'Thinking Big' presenters inspire at Stanford's 125th anniversary kickoff symposium

Some of education's best minds came together on Sunday and shared research and discoveries that are transforming the way we think about and approach teaching, learning and education.

L.A. Cicero Thinking Big About Learning


Sunday's "Thinking Big About Learning" drew more than 550 participants and an online streaming audience eager to learn more about learning. Bay Area educators constituted nearly half the group, and for K-12 teachers, the weekend event was an opportunity to step away from the classroom, hear fresh ideas and be inspired.

Participants came from local school districts, colleges and universities as well as from non-profits, Silicon Valley firms, and the Stanford community. The Twitter conversation was active and engaging. With a reception following the symposium, the event provided new opportunities for the community to come together.  

"Thinking Big About Learning" was the first in a series of anniversary symposia celebrating Stanford's 125th year. On Oct. 18, leaders from fields as diverse as psychology, computer science, education, physics and the humanities took the stage at Cemex Auditorium to talk about their work to better understand and improve learning.

One of the afternoon's overarching themes was the importance of a multidisciplinary approach.

From new collaborations between neuroscience and education to the emerging new field of digital humanities, scholars are leveraging expertise and methods from multiple disciplines to gain new insights.

The opening conversation underscored this idea.  Moderated by Provost John Etchemendy, the panel discussion included John Mitchell, vice provost for teaching and learning; Daniel Schwartz, dean of the Graduate School of Education; and Caroline Winterer, professor of history and director of the Stanford Humanities Center.

Mitchell compared the current era of education to the historical period of the Renaissance when experts from different disciplines came together and created a new age of learning. We're in "a renaissance time for learning and education," he said. Experts across disciplines are "working together and thinking about how we can teach and learn better."

Stanford junior Alyssa Vann experienced the afternoon similarly. "I really appreciated the multidisciplinary nature of this event with people coming from neuroscience, from comparative literature, computer science, across this entire university to talk about how we can rethink education and about how we can engage students differently in classrooms."

Psychology Professor Carol Dweck has spent her career rethinking education in her research on fixed and growth mindsets.  In the first talk to follow the panel, Dweck highlighted the powerful effects of the growth mindset, a model for learning in which intelligence can be developed rather than considered a fixed quantity. The growth mindset's extraordinary potential for gains in learning was an inspiring beginning for the talks to come.

New technology, new collaborations

For Bruce McCandliss, professor in the Graduate School of Education, and Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, new technology is fostering collaborations and opening up uncharted worlds for learning.

McCandliss discussed new brain imaging technology that is revolutionizing the study of educational experiences and their effect on the brain. It is now possible to glimpse, through imaging technology, how the brain learns a fundamental skill in education: literacy.

One of the most exciting developments in cognitive neuroscience, said McCandliss, is the dialogue that's now possible with education. The new collaborative field – educational neuroscience – offers groundbreaking potential to understand how educational experiences affect learning.

Bailenson is currently using advances in technology to build a virtual world that immerses the viewer in the devastating effects of ocean acidification. Virtual worlds create powerful learning experiences, said Bailenson, whose goal is to educate the viewer and change behavior. If people can "see" the direct results of their actions on a once pristine coral reef, Bailenson's research indicates that they will act in ways that are more environmentally sustainable.

Teach differently, empower students

Several presentations focused on improving teaching. Graduate School of Education Professor Carl Wieman talked about teaching science "like a scientist." A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Wieman brings a career in the scientific method to the task: Conduct experiments, he said, and use data to determine which teaching strategies are most effective. Lecturing, it turns out, is far less effective, for example, than teaching investigative skills through tasks designed to develop those skills.

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor emerita in the Graduate School of Education and faculty director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, is thinking about a key teaching question: "How do we prepare students for a rapidly changing future?" The answer is not memorization and filling in circles on standardized exams. Rather, she said, educators need to teach teamwork, problem-solving and communication skills. The creation of what Darling-Hammond calls "learning ability" is what is important now.

Esther Wojcicki, who runs the journalism program at Palo Alto High School near the Stanford campus, recommends changing the mindset of the teacher from "a sage on the stage" to a "guide on the side." Empower students, she said, so they can take more control of their own learning. Allow students to lead – whether that's grouped around a computer screen or hashing out ideas on bean bag chairs in a cozy corner. "Let them show you what they can do," she urged.

Araceli Ortiz, a Stanford alumna and assistant athletics director, marketing, noted that the day's discussions made clear how educational improvements happen incrementally. "A lot of what was talked about is that we're on the right track, but things take a long time to implement. Figuring out ways to incorporate small tactical improvements is my biggest takeaway," Ortiz said.

The future of learning

Looking ahead, Scott Doorley, creative director of the d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) took the audience on a trip into Stanford's future, with a little help from a virtual wormhole. In a yearlong project called Stanford 2025, Doorley and his students imagined answers to the question, "What should living and learning on campus look like in 10 years?"

Some answers: Students can loop in and out of the university over the course of a lifetime; they receive a dynamic record of their real world skills instead of a transcript; and rather than declare majors, students declare missions, such as, "I'm studying biology to solve world hunger."

What should the university look like in the future? Doorley has no idea, but he does know that the task is daunting. Our job as educators, Doorley said, is to prepare students "for a future that we are not prepared for ourselves. This was the biggest learning on the project for me . . . if we can approach this all with a light heart and a sense of optimism, we're going to do great," he said.  

Videos of Sunday's symposium – and the journey through the wormhole – will be posted on the university's 125th anniversary website.