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What Problem Do You Want to Solve?

What Problem Do You Want to Solve?
Silvia Davis

As a young child, I was asked the question millions of children are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ll let you in on a secret, I didn’t say “a teacher.” It’s not that I didn’t play school with my dolls, because I did...

What Problem Do You Want to Solve?

As a young child, I was asked the question millions of children are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ll let you in on a secret, I didn’t say “a teacher.” It’s not that I didn’t play school with my dolls, because I did. My mother shifted from her career in business to become a teacher herself when I was in the third grade. Yet, I am confident I never said teacher for any real reason other than I just did not. In fact, I might be wrong, but I don’t really know that I had an answer with any truth behind it. As a child, I was painfully shy and quiet, and even the smallest question from an adult caused me to hide behind my mom’s leg until I was about 8 or 9 years old. I always have loved and cared for animals, and so when pushed, I replied “veterinarian” from time to time. Anyone who knows me well knows that I truly love (most) animals and try to pet them (with permission) every chance I get. However, those close to me also know that I cannot take graphic or gruesome visuals unless in an emergent situation. Most often, during a movie or television show, the moment the first drop of blood appears, you can find me under the blanket on my couch waiting for my husband to let me know when it’s over. One can easily deduce that veterinarian is absolutely not the appropriate career path for me, unless I could be the veterinarian who only gets to hug and play with pets. Fun for me, unhelpful for the health of the pets and their families. 

In a 2016 interview with NBC News, Jaime Casap, Chief Education Evangelist at Google, talks about his journey in education. He is the son of two immigrants, with his mother from Argentina and his father from Syria. Casap is quoted as saying that being raised by a single mother on welfare gave him a unique understanding and appreciation of the power education has on changing the destiny of a family in just one generation. In talking about his work with deploying Google Apps for Education and working in an industry which is always looking to anticipate the future, Casap says, “We’re 16 years into a new century and when you think about it, the purpose of school is to prepare students for the future – but it is now.” He talks more about his home state of Arizona, where despite the prediction of job growth in the STEM and computer science arenas, there are 10,000 open computer science jobs, yet in 2015, only just over one thousand graduates in Arizona did so with a computer science degree. Clearly, there is an unidentified disconnect. As the interview goes on, Casap is then asked, “When we consider the impact of technology on education, what really, should we be thinking about?” 

“We need to get kids interested and excited about computer science, obviously, but I also think it’s about the critical skills that are needed for the future - whether it’s the skills needed by employers or the ones the students will need to build their own companies. We’re talking about problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and building those skills. A big driver for me is that we need to ask new questions in education. We used to always ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ That question has no relevance anymore. A long, long time ago there were jobs like firefighter, police, astronaut that you could envision becoming but now we live in a world that is creating new jobs in new industries every day. We need to ask students, ‘What problem do you want to solve?’ That allows educators to follow up with, ‘OK, what do you need to learn in order to solve those problems? What blogs, what readings, what classes can you take, online and offline to really dive into and understand the problem and solve it?’ That changes the conversation for students.”

In this vein, I think more about our mission as a school, and how is the question, “What problem do you want to solve?” implicit in our work. 

In an April 1, 2019 article in the New York Times, writer Adam Grant writes more about this question of naming your profession when you have not really been on the planet for much longer than a decade. It sounds odd when you think about it, in truth. We ask children what they want to be when they grow up (with of course, the best of intentions) but, as my father will often say, I have a pair of pants that are older than the child I’m asking to commit to a career. Grant says that as a child he dreaded the question as he didn’t ever have a good answer. He felt that adults were always disappointed in his lack of sophisticated answers. As Grant progressed through college, he realized he wanted to do many things, leading him to organizational psychology. This allows him the opportunity to enter the fields of others and live vicariously in a multitude of jobs. His work in organizational psychology led him to a personal truth: “Asking youngsters what they want to be does them a disservice.”

