Why are we here? Getting to grips with the QUESTion Project

Gerard Senehi and Francesca Rusciani, co-founders of the Open Future Institute, have created a revolutionary educational program — the QUESTion Project in New York City. In today’s climate of utilitarianism and division, they are empowering young people within the education system, to explore life’s fundamental questions for themselves, together.

 

 

 

3rd Space:  Welcome Gerard and Francesca! Could you start by telling us what the QUESTion Project is, what are its aims and vision, and who it serves.

Gerard: It’s a semester or year-long education program designed to give students a space to develop their identity, and connect with their agency in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. They explore questions of meaning and purpose – the reality that our lives can make a difference.

The broader aim is to create a space for students’ humanity.  It’s easy for our lives to be shaped by ideologies, fears, limiting beliefs and ideas about who we are. The antidote to much of that is connecting with our own humanity – with what moves us, what inspires us, gives us meaning, and connects us to other people; makes us feel part of a whole. 

There is a lot of talk about empowering youth. The ultimate empowerment is to give them the trust and confidence that they can think for themselves and shape their own lives. The way we often think about social-emotional learning or character development, is defining qualities or values, and then developing strategies that lead to these. If you create space for students’ humanity, those qualities emerge naturally. The kind of listening that happens when students hear each other in a space of vulnerability, addressing real life questions, is not something you need to have a technique for. There’s a lot of methodology behind our program, that builds the foundation for something organic and meaningful to happen.

3rd Space: That sounds pretty revolutionary. Who are you reaching?

Gerard: Right now, we reach students in public high schools in some of the most underserved communities in the Bronx, New York City, and Los Angeles. As the QUESTion Class is about our humanity, it’s relevant to students in all schools – public and private.

3rd Space: What inspired you Gerard, to do this? 

Gerard:  There were two things. One, I wanted to better understand how change happens at a systemic level. So I brought together some of my most thoughtful friends and hosted salons. Together we explored this topic for two years. An insight that emerged was that there’s a big opportunity to impact change by creating more space for our humanity. Rather than coming up with strategies to improve things, I wanted to get to the foundations of what can make a difference.

At the same time, the president of Amherst College, where I went to school, wrote a letter to the alumni saying, “How do we educate our students for citizenry?” He was concerned at seeing how many students go into positions of finance for example, without necessarily having a sense of citizenry. So I responded with initial ideas about engaging with important questions about life; not as a philosophy, but through real engagement. So that was the initial catalyst.

3rd Space: You are both partners in this. Francesca, what inspired you to do this work? 

Gerard Senehi and Francesca Rusciani

Francesca: It started when I was very young. I had a challenging family situation. My parents fought all the time. I was aware there was a lot of suffering in the world. I used to take my little dog and sit on a rock looking at the stars at night. I would wonder – why am I here? What is this beautiful universe? Why there is so much suffering in the world? And what can I do? 

Fast forward many years, and here I am working with students, supporting them collectively on this wonderful journey, where life is so tough at the same time. I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure it all out, and I’ve realised this is really a human quest: a beautiful and very hard human quest. It’s also something that we don’t usually have support for. I had to struggle on my own. So the mystery of life on one hand, and the incredible suffering and challenge for the individual, for the world, on the other – that’s what brought me to do this. 

Vision

3rd Space. So what is your vision for this work?

Francesca:  To create a space in education of openness, creativity and love, where students can engage with these fundamental life questions together. Through our recent partnerships we’ve expanding our vision to create a new subject field in education itself; one, where the quest for meaning and purpose, our own humanity, and our place in life is at the core of the learning process.

3rd Space: How did the QP originate? And how does it nurture that space for students. 

Francesca: The original vision was Gerard’s. One morning he woke up and came to me with five simple paragraphs. I thought, are you crazy? Then I looked again more closely, I realized, oh my god, there is something here. In these paragraphs we had what we call the “Five Pillars”. We began to build the program around these.

Initially we developed our ideas with a focus group of college students. Then, one of our board members called us one day and said, “I want you guys to take your program to a school in the Bronx”. I had never even been to the Bronx. I had just moved to America. We took what we had, and did a 45-minute session. The students had an amazing response. Later, the principal told us, “I’ve seen my students open up as much in these 45 minutes as they do after months in a counselling session. Whatever you guys are doing, I want it.”

