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Research Programme

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What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

In our understanding, no learning community can fully thrive without becoming a genuine research community. Composed of experienced scholars and educators, our team is committed to inspiring and challenging one another in a systematic, interdisciplinary inquiry. In order to facilitate this process, we are co-organising the Pearl Divers research group, hosted by the transdisciplinary research centre CLEA at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). The Pearl Divers group is focused on the conceptual groundwork for the practices of education and pedagogy. The group’s activities aim to consolidate the philosophical underpinnings that can foster understanding of education and cognitive development in good attunement to complexity: the complexity of the world—and the complexity of the mind.

The frameworks investigated by the Pearl Divers group inform and refine the Buckminster College’s understanding of:

  • the processes of cognitive development in adolescence (ages 10-18),
  • and the educational practices that enrich and accelerate these processes to the fullest extend.

The processes of cognitive development that we are interested in are broadly comprehensive. They include the more ‘cerebral’ dimensions of learning –academic, intellectual, abstract, and technical– as well as the cognitive processing which is emotional, social, transpersonal, imaginative, creative, physical, physiological et cetera, without any undue downplaying of the importance of any of them. Cognition encompasses not only skills and conceptual knowledge, but also sensory processing, motion, emotion, interaction, and extendability of all of these by tools and techniques.

Likewise, the educational practices that we are setting out to elaborate consist of multiple equally vital threads. These include academic tutoring, intellectual mentorship, technical instruction, habit- and role-modelling, craftsmanship and artistry, community and friendship, societal immersion, social inclusion, emotional support, motivational coaching, psychological and philosophical counselling, special needs guidance, organisational leadership, and infrastructural enablement.

Educational Design

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Setting our focus and aims in a research-oriented manner means that at the Buckminster we do not seek to simply implement an already established method of education. Rather, informed by the evidenced need for it, we are developing a novel one. In that, naturally, we are not starting from scratch: a systematic, critical review of the evidence-based know-how and best practices constitutes the mandatory foundation of all our design choices. Most notably, the designs and evaluation models of the curricula are informed by the state of the art in the fields of gifted education and the psychology of giftedness. However, we are addressing the phenomenon of accelerated, asynchronous, and divergent cognitive development in adolescence by developing a new framework for thinking and speaking about it. We believe that the scepticism towards the category of ‘the gifted’, which is so frequently expressed by the persons identified as such, must be accommodated with respect. We aim to demonstrate, scientifically and methodically, an alternative approach to meeting the most demanding and idiosyncratic learning needs.

Trajectories of Development

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We propose a systematic shift from categorising particular profiles of students to distinguishing and addressing particular trajectories of cognitive development. The question of whether or not the ability to follow an accelerated, asynchronous, and divergent learning trajectory is a persistent trait in only a few exceptional learners might be a topic for an academic debate, which is indeed at its roots largely philosophical. However, we suggest that the institutionalised fixation on this question creates new problems in the course of solving the previously existing ones, and is thus –as an educational strategy– perhaps not intelligent enough.

Buckminster College refrains the diagnostic categorisations which are attributed to persons, as their inalterable, essential qualities or characteristics. Instead, our focus is set on the observable trajectories of learning and development, which combine the following three characteristics:

  • acceleration: learning faster and more than the trajectory of the institutionalised educational environment was foreseeing,
  • asynchronicity: developing different cognitive capabilities along differently paced trajectories and, in result, finding matching peers in several different age groups simultaneously (for example designing chemical experiments with 16 years olds while playing with dolls with 10 years olds),
  • and divergence: developing learning interests and styles which are different than the socio-emotional environment expects and is prepared to support.

It is important that the above three descriptors are contextual and therefore systemic. As such, they do not refer to the essential characteristics of anyone’s learning trajectory in itself, let alone the essential characteristics of the individual, but to the relationships between a trajectory and the context selected for the purpose of the observation. Once reframed systemically, an AAD (accelerated, asynchronous and divergent) trajectory of cognitive development can be further understood:

  • either as an observable pattern, in the context of the actual circumstances,
  • or as an observable potential, in the context of altered circumstances, which might be provided.

This ‘pattern vs. potential’ distinction informs our overall educational strategy.

Educational Strategy

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When an accelerated, asynchronous, and divergent trajectory of cognitive development is understood primarily as an observable pattern that is already evidenced by the learner’s activity and his or her actual developmental achievements, the educational solutions that are being sought often tend to be framed as difference minimisation: (i) to match the pace and range of the educational provisions to the learner’s aptitudes, and (ii) to match the learner with an adequate group of peers.

By relocating learners to adequate peer groups and recalibrating the curricula, the difference-minimising strategies serve to nurture the sense of belonging and relatedness, relieving the stress of alienation that is typically associated with the AAD trajectories of development. When skilfully provided, such adjustments can be well suited as a problem-solving socio-emotional intervention. However, since the implicit measure of success in the difference-minimising strategies is precisely the minimisation of difference, it must be noted that the social mechanism of peer pressure and the institutional tendency towards standardisation are still very likely to be present. Even when the points of the convergence are calibrated and anchored differently than in mainstream education, there is no systemic reason to assume that the resulting social mechanisms will be less homogenising than in the mainstream education. In fact, with the implicit success measure pointing to a local, island-like homogeneity, we can expect their exacerbation, rather than lessening. For this reason, we understand the logic of difference minimisation, even though it could lead to some valuable partial outcomes, to be a poor basis for an overarching educational strategy for Buckminster College.

The need for a more complex strategy becomes even more apparent once we consider that —due to the learner’s sensitivity to the societal pressures and standardisations— the AAD trajectories of cognitive development oftentimes manifest only as potentials, rather than already actualised patterns of activity and achievement. Thus, the prism of potential proves to be a broader category, which encompasses the actually realised patterns without being exhausted by them. This suggests that our strategic outlook onto the accelerated, asynchronous, and divergent trajectories of cognitive development should seek to unleash them, that is allow them to become more evident, stronger, and unique, rather than steer them towards saturation within a matching environment. If so, the more complex educational strategy will seek difference affirmation, rather than minimisation, while maintaining the socio-emotional belonging and stress reduction as an explicit sub-measure of the overall success. 

Can we nurture the sense of genuine relatedness while challenging our learners to dare to shine ever more? Can educational provisions be constructed such that the potential for acceleration, for asynchronicity, and for divergence in cognitive development of the youth are safely and intelligently actualised? These are the precise, non-simplistic questions that our scientific design programme sets out to investigate — and our educational practices aim to demonstrate.