School leaders not only shape the educational landscape at area schools, they set the tone for school culture as well. In this interview series, we’re introducing you to educational leaders at our partner institutions. Meet Kevin Costa, director of innovation and learning at McDonogh School.
kevin costa, mcdonogh school
In your opinion, what is the most important thing that you do as the Director of Innovation and Learning at McDonogh?
I think of myself as the chief storyteller of LifeReady, McDonogh’s academic strategic plan. And I tell this story to help shape the direction of the teaching and learning journey at our school. I see my other job as a constant support for teachers who are evolving their practice. We are in such an exciting time. The pace of change is rapid, and the uncertainty of what our world will hold for our graduates is sobering. But it’s these conditions that get us to ask fundamental questions about what school is for in the first place. As teachers innovate in their practice, it is my job to help make it as easy as possible for them to invent and to create new kinds of learning — to celebrate their ideas and to create the conditions such that our teachers (and, by extension, students) can be their most authentic selves.
One of the things you emphasize is the importance of making thinking visible to students. What does that mean and how does that translate into the classrooms at McDonogh?
How do we know when — and if — anyone learns anything? Does this happen when a student aces a test? When they get a high score on a standardized test? And if they do achieve high marks, do we really know if they understand what they’ve learned? Making thinking visible — a major project from the researchers at Harvard Project Zero — provides a series of classroom practices to make students’ thinking visible. This happens when teachers, using “thinking routines” — short protocols with carefully-scripted thinking moves — ask students to record their evolving thinking about any subject — maths, literature, history, etc. Over time, these deceptively simple thinking routines build critical intellectual dispositions in students so that thinking — and not merely remembering — is the “new” normal way of things in their learning. When used well and regularly, visible thinking practices allow teachers to have the opportunity to see how students are (or are not) understanding lessons in real time. They can then adjust their plans so that students get the most out of their experiences. What’s more, these routines create learning environments that are inclusive and respectful of all students — from the most gregarious to the most introverted. We all learn differently, so it is imperative that we broaden our skill set to hear every child’s voice.
Let’s talk about LifeReady, McDonogh’s Academic Strategic Plan. How would you summarize the plan?
In a nutshell, LifeReady promises that a McDonogh education will help every student be ready for an unknown, unpredictable future — not just for college, but for life. LifeReady calls for learning that certainly teaches the core liberal arts — the foundation of well-rounded, well-informed people — but in ways that build the competencies and dispositions needed to succeed in the 21st century. Our students will graduate comfortable confronting complex problems, being able to communicate across a number of media, collaborating across lines of difference, and eager to find creative solutions to challenges known and unknown.
As we head into an age where artificial intelligence and other rapidly-growing technologies take over what people have done for most of modern history, people will have to train in areas that technology hasn’t reached — i.e., how to ask complex questions, how to manage teams of people, how to innovate, how to continuously learn. I recommend Warren Berger’s excellent book, A More Beautiful Question, for a glimpse at the kinds of ways we might think about the people we want to graduate.
In order to achieve the intended outcomes of LifeReady, McDonogh had to make an unprecedented investment in its teachers and faculty. How has professional development changed at McDonogh since LifeReady?
McDonogh has always had a generous professional development program that has supported teachers in their growth. With the unveiling of LifeReady, the school made an even greater commitment to faculty support by not only increasing its financial allocations but by also expanding on-campus learning opportunities. Each summer, for example, The Curiosity Shop — McDonogh’s Center for Teaching & Learning — sponsors the Summer Institute, professional learning workshops aligned to the goals of LifeReady learning. LifeReady has also helped teachers identify professional learning opportunities on and off campus. In a culture where innovation and invention is encouraged, teachers are encouraged to create programs that will enrich their teaching and their students’ experiences at McDonogh. We intend to grow our professional learning resources so that we can continue to provide the very best opportunities for every single faculty member on campus. (For more on programming, please visit www.curiosityshopmcdonogh.org).
You mentioned that you were an unremarkable student. How does this impact your own teaching and how you advise other teachers at McDonogh?
It’s true. In high school, I wasn’t the most motivated student. I was bright but undisciplined and certain subjects, like math, were tough for me. I think that, when the sparks really started to fly for me as learner in college, I became sort of obsessed with ways of turning kids on to learning. What I came to learn about myself as I got older is the need I have to be working on a real problem with a real audience or client. Real problems and complex questions motivate me. Knowledge without a purpose or out of context does not. LifeReady imagines learning with purpose, and I think this is, in part, due to my own understanding of what makes learning tick for me. This kind of learning is also supported by brain-based research.
I believe that education is fundamentally about transformation — that is to say, a person arrives unformed and in-process to a school where he or she undergoes a sea change into a new, more complete person. I think this happens best when students feel they have a purpose, when they are respected as whole people, and when they are able to pursue learning that is relevant. When these conditions are right, students can get interested in all kinds of things in deep and meaningful ways. And then, quite readily, they transform into better, more authentic versions of themselves. What a wonderful thing!
You have held many roles on the McDonogh campus — including Shakespeare teacher. When I asked students in your class how they felt LifeReady has changed their classroom experiences, several mentioned that they feel their opinions are more valued. What are your thoughts about that assertion?
My job is to curate a curriculum of value and to help students to think about what’s important. Thinking — this is the very mechanism that allows people to learn. At McDonogh, we want our students to think, so we create spaces where this is possible, spaces where thinking is valued and promoted on a regular basis. In our courses, we use “throughline” questions — those big, mysterious questions that do not have a simple yes or no answer. As educators, we want to know what (and how) students think, for it is thinking that leads to transformational learning as well as to those habits of mind that will make them prepared for this complex, wonderful world of ours. So, do my colleagues and I value students’ opinions? You bet we do! It’s how their learning becomes visible.
If you could assign any book to all McDonogh Students, what would it be? And why?
I love Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I think it is a perfect novel that captures the wonders and imperfections of human beings. I just love how funny and insightful it is about what makes people tick. But it is also a story of growth and self-awareness, and I value the way Austen represents this in her book. It’s also hilarious. I can’t stop at one, however. I would recommend Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which, to my thinking, may be the great American novel. Channeling Joyce, Faulkner, Homer and others, Ellison not only challenges his readers to think about race and racism in America, but he explores the ways in which we do or do not see others in our world. I’m hardly doing the novel justice in my description. It MUST be read!
Where do you see McDonogh in five years?
First of all, I am certain that McDonogh will be the same joyful, welcoming community it has always been. We are a school built on trust and strong relationships, and that will not change. I see McDonogh emerging as a leader in educational innovation in the United States, a school where invention and evolution are par for the course. I also see us looking for ways to live our founding mission even more fully. McDonogh was opened as a school for poor boys; they worked the farm in exchange for an education. While we have changed some of those details over the last 150 years, we are still a school of transformation where people come to grow into the best of who they can be. It is part of our DNA. It’s just that, today, this transformation means preparing each and every graduate for a life of purpose, service, and joy in an ever-changing world.
learn more about LifeReady
Photos by Laura Black