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From the ED 11.2.17


From the did-you-know files: There are approximately 7,400 languages spoken on the planet. Of these, 900 languages are spoken by fewer than 100,000 individuals. Nearly half of all humans speak a language from the Indo-European family as their native language – this family includes Spanish, English, German, French, Hindustani/Hindi-Urdu, Portuguese, Russian, Punjabi, Latin (my favorite – I am a former Latin teacher), etc. This remarkable linguistic and cultural diversity will not exist in the future. Most predict that about 90% of languages will be extinct, meaning there are no native speakers, within the next century.

We can catch the barest glimpse of this within our own experiences. For example, national news and the internet have brought flat accents and regularized speech patterns, vocabulary, and semantics to a wider audience. This is usually called “General American” or the “newscaster accent” and is similar to the phenomenon of the British Received Pronunciation. I like to call it the Tom Brokaw effect – Brokaw, Walter Cronkite, and Johnny Carson are usually credited with broadening the appeal of this dialect. In this age of the internet of things where we are more connected to each other than ever before, we are simultaneously leveling many playing fields by providing access to a wider world (a good thing), while also enlarging the playing fields of the dominant groups (maybe not a good thing?). Is there a slippery slope that should concern us?

When working with trustees, senior leaders, or presenting workshops, I like to do an activity where participants list the top five things they think their school is really good at and the top five things they think the school really struggles to be good at. As they are debriefing and sharing with each other, numerous similarities emerge, one of which is the drive to balance tradition with innovation. Put this another way and it is the need to find the fulcrum between the advancing tide of change, some of it radical and some of it progressive, and the sense that the past holds keys to the future.

Every school has its own language, its own lexicon that drives the way we talk to each other on campus. I think we would all agree that the language we use in schools has new additions to it. We now talk about maker space, design thinking, collaborative learning, mastery, the sharing economy, micro schools. We use the language of futurists and innovators and look for the changes that will lead us forward. We have some language that all schools in the throes of educational change share and other language that is unique to our campus that remains regardless of external influences. At the end of the day, we all use language, but it does not always make us understand each other. While most of the current linguistic diversity will not exist in the future, and perhaps some of the current pedagogical diversity will not exist in the future either, we will continue to have to work harder to understand and celebrate the differences we can see and those we can’t see in all individuals. Our own slippery slope is about the migration of our mission and being wise enough to understand the language we use might be allowed to change, but what makes us truly unique is foundational to who we are.

As for what language will win out in the future, here is a brief review from the Washington Post of some of the different ways to approach that question. And although Latin probably won’t make a comeback as the last native Latin speakers probably died about thirteen centuries ago, I could make a case that those speaking French, Spanish, Italian, etc. are really speaking Latin with a strange accent.

What I am reading now: Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. As the back jacket says, “… for parents, teachers, and the myriad of confused adults who want to understand the digital present and shape the digital future.”

Lessons from School Leaders – an IDEO reflection

In my past life as a teacher, I spent countless hours finding the right balance between correcting students and letting students correct themselves. Little did I know that in my current career manifestation at IDEO, I would be searching for that balance once again.

IDEO is best known for using design to tackle big, meaty complex challenges, from designing a new school system for Peru’s middle class to creating a digital platform to scale coaching for first generation college students.

For our collaboration with MISBO, it was a little bit different. The challenge was big and meaty – reimagining business models for independent schools – but instead of coming up with innovative solutions for independent schools, we designed a 3-month learning experience to empower a cohort of leaders from 12 schools around the world to lead the charge themselves.

In this case, our job was to be teachers and facilitators of design thinking. Our primary goal was to help the cohort develop design and innovation muscles from within the context of their day-to-day to show that change is possible and that you can fight fires and start fires at the same time.

“How do we stay relevant if we don’t do this?” – Carrollwood Day School

“It’s hard for the leaders of today to be the leaders of tomorrow.” – Jackson Academy

The thing about being an expert in a sector like education is that it comes with deep and intimate knowledge of all of the reasons why a new idea will never work. For the cohort of schools, those constraints included demanding boards and demanding parents, rising tuition and rising competition, rapidly evolving technology and rapidly evolving student needs. Luckily, as the saying goes, creativity loves constraints.

