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Stanford’s Year of Learning Launches With a Celebration of Great Teaching

Celebration of great teaching

Distinguished teachers from across the university showcase recent classroom innovations and share personal insights about why teaching matters.

Bissera Pentcheva’s art history students are seeing ancient objects with new eyes. Keith Schwarz’s introductory computer science classes are more welcoming to women and underrepresented minorities. And Richard Ford’s reinvented graduate course in international law is a richer and deeper learning experience than it was only a year before. 

These were among the stories of classroom transformation shared by some three-dozen Stanford professors, lecturers, graduate students, and experts in education at the Lathrop Library on the Stanford campus last Friday.  

Representing all seven schools and showcasing twenty-one separate teaching projects, the educators engaged with several hundred community members who’d come to hear how they’ve changed their teaching practices to drive student engagement, improve learning outcomes, and provoke insights that inform their own research.

The occasion was the launch of the university’s Year of Learning, a series of events and initiatives organized by the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning this academic year to engage Stanford faculty, instructors, students, staff, and alumni in thinking about the past, present, and future of teaching and learning at Stanford and beyond. 

While the ultimate goal for the year is to initiate a conversation about how teaching and learning at the university might evolve, “we’re going to start by celebrating great teaching at Stanford,” said Vice Provost for Teaching Learning, John Mitchell, in his opening remarks. 

Joining him in the library’s Bishop Auditorium were seven distinguished teachers who each offered a brief but powerful and personal insight about teaching or being taught themselves.

“I’ve had the good fortune of being exposed to a collection of brilliant and somewhat quirky teachers in my lifetime,” recalled MD, health educator, and former professional ballet dancer Maya Adam. They included her first grade teacher, her imperious and demanding Romanian ballet instructor, and the supportive teachers and mentors she met when she left dance to become a Stanford undergraduate at 27 and whom she tries to emulate today. 

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam shared the impact of teaching a seminar on August Wilson when he was also writing a book on the famed playwright. His students, Elam noted, “made me think differently about everything that I thought about Wilson. They changed me and my thinking about Wilson as a result.”  

John Mitchell

The powerful connection between students and teachers was a common theme. “One of the most important things we can do as teachers is to really get to know our students,” suggested history professor, Allyson Hobbs. “What makes them passionate? What inspires them? What makes them laugh? The more that I learn about my students, the more energized and passionate I feel about my teaching. And the more I want to become a better teacher and a better scholar.”

Computer science professor Fei-Fei Li emphasized the value of teaching outside the classroom and mentoring in particular, a practice she believes has an important function in humanizing fields like hers. Although she works in artificial intelligence, Li said, “What really excites me and gives me the most reward is the human connection in my work and in daily life.” She recalled the Confucius saying: Mentor according to the materials. “I try to do that,” she said, “and spend a lot of time with my students as individuals.” 

Moving back into the classroom, composer and professor of music Mark Applebaum explained that his ultimate goal is to do more than teach music. “In all of my classes, regardless of the title or their nominal content, my main motivation is to make the world a better place and to improve the human condition,” he declared with admitted hyperbole. But asking students to come to terms with new music, he argued, is an excellent way to equip them to appreciate ideas of any kind. 

While all of the speakers were celebrated teachers, “Learning to teach isn’t always a smooth process,” poet and English professor Eavan Boland reminded the audience. She shared how, in growing up in conservative Ireland, she came to appreciate the vital role of creativity in education and to understand that teachers have the power to help students own the material they’re being taught.

It was left to a teacher from the School of Education, anthropologist and education professor Ray McDermott, to offer a perspective on how we think about the words ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ themselves. As we celebrate people for whom education has worked well, McDermott suggested, we should always remember those for whom the system hasn’t worked. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could build into the education we give a constant awareness of those who are not here, of their fundamental intelligence and ingenuity?” he asked.

Introducing the speakers, Year of Learning coordinator Petra Dierkes-Thrun underlined what she called the “human factor” behind both great teaching and Friday’s event. “We wanted to highlight the intellectual, but also the human story that we all have as teachers,” she explained afterwards. “I hope the celebration helps inspire and connect us in a more personal way as a community of people who care about teaching.”

