Fostering critical thinkers at CFES

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Chadds Ford Elementary School Principal Shawn Dutkiewicz greets students during the first day back to school. Dutkiewicz said the school is expanding the Makerspace program this year, giving students more opportunities to solve problems and think outside the curriculum.

For Chadds Ford Elementary School students, the new school year will feature more chances for critical thinking and problem solving.

“There aren’t any new initiatives,” said Principal Shawn Dutkiewicz, who’s entering his third year at CFES. “What we’re doing more than anything is continuing things we’ve implemented over the last two years and making them broader.”

One of those areas being broadened is the school’s already popular Makerspace program. The program allows students to spend a part of the school week exploring their own ideas, learning to think critically and solve problems, Dutkiewicz explained.

He said the idea is to get all the students, not just the gifted ones, “involved in activities that require them to think really critically and problem solve, to create, rather than just consume. We’re trying to get them to create more, to use their minds differently.”

He said the Makerspace idea is akin to a shop class, home economics class and a technology class rolled into one.

In the school’s innovation lab there is a 3-D printer, Lego Robotics, a vertical Lego wall, duct tape and recycled cardboard and paper for students to use in their exploration of ideas of their own choosing, those that might be outside or on the far edge of the curriculum.

Students get off the buses and walk to class for the first day of the new school year.
Students get off the buses and walk to class for the first day of the new school year.

Last year, fifth-graders were able to use the lab for what Dutkiewicz called “genius hour,” where the students spent an hour per week on “a project that they’re passionate about. We don’t assign anything, not the direction they take it or the topic that they choose to study.”

This year, there will be “curriculum bridges,” intentional places within the curriculum with opportunities for students to go further into the Makerspace program and use the lab as part of the classroom study.

But Makerspace is not just a physical area; it’s a mental space where the kids can grow intellectually.

As an example of how Makerspace differs from the standard teaching, Dutkiewicz said that last year students were taught how to make a compass. This year, though, they’ll be given the concepts of how a compass works and the raw materials to build one, but no instructions on how to build it. They’ll have to figure that out on their own.

Last year’s students also did research into the world of science fiction and how it can reflect some science facts. Dutkiewicz said the kids examined the space ship Millennium Falcon from “Star Wars,” explored the aerodynamics and physics, and concluded that such a ship really could fly. Other students studied the sinking of the Titanic.

He said the school is offering four after-school courses that have to do with creative and innovative thinking this year. One, he said, might be called the Critical Thinker’s Workshop.

“We’re actually going to walk the kids through what it’s like to get a patent,” he said, “how to make a prototype, how to make a design, all those kind of things.”

Local business leaders would be invited in to speak with students to give them an idea about real-world applications for ideas, Dutkiewicz said.

Building on what the students had last year is something Dutkiewicz strongly believes.

“I don’t want any year to be a one and done type of initiative … Continuing this, improving it, making it more robust, getting the kids in here as often as we can is important,” he said.

The whole idea is to challenge the kids, to get them to become problem solvers. And that’s easier to do when they’re young.

“We’re trying to get away from just manufacturing students. What we want to do is foster critical thinkers,” Dutkiewicz said.

About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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