Conference sparks education questions

By Timbi Shepherd – [email protected] – Asst. A&F Editor | March 4, 2015 |
Highsmith’s Mountain Rooms buzzed with anticipation before Matt Murrie welcomed K-12 educators from across the country to the Reinventing Education conference held at UNC Asheville this weekend.
Murrie, who organized the event, is the executive director of What If…? 360, an organization that facilitates dialogue among advocates and practitioners of experimental learning around the world.
He opened Friday’s program by explaining that a What If…? event may not be what people are accustomed to in a conference. In fact, Murrie said he conceived of Reinventing Education as an unconference — a bottom-up, participant-driven inversion of the typical conference model.
“We were inspired by TED Talks, but we wanted to create an experience where audiences are participatory so that the focus isn’t necessarily the people on stage, but anyone who participates,” Murrie said.
The event was organized into rounds of three speakers, each of whom had eight minutes to pose and respond to a what-if question about education practice possibilities.
Following each round, speakers and audience members moved into another room to collaborate in small groups and develop concrete solutions to the issues speakers raised.
“You’re challenged in a group to come up with three to five steps to turn ideas into action. Then we’ll share these steps throughout the rest of the weekend and discuss how we can take the things we’ve heard into the real world,” Murrie said. “It’s not just one person saying, ‘This is how things should be done,’ but a community working together to create action.”
Carol Teitelman, distance-learning innovator from Austin, Texas, gave the first of three talks Friday night.
She asked, “What if we really knocked down the walls of the classroom?”
Teitelman said she entered the field of distance learning from a liberal arts background because she saw the power of technology to give students the opportunity to choose exactly what they would like to study, to communicate with others across the world and to learn about cultures vastly different from their own. She urged other educators not to let the enclosed space of the classroom limit them or their students.
Rebecca Heiss, biology instructor at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science in Mathematics, followed Teitelman’s talk, posing the question, “What if we gave students the ability to guide their own education through personal experience and interest?”
Heiss cautioned that students are not taking risks and maximizing their education because they are afraid of failure. She called on educators to treat failure with understanding, and even encourage a healthy dose of failure in order to support and best serve their students.
“I know a lot of you in the traditional model (of education) don’t have room for failure, and that’s really scary,” Heiss said. “We should be showing our students how to move forward from there.”
She proposed a new, more accessible model of education, named REBOOT, which stands for Reaching out, Engaging and exploring, Brainstorming, One on One and teaching and learning Together.
Heiss closed her talk with another question, “What would you do if you knew you would fail, but it would still be worth it?”
Sidney Morris, executive director at Vineyard Voyagers in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, concluded the evening’s talks by reading what he called a bedtime story.
“What if kids could safely follow their interests and passions with appropriate risk?” Morris asked. “Or explore new territory and experiences each day with their friends, without having to sit in a classroom all day?”
Morris said as idealistic as these questions may seem, they do not present unrealistic possibilities if people are willing to approach education policy and practice with an open mind.