The Learning Curve
Welcome to The Learning Curve - insightful educational commentary from Dr. Bob Bowman, Assistant Head of School for Upper School.
Connection Inspires Learning
Several days before the start of the 2019-20 school year, two of my closest high school friends (who am I kidding, my only high school friends) and their spouses got together with me and my wife. By reasonable measures, all six of us have met with some success in our adult lives. I am not talking billion-dollar hedge fund or Kardashian-level Instagram influencer success, but we parlayed our privileged upbringings and made a decent go of it as adults. Our careers include orthopedic surgeon, CFO, television executive producer, etc… and, of course, the most highly esteemed and enviable of positions: Upper School Head.
As with many evening gatherings with lifelong friends, the spirits were flowing and the conversation found its way back to the good old days: high school. My buddies and I regaled each other with stories of our banal shenanigans (complete with almost continuous spousal eye-rolling and exasperation) and replete with embellishments that are expected when the events in question took place a great distance back in life’s rear view mirror.
During the dessert course, after a bite of some strangely named decadent chocolate concoction, I asked a question that has been rattling around my brain since I began my second career as a high school educator: What do you remember about your teachers and classes from high school? With the start of the 2019-20 school year right around the corner, I was pondering what the almost 240 Wardlaw+Hartridge Upper School students would find memorable or transformative or inspiring during their four years as a W+H Ram many decades in the future.
Those faithful subscribers to this blog (and my podcast!) know I am 40 years removed from my high school graduation, which was true, within a few years, for all six of us. We went to four different high schools that ranged from 50 (not a typo) to 1,000 students. As we reminisced, some truths (or at least anecdotal similarities) about what we recalled arose from the late evening babel. The strong, meaningful relationships are what we remembered, and to my surprise, with quite a bit of passion and clarity. I was a little shocked to learn how much I did not know about my closest friends’ relationships with their teachers, coaches and mentors from high school and the similar experiences of our spouses. The next truth was startling and took me a while to process. Very few of our most vivid and influential memories involved what we actually learned in class. We all agreed we must have learned a lot because we all went to college and graduated. But short of who taught what subject, some humorous episodes, and a few random details, the only other major theme of our discussion was who inspired us through their passion for the subjects and for inspiring a life well lived.
It would be dangerous to extrapolate our experiences to any general conclusions, but it did motivate me to do a little reading on memory. What do psychologists and neuroscientists believe cause us to store and to recall certain memories from our past and forget other seemingly equally salient experiences? An article in Psychology Today, Why do We Remember Certain Things and Forget Others by Dr. Shahram Heshmat, states the following: “A normal function of emotion is to enhance memory in order to improve recall of experiences that have importance, or relevance for our survival. Emotion acts like a highlighter that emphasizes certain aspects of experiences to make them more memorable.”
Further reading reinforces the concept that emotional connections with people, places and events serve to solidify memories that are most meaningful and influential in our lives. If you are interested, Medium.com has a compilation of other interesting resources addressing this subject entitled (with link) Nostalgia, Emotions and Why We Remember What We Remember.
As I think back to the August gathering, I recall with clarity the affection with which each of us spoke about the folks from our high schools who made a difference in our teenage years. So, as we look back, was it these instructors’ ability to teach their subject with rigor and excellence, or was it their ability to connect individually with students in a way that evoked a personal, emotional bond that made them memorable? Or was it both? Regardless, the message is clear, meaningful human connection is essential for learning that transcends the moment, that lives in the minds and hearts of students long after graduation.
In our Upper School, we understand how important these connections are. We also know that students will choose their trusted adults, their inspirations, their champions. I am confident that our faculty provides them with an array of personalities and teaching styles to let their positive energy and love of learning guide their instruction. And when given the moment, the opening to be more, they start that process of nurturing a student-teacher bond that leads to memories that last a lifetime in our students’ minds.
That is my wish for the start of the school year for all your children: find their many memory makers.
Now, if I could only recall the name of the chocolate dessert. Sadly, my memory fails.
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