Learning and Growing Together: Q&A with Head of School Will Laughlin

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Learning and Growing Together: Q&A with Head of School Will Laughlin

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Learning and Growing Together: Q&A with Head of School Will Laughlin
March 21, 2019

In this month’s newsletter, we asked Will Laughlin about the role community has in helping Oliverian students find their place in the world.

Q: Why is a strong community so important for teens’ well-being, and why do many teens not have access to one?

A: The learning and wellness benefits of community are not only well-documented, they also just intuitively make sense. Connection is essential for a healthy and productive life.  It’s something we all inherently crave — even those of us who struggle more than others to achieve it.

Adolescence can be a time of particular struggle where connection and community are concerned.  Developmentally, adolescence is a continuous dance of individuating and connecting. Teens do all kinds of things — positive and negative — to declare their desire for autonomy and separation. But they still want and need strong relationships with both peers and adult role models. The key is achieving a balance between autonomy and connection, but screens, increased political polarization, over-programming (i.e. lack of unstructured social time), the ubiquity of intoxicating substances, and other social forces are making that balance increasingly difficult. We are seeing a great increase isolation among teenagers without the counterbalance of connection.

The result is a surge in anxiety, process addiction, self medication, school avoidance, depression, and, of course, loneliness. In fact, a recent study by Cigna (the healthcare group) found that generation Z (19 – 22 year olds) is “the loneliest generation,” reporting significantly higher rates of loneliness than any generation preceding it.  

Q: How does Oliverian prevent teens from self-isolating while allowing them to individuate?

A: Oliverian has always been a warm, welcoming, highly relational place. So a lot of our approach to drawing students out of isolation and into community is an organic outgrowth of the people who founded the school.  Anyone who knows Barclay Mackinnon or Greg Vogel or Abby Hood has experienced the irresistible pull to connection that these and other Oli veterans exude. But we have since become more intentional in our efforts not only to hire more great people like Barclay, Greg, and Abby, but also to design our community in ways that are supported by research.   As a for-instance, three of the theories that we use to guide our approach to community are self-determination theory, blue zones research, and Dunbar’s number.

Q: Can you tell us how these theories influence Oliverian’s culture?

A: Sure.  Self-determination theory is a broad framework for understanding human motivation and development, and it identifies three pistons that all have to be firing for people to fully engaged and productive.  Those pistons are autonomy, relatedness (aka community), and competence. All adolescents need a sense of self, a sense of connectedness, and a sense of what they’re good at and enjoy doing in order to truly thrive.  So we cook those elements into every aspect of our community and program.

In fact, Oli is explicitly structured to align perfectly with self-determination theory. Our academic program emphasizes competence, helping students discover their talents and passions. Our counseling program helps students develop their autonomy and sense of self. Finally, Oli’s student life program helps students find “their people” and develop the social skills to participate in a community.

Secondly, we’ve drawn inspiration from “blue zones” research. The concept of blue zones grew out of an anthropological study that identified five regions of the world — Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica — where people live especially long, happy, and healthy lives.

While these communities are worlds apart from each other, they have a few key things in common. The people in these zones have a strong sense of driving purpose — “ikigai” in Japanese — much like the “competence” described in self-determination theory. These communities also share a set of values, faith-based or otherwise. Similarly, our students are allowed and encouraged to maintain their own faith traditions at Oliverian; many attend church or Seder together, and secular students often take part in mindfulness sessions.

Finally, all of these blue zones are small, manageable communities, something that we also take steps to mirror at Oliverian. That’s where the final theory, Dunbar’s number, comes into play. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that the majority of humans can manage about 5 exceptionally close relationships, 50 or so close relationships, and 150 to 200 casual acquaintanceships.

That’s why Oli caps our student body at 50 — we want our community to be truly close, not just friendly. And I think we’ve accomplished that. At Oli, our students — and our faculty too — come from many different walks of life, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and sexual and gender identities, and they bring all sorts of insecurities, quirks, and talents. They become a family to one another, bonded by the one thing they all have in common: they’re different. And at Oli, different is good.

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