE or “The Center”).  This month I am just returning from the NAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.  At this time, I am trying to reflect on eight months of work studying innovation, our school’s work on innovating teaching and learning, and the NAIS Innovation Team’s work developing the capacity for innovation across member schools.

I returned home last July fascinated by innovation–and the notion that one might systematize and sustain it.  One of the most powerful lessons of the NAIS “Magnetic Mountain” metaphor for me was that the real work is on the “descent.”  It may seem counterintuitive that the real work is on the “downhill,” but the point is after the euphoria of the reaching the “peak” (the great idea) there is the hard work of execution.  I have been a part of enough visioning sessions or design charrettes to know the joy of engaging warm-up SPARK activities and the fun of tackling divergent thinking prompts.  But what happens the next day?  If nothing meaningful comes out of the design session, participants may feel jaded–especially if they have experienced a repeat of a previous design activity.  Implementation is the real tricky work.

Members of “The Center,” our “innovation engine” at Providence Day School, were invited to participate in the speed innovating session and give a presentation on “Designing and Implementing Collaborative Leadership” at the NAIS Annual Conference. When the presentation was over, a leader from another independent school walk up to me excitedly and ask, “how did you put this team together?”

Members of the PDS CASTLE Team (or “The Center”) leading a design activity at the NAIS speed innovating session at the 2018 NAIS Annual Conference

The origins story is a complex story that spans over two and a half years, but I did not have time to tell it to her.  I gave her my card and replied that I would be glad to share the longer story when we had time and in the mean time I would recommend a couple of essential resources on the topic that would help her organize such work…

First, I recommended reading Tom Kelly‘s 2005 book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, which takes a novel approach to organizing and driving innovation in an organization (you can read my full review here).  The famous IDEO founder explains at length how to assemble an innovation team based on various valuable skill sets.  Whether you can assemble a team of three or ten, I think this book is essential to school leaders thinking of launching an innovation team, initiative, or institute.

Second, I recommended The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. Vijay and Chris are both faculty at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and they have both researched and written extensively on innovation.  The authors do a wonderful job of laying out how to build a dedicated team and run a disciplined experiment.  Noting that “innovation and ongoing operations are always inevitably at conflict,” the authors employ case studies that illustrate the challenges any organization faces when organizing, managing, and evaluating innovation efforts.  Key takeaways include creating a dedicated team from shared staff, working from a clear hypothesis, and evaluating learning (not just results or actions).  Note: If pressed for time, I recommend How Stella Saved the Farm: A Tale about Making Innovation Happen, a fable version of the longer book by the same authors.

Third, I recommended she leverage the “Magnetic Mountain” metaphor (pictured below) and resources that NAIS has developed and posted at the Innovation Kitchen website.  NAIS has invested in a dedicated team that seeks to “reimagine school models, build capacity among our leaders and celebrate innovation.”  The metaphor is a great framework for schools to organize this work.  In the end, the goal is envisioning the “second summit”–demonstrating “proof that innovation is a disposition, not a destination.”

The NAIS “Magnetic Mountain” Metaphor-Mapping the Innovation Journey

Where is your school in its innovation journey? Whether you are just planning a day hike or major expedition I recommend you invest the time in these resources to cut your learning curve!

Members of the Providence Day School CASTLE team trading ideas with other educators in the NAIS Innovation Kitchen at the 2018 Annual Conference

Learn more about the work of the Providence Day School Center for the Art and Science of Teaching, Learning and Entrepreneurship at the website: 

Out of the mouth of babes…what helps us learn?

The 2017-2018 school year has begun and the classrooms, halls, and playgrounds are once again full of life.  Once again we are pursuing the “business” of school: learning.  Today, I was briefly dumbstruck by the word “mistakes” in the student-generated list pictured below…

A Transitional Kindergarten teacher shared this list with me after asking her older four and younger five year old students “What helps us learn?”  How simple and wonderful that a child just beginning school seems to understand the value of mistakes as opportunities to learn.  What a great illustration of a growth mindset! If only all parents, teachers, and students could keep this simple mantra in mind throughout the year…

What’s Cookin’ in the NAIS Innovation Kitchen?

I am just returning from the National Association of Independent School Headquarters in Washington, D.C. where I had the chance to participate in the first NAIS Innovation Kitchen “Summit Hack.”  Providence Day School (NC) and six other independent schools from across the country are part of the first cohort of schools to test out a mountain climbing metaphor (click on image below) that provides the “trail map and gear” for innovation work (research and design) in schools.  Yes, there are mixed metaphors of cooking and climbing, but the gist of this work is about how to help schools catalyze and sustain innovations so that they remain vibrant schools in the future.

