Three Principles for Schools of the Future


This article originally appeared in the Monthly Recharge published by Leadership+Design.

Watershed School, where I've been Head since 2014, was founded with the explicit purpose of translating research into daily practice. We were founded to be different, to be a model whose successes and failures other schools can learn from. Now that I've decided the 2017-2018 school year will be my last at Watershed, I've found myself reflecting on how my time here has forever shaped my thinking about education.

Outsiders are often fascinated by Watershed, coming to our Traverse conference each June or visiting for one of our Educator Visit Days. But we're different enough that they often also see our school as a unicorn: fascinating, but unalterably other.

We're a small school, fully enrolled with 98 students. Our schedule allows for interdisciplinary, 3-hour classes that allow for hands-on projects and off-campus field work. We don't use a conventional grading system, and we've never had an AP class. We're different enough from most independent schools that visitors can leave intrigued, but saying, "we could never do that here." After all, many independent schools do quite well with traditional grades and 55-minute class periods. But those surface-level features aren't what makes Watershed a school of the future.

What makes us a "future lab," to borrow the theme of this newsletter, is a set of beliefs about the nature of school. If your school finds ways to act on these premises about learning and the future, you'll be future-focused within your unique context.

So here's what we think defines a "future lab" in education. In a future-focused school:

1. Relevance Drives Learning

Watershed's core courses are connected to real world questions, challenges, and experts. "Expeditions" run all afternoon, are team-taught, and offer English, history, and science credit. For example, "Borders and Biodiversity" asks the question: "how do borders impact human and natural communities?" In an era when talk of a border wall dominates political debate, this relevant question drove inquiry and problem-solving.

The opportunity created by this question was for students to travel to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, interview stakeholders on both sides of the border, connect history and economics to the reality on the ground, and collect field samples as a way to assess biodiversity. 

Whether or not your school can do such adventurous travel, the relevance of the guiding question - and the access to authentic sources and audiences - drove student learning powerfully.

The final project, rather than being a test, was the collaborative development of an Environmental and Human Impact Statement (EHIS) documenting the impact of a proposed border wall along the entire border. Students sent it to relevant government agencies, as well as Congress.

For a future-focused school, a relevant curriculum based on inquiry prepares students to deal with complicated issues, understand multiple perspectives, identify the intersections between disciplines, and design original solutions. More importantly, it sparks a sense of wonder - an attitude toward that world that drives intrinsic motivation and a joyfulness that is its own reward.

2. Who You Are Is As Important As What You Know

The research is clear: what some awkwardly call "non-cognitive traits," and we just call "character," is just as important as academic skills in determining life outcomes.

At Watershed, we use consistent language to talk about seven character traits we seek to build in our students, and we design our program to provide consistent opportunities to practice and grow these ways of being in the world.

Similarly, we take time to teach the social-emotional skills that help students be healthy when working through stress, navigate conflict, and become effective collaborators and problem-solvers. Every student at Watershed, for instance, can discuss the difference between intent and impact. Similarly, they can share strategies for managing stress in the week preceding their Presentations of Learning.

There are tradeoffs. Our wilderness program, for instance, delays the start of academic courses by two weeks. But this shared challenge sets the stage for conversations about grit, optimism, and empathy that bleed into the year. Even in a student-teacher conference about calculus, for instance, this same framework used to deliver feedback and set goals, making it clear that character is something we're always working on getting better at.

For a future-focused school, this emphasis on character develops some of the most complex and difficult human abilities. In an age of constant re-learning and re-invention, the ability to understand yourself and to manage how you react to others becomes ever more valuable.

 3. We Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

While I joke with prospective parents that "adversity and failure" doesn't make an appealing slogan for a bumper sticker, I also share that they need to value constructive adversity if they choose to send their kids here.

Challenge should certainly be academic. It is important for students to develop higher-order thinking skills and familiarity with meaningful academic content. That's one form of discomfort, as students are progressively asked to do more and more.

Discomfort can also be physical. While we are not an outdoors school like HMI, our Wilderness program builds this skill early. When we engage in global travel during May Term, our accommodations are non-touristic, typically home-stays or hostels.

But so much of the discomfort we believe in encountering is personal, even emotional. It can be hard to be away from home. It can be hard to be in a culture that is unfamiliar, to be challenged with new foods or new ways of thinking. Collaboration can be uncomfortable because it leads to conflict, and requires negotiation skills. And it can be hard to be given feedback on your character traits on top of feedback on your writing skills.

I don't want to overstate things. We are careful to make school fun, and to provide time for students to return to their comfort zone. We value play, we have celebrations, and we schedule time to come together as a community.These things are critical to provide everyone a chance to recover and reflect on the lessons that comes from challenge.

But it's also important to be explicit about the value that comes from discomfort, so there aren't surprises later.

We live in an era of rapid change, what many thinkers describe as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Navigating the environment requires a comfort with discomfort, a lack of rigidity, a willingness to be stretched.

Some of the most powerful memories a student will have at our school come as the result of personal discomfort. Our goal is for students to not only become familiar with that feeling, but to see it as a source of growth and personal meaning.

Greg Bamford