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Building on the Best of What Works

The 2016-17 school year is a year of inquiry into 21st century learning for our faculty. This year, we will study and practice 21st century skills and teaching methodology. Next year, we will study 21st century schedule and program—the full-day experience for a student.

We are at a time when the world outside of schoolsthe world of work, of travel, of entertainment, of research, of warfare, of government, even of religionhave all profoundly changed. The twin forces of technology and globalization have altered just about everything.

The faculty is thinking hard about Derryfield graduates for the 21st century:
How must they be able to think?
What must they be able to do?

The Information Age was a turning pointinformational access is now ubiquitous. So what is the current age? The Age of Iteration and Invention.Our graduates join a world where people are redesigning every activity with the gains and efficiencies afforded by technology and advanced understanding of biology, genetics, and global interconnectedness.

The key ability needed in this age is to be able to look at the status quo with an innovator’s mindset and an ethicist’s understanding of impact and unintended consequences. Success now involves the ability to integrate knowledge from several different sources to make something new or to solve a problem. A multidisciplinary mindset is needed.

This summer our faculty read the book 21st Century Skills, which synthesizes concepts that have long been running through our professional circles. Four skills are emphasized: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication. Our faculty believes that design thinking and project-based learning are key strategies to develop these skills.

One of the profound shifts in the education field has been the researcher’s ability to watch a brain learn. From my Master’s program way back in 1990 to the Harvard/MIT brain-based learning conferences that many of our colleagues have attended over the last decade, we’ve been hearing about these skills and methods and the research that supports them. Many teachers are already teaching these 21st century skills, but we have yet to embrace approaches as a unified team.

I’m not advocating radical changethat isn’t how we do change at Derryfield. We keep the best of what works and add the best of what’s new. I’m talking about being the best we can be at delivering our mission.

When we say “the best of what works,” what do we mean? We mean keeping and lifting up:
  • Derryfield’s outstanding instruction in writing.
  • Numeracy that enables our students to thrive in university math/science programs.
  • Strong relationships with teachers that enhance learning.
  • Pathways for different kinds of learners.
  • Variety of learning experiences across the disciplines and classroom to classroom.
  • The way we help students fulfill their college aspirations.
When we say change, what don’t we mean?
  • We aren’t going to change all methodology in every course.  For example, we aren’t becoming an exclusively project-based learning school.
  • We don’t mean that the best learning is all multi-disciplinarily or solely in the disciplines.
  • We don’t mean that teachers will do everything as a team without independence.
Generally, we will avoid speaking in dichotomies about change - getting better isn’t all one thing or another.

When we say change, what do we mean? We will take the best wisdom on learning now and figure out how to apply it.
  • What does this research mean for students who are high flyers, age appropriate learners, and strugglers? How should courses be adapted?
  • How do we reconsider methodology, content, and assessments in light of this new understanding about learning?
  • How do we increase student engagement in our lessons? Engagement in learning isn’t just about getting students involved in their learningit is about getting their memories and brains working at top capacity. Engagement is critical to learning.
  • How do we think about the teaching of Computer Science, now that it is a multi-topic discipline, including coding, robotics, artificial intelligence, game theory, etc.?
Just imagine if our grads were prepared to major in their passion (e.g. Art History) and minor or take a number of courses in Computer Science so they can discover how to use and apply Art History in the world.Every graduate needs early and continual exposure to computer science so they understand the digital dimension in their university scholarship and their eventual professional fieldswhether his or her plan is to become a librarian or run a ballet company.

These skills must be combined with empathy, compassion, and a sense of beauty and our continued commitment to reading, writing, and thinking in the humanities.

This is tremendous, fascinating work for educators, and last September’s Professional Development day was full of energy and excitementespecially when faculty attended workshops led by eleven colleagues exhibiting lessons, projects and units that develop 21st century skills.

One lesson was from an online class taught by our Dean of Academic Program, Brent Powell, called The American Food System. The course was taught online using special equipment in our Gateway building and included students from independent schools in TX, DC, CA, and other states that are part of our Malone School consortium. During one class, Brent’s students, from their schools in different states, watched a livestream of a nationally broadcast panel discussion of experienced scholars.  


While watching it, students used their digital classroom communication system to communicate and share opinions and ideas with each other. The really amazing part came through social media.


Students started tweeting into the conference itself, sending questions to the panel, and even had a question discussed by the panel of scholars. The successful convergence of multiple technologies enabled high school students to join a discussion with national experts.

We will study other top notch independent schools like Hawken in Cincinnati and Castilleja in Palo Alto to see how they have integrated 21st century skills while still challenging and inspiring bright, motivated students and helping them fulfill their college aspirations.

We don’t know the answers—we don’t even have all the questions. The faculty are coaching students to be open to the unknown, to yearn to figure it out, to understand enough to move forward. Apollo 11’s technical crew didn’t know everything when they sent humans through space in a small container to a distant moon. Their computers didn’t have the capacity of your iPhone. Yet they didn’t obsess over what they didn’t know or a fear of failure. They pushed from question to question, through uncertainty, to solve each challenge on the way to a breakthrough. We want to teach students to think for themselves, to iterate and invent and tell stories and solve problems in new ways.

Mary Halpin Carter, Ph.D.
Head of School
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