Iterative Design and Excellence

On Saturday morning, Belmont Day will open its doors to prospective parents considering independent schools. They will be evaluating whether Belmont Day’s core values and whole-child promise can wrap around their child in the years to come. When one of those core values is excellence, an open house provides us with an opportunity to feature our program and our initiatives at their very best. We put our best foot forward and showcase everything that we stand for and believe in so that families can make an informed decision in their process. All of which provides an important context for the conversation that a faculty member and I had about preparations for the morning.

Our conversation began with the genuine enthusiasm I have come to know as the BDS calling card: “Check this out,” she said. In her hand was a small yellow LED light wrapped by a piece of paper bearing a BDS logo and held together by a binder clip. “The children are going to make these on Saturday,” she explained. This do-it-yourself, self-lighting pin is intended to provide visitors with a sense of the iterative spirit that is blossoming at BDS thanks to faculty professional development with Sparkfun—a Colorado-based innovation/making/engineering and design company working with schools throughout the country.

She continued, “but the real excitement will be building the aluminum foil Makey Makey obstacle course we will be trying for the first time.” On Saturday she, and another teacher who is also taking the lead on teaching innovation, will help prospective students to design an obstacle course of puzzle pieces that will ultimately reveal our six core values. The activity sounded incredible and complicated. Then she offered this, “Of course, it might not work, but that’s the thing with projects like this—you have to start somewhere.”  

In that moment, two dichotomous thoughts came to me instantaneously: 1) How great is that?  Here is a teacher who fully understands and is leaning in to the iterative experience of design and project-based, hands-on learning at our biggest showcase of the year for prospective families! Innovation in its truest form! And 2) I wonder if this is the best time and place to take that risk.  

In the time since our conversation, I have come to trust my first thought more and more. Although it might seem that iterative design as an educational methodology runs, in its earliest phases, counter to a traditional notion of excellence, experience tells us that rarely is excellence easily or comfortably achieved. Iterative design is a methodology that operates from a notion that discovery and failure work hand-in-hand. In my own educational experiences growing up, excellence and failure did not work that way. Yet, here we are, heading into the weekend and confident that regardless of the outcome of the engineering work our visitors do while they are here, our commitment to excellence will have been on display.  

As the teacher and I wrapped up our conversation, she gave voice to my inner dialogue as she said, “all of this feels a bit uncomfortable.” I couldn’t agree more. Excellence often does.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Thanks to the admissions team, to the parent volunteers, and to the faculty for the time, energy, and hard work that an open house demands.  

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