A Compelling Vision for Education from an 8th Grader

There is so much we can learn from young people. It is why I appreciate Howard Rheinhold’s approach when he refers to his students as co-learners. I was reminded of what we can learn from young people as I read this article from Velammal Vidhyashram, an 8th grader who lives in Chennai, the capitol city of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Velemmal is a motivated and accomplished young man, already running his own business. However, what impressed me about the article was his perspective on life and his advice to other young people. He finished the article by writing the following:

My message to other young people is this: “Look for problems around you, and get inspired from them. You’ll see a lot of opportunities to use your (own) skills to make this world a better place to live!”

I’m intrigued by this simple approach to loving his fellow neighbors in our global neighborhood. I’m also intrigued by how the three parts of his advice sets the foundation for a wonderfully rich approach to education.

1) “Look for Problems” 

What are the needs in the world? What about your local world? What are the problems that impact the people in your family, community, state, country and world? Start by learning about the needs that exist. While many state these as problems, I also like to think of it as exploring both the problems and the possibilities in the world.

2) “Get Inspired for Them”

As you consider these problems, which ones inspire you? Which ones capture your interest and compel you to do something about them? I like a phrase shared by Bill Hybels. He calls it your Holy Discontent. This need not be some great awakening or a “Road to Damscaus” experience. It might just be a real need in the world that you care about, something that inspires you to act.

3) “Use Your Skills to Improve the World”

Now that you’ve identified a problem, do something about it.  If you already have knowledge and skills that can be used to help address the problem, by all means, use them. Or, perhaps you find that you need to gain more knowledge, develop new skills, or build up existing ones.  Go for it. This a wonderful motivation for learning.

Some approach a phrase like “improve the world” with skepticism. The world is big place and there is so much wrong with it. The danger is to misue this reality so much that it overwhelms and leads us toward inaction. You don’t have to save the world. Just think of specific people who have the need that you identified, and learn to help them. As one very wise person said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Which neighbors in this world need your help?

Problem Inspired Help

While this is a rich perspective on life, it is also a compelling vision for schooling. What if learners were invited to spend part of their time in school working through these three steps? Identify a problem. Grow in your passion for and interest in that problem. Use or gain the knowledge and skills needed to do something about it…and then do it. This could be a beautifully simple but profound way for young people to spend part of their school day. I’m not talking about a teacher playing a

video about starving children and then having the kids put together care packages. While that may be admirable, I’m referring to an invitation for each student to identity a problem or need, and work toward addressing it. Along the way, students will likely need to gain new knowledge and skill, and this becomes a generative curriculum.

This is not to suggest that all schools should become full self-directed leraning centers. I’m simply arguing for setting aside part of the school day for this type of experience. What do you think? Is there room is our packed school days for students to invest a little time in addressing the needs of the world?

Posted in blog, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

2 Replies to “A Compelling Vision for Education from an 8th Grader”

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thanks for the comment. “Should” seems to be the key word. I suppose one’s answer depends upon the mission, vision, values and goals of the school. I visit other PBL schools who would answer 70-90% on deep, immersive projects. I’m not sure if there is a right answer, just one that best aligns with the vision for the school.

  2. David Elliott

    So many of our schools have this ideal built into our mission and character statement and often do great service projects, yet taking this forward a step to finding problems, learning, and doing something about is a big decision. Years ago I asked Lillian Katz, the guru of early childhood learning and project-based learning, how much time should be spent on projects in school. I seem to remember her saying 20-30%.

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