In the recent Independent School magazine, author and researcher John Kao notes bluntly, “Like it or not, education must transform; there is simply no alternative” (Kao, 2017, p.34). Educational institutions need to prepare students to be creative and adaptable for an undulating and unpredictable future. Garth called this “preparing students for a VUCA world”… VUCA is a military acronym meaning “Volatility Uncertainty Complexity Ambiguous.” A “war zone” is a fitting metaphor for the future employment market. Kao observes, “traditional jobs are giving way to an unknowable future landscape of employment;” what is now needed are the skills of a soldier on the battlefield—“the ability to quickly learn new skills” and adapt to new situations (Kao, 2017, p.32) This volatile and uncertain future was underscored in a recent Pew Research study on the future of jobs and employment training: “People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them” (Anderson & Rainie, 2017). It is imperative that students develop creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking skills if they are going to be successful and adaptable for the global labour context they are facing; likewise, Garth points out, it is imperative that “educational systems” (not just lesson plans or classroom activities but whole educational systems) need to transform to meet the needs of students in the 21st century.
When I arrived at Havergal, Garth toured me through parts of the historical school buildings to his office, situated between classes along a vibrant and busy hall. As we chatted in his office, I glanced at the white boards filled with the battle scars of brainstorming and innovation: block letters, arrows, circles, sticky notes and underscoring. I knew I had climbed the mountain and was sitting at the feet of an innovation guru—humble and unassuming as Garth actually is.
This may also apply to curriculum. Referencing Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed, Garth points out that some of the courses offered by Ontario secondary school curricula are “overloaded” with content and skills, some of which were relevant in bygone days but are no longer pertinent today. So, what content and skills are redundant? What content and skills do students need to master and what can they be exposed to? How can we leverage technology to expedite student learning? To achieve this bird’s eye perspective, Garth is an advocate of curriculum mapping (a dirty word at my school). But with Curriculum Mapping, educators can look at the curriculum and determine what can be removed and identifies the places where students can go deeper. So goes the old adage: less is more. Making room for innovation is the goal; teachers shouldn’t try to “add one more thing” to the syllabus. Teachers need to take things off their plate to make room for the skills and content needed for success now, in the 21st century.
Axing content and skills can make teachers skittish. Innovation, however, is not about slashing and burning decades of curriculum. Innovation doesn’t always mean “out with the old, in with the new;” sometimes, it is about approaching the “old” in new ways. Inquiry-based approaches, experiential learning, and student-directed questioning are some of the ways Havergal teachers are attempting to engage and empower their students with innovative thinking.
With any great independent school, there are a lot of stakeholders who are passionate about the things that make (and made) the school great. Change doesn’t necessarily mean that everything we were doing is bad; it means that there may be a better way or it may mean that the great school that “was” can’t be the great school that “will be” going forward. During my short visit, I saw a lot of amazing things happening at Havergal; the administration and faculty are willing and able to invest resources, space, finances and time into a number of innovative projects. From the “Forum for Change” and “the Global Experience Program”, to the rotating Chair of Teaching & Learning, Havergal is well on its way to becoming a learning, changing and adapting organisation for its students.
Thanks to Garth for carving out his time to meet with me and to share his thoughts and experiences (and his reading list) and to Jennifer Goldberg (former Chair of Teaching & Learning) for allowing me to pick her brain as well.