Sarah Doenmez and I recently attended a conference where we heard author and Harvard professor Tony Wagner talk about the skills and literacies our students will need to find success in college, in careers, and in life. Professor Wagner argued for something that we have been practicing and discussing at Dublin School for a long time; teaching students how to solve problems both individually and in groups. For the first fifteen years of my career I taught history at the St. Andrew's School in Delaware. I was fortunate to work with a group of teachers who were eager to collaborate to find a better way to learn and study history. We settled on a fairly simple model that we found to be both accessible and replicable. We built assignments and assessments around "challenges." For example, we might present students with excerpts of Abraham Lincoln's speeches over a five year period and ask them to explain what they felt were Lincoln's views on slavery. The students would come to class and argue their differing viewpoints on the question, question each other's evidence, and compare their findings to the debates historians had on the same question. They often felt empowered by their ability to enter a scholarly debate, encouraged by the fact that they could have an opinion on an "open" historical question, and excited that they could disagree with their teacher and be rewarded for it.
I see the same problem solving taking place in our classes at Dublin School. Our History, Arts, English and Math Departments have embraced student centered and discussion based learning, often incorporating our own version of the Harkness Method, where students and teachers, sitting around oval tables, all take responsibility for class discussions. In just one year Jason Cox has created an impressive robotics program in his Applied Programming class and on his FIRST Robotics team. For his most recent project he created a programming and design challenge for which students had to design and program a robot that could pick up, carry and place small balls while going over and around obstacles. Students are working in teams and will compete against one another when their robots are finished. Professor Wagner urged us to teach the three C's; critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. All three were in clear evidence in this project. It is not enough to be a brilliant engineer, one must be able to think creatively, communicate with and work on a team, often with technology, to solve complicated problems. This generation of students will be tasked with facing the challenge of developing clean energy sources, finding fresh water, and battling currently incurable diseases, among many others.
The solutions to our current and future challenges, however, are not purely technological or scientific in nature. We are facing a host of social, religious, and political issues that are placing new demands on governments, charitable institutions, and schools. By any measure poverty is increasing in the United States and many other countries around the world. We need imaginative and innovative political solutions that don't necessarily require revolution or turmoil. Our students need to work in an international context and it is essential that they learn foreign languages in addition to learning about foreign cultures. We are fortunate to have students from fourteen countries at Dublin School for I am confident that each one of our one hundred and thirty students is learning how to communicate and problem solve across cultures in their dormitories, in their classrooms, and on our stages and playing fields.
Academic Dean Sarah Doenmez is collaborating with her students in her course on poverty. Not only are they exploring the historical, social, and economic roots, causes, and solutions to poverty, they are challenging themselves to actually engage in attempts to mitigate and address poverty. Among other approaches, they are working in a soup kitchen in Keene and engaging in micro-finance through online organizations like Kiva that allow individuals to invest small amounts of money in poor people with investment proposals from around the world. One student has chosen to support a young man in Guatemala who is trying to raise $2,500 to start his own recording studio. If all goes well he will pay back his loan with interest so our student can reinvest in another project.
Art teacher Earl Schofield creates a number of authentic and creative challenges for his photography and drawing students. Each week in his photography class his students pin their most recent photographs to the wall and study each other’s work. They engage in a student centered critique of the photographs, defend their decision making process, and share what they have learned. Our visual and performing arts programs develop what author Daniel Pink refers to as “high concept” and “high touch” aptitudes. Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, explains that “[h]igh concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.” (p.3) We believe that it is critical to develop these “right brain” aptitudes in our students, and that these aptitudes complement and reinforce the deeply analytical habits of mind we are developing in our other departments.
The best part about teaching and learning using challenges and problem solving is that students seem to really enjoy it and work hard at it. When things are particularly well designed we find that our students do not allow the assignment or classroom to limit their understanding--they often delve much deeper than the assignments require. While the skill building component is clear, they are also learning significant content without always even knowing it. Instead of the "sage on the stage" telling a student what they need to know, students in the problem solving model clamor for information to solve the challenge at hand. While the times we are living in can seem quite daunting, these are very exciting times to be designing curriculum and working with young people and inspired educators. On a good day (of which we seem to have many), Dublin School is a laboratory of ideas and innovation.