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Innovation, Creative Confidence, and Balance – A Conversation with NAIS Chief Innovation Officer Tim Fish

Head of School Mark McKee sat down with Viewpoint Trustee and Chief Innovation Officer of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Tim Fish in the Viewpoint’s Innovation Space to discuss what elements contribute to innovation in independent schools, and how Viewpoint fits into the national landscape. The article was published in the latest issue of Viewpoint magazine.
 
So What is a Chief Innovation Officer?
 
Mark McKee:                    
So, what exactly is the chief innovation officer?

Tim Fish:                             
I have been in this role for about two years. We are inventing it as we go. When Donna Orem, President of NAIS, created this role, she said she felt that sometimes organizations have many people focused on today and not enough on tomorrow. So, that's a lot of the work I’ve been doing. I am not just running around and finding examples of tomorrow and telling those stories, but also helping schools that are not quite there to make progress.

Mark McKee:                    
It sounds like tomorrow isn't something we just stumble into or even discover, but something you might help create.

Tim Fish:                             
Absolutely, and I think when we say “we,” it's everyone at the school. The Head of School clearly has a very important role, but I think every teacher and student and parent has an important role to help create that disposition
. I do believe that innovation is more frame of mind. It's a way of seeing your world, as opposed to a particular place or program.

What Does Innovation Look Like in School?

Mark McKee:                    
So, when I talk to parents about innovation, they all understand that technology and other forces – globalization, the economy – impact the way they're living their daily lives, from shopping and banking to listening to music or hailing a taxi. They understand intuitively that their students need to be prepared for a future that looks very different from their past. However, when we start talking about what that looks like in their children's school, they have more questions. So, how do we answer parents’ questions about what innovation looks like in a school like Viewpoint?

Tim Fish:                             
If we look at innovation as a disposition, schools will not change overnight. I was listening recently to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History, and he was talking about this notion of change over time. And the concept went back to the ancient Greek story of the Ship of Theseus. If you pull one board out of the boat and replace it, and wait a while and then pull another board out, replacing that, at some point you will have replaced every board on the boat. Is the boat still the same boat or is it a different boat? I think that's a bit of how innovation really works, that it's a constant evolution.

Mark McKee:                   
And as I think about Viewpoint, there are ways I can point to in which were the same school we were when we were founded in 1961, even though in other ways we don’t look a bit like we did in 1961.

Tim Fish:                             
The challenge that schools face is that it is important to be in a place where we are changing our goals, like those planks of the boat. We can’t think that we can just sail the same ship and never change it. Otherwise, we would not be serving our students well.

Creative Confidence through Trying Things that Fail
      

Tim Fish:                             
One of the things that I often think and hear a lot about in relation to innovation is the comfort with trying things that fail. Tell me about what you're seeing as people at Viewpoint are taking that journey. I know that when I was a teacher, I always wanted to know that it was going to work. I didn't have a lot of personal comfort with the idea that a lesson or unit might not be perfect.

Mark McKee:                    
I agree that’s a challenge. Viewpoint is a school with a long tradition of a commitment to academic excellence and a certain level of performance; we want to ensure consistency and quality across all of our programs. And so that mantra that you find in places like Silicon Valley—that you need to be comfortable with failure and you need to fail fast and fail often and iterate quickly – is harder to find in a school, particularly with teachers and with parents. We've been looking for the ways in which we can
preserve and augment our legacy, building on the things that are valuable and important and that continue to be relevant, even as we evolve and try new things.
                                               
One of the books we read recently as a school community was by the founders of Ideo, a design company in Silicon Valley, called Creative Confidence. We want our students to have creative confidence, and we also want our teachers to have creative confidence to try new things and get comfortable with the idea that they may not succeed the first time, but if they keep iterating then they're just setting a good example for the students.

The Idea of Perpetual Beta

Tim Fish:                             
I've often asked myself what are the characteristics of the schools that people are talking about as innovators – and I would absolutely count Viewpoint as one of those schools – and what makes them successful and what do they have in common? I think one answer is that the Head of School is giving permission to teachers to have that creative confidence. It's important because the history of our schools is not always a place where that necessarily happens. Historically, things have been very prescribed, and one of the things we're finding is that we need to be constantly inventing as we go forward. A concept that I have been hearing more about is this notion of “perpetual beta,” and I think it is important – this notion that we're working with students and that things are always evolving and being tested. And I find this is a more accessible way to talk about evolution than to talk about failure. Students can embrace the idea that they are working on this program, or this book, or this painting, but the project is always in perpetual beta.

