What is a LifeReady School?

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.

But How?

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).

Screenshot 2018-04-23 at 9.14.27 AM

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).

Screenshot 2018-04-23 at 9.18.30 AM

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


Reference List

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


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Playing Guitar & Making Music, or Why Aren’t Proficiency and Accuracy Enemies?

I have been playing guitar for over thirty years. I have been playing music for about forty. I have been listening to music for 48! I’m a pretty good guitar player; my skill allows me to sing songs and to play in bands. I was fortunate that, when I picked up the guitar, I had been playing trumpet for almost ten years, and I’m sure that boosted my confidence. But, really, I learned guitar by playing songs by ear, looking at chord charts, getting hints from friends. I had friends who attempted guitar by taking lessons. While I was strumming through Neil Young songs, they were learning “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the high E string. I stuck with it; they didn’t. Why?

I think it has to do with what David Perkins calls “playing the whole game.” In his book, Making Learning Whole, he urges educators to think of their teaching in terms of getting students to play the whole game of their discipline. No, most young people aren’t expert enough to play the game in the ways pros do, but, he urges, it’s important that we find the appropriate “junior version” of that game. Why? Because, Perkins insists, learning is otherwise a series of unrelated elements that never come together to form the “Big Picture” of whatever field is under study. When the Big Picture can be seen — and, more importantly, played — then the elements make greater sense, have greater purpose, and generate intrinsic interest in learners.

He uses the example of how he and his friends, as children, played baseball even if they only had five kids, one ball, no mits, and a street. The point wasn’t having Fenway; the point was playing baseball. They may have played poorly, they may have had invisible people on base, but they had the whole game — and the drive to keep playing because what they were doing wasn’t just batting practice.  In other words, they had the means to play a proficient game of baseball, which may have led — as all deliberate practice does — to greater accuracy (and maybe the desire to do some batting practice, as a result). More on this later.

Some guitar players love guitars: the wood, the pickups, the machine heads, the bridge — you name it. Others want to make music, and the guitar helps them to do that. Of course, both types of  people often like both. But I am willing to bet that it’s the making of music that leads to greater understanding of the instrument that is the means to achieve that end. Now, if I were a guitar teacher and a person came to me and wanted lessons, I would ask, “Why do you want to learn how to play guitar?” She might say, “to make music” or “to write songs.” If that is so — and, here, I assume that the majority of people would say this — then I believe I would work to make sure that we were making music as soon as possible. But no! the skeptics say, “She will learn the wrong way! She will develop bad habits! She will not know theory!”

This is binary thinking. My proposition is that the student wants to make music. Finding the junior version of that goal will propose just enough challenge and the likelihood of success. Which is more likely to lead to more playing and practice. Over time, this student is more likely to want/need theory, to care about the value of using a Gibson for this song and and Fender for that.

Too often, in my experience (and, yes, I’m talking about myself when I was a new teacher), teachers (i.e., me) taught from the perspective of one who was into the guitar itself and not from the angle of what larger purpose the guitar serves. And so, as a novice English teacher, I showed students how to scan a line of verse, how to identify a figure of speech, etc. I lost the bigger picture of how they might use their larger understandings as a result of studying literature. I was too into what they were learning (i.e., the “gear,” as we call musical instruments) at the expense of the effect of this learning on them in their lives (i.e., the music they wanted to make).

In other words, I needed to teach them to be proficient at reading and writing so that these successes could develop into a deeper skill set — not so they could merely succeed in college, but so that they could understand the power of storytelling on them as people throughout their lives.

What’s the point? I’m suggesting that the notion of “Proficiency vs. Accuracy” (a particular sticking point in the discussion of world language teaching these days), isn’t a contradictory relationship. In brief, the argument, in world language, is whether we should be teaching students to be as accurate as possible when writing/speaking a new language or whether we should teach them to be proficient in that language (i.e., allowing for, perhaps, more limited use of tense forms, vocabulary, mistakes). Even writing this, I’m uncomfortable with the false choice. It’s not an either-or proposition, but a question of approach and strategy. Is it more likely that students will use a language — indeed, find the learning of that language meaningful at all — if they only know how to identify verb tenses and grammatical structures on a test? Or is it more likely they will develop real aptitude for that language if they first get to “play the whole song,” even if there are some holes and blemishes to start?

