Deerfield Academy’s Six Ideal Qualities and Curriculum Design

Last year, the Chairs and I turned our attention to the question of what an ideal Deerfield Academy graduate should look like. Our inquiry inspired us to: read articles and books, including Daniel Pink’s Drive, Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, and Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse; research Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, the Common Application, 21st-Century skills, Apple Inc, and the work of the DA Preparation Gap Task Force; and interview twelve Class of 2013 exemplars last May.

Ultimately, we synthesized and affirmed six qualities of an ideal graduate (in ascending order of importance):

  1. Disciplined work habits;
  2. Productive collaboration and classroom discussion;
  3. Grit/resilience;
  4. Initiative/independence;
  5. Creativity; and
  6. Curiosity.

While each quality merits its own article, grit and creativity bear brief discussion here. In a world that, experts predict, will require our children to prepare for multiple careers–a dozen by some estimates–resilience is indispensable. Shifts in career path generate difficult transitions characterized by setbacks, uncertainty, and anxiety. With some dozen of these transitions ahead, current students will need confidence, persistence, and flexibility, all qualities that comprise grit. As Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Deerfield graduates must persevere in the face of adversity, setbacks, and failure.

Further, Frederick Buechner asserts that a calling is “the place where (one’s) deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Whatever our children’s deep gladness, the world’s deep hunger is innovation, for which creativity is required. To create, one must risk failure: “Fail early; fail often” is the mantra of innovative organizations; scientists and artists either make friends with failure or find other professions. But this generation of young people tends toward risk-aversion: they avoid the discomfort of even uncertainty, so creativity is rare.

Nurturing grit, creativity, and the other ideal qualities will require our curriculum to evolve, and in keeping with backward design, the Chairs have begun at the end. We see promise in capstones (for a definition, see edglossary.org/capstone-project) as culminating projects that would require seniors to demonstrate the qualities and skills we value. Some thirty seniors are currently engaged in capstone projects: second-year Global H2O students, two sections of Biomedical Research students, and various history students are all writing and submitting/distributing substantial research papers. The question the Chairs must now consider is whether we might at some point wish to require capstones of all seniors.

Were capstones a culminating graduation requirement, we would continue designing backwards, building a curriculum that would develop intentionally and systematically the qualities of an ideal graduate, and ramp up skills required for capstones: researching, collaborating, writing, presenting, defending, and distributing. Some sequencing of habits, qualities, attitudes, and skills is already well under way in the work of the Grade 9/10 Committee, and the Chairs are readying their recommendations regarding capstones.

Are parents ready for us to nurture the ideal qualities? In a recent NPR article, Tom Hoerr, Head of the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, shared a mantra heard frequently around his school: “If our kids have graduated from here with nothing but success, then we have failed them, because they haven’t learned how to respond to frustration and failure.” He goes on to report that training grit requires a big adjustment for parents: “Parents love the notion of grit; they want their kids to have it. However, no parent wants their kid to cry.”

How do parents respond when their sons lament that their Physics I teachers won’t offer formulas, instead requiring them to derive formulas from the scientific method–through observation, hypothesis, experimentation, collection and evaluation of data? How do parents feel when their daughters, who always loved the certitude and precision of math, suddenly find themselves struggling with the ambiguities of problem-based geometry? And can parents embrace their children suffering a few low grades–perhaps even small failures–in order to develop the qualities essential for success in the 21st-Century world? These are not easy questions.

This is the first of several pieces I hope to contribute to the DPN in an effort to provoke discussion and ultimately achieve alignment between teachers, students, and parents. To best serve our students, we must evolve together as Deerfield’s curriculum evolves in this rapidly changing world. I look forward to your thoughts.  –Peter Warsaw

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