Structured Agency – Establish a structure and get out of the way

Mark McKee:                    
What do you see as examples of what innovation looks like in some of the best independent schools?

Tim Fish:                             
One of the things is the work that's going on in spaces like Viewpoint’s Innovation Space, where students are creating things. I see a lot of interesting work in robotics, documentary film making, students doing cancer research. My job is to separate out the programmatic content and then ask, “What are the characteristics that connect these innovations?”
                                               
As I've said already, there's a characteristic of leadership that gives teachers permission to do experimental work. What I also find teachers giving that same permission to students, I call it structured agency. Teachers design great questions and a challenging goal that drives the student work.

The other day I was in a class that was working on social entrepreneurship, and the students were leaning into the idea that they are, in fact, going to change the world. That teacher had given them that structure, that direction, and then she gave them agency, she got out of their way. I think there's a balance between this amazing structure and then the beauty of “get out of the way.” Sometimes there's not enough structure and too much “get out of the way,” and that creates a bit of a free for all. Then sometimes there's too much structure and not enough “get out of the way” and that creates too much of a teacher-centered classroom, where the students haven’t been set free. It's when that balance is right that things happen and end up trickling out to me in one way or another, and someone says, “You need to go visit that school.”

One of the skill sets I think that we as educators need to get better at is that notion of being designers. We need to figure out how we're going to create experiences.

Mark McKee:                    
Interesting. It actually takes a lot of structure, a lot of confidence, and a lot of preparation on the part of the teacher, to be able to turn over agency to students so that they can have those experiences.

The Promise of Personalized Education – Students construct their own knowledge

Tim Fish:                             
If you and I had the opportunity 10 years from now in 2028 to come back to this moment, how do you think Viewpoint will have evolved? How do you think schools will have evolved? What do you think great learning will look like?

Mark McKee:                    
As I think about education in 2028, I see us delivering even more on the promise of what we're calling a personalized education. I really believe that educational technology will facilitate the best teachers and schools to be able to increasingly pay individual attention to students’ strengths and the areas in which they are more challenged, and that personalized education will give students the ability to construct their own knowledge.
There's still a very important role for a teacher in a classroom in 2028 — even more important, helping to guide, helping to curate, helping to show the way and sharing what will be a many years of experience that they have on the student – but increasingly ensuring that every single student has opportunities to create things of value for themselves. That's what students will need to do in order to stay relevant in an information age. They need to be able to create things that are of value to others in order to thrive in our economy.

Balance – School is a place where students can develop their passions

Mark McKee:                    
Beyond academics, I get just as excited about envisioning classrooms in 2028 that enact in a profound way an understanding of what is to be human. I see the classroom as a place to respond deeply to our basic human needs, that recognize that when we can make the most of students’ humanity, their ability to create social relationships, their ability to form friendships and bonds, that will be a setting in which they actually perform their best. Our schools are putting a stake in the ground about providing sources of positive stress and eradicating the idea that academic performance or any form of performance needs to involve distress. So Viewpoint is focused on developing more and more structured programming that supports students in finding “flow,” ensuring that they are living lives that represent wellness even as they achieve high performance.

Tim Fish:                             
I love that notion of balance. I applaud the work that is going on at Viewpoint around that. I think this notion of school as a place where students can develop the skills, talents, drive, and motivation to continue to find those passions is critical. Schools are becoming more and more communities where students can try all kinds of different things. We were talking before we began recording today, about how things that used to be very expensive, like making a feature film, are now possible using an iphone. You can shoot a film and edit it on a computer, and even distribute it. That's a possibility that never existed before, and I'm finding the students are running with those opportunities. They're creating things that you never imagined with pretty simple tools.

Mark McKee:                    
It makes it a very exciting time. Twenty years ago we were saying that about digital video in the classroom. Then, video was a language that everyone can read, but no one could write because the tools to create video were still very expensive and hard to use. And now young students in our Primary School can make video on the fly with an iPad. So everyone is learning to read and write the language of video. Now we see that same thing beginning to happen with virtual reality tools. It is exciting to think about what next really is.

For more from the current issue of Viewpoint magazine, click here.
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