Teaching Students to Change the World

One of the great joys and challenges of working with young people is they don’t know what they don’t know. Thankfully, this is usually not expressed in arrogance, but rather it is seen in their hopeful idealism. Youth, more so than any other time of life, is a period of idealism. It’s wonderful working with teenagers filled with the energy and belief that comes from this idealism. And it has been our goal to make direct and audacious demands on this idealism. Our fundamental belief is that solving complex problems that have real value in the world now is the best curriculum. By challenging students to solve these problems – problems that are important to them and to society – we shift the dynamic of school from a set of things adults require you to learn to doing real work in the world. Complex problems that do real work require students to use their creativity and ingenuity as they develop the skills required to take on these problems. Many of these skills are the things that make us successful as adults. Sometimes they are referred to as “soft” skills or 21st Century skills or critical thinking skills. They are usually messy and difficult and elusive to quantify – in many ways these are the most important skills – the skills we call on every day. They might be better served being called the “hard” skills.

As teams of students work together to create projects and solutions to address these meaningful problems, these hard skills are not only developed, but become central to the process. And maybe the most fascinating aspect of this work is that the academic skills follow. Most of our students will tell you that they have done more reading and writing in the past five months than they had done in their entire high school career. Many will tell you they have done real science for the first time and some will even tell you that they finally understand why math is useful. By focusing on doing real work in the world, our students are solving real problems that need to be solved, developing the HARD skills required for success in the world, and developing the “academic” skills required to do their project work.

We have made audacious demands on the idealism of the youth – and the youth are exceeding our expectations.