Written by Rose Helm, Middle School Division Head. Originally posted on her blog, At the Helm (password protected).
Last month, I attended a conference held at Lick-Wilmerding High School put on by Project Zero, an education research group out of Harvard University, who describes their research as “investigations into the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, ethics, and other essential aspects of human learning.” In one of the sessions at the conference, I learned about a specific arm of their research spearheaded by Howard Gardner and other intellectual heavyweights, known as “The Good Project.” The Good Project explores the cross section of ethics, excellence, and engagement that combines for what the group calls, good work or “work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners.”
In the group’s research, they discovered that younger people who tended to compromise their core values or integrity in the pursuit of excellence did not see themselves as someone who possessed the ability to challenge the status quo or effect meaningful change. Through reading the case studies from the Good Project’s research, it struck me that these young people who had made choices that compromised their integrity lacked a sense of agency.
Hamlin’s mission statement audaciously states that we aim to inspire our girls to become innovators and leaders. In order to become extraordinary innovators or leaders, Hamlin girls need to have a belief that they have the capacity to act independently and to make their own free choices; they need to possess a sense of agency that is grounded in ethical decision-making, or integrity.
A few weeks ago, I visited one of Rachel Davis’s sixth grade science classes and was struck by how the work they are doing in conjunction with the Presidio Trust is providing them with a platform to be innovators and leaders in an ethical decision-making context and fostering in them a sense of agency. For the past several years, the sixth grade has partnered with the Presidio Trust to study the water quality in Mountain Lake; the data collected by our students is actually the Presidio’s key source of information for understanding the state of the water.
Inspired by the conversations in their science classes, two girls in the sixth grade, Ava L. and Mikayla W., attended an open meeting about the problem of San Francisco residents releasing non-native species, such as carp, goldfish, and turtles into the lake. The Presidio Trust’s proposal is to eliminate a non-native species of fish from the lake using a chemical toxin that specifically targets the invasive, non-native species. The girls reported back to the class, and the class read and responded to an article published on SFGate. Scientist Jason Lisenby was so taken by the girls’ passionate interest in this situation that he came to Hamlin to speak directly with the girls Friday, October 24. As a result of his visit, many girls have already taken action by signing the pledge to stop releasing non-native species in the lake.
That the girls have a voice in this ethical dilemma – poison non-native fish to clear the lake of toxic algae and restore it to a healthy state – is powerful in its own right. But what is perhaps more powerful is to see how their sense of agency in this context increases the engagement of all the students. When I asked the girls about how they felt about doing this work, many remarked about feeling good about doing something for their local community or laying the groundwork for future Hamlin classes that will continue the partnership with the Presidio. The common thread among all their comments was that they saw themselves as making an impact; they saw themselves as leaders and innovators.
In the words of sixth grader Laurel F., Hamlin girls “are participating in, like, a scientific revolution.”
Read more about Howard Gardner and The Good Project.