8 Unifying Themes for Schools of the Future

Last week here I posted my 8 Guiding Questions for Becoming A School of the Future, which were published in a new booklet from the National Association of Independent Schools A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future.   The 60 page document, prepared by Robert Witt and Jean Orvis as lead authors and which I was pleased to be able to contribute to, is an attractive, appealing guide and deserves reading by every independent school board and faculty.

The Guide’s other highlight is its excellent Unifying Themes: “ the eight commonalities exist among the schools that are successfully delivering a 21st century education.”

  • The schools are academically demanding.
  • Project-based learning, as an integral part of the school’s program, is woven throughout all grade levels and disciplines.
  • Classrooms extend beyond the school walls, actively engaging students in the world around them.
  • Digital technologies and a global perspective infuse all aspects of the curriculum.
  • Vibrant arts programs help promote creativity, self-expression, self-discipline, and flexibility.
  • The adults are actively engaged with one another and with the students in a process of continuous learning.
  • A culture of engagement and support invites participation, innovation, and a“growth mindset” on the part of teachers and students.
  • Transformational leadership challenges the status quo, draws out the issues, navigates through conflict, and mobilizes people and resources to do the adaptive work necessary to create and sustain effective change.

I provided bolded underlines for the items that leap out at me, but it was hard to resist highlighting every word. Comments on each of the highlighted terms above follow:

Academically demanding comes first, as I think it always should (as in my recent post, 15 Ways for Schools to Be Relevant in 2015 and Beyond).   What I worry about as I read the guide’s first bullet is that this wording, “academically demanding,” is a bit generic, and leaves me hanging– well how do you know?  I would have written,  Schools are academically demanding as demonstrated in widely varying quantitative and qualitative ways.  This is the gold standard for academic excellence, that the proof is in the pudding, not the recipe;  at St. Gregory we are moving to an expanded report card, implementing digital portfolios, and publishing on-line much more student work at the same time as we are using two new testing tools in very high profile ways, the CWRA and MAP, to demonstrate our commitment to a truly highly academically demanding program.  Our 12th grade students last spring median performance was at the 97th percentile of all college freshman– that is proof positive of an academically demanding program.

It is exciting to see Project Based Learning in such a prominent position here– as it should be.  High Tech High, New Tech Network schools, Big Picture Schools, and many others which are paving the way as truly futurist schools are doing so with PBL, and I write and enthuse about it often.   However,  I might have amended these words just a tad– I might have added the words “often enhanced by digital tools” to the opening PBL phrase (See Suzie Boss’ excellent Reinventing PBL with Tech book), and I might have added something about the importance of PBL being held to the highest standards of rigor in its outcomes.

Digital Technologies infuse all aspects of the curriculum. Yes: a 1:1 laptop (or other other mobile digital device) program is an absolutely essential element of a School of the Future, I fervently believe: our students ought to have every opportunity to use the best available tools to research, to pursue their intellectual passions, to communicate, to create, and to collaborate: how can we deprive them of digital tools if we want them to do these things?

A Global Perspective.  Terrific to see this here; while it has a place at our school, St. Gregory, most particularly in student trips to France, Italy, and Kenya, it needs to be bolstered and I have been under-attending to it hence far in my 19 months of leadership.  It is funny to write that at this very moment, however, as I am writing it from San Carlos, Mexico, as I am on a five day trip meeting with schools in this region to develop intercultural exchanges.

Adults engage in continuous learning.   So great to see this, and I think it may be the single essential prerequisite of a School of the Future.  As I wrote in the previous post, For our educators to be teachers in the digital age they should be learners in the digital age. The central value of this element has been one of my major themes in my speaking this year, as at NEIT: Leading in Learning as Lead Learners.  At St. Gregory, we have put the emphasis on providing time; from one hour a month to two hours a week dedicated and reserved for faculty learning and collaboration– and let’s be clear, even these 2 hours a week isn’t enough yet.

Engagement is at the core of excellence in education: students who aren’t engaged aren’t learning.  One of the many ways to take this work seriously is to administer and use the results of the High School Survey of Student Engagement, as we do at St. Gregory.

Innovation: How great it is to see this word featured prominently in the new national publication from NAIS about becoming a School of the Future.  I would have asserted its importance even more strongly, of course, more strongly than innovation is “invited,” but at a school which proudly claims to Create Leaders and Innovators this is great to see.

