Future-Ready: A Conversation with Scott Looney, Part II

Preparing Students to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Mark Greenlaw

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview Scott Looney, Head of School at Hawken School and founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. The interview was for research EXPLO Elevate is conducting on the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and what schools should be doing to help students thrive in a future that will be shaped by the 4IR.

When I was seeking schools to interview for the piece, my colleague Ross Peters, Vice President of School Strategy, said that I had to interview Scott for the report. Ross worked for Scott as Head of the Upper School at Hawken and knew of many of the innovative things Scott was doing at Hawken to help their students be future-ready. And Ross was right—Hawken is doing many incredible things, and we found the interview to be fascinating.

In Part II, Scott discusses the change management required to transform a school to a new kind of learning, and the key elements of the model at the Mastery School at Hawken. Below is the lightly edited transcript of our interview.


What has your school explicitly done around programs, curriculum, your portrait of a graduate, or theory of change, to be more forward-thinking, to better prepare students for this uncertain future?


Preparing students for the future is our marketing message. When people ask “what is it that makes Hawken different?” it’s that we don’t look at school as a given — it’s a movable object.

You’ve been hearing forever that there’s a problem with the model. The why, what, when, and who questions are not hard – they’re really easy. It’s the “how?” question – how do you do this – that is hard. You need to build belief in your community. To build belief, I’ve said “look at the last couple 100 years – it’s an abnormality in the arc of human history. It is not the way humans are designed to learn.” Then you build small pilots, and then you scale the pilots. [Note: for our view on the importance of pilot programs, see Ross Peters’ webinar Pilot-Programs in 2020–Now More Than Ever Make Some Small Bets.] And then you subdivide your whole into smaller units, and take only volunteers.

So if you want to change, don’t try to flip the whole school, you’ll just create a political battle.

If you’re a public school district, pick one school with the right principal, leaders, and teachers who want to do it. If you’re an independent school, take one department — or in our case, we started a second high school.

We have an existing 500-student high school. We are starting a new one that will eventually house 200 students, 16 miles away in the city of Cleveland, which is called The Mastery School at Hawken. I wasn’t sure if all of Hawken wanted to do this to the degree we wanted to do it, but I knew I had enough teachers and enough families who did, so I gave them their own island, and we’re building it from scratch there, unencumbered from our own history, unencumbered from the politics, unencumbered from “why are you making my kids do this”.

We’ve been selling it by saying, “Hey, we’ve been the best Steakhouse in Cleveland for 100 years, now we’re adding seafood to the menu.” If you want steak, have steak – I didn’t take your steak away. If you don’t like this, don’t eat steak.

To me, that is the central element of change management: just take volunteers.

And the schools that can’t do that, and sometimes public systems can’t, and the schools that don’t approach it this way, never get anywhere. So a key question is: what are the ways you can subdivide your school that are politically palatable? How can you create small autonomous incubators, within the framework of your own existing institution that have the latitude to go way off-road? And then you bring back their findings for everybody else, and then you can try to flip the whole mothership, or you can just borrow pieces and parts of their journey and inform the whole.


From a systems-thinking perspective, if the school lives inside a broader system, it would seem that parents are one of the barriers for this kind of learning. Are they willing to buy what you’re selling? Are they worried more about having their child do well on SAT and ACT tests? And with public schools, the barriers can be state-level testing and standards. Do you see those as the main barriers for this kind of learning model?


They’re perceived barriers, but they’re not real barriers.

We started this journey in 2007 and wrote the three P’s (Purpose, Promise, Principles) and then launched our first round of innovation in 2010. There are the four main competitor schools in Cleveland. When I got to Hawken we were 940 students, and when the Mastery School gets up to scale we will be 1700 kids in a market where nearly every other school is down. We have colored way outside the lines, so one of my other messages to other Heads is that the status quo is gonna kill you.

If you think you can out-industrial-model free public schools, you’re delusional. If you don’t offer a differentiated service that’s radically different from what the public schools can do for free, you’re not going to have a market.

The reason that Hawken is doing so well, exclusively, is that we’re not building this stuff for show. We’re building it to impact the lived experience of kids and we’re not wed to the current paradigm. Now, we’re also recognizing the airplane is in flight and we have to keep certain parts of it intact, which is why you have to build a consensus and then you have to start doing proof-of-concepts. You have to prove it, you have to build stuff on a small scale that shows it works.

So the three P’s was our new mission. The first “P,” Purpose, is “Forward-focused preparation for the real world through the development of character and intellect.” It was my second year, and it was a big consensus-building period, and everybody weighed in. We had parent workshops. Alumni workshops. Everybody helped build a new mission. And then in 2010 we did three really big things that took multiple years to pursue.

[First], we created a radically different schedule, which included intensives. Intensives are based on Colorado College’s model, where twice a year kids have one course all day every day. So that meant they were mobile – we can take kids out in the world and go do stuff.

[Second], we opened up a classroom building in the city for expansion and we took kids out of the suburbs and into the city. As that was maturing, in 2014, I wrote a 26-page white paper called The Future For Education, whose original target audience was just the Hawken community. It was a shot over the bow: if you think what we’ve done is radical, you have no idea where we’re going. This is where we’re going, and here’s why. It was echolocation – I wanted to see how ready the Hawken community was for some of the stuff we were planning. It turned out to be pretty ready.

[Third] at the same time, we built the proof of concept for these mastery-based intensives. We built a course on entrepreneurship, which is the first of what we call a macro course. A macro course is really easy to understand in a six-block schedule: it’s four of your six blocks as one course. So it’s two-thirds of your schedule and credits in one class, and it’s all applied learning. Kids work in collaborative teams to solve real-world problems for real-world entrepreneurs.

