I just came back from visiting family in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where a relative informed me that her eighteen year old daughter has been taking an elective called “Initiative Ed” at her public high school. Her eldest son had taken it when he was a senior and recommended it to his sister as one of his favorite classes. Homework and essay writing is kept to a minimum, which I suspect adds to the appeal of the course, but the curriculum, as it was explained to me, sounds like a lot of fun, as it gives teens the opportunity to test out their critical thinking skills in a non-academic setting. The course exposes students to creative problem-solving exercises in the vein of Odyssey of the Mind (e.g., spontaneous practice problems such as the egg drop) along with team-building activities groups might do at summer camp or company retreats, such as a “trust fall.” One task presents student teams with a specific goal, problem, or conflict, and asks them to determine what sort of qualities and personality traits would be valuable in such a situation. For example, given a certain clash of opinions, should you be tough and stand up for what you believe in, or would it be more important to compromise for the sake of cooperation?
My relative, who parents three teenagers and a son in his early twenties, would like to see a program that trains teens to empathize, think through consequences, and take responsible action. She envisions an activity where groups picked scenarios out of a jar and discussed possible courses of action. One might be: “You are in a mall and the power goes out. What is the first thing you should do?” And another: “You find a wallet with $1000 cash inside. What would you do and why?” With this sort of exercise, the immediate answers given would not be as important as the reasoning behind it (or which would follow it in open discussion).
This kind of programming makes me very happy because it places kids in a setting that is a level playing field. In math or gym class, there are students who stand out as stars and those who have already resigned themselves to “not being good at it.” But no one enters a non-academic critical thinking course already with a reputation of already being “good” or “bad” at it. Everyone possesses the basic faculties for reasoning, and throughout our lives they are put to test in our professional, social, and personal lives. Initiative Ed is a great idea because it formalizes the learning process in a way that attracts and engages teenagers. I wish I could find more information about it online. If anyone has heard of Initiative Ed or similar programs, I’d love to hear about it.