We implemented the program and began to work co-creatively with his teachers. Since then, we have worked with twenty to thirty students every summer, brainstorming together. The curriculum has been created for students, by students. It’s entirely co-created. The co-creative spirit is, and always will be, at the core of our work. 

The QP is defined as social-emotional learning and character development. It’s rigorously designed, and fully integrated into the school curriculum. It’s not about feeling good, or dealing with emotions; or even addressing a particular topic of human existence. There are a lot of programs that address issues like how do we deal with bullying? How do we develop communication skills? There are even programs that address specific aspects of life and its challenges. What we’ve tried to do is to address the totality of the experience of being human.

Gerard:  Currently the structures we have in society – politics, media, medicine, business, tend to dehumanise. We need structures that actually humanise these domains as a foundation for society. Education is fundamental.

Humanity is a very broad term. It sounds beautiful, but how does this actually apply to education? It’s possible to approach it in a way that’s concrete and rigorous. In breaking this down, as we have in our curriculum, we allow students to go into the most important areas and questions about life. We strive to not impose ideas but let them shape their own ideas, for themselves.

Methodologies

3rd Space:  Can you describe how do you actually do this?  What methodologies do you use?

Gerard:  The first step was to identify the most important human questions. We spent two or three years working with high school and university students to figure out what are the most important human topics, relevant for this stage of development. At the core of our work in the QUESTion Project (QP) are two questions: Why are we here? And how can we give in a way that fully reflects our own uniqueness? The question of methodology followed: how to bring the depth and realness of these questions to life without being abstract, or overly personal. And so in the curriculum we combine the rigour of critical thinking – intellectually grappling with these questions – with the personal implications of how they are relevant to our lives. That’s how we’ve built the curriculum. 

3rd Space: How does the curriculum enable this?

Francesca:  The curriculum is a journey into discovering our identity. How do we discover, or create who we are? Is life really in our own hands and, if so, to what extent? How do we find meaning and purpose? It’s very difficult, right? So, the curriculum is focused on identity, agency, and purpose. Its structure is based on five pillars: choice, purpose, fearlessness, interconnectedness and bigger picture. These are sub-divided into multiple units, each with detailed lesson plans. 

The ‘pillars’ are placeholders for exploration and discussion of our human experience. Our aim is to empower students to feel that life is in their hands. So we start with ‘choice’ because it’s direct, an easy entry point to being in touch with oneself. We bring students’ attention to the choices they actually face every day, by connecting to their real life experience. 

For example, everybody says, “I should be myself”. But what does it mean?  How influenced are my choices by my peers? Do the choices I make define who I am? What role do circumstance and context play? We want our students to realise their choices have significance. We don’t ask leading questions, nor questions that lead nowhere. We try to help them reflect on their experience. Choice is a fundamental dimension of being human. It’s empowering but also confusing. 

For example, one student said, “After hurricane Maria, my grandmother in Puerto Rica stole some food because she had to feed her kids. Does that make her a thief?” Another student responded, “ Last week, I was hungry and I went to the Bodega (local foodstore) and took a snack. I ended up at the police station. If your grandmother is not a thief in Puerto Rica because of hunger, why am I a thief  because I’m hungry in New York?” In everything we do in the curriculum, we try to address the complexity, the paradoxes of living; to empower students to acknowledge their experience without judgment. 

We also try to show there are different perspectives. What does it mean to make the ‘right’ choice?  In one lesson plan, they watch a video of a street scene that’s been shot with a hidden camera. Someone robs an elderly woman (they are actors). Some people do nothing. Others go to help. Some chase the mugger. People make different choices. We then have the students discuss why they think people made those different choices. Multiple dimensions emerge. For example, in this scenario a young woman does nothing to help. The assumption is that she’s selfish. But in reality she did not respond because she’s terrified of being attacked herself, and she’s responsible for the little girl walking with her. In these conversations students grapple with complex topics that require nuanced thinking.