“Growth Mindset.” No psychological concept or “theory of mind” is more influential to my thinking and more important to our work in our fast-changing times than this one,the Growth Mindset from Stanford Professor Carol Dweck.   If we don’t work to battle against the fixed mindset, the product of telling students how smart, successful, or accomplished they are (with the exclusive exception of saying so in a way very narrowly focused on effort), Dweck explains and our NAIS guide here endorses, we risk severely inducing in our students a mindset resistant to learning new things, experimenting, and persevering through challenges.

Teachers and students. One of my major themes in my speaking this year is the message that our transformational age requires us all to adopt the growth mindset, and requires us all to develop 21st century skills, and requires us all to be innovative– and requires us all to model this for our students.   What is great is that the faster the world changes, the more we become on the same side as our students, working with them as their coach and captain but learning beside them as fellow journeymen on the road to successfully mastering the challenges of our new age.   Teachers and students.

Transformational Leadership challenging the Status Quo.   As school-leaders, it is enormously incumbent upon us to honor tradition and ensure we carry forward essential symbols and signifiers, rites and rituals of our school tradition.   This is a message I know I need to remind myself, and welcome others to remind me of, often!  But, simply put, leadership for schools of the future requires more than tradition– it requires the willingness to challenge the status quo, ask the tough questions, and be willing to change what isn’t working for learning in our fast-changing world.

Curious to know from my colleagues at Connected Principals, both fellow bloggers and readers: What do you think of the Unifying Themes, and what are you doing at your school to facilitate its becoming a School of the Future?

[modified from a post originally published on www.21k12blog.net]


  1. Mike Phillips said:

    Great post. Your predictions are insightful and inspiring.
    How do you provide time for teachers to collaborate? You mentioned “one hour a month to two hours a week”. In our District, we are trying to provide ongoing time for teachers to collaborate without being dependent on Gov’t money for release time.
    Any ideas?

    February 13, 2011
    • Mike:

      thanks for visiting and your comments. Every school and district has unique parameters for structuring time, and I know I am fortunate to work at an independent school with wider latitude. What we did was to take the research (see Po Bronson’s work, among others) that show the value of later-start times for adolescents (they learn more if they start school later), and we have kids now start school at 9 two days a week, Mondays and Fridays, and we use these two hours for faculty collaborating, planning, and learning.


      February 13, 2011
  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for your great contribution to the NAIS publication and your expansive comments here. As we discussed at EduCon, it is vital that our schools not only discuss but roll up our sleeves and truly tackle the questions and embrace these themes.

    I very much like to see the word “rigor” used, both in the document and in your comment on PBL. Our current working definition of “21st century learning” is as follows:

    At The Lovett School, 21st Century learning is defined by a rigorous curriculum emphasizing the development of self-directed learners who are proficient researchers, collaborators, communicators, creators, and global citizens. The work of “school” is authentic, relevant, and subsequently engaging. Complex communication tools and networks enable learning to extend beyond the walls of the classroom and across time and place.

    I’m not satisfied with that definition, and would welcome this community’s thoughts on it.

    We are about to begin another strategic planning cycle, and our principals as well as our board will have “teaching and learning” at the heart of our plan. The NAIS document and your contributions here will help inform our work now as well as through that process. Thank you!

    February 13, 2011
    • Excellent posting Jonathan!

      I particularly like how you elaborate on each of the ‘bold’ items as it pertains to your school. I may borrow your idea as I believe it provides a powerful reflection on how our institutions are addressing these challenges.

      Laura, you pose an interesting question regarding the use of the word rigor. In our school we have substituted ‘rigorous’ by ‘vigorous’ as you can see in this statement:
      “Parish combines a strong, values-oriented Episcopal education and the vigorous academic excellence of a top tier independent school. ”
      I believe that ‘vigor’ adds a more dynamic dimension that encompasses passion and energy.

      What is your thought about this Jonathan?

      February 13, 2011
      • Laura and Dolores: How great to have you both visiting and contributing here at CP!

        I like both words, vigor and rigor, but like Dolores, I prefer vigor. Both words have to do with working hard, but vigor, to me, captures and conveys much more strongly the idea that kids are working hard by their own intrinsic motivation and passion, rather than to jump to our high bar.

        That said, I use rigor often also, as does Tony Wagner. I think Tony and I both worry that progressive education, project based learning, and other educational initiatives have been well-intentioned, always, and pedagogically sound, often, but not consistently serious about the excellence of their outcomes. This has been true sometimes in actual practice, and sometimes in their public demonstrations and displays of student product. So as those of us in 21st century learning work to reinvigorate PBl and what is often called progressive pedagogy, I think we need to work to avoid the mistakes of our fine predecessors and be more serious than every about “rigor” and about outcomes.

        Lucky for me, I write often enough (way too often!), that I get plenty of opportunities to use both words!


        February 13, 2011

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