I believe that likelihood of their interest growing — both in the language and in being accurate in that language (or in anything they’re learning) — if they have permission to be proficient first. But if we use the red pen for every small error, communicate to our students that all the elements must be right before anything creative can be attempted, and lose sight of the “whole game,” we actually prevent the strongest lever for their learning: their intrinsic interest.

A colleague of mine once said that subject-area teachers are often the least-well disposed to teaching that subject because they love the work so much we forget what it’s like to be a learner who doesn’t feel that way. It’s the person who loves the guitar so much he forgets it’s used to make music. Or the person who loves the pen so much she forgets that most people see a pen as a means to a larger end — communication.

Proficiency and accuracy are not enemies; they are symbiotic entities that work in a dynamic, powerful way — when we let them.


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What’s the Use? Understanding Understanding

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about understanding.

At McDonogh School, many of us use Project Zero’s Teaching for Understanding framework when creating our courses, units, and lessons. As a PreK-12 institution, we are in the process of aligning our curriculum by using Wiggins and McTighe’s framework, Understanding by Design. Clearly, “understanding” means a lot to me as McDonogh School begins to fulfill the promises made in our academic strategic plan, LifeReady.

But what is understanding? I’m hoping to capture some of my thoughts here and get some clarity about a larger question that I think should follow: what is the use of an education?

That’s the big question for me: what’s the use? I think it should be the question for every teacher and every school.

I used to think understanding was simply the successful acquisition of knowledge. But I should have thought better of this. I mean, if I understood everything I was supposed to, why would my mother continue to ask me (when I was a child), “don’t you understand?” Clearly, just hearing something and having some memory of it didn’t immediately change my behavior. And yet much of education, as is increasingly clear, continues to be about the transmission of knowledge so that it may be used — where? — for tests, some vague objective called “college prep,” Jeopardy? What is the relationship between school and the whole of one’s life?

Let me be clear before I go any further. I think people do well to know things. I think that finger-tip knowledge is extremely powerful in many circumstances. I believe in liberal arts learning.

So let me head off any notion that somehow I’m in favor of not knowing things because it’s all on Google. That’s a false choice, I think, for anyone to make. What I’m in favor of is understanding — as I’ll unfold it below — as perhaps the most useful result or effect of education. So let me attempt a definition.

I start with the explanation Tina Blythe and her colleagues offer in the Teaching for Understanding guide. There, she writes, “understanding is being able to carry out a variety of action or ‘performances’ that show one’s grasp of a topic and at the same time advance it. It is being able to take knowledge and use it in new ways” (13). Okay — this makes sense. We learn something in class and then we can use this new knowledge in some new place. For sure, this gets beyond merely memorizing definitions, passage IDs from poems, algorithms, battle dates for multiple choice tests, etc. Perhaps one gets handed a new poem, say, on an essay test and is asked to explicate it, taking care to identify important figures of speech. Or a student encounters a new problem in calculus that asks her to apply what has been practiced in class and for homework.

Even better, sometimes students have “aha” moments when they recall studying the English Revolution when reading Milton in English. That can look deceptively like “interdisciplinary” learning, but if it is, I would argue that’s an accident. More on interdisciplinary learning below.

But does any of this really get to understanding? (Again, let me be clear that I think Tina Blythe and the researchers at Project Zero mean much more than what I’m suggesting in my short essay here — I hope this will become clear).

Wiggins and McTighe offer their own very useful insights on understanding. They write, “The most successful teaching begins . . . with clarity about desired learning outcomes and about the evidence that will show that learning has occurred. . . . An understanding [that results from success in these learning outcomes] is not a fact (though it may sound like one) but a ‘theory’ in the broadest sense; it is the result of inference — the developing and testing of ideas by learners, with teacher assistance, as needed — needed in an idea that seems useful and illustrative to the learner” (7, 14-15). Transfer, they go onto say, takes places when this understanding helps people “make sense of new otherwise-confusing situation” (15). Okay — this is even clearer. This knowledge just doesn’t get repeated in a slightly different form on a test (and, again, this is not what Tina Blythe is saying!); this knowledge lives as a kind of lens through which new, strange phenomena can be understood and made meaningful because it’s in reference to these inferences. One imagines a person seeing something new and unfamiliar and getting to the point where she says, “Ah, this is like . . .” That’s closer to understanding.

