Igniting Every Student’s Spark of Genius

Guest post by Stephen Spahn

As chancellor of Dwight School for the last 50 years, I have had the distinct privilege of witnessing some of the more dramatic changes in education. As the world continues to be transformed at an unprecedented pace, we are living in a new age of educational enlightenment, challenging educators to assess, rethink, and innovate curricula as never before. I am excited by the possibilities and committed to future-proofing education at Dwight, a leading International Baccalaureate school in New York founded in 1872. My enthusiasm for what is to come is matched by my commitment to Dwight’s core “spark of genius” educational philosophy, which will continue to undergird all innovations we initiate.

I believe that every student—every human being—has a spark of genius. Every student has an interest, talent, or passion, something at which he or she excels or can excel. It is our job as educators to help find and cultivate that spark. If you believe in a student deeply, that student can then believe in himself or herself.

When I became a young headmaster in the late 1960s, I felt strongly that the purpose of education was to ignite and utilize a student’s spark of genius to create a personalized roadmap to a meaningful future for that child and to build a better world for all. Today, after seeing how successful this approach has been for generations of Dwight graduates, I believe even more passionately that when a nurturing teacher taps into and fosters what excites a student in one arena—the arts, technology, advocacy, science, sports, etc.—the door to other learning opens wide. Individualized attention that maximizes a strength translates into greater mastery, self-confidence, and sense of accomplishment, which carry over into other areas within and beyond the classroom.

This spark of genius philosophy permeates the culture of our family of schools in New York and around the world, and in the Dwight Global Online School. Like any school’s philosophy, it is only meaningful when embraced and lived every day. It requires the entire community—leadership, administrators, faculty, and parents—work together to see and support the whole child in the broadest light possible, not just in the home or school environment.

A spark may be identified, revealed, or awakened by students themselves or by teachers, coaches, or their peers. It may emerge instantaneously or evolve cumulatively with additional exposure and growth. Sometimes, a child may not be able to articulate it right away or that student’s trajectory may appear to be uncertain. Educators can help students sharpen their focus, skills, and talents, or unearth new ones, through a range of innovative teaching methods, extracurricular experiences, and mentorships.

Ultimately, nurturing a spark of genius begins with inspiration—the spirit behind the first of five H’s that I believe are essential to achieving success in school and in life:

  • Heart: inspiration kindles the imagination and creativity
  • Head: think deeply and apply learning
  • Hard work: single-minded efforts can overcome obstacles; there is no substitute for hard work
  • Honesty: integrity, like a shadow, follows you wherever you go
  • Heroic spirit: never give up; perseverance and grit are built through trial and error

As educators, we must match inspiration with opportunities for students to:

  • Develop, test, and present their own ideas through programs such as Spark Tank (Dwight’s incubator designed to teach entrepreneurial, innovation, and leadership skills)
  • Collaborate with others to solve problems
  • Learn from their peers
  • Assume student leadership positions within the community
  • Test their skills and themselves through competitions and challenges that reinforce excellence and offer external validation
  • Provide real-world experiences through co-op educational-career programs and internships

I also believe deeply in supporting the unique sparks of genius of faculty; only an inspired teacher can inspire students. Teachers who are passionate about their subject area—and pursue their own interests outside school as working artists or writers, for example—bring their enthusiasm and real-world experience into the classroom to benefit their students.

As students mature, graduate, and move on to higher education and careers, their passions may change, evolve, or translate into lifelong meaningful purpose. No matter the direction, when a spark is ignited and a student’s strengths are maximized, that individual can become a happy, confident, and successful contributor to society.

How can you help the students in your school, and your teachers, find their sparks of genius? What educational philosophy does your school embrace?

Stephen Spahn, chancellor of Dwight School, is the longest-serving head of an independent school in the U.S. He was the recipient of the 2011 Louis Hine Award for Distinguished Service to Children and Youth and the 2013 Blackboard Award for Schools—honoring excellence in education—with a Special Citation for Community and Citizenship. He has served on the board of the International Baccalaureate Organization and is a founding member of the Guild of IB Schools of the Northeast.

 

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