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Remaking Education Offers New Perspectives, Tools for Reforming Education

Remaking Education, a daylong event held Friday in Boston aimed at accelerating change in education, was certainly not your typical education conference.

Instead of packing people into a classroom to hear experts and watch lectures, attendees at the event, which was co-sponsored by Olin College and Emerson College, gathered around tables in small teams to do hands-on activities, built things in a large design space and heard storytellers relate how education had transformed their lives.

“It became clear to us very early in the planning that if we brought people into a room to listen to smart people talk at them, we would be modeling the exact type of education that we here at Olin and our friends at Emerson are trying to change,” said Jonathan Adler, an associate professor at Olin and member of the team of faculty, staff and students from the two institutions who organized the event.

Instead, the event focused on the educational practices in use at Olin, Emerson and other forward-looking institutions: collaborative, hands-on activities, mentorship, contextual learning and a consideration of the broader consequences of education.

The goal was to get people from a wide variety of backgrounds — from business to education to the philanthropic community — to consider what the future of education ought to look like and take new ideas for reform back to their workplaces and institutions. Jack Lepiarz and Maria Garcia, reporters from National Public Radio affiliate WBUR, hosted the event.

The event, which drew some 350 people to the Paramount Theater in downtown Boston, was organized around three tracks, dubbed “Deepen,” “Design” and “Dissent,” through which attendees rotated during the day. Olin and Emerson students played a major role in designing and facilitating the sessions.

In the “Deepen” session, participants exchanged stories about key moments in their own learning, and how these moments might lead to wider insights about education. These insights were captured on large speech bubbles that encapsulated ideas like “Hands-on learning is the best way to have a lasting impact.”

The “Design” session gave attendees the opportunity to experience hands-on learning by building a device in collaboration with other participants. Participants sat at long cardboard tables balanced on an elaborate structure made of scaffolding on which were placed motors, cups, pens, pipe cleaners and other materials. Their challenge was to create a device that would move around leaving ink patterns behind. The finished inventions were placed in a large pen in the middle of the room, where they could interact with other devices.

In “Dissent,” participants were asked to imagine that some pillars of the current educational framework — say grades, or selective admissions or tuition — were removed from the system. Working in small teams, participants considered how this change would affect the system, and came up with ideas for other ways to accomplish the same goals. 

Three times during the day, attendees gathered back in the main theater to hear storytellers talk about how education had affected their lives. Olin President Richard K. Miller and Emerson President Lee Pelton kicked off the storytelling. Miller talked about the importance of his undergraduate mentor in his life’s course, and Pelton highlighted the role of education in guiding him from humble beginnings in Kansas to a doctorate at Harvard, and ultimately, the presidency of Emerson.

The emotional highlight of the event was the story of Olin student Antonio Perez, a son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in New York City, and who absorbed an ethic of hard work from his parents that served him well in his educational journey. He related the challenges marginalized students like him have feeling a sense of belonging in elite educational settings, and how those settings may need to change to be more accommodating to all learners.

“I believe remaking education is about challenging our assumptions,” said Perez.

Participants said the event provided many new perspectives and tools for advancing education reform.

Doug Petkie, head of the physics department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said he attended the conference “to get insights on what other people are thinking.” He said that, as in the corporate world, where companies are constantly restructuring with an eye toward the market, “academia should have the same mentality of reinventing itself — times are constantly changing.”

For Kristen Porter-Utley, dean of science and mathematics at Bridgewater State, the Dissent exercise reimagining bedrock assumptions about education was the most useful. “I’m thinking is there a way to utilize a very similar model for our science and mathematics faculty to be thinking about what the future of education looks like,” she said. 

Business leader and philanthropist John Abele, founder of the Argosy Foundation, one of the sponsors of the event, would like to see many more gatherings like Remaking Education to throw a spotlight on alternative approaches to education.

“What’s going through my mind right now is how can this be replicated on a broader scale so that people feel they are not locked into a particular system,” said Abele.

Al Bunshaft, who works on increasing access to STEM education in his role as senior VP for global affairs at Dassault Systèmes Americas, said bringing together people interested in changing education will give a big boost to education reform.

“What I hope will come from this — because it brings together a lot of like-minded people who are trying to change education in our country — is a better understanding and a better sharing of practices and experiments to transform education,” said Bunshaft.