The Sandwich Approach: Top Down and Bottom Up

Faculty members brainstorm ideas around our Strategic Plan initiatives

I've always been intrigued by the Italian educational philosophy called "Reggio Emilia," where young children choose what they want to learn through discovery and exploration. If preschoolers are interested in the idea of how cities work, for example, children and teachers observe, question, build, create and make meaning about cities through creative arts and expression. This approach to constructivist learning reminds me how meaningful education is when coupled with personal connection, intrinsic motivation, and opportunity for deep play and exploration. Who wouldn't want to dive deeply into an area of passion like cities or insects or bridges? As I read Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, by MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, and pondered the application of "emergence over authority," the connection to this child-centered and holistic approach to learning resonated. Interestingly this approach also reflects the approach Head-Royce has focused on in our Strategic Plan development and initial stages of implementation.

Some of you might be ready to stop reading when you read the words "strategic plan." Indulge me. Read a bit further to see how a formal "plan" or vision for the school has morphed into individual and small group connections to the larger vision.

Over the past two years, Head-Royce has embarked on a more holistic approach to Strategic Planning in partnership with Leadership+Design. Inspired by a human-centered design approach, our committee members initially conducted deep dives into the community to discover the needs of various parts of the school, and then formulated goals that we believe are far-reaching and aspirational in the areas of teaching and learning, equity and inclusion, health and well-being, civic engagement, and financial sustainability. I am particularly proud of one of our goals: "Commit to and sustain a culture of balance and well-being." As a college preparatory school--in a speedily changing world--we hope it will help us graduate healthy students ready to thrive in college and life. 

These five aspirational goals and initiatives provide me, as the Head of School, with a clear roadmap for where the school is headed. Yet, I need more than a board-endorsed roadmap; I also strive for community-wide engagement in order give this plan a sense of urgency and agency.

Ito and Howe explain why it's important to empower everyone in the community to have agency in the plan: "....this shift from authority--when organizations charted whatever course those lofty few up on the quarterdeck deemed wise--to emergence, in which many more decisions are made as much as they emerge from large groups of employees or stakeholders of one type or the other, is changing the future of many organizations."

This year, as part of our initial implementation, we have various "ways into" the Strategic Plan. Structurally, we have eleven working groups leading specific initiatives in the key areas of the plan. While each group is in charge of moving an initiative forward, facilitators are encouraging a "bias toward action." Academic Dean Shahana Sarkar instructed each group to have at least one concrete prototype by the end of this year. I can honestly say that I don't know the exact outcome of each group but I do know that they are guided by aspirational goals and now have room to explore and experiment. 

In addition, we are encouraging individuals and groups to find small ways to "hack" the plan with their own individually scaled idea. Some examples:

  • The Fine Arts Department is asking every member of our community to create a 3x5  "art card" that illustrates whatequity and inclusion means to them. They plan to share all 500 or so in a formal exhibit.

  • The History Department chose social justice as their departmental mission to link to our civic engagement goal.

  • A senior elective teacher plans to reach out to our local Muslim community for personal connections to our class on Islam.

  • The Civic Engagement committee has connected with a local "Save the Bay" organization to move our environmental sustainability work forward.

  • Middle School teachers are developing full day simulations to promote project-based learning focused on real-world problems.

It's the "sandwich" approach: while final decisions on the Strategic Plan were necessarily made at the level of leadership, implementation requires an emergent, bottom-up approach that honors and values community passions. Both pieces of "bread" are crucial to the success of the plan. Much like Reggio Emilia, teachers are leading with their interests and passions rather than being handed a checklist for implementation. As Ito and Howe conclude,  "Emergent systems presume that every individual within that system possesses unique intelligence that would benefit the group. This information is shared back when people make choices about what ideas or projects to support or, crucially, take that information and use it to innovate."

I'm excited to see what unfolds!

Crystal M. Land
Head of School