The Serendipity of Learning

I’ve spent much of this week doing interviews for Early Action applicants to MIT.  This volunteer role lets me meet a lot of very cool young people.  Moreover, although I live in Boston, I do interviews in my home town of Vestal, NY to a radius of a couple hours out.  It’s a sparsely-populated region, so I meet a wide mix of folks.

This year, I’ve been struck by how much applicants are shaped by their surroundings.  The difference in resources between schools and communities is stark.  At one extreme, there are famous magnet schools like as Stuyvesant or Thomas Jefferson which have highly-advanced courses, advisers to help students complete Intel research projects, training for national-level competitions, and high awareness of advanced summer programs.  At the other end, rural or inner-city schools that have virtually no AP classes.  But right near Vestal there is also wide variation.  Vestal, my alma matter, has a number of academic clubs, advanced study through both AP courses and an IB program, and, for those students who take initiative, the opportunity to take classes at SUNY Binghamton (one of the top New York public universities) or even to do research there.  In contrast, I’ve interviewed students from 30-60 minutes out whose schools have fewer than 5 AP courses available, and where awareness of out-of-school opportunities are minimal.  There, if the family has sets the right kind of tone, then kids can discover serious resources and potentially make a lot of progress.

It’s easy to forget in all of the debates about testing, teachers, and curriculum that our learning and achievements are strongly defined by our communities, their awareness and emphasis on learning, and our opportunity to learn.  The best students I’ve met from more remote schools had families who provided them with reading suggestions and role models.  Creating opportunity to learn (and the inspiration to pursue it) has been a driving force of my career in education from Learning Unlimited to the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving to Mathcamp.

Unfortunately, you can’t just say “here, kids, have an opportunity!”  There are innumerable influences on students’ time.  To pursue real studies, they need some mix of older peers to be role models, teachers who will be supportive, knowledge of how to pursue those studies, a sense of where serious study will take them, and more.  Yet even those opportunities aren’t quite enough.  Most of what we choose to do comes from serendipity.  We hear about an opportunity right when we have a moment to Google it.  We have an argument with a friend and, feeling isolated, we immerse ourselves in our work—just when an interesting topic comes up—and because we happen to do well on that test, we decide to pursue that topic more seriously.  Our attention catches on random things, and if our world isn’t permeated with topics of interest, we’ll miss those serendipitous moments.

Which is to say that we have a long way to go if we’re going to get more people to pursue learning outside of school.  For my part, now I’m thinking about organizing a “math day” for anyone within 90 miles of Vestal sometime in the spring so they can get a taste of advanced math.  What are you going to do?