Gravitational Lensing and the Educational Universe

by Greg Cooper, Dean of Studies at EXPLO Senior.

How the laws of physics informed my school’s decision to cut APs.

The first images from the James Webb telescope introduced the uninitiated public to the idea of gravitational lensing.

This might be nothing new to those with an amateur fascination of physics and space. But for those not expecting to see far-off galaxies bending and arcing, this concept is crucial to understanding why some things in our universe aren’t quite as they seem — despite what our senses may tell us.

As I have been thinking about the variety of challenges facing educators and schools today — prompted by work I did last year to help my former school begin a transition away from AP classes — it struck me that the laws of physics supply a useful framework for tackling those changes that seem the most insurmountable.

[A snapshot of galaxies from Webb’s first scientific image NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI]

“Gravitational lensing” is central to general relativity. It happens when a body of significant mass — a galaxy, a black hole, etc. — creates such a gravitational pull that it bends even the light passing near it. This directly impacts how we perceive objects on the other side of that celestial body and distorts our point of view in ways we may not realize. Without alternative conditions for comparison, we think that our distorted view is normal and that there aren’t any other viable options.

In our educational universe, there are a bunch of massive bodies causing significant distortion of our reality: budget squeezes, polarized politics, mental health crises, the college admissions process, and the vast ecosystem of testing, GPA strategizing, and resume/transcript-building (to name just a few). In the face of these distortions, schools are expected to innovate and prepare students for an evolving workforce. But how can we effectively innovate when the massive bodies in our path distort what we, our students, and our parents see?

How can we effectively innovate when the massive bodies in our path distort what we, our students, and our parents see?

Let’s look at one example: AP courses. Once a means of leveling the playing field and providing meaningful opportunities to earn college credit in areas of particular interest, AP classes have, in many cases, become just another checkbox on a transcript, with courses taken for reasons foreign to those of us who value educational curiosity and exploration.

Before we even think of devising solutions, a crucial first step is acknowledging that competing perspectives regarding the biggest issues in education aren’t just differences of opinion, but entirely distinct realities created by these distortions. This is true for all school community members: students, parents, faculty, school leadership, and boards. And each group often sees something different in the distortion.

When it comes to APs, how can we meaningfully assess the various curricular choices in front of us? How can we assess the costs? What impact do these “breadth over depth” classes have on an overall curriculum? What messages do they send to students and families about what is important? What alternative models are out there to help us ground ourselves and our perception?

My former school had success in beginning a move away from some AP classes — that is, we were able to correct for this distortion — in three ways:

  • Thoughtful messaging. Nothing would be solved by discounting the anxiety that is out there about the college process or the perceived importance of objective markers of “rigor.” But we were able to frame the transition as one that would allow us to utilize best the expertise of our amazing faculty, unencumbered by the fixed College Board curriculum.
  • Confronting the entire community, both external (students & families) and internal (faculty and school leadership), with the fallacies in their perception. This was accomplished through parent curriculum nights and faculty meetings in which concerns and questions were welcomed — and honestly and openly addressed.
  • Engaging the college universe in our efforts to bring things into focus. We contacted admissions offices at colleges of various stripes, all of which not only praised, but welcomed our efforts to both innovate and de-stress the “one size fits all” idea. We then shared this feedback with the larger community.

Thus, we achieved success by first acknowledging the magnitude and source of the distortion that was taking place. Once we could understand precisely which narratives surrounding this issue were due to forces beyond our control, we could package our response in a way that targeted this distortion and the reality in which we were operating.

The concept of “gravitational lensing” in the educational universe can help us tackle any issue where external pressure seems to be warping our conception of the possible — the dramatic imposition of politics and political polarization into our curricular discussions, a mental health crisis only made exponentially worse by a global pandemic, and on and on. Even the most experienced educators could be forgiven for mistaking a normal problem to be solved with a more existential debate involving competing versions of reality.

How do we know gravitational lensing affects our view of a problem or challenge?
Trust your instinct when something just doesn’t seem right. We see what we see, but our decades of experience, training, and intuition tell us reality is otherwise. More often than not, those decades of experience know what they are talking about. There must be a rational explanation, and a path around (or through) the distortion.

Before we chart that path, it is crucial we understand that just as is the case with our efforts to peer deep into the reaches of space, there is much more to the picture than what we may see. The laws governing the universe can help us bring things into focus.

Greg Cooper is the Dean of Studies at EXPLO Senior. He was previously the Upper School Dean of Studies and a History & Social Sciences teacher at the Ransom Everglades School in Miami, Florida. This was PART ONE in his series about how we can use the Laws of Physics to reimagine how we tackle the massive obstacles schools face. In a later post, he’ll explore in more detail the important first steps his school took toward reassessing the value of AP classes in our particular context.