As a process for problem solving, design thinking helps reframe constraints as human-centered needs and opportunities, for example, moving from “parents are demanding” to “how might we channel the energy of parents to build community?” Without ignoring the realities of the given context, design thinking allows for moments of divergent and convergent thinking, providing space to dream, and separate space to make decisions.

Perhaps most importantly in this case, design thinking brings a bias to action and a practice around experimentation, creating proof points that help move things forward without burning the whole house down.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to define ‘the problem’ rather than thinking about solutions.” – Bancroft School

“I’m tired of talking about it, I want to find some solutions.” – Indian Creek School

Teaching these mindsets and methods required us to create space for school leaders to be active learners. That meant that we, as teachers, had to let go of a certain amount of control to allow for a truly student-led learning experience. Rather than running experiments we had designed, we had each school design and run their own experiments, with the IDEO team serving as guides. Our goal was not to design groundbreaking solutions ourselves, but rather to empower the schools to design their own.

Members of the cohort brought a range of experience with design thinking, from those who run their own state of the art design thinking programs, to pragmatic skeptics, to bright-eyed beginners. Like teaching a mixed-level class, we designed a series of workshops and activities to challenge those on the more experienced end and scaffold those who were still learning.

Learning a new skill sometimes means not getting quite as far as fast, which can feel frustrating for teacher and students alike, but after hearing the school leaders share their own journeys, I realized what a focus on building capacity does do. Building capacity and creative confidence creates disproportionate impact by equipping leaders and influencers across a given sector with rare time and space to exercise their design muscles, moving the entire sector forward, and ultimately farther, from within.

“When we model innovation and change as a school, the students learn from it.”  – Cary Academy

“It’s not convenient, it’s aspirational.” – Nueva School

In true teacher fashion, I learned many lessons from my students:

  • I learned that moments of struggle help to internalize methods and mindsets like “Learn from Failure” and “Be Optimistic.”
  • I learned that when your goal is to teach someone to fish, sometimes it’s enough to be in the boat with them.
  • I learned that design requires rigorous and structured learning experiences just as much as any other subject or field of expertise.
  • I learned that being a teacher and facilitator of experiential learning is hard, but boy, is it worth it.

A few last words of advice:

  • To those teaching design thinking, find moments to relinquish control and model the comfort with ambiguity that is key to the process.
  • To those learning design thinking, perfect is the enemy of good. And when in doubt, test it out.

Always learning,

Becky Lee
San Francisco

From the ED 10.5.17


Automation is not new. MIT professor and labor economist David Autor points out that there is a long history of technology replacing human labor – and markets adjust. Beasts of burden replaced much of lifting and carrying; the tractor replaced the horse and plow; electricity, internal combustion engines, and telecommunications replaced numerous systems that were previously manual. He notes that at the turn of the last century, 40% of employment was in farming and now there is less than 2% – and we have more food than ever before. Mechanical horsepower replaced having a strong back. What is interesting about his research is when he turns his attention to labor areas that require workers that are more skilled and demonstrates that automation and productivity does not always replace human labor but can augment human labor.

I heard Dr. Autor interviewed in a podcast originally aired in January, 2015 in which he draws attention to the complexities of machines: “[T]he interactions by which technological changes lead to changes in employment are really rich and complex . . . and it’s not simply a matter of a machine does the job, therefore the worker doesn’t do the job, therefore there are fewer workers needed.”

While market sectors can become so productive that they need fewer workers, such as agriculture, in other sectors, productivity has risen and the labor market has as well. In sectors in which we get better, prices go down but the demand grows, creating more employment opportunities. This is great news and great research, but here is the part of the interview that made my heart skip a beat – see if it does for you as well:

“One example would be medicine. Seventy-five years ago, most of what doctors could do was harm you. Now they have lots of ways to do good; they’re much more productive in terms of improving your health. That’s also true, apparently, with lawyers or with people in marketing or even in education – well, maybe there hasn’t been that much productivity growth in education. I should watch myself there.”

