Individual and Collective Potential

By Andy Shaw, Academic Dean

DSC_0060As a school whose mission explicitly calls for us to help “students unlock their individual and collective potential,” we are always working to weave together the individual and the collective to produce the academic rigor we seek in preparing students for the coming century. As the first trimester came to a close in the weeks before Thanksgiving, I found myself reflecting upon some of the many ways I watched teachers attend to these dual notions of individual and collective potential.

Exploration of individual potential, especially in the form of differentiated challenge, has been a much-discussed topic this term. A recent after-school Teaching Seminar, led by in-house instructional coaches Tony Pickering and Lori Cohen, helped teachers think about student-centered teaching, a big part of which is determining what ideal challenge looks like for each individual student. This came in tandem with some exciting meetings I had with the math department, who have spent significant time and effort in the early parts of this year experimenting with techniques to offer a variety of differentiated challenge to students, through a host of interestingly-named activities (sponge problems and challenge sets to new a few). For students who choose to challenge themselves in a given discipline, Bay’s honors courses provide a great place environment for exploring individual potential. As the honors art courses, Advanced Projects in Digital Media and Advanced Drawing and Painting Studio, put the final touches on their trimester-long projects, the community was inspired by the depth and richness which the students had achieved in their work.

As we have matured as a school, we’ve also developed a variety of nuanced ways to explore and build the notion of collective potential. To some degree, collective potential is about collaboration and about growth as a collaborator. I’ve had some great conversations in these last few weeks with teachers from the Chemistry 1b team, who see the learning in collaborative projects as being about both the chemistry of the molecules but also the chemistry of the group. Teachers in this class (as well as many others at Bay) collect reflections from each student about the nature of the collaboration in their groups. This feedback can be synthesized, merged with the teacher’s own observations, and (anonymously) communicated back to students to help them identify their own areas of strength and weakness as collaborators. Collective potential is also about strengthening our empathy and self-awareness muscles, as these help us operate with a more open mind towards those who initially seem very different from us. In Humanities 1 this term I’ve watched teachers, in the context of comparative studies of global culture, norms, and family structure, help students unpack the subconscious assumptions they carry, identify the difference between observation and judgement, and develop what can only be considered a “rigor of empathy” in thinking about why those in other societies might make decisions different from those we make in our daily lives.

As the term’s final projects came to a close two weeks ago, students (in the Biological Psychology class) found themselves finishing a class-constructed website on the neuroscience of ADHD, completing final edits (in the sophomore Research class) on TED-style videos about social issues, and sharing extensive proposals with peers of how to address global climate change (in the Climate Change class). Each of these projects included deep, authentic, often personally-driven academic work, in which no two students studied identical issues and questions. Collectively, though, this work represents a common undertaking: a collection of team efforts to learn, to explore, and enlighten, and to make the world a better place.