Paper Problem-Solving With First Graders

1stgrade1It was a weekday afternoon, and Ms. Monroe’s class was getting ready to embark on their next project – folding paper squares into the shapes of various animals. A chart tacked to the wall clearly described each of the project options, with pictures and directions broken down into easy steps.

“So class,” Ms. Monroe was asking, “If you don’t know how to fold a particular shape, what can you do?”

“Ask a friend!” the class answered in unison. The alternative, of course (as Ms. Monroe had also mentioned) would be to look at the folded shapes already on the wall, and to practice-re-folding the shapes posted there along the pre-folded lines.

Agency – a core value in the design of Lodestar – is what students will build as they participate in more learner-driven activities throughout our program. Ms. Monroe is asking them to figure things out for themselves instead of asking the teacher for help every time they had trouble understanding the directions or encountered an especially tricky corner.

At Lodestar, we think about agency as having the ability, motivation, and sensitivity (to what’s possible) to shape one’s world. This is in line with the Agency By Design principles of Project Zero at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Indeed, these were some of the lessons the students were learning through paper folding.

Specifically, part of the idea of the project was for students to gain experience in following visualizations of the steps. More important, however, was the fact that students were being exposed to the fact that projects can be broken down into manageable pieces, that the order in which these steps are completed matters, and that they can rely on each other for help just as much as they can rely on their teacher.

Thus, students were being asked to become leaders, offering to help others with steps they themselves had already completed. Similarly, they were being asked to recognize when they needed help, and to either find a friend or rely on written directions to find it.


1stgrade31stgrade4Of course, (especially since these were younger students), the activity also had a high degree of scaffolding. For example, students who were having trouble folding the more complex shapes were invited to work at a “paper folding table,” where they concentrated on developing skills such such as creating smart creases and sharp corners. Ultimately, they would use these same skills in creating complete works of art.


Students taking charge of their own learning also had additional benefits. For example, during the time in which some students were working more independently on paper folding, other students were meeting with Ms. Monroe to work on journal projects.

Thus, this situation in which students were rising to the challenge of, to a certain extent, taking charge of their own learning ultimately resulted in an increased number of learning opportunities for all students.