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Problems to Positives

To better help prepare students for college and beyond, Providence Day School is getting creative with its curriculum.

While still stressing traditional literacies in English, history, science and math, PDS also assesses applications of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication — consistently the “top skills desired by employers,” said Derrick Willard, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs.

As such, PDS continues to embrace new project- or problem-based learning courses that put students in more authentic, open-ended learning situations, said Willard.

In project-based learning classes, students have a great deal of control over the projects on which they’ll work, but the projects may or may not address specific problems.

In problem-based learning, specific problems are presented by the instructors and students work individually or in teams over a period of time to develop solutions to the problems — these type of courses, which typically have fewer students (10-15), require self-motivation and self-discipline as the teachers typically provide the pace and deadlines but do not lay out specific homework or objectives each day.

“These courses put a premium on creative problem-solving and communicating solutions,” said Willard.

Recently-added problem-based learning courses include Middle School’s Engineering the Future and Upper School’s Computer Assisted Design/3D Printing, STEM Research and Design, Writing in the Digital Age and Social Entrepreneurship.

The courses came about in different ways and for different reasons.

“When Upper School students approached us about more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) opportunities, the Science Department developed STEM Research and Design as well as Engineering Design Challenges,” said Willard. “The CAD/3D Printing course was tied to the school creating a makerspace. Writing in the Digital Age was a teacher’s own idea.”

Charging Collaboratively

After co-advising the Upper School student newspaper club for several years, English teacher Matt Spence saw potential to enhance the process and outcome.

“My co-advisor and I recognized that our student writers were quite good at writing analytical essays, but often didn’t know how to compose and format articles for a news periodical,” he said. “We also observed the students in the club had little knowledge of the principles of layout and design, and there was no time during the school week to teach them these things.”

With tools easily available to enhance articles with photos, video and sound, Spence drafted the Writing in the Digital Age course to help students harness technology and social media to effectively share their work with a global audience.

“I want students to realize their ideas are important, and through digital media they have the ability to share them with a wide audience,” said Spence. “There is power in this, the power to influence the way people think about the world around them. However, there is also responsibility.”

Students play a critical role in their own success. They collaborate to produce monthly editions of The Charger online newspaper, making editorial decisions about content and layout while working under constant deadlines.

The students learn that “one weak article, one poorly-formed sentence, one unsupported assertion can undermine the credibility of the entire edition,” said Spence. “So they realize that the production of a magazine is a collaborative effort, and if the publication is to be successful, everyone has to work hard to help each other.”

PDS’s commitment to social responsibility and global citizenship provides themes for the course, and regular student input is encouraged by Spence.

“Following the publication of our first edition in 2015, a few seniors came to me and asked if the course could take on more challenging topics and add more dynamic elements to the publication,” said Spence.

It was the start of a yearlong project in which Spence and students met frequently to propose new topics, units and policies.

“All of this is important because I want students to have a key role in shaping their own education,” he said.

Living the Mission

The Social Entrepreneurship course was one Willard encouraged into fruition after learning of the “Paperclip Project” of Jesse Downs, Admissions associate director.

The endeavor began due to “small frustrations” that nagged Downs while teaching 9th-grade economics.

“The first was the misconception that economics is only about money,” said Downs. “The second was that, because they are ‘only in 9th grade,’ their involvement in the economy was something that they would have to wait for until they were adults, or at least until they had a job.”

Inspired by the “One Red Paperclip” story of Canadian blogger Kyle McDonald, who bartered his way from a single red paperclip to a house in a series of fourteen online trades over the course of a year, Downs launched the Paperclip Project in 2015. 

“I handmade a dozen PDS clock tower logo paperclips and challenged teams of students to ‘trade up’ their paperclips toward making a positive impact on others,” said Downs.

After the students exceeded his modest expectations — they contributed nearly $14,000 worth of goods and services to individuals and organizations in Charlotte, Chicago and South Africa — Downs attended an entrepreneurial studies workshop last summer to help turn the paperclip concept into a problem-based, experiential learning course, which will be taught this spring.

Social Entrepreneurship is designed to guide and propel students through the knowledge and processes necessary to launch businesses that create social value to collaboratively problem-solve to develop and implement creative business models that sustainably address real-world social problems.

“While I will introduce them to some entrepreneurial processes, the real takeaway for students should be the discovery and cultivation of an entrepreneurial mindset within themselves,” said Downs. “By the end of the course, students should realize their individual and collective capacity to shape their futures and the world around them.”

“And, of course, given my commitment to PDS’s mission, specifically with regard to social responsibility, students should leave having made a positive impact on others, driving their passion to do more,” he said.

Willard would like to see project- and problem-based approaches in more Middle and Upper School courses.

“You can already see some of this happening in the 6th grade capstone event that has replaced end-of-year exams,” he said.

The capstone event provides a collaborative, problem-solving experience for the 6th-graders to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired and practiced throughout the year. Last May, students were tasked to create a policy, product or experience that would help build a better community at PDS based on their chosen topics. Three “executable” projects were chosen to be nurtured this school year.

Project- and problem-based learning affords students the opportunity to make an impact in the world right now, said Downs.

“Beyond ‘solving’ problems on paper or within the confines of the classroom, I think that it’s mission critical that our students test their solutions and get feedback from beyond the limits of our campus,” he said. “It can create opportunities for our students to live the mission and shape our communities — at PDS and beyond.”  

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