Kathleen Ruffle Alexis Filippini

Self-Awareness, Self-Advocacy, and Beautiful Questions

Kathleen Ruffle, Upper School Learning Support Specialist; Dr. Alexis Filippini, K-8 Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning K-8
Bentley faculty know that the magic of teaching is in providing multiple pathways for students to find success, appropriate challenge, and ultimately independence as a learner. Part of this process involves helping students understand what it means to be self-aware as a learner and how to use that self-awareness to self-advocate in respectful and age-appropriate ways. Self-awareness requires that a student has an explicit understanding of how they absorb and communicate information in different contexts. Self-advocacy is self-awareness in action. In school, this often takes the form of asking teachers questions that clarify and deepen learning.

Many faculty have been enthralled by Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question. Berger defines a beautiful question as “an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something--and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” He describes how innovation and change are the result of questioning and follow-up action, while questioning with an absence of subsequent action remains philosophical. Viewed in this framework, self-awareness requires asking “why,” while self-advocacy is the “what-if” and “how;” in other words, the action that leads to change.

At Bentley, teachers use a variety of teaching strategies, effectively setting the stage for students to generate questions and seek answers. First graders are prompted to generate a series of questions after seeing a tesselating puzzle:
I wonder what shapes would fit together? and Why are there gaps?, culminating in the larger, more abstract question Which shapes tessellate?. As teachers help sixth graders manipulate foxes, rabbits, and grass in computer simulations of an ecosystem, students begin to notice dramatic changes in predator and prey populations. Teachers help them to develop hypotheses to explain what they see. In Upper School science courses, students are encouraged by teachers to ask questions without knowing the answer. Under the guidance of their teachers, students generate questions and hypotheses that orient them to the focus of a specific unit in which their interest has already been sparked.

Self-awareness and self-advocacy extend beyond the classroom as well, as students explore their curiosity about the world through co-curricular activities. Specialty classes in the Lower School, and electives, clubs, athletics, and Mini-term courses in the Middle and Upper Schools provide opportunities for students to apply their awareness and questions in new contexts, gaining insights and skills in experiences they choose.

With strong teachers consistently enhancing students’ self-awareness and self-advocacy, eleventh and twelfth graders are prepared for the complex schedules and choices they have in trimester-long seminars, internships and service opportunities, and for conversations with their college counselors. They know how to ask clarifying questions, how to make informed choices, and, importantly, how to enjoy the learning experience. By the time Upper School students approach decisions around college, they are well on the path to a lifelong pursuit of beautiful questions.

At some point, every student struggles in one way or another, whether it's juggling and meeting deadlines, being challenged in a specific class because of a mismatch with their learning style, or handling disappointment in a balanced way. Throughout their time at Bentley, we as teachers and mentors help students embrace beautiful questions that open doors, arming them with awareness and advocacy to prepare them for a complex world of choices, change, and innovation.
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    • Kathleen Ruffle

    • Alexis Filippini