Should MIT Create a School of Education?
Is This the Time?
With every change in leadership, opportunities arise to discuss major changes in policies, organization, and purpose. MIT is now presented with just such a moment. During the two-day celebration (September 20 and 21, 2012) of President Rafael Reif’s inauguration, the theme of education was highlighted. President Reif has a record of being actively interested in education, not only for philosophical reasons, but also as a practical means for improving the lives of people. Thus, this well may be an opportune time for MIT, as a leading research university known for its teaching, to establish a School of Education that will examine every aspect of teaching and learning, with a special emphasis on the role of technology yet to come.
In recent years, charter schools have developed at an unprecedented pace largely because many parents have lost confidence in the K-12 public schools. The “No Child Left Behind” initiative, with its emphasis on standardized testing, has been controversial, to say the least. Its effects are still unclear and the role of government in education needs a thorough debate involving all segments of the population.
An MIT School of Education, with a unique point of view would bring added energy and expertise to the national educational scene. It might help to invigorate private and governmental support for educational reform, which by all accounts is a top priority for parents worldwide.
A truly effective “National Institute for Education Research” modeled after the National Institutes of Health could provide sustained federal funding for improving our public and private educational systems. An MIT School of Education could be the spark that ignites such new initiatives.
What Might a New School Be Like?
One of the problems with almost all public educational systems is that they are based on a faulty premise: that all people are alike in their potential. This idea leads to an industrial model for education in which students (as raw materials) are fed into an educational machine, emerging as products usable by society for its various needs. Such an approach leads to a push toward “standardization” when we all know from personal experience that people differ in capabilities, talents, energy levels, interests, and developmental pace.
Perhaps it is time to consider individualized education as an alternative underlying philosophy. In health care, the hottest idea today is personalized medicine that takes account of variations in genomic, epigenetic, and cultural factors. A similar vision in which opportunities for learning can be adjusted to the proclivities of individuals through technological changes already here is now thinkable.
Social media, online learning, edX, “Great Courses,” etc. are all emerging signs of a revolution in how and what we learn. MIT can take a leading role in shaping the coming changes. Entities such as the Broad Institute, the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, and the Media Lab are only a few of the possible participants that would naturally help to set agendas for a School of Education.
What Steps Can Be Taken Now?
There are many steps that can be taken right now for MIT to start scrutinizing future paths for educational institutions. For example, each department could identify at least two people (preferably one senior and one junior faculty member) who are especially committed to improving teaching. Such volunteers could meet to discuss how they teach their respective subjects now and how they could teach them if the “drill” and “problem set” aspects were done online. Accordingly, we would then almost have the beginnings of a “virtual” School of Education already. Being entirely voluntary, such an initiative would at least identify passionate participants willing to invest time and energy to thinking about how to proceed. We could then propose a step-by-step plan to create a real School of Education with many departments that would investigate better ways to teach all levels of students so as to achieve true diversity in education. Such a beginning would require few resources (such as salaries, space or staff) at the outset that are not already available. The idea would be to cross-link a faculty of educators brought up with traditional methods of teaching but willing to explore different ways with new tools.
There are pockets of underused “people assets” at MIT that might also be able to help. One obvious such group is the MIT retirees who might like to have a focus for applying their wisdom, knowledge, and connections.
Another group might be the alumni, some of whom are well aware of the need for change. Yet another would be staff who do not now teach, but would like to participate. In fact, suggestions on how to drastically improve education at MIT have been proposed at various times in the past by faculty, students, and alumni, but the Institute was not ready.
Possible Space and Funding in the Future
There have been many discussions about how to develop the space that is available to MIT in Kendall Square. One daunting problem is that any significant development would require considerable funding. A major new initiative that could attract the interest of large donors might resolve the current uncertainty. Starting a special School of Education may well stir the imagination of wealthy philanthropists. (Naming possibilities can be very attractive.)
We believe that the time is ripe for MIT to examine the need for real changes in educational practice and to act to improve the ways that knowledge can be distributed more effectively for the benefit of all of society.