Decoding the Future
How timeless lessons prepare today’s students to thrive in tomorrow’s world
By Erin Dentmon, Advancement Writer
Education is a long game. A school that prepares students for the world they already live in isn’t giving those students everything they deserve. Westminster’s call, instead, is to prepare our young people to lead in a world that is yet to be realized. “In a fast-moving, digital, globalizing world where ideas are the currency, our students need to be not just college-ready; they need to be innovation-ready,” says Head of Upper School Cindy Trask.
To be ready for a future characterized by relentless innovation, our students must be able to embrace the complexities of technology, of humanity, and of the interplay between the two. As we work to decipher how the world will change in the coming years and decades and what that means for our students’ lives, the Westminster experience is imbued with lessons in leadership, engagement, and design, helping our young people develop skills that will empower them to thrive as humans in the era of machines.
DISCERNING HOW TO DESIGN FOR GOOD
In a 2016 study on the future of work from the World Economic Forum, executives predicted the highest growth in demand for three types of skills: cognitive abilities, systems skills, and complex problem-solving skills. And when it comes to leaders specifically, 81 percent of CEOs in a 2019 Deloitte survey said the next generation will need to be able to lead in increasingly complex and ambiguous situations. These are skills that can’t be learned from a book or proven on a test. A future- ready student is one who can think and act with agility.
TRENDS AND SIGNALS:
CATapult gives students the chance to meet people who live in other neighborhoods, come from different countries, speak a different first language, are members of other generations, or have lived through other experiences our students may not have seen previously.
Throughout the year, CATapult activities are designed so students look at themselves—and stretch themselves—in their roles as learners, friends, citizens, and influencers.
Think about the potential impact an experience like dancing with people using wheelchairs could have on a young student’s imagination. That student could grow up to invent easier-to-use household appliances or write policies that ensure people with disabilities can access information as easily as people without disabilities. That kind of empathy cannot be taught inside a bubble. Because our students will grow up to be decision-makers in our city and world, it is essential for them to engage deeply in the community.
"THERE'S AN URGENCY TO RAISING LEADERS. THEY CAN GROW UP TO BE THE PEOPLE WHO WRESTLE WITH THE PROBLEMS AND DIFFERENCES WE STRUGGLE WITH AS ADULTS." DANETTE MORTON, HEAD OF MIDDLE SCHOOL
Once students get to know people whose perspectives are different from their own, they see needs and opportunities they didn’t know existed. Students then design projects that help the people they’ve met, whether through advocacy or direct service. “What has made us the most proud is seeing our students build compassion and people skills,” says fifth grade teacher Taylor Stegall. “They are showing care, empathy, courage, and comfort with people who are different from them. When they build those comfortable relationships, and they build a network, it’s then that we can ask the students to design a plan.”
FIGURING OUT HOW TO COMMUNICATE ACROSS CULTURES
Imagine walking into a Spanish class a few weeks into your seventh grade year. Your teacher gives you an assignment: You will work with a Spanish-speaking student attending a nearby elementary school to write a bilingual children’s book.
You can look up the vocabulary words in your textbook (or use Google Translate), but learning cultural nuance is a bit trickier. Working with someone who has lived in a different country, you can learn what names are popular, what foods kids really like to eat, whether kids play with stuffed animals, or what kinds of games they like to play outside.
Seventh and eighth graders in Spanish I classes have worked with native Spanish speakers at a few nearby elementary schools over the last eight years to write 150 bilingual books used by Atlanta literacy agency Fiesta de Libros to help other young children learn to read. Each student teaches their native language and culture while learning another language from someone who’s spoken it their entire life. “Both sets of students need each other in order to write a successful book,” says Middle School language teacher Kristen Orsini.
These experiences help students build crucial capacities for connecting with people around the world. In a workplace where you might have to code software alongside co-workers in Japan, India, France, and Peru, knowing what cultural forces affect each person’s work style will be almost as important as knowing the right programming language.
Beyond the basic ability to write sentences in Spanish, students gain cultural competence while making a difference through donating the finished books. “Our students have to know how to interact with people and how to be resourceful,” Kristen adds. “It’s more about being agile as a learner and being culturally fluid.”
CONNECTING THE DOTS OF DOING AND LEADING
Whether it’s as an athletic team captain, a section leader in the orchestra, or a member of a leadership group like the Christian Life Council, our students have long been able to discover their interests and lead in those areas. It should come as no surprise that once we introduce our students to engineering and computer science, the next step for the Wildcats who find their passion there is to lead their peers in discovering and using new technologies.
