31 Mar The Future’s At Cornerstone
I’ve had the pleasure of teaching at Cornerstone since the elementary school opened in 2001 and for the past four years I’ve served as the chair of the school’s board of trustees. During that time I’ve come to the conclusion that Yogi Berra had a point when he said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Once upon a time a high school diploma gained the recipient access to a veritable plethora of reasonably well paying jobs with pension and benefits. Since then, a number of factors have changed the way that businesses do business. Consequently, the same academic currency no longer holds the same value in today’s employment marketplace.
What’s more, the pace of change is likely to accelerate as technology continues its exponential rate of quickening communication, and our population pushes on toward the 9 billion mark by mid-century, and the globe continues to offer uncertain climate patterns. Under such conditions, our crystal ball of “Great 21stCentury Events to Come” is murky at best. We can no more prognosticate the challenges our kids will face as adults than Daniel Boone could foresee coonskin caps falling out of style.
Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor made famous by his theory of multiple intelligences, suggests that education for the 21st century should prepare students to “deal with what is expected, as well as what cannot be anticipated.”
He proposes five “minds” that will be sought and necessary in the coming century. They include mastering school of thought, integrating ideas, uncovering and clarifying new problems and questions, cultivating awareness and appreciating for difference among people and fulfilling one’s responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.
Individuals who can think, collaborate and look at old patterns in new ways and to create new opportunities will have the most success when confronted with the challenges of tomorrow.
All this is to say that an education system invested in equipping students with 21st century skills must think beyond the standard set of 3-R curricula and engage students in meaningful learning experiences that motivate them to investigate and think about what they are doing and why.
Volumes of memorized facts threaten to be an obsolete education in a world where information is so easily accessible. It is no longer necessary for a curriculum to be a mile wide and only an inch deep. We believe it is more important for units of study to be an inch wide and mile deep.
To become effective problem solvers and deep thinkers, students need to understand patterns of thought and methods for integrating diverse ideas in novel ways. Students who know how to critically examine a subject in multiple, comprehensive ways are more apt to study other subjects with the same thoroughness. This is not in exclusion of basic skills or information, but simply a way to provide a context for learning various content.
One such example here at CLC is our Longleaf Pine Ecosystem Restoration Project, which began in earnest in 2004 with a planting of 1,000 seedlings on a private farm in rural Washington County. Since that time students from CLC have planted close to 10,000 longleaf pine trees with such groups as the National Forest Service, Florida State Parks, Nature Conservancy, and Tall Timbers. However, while planting is always one of the highlights of the academic year, it represents only one small piece of the overall project. It is the piece in which they become vested stakeholders in their own education.
As a curricular vehicle, the longleaf pine ecosystem provides the foundation for many subjects investigated and studied by students at various grade levels. Their efforts to help revitalize the once dominant ecosystem provides the students with an emotional and intellectual connection to content they deem both meaningful and relevant. Through the lens of our native lands, students eagerly explore and engage concepts within the natural and social sciences – subjects such as ecology, biology, chemistry, climatology, anthropology, cartography, and a number of other ologies and ographies round out the students’ experiences. In applying their skills, students try on various roles as various -ologists and -ographers.
Inevitably, students conclude that all things are connected, though not necessarily in a Jerry Garcia, granola, tree-hugging way. Some do make that connection as it relates to nature, but they also connect it to our social systems – politics, economy, technology, resource management, religion and history all play a part in influencing the ebb and flow of culture, laws, ethics, and society’s moral values. It is no great leap to jump from studying the natural history of Florida to exploring the history of the SE through the lens of humanity’s relationship with its available resources.
Comparative analysis of land use as it related to natives, colonists, settlers, tourists, visionaries, industries and developers in this region provides a rich opportunity for intellectual and historical scrutiny as well as creating avenues for studying the trials of establishing and maintaining a thriving society in this unique physical and social setting and climate. From there, the branches are as varied and many as we care to explore. The foundational ideas of economy, democracy, survival, and the value of communities bound together by shared goals become less abstract when set against a backdrop the students know and care about, in this case the species rich pinewoods.
What’s more, grounding abstract ideas and concepts in concrete experiences increases the likelihood that all students will connect to some element of the content strand. All types of thinkers — from the big picture ideologist to the detail oriented perfectionist or from the graphic artist to lexical literalist – they find aspects of the longleaf pine curriculum to identify with and feel successful with. Engaging in shared activities, experiences, debates and dialogues provides students with a litany of viewpoints from which to look at an issue or idea affecting their surroundings. Working together and learning to respect others’ perspectives, tends to lead toward a greater capacity to think creatively, both individually and collectively, about how to solve quandaries and conundrums.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a curriculum that combines challenging academics with service learning opportunities is that leads students to understand that citizenship is an active participatory process. They not only see that their actions make a difference when they are planting trees, writing letters to the editor, or raising money to buy dibbles, they begin to know how to meaningfully engage in the world around them. They see that the future is not a pre-set paved road, but one that is under construction and likely to undergo detours.
They leave Cornerstone experienced in and knowledgeable about exploring schools of thought, synthesizing and integrating diverse ideas, examining problems and creating solutions, respecting differences in its myriad forms, and accomplished at fulfilling their responsibilities toward making the world at least one tree better than it was the day before.
In essence, they leave Cornerstone with competency in the 3 R’s, as well as with a substantive portfolio of experiences that will help them, their employers, and the greater community they live in accomplish whatever goals stand before them. Because, the bottom line is, the best way to help students become effective problem solvers and critical thinkers is by giving them opportunities to solve problems and think critically. Or, at least, that’s one school’s opinion.