As we return to Dana Hall’s beautiful and ever-evolving campus for the 2023-24 school year, I have been chatting with students and faculty about their summer reading. I, too, enjoyed my summer reading — a mix of beach reads, books about teaching and learning, and historical fiction novels.
This had me thinking and reflecting about a book that I read several summers ago, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird. Several passages from this book stand out to me in particular, especially as we all jump into this new academic year.
The five elements of effective thinking are to understand deeply, make mistakes, raise questions, follow the flow of ideas, and change. In the introduction of the book (p6-8), the authors provide a wonderfully succinct summary of the five elements:
- "Understand deeply: Don't face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don't know. Then see what's missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. There are degrees to understanding and you can always heighten yours.
- Make mistakes: Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers — they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.
- Raise questions: Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What's the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air — the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.
- Follow the flow of ideas: Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.
- Change: By mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve, grow, and extract more out of your education, yourself, and the way you live your life.”
In their studies this year, our students will have to understand the most basic ideas first. For example, in physics class, it will be impossible to understand projectile motion if they still aren't sure what freefall is, and the study of statics will be most difficult if they are still uncertain about Newton's Second Law. This does not mean that they have to go it alone, so to speak. Yes, Dana Hall students have a responsibility to stay on top of the material and get help early if they’re confused, but they also have a plethora of resources at their disposal to help them when they need it: in-class notes, textbooks, meetings with teachers during Conference Period, attending Writing/Science/Math Lab, and talking with friends in the class and those who have taken it previously.
Dana Hall students are expected to ask questions to better understand at what point they’re getting stuck, so they can ask the right questions. They should make mistakes and "fail nine times. The next time you face a daunting challenge, think to yourself, 'In order for me to resolve this issue, I will have to fail nine times, but on the tenth attempt, I will be successful.' This attitude frees you and allows you to think creatively without fear of failure, because you understand that failure is a forward step toward success." (p140)
Our students will not always get a solution to a problem or write the perfect essay right away. That's just the way it goes. But it does get easier and better with practice, and we practice because we make mistakes.
I encourage our students not to be afraid to jump into an assignment and start trying different things — whether it's a question on a problem set, a task in the laboratory, an essay prompt, or an improv lesson in theater class. You never know where that idea might lead you!
Dana Hall students will most certainly explore a variety of topics and learn a range of skills in each of their classes this year. Our courses are designed to challenge students and to push them to realize their full potential and to be curious! So, as we embark on the year, I hope we all can be unafraid of failure and value the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Relish in the critical thinking involved in discovering the solution to a problem. Dive into teamwork with classmates and partner with teachers for support and in-depth conversations. Be academically audacious!