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?