I have a proposal for a structure that will sustain and support innovation and emerging practice in independent schools. As conversations are taking place across the country and indeed beyond our national boundaries about what our schools will need to become over the coming years and decades, our institutions and our profession increasingly struggle to form functional and sustainable networks of conversation. The problem is not that the networks do not exist—rather the problem is that no single conversational network can hold a wide enough breadth of the conversation to catalyze progress in schools toward the brave, comprehensive steps that will be required of our schools. I believe NAIS is uniquely positioned to ameliorate this challenge.
NAIS has been assertive in pursuing challenging themes at its Annual Conferences; however, to my knowledge, it has not found the means by which to extend the conversations in a successfully systemic way beyond the annual conference. This is not to say the conference themes disappear after the conference—on the contrary there has been substantial dialogue and focus on topics such as Advancing Our Public Purpose (the theme of the 2011 Conference); however, there is too much risk that the conversation will disintegrate unless there is a structure to support its extension beyond talk and toward meaningful and lasting traction in our schools.
So this is my thinking…
- First, hire a Coordinator of Emerging Practice at NAIS. This person, who will serve as an ex officio member of the NAIS Board, will be charged with setting up, recruiting for, and coordinating a network of five cohorts. Of those five, the lead cohort, called the Emerging Practice Cohort, will serve as a Think Tank for NAIS regarding issues of emerging practice, and it will provide oversight for the work of four other cohorts. The team leader for each of the four cohorts would serve as part of the membership of the Emerging Practice Cohort. (As of now there is a Think Tank for the Annual Conference, and it begins its work 18 months before the conference. It is not set-up though to extend its work based specifically on the theme. Its membership is largely regional: for a conference in Seattle, the membership of the Think Tank is comprised of seven people from Oregon and Washington, and one member from New York.)
- The four other cohorts, called Theme Cohorts, will focus on the central theme from one of the NAIS conferences. Each cohort will have a shelf-life of four years. Each cohort will begin its work at the Annual Conference one year before their theme is the focus of the conference. The membership of each cohort will not exceed fifteen.
- Each Theme Cohort will meet annually for each of the four years at the Annual Conference. They will also meet using digital communication on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. The scheduling practice for cohorts might well vary as a result of their different themes although I imagine that there will be usefulness to some (50%?) of the online meetings/conversations being open to the larger NAIS community. I believe each group should also have its own digital presence, administrated by the cohort leader–i.e., a twitter hashtag and a facebook page so that educators not part of the cohort might have access to key aspects of the conversation and might in fact be able to contribute to the dialogue. The purpose broadly stated for these cohorts will be to: extend the conversation (and its reach) regarding an annual theme for the NAIS Conference, collect examples of best or emerging practice in the context of that theme, help connect schools and individual educators who are doing the most vital work in the arena of the theme, and provide counsel to the Coordinator, to the Emerging Practice Cohort, and to the NAIS Board about the impact of the best work being done in the field. The final task of the group will be to bring together the artifacts of its work in a white paper, presentation, or book.
This structure will provide a hub for dialogue on some of the most exciting, challenging, and nettled topics of our field, and it will position us to create a more vibrant network of thought leaders than is currently sustainable elsewhere.
I believe this structure will empower schools who are engaged in the difficult work of cultural and curricular change. It will provide valuable professional development for the membership of the cohorts, and it will lend a currency and credibility to do the most rigorous and important work in our schools better. In order to create durable progress-cultures, independent schools need just such a structure to create a more strategic ability to share the weight of these efforts.
As I reflect on what I have just written, I am aware that aspects of it may be more than a bit naive. NAIS has a substantial structure already, and it has long been a strategic operation. I am uncertain for instance how this proposal would sit within the structure that already exists within NAIS. I am also aware that more structure does not necessarily lead to progress. However, I believe there is a need to re-situate the means by which we attempt to hold our various conversations together. The conference structure itself faces a risk of becoming incongruous with the fast-paced dialogues occurring in our field. The Annual Conference and the idea of having a defining theme for that conference has a potential to play a highly relevant role, but without a longer lasting voice, it will become an anachronism.