Real-World Impact: Guest Post @TylerThigpen #MVPSchool #MVIFI #MVImpact

Today, the Upper School parents at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (where I work, learn, serve, and play) received a letter from Head of Upper School Tyler Thigpen, and I am quoting a significant section of the letter below, with his permission, as something like a guest blog post.

To give just a bit of context, the Upper School students at Mount Vernon experience (and share voice in the iterative implementation of) a very purposefully researched, designed and orchestrated transdisciplinary program. Using MVPS’s developed model of design thinking – DEEP (Discover, Empathize, Experiment, and Produce) – faculty and students focused on discovery and empathy phases in September, October, and November. Then, in the first week of school in January, students engaged in a mixture of content/context workshopping, vigorous presentation production, and iterative pitching to convince expert panels to approve further work on the projects into the experiment and produce phases. Pitches were evaluated on ten comprehensive criteria, and projects were also rated by degree of difficulty.

Okay, now onto the guest-blogging-by-way-of-parent-letter…

Dear Upper School Family,

Happy New Year!

I have been itching to share with you the deep learning, college preparation, and marketplace training that have already occurred this year.

Last week, thanks to an innovative plan crafted collaboratively by both students and teachers, Upper School students positioned themselves to leverage content and skills from their classes to design and pitch capstone projects aimed at real-world impact.

They developed creative solutions, honed their presentation abilities, and used constructive criticism to correct previous knowledge and improve ideas. Examples of diving deep in search of learning outcomes in some of their classes included: students writing algorithms, researching flora and fauna, learning profit maximization, understanding search engine optimization, and performing comparative analyses.

Students received pointers from visiting professionals such as the SVP of Business Operations at Turner Broadcasting, SVP of Communications & Investor Relations at First Data, VP of Marketing at Popeye’s, VP of Financial Planning & Analysis at Manheim, Chief Development Officer at Metro Atlanta YMCA, Councilman at City of Sandy Springs, and numerous others.

The learning that is taking place is truly remarkable.

Colleges appreciate when students come equipped to learn how disciplines overlap and how humanistic and scientific approaches can be applied to real-world issues and challenges. Both emphases were front and center last week. About this approach, a Wake Forest University faculty leader writes:

“Mount Vernon’s innovative move, allowing students and curriculum to cohabit in a learning environment, should serve as a model for all schools. The difference between knowing about and knowing is profound. When students engage the realities of their study–the good, bad, and the ugly– the result is ownership; students become actors who come to believe they can act. The point of education is to sanction agency for students to win their future. Hats off to Mount Vernon.”

– Dr. Allan Louden, Communication Studies Department Chair, Wake Forest University, and Director of United States Grant for the Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellows Institute

From the private sector, another professional comments,

“Mount Vernon’s transdisciplinary approach focuses on building strong critical thinking and problem solving skills that will better prepare students to compete in a global marketplace.”

– Joanne Burke, Banker, Goldman Sachs; and Member of Board of Overseers, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Lastly, one of last week’s panelists remarks,

“Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of such an exciting experience! Not only was it meaningful to me because I witnessed tremendous growth in the students…but it was also incredible to see students tackling problems that exist in the world outside MVPS, offering significant and relevant solutions. I am impressed with the level of thoughtfulness and detail students put into their projects. Thank you again for allowing me to join!”

In my career I cannot remember seniors, during their final semester of high school, spontaneously celebrating success by running down a hallway and high-fiving classmates because of a school project. But that is what happened.

Levels of engagement, relevance, and challenge are high, and I look forward to sharing more updates as the process evolves.

Tyler S Thigpen

Head of Upper School

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

The Cardboard Challenge @K4MVPSchool #MVPSchool


Today, Lower School students at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School participated in the Cardboard Challenge, inspired by Caine’s Arcade.

People from 41 countries took part – more than 78,900 participants. Only two organizations in the state of Georgia (U.S.A.) flexed their scissors, spread their tape, and exercised their design muscles for the Cardboard Challenge. Thanks to collaboration among the faculty at Mount Vernon, and thanks to the creative confidence of our students, the Mustangs were in that number!

Mary Cantwell (@scitechyedu) set up a time-elapse camera to record the coordinated, staged efforts of five grade levels working in 45-minute shifts. So, we should be able to see the action from start to finish before too long.

Here’s the message Mary sent to invite the architects and engineers:


Challenge: Students will be challenged to imagine and create the metropolises of the world! (decided we needed more than just ATL)

Time: 45 min blocks of building/play time; Sign Up Here [link removed] if you want to participate

Do B4 Arriving: Partner/Trio groups – have them research famous/interesting buildings/structures from around the world, plan out what they want to build, sketch it (with boxes in mind), and arrive on the CityBox party with a Plan of Action

AND/OR The HR selects a city together – plans out what they will build to represent different aspects of the city.

