We ask young people what they want to be in life. But do we allow them to become the best person they can be? This can’t be done in a single class lesson.

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What kind of learning do we seek?

That’s what Veronica Boix Mansilla asked an audience of high school teachers at the Global Education Benchmark Group conference in Washington, D.C. on Friday. Mansilla is senior principal investigator at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Mansilla said that traditionally we have focused on the idea of the child as a future worker and the role of the child in the future advancement of society.

But she then asked: What is the story of society we are advancing? What do we believe? Perhaps the focus should be on the idea of the child as part of a larger world. Can they see their connections to other people and other cultures and how does that play out in the classroom?

Mansilla presented a case study of a classroom in Portland, Maine in the northeastern United States, in which most of the students were from the local area, but some were from refugee families. The teacher in one class began a year-long exploration of perspectives. She had each student talk to two different people about something in particular and explore the difference in their perspectives. They then turned those into stories and compiled all the stories into a book.

Reinventing what it means to educate youth

This exercise was an exciting example of, as Mansilla put it, reinvent what it means to educate youth.

It didn’t involve one single lecture on perspectives. The concept of perspectives was embedded into the course every day all year.

“It becomes the air you breathe,” Mansilla said.

It demonstrated to students that we all participate in multiple cultures. Many of the local students recognized that the refugee children had big stories to tell. But they didn’t think their own stories had significance or validity. Other children were part of cultures, not them.

Mansilla pointed out that students need to recognize all the different forms of culture: their school, family, religion, even sports.

All students have big stories to tell; they just have to recognize the story that is theirs to tell.

Finding their own story by telling other peoples’ stories

At News Decoder, we work with students to spot problems in their community worth reporting on. Many students think the stories have to be big. But we say: What is happening around you? What worries the people you know?

We tell students to move beyond their own perspective and interview other people. Journalism, after all, is about telling other people’s stories. But once they submit stories to us for publication, I’ve found myself going back to them and saying: Now tell me in the story, what do you think? Taking into account these other perspectives you have explored, what do you think about that?

Mansilla described this process as see-think-wonder.

First, ask young people to see what is around them. At News Decoder we want them to spot problems in need of solutions. Then, Mansilla says they should think about what they see. Again, we put that into practice by having students research the problem and interview actual people to explore the perspectives of people who are experiencing the problem or trying to solve it. But finally, what is it they wonder? That often turns out to be the most compelling part of the stories. If they started with their own perspective, it wouldn’t be as compelling. Their perspective in the story has power because their perspective — their wonder — has been shaped by what they found in their research and in their interviews.

Back in that case study in Maine, the exercise on perspective accomplished many things: It built students’ self-confidence and gave them a sense of self-competence. It gave them the opportunity to develop empathy. And it drove into them the idea that they, too, are part of a big story.

And it had long-lasting effects. A year later, one student whose family had fled Sudan told an interviewer that she is now the best person in the class on perspectives. She had written about her uncle who had been kidnapped as a child and had become one of what the world has termed the “lost boys.” She went from not knowing she could do something to thinking of herself as the best person who can do it.

Mansilla called this setting the conditions so students can build their identity.

This doesn’t mean becoming the person who will be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or a scientist.

It means becoming a person who believes they are the best at something, whatever that something is. Ultimately, it means reframing our very idea of success.


Marcy Burstiner is the educational news director for News Decoder. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication at the California Polytechnic University, Humboldt in California. She is the author of the book Investigative Reporting: From premise to publication.

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JournalismHelping students discover their own big story