Why CA encourages students to try new things

Every fall Parent Preview provides Colorado Academy with two wonderful opportunities to showcase our whole school to prospective parents. My favorite part of those days comes when the Upper School presents a student panel to speak on behalf of our high school program. Over the two Preview days this year, a total of 25 students representing all four grades offered authentic comments about what they valued in a CA education.

A number of students mentioned that one of their favorite aspects of school life is that they are encouraged to try new things and expand their comfort zones. These students spoke of significant experiences in which they ventured out—whether because of a requirement or a self-chosen desire for a new opportunity—and felt highly satisfied, even inspired, by the new situation. This was music to my ears. At CA we regularly promote the benefits of expanding one’s horizons. In our school environment, there are so many great programs that can entice and encourage students to try new things.

One notable example came from Sophomore Teri McManus. She told the assembled parents that she had never thought of herself as an “artsy” person, but she understood that she needed to take two arts courses as a Freshman. While she had previously avoided any performing whatsoever, she signed up for an elective called “Musical Theater.” Not only did she end up loving the course, she found that it really built her confidence. She was proud of herself for taking something challenging and acknowledged that the arts elective had been a valuable growth experience. Other students on the panel nodded in agreement, connecting to their own similar stories.

How do we encourage students to stretch themselves in academics, athletics, and the arts? 

CA has a no-cut policy in sports. If 75 students try out for basketball, we will make enough teams to support all 75, even if 10 of them have never played competitive basketball before. Similarly, there are multiple performance opportunities for every performance-based class we offer. Never sang in a choir before? No matter, we will place you in the choir, and you will have at least one major performance opportunity at the end of the trimester.

The Upper School has also added a two-trimester requirement in Computer Science, Design & Engineering in order to get students to sample coding and/or classes in the Innovation Lab, even if they have never imagined themselves in those sorts of courses or contexts before. These electives are designed to expose even a total novice to the fundamentals, and they are graded on their process and progress, further encouraging a beginner to take risks and try new things without fear of doing poorly in the class.

Why is trying new things good for students?

Perhaps it should be self-evident why a high school student would benefit from trying new things in a supportive environment with many safety nets, but in these days where specialization and the overly careful curation of a student’s resume have gained traction, perhaps it does bear review. The positive aspects of having what is now referred to as a “growth mindset” make logical sense and are scientifically based. The internet is full of research-supported science articles as well as popular culture references to the benefits of establishing an open-minded attitude towards new experiences.

My recent research even brought me to an enjoyable article in Shape magazine extolling the virtues of “Staring something new and scary right in the eyeballs and then crushing it, [which] requires courage, for sure. But doing it—despite fear—will teach you to overcome those iffy feelings again next time. . .”

The extensive research in growth mindset (particularly the work of Carol Dweck) has consistently shown that taking safe risks builds resilience and character, and helps the brain develop greater plasticity and flexibility, important qualities in an ever-changing world in which the ability to learn new skills matters more than ever. Finally, we know that allowing students to take risks and encouraging them to do so promotes our 6 C’s, which are the guiding principles of our work at the school. (The Six C’s are: Character, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Cultural Competency.) For all these reasons, we will continue to expect our students to try something new on a regular basis.