AND/OR The HR decides to create and build a fictional city/town and plans out all they want and need in this city (could be connected to a novel study, a story being studied, a SS moment in history)

Show Up. Respect what has already been created. Stake out your space. Get your boxes, imagine, create, play.

Mary Cantwell

People, Needs, Empathy

Center for Design Thinking

What an amazing sight to see the buildings take shape and form! At carpool this afternoon, I asked my typical question to a bunch of the students: What was the most incredible thing you did and learned today?

Usually I get a myriad of responses. Today, though, they ALL talked about their buildings – the Coliseum, Hancock Building, Notre Dame, Hippodrome, and the Taj Mahal, just to name a few. Zach even explained to me how he built the Burj Khalifa – the tallest skyscraper in the world!

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My next chapter – joining @MVPSchool, a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact #MVPSchool

Beginning June 1, 2013, I will become a full-time member of the incredible team and family of people at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School! Today, on his Design Movement blog, Head of School Dr. Brett Jacobsen announced my appointment as Chief Learning and Innovation Officer.

To say that I am excited to join MVPS would be an enormous understatement. For a number of years, I have been following the transformative and innovative work of the MVPS faculty and leadership team. The number of educators there that I follow via Twitter and long-form blogs has continued to grow and grow as time has gone on. And the face-to-face time with MVPS folks always proves inspiring. In my research and practice, I yearn to find organizations that live on the frontier of engaging education and meaningful learning.

MVPS lives on that frontier.

On so many occasions, I have written about MVPS here on It’s About Learning, and I have tweeted and retweeted about their practices, because I think the school stands out as an exemplar in our current national landscape of educational transformation and innovation. During his cross-country #EdJourney tour of “schools of the future,” my friend Grant Lichtman published this post about Mount Vernon; clearly he sensed and observed the same energy that I have perceived emanating from the school.

At Unboundary, we talk of and partner with organizations that strive for significance – a strong indicator of alignment among identity, character, purpose, and impact. A truly significant organization has all kinds of people cheering for its success because it is making a positive difference in the world, and to a considerable degree.

For quite some time, I’ve been cheering for MVPS and the significant impact it makes in the lives of children, learners, educators, education, and the local-global spectrum of communities. I am deeply grateful that MVPS has invited me and welcomed me to their team and family. And I’m honored and invigorated to join in the work that MVPS forwards through inquiry, innovation, and impact.

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= = =

In my most recent chapter, being a part of Unboundary has been – and will continue to be – a life-changing experience. This studio of transformation designers and strategists engages the world with optimistic curiosity and profound wisdom about what it takes to purposefully design and successfully implement organizational change. Unboundary, its people, and its transformation-design work are in my blood, and I am thrilled to weave together this chapter with my next chapter at MVPS. How thrilling that design connects Unboundary and MVPS in such significant ways. I am eternally grateful to both places and teams of people. Thank you.

I’ll never be the same again. A reflection on transforming school from consumer to creator. #IDreamASchool

I’ll never be the same again. 

Today marks an anniversary, of sorts, for me. Two years ago, on January 31, I committed to watching a TED talk everyday. I made this 3-to-18-minute commitment part of my larger personal learning routine – my way of “going to school” everyday. I had been watching TED talks for a few years, but I decided to up my ante and watch one everyday.

That’s over 700 talks in as many days – windows to some incredible topics and teachers from whom I can learn… for free (excluding opportunity cost, of course). My perspectives and points of view have been stretched, developed, altered, and grown.

I realized yesterday morning, while watching “Janine di Giovanni: What I saw in the war,”

that my TED-talk education has forever changed the way I view education at large. I will never be the same again. I will forever see schooling as being about so much more than just content delivery and knowledge transfer from one generation to the next.

School must engage and prepare students for the realities of their times.

Aran Levasseur wrote, “The best schools throughout history prepared their students for the social and economic realities of their time.” While watching over 700 TED talks in two years, I have witnessed great inventors, social activists, business owners, cause elevators, and thoughtful citizens. I have seen solutions seekers, problem finders, and connection makers. I have learned about societal issues, advancements in brain science, technological innovations, and global challenges.

Part of me thinks that the reason we have such talks and TED moments is because we need more of these heroes and opportunities. We need more creative solutions seekers and problem finders. We need more social activists and cause elevators. The talks are like advertisements for what we need more of.