Eighth grader Fifo Chlopek, a member of the Middle School STEAM Council, says he enjoys the extra privileges and responsibilities of the role, including advanced technical training that means he can use some of the more sophisticated tools in The Roberto C. Goizueta Innovation Lab without direct supervision. He’s also eager to talk about the ways the STEAM Council helps other students, like leading monthly workshops where any student who’s interested can come to the Innovation Space and complete a quick project that teaches them how to use one or more of the specialized tools, such as building locker shelves with the miter saw.
“I’ve learned how to be a better leader,” Fifo reflects. “Sometimes, I’ve been a bit bossy, but with STEAM Council and other activities, I’ve learned how to be someone people enjoy being taught by.”
The members of the STEAM Council might go on to pioneer new solar energy systems as adults. They might develop more efficient recycling methods. Or invent more affordable dental care. They might also be tomorrow’s teachers and pastors and lawyers.
In Thank You for Being Late, author Thomas Friedman suggests leaders of the future will need to innovate and empathize. They will need to be able to shut out the increasing “noise” of the world to assess and act according to their own values in order to cope with the dizzying rates of change in technology, the economy, and the natural environment. Whenever our students step into leadership roles, we encourage them to develop these capacities and help them realize it’s okay to struggle along the way—that’s part of learning. At first look, a room in Askew Hall with hot tea, living-room-style seating, and bookshelves full of style guides and poetry volumes may not seem like the most futuristic setting. But researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership and Teachers College, Columbia University, say a concept they call “learning agility” is key for leading effectively in a global, connected, super-speed society. And the Upper School Writing Center is a place our young writers wrestle with ambiguity and learn to lead others who are doing the same.
Writing Fellows, a group of 13 seniors and juniors selected by application, serve as a workshop group to help each other through the writing process. They also coach fellow Upper School students working on any kind of writing assignment through 30-minute, one-on-one appointments in the Writing Center. Both aspects of the Writing Fellows program are designed to help students through productive struggle. Writing Fellows are prepped with intense training before the school year starts and guided throughout the year by Writing Center director and English teacher Jen Dracos-Tice.
As digital technologies accelerate the business world’s move toward distributed leadership, it’s important for every person to feel comfortable leading. That’s why you won’t find club presidents in the Middle School. Leadership groups like Chapel Council and Service Club use a team model that allows each member incremental growth opportunities. Team leads take charge of specific areas like selecting assembly speakers or gathering supplies for service projects and lead a team of their peers in doing so. Team leads from all different areas collaborate with one another and pitch in to help each other where needed.
Writing Fellow Marisa Gu ’20 says she became part of the group because she needed a place and people to help her keep a consistent personal writing practice.
“Maybe I don’t want to be an English major, but it’s an interest I want to pursue, and we have really great resources here, so why not just try it? Taking what Westminster offers as a school and pushing my limits is something I want to practice in life—it’s pushing my boundaries,” she says.
As a group, the Writing Fellows challenge each other to write more deeply, critiquing pieces and bouncing ideas off one another. The intense—and often deeply personal—work each Writing Fellow does during these sessions informs how they help other students become better at forming and communicating their ideas during mentoring sessions.
“I had no idea how to mentor someone or help someone better their writing. I was nervous, but I knew it was something I had to do to get out of my comfort zone,” Marisa says.
Being agile in the face of personal uncertainty and guiding others facing ambiguity is critical as computers take on more and more of the mundane and predictable. In sectors as wide-ranging as manufacturing and medicine, work is about troubleshooting and specialized problem-solving rather than routine action. While technology has the power to make life more pleasant and more efficient, living alongside it brings new cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal demands.
We expect brain science to play a larger and larger role in everyday life as technologies for researching what’s really going on inside our heads become more and more sophisticated. But we aren’t waiting for this future to be fully mapped out.
As we’ve learned more about how the brain works and what that means for education, we’ve grown our student support team to 17 people across all three divisions.
Everything is personalized these days. You can rent clothing by the month tailored to your specifications. Creating a wackybut-tasty off-menu drink at Starbucks is a badge of honor that may result in a little bit of Snapchat clout among your followers. This taste for something personalized applies at school, too. Our independent study program had its highest enrollment ever in fall 2019—14 seniors and one junior taking on research projects to deepen their knowledge in subjects from biochemistry to interior design to gospel music. During JanTerm, more than 40 Upper Schoolers choose to design and complete their own internships.
MAKING SENSE OF TIMELESS LESSONS IN THE MODERN WORLD
When future leaders are asked to solve the increasingly complex problems headed our way, they’ll need to connect disparate concepts to come up with solutions. Learning how to do that starts with connecting things in class—like the ancient Greek hero Odysseus and present-day Ecuadorian migrants.
When eighth grade boys in Alan Goodrow’s English class read The Odyssey this year, they turned talk about xenia, the ancient Greek practice of hospitality, into a look at today’s immigrant experience.
Students grouped up to craft their own epic tales based on refugee stories they’d researched and used the Goizueta Innovation Lab’s tools and materials to create maps to illustrate their journeys.
