Jackie Gerstein on John Dewey and Rip Van Winkle

Noodle Expert Jackie Gerstein discusses how education has and hasn't changed over the past century, why she'd send a student to a totally foreign environment, and how an Apple advertising campaign inspires her to think in new ways.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I want to stand on the shoulders of giants. Bernard of Chartres pointed out that if we see more and farther than our predecessors, it is not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic statures. I love this idea. So when I think about standing on the shoulders of educational leaders, I think of two: John Dewey and Maria Montessori. They are known as progressives, they had visions about what education should and could be, and they implemented their ideas within actual educational environments.

If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man's future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual's total development lags behind?

—Maria Montessori

There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract. The notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.

—John Dewey

I would love to hang out with the two of them together so I could hear and see them in action, playing off one another. I would want to visit schools with them and listen to their ideas for implementing powerful education for kids. Most of all, though, I would want to learn how they developed their unique voices, and how they learned to so clearly articulate their ideas and stay true to these ideas when the mainstream thought differently and pushed against them.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Though it's advertising copy, I would pick "Think different," which was the tag line of Apple's marketing campaign whose commercials included a monologue about "the crazy ones." The list included people like Martha Graham, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and Thomas Edison.

The reason this has had such a big impact on me is that I sometimes I feel as though I am a crazy one in my ideas how education should be. I feel that instruction should be student-centric, experiential, driven by student passions and interests, focused more on emerging curricula, and should use instructional strategies based on the needs and interests of learners. When I feel as though I am swimming upstream, when I don't feel that what I do matters, I revisit this advice to the crazy ones.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I grew up in a fairly homogeneous community (in terms of culture and ethnicity) in Pennsylvania. Now I live in the tri-cultural state of New Mexico. I believe that too many of us don't venture into or experience areas and cultures foreign to us. Some of my best, most powerful learning experiences have happened when I was the "minority," or the only one of my ethnicity in a given setting. Having said all of that, I would send this student to a community that is foreign — in culture, language, religion, or ethnicity — to him or her.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I had lots of failures as a K-12 student, and truthfully I didn't care. Many of my teachers would exclaim in exasperation that I was not living up to my potential. I didn't care because I found my public schooling to be painfully boring. I loved to learn, but school did not meet my learning needs. I loved my yearly summer day camp, learned lots there, and wished school was more like that. I learned that there was something wrong with this system of education. School should — but often doesn't — get kids excited about learning and provide them with the opportunities and resources they need to learn even more. I wanted to change this system.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

When I was an undergraduate, I was asked what my greatest wish was. I stated: to change education so it honors all kinds of kids. I now teach teachers, and my major advice to them is to create learning environments they wished had when they were K–12 students.

Sadly, K–12 (and lots of undergraduate) education is not different than what I expected it would be.

I remember reading a Time story about a decade ago that repeated a joke teachers often tell one another. Rip Van Winkle wakes up after a hundred years and experiences a whole different world: television, cellphones, the Internet, shopping malls, airports, and hospitals. But then he goes to a school and immediately recognizes it as such. Schools often look and feel the same way they did 10 years ago, even 100 years ago. We are living in unprecedented times with access to limitless information, the ability to create global learning networks, technologies to design amazing interactive projects, and the capacity to learn anytime and anyplace.

So did I expect teaching to be different? I was hoping it would be different than it was when I was a student, but it is not. My goal through teaching, blogging, creating and sharing educational activities, and networking through social media is to change the expectations that school is the same old-same old. I want to make a difference, to create an education that is applicable, viable, exciting, and engaging for all kids.

Article Topics: