Learning Principles

I woke up about 5:00 a.m. with the following thoughts pounding their way out of my mind and onto a piece of paper…

They are a mixture of things I have heard and observed that I believe are relevant and central to MVPS…

Rather than Design Principles, I consider them Learning Principles…

– To prepare learners for the real world, learning must reflect/be rooted in the real world.

– Experience is life’s best teacher. As life’s best lessons often come from failure/failing up, we must increase the frequency of risk-taking, shipping ideas, and launching initiatives. Then iterate them.

– Mindsets trump content. It is more important/valuable/necessary to master the mindsets and other skills such as resilience, adaptability, and resourcefulness than to memorize the periodic table or the 44 presidents.

– To expedite a greater quality, precision, and volume of learning, it helps to seek out experienced experts.

– Learners are most motivated by pursuing THEIR passions, interests, and burning questions.

– Learning happens everywhere, anytime. It is a natural phenomenon that begins when we are infants. School actually can be considered a huge disruption of this natural process. Learning is not confined to a building, classroom, renovated space, season, or 190 day block of time between 8 and 3.

– Learning is magnified by measurement, reflection, and sharing/showcasing with others.

– Whoever is doing the hard work is usually the one learning the most. Teaching something is one of the best ways to learn it.

“The Succinct 9”

A Ridiculously Succinct ‘Cliff Notes’ Version of
iPlan 17 “Design and Demonstrate”

1. Clarify learning outcomes. Lead students to mastery.
2. Infuse MV Mindsets with learning outcomes.
3. Measure mastery of learning outcomes and mindsets with a balanced assessment system.

4. Design hands-on experiences around student interests and passions.
5. Include interactive technology.
6. Systematically seek and use feedback.

7. Use innovative instructional methods.
8. Engage in ongoing design and implementation of teaching and assessment.
9. Pursue a robust professional learning network and collaborations.


Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 4.10.05 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 4.10.25 PM

Why Do We Do All of This?

Dear Middle School Families,

As students arrive from the cold, morning carpool carrying backpacks and gift bags filled with thoughtful Christmas treats for teachers and friends, the simultaneous sense of hustle n’ bustle, busyness alongside a feeling of peace, caring, and unusual stillness strikes me. I smile as I try to warm up my hands. I forgot my gloves.

The question emerges in my mind, “Why do we do all of this?” At first, the thoughts could be applied to the season. It’s a common reflection at Christmas time. But as the smiling and freezing faces file past me, the thought shifts to school. “Why do we launch all of the initiatives we do? The list is impressive. Consider that none of the following existed at Mount Vernon five years ago: Heads of Grade, ERB testing, iPlan17, Parent University, E-portfolios, Research & Development Teams, UbD (Understanding by Design), student surveys, instructional rounds, MV Mindsets, external experts, design thinking, space renovation/innovation, chromebooks, visible thinking, performance tasks, twitter, and MVIFI. This is just a portion.

How does all of this connect to our purpose? How many of us can make the connection between the day to day activity and the overarching relevance and significance of school? Why do we do all of this?

Is it because US children lag in global education rankings while Asian countries rise to the top? Or because China is replacing the US in the news when it comes to space exploration? Perhaps we want our students to be able to design new technology to make the future brighter or be resourceful enough to inquire why a search engine company would purchase military robot makers? Maybe we just want our kids to go the best college? We are driven by inspiration, hope, and love, as well as fear and uncertainty. We believe America’s best days are still ahead and yet we wonder what kind of society creates kids who disregard others and consider unusually cruel acts like “knockout” to be merely a game. Why do we do all of this?

We launch all of these initiatives because it is what our mission requires of us. Our mission exists because we love our children and we want to provide the best opportunities and experiences for them to be successful in life, however success is defined. Our mission exists because as the world has become more complex and interconnected, we desire to position our kids in the best way possible. Our mission exists because we recognize gaps exist in our country’s educational system and we are passionate about leading the efforts to addressing those gaps rather than following and waiting. Most schools are waiting. Today’s kids cannot afford for us to wait. And yet educational change can be slow, difficult, and uncertain.

