Doing Education Differently

As an elementary principal I always feel pride in the work my students, staff and school are doing. The question I always have is: How well are we doing for our 5 to 12 year old student population outside of what we can see in the school building?

Students have a way of making sure you get the right feedback. 

We recently hosted a number of guest entrepreneurs for National Entrepreneurship Week, and we also make frequent attempts to bring in experts from our community to serve as role-models and field experts as our students work through project-based learning units. As my teachers and I talked with our guests, a common theme began to emerge. What comment was being made about our students repeatedly that validates what we are doing?

I am so impressed by the level of questions asked by your students.

Elementary students asking deep and thoughtful questions. THAT specific comment, repeated by multiple recent visitors brought a smile to my face and validation to our work like none other in recent times. Guest speakers are expecting the usual childlike fare of questions. However, when someone working in the real world of business and entrepreneurship gets asked probing, well-reasoned questions by an elementary school student it leaves a mark. It translates to a mark of validation for the work our staff does each and every day.

In a world filled with information overload, how refreshing is it to hear that young people are asking good questions? For the past few years, we have made a specific point to begin shifting instruction by focusing heavily on what has been coined as the 4Cs- communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. In an effort to prepare students to become members of the 21st century workforce, we are changing the educational landscape by teaching students to problem-solve, innovate and work in collaborative learning environments. Through a focus on the 4Cs and project-based learning, our students are gaining real-world learning experiences. Traditional subjects (reading, math, science, history / civics) are being taught through less-traditional means by merging subject matter into more relevant contexts where students are allowed to research, explore, and lead their own learning with the support of their teachers who facilitate. Though we may be using different methods there is no change in the importance of these fundamental subject areas.

Our primary students are engaging in projects that require them to think about problems and create solutions, often collaboratively. They are working through the engineering design process. They are learning about entrepreneurship and how to look at problems differently. Our elementary students are learning to code and utilize 3D printers to build prototypes of inventions. They are utilizing a variety of technological tools for creation of digital products. Throughout this school year I have seen learning unfold through a variety of meaningful projects and experiences:

  • 3rd grade students creating commercials to advertise national parks
  • 5th grade students utilizing the engineering design process to solve realistic problems on a “foreign planet”
  • 5th grade students determining solutions to environmental concerns
  • 1st grade students earning money through chores which they then in-turn used to purchase pumpkins to decorate and walk to a retirement center as a special present to the residents
  • Kindergarten students raising thousands of dollars through a hero walk and Kindernational Food Truck Festival to donate to a hunger organization researched and voted on by classmates
  • 2nd grade students creating business ventures based on the fairy-tales and fractured fairy tales they had been reading
  • 4th grade students creating iMovie book trailers for Caldecott Award winning books after creating Newberry book reports using their tool of choice

The aforementioned project examples are just a snippet of the meaningful learning take place, and through all of these opportunities students are meeting the standards for all required subjects. More importantly, students are learning the purpose behind their learning. They are learning to think critically, innovate, communicate effectively, and collaborate with others. They are learning empathy. And, yes!  They are learning to ask GREAT questions.

In a few short years, these young students will move on to their middle/junior high and high school years and find themselves in a new learning environment and new situations. By equipping students with the skills outlined above, their learning can continue to blossom through their inquisitiveness. Our culture of active learning has equipped them with a tool-kit gained through well-rounded and meaningful experiences. The multiple compliments by guests about our students questioning helped me reflect on the validity to this shift in instruction taking place at our school. When teachers are the sage on the stage (only there to provide endless information) students do not learn to question or think critically. We must facilitate active, meaningful learning and begin to “do education differently”. We hold the future in our elementary schools and through my lens, our future is bright!

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