I had to rewind and listen to that part several times. Once the initial shock wore off, I could see his point and concede that he is probably right about the lack of productivity in education. We perpetuate some of our practices and market a low teacher-student ratio (which requires more labor), remarkable facilities (largest budget line after personnel) and a greater diversity of curricular and co-curricular opportunities (double whammy: more labor and more resources). Does education defy advances in productivity? Maybe. But, more likely there are two key factors at play.

  1. We have a paying customer (parent) who is not also the consumer of the product (student), leading to what we might euphemistically call a discrepancy in demand.
  2. We have not recognized (or created) the innovation that will transform and be scaled up.

The first point could resolve with either time or training. On the second point, one of the issues with any advancement is the law of diffusion of innovation, which Simon Sinek talks about in his TED Talk and in his books:

“The first 2.5% of our population are our innovators. The next 13.5% of our population are our early adopters. The next 34% are your early majority, your late majority and your laggards. The only reason these people buy touch-tone phones is because you can’t buy rotary phones anymore. We all sit at various places at various times on this scale, but what the law of diffusion of innovation tells us is that if you want mass-market success or mass-market acceptance of an idea, you cannot have it until you achieve this tipping point between 15 and 18 percent market penetration, and then the system tips.”

It is entirely possible that the innovation education needs to increase productivity (and hopefully a greater demand for labor) already exists. The lingering question is – what is it? And can we do it at my school? As of the publication date of this piece, we are at the 2017 MISBO Fall Conference having these types of conversations and stretching our imaginations into new possibilities. I doubt there is any one magic thing that will lead to the types of innovations we have been talking about for the past several years, but I do believe that we will diverge and converge and use other elements of design thinking to help kick start us into the future. David Autor uses the phrase “cognitive flexibility” to describe the key skill that labor markets will always need. It is the ability to adapt and face a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. We can continue to get better at teaching this and, as he says, cognitive flexibility beats heavy lifting for a living.

Think Before You Click

One of the most insidious threats to any industry today comes in the form of a cyberattack. You have heard the stories, seen the news, and may have even experienced some version on your campus. This is a growing concern for independent schools, due to the open and collaborative nature of our communities and the people who work there.

An attack can range from a simple student hack to a much more sophisticated attempt to penetrate your network. While all forms of cyberattacks can affect your classroom, campus, and business operations, a significant breach can have a long-lasting effect on your institution’s image.

What makes an independent school vulnerable and what can you do to protect yourself? The helpful, caring, and trusting individuals found on your campus provide the perfect opportunity for a hacker to enter your network. Do you regularly conduct phishing tests for students, faculty, and staff? The Lovett School began performing this exercise and found that a majority (almost 80%) of their faculty initially “took the bait.” Woodward Academy conducted a similar email campaign and those that clicked were taken to an educational video; a soft lesson but still extremely effective. Both schools dramatically increased awareness among students, faculty, and staff, and reduced the number of potential risks.

Sophisticated hackers may also take readily available information from your website (new employee, school trips, etc.) to conduct another type of attack; one that asks you to share information with a “known” coworker. This occurs when you receive an email that appears to come from an email address you recognize and contains a request that might be legitimate. At The Pine School in Hobe Sound, Florida, a request to transfer funds to cover a professional development event was sent to the business office, presumably from the new Head of School. Fortunately that request was immediately recognized as out of the ordinary, and an attempt to verify the request by other means proved it to be false.

How do you help your staff recognize these types of emails? Lee Conner, Assistant VP for Technology and Transportation at Woodward Academy, recommends you look for the obvious clues first. Hover over the link – what does it show? Check the grammar – a poorly written email often indicates a false request. To whom was the request sent? Are there several names, odd names, or are they listed alphabetically on the recipient list? These too are indicators of a phishing email. Finally, if there is an immediate call to action, be especially cautious. Perpetrators often use a sense of urgency to move you past your initial suspicions.

As independent schools we also need to be conscious of the people with whom we work, and what they are doing to protect our information. What security measures do your vendors regularly employ? Do they conduct an annual analysis of cyber risk? What questions are you asking before doing business with a vendor? These questions and more are being considered in the work being done by many IT professionals and the associations to which they belong in an effort to compile safety measures all schools, regardless of size, can embrace. MISBO will continue to research these issues and produce helpful suggestions and tools that can be shared.