The second pillar is ‘purpose’. Once we get in touch with our own agency, or lack of it; once we realize we have a degree of choice, then what is it that we want our choices to express? We also look at what our choices have already expressed. This ‘big’ search for meaning and purpose is difficult and complex. The way we present this is very fluid. It’s more like opening up a sense of direction, rather than a fixed goal. 

From purpose, we move to ‘fearlessness’, which is my favourite. Once I’ve seen that I have agency in my life, once I see that my life is worth something, it takes a lot of courage to follow this. It takes a lot of courage to be yourself: to pursue an invisible sense of purpose; a lot of courage to love. 

So we have agency, a sense of direction and purpose in life, and the courage to follow this. Then we move to the last two pillars. The first is ‘interconnectedness’ and the second, ‘bigger picture’. These are fascinating pillars because although the larger context of the world is always present, the first three pillars are more individually focused.

With these last two, we broaden the focus: what about my relationship with my schoolmates, my family, community, social media, or with nature? You’d be amazed, there are so many kids that have never been to a park in their whole life! What’s my relationship with the world at large? One of the first things the students gave us feedback on when we started the pillar on interconnectedness was: “You should start addressing the reality of our situation”. Their lives were lonely and disconnected. So the first lesson plan on the topic of interconnectedness is called ‘A shared disconnect’. We learnt you have to start where you are. 

The last pillar is ‘bigger picture’. We address this first with the question: “Is there something bigger going on that includes me? Can we create space for that? In relation to this, one kid told me that he gets this sense when he is with his dog. I asked him, “Why your dog?” He said, 

“Because when I’m with my dog I feel love, and when I feel love, I feel connected with something bigger than me”.

We also use a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this, Tyson responds to a child’s question about the meaning of life, and goes through the thirteen billion year story of life. Where are we going as a human race? 

3rd Space. I have a question about when you start a new class. I can see once everyone is engaged, an organic process starts to reinforce and support itself. But how do you break the ice and get students in; especially as this is not an optional class? 

Gerard:  Good question. It is challenging at first for students to engage as it requires a certain vulnerability to share what they really think, and our culture doesn’t support this. As a young man, I found it difficult to be vulnerable. But I think across the board, if you bring people together and you have a real conversation about real questions, people want to engage.

3rd space:  What are some of the major challenges you face in this work? 

Francesca:  The biggest challenge is the expansion of this program into the education system. 

3rd Space:  That’s a big one! And in the classroom? 

Francesca:  The major challenge there is a beautiful one. We are not trained as students or teachers to engage with each other in a real way—with respect and vulnerability, with trust. So it takes time get to that point. We include this in the teacher training. Their role is incredibly important. 

Teacher Training

Gerard:  This is something I’m really excited about. Together with teachers, we identified some of the most important elements of teaching this kind of social-emotional learning. And we came to what we’re calling nine Core Competencies. With these, we create space for teachers to explore their own humanity in relationship to teaching the class. This helps them bring the class to life in a way that allows students to be themselves.

There are a lot of methods and techniques involved but it’s a teacher’s own vulnerability, their willingness to not know, that brings these topics to life. How do we ask questions that lead to depth rather than specific outcomes. 

3rd Space:  Could you give an example? 

Gerard:  Yes. One lesson plan is structured as a debate. The topic: “Is life about me, or about others?”  It’s easy to take either point of view. But the point is to really find out. We split the class in half and they each debate one side. The best outcome I’ve seen is where students speak in such profound ways that there is almost no difference which side they are debating from. But in one case I met with a teacher after the class and asked how it went. Their response was, “It was tough, but I got the students to the right answer”. Her idea of a ‘right’ answer was ‘life is about others’. 

This kind of engagement with the teachers helps us identify their learning areas. We’re opening a space where we’re all constantly learning about the process. In the first ever teacher training we did, we heard ourselves speaking at the teachers. I was like, “no, wait a minute, we have to redo this.”  The whole spirit in which we’re exploring with the students, has to be the same in the teacher training. The curriculum is structured but in terms of the deeper learning, we’re all in it together. 

3rd Space:  Can you briefly say what those nine competencies are? What a teacher training involves?

