In a new book, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman asserts that we need to overcome the Internet’s sorting tendencies and create tools to make ourselves ‘digital cosmopolitans.’
Some teachers were resistant, but the designers of the first MIT Summer Teacher Institute were firm: throughout the three weeks of the program the 52 participants from Cambridge and Boston schools were asked not to develop lesson plans from what they were learning or otherwise work on curricular materials for their students.
A program for teachers with no apparent applications for kids? Exactly, say Leon Trilling, Alan Dyson and Christopher Craig, the designers of the Institute.
"We wanted them to focus on themselves," explained Mr. Dyson, T.I.D.E. Senior Education Specialist at MIT (Dr. Trilling is a professor in aeronautics and astronautics; Mr. Craig is a technical instructor in the Integrated Studies Program). "We said to the teachers: this is going to be a professional development effort. We want you to spend the next three weeks rekindling your own passion for learning."
Based on personal comments and those in papers teachers submitted earlier this fall, the program seems to have achieved its goal. "One teacher who was really angry about not being able to develop lesson plans later told me, `You were right. For the last 10 years I thought I was doing professional development, but in fact I was always thinking about the kids and never about myself,'" Mr. Dyson said.
Developed through the MIT Council on Primary and Secondary Education, the Summer Teacher Institute brought together roughly equal numbers of elementary and junior/senior high-school teachers from Boston and Cambridge (the one exception was a teacher from Orange, MA. The organizers of the Institute extended a special invitation to teachers from her high school because they were impressed by their work: 14 of their students were participants in the State Science Fair this spring hosted by MIT).
Most of the participants are math or science teachers, a few teach English and social studies, and many teach bilingual classes or vocational education. Mr. Dyson also noted that in selecting people for the program, "we looked for a full range of teachers-those who were passionately involved and those who were burned out."
To get teachers thinking about their own professional development, the Summer Institute revolved around intense research on a topic everyone could relate to: how a city works. Specifically, 10 groups of five to six teachers each studied different topics in either transportation or water management.
The idea was to help them relearn or polish the skills needed to explore complicated topics. "I think that teachers should continually go through the experience of learning for themselves," said Mr. Dyson, who was once a science teacher himself. "All of the things that teachers expect of children they don't allow themselves to do. They don't have time."
The program's focus on the city, furthermore, gave the teachers many examples of how a consumer's needs are met by science and technology, and also of how politics can affect the end result. These relationships, say Dyson and Trilling, are important for the general public to understand, hence the importance of increasing teachers' awareness of them.
So the teachers participating in the Institute went on field trips to places like the Cambridge Water Works, listened to talks by experts on transportation and water, and attended hands-on workshops. They also brainstormed with each other in the 10 small groups to explore a given topic. For example, one of the "water" groups studied water transportation networks and eventually came up with six different areas of research including the installation of pipes and how water moves in the home.
To facilitate brainstorming sessions, each small group also included an MIT undergraduate and a "mentor." These last two sets of people were critical to the program, Professor Trilling said. Undergraduates helped teachers get around MIT, participated in discussions, and recorded what was said on lap-top computers using "mind-mapping" software that resulted in schematics, or webs, of each group's ideas.
As a result, said Mr. Dyson, during a lively discussion on, say, pipes and the water-delivery system, "the student could create a diagram of what was said, then give each teacher a copy and say, `does this represent your ideas?'" He noted that webs are better than lists because "lists don't show how ideas are interrelated."
Mentors were equally important. "We defined them as people who knew a bit more about water or transportation than the teachers, but not too much more," Professor Trilling said. "Someone who knew too much more might have overpowered the group."
For example, he said, Paul Levy, former director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Association (MWRA) and now a visiting lecturer in urban studies and planning, was asked to be a mentor, but not in water. "Paul's reaction was, `Great. I always wanted to know how the brakes work on an MBTA trolley,'" Professor Trilling said.
Other mentors included Vanessa Martin, who received the SB in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1986 and now works for Polaroid in community relations, and Carol Schildhauer, a librarian in the Barker Engineering Library. "Vanessa has a very good science/technology background and was interested in looking at [water and transportation] issues," said Professor Trilling, while "Carol is quite knowledgeable about electronic searches and databases, and introduced people in her group to experts at MIT on the group's topic."
Over the first two weeks of the program, each group produced and presented a report on their topic complete with webs, research notes with references, and other materials like pertinent newspaper articles. During week three, teachers went out on their own to explore a particular area of interest related to how a city works. They were asked to submit a journal of how they spent the week, webs of their work, and two short papers describing plans for continued professional development over the year and accomplishments to date.
Kathy Greeley, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade language arts and social studies at the Graham and Parks school in Cambridge, spent her third week exploring the Charles River. In one of the papers Ms. Greeley wrote for the Summer Institute, she made the following observations about the program and how it affected her:
"I approached this course with excitement and some trepidation, not being a science-type, and have been pleased to have certain doors open up to me that I did not expect.
"I have learned a lot about water delivery systems. [but] while I am glad to have this knowledge, I feel that the most important growth is in how I see the world around me. I am thinking a lot more about how things work, about whether or not I can figure something out by observing, tinkering, playing with it. I am also a lot more aware of the massive infrastructures that keep life going in the city. I notice where the sewer covers are, and I have just noticed markings for each water and gas pipe that go into every house and building on the street."
Over the third week of the program Ms. Greeley made several visits to places like the Charles River Dam and the Charles River Museum. "I am often too busy to get out to places like that so I appreciated having a good excuse to go," she wrote. "I have lived in Cambridge for 17 years and had never even known there was a dam and certainly knew little about how the river has been shaped and molded to meet the needs of the people."
The Summer Institute also gave Ms. Greeley new perspectives on her teaching. "In the coming year," she wrote, "I plan to give students more time to.really focus on developing a greater understanding of our own city and the neighborhoods within. I think that the work we did on water not only gave me a fairly thorough understanding of the current (and past) water-delivery systems, but also provided a model for exploring new territories."
The MIT Summer Teacher Institute was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership (ECSEL).
In addition, the following organizations supported the program with people and expertise: the MIT Integrated Studies Program, the MIT Libraries, the MIT Museums, the MIT Sea Grant College Program, the MIT Program in Science, Technology and Society, the Boston and Cambridge Public Schools, the Central Artery Tunnel Project, the MBTA, the MWRA, Polaroid Corporation and Wheelock College.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 10).