Head of School Blog: Running Through the Tape

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a two week break for most of our teachers and students and a much-needed change of pace for our students enrolled in BU classes. I do not remember a year where the break was more welcome!

You might think that things slow down in the days before a break. Not so at BUA. I’ve visited about a dozen classes over the last few weeks and have seen students and teachers working hard — running through the tape, in runner’s parlance. But what really made an impression on me is the innovative teaching and joyful learning I’ve seen. I visited a 9th grade history class where students had written their own speeches modeled after ones they had read in Livy’s account of the Second Punic War. The exercise asked them to inhabit a historical figure and draft and deliver a speech in that person’s voice in a particular moment, which they did with gusto! Students loved it, not only for the chance to be creative, but because, according to them, it led to deep, self-directed engagement with the original texts. As the teacher explained, there’s a false choice between creativity and learning. I saw a calculus class that felt more like a scavenger hunt than the math classes I remember from my childhood. Students and teacher worked together in real inquiry; working on just one problem for the period, they chipped away to derive a formula. I planned to watch for 10 minutes. I stayed for 30 minutes and worked right alongside everybody. I couldn’t help it. Math learning, when not done well, can simply focus on students plugging in numbers into an algorithm, with little understanding of what they are actually doing. Research and experience tell us that the approach I saw in that class not only builds excitement, but creates a much more solid foundation — staving off the math phobia that sometimes sets in at this level. I saw a chemistry class where, after working through some exercise about equilibrium, students watched a video and discussed the real-world application of what they’d studied for treating carbon monoxide poisoning. The footage was from a hospital right down the road, a place where some of these same students will do research for their senior theses. This teacher knows what psychologists have been telling us for decades: finding real purpose in our work is a key to fulfillment; it helps us get lost in our work in the best of ways.

In the midst of a pandemic and in the waning days before break, students and teachers aren’t just getting by — they are experimenting, smiling, and unlocking deeper learning. 

I’m several chapters into Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. He summarizes research from the past half-century indicating three main factors behind motivation: autonomy (the freedom to be self directed), mastery (the feeling that you are getting better), and purpose (linking your work to some greater good). I see those features everywhere I turn. It’s what our teachers do naturally and a great part of the reason why this place is the most vibrant intellectual community I can imagine.

View all posts