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Symposium Presentation

The Areté Symposium: Embracing Critical Thinking As A Joyful (and Welcome) Challenge

The important thing is not just knowing what something is; the important bit is knowing why something is the way it is and how it works and why it matters. It’s about being thoughtful and disciplined in your learning so you can think about what you know and in a meaningful and original way (1).

This excerpt, from a widely-circulated essay entitled “What Professors Expect From You,” highlights the supposed difference between a fact-and-skills-based high school education and the deeper, more inferential challenges of the university. Spot on in capturing what deeper learning should look like, the tract has no doubt inspired a few precocious students, while perhaps terrifying a handful of others.

Questions arise: why do we assume high school kids — and, by extension, college freshmen — haven’t been asked to think deeply? Moreover, why do we suppose they’re frightened to think?

Enter developmental psychology.  Jean Piaget’s concrete thinking stage is followed by the child’s explosive entry, around age 12, into so-called formal operations stage. Here, theoretical, counterfactual and hypothetical reasoning suddenly become possible. And naturally, when our brains develop a new capacity, we can’t wait to try it out.  What could be more exciting or more motivating? 

Unfortunately, conventional schools, chained to a low estimate of what young minds can do, fail, often spectacularly, to meet the needs of budding analytic minds. The result: active-minded 12-year olds become bored, angry, frustrated 15-year-olds.

While educators put Piaget on a pedestal, not all have embraced his crucial message about the adolescent brain: it needs the challenge of deeper, idea-driven, abstract learning. With appropriate encouragement and without a fear-cultivating system of grades, young people have fun arguing, theorizing, extrapolating, and inferring. Rather than dreading critical thinking as a looming college-level bogeyman, kids can revel in its power — and, yes, thrill — as middle and high schoolers.

Arete’s founding mission is to embrace students’ love of critical thinking and cultivate it head on. Our semi-annual high school Symposium is the embodiment of this spirit and pedagogy – a meaningful, transformative alternative to final exams and a celebration of what young minds are truly capable of. Consistent with our commitment to “choice and voice,” students select their own topics based on a unifying, school-wide philosophical question or theme. They become researchers and teachers, discovering the power of research and clear exposition to produce substantive, idea-driven academic papers. After an exhilarating and rewarding week of exploration and writing, students transform their papers into interactive, creative presentations that bring their ideas to life for an authentic audience of Areté students, teachers and the community at large. 

At Areté, we believe in supporting each student’s passions, and guiding them to achieve their own unique goals. When our students discover what makes their hearts skip a beat, anxiety takes a back seat to passion as they invent, analyze, create and imagine their way to exciting college programs and cutting-edge careers. 


To hear an Areté student discuss the magic of Symposium, please check out this clip from Areté’s own podcast, Overthrowing Education  Episode 15: The Beauty of Balance with Blended Learning:

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