Meeting the Challenges of COVID-19 Using an Innovation Mindset
by Amy Jolly
The COVID-19 pandemic brings sudden and startling focus to the idea that the future our children face is one marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (‘VUCA’). Our goal as parents and educators should be to prepare them to collectively rise to the challenges of our increasingly interconnected and evolving world. While COVID-19 has thrown all of us for a loop, at Applewild we have been preparing for this kind of uncertainty for years. Certainly, we don’t have this “all figured out” but changing our institutional stance towards innovation and change has made all the difference.
Several years ago, faculty and staff came to agree with Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, who wrote “most policymakers—and many school administrators—have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus merely score well on a test.” With this as context, we embraced the idea that we need to consciously educate students for a future which we cannot predict. The first step was to educate ourselves on how to teach critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, and initiative, and how to access and analyze information with curiosity and entrepreneurialism. This institutional shift turned us into a school of metacognition, where both students and adults have the training to plan, monitor, and reflect on their own performance. These habits of mind are the keys to the intrinsic motivation and agile mindset needed to respond to adversity. When combined with a rigorous academic curriculum and our character education program, we see that this emphasis on metacognition allows our students to achieve broadly and across multiple venues.
While we are proud of what we do for students, all this is possible because we focus on adult learning and development. Investing in our people over time has allowed us to become nimble, agile, and ruthlessly committed to educational excellence. Because of our focus on innovation, when COVID-19 hit, we were able to pivot immediately to online learning and kept all of our students engaged and academically on track throughout the school year. Even prior to COVID, our commitment to innovation inspired us to adapt our “product line” to meet the changing needs of our prospective families. For example, we opened a satellite location in Devens to allow us to serve a broader geographic range. We developed a school-within-a-school called “Foundations at Applewild” for students with language-based learning disabilities (ex. dyslexia), and we re-aligned our financial model so we can accept referrals from towns for out-of-district placements. We cultivated a partnership with a nonprofit in Somerville to launch a standalone, specialized one-year program for 8th and 9th graders called “Prospect Studio”. This small cohort program develops the skills demanded by the creative economy and offers a transformative year of design, innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills development. Knowing that some prospective families might find our location a challenge, we re-imagined our campus buildings and now market both 5- and 7- day boarding options to a much larger audience.
Was it easy to shift to an innovative culture? No, and we had many failures along the way and expect more challenges in the future. How did we do it? We focused on providing the professional development needed to develop the behavior traits we desired. Instead of investing in how to teach, we invested in changing how to think. This has made all the difference. Our leadership team has set a climate where thoughtful risk-taking is encouraged and failure is seen as the courage to innovate.
Founded in 1957 on 26 beautiful acres, Applewild School is an independent, coed junior boarding (grades 5–9) and day school (preschool–grade 9). Located one hour outside of Boston, Applewild educates students from over 30 communities in MA and NH and several countries, offering a vibrant liberal arts curriculum, a thoughtful approach to language based learning disabilities, robust athletics and arts offerings, and excellent secondary school placement. Email Amy Jolly, Head of School at email@example.com to learn how an Applewild education will change the trajectory of your child’s life.
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