Gerard:  Our guiding principle is to create a space for students’ humanity. So how we [teachers] are with students makes a big difference – that’s primary. The second competency is making it all relevant, real. It’s important the class is not a philosophy class just about ideas. Then, there’s the critical element of creating a space of trust. A teacher’s authenticity is essential for this.  The fourth is seeing, engaging, and including every student. It’s important for students to be seen for who they are, and to see themselves for who they are. Next, is empowering students’ agency so that they connect more and more with the fact this is their life – their thoughts, their values, their actions.

The sixth competency, which is probably one of the hardest, is called “Leading Through our Humanity”. It’s having the courage to fully express who we are, the kind of leadership where we stand for what we really care about. Sometimes I have to dig deeper to be myself, to express what I really believe in. So, it’s not about judging ourselves. These are actually ways we empower ourselves, just as we want to empower students.

3rd Space: I would imagine there’s a direct connection between the more vulnerable and authentic a teacher is, and empowering the students, right?

Gerard:  Absolutely. One of the challenges of defining these is there’s so much overlap between them. The seventh is about creating a shared learning journey where students are really in it together. If we think about politics right now with all the divisiveness, it’s not enough to say it’s a “shared American journey”. We need to create structures for that to be realized. Similarly, in the classroom, we have to create the experience of a shared learning journey. You can’t just tell students, “We’re all in it together, blah, blah”…They’re not going to buy it.

3rd Space:  How do you create that collective learning journey? Especially living in a culture that puts so much emphasis on being an individual. 

Gerard:  Well, there are two elements: one is the role of the curriculum, and one is the role of the teacher. The curriculum engages students in building the answers together. There is not one right answer; they’re engaged in an exploration together. So it’s a real learning journey they’re on. They hear each other, respond to each other, and the teacher’s response draws more out and ties things together. Their role is to facilitate this process.

The eighth competency is cultivating the intangible side of education. I think, it applies to any subject field. If you’re teaching history, for example, there are facts and events. There is also an intangible side to these. How did these events shape the trajectory of humanity? How did they lead to other events? What was the purpose behind them? What do they reflect about our humanity? The idea is to validate what we all already know – that the intangible side of life is as important as the tangible.

The last competency is supporting an open inquiry, making room for the unknown. If a teacher makes room for what they don’t know this creates a space of trust and engages the students. It empowers their agency. These are all interrelated but it’s helpful to break things down and dig into concrete topics, where we can go deeper together.

Impact

3rd Space: What do you see in terms of the impact of the program?

Gerard:  What strikes me most is empowerment – students at the centre of their own lives. For example, they often speak about intense experiences in a non-victimized way. There’s an easefulness, a kind of detachment that comes from bearing witness to themselves and each other, and knowing that terrible things that have happened to them are not who they are. The program is geared to discovering who one is. So for me, it’s profound to see students empowered to be themselves in a very natural way.

3rd Space:  That’s rare. The emphasis in education today is attaining top grades – a narrow definition of success. It sounds like in the QP, students are discovering who they are, through being who they are?

Gerard:   That’s very well put…. Discovering your agency, by engaging your agency!

3rd Space: We need fundamental change in how we function as a society. Do you see the impact you are having on students as relevant for society, or the global situation? There are many great theories regarding holistic systems, but theories can suffer from abstraction. So I’m curious about the link between this kind of engaged education and its potential impact on society?

Francesca:  In terms of the program, beyond the empowerment of the individual, it addresses the human divide. The ability to really listen, to embrace and hear each other’s perspective is paramount. Not in terms of simply agreeing. We are trying to create a forum where we learn that diversity is joyful; where different perspectives enrich us, versus creating division. To respect and learn from each other’s perspective, to grow from that, is incredibly relevant. We also talk about major issues that plague our society, like racism. When you have a Latino kid, an African-American kid, and an Asian kid in the classroom, and they actually talk together, they realize they have a common humanity. And they realize that their common humanity doesn’t negate the beautiful traits of their own culture, or their own individuality.

Citizenry

3rd Space:  I would like to circle back to the question, Gerard, your university president had about developing citizenry’. It’s not a concept we use much, and I don’t think our education or culture fosters this. So I’m curious, do you see this journey of self-knowledge as sowing seeds that could develop a sense of social citizenry, social responsibility?

