This post is by Anne Vilen, Senior Writer for EL Education.
Many students don’t discover until college, or even until their first career-oriented job, that employers want more than the ability to study for and score well on tests. In the real world, or even in a college research project, what’s required and valued more than good grades is the ability to ask questions, marshal resources, and collaborate with others to discover answers. To learn deeply, and to learn the skills they’ll need for the kinds of problems they’ll be asked to solve in college and beyond, students have to be given the opportunity to tackle authentic and difficult problems early in their academic years. Fortunately, as Chris Dolgos, a teacher at Genesee Community Charter School (an EL Education mentor school in Rochester, NY) notes, kids are up to the task. “Adults, in general, miscalculate what kids can do,” he says, “especially if given the right tools, and the empowerment, and the agency.”
Give Kids Real Problems to Solve . . . Even in Elementary School
In 2006, Shannon Hillman, Dolgos’s colleague at Genesee, asked her sixth-grade students to grapple with a pressing community problem: How can we bring Rochester’s dilapidated downtown area, along the Erie Canal, back to life? Hillman organized her students into investigative teams that researched how similar cities located on waterways had addressed downtown blight. Over the course of the year, students interviewed Rochester’s city engineers, decision makers, business owners, and citizens. Then they traveled in small groups to four different cities to speak to people who had been involved with other urban waterway projects. Upon their return, students put their evidence to work, synthesizing their ideas in writing, charts, graphs, maps, and surveys compiled into a report that supported a proposal to revitalize downtown Rochester by getting rid of the viaduct where the Erie Canal ran beneath downtown and bringing the water back above ground as a free-flowing waterway. The mayor’s own words, featured in this video about the project, are testimony to the impact students’ research and recommendations had on the city’s decision to spend millions revitalizing the downtown area.
Persistence + Strategy = Determination
Importantly, Hillman’s students didn’t stop learning the minute they turned in their papers. Hillman encouraged her students to reflect on the particular ingredients that had enabled them to be successful: evidence-based research, listening deeply to those whose lives were impacted by the problem, partnering with people who had the power and authority to solve the problem, balancing vision with practicality. Students’ self-awareness and reflection on what and how they learned emerged from a rich dialogue, not only in class, but in conversation with local stakeholders and media, where Rochester citizens and officials were debating the pros and cons of the proposal. Students had applied their investigative skills to other problems thrown at them in learning expeditions throughout their years at Genesee. Not every learning expedition resulted in civic reforms or public acclaim, but the repetition of problem-based experiences and opportunities to practice and hone the mindsets and skills of effective change-makers turned these young students into remarkable adults.
Preparation for College and Life
Ten years later, several Genesee students involved in the original project returned to Rochester to talk about how it influenced their academic and career paths. Ryan O’Malley, framed the picture he drew in sixth grade of a bridge over the Erie Canal; he keeps it on his desk, where he works as a civil engineer. “Learning first-hand about our city’s infrastructure,” he says, “drove my passion towards bridges and helped me realize how much of an impact I can have.” Eric Quitter, a health informatics specialist with aspirations to become a doctor, talks about how the original project filled him with hope for the future of his hometown, and how returning to see the difference he and his classmates made renews his hope in what’s possible now. Emma Marshall, who spoke before the mayor and city council in 2006 and is now a technology consultant, underscores the importance of making sure “the fire is still lit” to inspire citizens to unite and persist toward common goals by working through the barriers of politics, financing, and regulations..
As adults, these former Genesee students recognize that back in sixth grade they were learning the research, revision, and collaboration skills they rely on in their real-world careers as doctors, public health researchers, engineers, and architects. What’s more, they realize that these academic strategies, combined with a relentless persistence to navigate civic solution-finding, has made them more determined to take on equally tough problems as adults, and to continue working on solutions that benefit their communities.
Breaking Down Barriers Between Disciplines
One strategy the Genesee students learned early is that an interdisciplinary approach paves the way for flexible, creative, and nimble problem solving. For many high school and even college students, the rigid boundaries of academic disciplines make it difficult to match a particular degree to a particular career. Outside of academia, few people get a job as a “historian” or a “biologist,” but these fields of expertise can be valuable in many careers--journalism, nonprofit work, museum curation. Hillman, who conceived the Revitalizing Rochester learning expedition, comments that “bridges get you over obstacles so that you can access each other.” Helping students to bridge the disciplines of history, science, math, and language arts enabled students to come at the problem imaginatively from different angles. Along the way they interacted with a variety of people in their community who shared the disciplinary skills in their jobs as engineers, city planners, communicators, and citizens. In turn, students offered a novel solution that bridged the needs of many subsets of the community--business, residents, and government.
This interdisciplinary perspective, combined with strong academic skills and focused determination, is the essence of college and career readiness. Ryan O’Malley and Emma Marshall offered two final pearls of wisdom to this year’s Genesee sixth-graders who are researching the physical and social barriers between neighbors in Rochester. They were speaking on a panel about this project, but they were really speaking to any student who wants to succeed at college and life. Their advice sums up the courage and agency required to be college and career ready in the 21st century:
“Don’t be afraid to ask ‘Why?’ and then take the steps to find the answers.”
“Work toward, ‘What is the right thing?’ and ‘How can I be helping to get there?’”
Graphic by Amy Fast @fastcrayon
The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.