I think the moment I had the greatest insight in my own journey to understand understanding occurred when reading Howard Gardner’s 5 Minds for the Future. A founder of Project Zero, it’s hardly surprising that this should be, but he nevertheless adds dimensions that fill in other insights — here, Blythe’s, Wiggins’s, McTighe’s and my own emerging thoughts.

Like so many other books of this ilk (e.g. The Global Achievement Gap), 5 Minds for the Future imagines what people will need to think and be ready to behave like in an unknown world. But Gardner’s vision for what people need might seem strangely old-fashioned at first glance, but his ideas are anything but atavistic. He fully embraces our global future, the reality of AI, and the notion that successful people will learn how to learn. In some current forecasts, one hears of the world moving from a knowledge economy to a performance economy — the idea that fixed expertise in one field is no longer enough; we need to continually learn, evolve, adapt, reinvent, discard, and so on. Gardner gets all this, for sure.

Following his introduction, Gardner leads with the chapter for the first type of mind required for the world now and to come: the disciplined mind. “I believe,” he writes, “it is essential for individuals in the future to be able to think in the ways that characterize the major disciplines. . . . These forms of thinking will serve students well, no matter what profession they eventually enter” (31-32). He suggests that “knowledge of facts is a useful ornament but a fundamentally different undertaking than thinking in a discipline . . .  [for] a discipline constitutes a distinctive way of thinking about the world” (32). But isn’t thinking in a “major discipline” (i.e., maths, science, English, etc.) out of fashion? No, not if we remember that “methods should be tools, not chains” (Gardner, 42) that reduce our worldview to a purely dogged formula.

Here, in this notion of having a “distinctive way of thinking about the world,” do we get to a deeper “uncovering” (to use a UbD term) of the meaning of “understanding.” It’s not just that we can reproduce equations on a test or merely recognize alliteration, metonymy, or personification on an exam. A disciplined mind — one that works according to the framework of a particular discipline — provides a useful range of mental habits and meaning-making tools that allow one to acquire new levels of understanding and knowledge, to evaluate the significance of new phenomena (an illustration of the “critical thinking” abilities we all say we teach for), and to remind us “that no topic can be fully mastered from a single disciplinary perspective” (Gardner, 42).

Let me pull some things together. Understanding is the effect, we might say, of having studied maths, science, history, etc. If we learn how the discipline works — not merely a heap of factual knowledge — we emerge with a way of framing and making sense of all new phenomena. The good news is that, along the way, we learn the knowledge, too, for we use carefully-selected content as the means to developing disciplinary understanding. The difference with his approach to curriculum, however, is that the understandings we wish students to emerge from our classes with help us to select, in a purposeful and meaningful way, the “stuff” we think is important. In fact, we are likely to learn the content of a discipline better because it is taught with a conscious eye to the larger understandings we want students to leave with.

When I first started teaching English, I thought my job was to tell about things. I would offer my interpretation, say, of Sonnet 27 or of Great Expectations. I honestly thought this was my job. I didn’t consider much more than the thought, “everyone needs English, so this is what I’m supposed to do.” But what else was I assuming? I probably thought that knowing Shakespeare and other canonical literature was the kind of cultural literacy people needed for life or college or whatever. I examined nothing about my teaching or my assumptions of any usefulness I was providing for students. This was wrong.

When I started teaching high school, I am certain that I added “college prep” to the unconscious list of assumptions I was working from. “You will need this for college,” I’m sure I said to preempt any real challenge to getting me to think about why I was doing what I was doing.

But, you see, this isn’t teaching for understanding, and I question, more and more, whether teaching for anything other than understanding is actually very useful to anyone other than for me.

So what might be those things I teach for now? As an English teacher, I think that being able to understand that meaning is made by means of storytelling is a fundamental understanding I want students to have, for I believe that this understanding is genuinely useful to them wherever their lives take them. We make sense of the world through stories, we understand new ideas through stories, we are persuaded by stories, we persuade with stories, and we tell ourselves stories to live, cope, and thrive. It is important that we realize that everything is, on some level, a story. And if stories are made up, then they are subject to revision, critique, investigation, and deconstruction. When we really understand the way stories work — as mechanisms unto themselves, as power over us — then we can develop a strong critical stance relative to stories. And this, I think, is a responsibility of citizens in a democracy for which they are the stewards.

