Planning the Pilot: Successes and Lessons Learned from Western Academy of Beijing

Two students in the FLoW21 program at the Western Academy of Beijing.
Two students in the FLoW21 program at the Western Academy of Beijing.

Program pilots can be powerful learning experiences as well as safe ways to test-drive innovative education ideas. Schools have a unique challenge when piloting. Ultimately, the risk may seem high, as there is a commitment of the school to ensure high levels of academic achievement for all students. Consequently, there may be resistance from all stakeholders—from teachers to parents—to take the risk and pilot something new and innovative. However, if we don’t take risks, we will never evolve for the future that out students need. As schools prepare students for a world that we don’t know will be, it is paramount we take these risks and engage in educational pilots.

FLoW21 at Western Academy of Beijing

The Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) has a reputation for being a successful community school that continually strives to evolve and change to meet the needs of learners. Their Future of Learning initiative, or FloW21 for short, continues that vision. They articulate it through their vision statement: “FLoW21 is a community-wide journey to transform the school experience to maximize learning for each individual student. Like no other school, WAB will know your child and customize the learning experience to best prepare him or her for a rapidly changing future.”

Setting the Stage

In the initial phase of the project, the entire school community spent two years incubating, researching and ideating. With clear parameters established, such as ensuring the ideas were “inquiry-based” or “transdisciplinary,” the school had design sprints (inspired by FEDEx days mentioned in Daniel Pink’s Drive) that took place over two days where teams worked together to ideate. Elementary Assistant Principal Nat Atherton mentioned “Some of the greatest success of the project have come about through giving teachers time and clear parameters. When we provide teachers with time to cross pollinate amazing ideas come to fruition.”

Teachers create both short-term and long-term pilots. One example that came out of this time was “Math in the Wild,” a collaboration between our outdoor education team and our middle school math department, where students used geometry skills to create tents to use outside. It never would have happened with traditional, more discipline-specific collaborative teams. This short-term pilot also allowed teachers to play with more authentic learning as well as scheduling and time.

Clarifying the Purpose

One of the key strengths of WAB’s pilot is the continued focus on their mission and core values.  This has allowed them to stay true to goals and ultimate vision for education, while still being nimble and flexible. When we have a clear mission and vision, we can continually remind ourselves of the “Why?” WAB’s clear mission and vision helped them generate a purpose for their FLoW21 pilot. It indicates that they will explore many ideas, including co-constructed and personally relevant curriculum; self-directed learning; real-world, practical engagement; inquiry-driven learning; individualized schedules and time; flexible, diverse, variable spaces and learner groups, and more. WAB also surfaced the beliefs they shared related to these explorations, further clarifying and aligning the purpose to the mission and vision of the school.

Nurturing the Culture

Dialogue is critical to building school culture, and when it comes to innovative pilots that have risks, spending time to slow and process the work can help build and sustain a safe culture and ensure clarity for all. “Having a purposeful conversations about the work as a whole school allows for more clarity,” Atherton said. “It’s important to devote time to digest ideas such as inquiry-based and self-directed learning to build a shared understanding. Yet it’s also important to understand the needs of your community. Some people need to see the big picture, while others need to get right into the work. Identifying with whom and when to look at both the macro and the micro is a complex blend that if done right ensures the ‘sweet spot’ is met in terms of planning and communication.”

One other key part of building the culture is also supporting and empowering your parents. WAB has trained at least 10 percent of their parent population through a six-hour FLoW Ambassador program focusing on the why, the what and the how of their work FLoW21. Parents became the best advocates for the work of the pilot and even ran information booths at events like Back to School Night to support the entire community in learning about the pilot.

Planning for Pivots

Instead of sticking so tightly to a plan, it’s important to plan for pivots—moments we expected to make shifts and changes based on data and what we are learning. After the end of the second year of phase 2 of the work of FLoW21, WAB is entering a new space. Deputy Director Dr. John D’Arcy said that  as this phase will come to a close, they  will have to re-evaluate as we enter a new phase. Larry Cuban, a veteran K-12 educator and Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, furthers builds upon this idea of being flexible in the work as schools are “complex, not complicated.” Complicated work has a series of clear steps with prescribed outcomes. Complex work is sometimes messy and chaotic as there isn’t a broad agreement on the outcome. Because of this, schools should have a pilot plan that is ‘good enough’ to start, but is also ready to pivot and be nimble in an ever-changing and complex environment.

Highlights from the Pilot Work

There were some innovative and exciting ideas that came out of their initial pilot. They include:

  • Day 9 – On a rotating nine day schedule, students build their own schedule on the ninth day to meet their needs.
  • Self-directed learning in the elementary school
  • Competency based models—competencies have been written and edited. Next steps are implementations and direct impact on practice.
  • Progress mentoring—a mix of both social emotional learning and academic advisory. Elementary uses the morning meeting as their structures
  • Flexible learning spaces—select grade levels are using innovative spaces, such as a math space in middle school and a design/humanities library space in high school. They partnered with Rosan Bosch for the design.

Lessons Learned

In addition to the ideas and learning articulated above, D’Arcy shared a couple key takes aways. Initially, we might be reticent to say “we are experimenting” at a school, but in reality, educators are always doing it. As D’Arcy says “The best teachers are constantly experimenting to improve student learning.” Instead of being afraid to experiment and pilot, we need to have a clear message and purpose.

“The implementation dip is real,” D’Arcy added. Instead of yanking educators and stakeholders out of it, we need to support them in grappling with those struggles, and support them in that space. WAS is hosting the bi-annual symposium about future-ready schools soon. Click here to learn more.

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Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an Instructional Coach at Shanghai American. He will be the Director of Personalized Learning at Singapore American School starting the 2019-20 school year.

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