What Does it Mean “To Use One’s Mind Well”?

What Does it Mean “To Use One’s Mind Well”?

by Steve Roushakes                 

The pedagogy and culture at The New School revolve around the belief that learning should be purposeful and that students should have choice and agency in their education. Our mission – to help students learn to use their minds well and take charge of their academic lives – captures this two-part belief in simple terms, although exactly what we mean by “using one’s mind well” and “taking charge” may not be self-evident. In his February 2014 blog, What is Educational Ownership? John Potter, our founder and headmaster, discussed this principle of choice in education, whereby students considerably shape their academic lives and begin to set high standards for their work. It’s certainly worth checking out. Here, I’d like to take a closer look at what it means to use one’s mind well.

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Perhaps a good place to start is with criticisms of American education, which are not hard to find these days, and which seem to lament a general absence of dynamic thinking in school curriculums. Here are just a couple:

One study…found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.
–Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?” The Washington Post, January 26, 2015

Don’t get me wrong—to study science, history, literature, indeed anything, one needs information. But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying questions, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply “inert knowledge”—to use the pithy phrase of the British American philosopher Alfred Whitehead.
–Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future

What these opinions and statistics point to, it seems, is an over-emphasis on the accumulation of facts at the expense of applied learning. Facts matter, of course, but they shouldn’t be mistaken as the be-all-end-all of learning, and the real heart and soul of a quality education – the really hard work, in fact – is applying what we’ve learned. “…analytical reasoning…” “a disciplined way of construing information…” This is largely what we mean at The New School by using one’s mind well.

SLsydney01Sydney, Class of 2015

It’s ultimately about asking the right questions. Ask a factual question (When was DNA discovered?) and you will get a factual, or “inert,” response (1869). When framed as a problem-based or essential question, however (How has the discovery of DNA benefited modern medicine?), you are asking the student to do much more than simply recall a fact; you are asking her to make connections, synthesize facts, and express and support an informed opinion. You are asking her to use her mind well.

Compare these factual questions to their open-ended counterparts:

  • When was the telegraph created? / How did the invention of the telegraph serve European imperialism?
  • What are Newton’s three laws of motion? / How may Newton’s laws of motion help us understand, and thus improve, fuel efficiency of cars?
  • How many soliloquies does Hamlet give? / What do Hamlet’s soliloquies tell us about his character?

Such open-ended questions are certainly challenging, yes, but they also invite the students to co-create the learning in the classroom. No sophistry: the teacher doesn’t have the answer. Rather, there are degrees of quality, informed answers, and students’ opinions therefore truly matter, because they are contributing to an open exploration. We all want what we say to matter, and students are no different. In my experience, too, students like to be challenged, so long as they see the purpose in the work, and it’s certainly fair to label such questions purposeful. I think many students feel alienated by their classroom experiences (I know I did) because the learning is so often one-directional and fact-based.

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Great teachers indeed ask thought-provoking questions (and great schools let them ask those questions). But great teachers also ask questions that are meaningful to their disciplines, i.e., questions that train students to think as historians, scientists, novelists, etc. This is what Gardner means by “a disciplined way of construing information,” which is sometimes called habits of mind in education.

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A similar, disciplined-based approach is to frame classes as “information in context,” whereby the class itself is an application of learning. For example, within the high school at The New School, we offer topical, or applied learning, classes within each credit requirement. Thus, rather than English 9, Chemistry 10, etc., students may choose:

  • 20th Century Social Movements through Music (U.S. History)
  • Art in the Context of the Self (Art)
  • The Chemistry of War (Chemistry)
  • Cryptology (Mathematics)
  • The Ethics of Capitalism (World Studies)
  • Roller Coasters (Physics)
  • The Search for Self in Literature (English)

Teaching information in context allows students to see the purpose and real-world application of what they are learning.

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There’s indeed nothing revolutionary about such a question-based / disciplined-based / using one’s mind well-approach to learning; it’s the foundation of liberal arts and sciences programs, not to mention most graduate programs. So why is such an approach so rare at the elementary, middle, and high school levels? The reason, I think, has mostly to do with the structural demands that standardized testing, such as the SOLs, creates for schools. There just isn’t enough time to stop and think. But for us at The New School and other like-minded schools, depth of thought and application of learning – using one’s mind well – always win over breadth of coverage.

I think schools should examine their pedagogies by asking themselves, What are you trying to create? My answer to that question, as I think about our focus on using one’s mind well and students taking charge of their lives, is this:

A New School graduate is an autonomous, skilled learner: an individual who owns his/her education, is self-aware and poised, and is fully prepared for college and a bright future.  

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