As a teacher in a discipline where narrative and story is at the center, my goal is in drawing clear lines connecting the work we do in the class with the world and its necessary reliance on storytelling. This is my framework, and it’s a useful one. History and maths teachers may discuss the ways in which patterns allow us to make strong predictions about the future — whether we’re anthropologists studying human behavior or engineers predicting how a structure will withstand a tsunami.

I believe that great schools teach for these larger ideas — what we may call, thanks to Wiggins & McTighe, “enduring understandings.” For it is these understandings that will likely be remembered and, more importantly, be genuinely useful when people encounter new ideas, whether in the college classroom, the board room, the operating room, or the court room. Minute bits of knowledge may be helpful but are likely not useful in the way that these rigorous frameworks are.

So what are we teaching for? If we continue to mire ourselves in AP prep, SAT prep, college prep, and so on, are we really preparing our students for life prep? After all, prepping for life does not have to be any less intellectual or rigorous than prepping for more traditional pathways after high school. Let us choose understanding.

Teaching for understanding won’t feel comfortable for people at first if they have been used to teaching for knowledge. After all, it’s much easier to test what a person has remembered than what one has really understood. To do the latter, one has to create assessments, in some sense, that look quite different from what one may have studied. An analysis of patterns in maths might be “tested” by how well students can descry the patterns and signals leading up to the English Revolution. In this way, true interdisciplinary work isn’t the pairing of two teachers from different departments working together on the same historical period (say, Romanticism in literature and history) only; it’s the ability to understanding another discipline through the lens of a different discipline (here, again, I am indebted to Gardner’s insights).

I don’t think I’m done here with writing and thinking about understanding. Indeed, you have just read — if, in fact, you have read — me in the midst of synthesizing my thoughts, trying to make sense of things, and extending my own thinking as far as I can. But I am yawning now, and so I take my leave.

But I’ll sleep a little better because I think I have a stronger answer for the question, “what’s the use?”






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Education is a Social Responsibility

If ever teachers needed justification for why their work matters — why teaching and the whole project of education isn’t just necessary but urgent — one need look no further than the current political pageant on display in the United States. When discourse has all but disappeared, when genuine argument and diversity of perspectives have come to seem ancillary to democracy, we find cause to get to our first principles of why school matters.

Why does school matter? This past weekend, I had the real pleasure of hearing David Perkins and Howard Gardner speak at the Washington International School. Jim Reese, WIS’s enlightened Director of the Professional Development Collaborative, has spent the last several years bringing the ideas of Harvard-Project Zero to the Washington, DC area. And lucky for us! Project Zero, a research group founded nearly fifty years ago in response to the paucity of knowledge on arts assessment, has now flourished into a global think tank of the very nature and purpose of teaching and learning.

Last Saturday, Howard Gardner reminded us all in his talk that one purpose of education — and surely there are many competing purposes at play as I will address here — was a social one. I am paraphrasing him, but the gist of his argument suggested that, in a democracy, the education of the polity is a civic responsibility, for how else would a democracy be sustained and protected if not for a population able to think, reason, and decide?

Think, reason, decide: did I mention that, as teachers, we have an urgency to our work?

Is the current political climate not a symptom of the failure of education to be guided by its proper object: the common good in a democratic society? Surely, students are still being taught things, but are we not missing a critical element in the mission: education for the sustenance of our democracy? Why has this disappeared? And can merely learning things achieve this broader social goal?