If you are from a MISBO member school, click the link below to learn from one school’s personal account of living through a cyberattack by visiting our webinar archives.

Surviving and Preventing a Ransomware Attack

Dianne Sagaas
Director, Education

From the ED 9.7.17


Dilemmas are much easier to unravel when there is a clear right choice and a clear wrong choice, but it is rarely so simple. Teachers, facilitators, and researchers use scenarios to help understand the complexities involved in decisions made when facing moral and ethical dilemmas. One of the more well-known is the Heinz Dilemma, used to understand Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.

A woman was near death from a disease for which the local scientist had discovered a drug that could save her. The scientist was charging more than the wife’s husband, Heinz, could afford. Heinz tried to borrow money from everyone he knew but he only could come up with about half of what he needed. Heinz asked the scientist to sell him the drug for half or let him pay later. The scientist refused. Heinz broke into the scientist’s lab and stole the drug for his wife. Should he have done that? Why?

Kohlberg identified six distinct stages, grounded in one’s view of self and the wider social order. Each successive stage demonstrates a more complex, mature, and nuanced view of moral development. By definition, moral dilemmas are those of an internal nature based on individualized concepts of right and wrong, while ethical dilemmas are based on community codes of behavior and conduct and derived from external sources: laws, rules, statutes, edicts, codes. Most of the dilemmas we face do not have right versus wrong choices but right versus right choices where the path is not clear.

One of the more effective speeches at a school assembly I ever heard was about character development. The person delivering the address quoted Emerson: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” The speaker concluded by reminding us all that character is defined by how you behave when no one is watching.

My first project at MISBO this summer gathered an extraordinary cohort of school leaders and vendors to discuss ethics related to purchasing in independent schools. The conversations and reflective articles we read were wide-ranging and delved into the concept of aligning a school’s mission to the way in which the adults in the school community interact with those in the world outside their doors. Since many schools have decentralized the purchasing process, purchasing in independent schools is therefore a small part of many people’s jobs, rather than a large part of a few people’s jobs. I am proud of the work this group did to think through issues and produce something that will be helpful to the entire independent school community. Soon, we will publish “The Ethics of Purchasing in Independent Schools” and you will see a well-thought-out list of areas to consider as your school matches its programs with its values. Cohort learning of this type is important and yields meaningful results that help schools fulfill their missions. The 2017 MISBO Fall Conference has been designed with this concept in mind and features a unique model of deep dives with facilitators to help you imagine, inspire, and innovate.

Our thoughts as a community turn towards those families and schools in Houston and the southwest recovering from the devastation of Harvey and those in the path of Irma throughout the Caribbean, the Florida peninsula, and other areas as the storm decides which way it wants to go. One of my mentors used to say, the right time to do the right thing is right now. There are numerous examples of people and schools choosing to serve each other throughout these crises and learning what moral and ethical decision making looks like in the face of physical and emotional danger. From putting together care packages to raising money, sending much needed supplies to sending much needed people – these are the values we choose. Here is a video that demonstrates what one school can do to help.

West Island College – Do What You Can’t

West Island College (WIC) is a grade 7-12 university preparatory school with a student population of 550 located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. WIC joined the MISBO + IDEO Project last year with the hopes of achieving two objectives: to better understand design thinking and to seek a more long-term, financially viable model for our independent school. Our initial small idea was to use the design thinking methodology to find ways for the College to be more fiscally sound. Our end goal was achieved but not in the direct fashion we anticipated. WIC was able to maximize our human and physical resources more efficiently with constraint thinking helping in the process.

