Over the last week or so, I put (virtual) pen to paper to understand how McDonogh School has been evolving in recent years. The following captures my reading, thinking, and aspirations. I’d love to hear your feedback. — Kevin
McDonogh’s LifeReady Program
In 2014, McDonogh School launched a strategic plan for teaching and learning called LifeReady. This document outlined the values, competencies, and beliefs about the promise McDonogh was prepared to make for its students now and in the future. Since that time, McDonogh has taken a systemic approach to its programmatic transformation. What follows is an update and a re-commitment to LifeReady.
The Liberal Arts: Perennial Value
As a LifeReady School, we believe in the value of liberal arts learning, for all indicators and futurist research suggests that the world needs critical thinkers, inventive problems solvers, expert collaborators, and creative mindsets (Wagner, 2008, 2014; P21; World Economic Forum; Davidson, 2017). Technology will certainly outpace our ability to complete routine jobs, and so we must double down on what humans can do that machines cannot (Levy and Murnane, 2013; Davidson, 2017). The liberal arts remain a powerful pathway to developing these human competencies.
Here are some ways of McDonogh thinks about what the liberal arts can teach students—
- We believe that children should be literate and critical readers, storytellers, speakers, and writers
- We believe that they should be able to think mathematically and to communicate their ideas verbally, numerically, and symbolically
- We believe that learning other languages prepares them for a life of understanding, service, and work around the globe
- We believe that understanding patterns in history—and how history is “made”— makes for informed participants in a democracy
- We believe that arts learning creates inventive, creative problem solvers who understand themselves and the world through expression, divergent thinking, and sense making
- We believe that the study of science develops habits of critical inquiry that get to the heart of first causes
- We believe that physical and mental wellness sustains us in our time on Earth
At McDonogh, we teach, first and foremost, for these transferable “ways of knowing” (Perkins, 2014). For too long, people have acquired knowledge in bits and pieces—some algebra here, a figure of speech here, a rigid essay format there (Perkins, 2009). While learning can take place with that approach, research and practice indicate that context and purpose matter when learning deeply (Blythe, et al., 1998; Ritchhart, 2011). And besides—the world doesn’t work in discrete subject areas, so why would school?
Teaching for Understanding
Very likely, you learned how to solve an equation like this: 2(x) + 3 = 11. You learned that “x” equals 4 in this equation, and you were correct. You may have then been given similar problems to solve where you had to find the value of x. And then you moved on.
You may also have asked, “why do we need to know this?” You were right to ask this, too. If you were lucky, someone in your class said, “algebraic thinking allows you to use known values to make strong predictions about unknown values.”
If you were asked to reproduce your algebraic understanding on different, even more complex problems, you engaged in what is known as “near transfer” of understanding. Over time, you may have even become known as someone who was “good at math.”
Okay, but still: so what? What does it mean to be “good” at math, and what value does this provide beyond success in class? In other words, you may have been correct, but did you understand? Could you take the understanding and use it in other situations (Blythe, et al., 1998)?
This question is what McDonogh is always interested in answering. We believe that learning to think mathematically—not just being “correct” in using procedural knowledge—is the long-term value of learning mathematics (or anything, for that matter). It must be for this durable, transferable learning—near and far from the domain of mathematics—that we have school. A strong algebraic thinker in other areas of life might say, “by looking at all the known evidence in a poem or in first-person accounts of a major historical event or in a section of music, I can make strong predictions about likely outcomes.” What’s more, he or she will likely start to see the interconnectedness of disciplines—a critical insight for any learner—since many of the same habits of mind apply to many fields of study.
At McDonogh, we don’t want to leave this insight to chance, and so our curriculum is designed backwards from the understandings at the core of any learning (Wiggins and McTighe, 2011; Blythe, et al., 1998). In other words, a course in English isn’t just what gets covered—e.g., Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Fences, or Keats’s poetry. Instead, a course describes the durable outcomes in ability we want for our students; we choose content to take students to these understandings (Colby, 2017; Sturgis, 2012). When planning is careful, students get the best of all worlds: strongly-developed habits of mind, abilities, and important content learning.
