Lovett legend suggests that the young people sitting around this table under Mrs. Lovett’s eagle eye are about to begin an exploration in science class. She built suspense for the investigation with the covered box, and in some versions of the story there is an amphibian enclosed therein. I showed the picture to several Kindergarteners recently who immediately named a number of things that might be in the box: praying mantis, baby chicks, buttons, caterpillars, and my personal favorite, komodo dragons.
While we may never know exactly what was in the box, we do know that Eva Edwards Lovett built a school founded in the principles of exploration, investigation and discovery; she called them the “the ‘magic sesames’ which open the door to a rich, adult life for the learning child.” We were to be a place that “offers an education of doing and creating as opposed to a training in memorizing and repeating.” She encouraged a curriculum that “deals with the materials of life and living (that) develop initiative and a capacity for adaptation.”
Over the past weeks, I have had the singular privilege of shadowing students in the “border” grades of each division: Kindergarten, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 12th grades. This adventure has allowed me to see Mrs. Lovett’s vision in action.
When presented with a mountain of disparate buttons, our Kindergarteners work to create classification skills, determining a single characteristic by which to sort and then articulating a generalized rule that rationalizes the categories. As students describe and identify specific attributes, they identify patterns and find relationships between objects. What looks like play is a provocation designed to lead our youngest students to discovery and creation of a generalized rule, and as they realize they can group these buttons in numerous ways (color, size, shape, number of button holes, etc.) they develop the ability to shift perspective and locate numerous paths to success.
Rather than deliver a set of facts about force and motion, Lower School science students challenge themselves to find ways to make a square of cardboard, folded in half and wrapped with a rubber band, leap into the air. Armed with only a ruler and an array of rubber bands, they experiment to find the best combination of supplies to achieve maximum height. Some wrap the rubber band twice, others use wider or thinner bands, still others might decrease or increase the size of the cardboard. In each case, careful recording of their findings allows them to reflect on results to look for a common element, leading them to their own definitions of tension, inertia, and potential energy, which they learn is reported in joules. All learned more deeply through discovery of these scientific principles.
Middle School students prosecuted the landmark case Schenck v. US, a 1919 case that weighed free speech protections against the Espionage Act. After reading about the facts in the matter, teams of prosecutors and defense attorneys battled out the court decision, putting knowledge into action. Their work required a multifaceted analysis of the details of the case, as both sides needed to prioritize facts, anticipate counterarguments and reconstitute the information to fit the laws of the early 20th century.
The scientific method is a process that teaches the brain how to organize observations, formulate testable questions and to use data to formulate statements of fact. Students might spend years memorizing the steps: ask a question, research, hypothesize, predict, test, iterate, and communicate results, but they truly reap the benefits of this pattern of thinking when doing it. That is just what is enacted in science classroom across divisions. In middle school students investigate our own pond, collecting baseline data and then hypothesizing solutions that might make the water healthier.
In Upper School, it is important to continue building these higher order intellectual skills, pushing students to make inferences from data and to problem solve their way through mountains of facts. As access to information has increased, it is essential that we intentionally develop students’ abilities to weigh and evaluate this data. The critical thinking required to interpret and analyze facts in an effort to make productive decisions and postulate theorems are developed in all our classrooms -- by doing it, not just talking about it.
Students write continuously across a variety of subject areas, developing thesis statements and supporting them with facts. Yet, it was when physically building a thesis statement in American Studies that the authentic work required to write a thesis one believes in that this came to life. Working from a word list, students selected those that described the Puritans and then sorted these words into those that were positive, negative and neutral. Then they added “red flags” next to any neutral words that could potentially represent danger for these early Americans. They articulated what was worrisome, for example, “close-knit,” and explored the pros and cons of the word, finally developing that into a thesis: “Because of the close-knit nature of the Puritan community, they were not able to expand intellectually or geographically.” Students then collected quotes from primary sources to support their claims, in essence physically building an analytical essay.
I could tell stories for days about the way Mrs. Lovett’s vision for integrated experiences that afford challenge and the active construction of knowledge. Without a doubt, she is smiling at the work in our classrooms as she “set the stage for a multitude of lively and purposeful investigations” that allow our students to thrive.