Raising Problem Solvers: Meet the Teacher Night Remarks 2014

We passed a profound milestone this year, and I’m not talking about our iPad initiative or the groundbreaking for our new middle school building.

This year, for the first time, every student in our middle school was born in the twenty-first century. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

I’ve spilled a lot of ink writing about twenty-first century skills in the last few years — but for our students, this is the only century they have ever known.

In many ways, it’s all of us adults who are catching up to their needs, as we try to envision what the world might look like when they graduate from college and as we strive to prepare them to enter that world with confidence.

As that future comes in to focus, there’s a term that we keep returning to here in the middle school – one word that captures the essence of the skills our children will need: Innovation. Put simply: Innovators design creative solutions to problems. Can you think of anything that this world needs more than inventive, ethical problem solvers?

I’m so honored to work with a faculty that innovates. They are in constant problem-solving mode – from how to make the temporary recess field an exciting play space to how to use the iPad to increase collaboration in their classrooms.

This year, in addition to teaching and caring for your fabulous children, the faculty and I are engaging in a little research project. We are finding leaders in fields outside of education and asking some questions:

  • How has your profession changed in the last decade?
  • How do you envision it changing in the next ten years?
  • What skills, habits, or mindsets make people successful in your field?
  • What advice would you have for a young person interested in joining your profession?
  • What skills or experiences would help give a young person an advantage?

I suppose you might say that we trying to empathize with our students’ future selves – 22-year-olds facing a workplace very different from our own – and use our findings as we continue to innovate in our own classrooms. We often tell our students: “In order to change the world, you must first understand the world.” That’s not just a line – that’s what these teachers model for them. That’s what we’re doing!

Before I turn this program over to these wonderful teachers — who are the ones you really came to see — let me share one more story and reflection.

I have a little girl who just turned three. Last spring, Annie read a book about a circus and decided that she, too, wanted to be a circus performer. In particular, she wanted to balance on the arms of our couch like a tightrope walker and somersault off of it like an acrobat.

You can imagine my feelings when I walked in the living room and I saw her perched precariously, wobbling in concentration. My instant instinct was to stop her and to stop her now!

As I rushed over to save the day, my wife stopped me. Annie was engaged in learning — and she needed the space to figure it out. My wife reminded me that Annie was not balancing on a bridge over a raging river. She was a couple of feet above a very plush carpet.

After a couple of tumbles and a few painful-looking somersaults, Annie ran over to me and proclaimed, “I did it!” That’s an expression of pride that cannot be artificially manufactured.

My instinct to step in came from love, but it was the wrong instinct in that moment. If I had swooped in, she never would have experienced the thrill of solving this problem on her own.

I think you can probably see where I’m going with this. We live in an incredibly connected age, and in so many ways that is so wonderful. We are always an email, text, or instant message away from each other. Now that our sixth through eighth graders are carrying around iPads, the temptation for you to reach out to them – or for them to reach out to you – during school hours will greatly increase. It’ll be easy for your child to send a quick message during English class: “MOM! DAD! HELP! I left my project on the kitchen counter!” Do them a favor: Leave the project there.

You might get a similar message this year, asking you to instantly help them solve a problem with homework, with a teacher, with a classmate. And you’ll most certainly get such requests when they get home. Wait. Allow your children to problem-solve on their own. Listen, but nudge them to devise and try out their own solutions to problems. Innovation requires that we enter that uncomfortable space when things aren’t working out, where we try and try again, where we gain the confidence to reach out to teachers and mentors for feedback and then try one more time. When we give them this space, more often than not they will return to us with a triumphant, “I did it!”

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