In 5 Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner notes that interdisciplinary study isn’t merely the mixing of different domains. Rather, interdisciplinary activity takes place when one brings one’s disciplinary understanding to bear on another discipline (Gardner, 2005; Perkins, 2014). As in our example above, a mathematical thinker brings her insight from that field to bear on fields like history, art, music, or English.
To achieve true interdisciplinary programming, we work intentionally from understandings and competencies that can easily stand for outcomes in any number of different disciplines. And because of this, we prioritize these overlaps and build our scope and sequence accordingly. Not only do we choose content within a domain to take students to these understandings, but we bring whole disciplines together to see how shared outcomes demonstrate the power of thinking through several different disciplinary lenses at the same time.
Whether one studies history, mathematics, music, poetry, or dance, the ability to identify patterns and to develop informed hypotheses, for example, is a critical competency. We know that learning in context and with purpose makes learning experience deeper and more durable. To this end, our program is designed not around individual classes but around the essential questions in a field or fields (Wiggins and McTighe, 2011). We also explore these perennial questions through more focused challenges and problems that 1) require our creative and collaborative problem solving capacities, and that 2) lead us to learn knowledge that will be useful when solving this problem.
Let’s take an example of a hypothetical interdisciplinary LifeReady unit.
The need, for example, to communicate a public service announcement to a Spanish-speaking population about the danger of lead paint in a community asks a tremendous amount of learning on the part of a group of students—the ability to communicate in Spanish, the need to understand the threat of lead as a neurotoxin, the best way to transmit the urgency of this topic, the need to assess statistics and to appraise risk. In this simple example, we have opportunities to bring together the kinds of learning that might have taken place in four distinct disciplines. We stand to gain so much more when we bring appropriate and urgent challenges together. Such project design also elicits interest because it is cause-driven and, to socially-conscious students, it is relevant and has purpose.
But why else is this good for learning? To be sure, as brain research confirms, one can only master something through deliberate practice (Willingham, 2009; Peter C. Brown, et al., 2014). And yet, deliberate practice can, frankly, be quite boring if there is no return on the time invested (Willingham, 2009). So how do we solve this problem? Traditionally, teachers have taken the approach that there must be an apprenticeship period where one “learns the basics” before one can do anything creative with that knowledge. And, too often, students who cannot see the answer to their question, “so what?”, simply stop learning or, equally bad, simply learn to pass the test.
When we teach for understanding and purpose, however, we begin with a creative problem. Ideally, this problem speaks to students—they feel a sense of purpose or grow curious because they see themselves as agents of aid. Hooked by this problem, they are driven to know things—often, the very “basics” we deem essential to a field in the first place. And so they discover context and purpose for their learning, and if the problem is complex enough—and what real problem isn’t?—they engage in deliberate practice on the way to solving a creative challenge. Our teachers, possessing expertise in a variety of fields, are adept at responsive or “just in time” teaching to help mentor students in knowledge areas as they take them to competency.
Thinking is Key for Deep Learning
The other benefit of a problem-based curriculum is that students have to think at very high levels. We know from giants in the fields of learning—Benjamin Bloom, Lorin Anderson, and David Kratwohl—that creative work puts the most demand on student cognition. Indeed, in Bloom’s revised taxonomy, “remembering,” while it has its place, ranks lowest in terms of cognitive load. “Creating,” on the other hand, stands atop Bloom’s pyramid for cognitive rigor. Why is this important? Recent brain research has concluded the primary importance of thinking in our practice. Daniel T. Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, says it succinctly: “If you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember. It’s a product of what you think about” (Willingham, 2009, pp. 53, 61, emphasis added). At McDonogh, we approach learning with a pedagogy aligned to what research suggests—thinking. And the good news? Kids enjoy their learning more.
Too often, as stated above, education has assumed that “basics” must be mastered before anything creative can take place. If we look at Bloom’s revised taxonomy of cognition (Bloom, 1956; Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001), we see “remembering” and might think it the foundation of learning in any domain, and this is characteristic of 19th and 20th century school practice (see Figure 1).
But, as Ron Ritchhart reminds us, “the idea that thinking is sequential or hierarchical is problematic . . . [T]here is a constant back and forth between ways of thinking that interact in a very dynamic way to produce learning” (Ritchhart, p. 6).
