The Power of Intellectual Communities

The most powerful experiences of my life have come from membership in intellectual communities.  We draw our identities as people from community membership, and being a part of a community that prides itself on learning inspires us to strive for learning in our lives.  I have been privileged to be a part of intellectual communities at MIT, Canada/USA Mathcamp, Splash, CTY, and SPMPS, among many others.  I have modeled my communities in life after the communities I grew up in, seeking friends who value intellectual achievement as I do.

When I design a new educational program, I give great thought to shaping the community.  A carefully-designed community will turn students’ focus to academics and make them celebrate their growth.  Community should be a conscious part of designing any place of learning.

But how?  For this inaugural blog post, I would like to share my developing thoughts on how to create a successful intellectual community.  I believe that the key is not to make the community yourself but to drive students towards creating an intellectual community themselves.

  • Celebrate learning and knowledge, not achievement.  If the primary focus is on test scores, class rankings, or even going to college, then learning is not valued.  If the focus is on learning, the usefulness of the material, or the beauty of the material, then it will be valued by the community.
  • Make students feel the value of being here.  For most of the programs above, this was easy: the programs are selective, and so students feel “special” for making it in.  However, any program can make learning feel like something you are privileged to be able to do in this place, and students will in turn value the experience and create a community around that valuation.
  • Design the space to center on learning.  MIT lines its corridors with robots, posters, and labs.  Math departments everywhere have mathematical sculptures and posters.  At the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving, I made sure that books were prominent along the walls.
  • Give students choices in what they learn, so that they take ownership over it and want to share it with their peers.
  • Show passion over the subject.  Give students role models who love learning.  Do not be afraid to digress from the material (within reason); that digression demonstrates love of the topic.
  • Treat each student question as sacred.
  • Make teachers accessible for out-of-classroom discussion, and create opportunities for a vibrant intellectual life to take root outside of class.
  • Humor and weirdness stemming from academics make those academics a part of the culture.
Of course, none of these bullet points are easy.  How do you drive students to create an intellectual community in your places of learning?

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

3 thoughts on “The Power of Intellectual Communities”

  1. Interesting thoughts. For most of my life, if you’d asked me what was important about the positive learning communities where I’ve been a student, I would have said that it was the other students.

    For instance, I think having other intelligent students around who cared about learning made the main difference between my gifted magnet and the rest of the enormous high school it was inside. I don’t think our teachers were all that much better, or showed noticeably more passion, or created a noticeably different space, or gave us any more choices (maybe even fewer); and there was definitely some substantial focus on AP tests.

    The other students were also the biggest thing that struck me when I went to Caltech. Finally I was surrounded by people who all thought like I thought and cared about the sort of things I cared about. We had good professors, but we also had mediocre professors, and I wouldn’t say they were especially accessible out of the classroom; at least, I hardly ever accessed any of them. The dorm walls were covered with murals displaying humor and weirdness, but not generally having anything to do with learning. It’s not clear to me that anyone ever set out to create a culture of humor and weirdness unless it was the students themselves; in fact the administration was generally limited to clamping down on the weirdness when it got out of hand.

    I’m sure the things you mention are also important, especially when you have to deal with students who don’t come to you with as much interest in learning. But I wanted to share my reaction to your comments about the communities you grew up in, as a different point of view if nothing else.

    1. You make a really great point. I agree — students alone can, and often (usually?) do make a community. But when the students alone are not enough, I do suspect there are intentional things that can create community, which I hope to figure out (in this post and beyond)!

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