Pedro Noguera, University of Southern California Dean for the School of Education, is interviewed by Edthena founder Adam Geller for the professional development blog PLTogether. In part 3 of this 4-part interview, Pedro discusses the idea of how classrooms can actually be used to solve big meaningful problems and ultimately create real values.


Here is the transcript of the interview:

– Welcome to another PLtogether lounge talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena the video observation platform. Today we’re talking with Pedro Noguera, he’s the Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education and also the author of a recent book called “Excellence Through Equity” with co-authors Alan Blankstein and Lorena Kelly. Pedro, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thanks Adam.

– So, let’s talk a little bit about, you know maybe there’s a little bit more in the theoretical space but the importance of the idea of having a classroom and how classrooms help create change, specifically I, you know, I’ll get you to react to something you’ve said previously, you’ve said education is the best tool for imagining new possibilities for the future. What does that mean?

– So I’ve been thinking a lot about this. If you think most of the problems facing the world can be thought of as problems of learning and by that I mean, we just haven’t learned how to solve that problem yet, right? So whether. So think of a big one, climate change, it’s you know, so many facets to that but one part of it is, you know, what do we do about waste? What do we do about all this plastic that we consume? Well, imagine if we decided to work with kids on coming up with alternatives to, you know, single-use plastics, right? Kids already, I mean, a lot of kids now are using.. they’re not bringing plastic bottles of water to school anymore. They’re bringing thermoses, would say, well how do we get more people to do that? So we eliminate plastic water. You know, it’s about posing questions to kids that get kids to think about big things and then apply what they’re learning to solve problems and I’ve seen this work, you know one of.. a guy named Charlie Schultz he’s a professor at the university Illinois he used to be a teacher at Chicago and as a part of a civics class he had his kids documenting some of the problems in their school and they document everything from broken windows to water fountains that didn’t work to rodents in the school and they came up with this long list and then they talked about what should be done and, but when they finished the exercise, the kids said we need to tell the school board about this that wasn’t part of this activity but he went along with the kids and they did and it became a major embarrassment to the school district and then it became a big issue because the media got ahold of it and the kids got a very powerful civics lesson in the course, he wrote a book about it called “Amazing Things Happened Along the Way” And it’s just a reminder that when we challenge kids with problems that are meaningful that matter to them, that affect their lives and then we show them how education can help them to solve those problems then education becomes, I think that much more meaningful. For a lot of kids, one of the questions they keep asking themselves is why do I need to learn this? Whatever it is that the teacher is trying to convey and I think that that’s not an unreasonable question and that we should be prepared for it. We should think through the events, what’s the benefit of learning, whatever it is we have to teach our kids and help them to see the value and the utility of using knowledge and information to expand their horizons and solve problems in the world.

– It’s funny, I was.. as you were telling that I was imagining responding with, “Oh, it answers the question of why do we need to learn this?” But, so what I found interesting about hearing you define that, you know certainly there’s a ton of great urgency you’re turning over to the students, not just as learners but as drivers of.. and definers of how the learning is going but, you know, I.. you described the value system, not as something that was created by the teacher it was the values of the students and in some ways, giving them, you know, electricity to turn on the machine for their activism to see those changes come true in the world.

– And not being afraid of letting kid.. empowering the kids as learners, ’cause when they’re empowered sometimes they’ll take things in new directions that we hadn’t anticipated.

– So, I mean, I think I can imagine where the answer to this, you know, kind of probing goes, but, you know, and thinking about asking about value systems, I also wanted to kinda bring up that talking about the idea of establishing a value system in your classroom. For some people, they may, they hear that phrase and they get nervous or uncomfortable ’cause they think that maybe it’s like, you’re being told to talk about something that’s political in the classroom. So I guess to make it explicit, ’cause I’ve got an idea in my mind, but make it explicit why this idea of using classrooms to create value systems is not some coded message for teachers to take politics into their classroom.