The NAIS Magnetic Mountain Innovation “Trail Map” (click to enlarge)

A little background if you are not familiar with this work…NAIS formed an Innovation Task Force in 2016 as an advisory and working group for NAIS and its members.  This talented group of leaders studied innovation in schools and in Silicon Valley (read more about that trip at the NAIS connect blog here) to help inform innovation work for NAIS.  By the Annual Conference in the winter of 2017, NAIS was featuring “The Innovation Kitchen” and “The Magnetic Mountain” in the convention arena, and by the spring of 2017 NAIS was featuring “The Education-Innovation Continuum” as the focus of that magazine edition.  By the summer of 2017, the first “Summit Hack” (see short video here) experience was created to develop within, and between, its cohort members:
1. Magnetic Mountain metaphor fluency
2. An imperative for change
3. A trail map to the Summit
4. Form a strong cohort
5. Iterate the Summit Hack concept

The NAIS Innovation Team (Jefferson Burnett, Kawai Lai, Tim Fish, and Jackie Wolking) put together an engaging and productive two-day experience using the Magnetic Mountain metaphor.  Assisted by Bo Adams, Executive Director of the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI), we worked through the various stages (Now Town, Basecamp, Day Hikes, Ascent 1st Summit, Descent, 2nd Summit) of the metaphor using design thinking techniques.

Tim Fish (left) and Bo Adams (right) leading a design thinking exercise at the NAIS Summit Hack.

The program and staff really pushed us to think generatively, focus on listening to feedback, and prototyping multiple iterations of our goals.  While we did not spend as much time on it, the “backpack” resources included valuable project management and change management tools.  All of this work is focused on helping schools with innovation imperatives (the why of change) and “summit ideas” (the goal of change).  The mountain is magnetic, as such innovations that result from this process are meant to draw families and faculty to the school.

Providence Day School has spent the last year embarking on a significant “day hike” along this innovation trail, resulting in our own Center for the Art and Science of Teaching and Learning and Entrepreneurship, or CASTLE.  Internally, we just tend to refer to the team as “The Center.”  Over the past 18 months The Center has operating with a team of three in “start-up mode,” and achieving some rapid and remarkable transformations in teaching and learning practice at the school.  If we stick with the NAIS Magnetic Mountain metaphor, the three members of The Center act as elite mountaineers or “sherpas” who are helping us create a culture of “climbers” (risk-taking, innovative, faculty).  In the business world, The Center might be considered our “research and design” division, or our “innovation engine.”

Myself, and members of the PDS CASTLE Team pictured with the NAIS Innovation Summit Hack Team.

We are honored to be a part of the first full cohort of schools in this NAIS experiment.  There are plans to keep the schools connected via virtual means during the year and to reconnect during the upcoming NAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta in March 2018.  Stay tuned as we continue to hike the Magnetic Mountain!



Round Square Discovery Framework Workshop: What it Means “to be” Round Square

In my last post, I gave an account one of the wonderful benefits of being a member of the Round Square International schools network:  international student conferences.  Our PDS Global Studies Diploma students had a remarkable opportunity to develop relationships, complete joint service projects, develop leadership capabilities, and explore global issues with students from North, Central, and South America in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In this post I would like to describe another benefit of membership: The Round Square Discovery Framework.  I am currently at Round Square Worldwide Headquarters in Windsor, UK at the second international gathering of curriculum leaders regarding this exciting work.  In this programming framework, students are “explorers,” inspired by the six IDEALS to make “discoveries” as they journey through school.

The Round Square Discovery Framework (click to enlarge)

Member schools are here sharing how they are piloting or implementing the framework.  This recent post from the Round Square CEO shares the value of the framework and how six schools are implementing the framework-five of those schools are here sharing their work in person.  It is pretty amazing to be in a room with 60 participants from 35 schools representing six continents discussing common language for a values-based education!

Providence Day School joined Round Square in 2015, and had already established our PD Passport Framework by the time we applied to join.  The PD Passport provides a student access to a TK-12 global education-the knowledge, skills, and character dispositions required to graduate a global citizen.  This is a road map not only for success in college, but life beyond in a global marketplace.

The PD Passport Curriculum Framework (for a larger version click here)

I had the chance to share our work at the conference, and map the overlaps in the two frameworks.  The similarities between the two frameworks make it obvious why Round Square was a great philosophical fit for PDS!

So, membership in Round Square provides more than just activities for our students “to do.” The Discovery Framework clearly articulates what it means “to be” Round Square.  At PDS, we are excited to be Round Square!


