The Learning Curve
Welcome to The Learning Curve - insightful educational commentary from Dr. Bob Bowman, Assistant Head of School for Upper School.
Can They Be Architects?
I have always loved science and for more than a decade I was a card-carrying scientist and enjoyed all the accompanying fame and riches… or maybe it was the fun and adventure? I’ll get back to you. Unsurprisingly, I have always followed the progress researchers are making in many disparate fields. Recently, I came across an article about dark matter and how the universe continues to bewilder even the most learned of physicists. (Wait! Do not stop reading. This blog is not about dark matter or anything scientific.) As with a lot of my reading, I was using my phone more for convenience; squinting at tiny fonts on a little screen is not one of my favorite things. (Wait again! This blog is also not about the evils of smartphones.) Dark matter is a subject about which I am fascinated, so I began reading with great anticipation. The article was well-written, yet I found myself drifting; the information I wanted was not in the first few paragraphs: What was the controversy provoked by the latest dark matter experiments? I scanned ahead but lost focus completely. So, I stopped reading it, bookmarked it for later, and searched for more enticing clickbait.
As my phone notified me of its impending shutdown, I began to reflect on this experience. I have lived through the birth, the explosion and now the ubiquity of connectivity. In parallel, there have been scientists and pundits who have presented treatise on the harm to our children’s brain development and the loss of attentiveness (and the evils of multitasking) of digital natives. Two similarly titled books that were shared with me, written a decade apart, address these issues: Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson and The Distracted Mind - Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen. While I do not share the Sturm und Drang of these and numerous other like-minded scholars, clearly the availability of information and skill sets of our students are far different from even 10 years ago. We need to understand this if we are to work productively with teenagers.
Today’s students have developed the ability to (too?) quickly access and assess media and research with lightning speed from an excessive number of sources ranging from SnapChat and YouTube to JSTOR and Google Scholar, and hundreds of sites with which I am not familiar. I believe my AARP brain was manifesting similar behavior (at a turtle-like pace) as I scanned my news feeds for articles interesting to me. I was seeking quick information on a Jeopardy! level, not an in-depth analysis. Yet, this is the catch - it is imperative that our students have a completely different gear, a much lower gear, when it comes to distilling information and thinking deeply as they start on the path towards creating authentic scholarship. They are naturally talented at collecting the raw materials, but can they be architects? Can they synthesize this disparate information into cogent and well-documented essays, papers and literary criticism? Students need to be able to focus and refine their arguments, connect their resources to essential questions, and finally create a written thesis that moves knowledge (or at least their own understanding) forward. That is the challenge of rigorous inquiry, slowing down and cogitating, straying away from the comfort of fast and easy, and trusting that the frustrations and challenges are a natural step in erudition.
Learning how to embrace and refine a more reflective approach to research is one of the fundamental responsibilities of any enlightened high school. At Wardlaw+Hartridge, our teachers focus their curricula on developing a number of requisite skills in parallel including conducting research, narrowing scope, critical thinking and compelling writing. The research process is disseminated in meticulous detail in our ninth grade Global Humanities course. The subsequent History sequence builds on this foundation culminating with one of our most challenging and rewarding courses: Capstone. Our English classes begin with an emphasis on writing mechanics and culminate with sophisticated approaches to composition in both fiction and non-fiction. There is a universal truth that our graduates share with us almost without fail upon their return from college: They know how to write and what to write. Their confidence is confirmed by their professors and classmates. This is a priceless benefit of a W+H education. We prepare our students to utilize rigorous inquiry as they advance their education and in all future pursuits.
As far as that unfinished article is concerned, eventually my phone was charged; I read it completely and followed several links to other supplementary material. As I anticipated, it was absolutely engrossing (if you are intrigued click here for the link to the piece). The universe with all its dark matter is a crazy place. I for one am excited to be living in these times, even if I have to squint to learn more about it.
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