Innovation for a Better World

As our globe becomes more connected and technology continues to transform how we get things done, there is increasing pressure on today’s learners to assimilate more skills and information than ever before. At the same time, never have our students been more capable of making a difference. Keeping up with the 21st century innovation imperative gives us a clear mandate to do it right— and also make the world a better place.

In today’s best schools, the fundamental three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) also now include the four C’s: Creativity, Collaboration, Critical thinking, and Communication. These are the most valued skills of our current economy and workforce. In addition, a new acronym STEAM has come along to signify the importance of integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. 21st century learners must master all of these disciplines and subjects, plus be active members of their school communities.

One approach that is not new to education and serves the four C’s and STEAM quite well is Project Based Learning (PBL). In PBL, teachers frame open-ended challenges that students figure out how they want to solve. Instead of teachers giving students information through lectures, reading, videos, etc. and then asking them to show that they understand it by taking a test or giving a presentation, PBL teachers challenge the class to find a solution to a big picture problem and the students learn by working on the solution. The work that the students do produces understanding and also some kind of product that they share with the community.

A well-designed PBL challenge can guide student learning in the 4 C’s and any subject area, including STEAM. In fact, skilled teachers can set the stage for an integrated experience that is very similar to the kind of work that students will face in the STEAM workforce.

In addition to meeting the imperative for more graduates who are experts in the 4 C’s, independent schools have a real opportunity to teach students that their ideas can make the world a better place. Children want to impact their community in positive ways and they are deeply motivated by the possibility that their innovative solutions might be able to solve real world problems facing the world today.

Therefore, designing PBL challenges that connect to real world problems is a natural next step that makes the experience one that instills service learning, and values care and leadership as means to improve the world around us.

These kinds of projects have often emerged as a result of the classroom work in our school. But this year we have taken things a step further by building it into the schedule.This spring we have set aside a once a week project time where we will be getting the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders together and presenting them with a real world community based problem to solve. We are not sure what the challenge will be just yet, but we will take something big, like how can we improve New York City’s response to the dangers of major storms, and then ask them to find some small thing that they can change for the better. They will form small teams, do research, create ideas and prototypes and share there thinking with the community. It will be exciting for everyone, and they might even make the world a better place!

Raising innovative leaders through an education that develops creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication is deeply important for our students, and teaching them that they can make a difference is an opportunity for a better world that they will live in.

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Time to Hope and Dream

In schools across the country, teachers and students have set out over the past weeks to get things underway. Often in elementary schools the first order of business is building community and establishing the class rules. One huge mistake that teachers and schools make is assuming that students innately understand what they need to do to support a thriving, respectful, caring community.

Responsive Classroom (an approach to social/emotional learning that some schools are adapting, including my school, Corlears), tells teachers to take time at the start of each school year to solicit the students’ “hopes and dreams.” Each class then creates their own list of things that they are going to do to support the classes’ hopes and dreams. This list becomes the class rules, and it travels with the students to each space that they enter in the school. In this way, the students always understand their class rules to be supporting the hopes and dreams of the class community. It also provides a framework for us to explicitly teach empathy and what it means to be caring, kind and respectful member of the community.

To my mind, this is good work for the school to do with its entire community. So, putting a slight twist on this, we are trying something interesting this year at Corlears. In addition to asking the kids, we are also asking the adult community (parents, caregivers and staff) what their hopes and dreams for the school are.

As a community we can then decide what we need to do support everyone’s hopes and dreams for the school. In this broader scope version of the hopes and dreams activity, instead of making the classroom rules, we build an understanding of what needs to be done to preserve, amplify or create the programs, opportunities and facilities we want for the students.

From the messages that we have collected so far, we can see that, at the core, our families and staff want to continue to learn new things, establish good friendships and build community. Parents want their children to grow into bright, creative, thoughtful, caring individuals. Not much of a surprise, but important reminders of what our community values most.

In the end you can’t make every hope and dream come true (one student told us she wants us to extend our school to 12th grade), but through this kind of partnership, you can do a lot. I can’t wait to see what we learn!

Why schools need to be intersections.

Walking into a school should be like entering a busy intersection in a cosmopolitan city.  I don’t mean that the lobby of a school should be overwhelmed with people, cars and bikes; or that there should be traffic signals and bike lanes.

What makes great schools is the criss-cross that happens as teachers, staff, children and families come together to learn from one another.  It is important for schools to recognize that this nexus is where learning occurs.  Teachers need to work together to create interdisciplinary curriculum, students need to collaborate to solve problems, and families need to partner with each other and the school to support the ultimate learning community.

Differences should be celebrated in the intersection.  Through collaboration and communication, each individual’s perspective can inform the larger group’s.

To be clear, the connections certainly can happen by chance, but ultimately a good school deliberately and strategically designs its schedule, space and program to support collaborative learning from multiple perspectives.

Throughout their week, children should collaborate in multiple formats that are each designed for the learning task at hand.  For example, students might have math project time when they work to solve problems with students older and younger than themselves who are at all different places in the mathematical learning.  At another point during the day, they might proceed to a half group literacy class that is made up of students on the same reading level. Later, they might collaborate with another grouping on an interdisciplinary project-based learning activity.

This kind of deliberate regrouping helps students build flexible problem solving skills,and teaches them to adapt and use their strengths in multiple settings.

Faculty also need time built into their schedules for collaboration, which means time to plan and time when they come together to learn from in-house or outside professional development.  This kind of work needs to be mirrored in the administrative team of the school.

There also need to be multiple ways for parents to connect with each other and with the faculty, administration and staff of the school.  Because of the demands of many parents’ schedules, these opportunities should vary and support connection for all kinds of parents.  Technology can also aid in making connections for those parents who can’t be physically present.

All these groups should come together regularly to share their work.  Assemblies, curriculum nights and school fairs are great times for this, and schools should take advantage of them as learning opportunities.

Finally, it is important that the school intersection is part of a larger community network.  Students need to see the relevance of their work to both the immediate neighborhood, as well as the broader global community.  Knowing that their ideas can impact the world around them is incredibly motivating to students of all ages.