School of a Lifetime

One evening, in the fall of 2019, the school’s executive team sat down to discuss what a school should be. It’s a question we had asked ourselves before but this time was different. A year earlier, our re-accreditation process (our “WASC Self-Study”) had found that 98 percent of our families understood the THS philosophy... despite the fact that THS had never formally articulated a vision or mission. Our job, as part of the schoolwide action plan, became to formalize what had previously been a community feeling.


We started at the very end of the question. We asked ourselves what a thriving person would look like, in the 21st century, and what kind of school produces that person. But our answer to the question was expansive. A successful student in the 21st century could become an entrepreneur, an artist, a scientist, all three (especially all three), or something else entirely; future leaders could depend on their gregarious nature to thrive, or on an exceptional talent in mathematics. A single person defied definition.


Certainly, we had directional ideas. There were numerous 21st century traits we wanted to encourage: empathy, creativity, collaboration, resilience, and self-awareness, to say the least. But we also knew, from our own student and staff diversity, that not all students needed to be good at all of these traits to thrive.


After much discussion, we found that it was easier to pin down what a successful 21st century citizen is not. They are not perpetually unhappy. They are not chronically isolated. Through their own agency, they are not bad for themselves or for society. I won’t put an exhaustive list here but suffice to say this task was easier. No matter what positive outcomes come from education, a school should not bestow these attributes onto a child.


Although the above might seem obvious, the conversation helped highlight our priorities and non-negotiables; and are vastly different from the priorities you find broadly in the education industry. 


When discussing THS’s philosophy, I am often an outside voice on the executive team. Unlike my colleagues, I come from a corporate consulting and finance background. This usually leaves me learning more than I enlighten in our meetings. This time, I did have a tool that we could use to evolve our thinking: we put together a Strategy Canvas (below) to represent what THS delivers as a school.



Work in progress - “Strategy Canvas” for The Harbour School


Where premium schools often try to do the same things as budget schools only bigger and better, THS tries to do something entirely different. You can read the above chart by dividing it into three sections: the first five characteristics are THS priorities (from student experience to community); the next five attributes are what one would think of as important in “traditional” schooling (these are valuable at THS to varying degrees but they are not all-out priorities); and the last two attributes of price and exclusivity are not THS positioning.


The categories speak for themselves but it’s worthwhile to cover a few examples.


First, the value of a “modern” school is obvious in the age of digital learning; but it’s worth pointing out that this chart was put together before Covid-19 and VC@T. The coronavirus is not the only unforeseeable difficulty our children will face that requires them to think of new solutions. A modern school immerses students in a meaningful, innovative and resilient culture they can use for life.


Second, some parents may be shocked that “college admissions” is not the highest priority for THS, even if it is a 4 out of 5. THS has a track record of sending our high school seniors to their college of choice, so we could have easily said this was our top priority. But we asked ourselves if going to college had the same importance, to us, as who our students became as people; and the answer was no. Luckily, we live in an era when individual passion and the ability to go to your school of choice work together, but if we had to choose one or the other, we’d choose passion and joy for our students (and for their futures).


Third, you’ll notice that some obvious characteristics are excluded - the kinds of things you’d see on any set of values at any organization. Integrity, for example, is something that we felt should be so pervasive in today’s world that it (should) be required to even get in the game. We’re close with most schools in Hong Kong and integrity is so pervasive that we didn’t feel it beared repeating.


Since that evening in October, we’ve seen many tests of whether The Harbour method of education is helping prepare students for a rapidly evolving future. This fall will see the release of the full THS vision, mission, and set of values (above is just our “strategy map”). Putting it together has been an exciting journey of putting words to who we are. But, of course, we don’t have it all figured out and never will. That’s also core to who we are. 


We’d love to hear your comments on the above graph - what other dimensions can be added to the chart?


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