Academic Strategic Plan - LifeReady - McDonogh School

Academic Strategic Plan

Affirming LifeReady

In the spring of 2014, McDonogh School launched its academic strategic plan, LifeReady. The Plan defines what a McDonogh education stands for and promises for every student. LifeReady’s vision statement declares,

Children educated at McDonogh will emerge as people of character who are exceptional communicators and who honor diversity in all its forms. They will learn to pose their own questions and grapple with complex problems with creativity on their own and with others. We believe that preparing each child to be “life ready” is the ultimate object of each student’s experience at McDonogh.

The school has made significant progress towards these goals. But why LifeReady? LifeReady is a proactive response to the many imperatives facing education and the world today. How, we ask, do we prepare people for life in an uncertain, rapidly-changing world where traditional careers are being replaced by emerging technologies, global challenges, and shifting values? What will people most likely need to be able to do in 10, 20, or 50 years, and how can we best prepare their mindsets for life in the future? What kinds of competencies do students require as they enter a global community? How can students not only learn to work with diverse populations but be a positive force in their communities and around the world?

Children educated at McDonogh will emerge as people of character who are exceptional communicators and who honor diversity in all its forms.

What should a school’s responsibility be to creating a good life for all? When we construct a new building, we imagine its use long into the future and build flexible, adaptive spaces. We must do the same when building a vision for teaching and learning.

To answer these questions and to prepare students for a world we cannot yet see, LifeReady proposes three dynamic, inclusive competencies that cross-cut all areas of academic and extracurricular life at McDonogh. Graduates will be able to:

  • Communicate well in a variety of arenas
  • Form questions and solve problems in groups and on their own
  • Adapt, lead, and think for the good of communities global and local

We believe these competencies ensure a valuable, durable education for each and every child. The pursuit of these questions and these competencies has led McDonogh to identify three primary focus areas that constitute a truly “life ready” education: 1) teaching and learning; 2) diversity, equity, and inclusion; and 3) character. While these three areas overlap in necessary ways, they are distinct in important ways, too. Our PK-12 program is responsive to changing forces and is guided by broad values declared in these three areas.

This document reaffirms McDonogh School’s commitment to LifeReady.  At the same time, it declares and expands the promises of a McDonogh education.
 

Teaching & Learning

LifeReady promises to educate all students so that they master the Plan’s three core competencies. These competencies correspond to current understandings about learning and the brain, to indications from higher education as well as industry about the needs for—and deficits in—student preparedness, and to futurist research that predicts what the needs of humans will be over the next several decades. Since no school can prepare for every eventuality, McDonogh has drawn on research to identify the most valuable, foundational asset any person can develop to succeed now and in the future: thinking.

Since thinking is so closely associated with the work of school, it risks being taken for granted. And yet, it is widely agreed upon that education for most of the 20th century was built around models where students were passively transmitted fixed knowledge without much attention to the thinking they were asked to do—if, in fact, they were asked to do much thinking at all. As research suggests, education in the last century has been characterized more by memorization of facts and less by intentional cognitive activity.

Since the problems humans are best disposed to solve often cut across many disciplines that define academic programs, we affirm the value of a liberal arts education and creating rich interdisciplinary experiences for students.

At McDonogh, we do not take thinking for granted. Indeed, the ability to think through complexity and ambiguity remains humankind’s best bet for survival in an increasingly automated world. But while AI and other technologies exceed humans in processing speed, we still stand superior when dealing with unknown, ill-defined, and uncertain questions. And for all the ways that technology has improved quality of life, these same advances generate many ancillary challenges that the human mind is still best disposed to overcome. Equally important, thinking is—and always has been—the mechanism of action for remembering and learning. Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham reminds us that “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.” Thinking—and learning about thinking—prepares students with the mindset and disposition to learn deeply in one area as well as to transfer those abilities to other domains.

Since the problems humans are best disposed to solve often cut across many disciplines that define academic programs, we affirm the value of a liberal arts education and creating rich interdisciplinary experiences for students. While we live in an information-saturated world, where knowledge and facts can be called up on a screen in a nanosecond, we nevertheless believe that students will understand and use that knowledge best when they have opportunities to think deeply within and across traditional subject areas. As Tony Wagner, a highly-regarded author and Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, asserts, “[t]he rigor that matters most for the twenty-first century is demonstrated mastery of the core competencies for work, citizenship, and life-long learning. Studying academic content is the means of developing competencies, instead of being the goal, as it has been traditionally. In today’s world, it’s no longer how much you know that matters; it’s what you can do with what you know.” In other words, access to information is an extraordinary benefit to an education, but still only one facet in a larger process of deep learning, which requires students to think deeply about what a school deems truly significant.

Since the launch of LifeReady, McDonogh has allocated time and resources to growing faculty expertise so that their day-to-day practice is focused on creating a deliberate, thoroughgoing culture of thinking.
 