Not surprisingly, John Dewey has much to say on this point. And in a prescient article, written in 1899 (!), he offers views that haven’t lost a single grain of relevance. “We are,” he writes, “apt to look at the school from an individualistic standpoint, as something between teacher and pupil . . . Yet the range of the outlook needs to be changed” (“The School and Society,” John Dewey on Education, University of Chicago Press, ed. Reginald D. Archambault, 1964, 293). He goes on to say,

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy. (293)

What does this mean, and how is this relevant to our day? Dewey implies that a ruggedly individualistic notion of education becomes antithetical to the shared responsibility of creating a community, whether at the local or national level. Indeed, we have seen that the trend over the last 120 years has been to view education in just these terms. “What is my return on investment?” a parent asks, after having spent lots of money on an independent school or through taxes for public education. And it is the definition of this “return” — i.e., what this “return” looks like — that reveals the motives of our culture. Sadly, this “return” is too often only measured by college admission and/or salary — and, too often, these are purely individual motives. College and career are not unimportant concerns; education of course has these objectives in mind, and we are indeed individuals with a right to our pursuits. But what about that more precious “return” — the intellectual preparation that allows for the evolution and protection of democracy where our individual rights and pursuits are protected? Surely, as a country, we celebrate democracy as the highest ideal toward which all civilization thrives. But how do we prepare our own house for this responsibility? Or do we at all?

And here we can draw lines of connection between the very pedagogy we choose as teachers (and schools and districts) and the civilization we hope to create. To be sure, educational research, theory, and practice has, of late, challenged the 19th-century model of education — i.e., the teacher merely transmitting information from the front of the room. We know that the transmission of knowledge is far, far less effective than students actually doing something creative with this knowledge, as Benjamin Bloom, over a half century ago, laid out and as researchers on neuroeducation have made plain. And so, now, more and more schools are coming on board to pedagogies and practices that coax higher-order thinking from students, that connect their learning to real questions and problems, and that employ authentic assessments to motivate them. But, for all this (and I am certainly in deep support of this pedagogy), we often omit talking about the social relevance of such teaching and learning — that is, how this kind of learning actually serves the ideals of a democratic society. To extend this, let’s hear John Dewey again:

The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. . . . Indeed, almost the only measure for success is a competitive one, in the bad sense of that term — a comparison of results in the recitation or in the examination to see which child has succeeded in getting ahead of others in storing up, in accumulating, the maximum of information. So thoroughly is this the prevalent atmosphere that for one child to help another in his task has become a school crime. Where the school work consists in simply learning lessons, mutual assistance instead of being the most natural form of coöperation and association, becomes a clandestine effort to relieve one’s neighbor of his proper duties. Where active work is going on, all this is changed. Helping others, instead of being a form of charity which impoverishes the recipient, is simply an aid in setting free the powers and furthering the impulse of the one helped. A spirit of free communication, of interchange of ideas, suggestions, results, both successes and failures of previous experiences, becomes the dominating note of the recitation. (301)

The “stand-and-deliver” model of knowledge dissemination (I won’t call that model “lecturing” as such since true lectures can be very effective) isn’t merely ineffective from a neuroeducational perspective; for Dewey, it’s anti-democratic. Certainly teachers who ascribe to the transmission model are not consciously anti-democratic, but they may not be cognizant of the missed opportunity to teach to a higher purpose: what Dewey calls “the broader, or social, view” (296). In other words, social and collaborative practices where students are at the center of constructing understanding can help prepare habits of mind and intellectual dispositions necessary for a healthy democracy — personal qualities that can allow children and adults to “think, reason, and decide.” It is ironic, then, that in schools across the country, we celebrate the teaching of character, the support of service, the infusion of “soft skills” learning into our curricula but often ignore the pedagogy to really inculcate — or “enculture,” as Ron Ritchhart would term it — these qualities. This remains an ongoing challenge.

It is no wonder, then, that I am inspired by the burgeoning work of the researchers at Project Zero where the very heart of their project is to promote cultures of thinking (cf. Ron Ritchhart’s Project). In my own use of the Teaching for Understanding framework (still an ongoing exploration for me) or of the Thinking Routines that emerged from the work of Making Thinking Visible, I have seen develop what Jim Reese has called the most “democratic” classroom cultures I’ve ever encountered. On more than one occasion, a student of mine has shared that thinking routines have obviated the anxiety to be “the first hand up,” as is often the case in AP classes where participation isn’t so much encouraged as it is mandated. The competition inherent in such a competitive situation — real or imagined — makes for bad learning, makes for a weak democracy. I’m not sure this is an overstatement.


