At Feynman School, Academically Talented Students Prepare for a World in Which Knowledge Knows Fewer Boundaries

It is a Monday morning in November and I am witnessing the next generation at work.  At Feynman School in Potomac, a group of talented eighth graders is discussing the interplay between the amygdala, the brain part that responds to perceived threats, and the logical, decision-making pre-frontal cortex, part of their STEM course in Neuroscience and Feynman School’s social-emotional curriculum, MindUp. 

The learning here is palpable, unlike any other school I have visited.  The students are impressive, as high achieving as they get—a Feynman fifth grader recently obtained a perfect score on an international Math Olympiad competition designed to challenge much older students—but there is more at play here than sheer academic rigor.  

One might suspect that given adolescents’ general state of overload these days, students would be tired and dreary, but Feynman’s gifted middle schoolers seem calm, focused and energized.  “MindUp has really shed a new light on mindfulness and how we can use the complex topics we learn in science to help understand other subjects. I think our mindful breathing techniques even help me on tests!” exclaims Madeline, an eighth grader from Potomac.

Feynman’s interdisciplinary model has gained traction beyond K-12 education. Vice Admiral Philip Cullom, USN (Ret.), a Feynman School parent and member of Harvard University’s Board of Overseers, concurs.  “Interdisciplinary learning is where universities are headed in the twenty-first century.  Departmental silos are coming down,” says Cullom.

“Interdisciplinary learning is a way of answering the age-old question, ‘Why do I have to learn this?’” says Feynman teacher Tom Koenig. “It’s a fair question. Teaching in a real-world context provides students with immediate motivation by connecting it to something that matters in their world. They need and deserve the freedom and guidance to process how their intellectual and social-emotional development connects to everything else.” 

“In my fourth-grade class we study the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci,” continues Koenig, “and perhaps the most important of our seven principles of thinking like da Vinci is the concept of concessione, or interconnectedness.”

Educating high-ability children and adolescents to maximize their talent and well-being should not be left to chance, says Feynman Head of School Susan Gold. “The school’s philosophy and curriculum should be research-based,” she says.

According to Gold, in addition to well-documented success factors such as resilience, students must develop decision-making skills, comfort with ambiguity, and openness to experience.  

Just down the hall, a group of Feynman fourth graders is debating a topic that piques my curiosity.

“AI [artificial intelligence] cannot create art,” insists a student, “because art is created from emotion.”  Suddenly it dawns on me.  I want to be young again so I can go back to school.