Both before and after the speaker program, connection and inspiration were much in evidence in the gallery of innovative teaching projects.

Geophysics professor Tiziana Vanorio demonstrated a highly realistic and dynamic 3D simulation she’s designed to introduce students to her Rock Physics lab. In the past, she’s had to use valuable class time to teach how to use its many instruments. With the new simulation, that can be done before her students ever step foot in the lab. 

“The students love it,” Vanorio reported. “They really understand what’s going on inside the equipment now. And once they are in the lab, they don’t have to reinterpret what they see.” 

Mark Applebaum

The high definition screen behind art historian Bissera Pentcheva, meanwhile, glowed with compelling video images of gilded, glazed, and jeweled medieval representations of the human form. Shot mostly on location by Pentcheva herself using a moving light source, the videos show the objects as their original viewers would have seen them under lamp or candlelight. What students discover, she noted, “is that by looking at these objects in this way, you experience them “looking back” at you. It’s how they were intended to be seen, as a kind of enhanced reality.”

A different kind of enhanced reality was presented by leaders of the Graduate School of Business Executive Education program. The school offers the entirely-online LEAD Certificate in Corporate Innovation to around 85 students located all over the world and has adopted a sophisticated virtual environment to encourage debate between, and collaboration among, the class. The hope, said Audrey Witters, GSB managing director of online executive education, was to reproduce the experience of being together on a campus as closely as possible. “I think we’ve gotten further towards doing that than anyone else has so far, and we’re making it even better all the time,” she suggested. Indeed some GSB faculty, Witters said, “have reported that they get more engagement here, and more thoughtful comments, than in a regular class.”

A little later, Witters was comparing notes with the School of Medicine’s Joseph Garner. Garner was showcasing a project he called “100% Flipped: Student Centered, Multi-Modality, Real-Time-Online Learning,” detailing how he’d radically altered his popular Introduction to Animal Behavior class. The project title, he admitted, was slightly tongue-in-cheek. “All of those things are fashionable right now,” he suggested. “But the point I wanted to make is that they’re actually all really hard. Getting it right takes a lot of trial and error. But when you do, the payoffs are fantastic.”

All the presentations were compelling, but here’s just one more. Law professor Richard Ford had another take on bringing an international dimension to a Stanford classroom. Ford has co-developed a course in international anti-discrimination law with Berkeley professor David Oppenheimer, reworking an existing class to feature interviews conducted with experts from around the world and offering them, along with lectures, written texts, and interactive materials, online for review. With that ‘flipped’ approach, he can cover laws in many more countries and let students tailor which countries they study in depth to match their interests. Class discussion is much improved too, Ford noted. “Students have been getting up to speed faster and the conversations we’ve been having have been much deeper. Their time with me is just much better spent.”

At the event’s start, John Mitchell looked forward to the rest of the year. “We’ll have discussion about what’s going on elsewhere,” he promised, “about how education is changing, and how we might think about that here on campus.” 

We have that to look forward to, and this blog will be reporting back on as the conversation as it occurs – watch this space!



Great Teaching Showcase Montage

See videos from the Great Teaching Showcase "Faces of Teaching" in our Year of Learning Video Gallery

Presentations from the Great Teaching Showcase

Jim Lau, MD FACS, Stanford School of Medicine

The Surgical Clerkship Education Environment

Daria Hekmat-ScafeBiology Department, Stanford University

BIO44 Core Experimental Laboratory; A Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) in an Introductory Molecular Biology Laboratory Class

Benjamin R. Shear (PhD student), Daniel L.Schwartz (GSE Dean), Graduate School of Education, Stanford University

Experience, Explain, and Expand: Double-flipping the Learning Cycle (in a Statistics Class)

Marília Librandi-Rocha, Assistant Professor, Lena Tahmassian and Raechel Lee, Graduate Student Assistants, Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, Stanford University

Gifts to Balangandã:Afro-Brazilian Culture Performed by Stanford Students

Dr. Jennifer Schwartz PoehlmannSenior Lecturer and Introductory Course Coordinator in Chemistry, Stanford Department of Chemisty

Leveling the Playing Field in Large Lecture Courses