Q: How do you make a difference?

A: By going out and doing something.

The answer to the question might seem trite, but if you boil it down, it really is as simple as that.

But when educators think about a charge to “help students make a difference”, the clarifying questions educator are often asking themselves are more about the boots-on-the-ground aspect of what difference-making looks like in school.

When you take the long view of this charge, you realize that it is much the same as all educational work – a process that takes place over time. It is something that requires finding lots of opportunities for students to experience and witness the impact they have made in order to establish the schemata that sees difference-making as the norm.

Scaffolding is a proven education practice that enables learners to go further and further into their zone of proximal development. Applying the concept of scaffolding to difference-making can help achieve the same desired outcomes that it would to any other learning objective.

The students in Mount Vernon’s Innovation Diploma (iDiploma) program are a great example of seeing this experience scaffolding concept in action. Mind you, while there is no fixed recipe for iDiploma – “First do experience A, then experience B, and next comes activity C, followed by…” is not how it is done. There are, however, themes that the experiences are sequenced in. It begins with themes around self or their class, and then radiates out to the school and outside of school.

But that’s just for Upper School students. What if this scaffolding process began in the early years of preschool? Scaffolding where students come to realize that the world is malleable and that they have a chance to shape it?

The world is a big place, though – such a big place that sometimes adults struggle to comprehend it. This is even more so the case for students, especially ones that are not in Upper School.

So when we think of “the world”, we need to consider ways to define this through the point-of-view of the student and their stage of cognitive development. The combination of John Dewey’s “learn by doing and reflecting” learning theory, with Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development can become a fruitful combination when done with intentionality.

Consider the recent flooding that has occurred in Houston because of Hurricane Harvey. It is a topic that is on the front of everyone’s mind, both student and teacher. Creating a class PBL around flooding would not be out of the ordinary.

A Kindergarten class could easily take on a project related to the flooding that Houston has faced, and do something that they believe would make a difference for the people there. They might do a project to redesign the city to help with flood control. You could see them working with blocks and pipes to model their plans and conduct experiments, doing research in picture books and online to improve their plans, talking to engineers as external experts to get feedback, and eventually drawing up a proposal to submit to the people in Houston that are working on the problem themselves. Fleshing this out more could create an excellent PBL, perhaps even one of gold standard.

Or consider a project involving flooding in the parking lot of the Kindergarteners’ own school. Perhaps after every rainstorm, water rushes out of the downspouts of nearby buildings and empties into the parking lot. This causes people to re-route themselves from their usual path to the sidewalk because the usual path is blocked by huge puddles. The Kindergarteners could work with blocks and pipes to model their plans and conduct experiments, do research in picture books and online to improve their plans, talk to “gutter guys” or the school facilities staff as external experts to get feedback on their plans, and eventually draw up a proposal to submit to people in the school regarding their solution.

But then you could go one step further… the students could actually implement their solution, or depending on what it is at least see other people implement it right there at their school. The Kindergarteners get a chance to stand back and watch everyone benefit from their efforts during each rainstorm. “I did that!” they can say.

Both of these projects have impact, but one has a more long-term effect on the mindset of the student because they are able to witness that impact first hand. The farther away from the student’s world that impact is, the harder it is for them the recognize and internalize the difference that they’ve made. (Practitioners of the Project Approach recognize this “distance from self” concept, and the important role it plays in designing learning experiences for students.)

Ideally, the two project ideas could feed into one another for these Kindergarteners. Recognizing the flooding in Houston should prompt the desire to look for flooding more locally, but the local piece is where the students should direct their difference-making efforts. And as they grow, and their cognitive understanding of the world grows too, they can seek out opportunities where their efforts will have greater impact.

How might we scaffold the bias towards action that students need in order to see themselves as changemakers? How might we find, and take advantage of, everyday moments in class that add to a student’s difference-making-toolkit? How might we build students’ “universe-dinging muscles”?

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