Four years ago, humanities teacher Melissa Dolan '98 became increasingly concerned by the way in which the growing polarization in the country was making it difficult to engage in civil discourse on complex issues. People were viewing the world in stark, black-and-white terms, as nuanced thinking, along with compromise and empathy, seemed to be disappearing from the national stage.
Although the 8th grade humanities course has long focused on helping students understand U.S. history and the American experience through the use of literature, Dolan, who graduated from Rivers in 1998, realized the course needed to evolve in order to help students make sense of the growing tensions that were dividing the country.
“We needed to talk about complex historical events, like segregation and the civil rights movement, in a way that would help them better understand the political and social dynamics that were at play in the world around them," Dolan says. "We needed to make the course more relevant, to strengthen the connections between the past and the present. And we needed to help students develop the thinking skills necessary for engaging in nuanced discussions about current events.”
Today the course achieves that goal by introducing students to the concept of “systems thinking,” a learning technique that helps students analyze complex subjects. “If we think about people as belonging to different systems that influence their beliefs, development, experience, and actions, it helps students become more open-minded in how they view the world. It helps them appreciate cause and effect and be more empathetic to different perspectives,” says Dolan.
The course begins with discussions that help students identify what a system is and how it impacts people who operate within it. Then, using the U.S. Constitution as a framework, the course explores systems of government and all their complexities and responsibilities. The goal is not to teach students what to think, but rather how to think about complex subjects.