– No, I mean, if you think about it, when kids are small particularly in kindergarten, first grade, we actually grade them, give them feedback on, do they play well with others? Do they follow directions? You know, things that we know are really essential part of socialization. Well, that shouldn’t stop in kindergarten, that we need to be very intentional about creating learning communities where kids learn how to work together, cooperate how to work through conflicts, ’cause they will sometimes have conflicts with each other, how to listen, how to debate respectfully and with evidence and with listening, those are not.. that’s not teaching moral values although it’s not amoral either. It is teaching a person how to be a part of a larger community, which is what we need, you know, when we talk about education as the foundation for democracy what we’re really talking about is providing kids with the tools they need to be citizens and part of those tools are, you know, if we can’t engage in civil debate with each other then democracy is in trouble. If we can’t listen to each other, then we’re in trouble. And all those are things you can learn in school but you have to under guard it with some agreed-upon ways of communication that we’re not gonna put each other down just cause we disagree, we’re not gonna talk over each other, we will listen, we will respectfully disagree and the teacher needs to model that. So I think that that’s an essential part of education, always has, this is not a new idea.

– It’s funny that you took us back to, you know, the purpose of education, the importance of citizenry idea and I was also thinking about that as you were talking about that and it’s almost like you’re adding on top of that this nuance, which is all of this education enables them, yes to engage with their community but it sounds like you’re also saying to care, to engage with their community, it’s not just having the tools to engage it’s to care about engaging with the problems of their community and their country and that that’s really the.. maybe the charge that you’re offering to educators right now.

– Absolutely, I think that one of the worst things. I heard Dolores worked as a famous farmworker organizer. In a Ted talk, she said recently, she said “the biggest threat to our future is apathy” and it’s the belief that we can’t do anything about what’s going on, so we’re just, every person for themselves and I agree. I think that when we lapse into thinking there’s nothing that can be done and, each person for themselves, we, you know civilization is in trouble, if that’s what we’ve come to, you know, we wrote a book called “The Crisis of Connection” and it’s all about, first of all acknowledging what’s allowed human beings as a species to survive, is altruism, the fact that we do and have historically taken care of each other, taking care of the weak, taking care of the older ones, the children but if we lose that sense of recognition that we need to take care of other people then society is in trouble and I think we’re seeing the signs of it now, we see it during this pandemic. It’s the most vulnerable members who have been at the greatest risk of the disease and are falling through the safety net and so we need to constantly remind people that we are in fact interdependent and we need to work together to solve the problems that we face in the world.

– Well, Pedro, before we go, I want to ask you our extra credit question and that’s a little bit outside or maybe it’s inside the zone of education, I don’t wanna tell you how to answer it but the extra credit question is, you know what’s something that’s changed for you in your personal life that you hope will continue even you know, roll the clock forward when a life can get back to, you know pre-pandemic versions of normal?

– Well, during the pandemic, I took on a new job I went from being a professor to being a dean and it’s a very different role, you know, I was explaining to my granddaughter, it’s like moving from being a player to being a coach, right? If you were to use a sports analogy, you know the coach doesn’t play the game but the coach has to have a strategy, the coach has to see how the players play together and in order to hopefully win the game and I think being a dean is a lot like that, you’re working with others, You have to have a strategy, but you also have to work with people and get people to work together because universities are often place where everybody’s doing their own thing and the value of being, you know within a school or a department together gets lost ’cause everybody’s looking for their own recognition and rewards. So my challenge is figuring out how do I get people to work together? How do I get them to adopt a common vision of where we wanna go? And have it be shared, not just be mine. So, I’m enjoying that work so far, even though I don’t get to meet people in person very much, it’s all by Zoom but I’m looking forward to seeing them in person.

– A new role that you have plans to continue long after the pandemic. Well, Pedro, thank you so much for joining us to be part of PLtogether. If you’re just joining us and listening to this part of the conversation and wondering what we talked about before or wondering who else I’ve talked to, head over to for the rest of this conversation as well as many others. Pedro, thanks again for joining us.

– Thanks Adam