Excellence in Education

Indigo’s Theory of Change Explained

Indigo’s Theory of Change Explained

May 5th, 2016, written by Nathan Robertson


 How do you change schools when educators are at their breaking points, students feel disconnected with the school, and administrators feel like their Masters in Education Leadership did nothing to prepare them for operating a school well?

Some schools seem to change with ease. They bob and weave with the trends and are always launching new programs with forward-looking agendas. The parent community always rallies behind them with support. Students are writing their own publications, starting businesses, and spend off periods pursuing passion projects.

Some schools are like that. Some.

Some schools are struggling to make it through each day. They can’t bob and weave – they get hit hard by each changing trend and policy. New ideas and initiatives get lost in subcommittees and inner-school politics. Parents are sullen, unhelpful, and often are only a source of complaints. It’s a struggle to get students in desks, yet alone see them learn anything they will apply to their lives.

Many schools, I fear, are more like that.

There is a bevy of big ideas in education – and a countless number of school models – trying to make schools nimble, quick, and agile when it comes to change. But which ones do you pick? How do you prioritize what resources to use when changing a school? How do you make teaching kids social emotional learning or training teachers in lean launch techniques relevant? How do you deal with financial limitations?

Where do you begin?

Often times, it is unclear. Schools don't know where to begin, and the resources do nothing but overwhelm them even more.

At Indigo, we have developed a working hypothesis based on our work with dozens of schools. We are getting a clearer sense of what is needed to equip a school to change its culture and self-sustain transformation towards a safe, positive environment focused on personalized learning.

How do you change a school? First, you change the people in your school.

 

The Three Pillars in a School

Change begins with aligning the three main constituents of education: students, leadership and teachers. Successful change only happens when these three groups are aligned. If students aren’t onboard, no new ideas stick. If leadership isn’t onboard, the best ideas are stifled. If teachers aren’t onboard, then the classroom experience won’t change – no matter what ideas students and leadership push forward.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "A house divided against itself will not stand." If a house divided against itself cannot stand, what makes anyone think schools will fare any better when divided?

That's why it is so important to engage these three pillars. It's the key to successful change.

Students – Bottom-up, "The Groundswell" 

Students are the reason why the education industry exists. If society ever reverted back to parents teaching their children, then teachers, principals, policy makers, and think tank education researchers are all out of jobs. We are employed out of an obligation to develop this nation’s youth.

However, it is not uncommon for students’ voices to go unheard. This does not just happen at struggling, financially strapped schools. I have been at successful college-prep academies where students feel they have no choice in their education path.

Students need to be met not only “where they are”, but also as “who they are.” By meeting students where they are and as who they are, schools pave the way for student-centered and personalized learning.

It’s easy to write off the ideas of a 15-year-old high school student. But the best innovations come from people on the ground level. Factory workers can identify better improvements than an engineer who has never stepped in the plant. Servers see better ways to please customers than a manager who sits in the back office.

Just think about what sort of insights educators could get if they really took time to understand who students are, what they are passionate about, and then change the way they teach.

 

Leadership – Top-down, "The Gatekeepers"

Principals, headmasters, and CMO directors are shaping the landscape of education. They choose school models, handle hiring, start initiatives, and control the direction of schools. Sometimes it is a leadership team – sometimes it is an individual who rules carte blanche through force of personality. Regardless of structure, leadership choices cascade down to affect our teachers and students.

Some leaders struggle with the idea that their school needs to change – to admit the need is to admit failure. They close off to new ideas from their faculty and students. Other leaders are under pressure from their board or community and feel they can’t change – even if they want to change.

Principals and high-level administrators must understand what needs to be done and “buy in” to innovation.

Different leaders have different motivations. Some will be convinced through data. Some will be convinced by arguing with them that change will do good for the students. Strategies vary. Once leadership is onboard, however, resources can begin to move to gain momentum for change.

 

Teachers – Pivot Point, "The Go-Getters"

Teachers are the true change makers in schools. They run the classrooms. They have meaningful relationships with students. They are training, coaching, and evaluating every young person that comes into their rooms. The modern teacher is part content master, part assessment expert, and part personal Sherpa.

