Notes from the NAIS Annual Conference 2013

The following are my notes from two keynotes of the NAIS Annual Conference 2013.

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Jim Collins

Good is the enemy of great

The hallmark of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.

Innovation should be empirically validated. In the Arctic, Scott used motorised sleds and ponies, which both failed in the freezing cold. Amundsen used dogs, which were empirically proven in the arctic environment. This, one innovation was a big gamble, and the other was a scaling of a known option.

A distinctive American strength is to scale innovation greater, not create innovation. We take new ideas from elsewhere, and scale them like no others.

Successful organisations have: disciplined people, thought, action, and building to last.

Ying and yang: preserve the core balanced with stimulating progress. Preserve and change. Values balanced with practices. Easy to confuse a value and a practice.

In world of academics, freedom of inquiry is a core value. Tenure is an academic practice. Tenure can protect you whether you are thinking or not. Some protect a practice by wrapping it with a core value. This stops progress. Practice must be open to change. A value must not be abandoned.

Southwest Airlines– a highly effective business plan– copy of PSA in Texas. (Pacific Airlines.) They used a photocopy of their business plan. Exact same recipe in two different US locations (not in competition). One changed 20 percent (Southwest) and one changed 80 percent (PSA). Southwest was far more effective over time.

Understand what works right and why. It is dangerous to be successful but not understand why you were successful in the first place.

What is a great institution? It provides:

superior performance relative to mission (must have results, not just culture)
distinctive impact on the world it touches (if you disappeared, would you leave a hole that couldn’t be filled by other schools. Who would miss you and why?)
Achieves lasting greatness, independent of its current leadership. It can’t be tied to just the leaders.

Amundsen and Scott faced similar challenges and produced very different results. The answer cannot be circumstance. All Collin’s research suggests that greatness is not a function of circumstances. It is a matter of conscious choice and of discipline.

12 questions for leaders:

    (answer one a month for a year)

    1. do we have the level 5 skills to make the painful decisions necessary to build a great school.
    2. do we have the right people on our school bus. Are 95% of seats filled with right people? Can we get higher than 95%?
    3. what are the brutal facts? Leaders start with brutal facts.
    4. for our school, what is our hedgehog? What can we be the best at? How do we improve resource engine– cash, people and brand recognition and reputation?
    5. How can we commit to a 20 mile march a day, to accelerate clicks on flywheel?
    6, What is our BHAG? Big hairy audacious goal? Bad BHAGs can get you killed. Good BHAGs are set with bravado and deep understanding. How can you set it clear and definable and achievable, but also a transformation effect on kids.
    7. What core values will we not change for 100 years? What is our core purpose that would be unifiable hole if we went away?
    8. How can we embrace the genius of AND. Vs. the tyranny of OR. Blend creativity and discipline. Actualise with your life that real creativity begins at 50 years of age. Creative powers do not decline with age? Best symphonies are not your first. Everything up to 50 is preparation. We make good with our lives after 50.
    9. What existential threats does your school face? How long do you have to act on them?
    10. What is the right 20 percent to change, and why?
    11. How can you increase your return on luck? Good luck and on bad luck? Best chapter in Good by Choice. Big winners are not luckier than losers. We all get good and bad luck. What do we do with luck we get?
    12. How many of us have a stop doing list? What should we stop doing? If you have more than three initiatives on your to do list, you don’t have a to do list.

Cathy Davidson

Davidson argued that “monotasking is a myth,” and that our students naturally gravitate toward multitasking because it is a natural state of our brains, not an unnatural one. Children growing up on farms are master multitaskers, but schools were invented to train students to monotask, making them more efficient on assembly lines in factories. Multiple choice testing, and A B C D E F grades are also part of the “streamlining for efficiency” that are hallmarks of todays educational practices, and the vast majority of these techniques were invented between 1875 to 1925 to suit the needs of their times.

Our times are different. Nearly all of us can go home, log in, and post unfiltered ideas to everyone in the world with an Internet connection. We no longer search and strive to access scarce information resources– instead, it is a time of plenty with hundreds of thousands of possible sources to decide from. Yet, we continue to teach to letter grades, using simplified tests, and preparing students for a world that no longer exists. Her work with companies suggests that it now takes 1-2 years to retrain the best college graduates into realising that employers do not use letter grades and putting down a wrong answer is not an instant dismissal. Instead, employers want employees who work together, realise they don’t have all the answers, but know how to access resources to find and prove new solutions.

Five things we can do to shift away from the paradigm of 19th century, Industrial Age, time driven education practices.

    1. Rethink liberal arts as a start up curriculum for resilient global citizens. Link the learning of the liberal arts to one another, to specialised knowledge, and to life outside of school. Not a huge challenge, but it’s not done. Students can come up with solid examples of how studying philosophy can change their thinking about today’s world, but typically they are not asked to do so.
    2. Move from critical thinking to creative contribution. We should go back to be more of a “maker culture,” where we translate an idea into action, and not just tear it apart critically. For example, all four year-olds should learn to code. We live in a world with an open architecture that can be easily built upon, but we’re not teaching kids to code. Even young children can learn iterative thinking that they can build on, just by playing with Scratch software.
    3. Make sure what you value is what you count. What about creativity and originality? Have students write a class constitution. Count and measure what you value together.
    4. Find creative ways to model un-learning. Being done at Duke University– doing a musical with elderly people. They learn about ability and disability, health and lack thereof. It’s the exposure to others unlike themselves (young twenties) that enable them to learn outside of themselves.
    5. Take institutional change personally. “Institutions tend to preserve the problems they were created to solve.” “Institutions are mobilising networks.” Example: a traditional building making a sustainable hotel, instead of a wasteful one. This resulted in the country’s first platinum LEED certification. 80 workers did that, just learning online, with no special training and never having done it before. They took it personally, and they didn’t find it that hard. They didn’t monotask.

So concludes my notes from NAIS 2013. It was great to see and talk with so many colleagues and old friends, and I look forward to the next opportunity.

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