“I had a total breakthrough! Because of the QUESTion class, I realized that I was completely confused about life!” Bianca exclaimed with joy and relief, “I had the impression that I knew what I was doing, but I actually had no idea!”
This high school freshman courageously shared her experience at a meeting with teachers and administration at the Alliance Marine – Innovation & Technology, a public school in LA that adopted the QUESTion Class a few months earlier. The teachers were facilitating this class for all the students, exploring together some of the most important human questions. We had invited several students in the meeting with teachers, to share their experience of the class.
Struck by her enthusiasm and her description of complete confusion as a breakthrough, I asked her “Why is it that you would describe being totally confused as a “breakthrough?” She didn’t seem to have the words to explain it at the time.
Feeling there was something of significance in her comment, upon my return to NY, I asked her teacher, Ms. Olmedo, who has created an inspiring environment to explore life in the classroom, to ask her again.
Bianca’s reply came in an email, “Because I wasn’t the only one…None of us knew the answer to ‘Who do you want to be?’ We were all lost the same amount. There was no need to be insecure.” she answered.
Sensing there was more to it, I inquired, “I understand why you would not be insecure, but why did you call it a breakthrough?”
Her subsequent replies conveyed that there is such a pressure to have it all figured out already that there is no space to explore it all. As she conveyed, “I found out that it was ok for me not to know. It’s completely okay for a fourteen year old to not know what they want to do. Life is more fun and easier and I can figure out what I want and I’m not tied down to everything.”
Bianca’s experience confirmed something that took me a while to understand and put into words. The educational culture of developing skills and competencies has become so ingrained that we also take that approach when we try to address the human side. We speak of 21st century “skills” and Social emotional “skills and competencies.” I worry the focus on specific skills and competencies alone, can cloud the foundational importance of creating a space where students can fundamentally engage with the Challenge of Life. Students need the space to engage with this challenge – together with plenty of room to allow for uncertainty and depth – so they can define not only who they are, but also who they want to become; not only what kind of work or activity they will do in the future but also what kind of person they will be.
There are many ways to create outlets for students’ humanity. But we won’t go far enough if we don’t create an outlet to address the most important questions about their lives and future. Without a deep connection to who they are and where their lives are going, students run the risk of feeling disconnected, uninspired and deeply depressed.
The Conventional Approach to Education
Of course conventional and existing outlets that schools provide for students’ humanity are important. Education, when done well, gives students room to think, to be exposed to different ideas, to develop important intellectual building blocks, to express their creativity, and to stretch their capacities. Those are all foundational aspects of our humanity. If these skills are developed without a bedrock of purpose and sense of self, students will lack the vision and inspiration to follow the greater potential in their education. As Karla, a top student at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (the school which incubated the QUESTion class) told us after taking the QUESTion class,
“I’ve been taught science, and all these other subjects, and I feel these are essential, but what am I going to do with these essential subjects to become the person I want to be in life? It’s just not enough.”
Approaches that Reimagine and Rethink Education
The emerging movement in education towards teaching 21st century skills, social-emotional learning, and character development is of fundamental importance. Students need these skills in today’s changing world. They need the emotional intelligence to navigate the complexity of being human and they need a strong character to stay true to who they are. But if these “skills” and “competencies,” as they are often referred to, remain just isolated pieces that are not connected to the greater challenge of grappling with the mystery and meaning of one’s own life, then students may be left with a sense of disconnection with their lives and their future.
We have a lot of work to do to reimagine and rethink education in order to truly address “the whole child,” with more than a collection of pieces of the best “knowledge, skills and competencies”. This may seem an overwhelming task – daunting and even out of reach. But it may not be.
Pockets of excellence exist throughout the education ecosystem and there is an unexpected element that can accelerate everything: As we create significant outlets for students’ humanity, we will see in them a depth we did not anticipate, and a clarity and wisdom that will surprise us. As Ms. Hudson, the health teacher at the Bronx High School of Law and Community Service, said after the first semester of teaching the QUESTion Class:
“I saw the students break out of a shell that I didn’t even know was there, blossom into someone that was underneath those layers. There were some students that had so much more to them, so much more depth, than I even realized. This helps teachers be aware of how we are putting kids in a box and not realizing, wow, once I take that box away, look how deep they are, how thoughtful they are! It was those little moments that allowed me to see much more of them. That was amazing for me.”
At the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, Ms. Blades, the social studies teacher, has also seen extraordinary results. She has assigned two students to teach the QUESTion class. They prepare every night and facilitate the lesson plans for their peers. With their leadership, their peers are completely engaged and bringing their best as if this was the most natural of subjects. It can be challenging enough to have a productive conversation with adults around big life questions, imagine students leading each other independently on this journey, and coming to all kinds of insights together!
Indeed there is an exciting journey ahead…
I have encountered many moving examples of how to create outlets for students’ humanity. For instance, at Broom Street Academy, a school that has a high percentage of homeless students, they provide a space during the day for students to come together and speak about what’s going on in their lives outside of school. In the Bronx School for Law and Community Service, where they have assigned a mentor to each student, they bring an element of human care. Or at MESA Charter High School in Brooklyn, they have boldly created an atmosphere of “unapologetic positivity,” bringing to life an important and essential ground for students.
Those are real and profound examples. Surely we must replicate, scale and innovate such programs with urgency and purpose. And in our quest to empower and bring the best out of young people, we also have to dare to pay students the highest level of respect, to trust that they can grapple directly with questions that can be challenging to all of us – questions that are fundamental to understanding ourselves and our role in society. This will lead to a profound change in education, as opposed to incremental improvement. It will allow students to be truly present to their experience…and as they do that, we will no longer put them in a box that underestimates who they are and what they are capable of.
(To read part 1, click here)
The QUESTion Class is being taught in Title 1 public schools in New York and California as a semester long class, giving students an outlet to define who they are, develop their understanding of life, and explore how to shape their future with purpose.