Teachers stand as the intermediary between students and leadership. Without them, neither side would be heard by the other. If a school’s teachers simply stayed in the classroom and didn’t mind the rest of the school environment, then schools would fall apart into pieces. Culture cannot be built without the support of teachers.

Teachers must be the pivot point in bridging communication, idea generation, and implementation for students and leadership.

Many administrators I speak with groan about "the one time the school tried to do such-and-such professional development program, but the teachers didn’t respond well to it." Imagine if you could get teachers excited for a shift that is part of the long-term vision. What would your school look like?


                                                                       It's Not Easy, but Easy Work is Boring

All of Indigo’s work centers around bringing these three pillars together. We are the catalyst that aligns these key stakeholders and drives them towards culture change and personalized learning. We have seen that when schools begin to get all three groups on the same page, change occurs organically and is sustained from within the school without support from Indigo.

Schools thrive when students are engaged, leadership is motivated, and educators construct the bridges for change. Our vision is to create a world where those schools exist in every county, city, and state in the country. At Indigo, we work everyday to make that a reality.

Highlighting Excellence: New Vista’s Success in Personalized Education

Highlighting Excellence: New Vista’s Success in Personalized Education

March 9th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson


It’s not everyday you hear about high school students restoring a 1969 Pontiac Firebird.

This past fall Indigo Project, an education technology company headquartered in Niwot, Colorado, peered behind the curtain of New Vista High School to see what makes the school tick. Through this work, Indigo discovered a school that is excelling at personalized education. Based on the data insights, New Vista has cracked the code on how to connect with students. It’s leading to the development of skills such as empathy and creativity, an open and collaborative environment, and helping students nail down who they are and what they are passionate about in life.

Indigo’s data proves this. New Vista’s faculty have the highest Steadiness Behavior (calm, loyal, patient) of any high school Indigo has worked with in Colorado. Additionally their Empathy Skill is far above the average corporate adult, and they are also highly motivated by giving back and making an impact in their students’ lives (Social Motivator). These characteristics, identified by the Indigo Assessment, indicate New Vista’s environment is a nurturing and stable place for a school that is “designed to cultivate the unique talents, gifts, and interests” of students.

To understand what New Vista is doing right, a deep dive is necessary to see who are the students, who are the staff, and what things are administrators doing to help align students, staff and themselves together. Understanding how Indigo shed light on what New Vista’s process is and why that process works can launch larger conversations about what is the current state of other schools who are trying - and maybe struggling - to figure out who their students are and what the school culture is.


What if Test Scores Aren’t the Most Important Thing? 

Many schools today are focused on driving students toward the types of success that are easiest to measure. They would rather emphasize school-wide SAT scores and percentage of students going to a four-year university than evaluate how many students feel good about themselves and also feel prepared to pursue the future they want for themselves. It leaves out a lot of narratives about how schools are actually developing children as people. 

Enter New Vista High School: a school of about 300 students in the heart of Boulder, Colorado. New Vista is one of the schools that champions the idea of creating a safe, supportive and trusting environment for students. It’s not about cutthroat competition. It’s about an open, collaborative place where individual differences are respected and students are held to high standards for the betterment of the community. It’s a nurturing environment that is designed to develop students in all aspects of their life.

However, this leads to a dilemma. How does a school like New Vista display these qualities to potential students and their families? How do they advocate for the model in a concrete way? What if test scores aren’t the most important thing to measure?



New Vista, an Overview

New Vista opened its doors in 1993. For more than 20 years, they have been providing an alternative education experience to students who do not thrive under traditional models.

“One of the things we do really well here at New Vista is focus on the whole student through individualized instruction,” Principal Kirk Quitter said. “ Ultimately, our aim is to meet students where they are and give them what they need to be more successful.” 

New Vista an Overview.png

As soon as you walk into New Vista, you can feel that the school is personalized for its students. The New Vista community is creative, and student artwork is all over the walls. The students are also environmentally conscious, with posters on the wall announcing meetings for groups like Earth Task Force and classes such as Community Adventure Program, a quarter-long outdoor course that focuses on survival skills and how to reduce your eco-footprint. This is not a one-size-fits-all model, but a school that is clearly honing in on how to best fit the students that are coming through their doors.