Indeed, the Teaching for Understanding framework (Blythe, et al., 1998) is structured such that generative topics and throughline questions begin units of study so that student interest is captured at once. These topics present problems and difficult, compelling questions that guide students to creative problem solving that awaken her or his most powerful cognition, “creating”—precisely that kind of thinking that, as Willingham suggests, makes for durable memories and deep learning. When learning is approached in this manner—a manner that privileges cognitive rigor (and not rigor as volume or work)—we might see Bloom’s revised taxonomy in a new, dynamic way (see Figure 2).
Again, a creative problem, compelling students by the curiosity it elicits, drives students through the “basics” so that the learning objectives for a unit or lesson can still be met at the same time that student engagement is likely to go way up. What’s more, creative learning develops key cross-cut competencies increasingly necessary for life in the 21st century (Wagner, 2008, 2014; Future Skills, 2012; P21), which is detailed in the next section.
What Else Does this Approach Do?
Programming like this also helps us develop whole-school competencies, which, at McDonogh, we describe in our LifeReady vision for teaching and learning. Our promise is to graduate students who can
- Communicate well in a variety of arenas
- Solve problems in groups and on their own
- Adapt, lead, and think for communities global and local
As we seek to break down the artificial barriers between discrete subject areas, we also want to challenge the idea that learning must be a solo endeavor. Few, if any, problems can ever be solved by a sole individual. Instead, high-functioning teams working with design-thinking and entrepreneurial mindsets and practices can hack through the obstacles to workable solutions and, together, create the chance for change, solution, and growth.
Will Traditional Subjects Entirely Disappear?
Perhaps, one day, subjects as we’ve known them in the last century or so will disappear from—or, at the very least, evolve in—schools, but for now, we avoid an either/or approach and rather seek for ways to bring disciplines together; that is a very meaningful first step. We also believe in the value of making time to focus on discrete content areas that require attention. If, for instance, a student struggles with the preterite in Spanish as she’s creating a public service announcement about lead paint poisoning, then her teacher will provide the guidance and direct instruction as appropriate. The real change is that this kind of “traditional” instruction is now framed such that understanding, purpose, service, and shared competency are our larger goals.
LifeReady and McDonogh operate from a constellation of values, pedagogical, social, and philosophical. We believe that learning and living are better when people possess
- The belief that thinking is of central and transcendent value in learning
- The ability to receive and give feedback
- A belief in and a capacity for collaboration
- An entrepreneurial mindset that builds solutions based on human needs and problems
- A genuine responsibility for one’s self and others
- The ability to learn how to learn (and to want to!)
- The need to iterate ideas
- A deeply felt commitment to the common good
Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.), Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York, NY. Longman.
Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley Longman Ltd; 2nd edition edition.
Blythe. T., and Associates (1998). The teaching for understanding guide. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick. The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA. Belknap Press.
Colby, Rose (2017). Competency-based education: A new architecture for K-12 schooling. Cambridge, MA. Harvard Education Press.
Davidson, Cathy N., (2017). The new education: how revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux. New York, NY. Basic Books.
Fidler, D. (2016). Future Skills: Update and Literature Review. Institute for the Future. 1-42. Retrieved from http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/wfi/ACTF_IFTF_FutureSkills-report.pdf
Gardner, Howard (2005). 5 minds for the future. Boston, MA. Harvard Business Review Press.
Levy, F., Murnane, R.J., Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work. Third Way. 1-35. Retrived from http://content.thirdway.org/publications/714/Dancing-With-Robots.pdf
Partnership for 21st Century Learning. (2018) Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/
Perkins, David (2009). Making learning whole: how seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA. Jossy-Bass.
Perkins, David (2014). Future wise: educating our children for a changing world. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.
Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.
Sturgis, Chris (2012). The Art and Science of Designing Competencies. Competency Works, 1-15. Retrieved from https://www.competencyworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/CompetencyWorks_IssueBrief_DesignCompetencies-Aug-2012.pdf
Wagner, Tony. (2008, 2014). The global achievement gap. New York, NY. Basic Books.
Wiggins, G., McTighe, J. (2011) The Understanding by design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.
Willingham, Daniel (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answer questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (2018). World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/archive/fourth-industrial-revolution