Higher Education

New, MIT-based program proposes transforming physicists, engineers into teachers

High-tech effort would also speed up teacher education by giving credit for existing skills

The “Great Dome” on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is hosting an experimental program to recruit physicists, engineers, chemists, linguists, biologists, neuroscientists and other experts and train them to be primary and secondary school teachers. The candidates’ previous experience and skills will help speed them through the process.

The “Great Dome” on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is hosting an experimental program to recruit physicists, engineers, chemists, linguists, biologists, neuroscientists and other experts and train them to be primary and secondary school teachers. The candidates’ previous experience and skills will help speed them through the process.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Doyung Lee is a living rebuke to the old maxim that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.

Lee, who is 24, has a bachelor’s degree in engineering that led him to become a programmer, a profession with high pay and good prospects. But he said he was “pretty miserable in that job. You don’t interact with people. You develop web apps you never see people use, and that weren’t meaningful to me.”

So he’s joined a pioneering program based at MIT to take people like him, with experience in high-demand fields such as engineering, physics, math, languages, biology and neuroscience, and transform them into teachers.

The idea upends the disparaging assessment, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that teachers are people who have no other useful skills. And by putting other talents first, it’s also a closely watched reversal of the conventional approach to training them.

“We don’t have to focus on math, because they’re already good at math,” said Yoon Jeon Kim, a research scientist in MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab who is monitoring the effort to see how well it works. “We don’t have to focus on science, because they’re already good at science. So we can concentrate on how to teach.”

This experiment, just getting under way, is called the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, named for the foundation that is underwriting it.

Related: Will a one-year residency better prepare aspiring educators for a new style of teaching?

In the face of a nationwide teacher shortage, especially in science, technology, engineering and math, the academy is not the first program that has sought to attract experts in these areas to teaching, but it offers a significant departure from traditional teacher training programs in several other high-tech ways. In addition to the familiar student teaching routine, for instance, it uses virtual reality avatars to simulate classroom situations and crises.

One of the more radical departures is its rejection of a fixed course schedule, organized by credit hours or semesters; students advance as soon as they can demonstrate they’ve mastered the material. This gives them experience with a process, known as competency-based learning, that a growing number of primary and secondary schools where they’ll eventually teach are beginning to adopt. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning urged in December that competency-based learning be expanded.

And Lee and the other students in the inaugural class, which started in the fall, are not only learning how to become teachers; they’re also helping to design the program before more candidates show up, using input about successful training techniques from medical schools and even military academies and the U.S. Army War College.

“We’ve thrown out tradition and rebuilt this thing,” said Arthur Levine, the academy’s founding president and former head of one of the preeminent traditional schools of education, Columbia University’s Teachers College. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is housed at Teachers College and is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which are also among the academy’s funders.)

“We’re taking the innovations people have been talking about and actually trying them,” said Levine, who has authored 12 books, including a series of reports on teacher preparation. Everything that succeeds, he said, will be offered to other teacher training programs.

“A lot of people are watching this,” said Rodrick Lucero, vice president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “There is a lot of pressure on this program. We’ll see if it works in the small scale and then if it would work at a much bigger institution, where there are thousands of teacher candidates” and not just the 10 hand-picked “design fellows” enrolled so far. Their ranks will grow to 25 next fall.

Related: The next generation of science education means more doing

With the cachet of MIT behind it, the project passed one major milestone unusually quickly, winning formal approval from the state of Massachusetts in the fall to award master’s degrees in education.

But there remain substantial hurdles, not the least of which is getting highly skilled professionals with in-demand degrees to go into a line of work that typically offers much less money and prestige.

“Why would people in these high-paying fields want to be teachers? The reality is a lot of them always wanted to be teachers, but people told them, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Our job is to find those people,” Levine said.

Programmers, for example, earn nearly 40 percent more than high school teachers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it isn’t only the salary that makes it tough to recruit prospective teachers: In recent years, a drumbeat of criticism from politicians and others has battered teacher morale and fueled turnover. Fewer than half of teachers said they were “very satisfied” with their jobs, a survey found, and 29 percent said they were likely to quit.

“Why should you become a teacher if you can code and make so much more?” said Kim.

And yet, she said, people with backgrounds in technology are particularly suited to teaching, drawn as they are to problems and how to solve them.

Alexandra Trunnell, who at 20 has already earned degrees in physics and astronomy and is also enrolled at the academy, sees that firsthand, she said, in her student teaching.

“When students ask me about things like black holes or distance over time, I can take what I’ve learned and bring it back to the classroom,” she said.

What these first students in the new academy share in common, Kim said, is that “they want to change the world through education. And they think this is how they can do it. This is a perfect fit for them. It doesn’t mean that teaching will be any easier for them than it is for other teachers.” 