These [three things] were successful enough that in 2012 we started having a conversation with the faculty and board about creating a high school, or a track, or a school within a school, in either a wing of our building or a different location. At that point, we were calling it the Lab School. And meanwhile, we’ve added additional macros, architecture and engineering, as these big, massive classes.

Along the way, I founded the Mastery Transcript Consortium because it became really clear that in our ideal lab school unless we could get the colleges to accept a very different presentation of learning, there was no point in doing it. And so literally it was a side project that kind of took off.

Then I got Board permission two years ago to buy the real estate necessary to create a new campus for 200 kids in the city of Cleveland, and then this year we launched the Mastery School at Hawken.

We were a traditional, vanilla, well-respected but not particularly differentiated prep school 15 years ago.

And the message in that journey is: if you want to change in ways that are meaningful, you’re looking at a decade.

And you have to start small and scale, and primarily take volunteers at each of the stages, or else it’s not going to happen. That’s the one big learning around this kind of growth. Schools that try to do this wholesale for the entire school struggle. One of two things usually happens: they fail, or they come up with a “weak sauce” – what comes out the other end is a very pale version of their original goals and intent. Just like in the free market, if you create real, pure, great versions of what you’re talking about, it’ll eventually win market share.


Of all the things you’ve done and all the levers that you’ve pulled to create the Mastery School, are there a couple that are the most important or the linchpins of what the model is?


There are four key ingredients.

[Note: During the interview, Scott shared a graphic that showed the four key ingredients. They are: 1. Real-world problem-solving, 2. New methods of teaching and the coaching model, 3. Assess students using mastery credits, and 4. Collaboration on diverse teams. He covered two of these here and touches on the third later in the interview.]

First, literally, everything in the Mastery School is taught around problem-solving.

And the reason we needed another campus in the city is there’s just not enough population density to find enough real-world problems in our suburban campus. There were two campuses at Hawken when I arrived, Lyndhurst and Gates Mills. There was an existing school on the west side of Cleveland called Birchwood school which we merged into Hawken in 2016 – they became another K-8. We now have two K-8’s that feed into Hawken Mastery School which is located in the University Circle neighborhood.

University Circle is really interesting since it is where most of the cultural organizations are, including Case Western, and Cleveland Clinic, and the hospitals. Just up north of our location is a neighborhood called Glenville, which is the second poorest neighborhood in the state of Ohio. It had the highest foreclosure rates in Ohio in 2009. So this is a fascinating intersection to be in, the northern edge of all the cultural and civic organizations and the southern edge of the poorest neighborhood. It’s a great place to go find real-world problems because within walking distance of here are 200 nonprofits and social service agencies, and if you show up with a group of teenagers who are reasonably well-behaved and say you’re willing to work for free on some of their problems…it’s amazing what they’ll let the kids work on. And so Problem-Solving is one of our organizing principles.

A second principle is that there’s no direct instruction at the Mastery School – everything is coaching.

The kids are incrementally taught project management, incrementally taught goal setting and processing, and they design their programs based on their own set of goals, and then ultimately we use mastery crediting to give them formal academic credit and present them. And most of the work is done in collaborative teams.

The way it’s designed, it’s not a free-standing school – There is still some overlap between The Mastery School and the Upper School at Hawken which is 15 miles away. During the intensive classes which have two three-week periods, we become one big happy school – they have a common course catalog and they can be in class together. The kids who want to be on sports teams at the Mastery School take an activities bus (with WiFi) over to the Upper School.

The kids at the Upper School can unplug for one semester and can choose to go to the Mastery School and do entrepreneurship, engineering, biomedical problem-solving, or government – whatever the macro is designed around. And we’ve been doing this for almost a decade, so we’ve gotten really good at these real-world problem-solving courses. We just did one this year: the ethics of technology. They don’t just read it or learn about it, they go out in the world, and work with people like CIOs who are struggling with technology misuse problems with their team or with their staff or a user interface problem that’s creating unanticipated ethical issues that they didn’t expect. These are the kind of things the kids work on.

The next part of the program is Wayfinding: we actually build time in for purpose development.

How do you figure out what you’re good at? How do you figure out why you matter? And how do you figure out where you use it in the world?

And there are Micros, which are the most specific and personalized courses. These are individual projects with a specific learning goal in mind and you demonstrate your learning goal by producing something. And to get your Micro approved, you have to have a learning goal identified and you have to have an artifact – something you’ll produce that will demonstrate your learning.

We train you how to design the micros. Once you’ve earned your project management credit, that’s your driver’s license to start creating your own projects. And, and if they get approval, you lay out a plan. But this is a project playlist – it’s completely flexible.

That’s the mastery school in its design. So far we have recruited the second cohort of kids and we started with some ninth and 10th graders. So we’ll have about eight kids graduating two years from now.

If you lay out each of their schedules kind of linearly, your macros are your teacher-constructed pathway within which you have learning goals, that’s where you do collaborative work. Each macro has a theme that aligns with the disciplines: one that would be science or STEM-based, and one that is humanities-based. That’s how we make sure that you are liberally educated – you can’t just take all STEM macros.

But your micros are completely unique to you. No two students will ever have the same set of micros because you’re creating them; you’re custom-designing them with your faculty and your outside mentors. And so we have the teacher constructed-path which is the spine that gets you enough exposure to math, science, English, history, research, language – to be able to get you your foundational credits. But even within that, the way you do your projects and the projects you choose underneath those macros are individualized and differentiated. And your roles on each team are individualized and differentiated as well.


Stay tuned for more of my fascinating conversation with Scott. In the next segment of the interview, Scott shares what they look for in faculty, and goes more into the philosophy behind the Mastery School. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.