Learning HOW to Think

Sometimes in order to truly “see” we need to narrow our focus–to bring our awareness to something distinct.  This helps bring more clarity. In our early childhood classrooms recently, as part of students’ study of the senses, children wore blindfolds before tasting food to help sharpen their recognition of taste.  By controlling what students could see, they could pay closer attention to whether they were tasting something sweet or tart. This simple exercise, limiting the focus of concentration, is an approach that works well to enhance the capacity of understanding in many fields.

In a 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace shared his thoughts about a widely touted argument related to liberal arts colleges– that they teach students to think.  He posited that it is the learning HOW to think that is most important. “Learning how to think really means exercising some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

We decided to borrow a version of the approach that our early childhood students used to learn about senses in an activity to build understanding between generations last week during Grandparents and Special Friends Day.  In an attempt to help our Grandparents and Special Friends better understand, or “see,” teens of today and vice versa, we held an intergenerational conversation between our visitors and our older students. Our hope was to have a focused conversation about how today’s adolescent generation has been portrayed by the media, to openly address stereotypes, and bridge misunderstandings of young people while at the same time providing our students with an additional lens from which to view how their actions might be seen by older generations.

I listened in on the conversation in the library, moderated by upper school teachers Dr. Franck and Mr. Horine.  What was particularly powerful for me, and I am sure for our visitors, was not necessarily what was said, but HOW it was articulated by our students.  They covered topics such as social media, phone addiction, the rising cost of college, and even navigating the expectations for “good” behavior while being faced with poor adult role models in some leadership positions.  Our students talked about how some adults suggest that young people “have it so easy” today, and they acknowledged that many great advances have provided them with opportunities that previously never existed. That being said, they also acknowledged the complex world that they have inherited with significant problems left for them to “fix” such as those related to climate change and the unsustainable cost of higher education.  Our students acknowledged the power of having 24-7 access to information to learn and grow. They recognized the incredible freedom they have to make many choices that might not have existed for prior generations. 

As David Foster Wallace said in his graduation speech, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline…that is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.”