Why Synthesize?

Most BCL blogs shine a light on the learning experience by spotlighting students' voices.  Along with a recent post, Purpose & Audience, this piece is part of an intermittent series that pulls back the curtain on BCL theory and practice. 

By the end of the semester, there are a few phrases that BCL students have heard their teachers say innumerable times. One is the phrase “making learning visible.” The words make it sound like alchemy, like we are somehow conjuring an invisible force and manifesting it into the world. And while it’s not nearly that mystical, it is magical. It invites us to name and see our learning. It illuminates new connections to prior knowledge. It helps us see patterns. It elucidates dynamic tension. It creates the time, and the space, to make sense of complexity. 

One of the ways we make learning visible in BCL is through what we call Synthesis. Synthesis activities typically take place at the end of a large unit. The protocol is simple enough. Participants rotate silently around the room, writing responses to massive open-ended questions. After multiple rounds, in which they respond to others’ ideas, expanding our idea-sharing into a silent dialogue, we move into real conversation. The only rules for the discussion section are that each person needs to stay engaged. That’s it. If a conversation is heading in a direction that doesn’t hold someone’s attention, then they should gracefully exit, and join another conversation. No stations; no count-down timer. Just open-ended, organic flow. 

The experience is always remarkable. By beginning with questions that don’t have easy answers, we de-center expertise and make space for all perspectives. By beginning with silent “writing to think” we ensure that all learners have time to find their voice, and that everyone has something rich to bring to discussion. And by allowing un-facilitated discussions to flow unencumbered, the feeling in the room shifts, and the presence deepens. This is collective meta-cognition, but it feels as natural as a laugh. Even though it begins artificially, with poster paper and chart markers, when it ends it feels like we’ve achieved one of adrienne maree brown’s core principles for emergence: “There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.”

At the end of the semester, we invite community partners who our students have collaborated with to join us for Synthesis. They participate as fellow learners, and their presence both grounds and elevates our thinking. What follows are reflections from a handful of these partners, who offer a perspective on what it feels like to engage with us in this way. Their insights remind us that there may actually be a bit of alchemy in the room. What else could explain how by coming together, we have somehow expanded the horizon?

Thinking on paper…
…and responding to others’ ideas.
Layering, building, expanding.

The BCL synthesis session is a forum that celebrates individual insight in service to solving the needs of the many. The session let students shine independently and collectively in thinking through and voicing solutions to some of the city’s–and world’s–thorniest problems. In this way, the session framework very much embodies the values BCL seeks to instill.

Just walking into the room where the synthesis session took place was exciting. Prompts were arranged in a large, Stonehenge-esque circle, giving us plenty of room to reflect, move, and breathe as we navigated the space and questions. It was the perfect way to prepare us for a thoughtful discussion about heady topics like homelessness, policing, education, and climate change.

As the discussion began, I observed students listening, asking questions, and speaking up. Everyone voiced their opinions clearly and yet interacted so respectfully with one another. They’d given a lot of thought to each topic yet were open to new ideas and shifts in perspective. I’ve yet to experience the same collaboration, camaraderie, and humility in group exercises with adults. It kind of blew my mind.

(Why aren’t more civic meetings and workshops set up this way? And with more high schoolers in the room to keep things civil?!)

– Rachel Mullis, Sustainability Writer

Students were observant and thoughtful. Being in school myself recently, I believe a younger version of myself coming out of winter break into a heavy synthesis discussion with community partners would be challenging. I would have been quite intimidated and perhaps out of focus. All the BCL students were present in their questions and answers during this time. I found that the presence of sense-of-place was so anchoring for them. This will help them immensely when they eventually move on from greater Burlington. I also might add that this class is so vital to introducing students to larger issues within a place and involving them in the community. I’m so glad to see a class like this at a high school level.

– Andrew Romano, Burlington Urban Park Ranger

I am always interested in seeing what students are learning, especially in a program like BCL. I thought it was great to engage the students in reflective protocol even though they are used to doing this sort of thing. I’m curious about who benefits the most from this activity? Is it the students, community partners or ideally both?

I valued reading and hearing student responses to the prompts and hearing their thoughts during the open space time..I always think reflection and then more reflection is valuable and am curious as to what the students took away from it.

Overall, I think it’s a really great way to circle back as community partners to hear what has evolved since we were last together.

– Courtney Mulcahy, Professional Learning Facilitator and School Programs Coordinator.

I liked being there for this activity.  It was very nostalgic. I forgot how easy it was to really lean in while learning in an environment like that, and I missed it…The questions prompted interesting answers. Part of the fun of it is being with your friends too, and people you like. I also like how the community knows itself and maybe their limits, yet they still work together.

– Felipe Vivanco, BCL alumni (BCL7)

The collective synthesis provided an opportunity to see and read what issues students were ‘chewing on’ from the semester. I think it was important to have them/us move around the room and engage with one’s thoughts and respond to the questions/prompts without talking. It allowed for self-directed engagement and a certain stillness from other distractions.

In the next step, when we moved around and had small conversations around topics, I felt so privileged to just hear what they were talking about, what sparked their interest, what concerns they had, their projects, and how to take their BCL learning with them.

As a community partner, this was a great experience for me to connect with other partners. While transportation and open spaces may seem unconnected, Neil Preston, (the Urban Park Ranger) and I talked about the city ecosystem of housing, transportation, health care, and who uses our open spaces.

The synthesis session helped me see how the students were able to pull information and ideas from the start of the semester and bring them forward – and hopefully think about what to draw on as they transition out of BCL and into the general BHS community, and beyond, without feeling overwhelmed.

I think this was a great capstone for the students and community partners.

– Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco, Vermont Clean Cities Director 

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