Grant pursues this line of thought with the feeling that forcing children to define themselves in terms of work in the vein that were a child to answer something like “a father,” “a mother,” or “a person of integrity,” they would violate a grand social norm. “This might be one of the reasons many parents say their most important value for their children is to care about others, yet their kids believe that top value is success. When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve.” Additionally, Grant continues, “The second problem is the implication that there is one calling out there for everyone. Although having a calling can be a source of joy, research shows that searching for one leaves students feeling lost and confused. And even if you’re lucky enough to stumble into a calling, it might not be a viable career. My colleagues and I have found that callings often go unanswered: Many career passions don’t pay the bills, and many of us just don’t have the talent.” As I finished reading, I was left with a lasting impression and a theme emerging. Grant writes, “I’m all for encouraging youngsters to aim high and dream big. But take it from someone who studies work for a living: those aspirations should be bigger than work. Asking kids what they want to be leads them to claim a career identity they might never want to earn. Instead, invite them to think about what kind of person they want to be – and about all the different things they might want to do.” 

At The Wardlaw+Hartridge School, we begin a speech program in the third grade and it concludes with a speech in the senior year in front of peers, teachers and family members. Often, students will reveal some essential truth they have discovered in their time at W+H. Yet, one of the last senior speeches of this school year felt like it had a lighter air to it. In my own understanding, I heard (or inferred) much more. 

“When you’re little, people ask you what you want to be when you grow up. And if you're anything like me, you’ve probably said something along the lines of fashion designer, FBI agent or even president of the United States. But as you get older, people expect you to give more realistic answers. Careers such as lawyer, doctor or even stockbroker. Careers where you can make a decent amount of money, and come home every night to your family. Yet, I am 17 years old and a senior at a pretty snazzy high school, and I still want to be a fashion designer. And I still want to be an FBI agent. And trust me when I tell you that once I turn 35 I will be running for president. And after my two terms are up, I will be an astronaut. And when I’m too old to go to space, I will be a journalist or maybe even a travel blogger. And you know why? Because I can. That fact that we are all sitting here in this five-million dollar performing arts center is because we are all graced with the opportunity to do what we want. So, why not do something because we can?”  

As I watched the recording of this speech so humorous where there were audible laughs throughout, I felt the entire speech was grounded in the essential truths of our school: our core values and mission living and breathing in a student who has been here since her first day of first grade. As the ideals of Integrity, Opportunity, Support, Diversity, Community and Sustainability sit posted on the walls of every classroom and office at Wardlaw+Hartridge, truly where is there better proof than listening to a student who sat in those classrooms tell everyone “we are graced with the opportunity to do what we want. So, why not do something because we can?”

I have always been a driven student, and my grandmothers were incredible influences in my life with regards to the passionate pursuit of education. I always felt there was something curious about the fact that I felt that two of the smartest people I knew, were in fact, not very well educated. Recently, I came across a video of a Dr. Rick Rigsby’s commencement speech to California State University Maritime Academy from 2017. The title of his address as found on YouTube is The Wisest Man I Ever Met and as I watched his ten or so minute talk, I found myself furiously writing down quotes, rewinding and rewatching, laughing, crying and laughing again. Dr. Rigsby talks of his father, a third-grade dropout, but also, the wisest man he had ever met. Dr. Rigsby tells the graduates his father spent his days quoting the wisest orators and philosophers such as Aristotle to Mark Twain. Yet, Dr. Rigsby firmly states, “I learned how to make an impact from the wisest person I ever met in my life: a third-grade dropout. That third-grade dropout who taught me to combine knowledge and wisdom.”

He continues to say that that opportunity students have been provided at Cal State is unique. The curricula, that is rigorous and demanding, forces them to be their best, and to whom much is given, much is required. He charges students to couple their knowledge with wisdom from family, friends and their teachers. The combination will keep them grounded and to use their leadership to make an impact. As we live our Mission Statement, “The Wardlaw+Hartridge School prepares students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection. We provide an educational atmosphere characterized by academic challenge, rigorous inquiry, support for individual excellence, diversity, and familial sense of community.” We think daily about how we provide our students from Pre-Kindergarten through 12thgrade, how to couple knowledge with wisdom, to grow every student’s influence to cause them to make an impact on the world, now and in the future. 

The Economist has released a Worldwide Educating for the Future Index: Building Tomorrow's Global Citizens Report for the last two years. The report and the index has been commissioned by the Yidan Prize Foundation and also contains in-depth interviews with 17 global experts on education. In the Executive Summary, we find a similar theme emerging. 

