Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Hedgehog Concept and the Iron Chef

Last week I mentioned the Hedgehog Concept. The concept was popularized by Jim Collins in his book From Good to Great. The notion is simple, at least in concept. The hedgehog is good at one thing, one big thing. From an old parable, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

One big thing. That's so hard for us, because we have this sense we need to know much about much. I think it's human nature. There's an independent school in Michigan, Interlochen Arts Academy, that focuses on one thing: the arts. That's it: the arts. Granted, all sorts of arts, but it's still the arts. Even their summer camp is arts.

In Minnesota, there's a fine independent school, Shattuck-St. Mary's School, that has an arts "Center of Excellence." They also have five other centers of excellence including a soccer developmental program and a kick-ass ice hockey program.

Interlochen is a hedgehog. Shattuck-St. Mary's is a fox. And there are plenty of other foxes and hedgehogs out there in the school community. And, I'm not even going to walk down the path about public schools and the multiplicity of things many of them attempt to do.

Now, I've been to both schools, and I'd love to serve on the faculty of either, even the fox (maybe more so the fox, because it is a fox; more on that in a future post).

I'd note that Shattuck-St. Mary's has chosen to be a fox, at least with the centers of excellence, and they've chosen the model for a number of solid reasons. But will they ever be excellent, all the way around? That's the question that Jim Collins would ask.

What's this have to do with the Iron Chef? Not much.

Just kidding. Actually, it is related. Are schools best at cooking food? No. Schools are for education. There are organizations that are best at cooking food, but they're not generally schools.

McDaniel College recently held an Iron Chef competition for chefs from schools and colleges in the Baltimore area. The chef from my high school alma mater, Saint James School, was there and she placed second. She is not an employee of Saint James. She is an employee of Sodexho; Sodexho is in the business of feeding students:
From nursery schools to universities, Sodexho serves its young guests healthy, balanced and imaginative meals in functional, pleasant environments. From its customized interiors to the training of restaurant staff, Sodexho sets the benchmark for quality. Sodexho caters for all tastes and offers something to delight everyone.
And, indeed, they showed their stuff at the Iron Chef competition.

From Cassandra A. Fortin and the Baltimore Sun:
Amy Stouffer, a chef at St. James School, placed second with 109 votes for her arugula salad with orange fennel vinaigrette, grilled flank steak with a chimichurri sauce, grit cake with bacon and artichokes, tomato compote, and a chocolate bread pudding.
For less than $2.25 a serving. Beat that.
Emica Boutilier held her plate out for a serving of arugula salad topped with orange fennel vinaigrette.

"The salad is wonderful," said Boutilier, as she rustled through the arugula leaves with a fork. "I'm so excited. It wasn't made with iceberg lettuce." ...

"We usually get dried chicken and iceberg lettuce," she said. "We have been filling out surveys about dining hall food and asking for variety and better meat. The food we are having today is more like what we want."

Boutilier also said that students are selecting healthier food.

"We don't want pizza and hot dogs every day," she said. "Colleges underestimate how important it is to have a good dining hall."

Boutilier cited the cafeteria at Harvard University as an example of an ideal dining hall. She was impressed with the Harvard menu that included filet mignon and fresh vegetables.

"They had a lot of healthy choices for the students," she said.

"The first thing you notice when you eat here is that the menu never really changes. They offer the same vegetables every day. And I think it would be easy enough to vary the vegetables or add to the stir-fry station, even if it's just a new vegetable in the mix."
Am I suggesting that schools need to dump all their programs but one? No. Should Shattuck-St. Mary's focus on one center of excellence? No. Should schools outsource the dining hall? Not necessarily. It's a series of questions that only the school leadership can answer.

I believe it starts with what the school is all about. What sets the school apart.

From Saint James:
The Mission of Saint James School is to prepare young men and women for academic success in college, and to challenge and inspire them to be leaders for good in the world. We seek to do this within a small and familial residential community which values the moral and spiritual development of our students.
From Shattuck-St. Mary's:
As a school community, Shattuck-St. Mary's guides young people to be strong in character, mind, body and spirit for a life of learning and service.

Living and learning within the context of a community cultivates one's character and expands one's potential. This belief is evident in our challenging curriculum, small class sizes, and, most importantly, our skillful teachers.
From Interlochen:
Interlochen Arts Academy visual and performing arts high school is a close-knit community of the world's most talented and motivated student artists. Students immerse themselves in music, theatre, dance, visual arts, creative writing, motion picture arts and rigorous academics in a college-like setting.

The Academy is a fast-paced, creative environment that challenges and inspires. Under the guidance of an exceptional faculty of artists and educators, the Academy offers students the resources they need to achieve the highest possible artistic, intellectual and ethical standards as individuals and as responsible members of a diverse community.
From Blue Ridge:
We specifically focus on helping boys reach their potential through personalized, structured, innovative learning practices in a college preparatory, all-boarding community.
Each of these schools has more verbiage about who they are and what they do and how they do it.

Here's my point, rambling as it is this morning: Schools, like all organizations, ought to figure out what they do well, and then focus in with laser-like intensity on that one thing.

As Bill Cosby (that would be William Cosby, Ed.D. from the University of Massachusetts) says:

I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.

Let's all be hedgehogs.

Photo Credit: Chef Amy Stouffer of St. James College, serves arugula salad with orange fennel vinaigrette, grilled flank steak with a chimichurri sauce, grit cake with bacon and artichokes, and a chocolate bread pudding. She won second. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby) Mar 6, 2007


blind_schoolb said...

I went to blind camp.

Anonymous said...

SSM is not as smart of a "fox" as you might think. All you'd need to see is their hugh annual deficits to decide that it's a school just waiting to collapse under the weight of the huge ego of its current, "entrepreneurial" headmaster.