As many of us know from personal experience, the month of January brings an opportunity to establish some healthier habits and mindsets. We often recommit ourselves to the lifestyle we desire in response to the real challenges that we experienced at the close of the previous calendar year. This January has brought that same moment to me as a headmaster and I want to share with you what I have observed about the key challenges our students are facing right now. I believe each one of these is central to our students’ experiences throughout the Academy and together they help to guide the commitments we look to make to our students and to the future.
1. The excitement, and demands, of analyzing ideas
Our students acknowledge that information and knowledge are for understanding, not just remembering. They seem to relish the job of unpacking, dissecting, and reassembling new content in their classes. When I visit classes at every grade level I see students who raise their excitement and engagement precisely when they feel their teachers are offering them the most challenging material and questions. They know they must acquire the information, make it part of their brains, but they also expect to do this by using the information in some way. Evaluation, synthesis, analysis, and creation—the “higher order” critical thinking skills—were traditionally reserved for advanced or upper level classes but are now expected at every grade level. In my short time at Moravian, I’ve witnessed students across all our divisions asked to synthesize information, to find evidence to support hypotheses, to make interpretive claims, to analyze the arguments or perspectives of others, to explain their creative solutions to problems, and to present their own ideas in response to the material they are seeking to understand. While great education has long focused on critical thinking, we have seen a dramatic increase in the daily demands on younger students to build these skills. This makes sense in an age when information is no longer scarce and creation skills are valuable. For our students, who know they must still memorize and internalize what they learn, the most compelling challenges seem to be demonstrating their understanding through the application, evaluation, and synthesis of ideas.
2. Resilience required
Evaluation and synthesis require forming ideas of your own, of course, and for many students the act of finding their own idea is a daunting task—especially early on in the learning process. One of the first strategies they might try is guessing what the teacher thinks the “right answer” is. Increasingly in this world of analysis and interpretation, however, there is not a single right answer and faculty members will often consider the explanation of a student’s answer as important as the answer itself. Many Moravian Academy students find that taking calculated risks can be rewarding, especially in small and collaborative classes where trust and personal relationships are highly valued. It takes years of experience to build up a comfort and confidence for taking risks. Still, two of the emerging core needs that I see our students working on are the ability to try out ideas and the comfort in receiving feedback in order to improve. When students are encouraged to take risks and are taught how to learn from the feedback, they find it easier to learn. As young adults, they will also need the resilience they gain from this kind of learning in order to sustain success and find their happiness as they become truly independent.
3. Preparing for a hyper-competitive world
Ask Moravian Academy students what motivates them and you can count on hearing about how their classmates help push their efforts and sharpen their results. I’ve heard many students and alumni tell stories about how they were inspired to work harder, be more creative, and push beyond their own expectations for themselves by seeing what their classmates were doing. Our students know they are preparing for a hyper-competitive world. Most impressive to me, however, is that in certain conditions they often respond to this by collaborating more, not less. They seem to know that they will learn the most by surrounding themselves with similarly ambitious peers. Many students—especially those I’ve talked to in Lower and Middle School—have told me they believe hard work and persistence are probably more important than talent. I believe Upper School students also know, even though they may admit it less willingly, that when they are facing their greatest challenge success will be determined by effort, initiative, resilience, and ambition more than by any notion of innate talent.
4. The challenge of finding your passions
Another reality for our students is that they expect to be discovering their passions during adolescence. I spoke with several recent MA alumni who all described with steely resolve how they entered college knowing what they wanted to pursue. One alumnus disagreed, slightly, by saying, “It’s not as if you have to know exactly what you want to do when you graduate from Moravian, but you do have to be ready to figure it out within the next six months.” This underscores the importance of trying new fields and exploring all the domains while still a student at Moravian Academy, so that you are prepared with real knowledge of yourself and your passions by the time you leave. It’s essential that students be encouraged to try, and to try hard, in many different disciplines. A student who thinks herself a scientist may find out before graduation that she is also an artist. If she waits until college, she may not get the chance. The most consistent observation I’ve heard in the past six months is actually from the parents of recent alumni, who have told me time and again how Moravian Academy helped their children find their own ways and launched them in their own directions. They often remark about how different their children are from each other as people but how their experiences at Moravian were similar because it was here that they sparked their true passions.
5. The wellness skills
These previous expectations can be daunting, but the single greatest contemporary challenge for our students may be learning how to be healthy, well grounded individuals. Being at an ambitious place like Moravian Academy means students are often highly scheduled with commitments. They may spend longer time in a car or on a bus than their peers at local schools, and their homework assignments are seemingly as complicated as their daily lives (practice problems, read for comprehension, choose a research topic, study for the test, contribute to the group document, assemble materials for the diorama!). Although we call them digital natives, that does not make them immune to the very real pressures and temptations of always being connected on their devices. With multiple account streams to manage daily, and bridging between family, friends, and school communications, our students need to code switch constantly both in person and online about what the norms of the conversation are. This leads to mistakes in judgement, especially when it is so easy to post a thought once only to realize later the potentially damaging consequences of sharing information in the wrong venue. When every decision and every assignment seems to become so important, how do they learn to gather their energies, take meaningful breaks, and work on tasks to completion? When it comes to work and life balance, the adults they trust—from their parents to their teachers—are often struggling with the same issues. Add in that unstructured time is at premium and we see how daily stresses and pressures build up over an extended period of time.
Luckily, the world is paying attention. Many researchers, parents, educators, and community leaders are working together on this health priority that extends from childhood all the way through college and beyond. By combining separate parts of this conversation, such as mindfulness and executive functioning, we can better prepare our students with the skills and knowledge to counter the forces of anxiety and depression. I’ve been amazed by how our students are seemingly already ahead of this curve. It takes many years and countless experiences for young people to learn these skills, but having a school that is coordinated around mind, body, and spirit from early childhood to senior year makes a great difference!
Like individuals, our school is always looking for ways to improve our habits and realize our purpose in life a little bit better. I hope these observations help us to better understand what needs our current students are facing so that we can make meaningful progress in the year ahead.