BY JASON VILORIA, ED.D.
Superintendent, Laguna Beach Unified School District
In the 1930s, a Swiss psychologist named Jean Piaget introduced the theory of cognitive development, explaining how children actively construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences. Piaget argued that this exploratory process was a critical component of authentic, lasting learning. The body of research that supports this constructivist approach has continued to grow in the years since, with one theme emerging consistently throughout — curiosity is the necessary impetus for learning.
Encouraging this curiosity gets increasingly difficult as students progress from elementary grades. Research indicates that student engagement declines as students move from upper elementary grades to middle school, reaching its lowest levels in high school. More specifically, some studies estimate that by high school, 40 to 60 percent of youth are disengaged.
Understanding the significance of a driving force like curiosity, we introduced Authentic Exploratory Research (AER) in September 2019. AER is a student self-directed project-based learning program that pairs interested high schoolers with experienced mentors in various fields of study to offer students real-world research experience. The role of the mentor is to provide students with professional expertise and guidance as they work through one of three study plans: a business challenge that results in the resolution of a real-world business issue, an action-based project that solves a real-world problem, or academic research that concludes with an oral defense.
The mentorship component is vital to this course. It is a one-on-one personalized learning experience for the student that connects them with an individual who is personally invested in their success, teaching them the value of building meaningful professional relationships. These are mutually beneficial relationships that build capacity and transform the community.
Together, these mentees and mentors are exploring everything from the effects of management styles on profits for different businesses to the effects of rehabilitation efforts on recidivism rates in prisons. Senior Angelica Jorio is currently studying the differences between government-operated homeless shelters and non-profit operated homeless shelters, hoping to understand how cities without any alternative sleeping location have addressed homelessness.
One thing we’ve considered is that research or service projects conducted in the context of the real world may surface unforeseen issues that can be the subject of reflection and critical analysis. When students have the opportunity to problem-solve collaboratively to address these issues, they may learn even more about the complexities of real-world contexts beyond the abstract course content. Questions, whether direct or indirect, are the only way to deepen comprehension and to create an environment characterized by student-driven exploration.
The program was designed to encapsulate six experiences identified by Gallup as the keys to success in the job market: a caring teacher, an inspiring teacher, a mentor, a long-term project, an internship and involvement in extracurricular activities. In addition to a professional mentor, each student is also paired with a staff mentor, one who has a vested interest in the success and well-being of the individual but does not have to discipline. By providing guidance, encouragement, support and wisdom, mentoring in this aspect becomes a catalyst for growth and accomplishment.
In short, AER steps away from the traditional teaching methods to create a space for student-generated project-based learning where students solve complex problems using a combination of skills, including reading, writing, math, teamwork, research gathering, time management and information synthesizing. With the introduction of this elective course with real-life practice and relevant social contexts, we want to encourage students to become independent workers, critical thinkers and lifelong learners.
Dr. Jason Viloria has served as superintendent of the Laguna Beach Unified School District since July 2016.