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

"For the group, as well as for the species, what gives an individual his genetic value is not the quality of his genes.  It is the fact that he does not have the same collection of genes as anyone else. It is the fact that he is unique. The success of the human species is due notably to its biological diversity.  Its potential lies in this diversity.” —Francois Jacob, Nobel Laureate

By design, LifeReady competencies transcend any particular discipline or learning domain, and therefore unite different kinds of learning to prepare students: academically, culturally, relationally, and emotionally. As our world has become increasingly global and less defined by national borders, it has also become more diverse. To this end, McDonogh continually aspires to reflect in its hiring and enrollment the diversity of the world in which we live; at the same time, McDonogh promises to educate its students to succeed and lead as globally- and culturally-competent individuals.

Guided by the LifeReady promise that learning be deep, collaborative, authentic, global, and project-based, educating for a diverse world means more than simply exposing students to the achievements and stories of others, important as these elements are; it also means that day-to-day classroom practices—i.e. pedagogy—should help students enact the kinds of thinking and collaboration they’ll need to work and thrive across lines of difference. When students form and solve problems in groups, when they learn to resolve conflicts as they arise between team members, when they practice how to identify and respond to cultural difference, they are learning critical abilities to transcend their own single experience to be enlarged by the experience of others. McDonogh is committed to intentional teaching for diversity, equity, and inclusion not only because it will prepare students for future success but because it is simply the right thing to do.

McDonogh promises to educate its students to succeed and lead as globally- and culturally-competent individuals.

To this end, LifeReady students will:

  • Be given the skills necessary to work collaboratively and effectively within an increasingly diverse global society.
  • Be instructed by teachers who are successful at “talent spotting”—recognizing and encouraging unique traits of all students, and leveraging individual differences for the benefit of the collective whole.
  • Be immersed in curriculum that provides multiple perspectives and allows for students to critically critique and challenge.
  • Learn in an environment that is continuously self-reflective and intentional when addressing systemic and implicit bias.
  • Learn in an environment that is committed to ensuring all students are welcomed, included, and celebrated.

These objectives are fully supported by the vision for teaching and learning at McDonogh. A culture of thinking harnesses the same cognitive practices at the heart of transformative diversity, equity, and inclusion learning.
 

Character

In 1838, John McDonogh wrote in his will that “the First, principal, and chief object, I have at heart, (the object which has actuated, and filled my soul from early boyhood, with a desire to acquire fortune;) is the education of the Poor, (without the cost of a cent to them;).” To be sure, our founder’s wish to educate the poor is evidence of his key rule for living—namely, that we “[s]tudy in [our] course of life to do the greatest possible amount of good.”

When our students walk across Childs’ Memorial Terrace at graduation, they will have had a purposeful, intentional character education. At McDonogh, we acknowledge and seek to enact key concepts that lay at the heart of our Character Compass:  honesty, kindness, respect, responsibility, and—centrally—service.

Just as learning in other domains must involve direct practice with ideas (not just learning about diverse people, or mathematics, or literature), character education must involve students’ minds and hearts in their day-to-day behavior. We call this “character work”—the work that develops habits of mind and dispositions intended to carry into all actions and relationships.

At McDonogh, we acknowledge and seek to enact key concepts that lay at the heart of our Character Compass:  honesty, kindness, respect, responsibility, and—centrally—service.

An example of this work is Learning for Living, an intentional curriculum in McDonogh’s Lower School. Learning for Living (or “character work”) is intended to be a thoroughgoing frame of mind that can be introduced, practiced, and witnessed throughout a child’s years at McDonogh. Grounded in the five terms of the Character Compass, students are guided to:

  • Advocate for Self and Others
  • Resolve Conflict
  • Develop Empathy
  • Embrace Diversity
  • Practice Mindfulness
  • Understand Global Citizenship
  • Express Gratitude

We believe that the “greatest good” can be developed in children. We also believe that the greatest good can be realized in a world that increasingly demands the very best we can offer to each other.

To be stewards of the greater good is, quite simply, to be a student from McDonogh School.
 

LifeReady: What We Stand For

The world does not present its challenges and opportunities in discrete units. For example, the planning of a community event, a new building, or a solution to social problems requires teams of people bringing their individual expertise and insights together in ways that produce a solution greater than the sum of its parts. To be sure, people will succeed, in part, when they have mastered the ideas, skills, and practices in their area of expertise. But they will most likely succeed when they have a rich awareness of and respect for others’ perspectives, expertise, and needs.

McDonogh School promises to maintain the very best of what has made the school so successful for nearly 150 years: powerful relationships, expert teachers, and appropriate resources. But McDonogh also promises to develop modes of learning that respond to current and future imperatives. These imperatives demand students who think deeply and well, leverage the richness of working in diverse communities, keep the greater good primary in their thoughts and actions, and understand that to serve is at the heart of one’s purpose in life.

This is what we stand for.