Our journey began in the Fall of 2016 with Head of School Carol Grant-Watt and myself learning more about design thinking. Readings included Tim Brown’s Change by Design, John Spencer’s Launch, and Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley. From here we signed on with Marc Levinson (MISBO) and the team from IDEO, which included Miki Heller, Becky Lee, and Annette Diefenthaler. We were introduced to both teams at the start of this year before meeting with representatives from the other 11 cohort schools in Baltimore in March. Here, Carol and I experienced first-hand the messiness of design thinking; we gained a better understanding of this methodology and how to infuse it into our school culture. The MISBO and IDEO teams set the groundwork and direction for us in our journey. Our end result coming out of this March workshop was how WIC might better utilize our human and physical resources through the creation of a new grade 7/8 timetable. In April at the Montreal CAIS Leadership Conference, Ms. Grant-Watt and I presented a workshop, “Cultures of Excellence: Connecting Passion to Purpose,” which explored design thinking in addition to the ideas of Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their book, A Beautiful Constraint.

Our journey continued in May with a follow-up workshop hosted by IDEO at their great waterfront location at Pier 28 in San Francisco. Our current junior high timetable was not providing as great an efficiency for teaching and learning as we would have liked. We empathized with our grade 7/8 student body and iterated the design of the new timetable with many of our junior high teachers in the spring. We went through about 10-12 prototypes in conjunction with introducing design thinking workshop sessions into our professional development days. There were many obstacles to overcome to make this transformation, with a few failures/setbacks at times in June with some of the technical pieces. These opportunities helped to better educate staff about design thinking and also provided them with the trials and tribulations of going through the process with a meaningful goal. The IDEO brainstorming rules were incredibly helpful in the process, not to mention all the stickies and sharpie pens that were utilized. Having a variety of faculty input allowed for a scaffolding of ideas that staff built upon in the process. The end result was a more innovative and empathetic grade 7/8 timetable that will be introduced in September 2017. I am sure we will still have a few pivots but the team feels it has been well researched, prototyped and crafted. This experience has now given us the tools to leverage what we hope to do moving forward. Not only did this redesign result in a more efficient teaching and learning framework for staff and students but also resulted in a more cost-efficient structure for the College.

Our experience working with MISBO and IDEO has been a springboard for a new way of thinking at West Island College and has initiated a culture shift to incorporate this methodology into our everyday practice. In June we sent four faculty members to Nueva School’s Design Thinking Institute to continue the awareness and momentum to create a shifting mindset in the way we do business. Thank you to Diane Rosenberg, Kim Saxe and her Nueva team for offering this great program. The design thinking culture piece was very evident at Nueva through our interactions with their teachers and students alike. We are now in the process of creating a Design Thinking for Innovation course for our senior high students and we are developing a D.Lab Club. The design thinking methodology will be used in our approach to our upcoming three-year strategic plan process this year. Many of our faculty meetings will now incorporate this human-centered design model into seeking solutions. Thank you to all the participants in the MISBO + IDEO Project. Our conversations and interactions have been transformative on our school culture and financial sustainability. I think it appropriate to finish with Ms. Carol Grant-Watt’s back to school message this year, “Do What You Can’t,” which is based on the most recent Samsung ad and is an extension of one of IDEO’s brainstorm rules to encourage wild ideas.

Scott Bennett
Head of Strategic Planning & Initiatives
West Island College

Woodberry Forest School Twists and Turns to Unexpected Outcomes

The Woodberry Forest School team entered the MISBO + IDEO Project with great interest and hope that an intensive design thinking experience would yield meaningful results. While the path of the experience took several unexpected turns from what we envisioned at the start, the results exceeded our expectations! As noted by the IDEO team, that is often what happens in design thinking-based projects.

For readers that may not know Woodberry Forest School, we are an all-boys, all-boarding independent school located on 1,200 acres in the country about 30 miles northeast of Charlottesville, Virginia. With a new strategic plan endorsed by the board of trustees and the successful completion of the school’s 10-year self-study and accreditation by the Southern Association of Independent Schools, Byron Hulsey, Head of School, and our executive leadership team launched into the MISBO + IDEO Project in a very traditional independent school mindset. We know we have a great product, we’ve tested it against our own experience and values, and the wisdom of this work has been blessed by our peers. Our next steps were to effectively communicate to donors and prospective families regarding Woodberry’s value proposition. A feasibility study indicated a high level of general support to the school by alumni and friends of the school. And certainly, prospective families should see that the value of a Woodberry experience is well worth the $55,600 tuition.

