A few times every year Elane and I pack up the car and make the 8-hour drive west to visit my sister and her three children in beautiful Waunakee, Wisconsin. Waunakee is the quintessential American small town located about 6 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin. Nestled among the corn fields and the sprawling new suburban developments, my sister’s house on Main Street has been my summer destination for over twenty years. Like Garrison Keeler’s, Lake Woebegone, Waunakee, for us, has become that Midwestern experience that always seems to provide insight into the world around us.
Back in 2000, when my sister gave birth to her first child, it was a highly celebratory moment for my family. The little girl was precious, beautiful, and obvious to anyone with background in early childhood literature a “Who.” Her little strand of blond hair sticking straight up, her big blue eyes, and her high-pitched cries made it clear to me that there was something quite Seussical about my little niece. And over the years as my sister gave birth to my nephew and youngest niece my collection of “Whos” became the center of my attention. So, truth be told, if I told you that Elane and I were on a trip to Wisconsin to visit the “Whos,” well then of course you could only logically conclude that the small village to the north of Madison where they reside must in fact be Whoville!
On my most recent trip to Whoville a few weeks ago, we arrived mid-afternoon to find my nephew Drew sitting in the living room deeply engrossed with a video game as he became one with his PS4. So immersed was Drew in the game, that he didn’t realize Elane and I had arrived.
His mother yelled out:
“Drew, Uncle Dave and Aunt Elane are here – time to shut off the TV.”
I hugged my sister and nieces, poured a cup of coffee, and sat at the table to catch-up on the news of the day. We talked about the great Waunafest Parade scheduled to go down Main Street Sunday morning and whether Bucky Badger would show up this year; my niece reminded me we had to visit the Mousehouse Cheesehouse during our trip and try their new dreamsicle fudge; and my sister told us about the big to do brewing in the neighboring town of Deforest down at the Norseki Nook Café where the Lena and Ole restrooms no longer seemed to meet the needs of the community as folks moving in from Madison began to discuss the concept of gender inclusion.
We were about 15 minutes into our conversation when my 14-year-old nephew stuck his head in the kitchen, looking a little puzzled:
Looking at Drew’s confused face, I couldn’t help but laugh, I got up, gave him a hug, and in his puppy-dog like manner he threw his arms around my neck and greeted me with a big smile.
Thinking about Drew’s “Wait…What?” moment reminded me of a presentation I had seen over the summer by Dr. James Ryan, the Dean of the Harvard School of Graduate Education.
Dr. Ryan seemed to come to Drew’s defense by suggesting to a group of graduates that as thoughtful members of a community, there are 5 essential questions that we should continuously ask ourselves, and others regularly, and the first of those significant questions was – “Wait…What?”
Did Dr. Ryan know something about my adolescent nephew that I was missing, I merely thought Drew was distracted and had, as usual, turned his mother’s voice off while he was engaged in what was important to him – namely his PS4. But Dr. Ryan suggested something far deeper. He said asking – “Wait…What?” is in fact the root of all understanding.
“Wait…What?” is an effective way of asking for clarification and is absolutely crucial for understanding. As I reflected, I thought – wouldn’t it be great if our students, researchers and even our government leaders said “Wait…What?” before speaking, making a decision or a conclusion?
Doesn’t “Wait…What?” force us to make sure we have heard and understand an idea before we advocate for or against it? “Wait…What?” makes us slow down, take a breath, and make sure we truly understand. It is a way to get us to consider our pace.
Earlier this summer, I had my own “Wait…What?” moment when I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Malone Foundation Conference at Stanford University.
For those of you who are not aware, Philanthropist John Malone selected 50 independent schools around the country that specialize in working with gifted students. Malone provided a $2,000,000 gift to each of the school’s endowment to be used for full scholarships. Roeper currently has 5 Malone Scholars within our School because of this generous gift, and we are the only school in Michigan that is a part of this prestigious program.
