Faces, Spaces, & Paces: A Strategic Visioning Process Nimble Enough for the Post-pandemic Horizon
Much has been made of the fact that our lives at school are much different than they were in the first quarter of 2020. Unfortunately, this awareness may be causing some analysis paralysis in our #schoolleaders as they envision the way forward.
Since we at RoundTable help schools envision the future and horizon scan to see some of the best ways forward, we thought it might be opportune to share one of our strategic processes that may make the most sense for you and your school at this point in time.
The process is based on backward design principles. These are the same principles our best teachers use to create their courses. Ultimately, it is a form of Horizon Scanning (a term I gained from wise past Prestonwood Christian head and current ACSI Executive Director, Larry Taylor).
In this process, we coach schools to think about FACES, SPACES, and PACES.
The Faces framework asks the question "Who needs to be here at our school?" It includes three segments starting with the most important: students. Faculty and key stakeholders are the others. In these days of increased focus on diversity and inclusion, Faces may ask the essential question "who should be here based on our mission and who is not here because of artificial barriers placed before them that are no longer relevant?" Going a step further, schools are redefining who is a student asking these questions:
Does a student need to be enrolled full-time to be a student here?
Is the Carnegie unit still the only relevant metric for marking student progress?
For years we offered summer camp and enrichments to families "outside" our community. What would it look like if we do so year-round in more areas of our program?
Next, we look at the faculty and staff. One of the critical actions of backward design is developing a system that evolves as needs change over time. In 20th Century industrial planning, organizations were concerned merely with widgets fitting into a schedule. Schools fell prey to similar thinking. Teacher "A" teaches 5 sections of Chemistry for twenty years and is good at it. They slotted into that role and also into the role of the Cheer Coach. Under their contract, they advise 12 students and maybe teach an elective. Then they move or retire. Now what? Do we replace that widget? Schools that do that miss an incredible opportunity. Anyone who has been a division head like the author of this article knows that the industrial system is flawed when one then tries to replace that Chemistry/Cheer widget in a small city during a limited hiring window during a robust private sector economy. That one teacher becomes like finding a needle in a haystack.
A Faces planning framework would reverse engineer systems and conceive of the problem of the lost master teacher like a futurist would. For more details on futurist strategic planning consult this article from Amy Webb in this 2019 article from HBR. Chief Strategists looking to the future try to engineer systems that self-evolve. In the instance of a teacher, we would recommend cross-training faculty, hiring across multiple disciplines, and developing mentoring systems of just-out-of-college teachers for a farm system. Strategic envisioning done like this would perpetually take the industrial model example of the Chemistry teacher and make those instances obsolete. Likewise, instead of finding an expert in Chemistry who can come to its campus every day, a school might belong to a consortium of schools that share a pool of expert practitioners in key fields. Ultimately, the questioning in this process will change from "who will replace this teacher,?" to what are the key competencies that the school wants to offer to students in the future. This is a much better question than the previous one of who can we get to replace teacher "A?" Mainly because it is student-centered and does not rely on someone with a degree whose course work may or may not be relevant in that it was achieved twenty years ago at a university.
The physical plant used to be a primary focus oF any strategic plan back when there was an arms race of building construction among our schools. Today, Spaces is less about building new ones and more about leveraging the ones we already have. In our work at RoundTable, we have seen schools repurpose board meeting conference rooms into maker spaces, tennis courts into pickleball courts, and installed garage doors where there were cinderblock walls. Going into the future, astute schools will redesign their online spaces and learning management systems with branding that both engages learners and helps students feel more acclimated. A good example of a SPACES approach done well by a client school in the pandemic was the immediate investment in Owllabs.com Owl Meeting Pro video conference enhancement options. By doing this, the school was able to preserve full tuition from families who wanted to stay in the private school but who could not bear to have their students exposed to the virus. Going forward in the post-pandemic a school like this may open itself to students who live a thousand miles away. If the mission and vision of the school is a match for the student, the distance would not be an obstacle with attention to a SPACES framework.
A Spaces framework, if done well, will also dismantle some of the turf wars and sacred cows at a school that previous leaders were afraid to touch. The post-pandemic world understands that these adjustments must take place moving forward. Schools can leverage the learning of the past year to rethink what a classroom looks like in the same way corporate offices are rethinking their spaces based on the WFA (Work From Anywhere) movement.
The Paces framework is perhaps the most critical of this framework since its focus is on personalized, student-centered learning. Ultimately, every independent school mission statement seeks a personalized and lasting experience for the student, but even schools with $50,000 tuition figures fail to deliver when a Paces framework is not the foundation. Schools can now use machine learning, AI, and competency-based models to offer authentic choices to students, take into account student proclivity, and ultimately meet desired missions in reality rather than aspiration. Paces can track the divergent pathways that can meet the aspirational portrait of a graduate with the understanding that many roads lead there. Technological advancement, pandemic flexibility, alternative schedules, and third-party providers can give students competency-based options that immerse them in the skill set learning environment they want and need.
For the past year, the author has offered courses on a skills-based enrichment learning platform called Outschool.com as an experiment into the possibilities of online learning by choice. Through the pandemic school closures and the public school teacher unions' hesitancy to go back to school, Outschool became a beacon of learning for millions of displaced students nationally (and worldwide). Teachers like the author could do it on the side as a hobby or as a "side-hustle" teaching "passion project learning." Other teachers quit their brick and mortar "security" to become entrepreneurs, teaching what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted as the market supported. Doing so they reaped amazing benefits, most notably more income per hour, few hours on the clock, and incredible intellectual freedom.
What does this have to do with our schools? Well, what if we reconsidered the Carnegie Unit and focused on skill sets for the future within paradigms of student interest and proclivity. What if we allowed the market to dictate who was in our class rather than gatekeepers from the admissions office? What if learning meant students signing up for passion projects rather than passionless grade grabbing gauntlet on the forced march to Ivy League applications (by the way most of the Ivy's only accepted 3-5% of applicants this season per recent reports).
Since the most elite of our schools are having to redefine what an admissible student looks like sans test scores, shouldn't our private schools rethink the structure and pace of the gauntlet we put our students through to graduation? Furthermore, if professionals can get a certificate from Harvard by working online for 3-6th months at one's own pace in a discipline about which I have interest, shouldn't our students (again with a big tent definition of whom connotates a "student") have similar options.
The FACES, SPACES, & PACES strategic visioning framework is just one of the exercises RoundTable can use with schools, but it is the most relevant to the world we live in today and potentially the most on target for the future.