Improved messaging would help address the stiffening competition for a shrinking pool of full-pay prospective families. So our MISBO + IDEO Project team brought the idea of implementing a longitudinal study of alumni, similar to Harvard’s longitudinal study of happiness, to IDEO as our “experiment.” The intent of this study would be to explore how Woodberry Forest affects the lives of its alumni; how that is or is not different for different age cohorts; what graduates take away from their high school experience and which of those lessons serve them best in the future; how their values and career paths and ambitions change over time; and critically, what they feel they lacked in their formative high school years.

However, when our team arrived at the first project workshop we were turned on our heads with mind-clearing exercises and the rigor of the “5 Why’s” exercise. Why were we really interested in the longitudinal study? Why? Why? Why? Why? Ultimately, we concluded that a core reason why we were embarking on the longitudinal study is that we are greatly concerned about the affordability of our school. Further, we are greatly concerned about how affordability is playing a more significant role in shaping the nature of boys enrolled than the administration feels will be healthy for the school long-term.

We asked ourselves, “how could our school, with its rich history of transforming boys into young men of character, located on a beautifully manicured campus nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and equipped with facilities designed specifically to offer adolescent boys experiences they never dreamed of, feel so vulnerable?” We strongly believe that the call for leadership, including young men equipped with the skills, the emotional intelligence, and empathy to make positive differences in their local communities and the world at large, has never been louder. This has historically been Woodberry’s sweet spot, and we have been at it for over a hundred years.

Yet, without dorms full of engaged boys, a school with state-of-the-art facilities, $300 million in endowment resources, and a faculty who are poised to get to know and challenge each boy will no longer be the school it once was, nor will we succeed in fulfilling our shared future vision.

It was at this juncture that our IDEO/MISBO team pivoted and focused our attention on the central issue of affordability. Can we make affordability the primary basis for a fundraising campaign in support of financial assistance? What will be the most successful communications strategy in telling the story about why Woodberry’s future financial stability will be dependent on raising significant new endowment funds in support of financial assistance?

Our energy turned away from the longer-term alumni study project, which we believe still has significant merit, to the immediate priority of framing the case for a capital campaign. Through further research regarding the size of our full-pay market – estimated to be 0.19% of households in our five-state region – and testing messaging with alumni regarding their impressions of financial assistance, we effectively turned from an administrative team focused on our school and what is important to us, to a team focused on our parents and alumni and what is important to them. This simple shift, an orientation central to design thinking work, helped us realize that it is not what we charge (in tuition) that is driving our financial model, it’s what prospective parents are able and willing to pay that is shaping and will dictate the future of our financial model.

Our team developed a renewed commitment to the long-term business model challenge of making Woodberry more affordable. We are endeavoring to take the issue of price off the table as a potential barrier to enrolling best-fit boys. This message was shared with the board of trustees at our May meeting along with supporting information regarding the relationship between Woodberry’s dramatic increase in “real cost” and the corresponding increases in unfunded financial aid. Fully funding financial aid quickly became our shared objective.

With the support of the board, a substantial endowment campaign in support of financial assistance is being planned and internal communications are under way regarding the issue of affordability and the importance of ongoing expense control.

In reflection, I believe the IDEO-led experience helped Woodberry in two very important ways. First, it created a sense of urgency. We had a window in which to articulate a plan, design it, execute it, and assess the results. Without clear deadlines, long-term strategy work often gets pushed aside. Secondly, the methodology forced us to look at the school from a new perspective, specifically our customers’ perspectives. We have gained a greater appreciation for the sacrifices and investments they are making on behalf of their sons to join the Woodberry family. Our schools are in partnerships with our families and affordability has started to become a barrier to new family partnerships and a source of unhealthy friction with current families.

Our work is far from being done. We continue to test and refine the messaging around affordability and are initiating design thinking working sessions with operations and maintenance staff intended to improve the transparency between their roles in addressing affordability. Affordability is a strategic imperative of equal importance to educational program quality; they are inseparable.

We feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with MISBO and IDEO. You can hear more about our experience through this project at the 2017 MISBO Fall Conference, where we will share more of our story.


Ace Ellis
Chief Financial Officer
Woodberry Forest School