What would it look like to re-imagine schools as problem solving communities? In reading about Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, I came across several wonderfully thought-provoking quotes including the following:
Nobody has any right to find life uninteresting or unrewarding who sees within the sphere of his own activity a wrong he can help to remedy, or within himself an evil he can hope to overcome.
I couldn’t help but apply this to my work and thinking about learning communities. Consider the countless problems and challenges in all of our lives, families, communities, and countries. Now imagine a school focused upon students learning by studying related problems solving of the past, analyzing and seeking ways to solve problems of the present, and trying to prevent or proactively address problems of the future. I’m sure that it could happen, but I find it hard to imagine a student saying that class is boring when that student is devoting her time to addressing a problem in the communities that is impacting her and her family in some important way. The work might be hard, even overwhelming at times. It might be frustrating. It might require enduring through tedious tasks. It would not, however, be uninteresting, and solving a problem would undoubtedly be rewarding. And if students are able to see that their work directly impacts the well-being of other people, the solution to important problems, I suspect that we would find far more students engaged and striving for more.
Imagine a science teacher reorienting the entire class around wrongs that need scientific knowledge to remedy. Imagine the same thing for a history class. Imagine students learning how the arts can be used to overcome or challenge evil in the world. Imagine a classroom or school where you could walk into any room and interview the students, and each of them could frame their work around the wrong that they are trying to right or the evil that they are striving to overcome.
These don’t always have to be massive global issues. We don’t need to have our 1st graders bringing peace in some distant, war-torn country. Yet, we can engage them in solving problems and issues in their sphere of life. As Eliot mentions in the quote, this is about seeing “within the sphere of his own activity” what problems need addressing. These could be surfaced by the students. They could be shared by parents and the community. Then we could design projects and experiences around trying to address one or more of them.
A single wrong or evil could occupy days, weeks, months, or even years of study and effort by students or groups of students. What started as a school project could blend into a life pursuit, maybe even some sort of career. The connection between school and life would rarely be clearer than with such an approach.
Of course, trying to solve problems calls for new knowledge and skill. Students might find themselves driven to solve some sort of problems that requires them to first devote time and energy to developing mastery in some field of study. That might even look like a more traditional class or learning experience for a time, but with a difference. Students would no longer wonder why. The famous “so what” question would rarely arise…or maybe it would be constant. Either way, relevance would be at the center of school, and students would be active and engaged in solving important problems.