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In its 125th Year, Stanford is Thinking Big About Learning

Kicking off the university’s anniversary celebrations, leading Stanford educators explore the challenges and opportunities ahead for teaching and learning.

“There’s no more important obligation than educating the next generation,” declared Stanford Provost John Etchemendy in opening “Thinking Big About Learning,” the first in a series of symposia leading up to the 125th anniversary of Stanford’s founding in 2016. “That’s why we chose this vital subject to launch our celebration.”

The event, co-sponsored by the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning’s Year of Learning initiative, attracted an overflow crowd, at least half of them Bay Area teachers, to the CEMEX auditorium at the Stanford Graduate School of Business last Sunday afternoon and featured sixteen distinguished Stanford-affiliated educators who are shaping the national and international conversation about where education can and should go in the foreseeable – and even the ‘unforeseeable’ – future. 

If presenters and audience agreed on the centrality of education to our future, the event offered a wide diversity of perspectives on how we might see it develop.

In an opening panel, moderated by Provost Etchemendy, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Mitchell framed the challenge. “This is a very complicated time for education,” he noted. “If you listen to the news, you’ll hear about crisis and difficulty, but I think it’s also a Renaissance time for us in learning and education.”

After all, Mitchell pointed out, the Renaissance itself was born of conflict that included the fall of Constantinople and yet led to an enormously fertile intermixing of cultures and ideas. “I think that we have something like that now in education,” he suggested. “There are computer scientists, learning scientists, neuroscientists, virtual reality experts, people in education, all working together and thinking about how we can teach and learn better.” 

As an example of our rapidly changing learning environment, American historian and director of the Stanford Humanities Center Caroline Winterer highlighted the emergence of the digital humanities. “What that really means is that the whole corpus of the human experience – from Neolithic bones, to Egyptian papyri, to medieval manuscripts, to the thing you wrote down yesterday – is all being loaded online and is universally accessible,” she observed. “This is a revolution akin to the inventing of the printing press and has democratized knowledge as almost nothing else has.”

These changes won’t end our need for small-scale interactions between teachers and students, the panel agreed. Dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education Daniel Schwartz, an expert in learning through instruction, added that innovative teaching may, however, vary more depending on a students’ age. Additionally, “different disciplines have fundamentally different methods for growing knowledge,” he said, suggesting that we can expect more distinctive efforts to develop those disciplinary methods from early childhood to adult education.

Will these trends fundamentally change what schools and universities look like in the next 25 years? While we shouldn’t imagine that we’ll ever be right about how things will change, “We should keep asking that question,” Mitchell argued. He predicted that educators will certainly keep experimenting with new approaches to engaging students and that universities will probably start educating people throughout their lives rather than mostly when they are young. 

The art and science of learning

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to showcasing some of the most promising new approaches to teaching and learning being pioneered by Stanford-affiliated educators both for people in different disciplines and at all stages of life.

Director of the Stanford Center for Mind, Brain and Computation Bruce McCandliss, who helped create the field of educational neuroscience, explained what he’s learned about how literacy develops in early childhood and explored the implications for teaching young children to read. Psychology professor Carol Dweck discussed her influential research into “growth mindsets” that suggests powerful strategies for keeping elementary and secondary students invested and engaged in school. Teacher and author Esther Wojcicki spoke about the need to empower high school students to “own” their learning, and addressing the university level, Nobel laureate and physicist Carl Wieman described his pioneering and highly successful efforts to challenge the traditional lecture format as a vehicle for science education and replace it with more ‘active’ learning models. 

Stanford policy and research fellow Travis J. Bristol, meanwhile, placed a particular emphasis on paying as much attention to gender in education as we do to race, ethnicity, and class. Too often, he said, we regard boys as a problem in schools. “But boys aren’t broken,” he argued, “the conditions we are subjecting them to are.” 

The future starts now

Moving beyond the conventional classroom, Stanford alum Piya Sorcar shared her work in developing culturally sensitive software to educate citizens around the world about HIV/AIDS. Founding director of the new Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, Philip Pizzo asked how, in the face of people’s ever lengthening lives, we can use education to make the most of the transitions we undergo throughout our lives. And director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson, described how virtual reality can offer an experience of “presence” that makes you think differently about what you’ve learned. 

Wherever and whomever we teach, as we look forward, we need to be educating students for careers that haven’t yet been invented and to tackle challenges that we don’t yet know exist, argued Linda Darling-Hammond, director of Stanford’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. That means teaching complex communication and higher-order thinking skills, along with the ability to work well in teams on problem solving and a new focus that moves from learning facts to “the creation of learning ability,” she said. 

Darling-Hammond’s ideas were echoed by her fellow presenters throughout the afternoon. Imagining where these new approaches might take Stanford in thirty years, creative director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Scott Doorley suggested we might see students declare missions rather than majors, take home “skill prints” rather than transcripts, and return to the university throughout their lives as they need new skills and ideas to face new life stages.

The event closed with computer scientist Sebastian Thrun and comparative literature lecturer Petra Dierkes-Thrun bringing us back to the present – sharing an example of how innovation is happening at Stanford today. The couple recently co-taught a project-based course together called “Literature and Social Online Learning,” using computer science techniques to further the study and enjoyment of literature via social media, apps, and new student-developed websites.

The class, said Dierkes-Thrun, indicated “that it is possible to foster and educate a new type of engineer, someone who cares deeply about the imagination and the changing nature of human values and the human experience, and a new type of humanist, somebody who is familiar with design thinking and who moves easily between books and screens, between reflecting on things and building things.”

Dierkes-Thrun is also director of interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and coordinator of Stanford’s Year of Learning initiative. 

This first Stanford 125 event was organized around three major themes - the art and science of learning; the landscape of learning; and the future of learning – that consciously echo those of Stanford’s Year of Learning, she noted after the event.  

“I'm excited that the conversations that were begun today can continue, deepen, and expand even more throughout the Year of Learning,” said Dierkes-Thrun. “Both initiatives offer us the chance to take stock of the great teaching and learning that goes on at Stanford right now; to consider the larger contexts in which Stanford is related to the community and the world today; and to think about some ways in which we might collectively help shape the future of learning.” 

For more information about the Thinking Big About Learning symposium go here.