Round Square Regional Conference 2017 in Buenos Aires

Packing for my journey to the 2017 Round Square Regional Conference in Buenos Aires

I am so excited to be a chaperone for a group of Providence Day School Upper School students who will make up our delegation to the 2017 Round Square Regional Conference in Buenos Aires.  If you are not familiar with Round Square, it is a worldwide network of 180 schools in 50 countries that share a holistic approach to learning built around six IDEALS of learning.  As stated at the organization’s website, “The Round Square network offers schools a framework for excellence and continuous improvement, along with structured opportunities to collaborate and share experiences with like-minded peers around the world.”  Providence Day School applied for and was selected to join this prestigious network of schools in the spring of 2015.  Learn more by watching this brief video:

Since joining Round Square we have had student delegations attend the international (full worldwide membership) conferences in Singapore (2015) and Germany (2016) and we will send a delegation to the next one in South Africa in the fall of 2017.  This trip is our first chance to attend an Americas regional conference, and we will host the following regional conference in the spring of 2018!

So, we are excited to arrive at Belgrano Day School (our conference host) and meet students and teachers from all over the hemisphere.  At Providence Day School, we believe in a global education and are trying to cultivate global citizens–empathetic problem solvers who can work with anyone, anytime, anywhere to make the world a better place.  Experiences like these provide amazing opportunities for our Global Students Diploma students to develop their skills!

The PDS delegation to the 2017 Round Square Regional Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’m so sick of Post-It Notes…

Recently overheard at my school: “I’m so sick of Post-It Notes!”  Now, understand I heard it from a colleague who said they overheard the remark another colleague…

Ideation session using Post-It brand notes…

Hmmm….this makes me wonder why someone would be sick of being asked to share their ideas?   Why someone would be sick of being included in solution development sessions?  Why someone would be sick of a group making their thinking visible and gain insights from common themes?  Why someone would be sick of giving everyone in the room a voice–using a system that prevents the tyranny of those who, willingly or unwillingly, dominate the conversation?

I guess that person could literally be sick of doing, what seems to be, seemingly the same thing over and over.  To that person I guess I could be empathetic, as there are other media with which to ideate and accomplish the same goals.  For example, there is nothing wrong with using a paper graphic organizer, whiteboard, glass wall, or digital tools like our Nureva Span System to ideate…

Ideation product using a graphic    organizer

Ideation in response to a prompt on a whiteboard

Ideation on a glass surface

Ideation at Providence Day School using our Nureva Span  System

My hope is that the sentiment behind the remark is just that simple and those of us who craft design thinking or divergent thinking activities (like our Center Team) should vary our methods more often.  Regardless of any Post-It Note aversion, I remain a support of the Post-It Note as one of the most powerful tools we have to cultivate divergent thinking in our students and faculty.  In a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “How to Push Your Team to Take Risks and Experiment,” Sara Critchfield (founding editor of discusses the value of divergent thinking:

Divergent thinking is different from creative thinking. It’s not the ability to come up with an original idea, but the ability to come up with lots of different answers to the same question. Divergent thinking looks more like insatiable curiosity than like original ideas. It is an essential skill for innovation because it provides team members with the foundation to create great tests. The goal is to gradually change a company’s culture from one of finding the right answer to one of exploring and testing many possible answers.

With a stack of Post-It Notes, I can ellicit tens or hundreds of ideas from a small group in ten minutes.  Regardless of all the other benefits give in the “why” questions of the second paragraph in this blog post, the efficiency of generating a large volume of ideas is so powerful.  And, somewhere in this volume may be a very valuable but nonconsensus idea–a veritable diamond in the rough!  Once that unique idea has surfaced, there is a whole new battle to fight…

Donna Orem, President of the National Association of Independent Schools, wrote a great perspective piece in the spring 2017 issue of The Independent School Magazine titled “Nuturing the Nonconsensus Idea.”  The crux of the article is that it can be “particularly daunting to get behind a nonconsensus idea because there are so many stakeholders with a vested interest in persevering the status quo (p. 10).” She goes on to offer some suggestions as to how schools promote and nurture such ideas, but I will not outline that here (not online as of today but I will try to link to it later).

So, I hope at Providence Day School we will never tire of chances to use Post-It Notes (or napkins), graphic organizers, whiteboards, glass, or digital systems to incubate new ideas!

