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K-12 teachers return to learning

You may have seen them around the campus juggling balls, dropping eggs packaged in newspaper off the Green Building, or forming a polygon with cord while blindfolded.

Who are these adults engaged in such playful activities?

They are K-12 teachers from California, Massachusetts and New York participating in The Institute for Learning and Teaching at MIT. TILT is an annual, year-long professional development program designed to rekindle teachers' interest in learning, develop their skills in teaching and prepare them for implementation of systemic education reform.

Models of teaching and learning in America's primary and secondary schools are changing as education professionals try to develop better ways to prepare students to enter the work force. Teachers teach an integrated curriculum rather than one subject and then another. They team-teach with colleagues rather than isolate themselves in classrooms and embrace multiple learning styles rather than follow limited textbook instructions. Professional development now advances systematic improvement in performance not just for teachers but for everyone who affects student learning.

In line with these changes, teachers, school administrators and school volunteers (such as parents, school board members, university specialists and industry experts) enter TILT from various school districts as community-based teams. Upon arriving at MIT, each team is joined by a pair of co-facilitators, an MIT faculty or staff member or former TILT participant and a UROP student.

"To make change that is lasting, we bring together teams that consist of people who work for school systems as well as people who live and work in the school community.," said Alan Dyson, a member of the TILT design team. "Our expectation is that these teams, with support from MIT, will create a dialogue on long-term education reform back in their communities."

The main task of getting teachers to teach differently centers on getting them to learn differently. During TILT's three-week residential phase at MIT, the participants focus on team-building activities and how diverse learning styles affect their discussions and decisions, solve research problems for large systems set within the context of societal need (this year health care reform and energy generation and transmission) and plan professional development programs for other colleagues next year in their school communities. During the academic year the teams refine their professional development programs using an array of support mechanisms provided by TILT: grants, laptop computers and individual subscriptions to America Online as well as connections to TILT staff via electronic bulletin boards, visits to the schools and a hotline.

An outgrowth of the MIT's Integrated Studies Program, TILT uses systems thinking and technological examples as a means to change how participants view primary and secondary education. With this methodology, the participants focus on connections between the sciences and the humanities and how these connections influence technology's role in society. Activities such as juggling, packaging eggs, and forming geometric shapes give the teachers practice in the iterative, decision-making process that is central to learning by doing. Team research projects and follow-up discussion on their experiences are additional activities designed to help the participants understand that change in K-12 education occurs as a continuous process, not a discrete event.

Paula Collins of the Choir Academy of Harlem in New York City summed up her first week this way: "Even the activities that I have not been particularly fond of have validity for me because I have come to appreciate different learning styles. I came to MIT expecting to learn computers and leave as a fluent techno-whiz. Now I understand that the computer is only one technological entity among many, that technology did not begin with the computer but has existed since the Stone Age, and that man uses technology in various ways to meet human need. Before, I taught my students in the manner that I preferred to learn. Now I am prepared to teach them using a variety of methods more suitable to their varied learning styles."

A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 1).

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