In the spirit of a collaborative culture, classes are not separated by age. Instead, all classes have a variety of students from freshmen to seniors. It breaks down walls that sometimes occur when grades are isolated in their own cohorts. The result is a strong community where 14-year-olds and 18-year-olds are interacting in the same room and learning together.

This community is not just internally focused however. Once a week students can go out and engage with their city in Community Experiences. CEs can take many forms, ranging from professional experiences like working in a local architecture firm to partnering with nonprofits in the community. Regardless of form, students are going outside of their schools and advocating for themselves in roles and responsibilities with real organizations. This builds a sense of autonomy, independence and confidence that is critical for the development of our youth.

New Vista brings all these unique experiences to head with their Culminating Projects. The projects are senior capstones a la personalized learning - students complete an original, rigorous piece of work that is relevant or of great interest to them based on who they are. It dovetails the intensity of a traditional capstone with the individualized streak of the student. With a community like New Vista, projects stay wide, varied and original; some past examples include ecological studies in Tasmania, interning at a school for autistic children, and restoring a 1969 Pontiac Firebird. 

New Vista is a community based on the individual. It stresses individual discovery and provides opportunities to explore passions through a variety of projects and experiences. It also provides a collaborative space where all these individuals can engage in respectful dialogue with each other regardless of age. In terms of a school-student fit, New Vista fits its students like a glove fits a hand.

 

New Vista through the Lens of Indigo

This fall, the Indigo team worked with all the students and faculty at New Vista. Here's some of the key insights on how the school is shaping students that the Indigo Assessment revealed.

 

A Steady Staff

One of the areas the Indigo Assessment measures is Behaviors - how people communicate or “show up” in a room. One of the Behaviors measured is Steadiness: it embodies consistency, patience, loyalty, and how nurturing an individual is capable of being. When looking at the staff at New Vista, teachers showed up nearly two standard deviations higher than the average adult in Steadiness. This is the highest Indigo has seen in any school.

What does this say about the school? It says they are doing a good job at hiring. If the school is truly focused on individualized education and growing students in a holistic way, that requires a lot of additional time from teachers to form one-to-one relationships with students and invest additional time in each person. It requires patience, understanding, and a non-aggressive demeanor. With a staff this high in Steadiness, this team of teachers will constantly be thinking about how they can help provide the right environment for their students - and it shows. Teachers want outside guests and speakers to understand who their students are and what the culture is before they come because they want to make sure anyone working with their students provides a personalized experience fit to them.

They don’t do it because of rules or compliance. They do it because they care that much about the students.

 

A Creative and Empathetic Student Population

 Another area the assessment measures is Motivators - what drives a person, how they prioritize things in life. It measures between six different motivators. One of the motivators is Aesthetic: it embodies a desire for balance and harmony, and typically underscores a desire for some sort of creative or artistic outlet. Looking at the seniors, 50 percent of students indicated that Aesthetic was their number one Motivator.

Remember when I said there was artwork all over the school walls? That wasn’t some school program that forced students to paint - students there are looking for an artistic outlet. The fact that the school is hanging up their artwork everywhere just means that the school is listening.

As a result, when looking at students’ top 21st Century Skills on the test both Creativity and Empathy show up as top skills. Confidence in these skills are a direct result of being in an aesthetic, steady school built around student preferences.

 

A School that is Addressing Social Emotional Issues

The fourth and final section measured on the test is Social Emotional Health - measuring how people view both internal and external elements of who they are and the world around them. At Indigo, we typically see most schools have about 30 percent of their population showing up on the “Blue List” of students that may need additional social emotional support.

At New Vista, however, we see an interesting trend. While the school is known for attracting students that need social emotional help, the school is showing that the percentage of students in each grade that needs additional support is dropping marginally each passing year as they get older. The school is aware that its students need the additional support, and the test shows that they are doing things to help students that are working. 


Conclusion 

New Vista’s model is different than the other schools in its district. It has an environmental emphasis and cares deeply about the state of its student community. It gives students a lot of flexibility to pursue their own path and passions. The assessment puts concrete numbers behind their culture. They are a school with an incredibly steady staff. Their students are developing skills they wouldn’t be developing at any traditional school in the district. On top of all that, students are finding closure in their emotional struggles as they begin to feel more and more confident and empowered to go into the future.