SxSWedu 2017 Recap

I had the good fortune to be able to attend the 2017 SxSWedu Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas.  This four-day event was a though-provoking brain feast designed for TK-12 & higher ed educators and a professional bucket list item for me.  While not specifically declared as conference tracks there were prominent themes around innovation, PBL, coding, interactive tech, and diversity/equity, among others.  Rather than simply give you a chronological account, let me use those themes as the basis for recounting my experience…

SxSWedu organizers obviously want innovation to be a hallmark of the conference.  The announcement of the Rather Prize, start-up launch events, and the film viewing about Singularity University (see my review here) all reinforce an entrepreneurial spirt that is missing from other education conferences.  My favorite session on innovation was led by Eric Schneider, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction for the Minnetonka Public Schools.  Eric delivered an upbeat, 20-minute feature on “Using Innovation to Transform School Culture.”  Minnetonka Schools seems to have developed the mindset and pipeline (neat tracking tools too) to keep innovations coming in a large, public school system.

Project/Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
For those interested in infusing authentic, real-world challenges into the curriculum there were numerous offerings–unfortunately many of them were scheduled to compete with each other.  I was impressed with the presentation on student-run businesses (or EdCorp) using the Real World Scholars resources.  RWS is trying to support entrepreneurial education by providing the seed funding, web platform/marketing, and mentoring TK-12 students need to get a start-up business off the ground.  I was also impressed with David Ross, CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (or P21), who led a workshop session titled “Enhancing Creativity with PBL.”  David not only led a creative workshop, but also provided numerous resources that support developing creativity in students.  Chris Lehmann (of SLA and Educon fame), Diana Laufenberg, and Jaime Casap presented “Building an Inquiry-Based School Model” that tackled the why and how (particularly obstacles) for school-level cultural and curricular transformation.

David Ross leading a PBL workshop

There were numerous presentations by vendors/educators promoting digital literacy, especially in coding.  I went to a teacher-led session on the popular Scratch programming “language” developed by MIT.  The workshop leaders led us through a beta version of ScratchX that enables users to use new experimental extensions for things like Spotify, littleBits, and Arduino.  I also went to a presentation by Mike Fox of treehouse, a company dedicated to providing online programming instruction.  Part impassioned plea for digital literacy, part sales pitch, it was an eye-opening session about the “next big blue collar job.”  Another company called vidcode, presented a pilot program with the Girl Scouts of NY to promote/teach coding to tween/teen girls.  Finally, I saw a panel of experts (including Randi Zuckerberg) discussing “The Tech Skills Gap: What Employers and Educators Can Do.”

Scratch coding session focusing on new          extensions

Interactive Tech (AR/VR)
This was the most mind-blowing part of the conference for me!  There was a great panel discussion on day one called “Separating Hype from Reality: AR/VR & Learning.”  Most impressive was Dr Fridolin Wild, a Senior Research Fellow, leading the Performance Augmentation Lab (PAL) of Oxford Brookes University.  Dr. Wild started with “perception is an active process…reality is a medium” and went on to educate the crowd on the range of technologies out there and practical uses to enhance productivity and performance–this was not about gaming!  He gave some amazing demonstrations of augmented reality…remote instruction, living handbooks, and smart maintenance…wait until you see what is coming out of labs like his.  I also got to experience a neat demonstration of augmented reality technology.  Thomas Flynn of Museum-in-a-Box, and Jennifer Shinn of Augment Education, presented on Bringing History to Life with Augmented Reality.  Thomas has helped scan the British Museum collection in 3D, and illustrated how that can be accessed and used anywhere!  Jennifer showed how the Augment app can enable a 3D experience through a smartphone (see image below).  I can envision history and art history classes using AR to bring 2D textbook images “to life.”

Screenshot of 2D image      converted a 3D experience  via the Augment App

The conference started with a BANG with the keynote by Dr. Christopher Edmin!  His impassioned keynote is worth an hour if you can make the time-a powerful message about the perils of sacrificing culture when trying to educate minority populations.  Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab delivered a keynote loaded with research and data exposing the crushing financial burdens facing students seeking a college education–mainly the failure of the Pell Grant system to level the playing field in terms of access to education for low-income families.  Sadly, the keynote/conversation with investor/entrepreneur/author/podcaster and “lifestyle designer” Tim Ferris felt oddly out of place and did not live up to expectations.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab on the main stage

I highly recommend this conference for educators passionate about edtech and innovation in particular.  Kudos the conference organizers for plenty of engaging content.  And, Austin is a great city to experience.  One of my favorite memories was watching the city cover any man-made surface with plastic wrap in anticipation of the onslaught of stickers and posters for the upcoming SxSW Conference & Festival!

The City of Austin prepping for the film & music festival!