Catholic school students enjoy a new paradigm of learning

JoAnn Tier

By JoAnn Tier, Superintendent of Catholic Schools

Young children approach life and school with open minds, eager for adventure and new learning. At what point does that enthusiasm change to passiveness or the disconnection often experienced in classrooms?

As an educator, I was perplexed when I experienced this disengagement with my third-grade son. Charlie had a propensity to tune out of class periodically. He would look out the window, watch the contrails of a plane and become lost in thought. My son was a dreamer. The traditional classroom did not appear to hold his interest. How could that creative dreaming be channeled into productive learning?

Fast-forward to college. It was at Lehigh University where my son would focus on his interests, and as an engineering major, be truly challenged as a student. Learning became an insatiable part of his reality as new programs of study motivated him and informed his thinking.

A visit to our son on Lehigh’s campus provided a source of inspiration for me, as well. In one of the ivy-covered, stately buildings was a plaque honoring John J. Karakash, a distinguished professor and dean emeritus in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. It read:

“…Our goal is to produce good people – young men and women who learn to think to the point where thinking is a habit, who have been exposed to and encouraged to develop and live by a set of values, who have developed methods and approaches to the intelligent application of knowledge and last but not least, who accept the virtue of work as a vehicle of service and the will to work as a self-discipline.”

I copied that quote and pondered its wisdom. It summed up a beautiful philosophy for education. A philosophy that is depicted in the effort and work of Catholic school educators … to produce good people … who learn to think to the point where thinking is a habit…

Such is the challenge for educators and students in the 21st century. No longer constrained by seatwork, straight rows and memorization resulting in regurgitating the right answer, there is a freedom, a messiness and an adventure in learning. Lack of success and errors are part of the quest for truth.

Mistakes have always been a part of learning. Thomas Edison, American inventor, reflected on the challenge of creating the light bulb. He said, “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.” Finding what doesn’t work, as Edison realized, can result in a mindset that promotes persistence, resolve and resiliency.

The objective of education is to prepare students to educate themselves throughout their lives. Since the 1960s much research has focused on education. Prior to that, teaching was based on traditions handed down from teacher to teacher.

Today, students develop self-discipline and are part of building community. No longer the recipients of predigested facts, students are invited to become critical thinkers in which genuine understanding and learning for its own sake is celebrated. Students take initiative, solve problems and use their creativity. Students take chances and risk making mistakes in order to learn. Collaboration is part of the experience. Essential to learning is the analysis of information and honoring the gifts of curiosity and imagination.

Students read a wide variety of written materials and communicate clearly across multiple media forms. Students ask thoughtful questions and engage in constructive debate as they seek to understand how the world works and often, in the process, learn how it doesn’t work as they unveil the injustices that have denied and continue to deny the rights, freedoms and dignity of all.

And so, in Catholic education, administrators and educators pledge to incorporate a comprehensive standard-based curriculum that identifies what students should know. Students engage in active learning as they master objectives using the 21st century skills to promote deep learning. As they study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and engage in project-learning and personalized learning, they discover that this is an exhilarating time to be a student.

In recent years, our schools have been applauded for their academic excellence. Thirteen Catholic schools in the Diocese have received the prestigious recognition as U.S. Department of Education National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. Five schools are utilizing the Project Lead the Way initiative with immersion in computer science, biomedical science and engineering. One of two Catholic schools in the state was recognized in 2018 as a NJ Future Ready School for strides in technology and the development of digital citizenship.

Through excellence in meeting challenging benchmarks, learning is relevant, and meaningful, linked to real-life problems to be addressed.

E. Duckworth, an educational theorist who promotes the benefits of a constructivist classroom, describes her version of teaching as a journey of personal discovery. “I propose situations for people to think about, and I watch what they do. They tell me what they make of it rather than my telling them what to make of it.”

We learn by constructing new understandings of our world. Educators invite students to experience the complexity of our world and encourage them to question and to seek answers – answers that don’t fit into a predefined blank space but rather require paragraphs, pages or books to adequately express.

A visit to a Catholic school finds students engaged in learning. Students, wearing goggles, work in groups in science class and experience lessons that end with those “aha” moments … when the answer makes sense because the student was part of the discovery process.

A walk down the hall opens to another class in which young students are learning coding and applying the process to create a product or a work of art with a 3D printer.

Flex period finds students choosing personal interests in which they engage in small groups to create objects with recycled components. A stop in the hydroponics lab underscores forwarding-thinking as students grow herbs in a mineral nutrient solution in water without soil. They learn about sustainability, which will lead to a discussion of environmental issues facing our world.

Students still learn times tables and word decoding but there is a relevance and a spark in what may have appeared as simply rote learning. Teachers create a “hook,” which is often a means of inquiry to find out the “why.”

The opportunity for a cutting-edge, academic environment is created each day by the teacher (who is also a learner) in this fresh educational environment. The day, defined with student-engagement and ownership of learning, also incorporates elements of social and emotional learning, imagination, innovation, creativity, collaboration, communication and cultural awareness. Technology is not an end, but rather a tool to open new avenues of understanding as research is applied to learning and discovery.

As students and educators, we are part of this wonderful earth environment to experience its beauty and to give of ourselves. We strive to give the love and joy, compassion and understanding that are essential in a wholesome life. We use our talents to benefit others, to heal our planet, to heal ourselves. We must be knowledgeable, discerning and able to analyze what is true. In forming a better life for all, we have the obligation to protect our planet, our nation and the inhabitants of earth. It is by guiding and challenging our students to question, to draw conclusions based on evidence, and to think to the point where thinking is a habit, that educators and students alike will provide that dimension of ethical responsibility that brings true value and meaning to life.

And for my son, Charlie, the sky continued to capture his imagination. He became an engineer at the Boeing Company, applying his creative intellect in the design of the H-47 Chinook and V-22 Osprey. Today, he directs a team of engineers who bring their dreams, their imaginations and their creativity in problem-solving to the work environment each day.

Imagination, innovation, self-discipline, curiosity, persistence and dreaming surely promote a trajectory of unimagined adventures.

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