Passions and Problems

Next in his series for The Bay School Blog, Academic Dean Andy Shaw shares his thoughts on how students can – and should – use their interests and passions to solve meaningful, real-world problems.

EA2C9058Education, especially independent school education, has a tendency to get buzzword-y and caught up in trends. One such buzzword these days is “passion,” as in “helping students discover and follow their passions.”  I’m of two minds when it comes to this word. First, I believe that adolescents are in a place where they can and should be directing their own course of study when possible, following things that excite them.  We know that some of the best learning comes when we let students follow their own spark of interest. At the same time, there is something about the p-word that rubs me the wrong way; in a world full of needs to be filled and problems to be solved, there’s something about “passion” that runs the risk of veering into self-serving terrain, of ignoring an important ethical dimension of education. At Bay we believe that a 21st century definition for academic rigor will include not only supporting students’ passions but helping them align those passions to a perceived real-world need or problem.

One way we teach students this kind of rigor of service is through open-ended, community-focused projects. Our 10th-grade Research in the Community course is a good example: students have wide latitude to select a project topic for their trimester-long research project, but their topic must be rooted in a problem that affects a community. The topics each term cover a wide spectrum – last term’s set included sustainable biodesign, mental illness in the justice system, and the use of games in education – but they all have in common the fact that they represent the alignment of a student’s interests with a meaningful community-based problem or question, one to which our society needs a solution.

As students enter our 11th- and 12th-grade elective program, they find themselves with a host of course offerings – more than 70 in all. I’m sorry to say that no student can take all 70, meaning that they have some tough choices to make. Advisors, parents, and peers play an important role in helping the student identify areas of interest; students can be assured that almost no matter where their heart leads, we have an elective that aligns with their interests. I’m proud to say that in recent years, our faculty’s course offerings have veered more and more towards meeting students’ interests through course topics that are, in keeping with our school’s mission, rooted in rich and authentic needs that are manifest in the world beyond Bay’s doors. Some of these electives date to the school’s early years: courses in San Francisco Bay ecology; courses which examine the nature of good, evil, and the human condition; courses in product design; and courses which deepen students’ awareness of the voices of non-dominant groups, like African American Women’s Literature or Native American Literature.  Other courses are new, groundbreaking, and responsive to topics in the headlines, addressing problems like climate change, gentrification, or the science of California’s water system. Overwhelmingly, and increasingly, our electives are relevant to students’ desires but also authentically linked to our society’s challenges and needs.

EA2C0509As 12th-graders embark on their Senior Signature Projects they are confronted by the tremendous opportunity to spend six months studying the topic of their choice.  In their initial thinking about their project, most students gravitate appropriately to their personal interests and passions. This is exactly what we hope they will do, for we’ve helped them learn over their time at Bay to be reflective and self-knowledgeable. It is the job of the Senior Signature Projects course instructors to make sure that once a student has identified these interests, the student can also answer, in the context of their project, questions like, “Who will this project serve?” “How do you know this is meeting an authentic need or solving a genuine problem?” “How do you know that the community you aim to serve really wants the solution you aim to create?” The exceptional projects every year are the ones with solid answers to questions like these.

The world needs thoughtful people who know themselves and are aflame with the energy to follow their passions. I’m glad Bay nurtures this dimension of our students. I’m at least as proud, though, that we make sure students see that value and meaning are created when one’s interests align with a problem that demands solving or a need that calls out to be met. This is a key feature of academic rigor at Bay – the rigor of pursuing a passion for a reason bigger than yourself.

– Andy Shaw, Academic Dean

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