Gerard:  This is a really important aspect. The implicit message in education today is work hard, study hard, so you can be the best, get into the best schools, best college, get the best jobs and be successful in life! It’s a structure that gives a specific message. So the citizenry that comes out of it is going to be a reflection of that. It needs to be balanced with a message that we’re in this human journey together. It’s complex but we need to work out the complexities together. We need to figure out who we are in that overall journey, and how we connect with others. If that’s not a fundamental message, the citizenry we produce isn’t going to be holistic. We produce brilliant scientists, mathematicians, and businessmen etc – important individual intellects, passions. But we also need this collective human element of being in it together.

3rd Space:  Yes, we’ve always needed those at the top of their field, but today that can, and does, lead to the diminution of the public good, the destruction of the commons. There’s very little sensibility, or awareness of being part of a collective taught in modern education.

Gerard:  Almost every school mission statement has that social emphasis. It’s not that people don’t feel it’s important, but I think the challenge in society at large, is how to create the right structures for that? Most collective structures are focused on shared ideologies, communal or political identities. The potential here is creating space for our shared humanity to achieve a sense of social citizenry. But we need structures that are authentic.

This brings me to another element of our vision, which is to embed this program into the entire education system. An even bigger step, which is beyond our work, is we want to contribute to creating a new subject field in education; one where there is support for students’ humanity at every step in the journey in age-appropriate ways, through different programs, different approaches – all working together. 

3rd Space: That would be a revolution of our education system!

Scaling up

3rd Space: In terms of scaling up the program, can you speak briefly about the partnership with the Fetzer Institute?

Francesca: We are very excited about this partnership. Fetzer is engaged with multiple programs and projects at the political, social, economic and spiritual level. The amazing thing is that this partnership is not just a grant it’s a real collaboration. The focus is three-fold. The first is to create an impact study to gauge the success of the program. Stanford University has already started to do this. Once that’s completed, they will publish and distribute the results, which can validate the impact of this work.  

Secondly, the goal is to strengthen our program so that we can reach students nationwide whilst maintaining the fidelity of the program. We could put our curriculum online now, and potentially reach that many. But the point is that without the right facilitation, the right context, you can talk about choice, purpose, fearlessness etc in a way that it becomes a prison, rather than liberating. 

3rd Space: Given the subtlety of the nature of the work you’re doing, how do you retain those elements of authenticity and depth that make it so successful? 

Francesca: With relentless love! (laughs)…and the belief that it’s possible. If you’re not convinced as a leader that it’s possible, it’s not going to happen. You may not know how you’re going to do it, but you have to know you are going to do it, and be willing to find a way. At the core of any success is your conviction and willingness, and this inspires those around you. It also means having integrity; striving to manifest this in your own life, in your own organisation, and in all the partnerships you create.

3rd Space: I can imagine too that when it comes to scaling, the role of your teachers is paramount?

Francesca: Yes, it’s not just about one’s own conviction. Fetzer too has asked us how we are going to sustain the integrity and vision of the program. My goal is to create a strong core team who would be in charge of the teacher training. Structure is paramount. We are looking at developing three main areas: curriculum, teaching academy, and an ambassador (student) leadership program. I know it sounds clichéd, but leading by example is critical – manifesting your intention and goodness with all your limitations, and having your team lead by example. This is how we “train the trainers”. The ongoing development of teachers is where 80% of our effort is going to be focused in the next three years.

Gerard: We have long-term goals, and that’s what Fetzer Institute is inspired by, because they’re thinking about long-term change. So it’s an incredible partnership. We are putting scaffolding in place, so that together we can build towards that.

Francesca: The last part of the Fetzer collaboration is aimed at helping us identify and foster partnerships to develop the field. We have a plan to do this.  

3rd Space:  When you say “develop the field”, what do you mean?

Francesca: In this context, it means to create a space in education itself, where addressing our humanity becomes core to the learning process, and core to societal change. Fetzer Institute is truly interested in authentically addressing the foundations of society and doing that in the long term, and we are honoured to be one of their few partners in education.

3rd Space: Congratulations!

Francesca: There is a context which we are navigating in, a movement to transform education, to re-imagine education, to put students’ experience at the core of the learning process. And we are part of that.

3rd Space: That’s very inspiring. Thank you both.

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