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High School Connections Blog by Head of High School Steve Soden

Questions Without Answers

I have spoken with many people and have discussed in more than one blog post how critical thinking and working beyond facts are central to how we ask our high school students to think. I was recently presented with a wonderful example of how this looks in action, and so I wanted to take a moment to share it.

As I often do when sitting with my ninth grade advisees, I asked them what assignments they had coming up. These questions often lead to conversations about how they can manage their time or effectively prepare for assessments, and so I am always interested in their responses. This time, the consensus was that they were busy preparing for an upcoming in-class essay in history class. Their teacher, Drew Ciancia, had already given them the prompt: “Has religion been a constructive or destructive force in human history?” I was blown away.

To be honest, I think my advisees were a little confused by how excited I was to hear that they were grappling with such a question. Their confusion allowed us to discuss why I thought it was so important: it is a question that has no single answer.

Often, the most important questions—certainly the most difficult questions for a society to answer—share that characteristic: there is no one specific right or wrong answer. Instead, “rightness” or “wrongness” relies entirely upon context, perspective, and explanation. Let it not be forgotten that finding the “right” answer to these questions also demands that acute attention be paid to facts, as they are the foundation upon which broader understanding can be built.

In the example found in Mr. Ciancia’s class, a successful essay went beyond a simple recollection of what happened historically and instead demonstrated critical thinking about the historical facts. I was so excited by this question that I followed up with Mr. Ciancia. Here is what he shared about the question and the process he guided his class through:

“Unit V in ninth grade world history focused on the rise of mass religions: Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, in particular. For context, the students had already studied local polytheistic religions in our study of ancient civilizations. In terms of skills, the students had already written portions of essays, but not yet a full five-paragraph essay.

The goals of this unit included learning: (1) how monotheistic and universal religions arose and how they differed from previous religions; (2) how they evolved over time, especially upon becoming state sponsored religions; (3) how they interacted with each other; (4) the many different effects of these religions, the good and the bad, and reasons for these effects; (4) how and why violence is done in the name of religion today and how these acts depart from the original messages of these faiths; and (5) supporting claims by analyzing historical evidence in preparation for an essay.

I always try to connect our study of history with current events and, troubled by the many incidents of violence performed in the name of religion today and how students are making sense of this, I wanted students to learn about the early years and messages of religions so they could see how they have been both used and abused by various historical actors for various reasons. In the end, I came up with a broad and provocative unit question that allows for multiple student answers but requires students to support their answer with historical examples from class readings and discussions/activities: ‘Has religion been a constructive or destructive force in human history?’”

When I talk about why MCDS students are prepared for college and beyond, examples like this are the main reason why. This is meaningful learning that the students can apply to what they see outside of school, and it is an example of how our students are being taught how to think, not what to think.

Perhaps the best part of the entire conversation was hearing what my ninth grade advisees thought about the question. There was not one single shared answer among the group: each student had a different perspective, and each student was planning on answering the prompt in a different way. Importantly, none of the answers were inflammatory. Regardless of how they planned to address the prompt, the students had engaged in rigorous preparation and study, and so they shared a mutual respect. The assessment was not an argument to be won, but rather a test of a student’s ability to make sense of a set of information with real-world connections.

During this advisory session, I witnessed a meaningful, civil discussion about religion and its societal implications held by a group of ideologically diverse fourteen-year-old students. Needless to say, I walked away from the school that day filled with a great deal of hope for what the future will hold.

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