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TEDxDU Salon focuses on improving education

Members of a TEDxDU Salon panel share their ideas to improve education. Photo: Justin Edmonds

Nearly 200 people gathered on May 13 at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education to hear a DU alum, a Harvard law grad and a state senator sharing their thoughts on how to improve schools.    

It was the latest TEDxDU Salon, an event that’s part of TED, a nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” The TEDxDU Salons all acted as preview events for TEDxDU, a local TED-style conference.

Mike Johnston (D-33), a Colorado state senator and sponsor of a state law that allows the firing of teachers whose students underperform, told the crowd that teachers are the “most dramatic variable” in the classroom that benefit student outcomes.

“Teachers aren’t the problem, they’re the solution,” he said.

Johnston, who founded an arts school in Thornton, Colo., added that he believes one answer to stronger schools is finding better ways to identify good teachers.

One possible solution Johnston has been working on is to have “teacher tryouts” for six weeks where potential teachers work with students and experienced teachers analyze their results and then recommend the best.

“I think we can dramatically improve outcomes if we use data and link that data to making better teachers,” Johnston said.

Ulcca Hansen, a former teacher and Harvard-trained lawyer, is associate director of educator effectiveness for the Colorado Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on school improvement. She said her background in philosophy has helped her look at education in terms of questions.

“Philosophers used to ask questions, and so my questions are, ‘What is education? What is its purpose? What is it [education] supposed to achieve?” she said.

She told the story of a student named Joel she used to teach who was often in trouble for misbehaving.

“One day I told the students that whoever raised their hand the highest would get a dollar,” Hansen said. “Joel left the class and I chased after him and asked him where he was going. He told me to the roof so that his hand would be the highest.”

She used that example to make the point that she doesn’t want adults to “get in the way of creativity in education, because kids are naturally creative and have a fluidity in their thinking and sometimes they can go beyond what we as adults can conceive.”   

She suggested stakeholders in better education get a “common vision” about what they want for children and then collaborate and step “out of our boxes” to achieve that vision.

“We need to get out of ourselves to improve education,” Hansen said. “It was an architect, not someone who works in this building [the new Morgridge College of Education], that made it such a great building and place to work.”

Hansen said she believes schools can be improved by challenging standard notions — one example of which is local control.

“Are students who live 15 miles apart really that different that they need a different curriculum?” she asked.

Furman Brown (BA mass communications ’88), who  founded Generation Schools Network — a nonprofit that helps urban public schools — expanded on the idea of collaboration.

“We have to innovate with teacher unions and school districts. We can do it and we are doing it,” Brown said.

He gave an example of a school his organization assisted that now operates basically the same as other schools — about 200 days a year and within an eight-hour day. “We’re expanding learning time by up to 30 percent, and we didn’t raise costs or spend a nickel more and didn’t eat into teachers’ time off,” Brown said.

Other aspects of the Generation Schools Network include: reduced class sizes; reduced teacher loads; increased professional development for teachers; enhanced capacity of teachers to collect; analyze and respond continuously to data; and better instructional technologies in the classroom.

The gathering was the fourth in a series of preview events leading up to TEDxDU. At TED conferences, leading scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs and artists present their ideas in 18 minutes or less. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.

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