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Fusing Passions and Problem Solving in Eighth Graders

by Tim Campbell, Middle School Director


Forgive me if this makes you uncomfortable, but please take a quick moment to think back to your middle school years. What mattered to you? How did you spend our time? What worried you or excited you or confused you? For most, the answers vary and depend on specific moments and circumstances. Moment is the operative word. As it is likely that most of us were only thinking, feeling, and acting from one moment to the next.


Most adolescents do not spend much time forecasting the future. Their frontal lobes won’t allow it, and more often than not they are thinking, deciding, and acting in a matter of seconds. Drawing on very little experience and limited information. To ask the young adolescent to think ahead -- to be a futurist in their thinking -- is quite an ask.


Truthfully, most human beings don’t consider much beyond the week or the day. Yes, we set goals and work toward them. We have calendars filled with meetings and milestones. Rarely do we sit down and observe the signals of what is to come; or aggregate those signals into patterns; or analyze the data of the past to understand the future that awaits. Yikes. As T.S. Eliot’s forlorn narrator in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” wondered: “Do [we] dare to eat a peach? Do [we] dare to disturb the universe?”


Well, at McGillis, I believe we dare to do so for a range of worthwhile reasons. We are fortunate to be guided by the powerfully magnetic lodestone of our School values. Over the course of the School’s thirty year history, the values have propelled much of what has been said, written, and done in classrooms and beyond. In tandem with the mission, vision, and purpose, we are cohesively compelled to design and implement an educational program that is a tad audacious and truly humane: “To be committed and able to repair the world”. Our new 8th grade course, “Capstone”, is a barometer of student agency; a chance for us to hold up the looking glass and ask, “Can our students really do what we think they can do?” And, can they step through the looking glass to explore and impact the world beyond McGillis? Can they carefully consider the future and act accordingly?


Last year, Mr. Chung and I had the opportunity to teach a Future Problem Solvers class in the Middle School. Over the course of a year, we introduced our students to mindsets and processes for identifying and solving real-world problems. While we were excited about the critical thinking that ensued, much of our problem-solving work revolved around hypotheticals and it rarely evolved into concrete outcomes. We needed to up the ante. With Dr. Yang on board as a co-teacher as well, we have launched an exciting new program this year.


Capstone class is a concerted effort to put our students in a position to take action in addressing issues of local and/or global concern. It is also a literal capstone and figurative crescendo to their educational journeys as McGillis students. We are in the early stages of the process, but our objectives our clear:

  • Students will design and implement solutions to real world problems.
  • Students will use their passions as elements of their solutions.
  • Students will make all of the decisions.
  • Students will own the outcomes -- the disappointments and the delights.


We’ve asked our students to define the project as well:

  • “Capstone is looking at real life problems and finding a way to help or solve them.”
  • “We are using our passions to form creative solutions for issues that are important to us.”


With clarity and purpose, students can move forward into the complex work of identifying and truly understanding issues of import. 


We are still in the early stages of the design process, yet the early returns on student ideas are encouraging. From developing a system to help struggling military veterans in Utah find jobs, to addressing marine conservation issues in Indonesia, to developing edible plastic to rid the world of plastic waste, our students are thinking about the future.


On the first day of Capstone class we asked students to reflect on the following question: Is it better to solve one problem five different ways, or to try to solve five problems with one solution? While I’ve always preferred “Feed two birds with one hand” as a phrase, the anticipated response we received was: “What about the idea of killing two birds with one stone?” We had them right where we wanted them. And, it seems that most people think in the same way. One solution for five problems is more efficient, right? One solution for many problems is more effective, right? We gave our five-year-old nutrients when we gave her the apple, and that pesky wiggly tooth finally fell out at the same time. I ride my bike to work to get exercise while simultaneously saving money and shrinking my carbon footprint. Efficient and effective!


Well, while the idiom rings true in many cases, for Capstone class and in thinking like futurists, we are encouraging our students to consider five (or more) solutions to a problem or issue. We want them to address the problem with focus and fervor. To come at it from multiple angles and perspectives. To do so they must work to truly understand the problem. They’ll do extensive research. They’ll conduct empathy interviews. They will speak with experts in the field.  Once they understand the nooks and crannies of the matter, they can begin designing solutions and iterating thereafter.


Perhaps most important to the process is the “action piece”. If we want our students to believe in their capacity to repair the world, we have to create the circumstances and mindset for taking action. The action piece does just that. It is a small-scale (though it can grow to be quite significant), measurable effort for students to implement their solutions in the real world. It is an endeavor to “disturb the universe” in the best possible way.


Again, this seems an audacious request and requirement of the age group. 8th grade! Remember what you were doing as a 13-14 year old! Capstone can be an effective vehicle for students to make a difference in the world, and most will understandably lose stamina if we aren’t intentional in our approach. The intersection between passion and problem is the crux of student success in Capstone. Therefore we’ve spent the first several weeks working with students to understand a) their passions and b) how to fuse their passions with problems in the world. We ask and ask again: “No, really, what do you care about?” as well as  “When you really think about it, how do you spend most of your free time?”


Not surprisingly, our students have many passions and interests. They are also well-equipped to uncover, identify, understand, and address big, messy, and real issues that matter to them. They are futurists, looking at the signals and the patterns and the past in order to think ahead. They are not only forecasting the future, they are taking action to make it better. They are living The McGillis School value of Tikkun Olam. And we stand by in support as they lead the way, somewhat giddy, and utterly in awe.