This is the first in a series of articles written by either Ray Ravaglia or Sanje Ratnavale in which topics of disruption and mission will be explored in the broader context of how schools should change when they find themselves pulled in directions that may be misaligned with their missions.
While independent schools like to think of themselves as timeless and eternal, the world around them is constantly shifting. With these shifts comes the need for reflection and reexamination particularly when changes in technologies, priorities or societal concerns suggest that old practices should give way to new ones. In the past 18 months, faced with a global pandemic and social unrest, schools have had both their manner of operation and reason for being shaken to the firmament.
This process of re-examination and reflection is necessary because they have a tendency to fall in love with their current practices, losing sight of why they were introduced. As when circumstances change they can spend more time thinking about how the changes impact the practices themselves rather than focusing on the more fundamental question about the continued relevance of the mission.
A simple example to illustrate this point is the Harkness Table. Created to facilitate a collaborative approach to problem-solving and learning, the Harkness Table is symbolic of the best of independent schools, small and intimate classrooms where students assume responsibility for their own learning. When one calls the Harkness Table to mind one envisions a large oval oaken structure first designed and manufactured in 1930. Over time, institutions have had to evaluate the Harkness implementation against the underlying goal. Asking whether this is the best way to teach or learn for the target students is the right type of analysis. Asking whether the Harkness table can be made of metal or if desks might be rearranged to emulate a Harkness oval is a failure to distinguish the underlying practice from its implementation. This is not to say that all questions of implementation are trivial. A question like whether one could implement the Harkness method digitally with video conferencing is both timely and has profound implications. Certainly, there are a variety of delivery configurations that would support the Harkness method of instruction. There is nothing essential in the method that requires wood, let alone physical proximity. But no delivery configuration entails a specific methodology or pedagogy. Those strategies are tightly connected to…