In other words, New Vista is a model that excels at their mission, and they now have scores to show that.

So what’s next? New Vista will begin integrating curriculum around Indigo into their advisories. Additionally, counselors are beginning to use Indigo in one-on-one advising with students. More than anything, Quitter says it brings a lingua franca into the school to talk about the different attributes that make people who they are.

“The results mean a greater opportunity to serve the needs of our kids, and bringing that common language into our community is huge,” Quitter said. “This process has had some big ripple effects from the classroom, into the advisory level and out into the community amongst parents.”

It is our hope those ripples will continue to grow in starting conversations between students, parents and teachers about how to connect with students and help them find a college and career future that fits who they are.

Indigo’s Alternative Education April Winner: The DO School

Indigo's Alternative Education April Winner: The DO School

April 24th 2015, Written by Jahla Seppanen


Indigo chose The DO School as its Alternative Education April Winner because we believe dreaming and doing is the future of education. The DO School has successfully allowed young people to make a difference, turning school into a space for real change and impact. 

The DO School offers excellent educational programs that empower individuals and teams to turn ideas into action. Participants learn how to create social innovation hands-on, learn from passionate peers, engage with current experts and create impact for leading organizations.

 

Do you learn better when someone explains how to do something or allows you to try for yourself? Would you rather think about the next great idea that will change the world or go out and create it? 

 

If you chose action, it could be the traditional college model of education will not fulfill your intrinsic goals and motivators. You might find yourself sitting in class wondering, ‘why can’t we put these ideas to use!?” Let’s call you, the Do-ers. You garner knowledge through application, dream big, and enjoy seeing the fruits of your labor come to life. For all you Do-ers, The DO School  might be your perfect post-secondary path. 

Students at The DO School are empowered to turn their great ideas into solid actions. Real action means real impact, and for all you Do-ers this sounds too good to be true. It can be difficult for young people to understand that post-secondary education is not reserved to the pre-req, sit-in-a-desk, take-notes, write-papers format. Shield your ears college professors but as they say at The DO School, “it’s not what you know, but what you do with it.” The DO School method enables students, or “Fellows,” to become innovators and have real positive social impact.

That’s why, during time on campus, the Fellows solve a real-life Challenge – a hands-on group task given by a company, governmental agency or NGO, next to preparing their own start ups. Recent Challenges have been the Green Store Challenge for H&M Germany or the Sustainable Cup Challenge given in collaboration with New York City’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability.

Florian Hoffman, Founder and President at The DO School says,

In today's quickly changing world, innovation and social progress will come from individuals that reflect on their values and talents and learn the skills that are needed to seek opportunities and turn ideas into action. The DO School's hands-on programs empower these leaders to create impact in the world.”

It doesn’t take long to realize The DO School might be on to something. Ask yourself why you go to college? To get a job. To survive in the “real world.” Students at DO have already created their “real world” job before their traditional counterparts start applying for post-grad positions. The DO School method, used in their One-Year Program, teaches Fellows how to focus their passions and talents to create positive and sustainable change in their communities. Past Fellows have created amazing projects including: a social enterprise called OneLamp, providing safe and affordable solar light bulbs to rural Ugandan families, a mobile ride-sharing app called Raye7, connecting friends and co-workers for easy and safe ride-sharing in Egypt, and an eco-brick manufacturing business “My Dream Home” to address the housing shortage for low income families in Cambodia. Take that college essay!

Read about other DO innovations here.

The DO School’s One-Year Program is open for enrollment to passionate social entrepreneurs between the ages of 21-31. Their admissions process is selective, only because applicants must be highly determined and willing to use DO to start or grow existing ventures. For more application information read on here. Other programs offered at The DO School include Leading for Impact with the Scoll Centre of Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford, and the Intrapreneurship Program.

The DO School is supported by global organizations such as H&M, Newman’s Own Foundation, PlaNYC, EY, and more, and partners with other alternative education programs across the world including H&M Germany and EY.