“As educators seek to identify the right skills and teaching approaches to ready students for tomorrow's challenges, the ground is shifting beneath their feet. Projections of future job markets and work environments vary widely. New technologies give rise to both optimism and trepidation about their impact on the workforce. Climate change appears to be accelerating. Political headwinds against globalization and all it entails are gaining strength. And in many parts of the world, once firmly held assumptions about the virtues of democracy, civil freedoms, and respect for diversity are being questioned.”  

The Executive Summary distills some of the core findings as follows:

Wealth (of a country) is not all-important when it comes to future skills.

Reviews are essential amid constant change.

Teachers must also engage in continuous learning to stay ahead of the curve.

Diversity and tolerance should be instilled as universal values.

Rigid approaches do not suit future-skills learning.

As I read through the report, I spent time looking at the highlights of best practice in education around the globe to consider how our work in the Lower School, and as a whole school mirrors these programs. The correlations of findings which research shows to be the key to building tomorrow’s global citizens and those which are found embedded in our program beginning in Pre-Kindergarten emerge time and time again. 

In reading of the Shanghai school system, which emerges to the top as well-performing, one hears of the important work they have done to strengthen their educational system. Highlights include that of, “According to the World Bank, Shanghai’s educators recognize the need to move beyond academic performance and help their students improve their social and emotional well-being, their environmental consciousness, their creativity, and ultimately, their appreciation of what global citizenship means.” So often, we hear of these elements as the “hidden curriculum” when described in schools. Here this curriculum isn’t hidden. The work of incorporating the social and emotional curriculum as the cornerstone of what we do in the Lower School is what we proudly display whenever possible. You can see this in the everyday interactions of our students from the fifth graders sitting with their Kindergarten buddies at lunch, helping them get what they need, and participating in a symbiotic relationship of mentor and mentee. 

Continuing further, the report highlights School21 in London, England. Oracy, the ability to speak publicly, fluently and grammatically, is a core part of their curriculum, placed equitability with reading and writing. According to the Headmaster and co-founder, Peter Hyman, “students must learn how to argue and advocate with confidence, individually and in groups.” Thus, School21 is seen as a model for challenging the canon of curricula. As we head to the spring, this is also known as speech season in the Lower School. The third and fourth grade classes are knee-deep in the research of the topics for which they will write, memorize and deliver a speech in front of their peers, teachers and parents at the end of May. Fifth graders are working on the products of their research in important topics such as: no poverty, good health and well-being, and climate action, for their Capstone Projects anchored upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNSECO)’s Sustainable Development Goals. I often joke that the third, fourth and fifth graders physically grow a bit after they deliver their speeches as they just seem to stand that much taller once they have shared with others. 

The comparisons are endless and as I think about what Ong Ye Kung, the Minister for Education in Singapore says, “As we prepare our students for the future, it is critical that we also strengthen our values-based education. We want our students to learn socio-emotional skills, such as communication, perspective-taking, and active listening, that enable them to engage in meaningful dialogue, appreciate diversity and develop respect for one another.” In truth, isn’t it these skills that are those at the intersection between knowledge and wisdom? Aren’t these the skills which one needs to determine, “What problem do you want to solve?” 

Dazlyn concluded her senior speech by saying that in Lower School she remembered reading a book called How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World. She says that soon she will begin to dig that hole, and despite recognizing that it sounds outlandish she continues, “As you grow older people will tell you that you need to be more serious. However, I’m telling you that you can and will be anything you want to, because you have the ability to forge your own future.”  

Dazlyn began her tenure at Wardlaw+Hartridge in the first grade. In the years which passed of her time in the Lower, Middle and Upper Schools, the experiences, environments and education she received could not possibly have been focused solely on the content which existed at the time. It had to have been grounded in the rigorous inquiry of the intersection of knowledge and wisdom to allow her to reject the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with any singular answer. This work does not arise in a few days or months but really it is the culmination of years of education amongst teachers who engage in continuous learning themselves, who embody diversity and tolerance as universal values and who create the environment for social and emotional learning knowing that without it, true academic learning cannot happen. 

From time to time, people I meet will ask me why I work in independent schools knowing the need that exists in public schools. To this I always answer, the freedom to teach not only the overt curriculum but also the “hidden curriculum,” the ability to see a child start at 3, 4 or 5 years old and suddenly they are 17 and considering what is next in their journey, and the pride to know that the problem I work to solve is that of providing children the opportunity to know the question isn’t What do I want to be when I grow up? but rather, What problems do I want to solve?

  • 2018-2019