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An Innovative Approach

During a school year like none other, PD’s faculty created a world-class learning environment for students on and off campus. Matt Scully, PD’s Director of Digital Integration and Innovation, completes his 22nd year at the school in 2021, and shares what innovation means at PD.

With the past year’s focus on technology and tools needed to keep up with remote learning, the subject of innovation is front and center. But what does innovation mean to Providence Day School?

“I think when people are talking about innovation they are thinking about tools,” says Scully. But for us, “It’s all about helping us achieve the goal that we want. It’s exciting to say we’re not worried about the speed of the next laptop...it’s about what does that tool open up for our kids to be able to learn beyond the four walls of their classroom?”

The past year has been bringing that question to Scully and his team in ways he never suspected when he began his career in public schools as the educational technology coordinator for a school district in Arizona.

When he began exploring other technology roles in education, he came across an opening at PD and realized that “there was this whole other world I knew nothing about at independent schools.” The struggles with resources and funding so common in public education were not the same, so Scully gladly came on board in the spring of 1999 in a systems support role that assisted teachers in the classroom while doing behind-the-scenes server work. A few years later, he began leading the department.

“At PD it’s almost a problem that we have such a focus on excellence and doing it to the best of our ability because this year it’s been difficult to come to terms with some of the compromises we had to make,” Scully says. “It’s almost like tying a world-class sprinter’s feet together and saying ‘Do the best you can to get to the end of the track.’”

This problem is certainly not unique to PD. We are “just trying to be as adaptive and open to creating as many opportunities as we find them,” he says. “Everybody across the globe is trying to make the best of the situation.” What used to be an hour-long process for Scully in evaluating new tools is now a 15-20 minute process because of the volume of tools the school is exploring. “That’s just an example of modifying your process of meeting the demands right now and moving forward.”

Without a doubt, PD’s faculty have risen to the occasion. “The faculty has been amazing,” Scully says. “It’s their ability to hold onto the relational elements of instruction. To me, instruction is all about relationships, understanding how information connects, how people connect.” He continues, “We’ve been able to keep that going through all of this. Even when you haven’t met a student in person we’ve been able to do that. It’s exciting stuff.”

For Scully, “innovation is taking a look at what we’ve always done, what we need to do, and how we can make that come together in a better way.” The real focus is on improvement and growth rather than changing for the sake of change. “I really think it needs to be more of a deliberate, thoughtful process,” he adds. “Sometimes you have to get out in front of everything and pull people along, and be really good at listening to the needs and the concerns of the community where innovation is required.”

At PD, there are individuals paying attention to innovation across the entire community. “Often what you see as you look at other schools is that there’s a teacher that’s innovative, there’s a program that’s innovative, but there are these silos that are disconnected and separate,” Scully says. “The way that we look at things is, if we are building tools for third grade, how does that look for fourth grade, and what is the impact for fifth graders?” This mindset allows the school to leverage and build on programs that are working well, or identify places where students get stuck. “That piece is a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to innovate and to explore.”

“PD gives teachers a fair bit of autonomy and a strong sense of purpose that drives their desire to constantly get better,” Scully says. The school consistently focuses on growth and symphonic thinking, “so when we look at something key that lights our kids up in first grade, how do we bring that to a place where second-semester seniors can benefit as well?”

Despite the challenges of this year, there is much gratitude among Scully and his team, including the addition of a new team member, Tomarra Londaree, who joined teammates Treva Graham, John Thoden, Kevin Todd, Shannon Welton, and Jenny Thompson. “I could not be more grateful that the business office provided the resources for us to do what we need to do,” he says.

Every student in grades TK-12 now has a device ready to go if they need it. “My team went from roughly 1,300 devices to nearly 1,800, with a total of close to 2,500 devices that we support and get up and running in a way that’s effective and ready to go. Our biggest accomplishment has been building off of our foundation and changing the size of our foundation to be able to support as many students and faculty as possible.”

The school continues adapting instruction for a future world we cannot predict. “Looking at innovation within instruction, you are seeing that we are being forced to look at assessment differently and we are thinking about instruction in new ways,” Scully says. “This sets us up to continually take a pretty significant jump forward in the ways that we can offer and produce quality instruction to better meet the needs of our students in a world that’s going to be different than the world we were prepared for. Our kids are going to be doing jobs that don’t exist now.”

“That’s where the ability to adapt in our instruction, to adapt in global ventures that involve problem-solving – that’s going to set students up with a body of knowledge and content that they take out to the world with additional skills. So, as you acquire new content and skills you can put things together.”  


SIDEBAR: 

Matt Scully on the Center for
    Teaching, Learning, and Entrepreneurship

“The purpose in creating the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Entrepreneurship is all about creating a built-in innovation engine for our community, a place where people could go and say, ‘I’m doing OK, but I think this could be better.’ It’s not about tech – instruction is a strategy, it’s a process, and we want to help you design. If it’s crayons and paper, we’re just as keen on helping you find that solution as we are if it involves artificial intelligence and headsets. We want to make sure that whatever we put into play serves our community in the best way possible.

“The way the Center works, somebody will take the lead on a project, but we design together with the idea that the more people you have in the design process and the more diverse that group, then the better the product. If three people are looking at something, the blind spots get a lot smaller than if another person looks at it.

“We all have things we are comfortable with and good at and we have blank spots because of it. The Center is about getting people to talk about what they are trying to do as opposed to having people come in and tell you what they need, which addresses the most predominant symptom but doesn’t fix the overall system.

“One thing that makes PD so special is the ability for people to be willing to have and encourage these conversations while supporting our leaders who want to have those conversations. It’s great when someone says, ‘I’m wondering about this.’ The Center focuses on three areas: 1) exploring the opportunities, 2) solution building, and 3) as much as possible, the impact study. So if we are going to put a solution in place, we are going to understand the opportunity and design solutions for the opportunity. We will take the time to watch those solutions in play, see what they do and how they work.

“One of my favorite examples is with Susanne Reid’s first-grade class from a few years ago when the Academic Center opened up. We went on a field trip to the Center to walk around, show them the space, and talk about what we do up there. They got really excited about the space and were moving around. There are hexagons in the carpet up there and we were asking them to brainstorm what they could do in the space.

“They started designing a game using the carpet and took these fabric snowballs that were out, started rolling the snowballs, and depending upon the color you were on, then they had to follow the routine/rules of the game.

“Then, some students went to the whiteboard space and started designing a different game. It was all of these first graders working on it and it became a whole unit where Susanne spent time building collaborative board games. Part of what she wanted to do was get them to work together in groups and teach that interaction, which led to all kinds of different content.

“One set of girls designed a game that was all in Spanish using colors and numbers, so we got the Spanish teacher to come and help us. Another group had a version of Candyland, and they got to a point where they realized there was a problem because if you roll a six there’s no option here, how’s it going to work? They redesigned prototypes and then created the final board game. We got to do this whole project with first graders that evolved out of this opportunity to show them the building and take them upstairs. It all spiraled from there.

“This all started because Susanne Reid wanted her first-grade class to focus on working together and develop skills for collaboration, which is all part of our Passport and curriculum; it all ties together. The exciting part to me is working with a teacher who is willing to say that this is not what I did last year and not necessarily the traditional curriculum, but it builds the skills that support my overall curriculum. We spent five class periods with them in there working on their games and then we went back and played the games with them. It was really fun.”

 

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