Five Years: By Principal Jerry Paterson

When I started my path as an administrator — as a Program Supervisor — I was indoctrinated in the philosophy that the curriculum needs to be updated every five years. Though this might be true ten years ago, it is not the case today. Due to the rapid rate of instructional technology and the ever changing job market, curriculum has changed in many respects and many subject areas to keep up with those changes.

One would argue that much of the driving force comes from state and federal changes in standards which require districts across the country to update their curricula to reflect those standards. This piece actually contradicts that notion. The driving force in education today and in the foreseeable future is what skill set do students need to be successful for jobs that don’t even exist today. Furthermore, it is paramount to equip children with a mindset to solve real problems and go through a process of trial and error with an empathetic approach towards helping others to improve the quality of life.

How can this be accomplished?

It is critical for districts to stay apprised of the latest updates to keep their curricula current and, most importantly, challenging for students. The purpose of this article is to discuss what students need to be successful. This is based on empirical observations, as well as what the focus should be based on the academic, social, and emotional needs of students at the elementary level.

Students need to feel challenged, with that, they need to explore, question, evaluate, and learn how to seek out the answer to their questions. Some of those questions will not be answered, which is okay. The most important piece is the process that they follow. Students need to be able to develop a course to answer their questions through a design process to ascertain the solutions to their questions.

At Tabernacle Elementary School, we have created a program called the “Collaboratory.” This program is centered on students solving real problems that affect their lives, develop solutions in a collaborative fashion with peers and teachers; as well as design, test, collect data, and reflect on their design to determine what works and what areas need improvement. Through this process, students may not be successful, which is okay!

Students need to learn that their design may not work the first time. Case in point, as an inventor, Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Henry Ford, the inventor of mass produced automobile, explains failing this way, “Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” Students need to learn these principles at the primary level so failing later in life does not stop their drive or quest to learn and solve problems.

Why fundamental skills? Are they still important?

In order for students to have success through design thinking, they need fundamental skills in order for them to be successful. Students need a strong vocabulary base, to know how to express themselves and write their ideas, they need to develop and problem solve using math. Lastly, they need to learn the principle of sound researching skills and fine tune those skills as they progress from one developmental level to the next. This is where child development is paramount. I am a firm believer in Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development. Students need to build on existing schema to help support the learning process which is tailored to their needs with the intention of helping them achieve their learning goals.

The approach we take at Tabernacle Elementary School is to ensure our students receive a solid foundation centered on balanced literacy. This encompasses teaching students how to read at their instructional level, exposing them to literature at their grade level for mastery, teaching them the process of writing where students innately develop a passion for elaborating on areas of interest, developing a strong word base through word study, and lastly instilling the passion of reading on their own primarily because they want to learn more about a topic or simply, for the pure joy of letting their mind go wild.

Without a solid foundation to build upon students will have difficulty tapping into their full potential of learning; therefore, students need a balance of both exploration through design thinking and a sound educational base to build upon. It is our duty as educators to stay current on educational trends as well as putting our students in real situations for them to explore. In conclusion, educators must guide our students down the pathway with these principles in mind for success in the job market which will never crystalizes and is ever changing.


Dr. Gerald (Jerry) Paterson has been an educator for 20 years. He has taught elementary and middle grade, served as a curriculum supervisor, and is currently the building principal at Tabernacle Elementary School, in Tabernacle, New Jersey. He is college professor at Temple University an Holy Family University, both in Philadelphia, PA. He is a huge Philly sports fan, avid historian, and enjoys fishing with his teenage son. Connect with Jerry via Twitter @DrPatersonTES


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