I’m sure you’ve been hearing a lot lately about the Academy advantages and why we’re so proud to be the educational leader in Southcentral Pennsylvania. We know one of these advantages is the learning outcomes our students achieve. For example, our alumni consistently credit their high rate of success in college to learning how to write clearly and concisely, and how to study effectively. Our Upper School students produce International Baccalaureate examination results that are superior to the IB world average. And nearly two-thirds of our Middle School students qualify for courses offered by the highly-selective Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. The list of impressive student learning outcomes goes on.
While information mastery is clearly an important outcome, there’s another set of learning outcomes that is equally important for all Academy students to master… one that doesn’t entail getting the correct answer, but rather, asking the best question.
In college, and later in graduate school, I experienced the following situation in numerous class sessions. When thinking hard about the correct answer to a question, a student would raise his or her hand and say, “I don’t think that’s the right question.” Invariably, all conversation stopped, including the professor’s remarks. Why? Because, everyone in the classroom, including the professor, realized that student was correct. We all were focused too intently on finding the right answer, when in fact, we should have been focused on finding a different — and better — question.
The ability to ask the best question, not unlike other important habits of learning, comes from experience. Asking the best question is part of critical thinking, a key learning outcome at the Academy. Engaging our students in critical thinking occurs daily at the Academy – beginning in our Early Childhood program continuing through our Upper School. It happens when students discuss a story they heard in Junior Kindergarten, one they read in 3rd grade, one they composed in 7th grade, and one they translated from French in 10th grade. And, critical thinking occurs in our science education, in discussion of math, and certainly in our study of social studies and history.
If you were sitting in our classrooms, you would hear our teachers ask, “Is that really the best question?” Or, they may ask more indirectly, “What’s another way of thinking about that?” Redirecting the students’ perspectives, with the intent of making them consider a different one, is an effective way to train students to think about whether they are asking the best question.
Of course, learning to think critically does not happen overnight. Similar to the development of important habits of thinking and learning, it requires practice and repetition. By the time students are prepared to graduate from the Academy, they have had that practice. “Teaching to the test,” and focusing primarily on getting the right answer will not lead to critical thinking skills, or understanding how to ask the best question. Academy students acquire critical thinking skills because our classroom instruction is anchored in discussion — discussion among students that is very capably facilitated by teachers, not dominated by them.
I encourage you to visit an Upper School classroom (and one that often includes our 8th grade students). Similar to a college seminar course, you will find large tables in the classroom, seating 12 to 15 students facing one another, engaged in thoughtful conversation. The Academy’s learning environment encourages this development of critical thinking skills. It leads to deeper learning and more complete understanding of the material, different perspectives, and the “other” questions that can, and should, be asked.
Learning to ask the right question is an outcome that has significance far beyond the Academy or a college classroom. It can lead to success in the workplace as well as in volunteer activities. And it’s part of the Academy advantage.