NAIS in Seattle

(Creative Commons licensed image via Flickr)
The last time I attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference was when it was in NYC a few years back. This year, the conference was in Seattle, and the likelihood of my being able to take time away from work to travel so many miles from home during application-review season seemed somewhat remote. But then the session proposal that two of my colleagues and I pulled together was accepted, and suddenly the trip to Seattle became non-negotiable!
The NAIS annual conference is a “big picture event.” Many of the 4000 or so people who make the commitment to attend are entrusted with leadership roles within their school communities; heads of school, school trustees, deans of faculty, directors of development, that sort of thing. And blue blazers. Lots and lots of those.
The quality and range of the program offerings (the conference schedule booklet was 80 pages long!) was strong enough that session selection was a genuine challenge, with two of the sessions I would have been most interested in attending – Jonathan Martin‘s Schools of the Future Workshop, and Jamie Field Baker‘s session on Innovating the Strategic Plan – scheduled in the same time slot as our own! Thankfully, our session was well-attended and benefitted from the lively participation of some engaged and thoughtful people, which made it all seem worth it. It was also encouraging to have those moments of recognition, when a representative from another school talked about an initiative in an area that we’ve already made strides in, whether it was “the believing game,” campus-wide wireless access to the internet for both students and faculty, globalization, sustainability, or research-driven pedagogy.
I thought that NAIS President Pat Bassett did a great job of both mapping out a vision for NAIS (“We want the organization to serve as a hub and a resource for those schools working to innovate”), and challenging member schools to push themselves and acknowledge the ways in which the learning landscape has fundamentally changed. “Power used to depend upon restricted access to knowledge and information. Until about ten years ago. Now it’s all available… anytime, anywhere, to anyone w/ an internet connection.” He went on to cite some of the MacArthur Foundation’s research on learning shifts, including the following shifts (which in turn are reminiscent of David Warlick’s “Students vs. Learners” chart):

From knowing…to doing (project-based learning)

From teacher-centered… to student-centered

From the individual… to the team

From the consumption of info… to the construction of meaning

From schools… to networks (online peers & experts)

From single sourcing… to crowd sourcing

Pat’s tone, while generally positive, was tinged with concern; I got the sense that he feels schools which are unable to make these shifts run the risk of contracting a terminal case of irrelevancy.

Throughout the conference, I was struck by the implied tension between those who “get it” already, and those who are only just beginning to “get it.” In Chris Bigenho‘s great session with Jason Kern & Larry Kahn about running a TEDx Youth Day at a school, some of those drawn to the conversation seemed to despair of ever getting “the powers that be” at their schools to agree to such an energy-hungry commitment, in part because of the already existing constraints on student and faculty time.

In addition to my continuing to muse on the questions Mathieu Plourde has been wrestling with around how people are moved to change their learning practices, my two biggest “take-aways” from this conference were related to alignment and reflection. In a session entitled, “Who’s Really Teaching Our Kids? The Importance of Intentional School Cultures,” Ellen Taussig and Lucinda Lee Katz made a compelling case for the need for us to be intentional about school cultures, because a “default” culture is neither common nor intentional. “Alignment of culture across the entire organization is of vital importance. The clearer and stronger you are able to be, with multiple points of re-iteration, the stronger you’ll be as a community,” was the crux of their message, and of course it made me want to fly home and assess my own learning community’s level of cultural intentionality.
And reflection? We’ve moved into an era of flows, rather than stocks, of information and knowledge. (And here I’m riffing on ideas from Jerry Michalski‘s initial TummelVision conversation, where he in turn cites Mark Lesser‘s book, LESS: Accomplishing More By Doing Less.) The now-defunct print version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica was an inland sea; Wikipedia is a river. Comment streams on blogs are (usually) a trickle compared with Twitter’s raging torrent. Our 24-hour media landscape is now non-stop flow flow flow, and we carry it with us seemingly everywhere. This makes carving out spaces that are supportive of reflection that much more difficult… and that much more necessary. Reflection is an essential ingredient to the formation of new ideas (at least it is for me), as well a foundation of greater awareness. But we’re often too busy to reap those benefits.
How do we build spaces for reflection into our individual lives and into the culture of our communities? This is one of the big questions I brought home with me from Seattle. Next year, NAIS is coming to Philadelphia, and I hope many more members of my school community will be able to take advantage of the opportunity to swim in that particular sea. (Information on submitting a session proposal is here…)
(I didn’t even mention John Hunter’s amazing session
on The World Peace Game, which deserves a post all its own!
Luckily, Jonathan Martin has written just such a post.
Many thanks to our Head of School and Board of Trustees,
whose support made my attendance at this year’s conference possible.)

Posted on March 19, 2012, in big picture. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hi Shelley,I'm glad someone read my post after all… I think you hit the nail on the head. Changing, as a personal journey, starts with reflection on your practice. You can't leave it to chance or go with the flow, or else it's not really change.And then on the organizational side, there needs to be reflection as well, and that reflection will lead to intent, and that intent will lead to a mission statement, which will, hopefully, translate into change. But in the end, only if people asked to change reflect and internalize the mission will change really occur.I see a lot of pioneers out there, people who embrace change, but I don't see enough Science Leadership Academies, where people willing to change gel together and make it happen, unfortunately.

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