A “Chalk Talk” About Shakespearean Comedy

As we hurtle into the future, I’m as driven to innovate our practice in education as much for what new ideas hold for individual learning as they do for the very foundation of our democracy: why can’t we see the individual in the community and the community in the individual? I think we can. The good news — the very good news — is that pedagogical practices emerging from groups like Project Zero give us the frameworks to achieve both of these ends. Have we ever needed them more?


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What Are Schools Thinking?

The implicit dichotomy between a humanizing education and a lucrative one is false. Employers consistently say they seek graduates who can think independently and analytically. Students learn to do so by means of technical skills, of course — which public universities teach — but also by learning the great and timeless ideas an education at a Public Ivy conveys.

— Charles R. Pruitt, “Politics is Cutting the Heart Out of Public Ivies,” Washington Post, Saturday, August 26, 2016

The above quote is worthy of PreK-12 institutions’ attention. As schools — at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels — face economic realities (tuition increases, stretched financial aid resources, student outcome pressure), we can easily fall prey to reactive thinking and planning — if, that is, we’re not looking ahead a decade or more. If, for instance, the dominant story asks, “Why isn’t my kid at such-and-such a college?” or “Why doesn’t my recent university graduate have a good job?” then schools have better work to 1) declare what they believe our purpose as schools should be, and 2) how they tell that story so that it’s stronger than the often surface discourse that passes for actual thinking. Schools, in other words, have to keep their purpose front-and-center, and that means naming this purpose and telling this story.

Let me unpack this. I accept the premise that a liberal arts education is, first and foremost, the preparation of people for civic service — i.e., the education of a citizenry that can think through complexity in order to protect a democracy that serves the common good. It is my belief that this stance simultaneously prepares people to enter any number of careers. In other words, I hope that graduates of high school and beyond are employable. And so, education shouldn’t be either preparation for employment or for humanization — it should be both. This is hardly an original idea, but it’s an idea that, sadly, doesn’t have the stickiness it should.

Simon Sinek has given a famous talk where he reminds us that any person, business, school — whatever — must think about its “Why?” Here it is:

This is an important idea because, without a strong “Why?” we remain in a reactive stance to planning and operating. Schools should be proactive with its story, with its “Why?”

At the outset, I said that schools need to declare their purpose and tell their story. But what is this story? I believe that we do our students the very best service if we teach them to think deeply and to help them develop dispositions such that they crave complexity, big problems, and creative environments. To have these ambitious dreams for them is, I think, our responsibility. I also believe in delivering dispositional learning through a carefully-curated liberal arts curriculum where engaging, important content serves as the vehicle for their creative and rigorous learning.

In the past year, I have been immersed in the research of thinkers like Ron Ritchhart, David Perkins, Tina Blythe, and the other members of Project Zero at HGSE (hence my reference to dispositions above, which is a cornerstone idea of this research group). The framework and practices that have emerged from the ideas of Teaching for Understanding, Visible Thinking, and Cultures of Thinking partner with a school’s and a teacher’s expertise to sharpen the impact on the user of this education — our students.

I believe that if we want students to emerge from our schools with the habits of mind, the resilience, and the facility to transfer understanding, we need to double down on the value of thinking. This is a story for the ages — and one I’m proud to re-tell.

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The Object Beyond The Subject

I am at the end of a scintillating day of professional development at McDonogh School. 30 teachers — PreK-12 — have spent the day coming to understand understanding. Vaija Wagle, newly retired from Washington International School (and I mean, like, last Friday), is our teacher. Trained in the work of the Project Zero classroom, she led us to think deeply about our roles as teachers and what it means for students (and us) to truly pursue the work of understanding — the very heart of this endeavor we call education. I have been working with the Visible Thinking protocols for a while now, and I am eager to work more fully with the Teaching for Understanding framework. In brief — today has been simply brilliant!


Vaija Wagle


I had a new insight today — a connection, really, with an experience on the Shakespeare front where I spend most of my days. We were studying Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Jabberwocky,” and after a very deep dive into the poem via the See-Think-Wonder protocol, we were to share our interpretations of this poem through a single medium. For my group, it was sound and sound alone — no words, even! Other groups were to do this work visually, physically, etc. I was delighted at how invested every teacher was. There was none of the “this isn’t real work” rhetoric; rather, people saw the strength of this meta-cognitive exercise to extend learning beyond the immediate subject to other parts of our lives.

