A Mind's Path
William S. McKersie, Ph.D.
Superintendent, Weston Public Schools
December 4, 2017
Using one’s mind well—ideally to solve challenging problems with compassion—is what we in Weston strive to inculcate in our students. The path our students take to good intellectual work may twist and turn, rise and fall, take surprising tangents, inspire and at times depress, but it is a persistent effort.
Texts matter. I have a new one. Last month, on a Saturday visit to our neighborhood library with my three year old daughter, while she rooted around with a variety of picture books, I grabbed hold of Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project (W.W. Norton, 2017). Lewis has not let hold of me since. It is his story of the invention of the field of behavioral economics by the Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. To borrow from the book flap, “In The Undoing Project, Lewis shows how their Nobel Prize-winning theory of the mind altered our perception of reality.”
Thinking about our task as Weston educators, three early quotes from Lewis resonated (with my emphasis in bold):
- At the bottom of the transformation in decision making…were ideas about the human mind, and how it functioned when it faced uncertain situations (p. 51).
- [Developing and acting on] awareness of their own mental processes… (p. 51).
- New awareness [has developed] of the sorts of systematic errors people might make—and so entire markets might make—if their judgments were left unchecked (p. 51).
Why these quotes? Because of our rapidly changing world and context. Weston students live in and will go out into a world that, as we all know too well, is changing at an exponential pace. The work, jobs, problems and issues thought to matter now, will have shifted markedly within several years, and will continue to shift year after year. What will not change is the critical need for human minds used well—to make and apply judgements wisely, no matter how uncertain the situation. Doubt matters—ideas and conclusions must be checked and questioned. Ultimately, however, thinking must lead to decisions and actions. Thus, Lewis’ story about Kahneman and Tversky, two brilliant lights who applied their minds to the problems of thinking and decision-making, provides a touchstone for our work in Weston.
More than most in Weston, I am able to visit all four schools nearly daily. I do not pretend to be the expert, but I have an experienced eye. I regularly see examples of our educators doing what Kahneman and Tversky value most—fostering our students to wonder, inquire, question, doubt and test judgements. Examples of what I discover are conveyed through Weston Wows, a snapshot or video, accompanied by a brief narrative, which I send to all WPS staff and post on the WPS Website at the following link: http://www.westonps.org/page.cfm?p=5932.
Let me raise up five representative Weston Wows from this fall:
- On September 19 –An Ode to Inquiry… A highlight today was sitting in Christine Cincotta’s literature class, where they were reciting and analyzing John Keats’ beautiful and challenging “To Autumn,” an Ode composed on September 19, 1819 (yes, note the date). Deftly guided by Ms. Cincotta, the discussion was magical, as nearly all students brought forth rich insights, feelings and perspectives on what Keats was conveying in prose not easily grasped. While listening and watching, I thought to myself, “How do I keep this magic going in Weston?”
- On October 18—Active Learning… Megan Hannigan’s Kindergarten Class showed me today how they “warm up for math.” They had just finished listening to me read The Napping House, so a wake-up call was essential. (The accompanying photo with the Weston Wow shows the class moving and chanting in unison to number problems flashed on the Smart Board.) Seriously, our elementary teachers know that physical breaks are vital to active, focused minds.
- On October 30—Students at Work in Diverse Formats and Mediums… In my tours around WMS today, each classroom evidenced focus and industriousness—and with varied pedagogical arrangements. Ms. Kaplan’s 7th graders were hands-on with a design challenge, developing a complex paper prototype for a robotics challenge. Ms. Fogarty’s 7th graders were experimenting in art class with brush strokes to create distinctive shading and textures. Ms. Clark’s 6th graders were pumped to explain how they apply the practices of Claim, Support and Interpretation in their analytical essays.
- On November 30—Engaged Students WIS Style… Ms. Carroll had a group of 3rd graders literally leaping to explain Cubism in a Picasso painting. (The accompanying photo with the Weston Wow shows students yearning to share their observations about a Picasso painting projected on the Smart Board.) Tying rigor to the spirit, Ms. Carroll was guiding her class to learn the essential elements of Cubism—Movement, Distortion and Shapes.
- On December 1—Fostering Intellectual Rigor and Empathy… Science and Mandarin, two subjects synonymous with intellectual rigor, are alive and well at WHS, as I witnessed in visits to a Mike Chappa Chemistry class and a Mae Wong Mandarin class. Of course, Chappa and Wong are joined by many WHS colleagues in the intellectual work they spark. A special shout out to Walt Durand, who I watched guide his 9th graders through a challenging exercise of taking on the role and world view of a selected character from A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry, 1959). Each student had to stay in character while acting out their reaction to a photo of a historic race relations moment—for instance, a photo of one of the first African American students to integrate an all-white southern high school as she entered the school followed by an angry crowd. The lesson connected intellectual rigor—knowing the text deeply—with emotional intelligence, and strove to foster the essential leadership quality of empathy.
Our students’ minds are challenged, fostered and grow through definite attention to multiple intellectual endeavors. The physical and emotional are drawn into the intellectual exercises, which is essential to helping our young charges meet their true promise.
A mind’s path is what we care about—so that all our students go out to be effective decision makers in uncertain situations, with good awareness of their mental processes, and so that judgements are constructively and creatively checked. It is our contribution to Global Citizenry.