Portrait of a Graduate: Discovery and Analysis

February 22, 2024 | Craig Doerksen


Kids start asking “why” from a very young age, and it continues right through high school. Before they fully engage in a topic or a task, they are critically interested in the “why” behind the “what.”

So why do we learn? Why do we do what we do?

Good grades an academic achievement are one answer, but they’re not the best answer. At Waterloo we’re working towards full-person learning. Our portrait of a graduate outlines a variety of skills needed to complete a trifecta of personal, productive, and academic goals.

Why? Let’s find out.

Let’s get productive

One of things many traditional schools don’t pay attention to is how to DO things.

A full third of our portrait of a graduate involves being productive. That’s our way of saying we want to be able to do things.

How do you not just know things, but also do things? Like…

  • make a history exhibit that helps us understand Russia’s war against Ukraine?
  • or record a podcast series on the biology of teenagers?
  • or design a high rise building that can withstand earthquakes, snow, and ice?
  • or clone and edit the genes in bacteria using CRISPR?
  • or respond to failure and discouragement by learning from it?
  • or make a video that captures your personal journey into the young adulthood you’ve attained?

Waterloo students practice doing real things like these in all their classes. But to do real things, the first steps are understanding why we are doing them.

Let’s start at the very beginning

In our Portrait of a Graduate, productivity starts with research and investigation and critical analysis. In the design process, we call our first three steps Accept, Empathize, and Define.

These first steps all have to do with the question “why.”

Before we research we have to hold loosely what we already know. We have to start with questions and listening.

We all love to learn critical thinking, but sometimes we risk becoming quicker to critique than to understand. Critical analysis is not critiquing. It’s listening really, carefully — to stories, to data. It’s making long lists of need-to-knows, and then seeking those answers. It’s asking follow up questions — being slow to conclude and quick to ask.

It’s so easy to have ideas and opinions. It’s so tempting to assume we’ve heard or seen or learned enough — so no need to research. No need to analyze further.

To really listen, we must bring our questions. That’s the critical part. That’s the investigation. Then we go chase down the answers to those questions, which again, takes time.

It’s easy to hold onto our emerging ideas too tightly, but when we do, we close ourselves off to new ideas, better views, wisdom, and solutions.

In spring 2023, Waterloo students got a chance to visit the border at El Paso. The experienced challenged them to look beyond the media and to understand and empathize with the human issues at the border.

Turning problems into solutions

Once we understand why, we are ready to start making things that address problems — personal problems, global problems, spiritual problems, societal problems.

Sometimes the problem we started with wasn’t really the problem at all. It takes patience and humility to truly listen and analyze the issues before we start coming up with solutions.

These problems will yield to our investigation, to our research, to our analysis. Solutions will emerge — brilliant solutions, real solutions.

As our students embark into the world, we aim to equip them with the skills they will need to succeed and make an impact.

Why we do what we do

At Waterloo, our students ask why, because they are so much better engaged in problem solving that involves real people and real problems they can empathize with.

Some projects are purely hypothetical, but others start to chip away at real-world problems.

Either way, we’re not just raising good test-takers, we’re training real-world problem solvers, and get ready — someday soon we get to actually let them loose into the world.

Craig Doerksen

Craig Doerksen

Prior to becoming the director of Waterloo School, Craig provided leadership for a number of prominent institutions, including Regents School of Austin; the Bluetower Arts Foundation in Eugene, OR; and Trinity School in Raleigh, NC. Craig holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Ireland and graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English.