Related: Making ‘Big Data’ useful rather than scary for teachers

The academy used social media to recruit its first class. It asked the presidents of top colleges and universities for nominees. It advertised on the Boston public transit system.

In addition to free tuition and a $20,000-a-year stipend, what it offered its prospective students was “the chance to invent the future,” Levine said. “This is the kind of place that when you see the job description you either say, ‘That’s crazy’ or, ‘That’s the perfect thing for me.’ ”

Breauna Campbell, 25, who has a bachelor’s degree in engineering with a concentration in chemical engineering, left a job testing pharmaceutical equipment to sign on.

“I felt like I wasn’t using all the educational opportunities I’d been given, to help the next generation,” said Campbell, who is from Indiana. “I’m not normally a risk-taker, so this is way out of my element. But the goals were in line with my thinking, realizing that how we’re educating students isn’t working.”

It’s the idea of inventing the future, Levine said, that conventional schools of education have been slow to envision or embrace. So the academy teamed up with MIT, which doesn’t have a school of education.

“We didn’t want to change an education school,” Levine said. “We wanted to invent one. It’s just very hard to move these things into established organizations. We needed to create the model, which is what we hope we’re doing here.”

What MIT gets out of this is the chance to try out theories developed in its Teaching Systems Lab and other departments that study teaching and learning and ways they can benefit from new technologies.

“There are so many thinkers and engineers and scientists here who are interested in education in general and really want to impact K-12 education,” Kim said. “We have all these interesting ideas that have already been incubated within MIT that we want to test.”

In its small space on the first floor of a renovated old brick office building a few blocks from the MIT campus, the academy so far consists primarily of an open common area the size of a classroom where students sit at high counters and work on laptops and tablets.

Classes are provided both online and in person, supervised by a small faculty the academy calls “mentors.” Students are assessed through both conventional means and in new ways developed by these faculty and by scientists at MIT — in those virtual simulations, for example, and on video game-type tests.

All of these approaches are still being fine-tuned by the members of the inaugural class, who hang out in the common area when they’re not student teaching at a partner public school. On a whiteboard, color-coded sticky notes propose to answer the question: “What is an ideal teacher?” The answers include, “Passion for teaching,” “Efficient at explaining things,” “Efficient with time.” 

Related: When the entire class is a game

Time is one of the things this program considers radically differently. Rather than requiring that students sit through a comprehensive list of required courses of a given length in a particular order, it lets them move on once they’ve demonstrated that they know a subject.

“If on Day One you’ve shown us you have all those competencies in the first 12 minutes, then just solve the problems and move on,” Levine said.

“We’re throwing out the clock, we’re throwing out credit hours, we’re throwing out seat time,” he said, listing the customary measures used in higher education. “All we care about is outcomes: What do you know?”

Ultimately, the academy leaders stress, candidates will be judged the old-fashioned way: by being made to prove, in a real-world classroom, that they’ve learned their stuff. Student teaching remains a central part of the curriculum.

But students also interact with those virtual reality avatars, which simulate difficult situations they may not encounter in their training, such as belligerent parents or young people who suffer crises of confidence.

“You might be in a school for an entire year and never see a student have a meltdown. We’ll make sure you do,” Levine said.

Voiced by actors, the avatars may appear cartoonish, but the simulations are detailed down to the background noise of people passing in the corridor. After a while, Campbell said, “You’re really in it.”

The biggest innovation of the program, however, is giving credit to these prospective teachers for their pre-existing knowledge and skills — especially in math and science disciplines that are so much in demand — Lucero said.

“It seems to make sense that competency-based education is a good fit for people who have been professionals in their field,” he said.

Related: Why haven’t new federal rules unleashed more innovation in schools?

Still, Lucero said, there may be risks in separately considering all of the expertise required in a classroom, rather than combining the various parts into a collective whole.

“It’s not about just being good at one skill but being good at all the skills you need when you walk in the door,” he said. “The danger is this may be a very simplistic way at looking at a complicated thing, and that is pedagogy. Whatever we do, we want to make sure we’re doing it in front of real kids in a real school in front of a master teacher.”

If the ideas do work, said Levine, he hopes that other schools of education will adopt them.

“We don’t want this to be regarded as another competitor. We want it to be considered as a resource,” he said. “They don’t have to take the whole thing. They can adapt the challenges. They can adapt the simulations.”

What Lee has learned so far, in his student teaching, is “how not much has changed since I went to high school,” in spite of hurtling advances in technology. When he first went into a school as a student teacher, “I was, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

The academy, he said, can change things much more quickly than conventional schools of education.

“We’re preparing teachers to help build what schools can actually become,” Lee said.

Trunnell thinks so too.

“We can fix a lot of other problems in education,” she said, “if we treat teachers as the superstars that they are. Because they are.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

*Correction: This story has been updated with the correct surname of Yoon Jeon Kim.

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