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Mentorship Q&A Recap: A Conversation with Eric Daniels

 

 

STRIVE’s Online Mentor Q&A Program aims to provide students and career-oriented young people with opportunities to learn from real-world, active professionals about everything from crafting a purpose, to setting and pursuing goals, to the myriad life lessons they’ve picked up in pursuit of their dreams. The following report provides a look into the latest of these sessions.

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After teaching history for almost a decade at Duke and Clemson Universities, Eric Daniels decided to pivot his career into teaching science at LePort Schools in Orange County, California. His personal and pedagogical reasons for the career shift, as well as his experience in academia at-large, were the primary topics that students wanted to ask about. Daniels began by sharing an anecdote about his favorite teaching moment.

“It was at LePort. I had been teaching a student for two years, who was now in eighth grade and about to graduate. She was a dedicated and hardworking student, but had exhibited a lot of what I call ‘algorithmic thinking.’ ‘What’s the formula?’—a kind of ‘plug-and-chug’ approach. The problem is, that’s not the approach we want for learning science. We want students to ask questions and think through the ways they can expand their understanding. There was a moment when we were working in the science lab, going through some stuff. I had erasable pens, and was showing her how they worked with heat and pressure, and she started to ask a lot of questions. ‘Can we reverse it?’ ‘What if we turned the ink from hot to cold? Would it work the same?’ And I realized here was this student I’d been working with for two years, and she was exhibiting this type of thinking spontaneously. That’s my favorite moment.”

It was precisely this improvement of a student’s thinking process that Daniels didn’t feel he was able to focus on at universities as much as he was at LePort. “I felt I was more impactful in exposing college students to new ideas, rather than new thinking methods. That’s not to be discounted, I just didn’t find it as satisfying,” Daniels explained.

LePort emphasizes teaching students how to think, and the school’s curriculum and pedagogy are greatly influenced by Maria Montessori. Montessori was an Italian education reformer who worked through the first half of the 20th Century. Her primary interest was discovering the appropriate ways to enhance cognitive development at certain ages in the way the brain develops.

“She really was a scientist,” said Daniels. “For example, in the earliest ages, Montessori thought it was most important to develop the sensory-perceptual skills of the child, because of how those skills build into the conceptual level. The core of her work is at the pre-school age, but it extends into later years. I’d say the Montessori method is best described as reality-oriented, individual-focused education that respects the cognitive needs and development of the child.”

Daniels also emphasized the importance of recognizing a child’s capacity for learning, and not assuming they’re automatically displaying some sort of irrational behavior that needs correcting.

“When a toddler keeps throwing something on the floor, it’s often viewed as attention-seeking behavior,” but in truth, it could be “testing the object’s identity” to see if it acts in the same way over and over. “Really, children are often learning. They’re just smaller human beings. I used to joke that LePort treats your child, not like a different, defective species, but like a human being.”

In addition to LePort and its Montessorian approach, students were also eager to hear more about Daniels’ university experience, and if there was any advice he’d give to college-bound young people.

“One of the things is that I would discourage as many people as possible from going from inertia or because it is what is expected. I saw a lot of students who weren’t sure why they were there or what they wanted to do. That’s not just a student issue—that’s an institutional issue.”

Daniels went on to explain how universities seek to remedy this by requiring prerequisites.

“Prerequisites are often there to serve students who don’t know what to do, but it does a disservice to students who do know what they want. I actually think that’s best to do at an earlier age—deep exploration where the costs are much lower. High school students could take a whole semester-long internship or entrepreneurial program where they actually go into the world and are better-prepared to know what they want to pursue.”

Daniels ended the Q&A by discussing what he thinks is essential to being a good teacher: constantly expanding one’s own knowledge.

“There is a sense in which being involved in a career that’s about developing thinking habits in others is all-consuming. It’s no joke. Teaching is demanding. It’s a lot of effort and hours, and contact with students. For me, this is definitely a career you can be thinking about and improving upon every day.” [TU]

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To hear more from Eric Daniels on thinking processes and learning, we
recommend his talk,
Unbridled Rationality: Using Reason To Flourish.

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