East Coast: Echoes from the Green Mountains

By: Julie Brown

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Justin Reich, an accomplished Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor, spoke with us on Monday about MIT’s current focus on instructional reform.  The discussion was framed around the above quote by John Dewey.  Needless to say, a scholar at the very pinnacle of academic rigor quoting a Vermont born philosopher and educational reformer instantly caught our attention!

Dewey believed that education was a foundation of civil society and democracy.  He was a proponent of education mirroring life: we are social and relational by design and therefore learn best through social engagement and experience.  Current buzzwords in education innovation circles such as “problem based learning”, “experiential education”, and “teaching with passion” were advanced by Dewey in the early 1900s.  Dewey did not, however, minimize the role of content knowledge itself as a driver of learning or advocate for an entirely child-centered curriculum.  Nor did our MIT host.  Both sought a balance between advancing the boundaries of curriculum with healthy, compassionate, and effective means of acquiring and applying new understandings.

His talk highlighted the central role content knowledge (facts) serves in learning - the more you know, the more connections the mind can make in acquiring new knowledge.  MIT is asking themselves, “How, then, do our students best acquire content knowledge?”  One of the places they are going to for answers is works by John Dewey such as “Experience and Education.”  Like Dewey, and backed up by current research, they accept that sitting and listening is one of the least effective modes of instruction.  They realize that the more experiential, social, student-choice driven, and problem-based their courses are, the more successful they invariably are.

His message was both validating and inspiring for us as we pursue a common vision for the future focus of our schools.  A recurring trend in our conversations is the balance between curriculum and experiential learning and how we can continue to steer our efforts towards creating a vibrant, meaningful, compassionate, and empowering educational experience for our students.  As our fellow Vermonter John Dewey believed, a socially driven education is vital for our children, our society, and our democracy.

Layering on top of everything an investigation into how our physical building can hinder or promote such “living and learning” makes for rich discussions and exciting ideas.  Each of us is sincerely grateful for this unique opportunity. Thank you!