Students have to think critically about the trade-offs they make during these experiences. If the right image isn’t available under public domain, can someone create an effective illustration? If an interactive element breaks when people touch it, how else can people experience the piece? If the group disagrees about whether a story from the Middle East or from South America is more interesting, how does everyone come to an agreement?
These trade-offs, approached with an inventor’s mindset, are lowstakes practice for the decisions our students will be making as they grow up. Students can experiment with making data-based decisions—and they can begin to learn the nuances at play when data fails.
Teaching The Odyssey in a way that connects the book’s theme to current events, reaches across disciplines, and calls on students to bring their creative selves to class is only one example of the learning that happens every day at Westminster. Our classrooms are places where teachers create opportunities that spark curiosity and uncover creativity, empowering our students to increasingly work through difficult, complex problems like those our world will continue to face. This work is everywhere on our campus.
As technology’s lightning-speed development continues, facts are simply not enough. Our students will thrive now, and in the future, when they embrace their human abilities to cultivate deep relationships, lead others around them, and think critically to design solutions to problems. “Leadership of conscience” for the decades ahead lies in the ways our students will innovate with humanity in mind. It is creative minds making bold leaps for the betterment of all. To educate our students with any lesser optimism and belief in their potential is to shortchange not only them, but the future itself.
THE ROBERTO C. GOIZUETA CENTER FOR INNOVATION
Westminster’s history of defining academic excellence is also a history of innovation—of pursuing promising ideas without an absolute guarantee of success on the first try. The Goizueta Foundation has made a significant investment in the future of innovation at the School so our students can continue to learn through discovery. The Foundation’s latest philanthropic contributions will fuel innovative programs through the creation of The Roberto C. Goizueta Center for Innovation.
It’s impossible to walk around campus and not see students innovating. That’s especially true during each division’s Innovation Fair. No subject area goes uninvestigated during these events—students learn through activities like trying their hand at a giant Rube Goldberg machine, building 3D fractals together, and collaborative poetry writing.
“My father, Roberto Goizueta, considered the pursuit of excellence to be an imperative. Since its beginnings, Westminster has established itself as one of the nation’s premier independent schools, with excellence and innovation as hallmarks of its programs,” says Olga Goizueta Rawls, Chair and CEO of The Goizueta Foundation. “The Goizueta Foundation’s investment seeks to provide programmatic support for interdisciplinary and collaborative STEAM learning, as well as the creation of spaces to catalyze innovation and build upon Westminster’s tradition of excellence. Westminster’s commitment to these principles has benefitted my family—and all Westminster alumni. The School also has enormous potential to elevate other educational institutions in Atlanta and beyond.”
The Goizueta Foundation’s visionary gifts celebrate the innovative thinking and doing that already permeate our campus while ensuring our students and faculty will have the opportunity to teach and learn in new ways for generations to come.
The Goizueta Center for Innovation is not a typical “center.” It is neither defined by nor confined to a physical location. Instead, it is naturally integrated within the School, encompassing dynamic programming for students, relevant professional development for faculty, and strategic spaces across campus.
Specific spaces funded by The Goizueta Foundation that empower Wildcats to pursue innovation include:
- The Innovation Village
- A stage and play area designed by pre-first students in 2015 give our young learners outdoor spaces to let their imaginations run wild on the Love Hall playground.
- The Roberto C. Goizueta Innovation Lab
- This lab in Clarkson Hall, filled with tools like laser cutters and 3D printers, is a place where Middle Schoolers think critically and creatively as they take ideas from dream to reality.
- The Roberto C. Goizueta Innovation Hub, anchored by The Roberto C. Goizueta Catalyst Lab
- Set to open in Hawkins Hall in August, this Upper School innovation hub is where students will learn across the spectrum of design thinking computing and coding, and even virtual reality.
This investment across our campus—both in physical spaces and in the intangibles that create a culture of forward-thinking innovators—underscores the Foundation’s belief that teaching students to innovate is a journey that includes every academic discipline and every age group.
“At every turn, the school has fostered and nurtured innovation, with a focus on producing leaders to help propel the city of Atlanta, the nation, and the world forward. Innovation is not this or that, but a thousand things, every single day. The Roberto C. Goizueta Center for Innovation will allow us to knit those thousand things together more tightly and serve as the flywheel that will propel our students’ ideas forward— and in so doing propel their city forward,” says Jim Justice, Dean of Academics and Curriculum.
It is clear that The Goizueta Center for Innovation will have an immeasurable impact on the Westminster student experience for generations to come. We are grateful to The Goizueta Foundation for its longstanding partnership with Westminster, as well as the confidence and belief in our mission that has driven the Foundation to continue helping us fulfill our mission by establishing The Roberto C. Goizueta Center for Innovation.