Academic Strategic Plan - LifeReady - McDonogh School

Academic Strategic Plan

Affirming LifeReady

McDonogh School’s Academic Strategic Plan, LifeReady, 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.

But why LifeReady? LifeReady is a proactive response to the many imperatives facing education and the world today. How 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 cut across 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. social and emotional learning. 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.

Providing students with life-altering experiences that promote personal and intellectual growth and inspire joy in learning is at the heart of our academic strategic plan.

Teaching & Learning

LifeReady promises to educate all students so that they master the three core competencies outlined in McDonogh’s Academic Strategic Plan. 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 essential skills humans must master to be successful over the next several decades. Since no school can prepare for every eventuality, McDonogh has drawn on research to identify the most valuable, foundational assets 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 cut across many disciplines that define academic programs, we affirm the value of a liberal arts education and seek to help students discover how the disciplines are interconnected and inform one another. 

LifeReady empowers students to be self-reliant, critical thinkers who can form, test, and revise their ideas—for themselves, and in the service of others. LifeReady commits to creating students of strong social and emotional intelligence and character disposed to work for a just world.

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. 

Finally, teaching students how to think—not what to think—is the best protector of justice in a healthy democracy. 

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, “The 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.

McDonogh remains diligent in preparing students to excel in traditional subjects from history and literature to biology and physics. LifeReady, however, grounds our academics in routinely asking students to apply canonical knowledge to real-world situations, not simply asking them to recall conceptual knowledge for a test. This approach better prepares students for the rigors of higher education and the increasing demands of a professional career. Whether our students pursue a life in data science or medicine or they become entrepreneurs, they will be armed with deep foundational knowledge. Perhaps even more importantly, they will possess the ability to think and overcome complex, difficult challenges. This is what sets the LifeReady graduate apart. 

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.


"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 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. 

Guided by the LifeReady promise that learning be deep, collaborative, authentic, and global, educating for a diverse world means more than simply exposing students to the achievements and stories of others. 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. McDonogh is committed to thoughtfully incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion practices in our teaching. 

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 differences, they are learning critical abilities to transcend their own single experience to be enriched by the experience of others. When LifeReady teachers help students to practice thinking critically and to identify their own biases, an unavoidable part of being human, we empower children to think for themselves—and to emphasize that critical thinking is a civic duty as much as it aids academic pursuits. 

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 a curriculum that invites multiple perspectives and allows for students to critically critique and challenge others’ as well as their own assumptions.
  • 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 LifeReady 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.


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, mathematics, or literature), social and emotional 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.

We believe that the will to do 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.

The Social & Emotional/Wellness program guides the core competencies for all students in age-appropriate ways. These include:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Physical Wellness
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Skills
  • Responsible Decision Making
  • Self-Efficacy
  • Social Engagement

Inspired by the research from The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), McDonogh continues to develop an intentional, spiralling program so that each and every child graduates with the support to live a life of purpose, sound judgement, and holistic health.


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 when they have mastered the ideas, skills, and practices in their area of expertise. But they will most likely succeed when they actively seek 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.