Should Milton Mirror the Intensity Around Us?
In theory, learning is fun. Plenty of learning, though, comes as a result of struggle and frustration. Every spring, our seniors remind us about the effect of fun on their motivation, commitment and achievement. Their senior projects show us, in living color, the power of self-designed learning, as they develop and carry out projects to culminate their Milton experiences.
Senior projects span a range of efforts, from making movies to researching in science, from interning in medical institutions to writing poetry, from creating code to caring for elders and young people, to creating photography and composing music. The projects’ common thread is that students shape them to do something that inspires them and to enjoy a substantive — and fun — experience as they conclude their high school careers. Watching seniors light up as they describe the rewards of their last month at Milton is amazing.
As shrinking college admission rates continue to dominate headlines and institutions of higher education drive students toward trying to compete even more effectively, remembering that fun is an essential part of learning is especially important. We must hold the constant beat of achievement in check. Not only does our desire for students to reach for success in college cloud our judgment, so does our intense desire to help them learn as much as possible in every class and at every stage of their lives at Milton. Healthy fun and play, laughter and self-directed processes are as important as other key elements of learning. Fun enhances, rather than detracts, from rigorous study and high achievement.
Of course, laughter and games aren’t the only valuable routes toward the goal. Transformative learning sometimes requires a struggle. And struggle can cultivate perseverance. Focus often brings understanding. A level of positive stress can be a motivator. Frustration yields breakthroughs and making mistakes opens doors to new approaches. Reaching a sense of accomplishment through challenge is where the fun is, sometimes.
Making sense of an author’s ideas so you can connect them to your own thoughts or contribute your insights to a discussion is thrilling. Looking at a piece of your own writing and thinking, “Yes, this is what I meant!” and feeling confident that others will understand your ideas is exhilarating. Surmounting a mental barrier, finding a missing link and reaching an excellent solution to a math problem — these are great moments.
Research shows that learning is indeed deeper, more transformative and more effective when it involves healthy amounts of fun.
You can find joy and laughter in and out of the classroom on the Milton campus, from Kindergarten through Grade 12. Many Milton “lifers,” as we affectionately call the alumni
who have participated in every grade here, will point to teachers like Gary Shrager in the Lower School, an acknowledged “King of Fun.” Mr. Shrager’s science classes are jam-packed with scientific inquiry, data collection, fact-based arguments and purposeful laboratory work. As Mr. Shrager says, “Science is amazing. How could it possibly not be fun?”
The Middle School faculty deeply understands the developmental needs of our 12- to 14-year-olds. Adults on the first two floors of Ware Hall are unified on the critical importance of a vibrant, high energy, quirky, step-out-of-your-comfort-zone atmosphere as they pursue high-end achievement.
In the Upper School at Milton, as the academic program intensifies and students ramp up their academic preparation for life at college and beyond, should we lose the humor and the lightness? My answer is, assuredly: “No.” As we approach adulthood, issues and choices get more serious, for good reason. We prepare students for a difficult and intense world. Must we mirror the world’s intensity during teenagers’ high school years? We note the trend and push back.
Where should excellent schools go from here? How should Milton grow as an institution? The list of goals is a long one, but I hope that we remember the importance of joy, happiness and laughter in the learning environment that we cultivate. How exciting for today’s students, and those in the future, to know that Milton continues to share the joy of learning, as an essential element of our mission. Success, as we define it, involves having fun and loving learning for a lifetime.
By Todd B. Bland