Our teachers have embraced this mission with great passion. They deserve praise for not only doing what every teacher does, but also for striving to innovate and create in an industry that has not changed much in 100 years. I am blessed to lead a team of leaders. At the end of the day, we are all here because we love kids. We want to be part of a community where young and old exchange ideas, where iron sharpens iron, and devoted people ask questions like, “If school is supposed to prepare kids for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?” I think about your kids and I think about my own. I can’t think of another school where I would want them be than Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.

We are blessed. Merry Christmas!


Chip Houston
Head of Middle School

PS – I am excited to be moderating a twitter chat on Thursday, December 19, at 9:00 p.m. titled, “Vitalizing Professional Growth with Instructional Rounds.” Please participate by following the hashtag #isedchat.

PPS – Parent Information Meetings for Class Trips (Grades 6-8) have been moved and will be held on Thursday, February 13 in FC Media Center from 7:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Payment for trips will be due the following week on Thursday, February 20. More details TBA.









What is Kaizen?

Kaizen (改善), Japanese for “improvement” or “change for the best”, refers to philosophy or practices that focus upon continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering, and business management. It has been applied in healthcare psychotherapylife-coaching, government, banking, and other industries. When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, kaizen refers to activities that continually improve all functions, and involves all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain. By improving standardized activities and processes, kaizen aims to eliminate waste (see lean manufacturing). Kaizen was first implemented in several Japanese businesses after the Second World War, influenced in part by American business and quality management teachers who visited the country. It has since spread throughout the world and is now being implemented in environments outside of business and productivity. (Wikipedia)

How Might Teachers Use Their Soft Power?

Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Nye coined the term in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He further developed the concept in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

Put another way, soft power is essentially a country’s ability to gain global respect and influence through non-military means such as art, entertainment, product exportation, tourism, education, relief aid, etc. The term is now widely used in international affairs by analysts and statesmen.

Taking a page from the Innovator’s DNA, let’s ‘associate’ the concept of soft power with the classroom.

soft power

If teachers are leaders (I believe they are). And leadership equals influence (according to John Maxwell). Then, how can teachers increase their influence with students?

The answer is greater knowledge and usage of their soft power.

What are the soft powers of a teacher?
Traditionally, when thinking about teacher powers one might rank the power to grade and the power to discipline at the top. I would count these as hard powers. Soft power may be found in the following areas:

– Environment: How might we communicate an expectation non-verbally through the way we organize our desks, decorate our walls, post demonstrations of learning on bulletin boards, or be visible and present in hallways?

– Unit Design: How much influence do we gain or lose with students based on how engaging vs. irrelevant our lesson plans, assessments, and activities are? Do our students get the message of our passion for preparing them for the future vs. just doing a day job each day?

– Behavior Modeling: Want to see kids pick up trash after lunch? Model your expectations. Tired of students talking over each other? Demonstrate by not talking over them. Seeking to develop creative thinkers? Become a creative thinker yourself.

– Personal Connection: Show interest. Love kids. Ask them questions. Sponsor their clubs and coach their sports. Cheer them on.

– Opportunity Creation: Actively seek out or create opportunities for your students. Be their advocate. Let them stand on your shoulders. Advance them and position them for greatness.

– Communication: Be clear and consistent. Demonstrate preparation and thoughtfulness. Respond in time.

Soft Power vs. Hard Power
Soft power takes more time, energy and finesse. It is a skill to be developed and practiced. It is not limited to the items outlined above. In contrast, hard power is often easier and more expedient, but not necessarily as effective. Anyone can assign detention or silent lunch. Thousands of teachers use grades as a means to manage or control classroom behavior. It is the rare and highly skilled teacher who uses soft power to lead his/her students and actually gains the full commitment of their pupils.

How might you make greater use of your soft powers? What soft powers can you add to the list?