"Excel, College Admission and Your Child's Brain" by Director of the Anderson/Cabot Center for EXCEL Ben Snyder
All of us remember the times in our adolescent days when, looking back, we say to ourselves, “What on earth was I thinking?” As parents of teenagers we return to that refrain regularly when our children make the inevitable mistakes that are part and parcel of growing up. Over the last couple of decades there have been tremendous advances in neuroscience that have allowed us a window into the neurological reasons that adolescents (and young adults into their mid-twenties) make so many “head-scratching” decisions that have parents wondering, “What the heck were you thinking?!”
Two recent books The Teenage Brain by former Nobles parent Frances Jensen (who led the Nobles faculty retreat in February and is the mother of Will Murphy N’08) and Age of Opportunity by Laurence Steinberg illuminate the science behind the developing brain and give great insight into what parents and educators can do to help our children and students develop into capable adults of character.
Both books emphasize how the adolescent brain is primed for tremendous growth (neuroplasticity) and how that results in an almost compelling need for new and novel experiences. The major challenges parents and schools face, however, is how to create healthy and safe opportunities to take the risks that lead to growth. Both authors also emphasize the need for young people to develop “grit” and resilience by “learning failure” through some kind of adversity.
Unfortunately, the world of competitive college admissions does not have a great track record of supporting “failure,” which may lead students (with support from their parents) to shy away from courses or activities or experiences where they will not “succeed” in traditional ways (high grades, making a top team, or winning a music competition). This “achievement” orientation has worried many of us in both secondary and higher education and just recently a consortium of college admission deans (led by Rick Weissbourd at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with whom Nobles has worked for many years) published "Turning the Tide - Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions." The goal of this report was to encourage young people to have more meaningful contributions to others, to promote ethical engagement and contributions to others, and to redefine achievement more broadly.
As I’ve read these books and reports, talked to authors, and shared perspectives with colleagues, the importance of EXCEL (Experiential and Community Engaged Learning) at Nobles has been reaffirmed for me. The variety of ways in which we encourage students to find their own paths to serve their communities in meaningful ways allows the kind of ethical contributions and engagement we want all students to have. While there is always some cynicism about Nobles’ eighty hour requirement, the flexibility in the ways in which the requirement can be filled allows our students to find opportunities that both resonate for them and make a positive impact on others. Given that over eighty percent of Nobles students exceed their requirement is testament to most students finding that meaningful path.
Placing students (through EXCEL travel, exchange, service and study away programs) in unfamiliar environments and putting substantive challenge in front of them create the kinds of novel experiences that middle and high school students need and crave and which lead to enormous personal (and neurological!) growth. We have learned over the years that engaging in these experiences with Nobles faculty enhances student growth dramatically as the opportunities to prepare, collaborate, reflect and share accelerate the learning and embed the experiences more deeply. And when the inevitable setbacks and challenges that come with being in dramatically different environments arise, the support system of peers and teachers allows students to learn and grow in significant ways.
In addition, there are an increasing number of courses at Nobles that place significant emphasis on process and project based learning and where adversity and “failure” is inevitable (and valued!). Courses such as Robotics or Journalism or Innovation and Entrepreneurship or Advanced Topics in Biochemistry or Advanced Placement Studio Art push students to think originally and creatively, experiment with ideas, face setbacks, collaborate, and develop the resilience necessary to work through longer term challenges. Neuroscientists such as Frances Jensen and Laurence Steinberg see these kinds of learning experiences as crucial to adolescent development.
Time will tell whether competitive college admission offices will recognize and more formally value the goals of "Turning the Tide" and programs like EXCEL. That said, we have enough experience at Nobles to know the positive impact of EXCEL on our students and that as we move forward, the opportunities for experiential and community-engaged learning will increase and their influence will continue to be expansive and meaningful.