It’s a heart-felt truism that sounds a little trite but certainly defines our youngest learners: kindergartners are the most curious creatures in the world today. We benefit immensely from that spirit of inquisitiveness, that yearning to know a little more, see a little more, and do a little more. Our central goal at Randolph is to honor and nurture that curiosity so that it’s the engine of learning that lasts our students for life.
Sadly, the curiosity that indelibly marks our nation’s kindergartners is slowly drained away by the experiences that American children encounter in their homes and at their schools. As students grow older, too many lose their appetite for learning. The causes of dwindling curiosity are many: over-preparation for standardized tests, indifference in the home, fascination with celebrity culture, expectation of immediate gratification, and inclination toward hyper-specialization are just a few.
At Randolph, we work hard to push back against this encroaching educational malaise. As Barnard College’s Judith Shapiro once remarked about the true purpose of education, “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” I was delighted last week when I dropped by Upper School Community Time and saw the students engaged in a spirited debate on our nation’s role in response to the deteriorating situation in Syria. What moved me most was watching the students step up and take on complicated and intractable problems with an eagerness to apply their learning to the world beyond us.
All great learning comes from the well of curiosity that is natural in each of us. Just one week before the event Upper School History teacher David Hillinck proposed the idea to the whole Upper School. He asked for volunteers, as the Syrian morass is not part of any class’s present curriculum. Knowing that the debate would be work beyond their current academic load, twelve Upper School students nonetheless committed to learning more and participating in the live debate in front of the entire community.
They broke into four teams, each representing a prospective American response: unlimited military intervention to end the Assad regime; targeted air strikes on Assad’s chemical weapons; cooperation with the United Nations and the international community to resolve the crisis peacefully; and absolute nonintervention. After we watched a short video highlighting the cultural fault-lines dominating Syria today, (see below) the students and Mr. Hillinck (new to Randolph this year!) jumped into the debate.
Engagement and rebuttal followed, with fun opportunities for one-word answers on white boards interspersed to keep us all on our toes. As the spirited debate wound down, Mr. Hillinck relayed that every student and every teacher would be polled electronically so that our now educated points of view could be shared with our representatives in the United States Congress. For the record, over 50 percent of the students supported absolute nonintervention and 25% urged working with the international community to diffuse the crisis. The faculty, by contrast, supported the effort to work with the international community to end the civil war by a slim majority.
I love working at a school where something like this can get organized and executed in less than a week. I’m moved by Mr. Hillinck’s commitment to act on a belief that we should all be more educated about our role as American citizens and members of the world community. I’m especially drawn to Upper School History teacher Ann Lawson’s contention that students should go away from such an event “a bit confused.” Bouts of confusion are inevitable and directly connected to curious and inquisitive minds. What matters most is that these brave Upper School students are living out what it means to be a learner for life.