Our group got to work on what we thought the poem was about. To cut to the interpretive chase, we more or less interpreted the poem to be about a son who confronts a beast (the Jabberwocky) and that this was symbolic of how we must all confront our “Jabberwocky,” whatever that may be in our lives. We decided that each of us would be responsible for one stanza of the poem and to find a sound that would capture the “event,” so-to-speak, of that stanza. It was a great deal of fun, to be sure, but this effort was really so much more, for our work necessarily looped us through the very matter of the poem in a specific, recursive way. In the ELA classroom, we call this a close reading. And so, by focusing on an objective (or object) beyond the subject under study (the topic we, as teachers, need to “cover”), we, quite readily, did the work of the discipline. It was merely re-framed to engage us with a generative question to which we could relate.

I often talk about the notion of the object-beyond-the-subject with regard to the performance-base teaching of Shakespeare, which I do at McDonogh and which I teach for the Folger Shakespeare Library. When I am teaching teachers about the performance-based study of Shakespeare, I will say that a concrete set of practical problems connected with the staging of a scene will, of necessity, draw us through the same content we would ordinarily just lecture about. Let’s say you had a scene with four characters, you’d begin by asking some basic fact-finding questions: who enters where? what time of day is it? is so-and-so carrying a knife? By getting students to see a problem or challenge beyond the membrane of the subject itself (here, Shakespeare’s text), students’ eyes are re-directed to worry about something else. This has the happy effect of siphoning the anxiety away from the struggle about “what it all means” — at least as the first concern. When concrete, practical problems are the primary focus, a strange thing happens: meaning(s) start(s) to look after it/themselves. The possibilities of the text appear, and students find themselves in the throes of constructing interpretations — and not just looking for the one answer (we talked a lot about this today). To students’ surprise and delight, they are understanding Shakespeare!

I found this object-beyond-the-subject phenomenon present when using the thinking routines today in our workshop. Yes, we were using our phones to find sound effects to re-tell the “The Jabberwocky,” and yes we were laughing and having fun. But we were also engaged in sustained thinking about a difficult and challenging poem. And when we were done with out exercise — though hardly done with understanding fully Carroll’s text — we had not only come away with a clearer understanding of the poem; we had also rehearsed ways of thinking that could now live in us going forward.

I’d like to write about this more — and maybe with an image of what this object-behind-the-subject might look like. I think this very important, and so I’m glad I got to share my thinking with you.

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The Best Then, The Best Now

Yesterday, I posted a podcast I’d just discovered from my Making Thinking Visible feed on Facebook. In this podcast, Simon Brooks talks about working with Creating Cultures of Thinking, the most recent book from Ron Ritchhart, researcher at Harvard Project Zero. Just before the 8-minute mark, the host and Brooks discuss something I’ve encountered when facing change in schools: teachers feeling that somehow, in the face of new ideas, what they’ve been doing in their career until now is somehow being called “wrong.”

This is a reasonable feeling, and it’s easy to understand how that would make even the most curious teacher skeptical or resistant. But this is a notion worth exploring further. Has everything been “wrong” until now? Of course not. Teaching is such a dynamic practice that very few people, I think, have it entirely “wrong.” “Right” and “wrong” is a fall choice, for teaching is hardly a static practice; caring, sensitive, challenging teachers discover so many ways of having a positive impact on students.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more effective practices, and teachers would be cheating themselves and their students if they thought they had nothing new to learn. I often use this comparison. If you were a surgeon in 1985 — say, the best there was — you would nevertheless continue to grow and learn in your practice; that’s just a given. Your patients would expect this of you (or they’d go elsewhere!) and you would expect this of yourself — particularly if you wanted to lead in your field. Or take cancer treatment:  no doubt, treatment now retains some of the practices that were current in 1975, but there are certainly far more precise treatments and procedures used to battle that awful disease. Medicine constantly evolves and we can measure those results.

Why is the teaching profession any different? It isn’t. Surely, veteran teachers have their own experience and habits that have made them successful, and the best of those practices should be retained and celebrated. But when one is open to new research, new frameworks, and more precise tools, a teacher will continue to be the best version of him or herself.

Trying something new doesn’t obviate past practice; it enlivens it.

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