21st Century Design Initiative


September 1, 2010 by jbrettjacobsen

-excerpt from Head of School Address, August 31, 2010

With one mission one vision one purpose one school, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School enters its 39th year as a first-class Christian college preparatory community.  Mount Vernon Presbyterian School is an innovative community dedicated to academic excellence, physical development, and spiritual enrichment.

This past year for me during my first school year as Head of School was about listening and learning.  Participating in 27 small group parent coffees, 17 Middle School and Upper School student lunches, countless breakfasts and lunches, carpool conversations, and meetings throughout the school year created an opportunity of becoming more acquainted with our parent community and student body as well as receiving important feedback for the future of our school.

But, last year was also about aggressively and innovatively advancing Mount Vernon and focusing our future.

In one year as a school community, we as Teachers, parents, students, administrators, and Trustees have played an integral role in the research, development, and collaboration of taking this school to another level.

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School seeks to be the best 21st century Christian college preparatory community in the world.

At this year’s Preplanning Conference called “The Year of Design,” we encouraged our faculty to reflect on their design instruction, their curriculum design, and their classroom design.  As you know, design can be defined as the planning that lays the basis for the making of every object or system.  In Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, design is “a combination of utility and significance.”

Researchers, business leaders, presidents of associations, and educational leaders are challenging us to design our classroom around 21st century skills.  One leading independent school educator echoes many across our country that the Industrial Age school cannot prepare digital age citizens.  He says, “our schools were largely born and structured to support the needs of the Industrial Age.  They were even designed to model the best practices of the efficient factories.  Teachers directed the time, place, pace and type of information children were expected to memorize and add to their knowledge base.  Schools ran on efficient schedules with bells marking when it was time to change stations just as bells signaled shift changes and breaks in factories (L. Burns).”

Or I could point to the work of Tony Wagner in his work, The Global Achievement Gap, where he points to 7 Survival Skills:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem-solving
  2. Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

Or I could point to the work of the Hart Research interviewing hundreds of executives about evaluating the skills of potential new hires.  Business executives place the greatest emphasis on (1) teamwork skills, (2) critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, and (3) communication skills.”

Or I could point to the work of Howard Gardner, in his book, Five Minds for the Future, asserts that “we live in a time of vast changes that including accelerating, mounting quantities of information, the growing hegemony of science and technology.  Those changes call for new ways of learning and thinking in schools, business and the professions.” 

  1. The disciplined mind (mastery of major schools of thought)
  2. The synthesizing mind (ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines)
  3. The creating mind (capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions)
  4. The respectful mind (awareness of and appreciation for differences among us)
  5. The ethical mind (fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and a citizen)

Or I could point to the work of The Horizon Report or a recent Newsweek Article entitled “Creativity Crisis.” The potential consequences are sweeping. The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions.”

These design warnings bring up some very important design questions. Wagner asks, “In light of the fundamental changes that have taken place in our society in the last twenty five years, what does it mean to be an educated adult in the twenty-first century?  What do we think all high school graduates need to know and be able to do to be well prepared for college, careers and citizenship?  And, since we can’t teach everything, what is most important?  What do we need to do in our schools to motivate students to be curious and imaginative, and to enjoy learning for its own sake?”

As a school, going forward how do we address the design warnings and respond to the design questions?

Fulfilling the components of the current Strategic Plan and moving into the stages of developing a new one, this year, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School is launching a 21st Century Design Initiative which will require a great deal of collaboration, research, and development in this initiative.

In addition to the richness of the disciplines, if we focus on 21st century skills – character, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, real world problem solving, public speaking, teaming, and leadership – then we must address the following:

1.  All skills must permeate in an integrated, interdisciplinary framework amongst math, science, English, social studies, languages, the arts and athletics,

2. Vertical Assessment. We are vertically reassessing our curriculum across all divisions through a 21st century skills lens – for consistency, preparation, transition, support system for students and faculty.  This past year, the School addressed writing and semester moving forward we will address, math, science, social sciences, languages, the arts, etc.

3.  What are the Demonstrations of Learning? Should we expand our assessments beyond math, science, English, to include assessing entrepreneurialism, teaming, leadership, etc?  In other words, what are the demonstrations of learning critical to being prepared for college, career and citizenship?  And as they move from one grade level to the next, capture these demonstrations on an electronic portfolio.  In addition to the traditional departments, should we establish the Critical Thinking Department, the Department of Creativity as they permeate each classroom at this School instead of working in silos.  Over time, we will move away from ITBS testing, to adaptive testing like the ERB, Children’s Progress and the College and Work Readiness Assessment Test.  Utilized by various independent schools throughout the country, the College and Work Readiness Assessment Test seeks to measure critical thinking through reading, writing and problem solving.  You administer it to freshman and then re-administer it during their senior year.  This does not ask us to give up our preparation for the PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP exams.  It only enhances and enriches the performance on these standardized tests.

4.  From a Technology perspective, our goal would be to place a Promethean ActivBoard in Preschool classrooms and Grades 3-6 as well as to develop a 1:1 laptop program for lower and middle school students.  As you can imagine, supporting faculty through training is a high priority.  Our faculty has gone through some initial training; however, indepth and ongoing training in technology is critical to support them during this process.  Beyond laptops, Promethean Boards, there are free web 2.0 platforms such as diigo, prezi, that engage students to utilize the knowledge gained through classroom activities.  Will we be a PC School or an Apple School?  We say both.  Our goal would to be convert the Lower School Computer Lab into a Mac Lab.    Over the summer, the Lower School created a Mac Music studio with the latest technology for students to record, edit, and produce their already amazing work.

5. Center for Design Thinking. As you know, the School has launched the Center for Design Thinking.  As a pilot program it will focus on four different lower school grades throughout the year.  The goal would be to expand throughout the entire lower school campus as well as the Glenn Campus.  Stay tuned as you will see students at Mount Vernon participate in Design Thinking.

6. Building Initiative. As you know, another academic building, Field House as we join GHSA, a Performing Arts Center, another gym, chapel, dining hall, etc. are yet to be built on this campus.  We are reassessing the design of these buildings in order to reflect a 21st century educational community.

7.  Parntership. Partnering with other independent school across the country, the business community, and higher education is critical in fulfilling the components of this important initiative.

With this 21st Century Design Initiative, think for a moment about the portrait of a graduate at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School:

“Students who have the habit and the desire to read with understanding, and think with accuracy, and observe with discernment, and research with thoroughness, and evaluate with fairness, and memorize with discipline, and write with clarity, and speak with cogency, and perform with excellence and hate what is evil and love what is good, and feel with fitting passions all the beauty and goodness and truth of our great God and his amazing world (Piper).”

That’s why I love this school.

I contend that we have the ability to grow, lead with innovation.

I think Seth Godin, in his book Purple Cow, gets it right when he comments on the rapid changes in the global marketplace, “It’s fairly obvious who the big losers are—giant brands with with significant corporate inertia and low thresholds for perceived risks.  These companies, organizations, independent schools have hierarchies and systems that will make it awfully difficult to be remarkable.  The obvious winners are the mid-sized and smaller companies looking to increase market share.  These are the companies that have nothing to lose, but more important, they realize they have a lot to gain by changing the rules of the game.”

With an unyielding focus on the future, Mount Vernon will set the standard for 21st century education.


2 thoughts on “21st Century Design Initiative

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Dr. Brett Jacobsen

Head of School
Mount Vernon Presbyterian School
Atlanta, GA

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