In return for what amounted to a $100 Million gift distributed to 50 schools, Mr. Malone asked that the participating schools collaborate to form a think tank to discuss and strategize responses to the key challenges facing independent school education. Partnering with Stanford University, the Foundation invites the Malone School Heads to this annual conference where educational leaders from Silicon Valley, Stanford University, and the University of California Berkeley share their ideas and research. It was at a conference like this that the idea for the Malone Schools’ Online Network was born.
At this year’s conference, I sat in on a panel presentation from two amazing researchers:
Brett Schilke, Director of Impact at Singularity University, (Singularity University – is a Silicon Valley think tank that offers educational programs and serves as a business incubator. It focuses on scientific progress and “exponential” technologies. It was founded in 2008 as a support for research by NASA. The mission of Singularity University, is to “positively impact a billion people.”)
Fei Fei Li, Director of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab, and the Chair of the Department of Computer Science. Dr. Li is currently “on loan” to Google.
Schilke’s message to the group was a little disconcerting; he began his talk by saying: “Today is the slowest day of the rest of your life.” Looking up from my notes I made eye contact with several of the Heads in the room and noticed the same “Wait…What” expression on each of our faces. He proceeded to share his work, describing the exponential change that is happening in the world because of rapid technological advancement.
He made our minds spin by introducing us to idea like using DNA as a data storage unit, zero gravity 3D printing, and some frightening research being done with the DNA recovered from a Woolly Mammoth. It all sounded like science fiction rather than science research.
“Wait…What?” DNA as a data storage unit? – yes computer scientists and biologists are looking at using DNA to store data. Given our ever-growing need for servers to hold information, we will need to find something smaller to hold large amounts of computer data – what about DNA? Of course, if DNA can be used to store data, can that DNA then be implanted into a human being?
“Wait…What?” Zero gravity 3D printing? So what? Well if you’re on the space station and need a new part or new tool, why not just print what you need? If we are going to Mars, we will need to build things in space not just deliver the parts – 3D printing in zero gravity makes that possible.
“Wait…What?” about a Woolly Mammoth? Yes, we have the DNA of a Woolly Mammoth, and there are a team of scientists trying to figure out how to gestate something so large. Elephants just don’t seem to be big enough for the job.
“Wait…What?” After my peers and I shook our heads trying to fully grasp what we had heard, I raised my hand and asked Brett the question that I couldn’t get passed, “this sounds scientifically incredible, and I appreciate the work being done to see if we CAN do all of this? But Brett, what about the ethical questions? Is anyone asking whether we SHOULD do this?” There was a pause as Mr. Schilke, like any good teacher, tried to turn the question back to the class for discussion.
Dr. Li saw Schilke struggling, and weighed in with an overview of her work in AI (Artificial Intelligence). She tried to make a connection to the ethical dilemma I had raised and said, “AI will change the world, but who will change AI?”
Dr. Li then introduced our group to “Pepper” her emotionally intelligent robot. Pepper is designed to be a genuine day-to-day companion whose number one quality is its ability to perceive emotions. Pepper is the first humanoid robot capable of recognizing the principle human emotions and adapting its behavior to the mood of the interlocutor.
“Wait…What?” An emotionally intelligent robot? A robot that learns and responds? Again, I asked my ethical question, if Pepper is emotionally attuned to adjust its behavior and remembers yours and its actions, does Pepper have feelings? Can those feelings be hurt? Can it sense pain? Does it have rights?
Schilke and Li seemed frustrated by the ethical questions raised by the group, they are actively engaged in the business of “can.” However, Dr. Ryan’s “Wait…What?” question tries to force us to slow down when everything around us feels exponentially fast as we continue to encounter more points of disruption.
I was also reminded of a talk I had heard earlier in the conference from Stanford’s Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw, who shared that fewer and fewer Stanford students were majoring in the humanities, and that the STEM fields were bursting at the seams. If this trend is true, where will the discussions on the “should” questions occur? Will the STEM areas push students to take classes that deal with the moral and ethical issues attached to their work? What is our obligation at Roeper as we send students into this exponentially changing world?