And I’m not convinced that the traditional school structure – largely formatted to deliver departmentalized content knowledge – is the best means by which to develop and nurture the scale and shear numbers of engaged citizens that we need for the times in which we live. When traditional school works on a consumer framework – kids being receivers of information like radios to a broadcast tower – then the students get far too little practice exercising their muscles for problem finding, solutions seeking, empathic empowerment, and product creation.

If you want to develop soccer players, you facilitate the playing of soccer. If you want to develop violinists, you facilitate the playing of the violin. If you want creative solution producers, you facilitate the creative production of solutions. To real problems.

We don’t need many more “project” outputs that get thrown in the trashcan as soon as the grade is in the gradebook. We do need iterative prototypes that get discarded because the makers are learning from their mistakes as they create real solutions to real issues. I’d rather see my trashcan filled with early prototypes than finished school projects.

What doesn’t get thrown away is work that makes a real difference.

These projects are improving our world, not littering our trashcans:

There are countless more examples. But it’s not enough. More of a student’s day should be engaged with relevant issues that motivate their innate problem-solver genes. Our students are one of our most underutilized resources. They want to do work that matters. We must work to develop our profession as educators so that more feel comfortable facilitating such learning and growth for our young people. They are all smart in countless ways, and the bandwidth of wisdom that the world demands is much wider than the current bandwidth of knowledge transfer that too many schools are patterned on. Our young people are artists and makers and empathizers and solvers.

So, are we going to continue “manufacturing” consumers, or will we rise to our challenge and help grow creators and producers?

Maybe if we did, Janine di Giovanni would have fewer wars to cover.

Do you think I’ve taken the hypothesis too far? Well, maybe we should just try.

School Innovation Teams – Start with Outrospection #WhatIfWeekly #StudentVoice

Education faces a design challenge. From what I know about design challenges, it seems that the best designs begin with intensive stages of immersion and discovery – putting the designers in the positions of chief empathizers.

One of the best examples I know of related to this commitment of being chief empathizers comes from Dan and Chip Heath’s book Switch. The story of Dr. Jerry Sternin harnessing the local wisdom of Vietnamese mothers who were rearing healthy children amidst a malnutrition epidemic stands out to me. Actually, the story inspires me. Dr. Sternin did not swoop in with pre-conceived notions and ready-made solutions. Instead he committed to a process of immersion and discovery to find sustainable, scalable solutions that came from within the community. He leveraged empathy to create a most-likely-to-succeed solution that honored the end users.

Countless other examples come to mind, but I’ll restrain myself and offer only a few here:

  • When I enrolled in a design-thinking course from IDEO and Design Thinking for Educators, we began with a mini design challenge, and step 1 was to interview someone about their morning commute. “Learn how they feel, what they wish for, what gets in their way. Your job is to ask great questions, listen, and learn. TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask ‘Why?'”
  • When I participated in Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Design Institute, before we began designing our ideal outdoor classroom, we interviewed students. We collected insights from them before we even thought about preparing solutions to our own notions of classroom design.
  • When Emily Pilloton asked her student designers to imagine a better chicken coop and design it, they started with observing how chickens behave. “In three days, students would get to know their feathered ‘clients’ by observing their behavior. How do they eat? ‘They like pecking out of the straw, not eating from the trough,’ noted Kerron. How do they sleep? ‘They huddle together up in the roosting box,’ said another student. After three days, our students knew far more about chicken behavior than they ever imagined or wanted.”
  • When Imagining Learning formed to help crowd source ideas for redesigning education, they began with Listening Sessions – for students.
  • When University of Missouri-Columbia freshman Ankur Singh thought to study standardized testing, he decided to take a semester off of school in order to ask those most affected – the students.

So, for all of the schools facing essential questions of innovation, I am wondering how you are factoring in “immersion and discovery.” How are you building empathy into the design challenges?

When I was a school principal, one of the most valuable things I ever did was to shadow a student every year. For a day, I would partner with a student – most often a sixth grader – and I would trail along beside them and pretend to be a student for a day. I was off limits as a principal because I wanted to be completely immersed in the experience. In the years that I was most committed, I would even do all of the homework assignments that night of the shadow. Often, on blogs like Connected Principals, I read of other administrators engaging in such empathy gathering. Now, I am wondering if schools should not build this process into their regular routines and habits.

Maybe schools need innovation teams. Among other jobs, these innovation teams could commit to shadowing students, interviewing students, observing school days and after-school activities, talking with parents about what family life is like at home after school, etc. I bet devoting just three days a year to such immersion and discovery would yield invaluable insights and empathies. [Why the arbitrary number of three days? Well, if it’s good enough for the chickens in Bertie County, NC, I figured it was a good starting place!]

Our school innovations might improve mightily if we designed with the students’ voices at the core – if we committed to “outrospection.”