“If you are not a school of the future, you won’t be a school in the future.”

In NAIS President Pat Bassett’s presentation Monday, he called upon educators to frame their inquiry about becoming Schools of the Future around four Essential Questions:

  1. What should we teach?
  2. How should we teach?
  3. How should we assess?
  4. How do we embed the vision?

He then elaborated upon each; perhaps it was due to time running out, but his discussion of the fourth was most abstract and least pertinent, I thought.   But I offer some summary and thoughts about the first three:

What should we teach?

Pat urged schools emphasize the The Five C’s: Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Character.  He argued that thought some schools may have done good work with articulating the language arts or science curriculum, K-12, via mapping, now it is incumbent upon us to map these skill and value curricular strands: “What is your PS through 12th grade leadership curriculum?”

But once schools have embraced the responsibility to ensure students can do, rather than just know, it is time to then grapple again with what is is students must know: “Is there a body of knowledge that is mandatory and universal for our students?”

This is the right place to start, and I appreciate Pat’s focus on this most essential of questions as the foundation for creating schools of the future. 

Pat’s question about what body of universal is a great one for us too.   Here at 21k12 I write most often about 21st century skills, and about our our students as do-ers and creative, skillful  problem-solvers.   I fear, in my observations, that there is far too little of these things in K-12 schooling today.   But this is an effort to seek balance: I certainly think our students should learn Shakespeare (our 7th graders this year are reading three Shakespeare plays!) and Ancient Mythology.    These things provide them an intellectual core which will enrich their imagination and deepen their sophistication for the rest of their lives.

At St. Gregory last year, as a faculty Academic Committee we reviewed how we should expand student reporting, and set in place a list of the essential goals for our students, a list that parallels the 5 C’s.    Now the hard work is doing more than reporting on-line; it is about embedding it into the learning in each part of the curriculum, and into the conversations we have with students and parents about student learning progress.

How should we teach?

Pat very helpfully, to my mind, laid out four models of teaching in a framed set of alternatives– his slide:

Schools should consider each, and plan for their futures how they will employ and distribute teaching techniques.   In one discussion, about distance learning, Pat offered some special enthusiasm for the growing movement flipping the classroom, wherein students watch/listen to lectures at home, and then solve problems, with teacher coaching, in class.   This approach, which I have written about here frequently, can be situated in both the differentiated and the distance/digital categories.

A few comments.  One, it is really interesting to see lecture and seminar approaches both in the traditional category.    On the one hand, doing so seems to miss the way in which the two are so different from each other; on the other hand, I think it is helpful for educators to recognize that seminar approaches, as valuable as they might be, are not different enough to be significant in mixing up the norm of traditional and conventional teaching.

Second, I think that distance learning is the wrong term for the third category: it misses all the ways in which digital and blended learning can and does and will happen inside of a bricks and mortar classroom.    Michael Horn just recently instructed me on this point: distance learning as a term distorts the practices of the digital learning revolution which is upon us.   This third category is the most powerful wave crashing upon us, and I think we have to be very attentive to it to discover how to ride, not drown, in this wave.

Third, it is funny to use the term innovative instruction for the ideas discussed in the fourth section.    Calling them innovative may make sense because they are the most likely to generate innovative thinking, they are the most likely to support our students in becoming innovative themselves.  But these approaches, which can be found in Aristotle and John Dewey, are hardly innovative in the sense of being new or original.

At St. Gregory, we are putting our priorities right now on a balance of perpetuating our wonderful history of traditional teaching with a new focus on innovative, project and problem based learning.   Our faculty has traveled to other schools to observe PBL, and has read and studied several books on PBL; we have also instituted a new PBL course in the upper school.   We are also using MAP computer adaptive assessment to elevate our performance in differentiating instruction, and we have a bunch of exciting new digital learning initiatives underway, including student wiki collaborations, open-computer testing, reverse instruction, and podcasting.

How should we assess?


  • Student assessment via teacher testing (informal testing) & standardized normative testing (SATs & APs & IBs & “A-Levels”)
  • §tudent assessment via PS-Gr 12 e-portfolios and demonstrations of learning(Sternberg @Tufts: the anti-SAT; colleges –Bowdoin– accepting videos as part of the college application).
  • Student assessment via formative testing (MAP, the new ERBs-CPAA; CW&RA).

Comments:  Of course I think assessment is essential, and I appreciate Pat’s attention to it.   I frame all this differently: I think first about how we need to review our internal assessments, and use demonstrations of learning, digital portfolios, and expanded report cards and commentary to better put our focus on our student outcomes.    In this category too we should be exploring how we can use performance task assessment in our classrooms, in the way that CLA in the Classroom is training educators to do.

Then I suggest we rethink the way we do standardized testing to make it more powerful and more formative, as in MAP.   Then I suggest we move toward authentic assessment of higher order thinking skills, in the way the IB and the CWRA do.

At St. Gregory, we have so expanded our report card to include the EGG, the essential goals for gregorians, and we have built into our advisory and report card comments attention to the Egg.   We also have instituted MAP and CWRA testing, and will begin Digital Portfolios with our 6th graders this winter.    High priorities for us include expanding digital portfolios, defining our demonstrations of learning, and developing a CWRA-like tool for our middle school students.

My thanks to Pat for his very useful and inspirational talk.