Dr. Ryan’s second question is to ask, “I wonder why, or I wonder if? Ryan says these questions are at the very heart of curiosity. “Why” is a way to remain curious about the world, and “if” is a way to start thinking about how to improve the world.
Hummm…I wonder if we should try to grow a Woolly Mammoth in the 21st century? Perhaps a quick screening of Jurassic Park might provide some basic ethical guidance.
Dr. Ryan continued his presentation by asking his third question, “Could we at least?” Here, he asserts, is the beginning of all progress. This is a question that enables us to get unstuck, to get past disagreement and to come to some consensus. The question provides us with a way to get started when we are not sure where we’ll finish.
Could we at least require each AI and Computer Science student to take a class in ethics?
Ryan’s fourth question will make good sense to us at Roeper – “How can I help?” He suggests that this question is the basis of all good relationships. Not in the savior complex way. How we help matters as much as that we do help. Asking how means we are doing so with humility, seeking direction, we recognize that others are the experts in their own lives, and that they will help us as much as we help them.
Consider the incredible work some of our colleagues and students have done these past two summers with an organization called Student Shoulder to Shoulder. The organization works with Non-Governmental Organizations in places around the country and around the world to provide service learning opportunities. A sort of junior version of the Peace Corps, Shoulder to Shoulder is about working with communities as they define their needs. The organization helps communities build schools and houses; they work to bring clean water to villages, and at the same time provide a learning opportunity for students to develop understanding about culture, politics, religion, and social systems in communities different from our own.
Ryan’s last question gets at the heart of life – “What truly matters?” This is the question that forces us to get at the heart of an issue, to clarify our beliefs, and to articulate our convictions.
As teachers, this is the point in questioning when we would certainly turn to that young person in front of us and seek to understand whether our choices are child-centered? Are our actions consistent with our philosophy, our mission, or our educational statement of purpose – the core documents that provide us with guidance in our decision making.
Dr. Ryan calls on us to regularly ask five questions:
I wonder why?
Could we at least?
How can help? and
What truly matters?
Because, as Mr. Schilke reminded us, the world is changing at an exponential rate, change in our lives is disruptive, but change can also be wonderful and positive. Practicing the critical thinking skills contained in these questions forces us to be reflective, probative, and curious. It forces us to think outside of ourselves and to get at the essence of an idea. The questions are consistent with our philosophical understanding of self-actualization and interdependence.
Most importantly, the questions provide a counter weight to a world aggressively focused on moving faster without a sense of direction nor an understanding of the ethical implications of our actions. The questions ask us to think about the pace we are setting for ourselves, and one another. They ask us to wrestle with the health of our choices.
“Wait…What?” May be the first words out of my nephew’s mouth when he thinks he has missed something, but what if he has? If we seek first to understand then maybe, we will gain a deeper perspective before we state what all too often have become our unmoving positions.
When he first ventured into the world of gifted education George Roeper shared his feelings of confusion and concern for the direction he was taking our school – it was his own “Wait…What?” moment. He wrote, “We have gone into [our Gifted Child Project] with great enthusiasm and interest, but also with the bewildered feelings you have when stepping into a mysterious darkness.”
Asking questions – asking analytical questions, like the ones outlined by Dr. Ryan, help to shine a bright light into that mysterious darkness.
This year we will engage each other in asking our own set of questions. We will construct a map to guide our direction, a new strategic plan to help us articulate our priorities. Together we will reflect on the work we did in the self-study, review the recommendations made by the ISACS visiting team, and engage with members of our community to guide our School into its next 75 years.
Throughout this collaborative process, I ask you to stay curious, continue to ask “how can I help,” and always, always bring our discussions back to Dr. Ryan’s pivotal question “what is it that truly matters?”
And so, here we are…
We’ve reached that point in the calendar, that moment in our annual journey from September to June when we start fresh. Together, as one community, one Roeper School we start down that winding and exhilarating path that is the school year.
As we begin the new year’s journey, I leave you with the thoughtful words of our good friend Mariann Houg who always reminded our community – take care of yourselves, take care of each other, and take care of this school!
I wish you a joyful and fulfilling school year!