Big Questions with No Easy Answers

Academic Dean Andy Shaw returns to our blog with another in-depth look at academics at Bay. In this post, Andy talks about what academic rigor looks like at Bay, and how our students are learning to tackle tough questions.

A hundred years ago, academic rigor looked different from the way we see it today at Bay.  In those days, scholars and experts were renowned for what they knew, and education was built around producing vessels to hold knowledge, and memorizing vast bodies of information for recall in the proper moment. In the 21st century, however, it’s often not about what you know, but about what you don’t know – these days, an expert, an innovator, a leader, a change-maker is someone who is comfortable approaching a problem whose answer cannot be found simply by recalling an obscure fact.  Those questions that required an expert in 1915 are often now answerable by Google, but the questions that require an expert in 2015 are the messy, complex, intractable, “impossible” ones. Solving these kinds of questions requires a new kind of academic rigor, a rigor of thought which pulses through Bay’s hallways on a daily basis. Wally '16 at the Climate Change Exhibition Night

Two of Bay’s signature interdisciplinary courses, Climate Change and Artist as Activist, serve as key examples for courses built around this kind of academic rigor.  These courses are organized, respectively, around the key questions, “What would it take to turn the tide of climate change?”, and “How can I, as an artist, affect social change in the world around me?” The answers to these questions appear in no book, in one case because the presenting problem is novel and remains unsolved, in another case because the answer for each artist is personal and ephemeral.  Both questions require mastery of a significant body of content (climate science, human psychology and foreign policy on one hand; art history, art production and social studies on the other) in order for one to begin creating an answer. This mastery of content, however, is only the first step in a problem-solving process that also requires ingenuity, empathy, collaboration, critical thinking and synthesis, among others – true 21st century skills.

Addressing tough questions at Bay isn’t limited to interdisciplinary classes. In our math classes, which are built around the notion of asking students hard questions and having them wrestle with content before being handed the answer, students develop an ability to ask rich questions and then parse out the answers. In a Calculus class this week where the lesson focused on applications of the Fundamental Solving Math Problems at BayTheorem of Calculus, a student paused to wonder, “If two curves have the same derivative at every x value, can we call those curves ‘parallel’?” An energetic discussion ensued, thanks to our students’ understanding that math isn’t something to be coldly memorized, but rather something to be investigated and argued.

In US History classes last month, students were asked to write a paper predicting a history that did not happen: what if the post-Civil War reconstruction had been managed differently? How would our nation’s trajectory have been different? This process – using facts and analysis to predict an alternate future – helps students develop analytical and predictive skills that are of significant value in our dynamic world. ea2c9957

In Conceptual Physics classes, 9th-graders were asked to build a “Rube Goldberg” device that demonstrated the principles they had learned in the course. They were given free rein in terms of materials and processes, as long as their machine demonstrated key ideas.  This kind of open-ended “making” not only enables deep learning, but also answers the call of the 21st century: “Here’s a new problem with no obvious fix and no user’s manual.  Design a solution.”  At Bay, we know that the future is filled with thorny questions, and we’re giving our kids the skills to provide some answers.

– Andy Shaw, Academic Dean

Read Andy’s first post, “Challenging Problems and Interesting Solutions: Curricular Change in Bay’s Math Program”, here.

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