julie stern

Education to Save the World: An Interview with Julie Stern

 Julie Stern is the co-founder of Education to Save the World and the best-selling author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary, and the upcoming book Learning that Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World. Her passion is synthesizing the best of education research into practical tools that support educators in breaking free of the industrial model of schooling​ and move toward teaching and learning that promotes sustainability, equity, and well-being​. Julie speaks across the globe helping teachers infuse their curricula with relevance for today’s world.

IHE: What inspired you to co-found Education to Save the World, and what are the goals of your work? 

Julie: Our goal is very similar to IHE’s: for students to use their learning to make their communities and the world a better place. Most of us know that education needs to transform to meet the demands of a changing world, but we struggle with the details of making this a reality. 

In 2012, my two co-founders and I were a little curriculum department at a network of schools in Washington, DC. We puzzled over how the prescribed curriculum or required standards of learning could be harnessed to allow students to transfer their understanding to new situations. 

After many years of tinkering, iterating, risk-taking, and synthesizing countless approaches and research, we have recently boiled it down to a few steps and ways to approach teaching, which we call the ACT Model for learning that transfers: Acquire understanding of single concepts; Connect those concepts in relationships; Transfer those connections to new situations. It’s simple yet powerful.

IHE: How do teachers generally respond to your workshops, classes, and ideas? Do you encounter resistance?

Julie: Nearly every time I conduct a workshop, a couple of veteran teachers will come up to me to tell me that they have experienced a resurgence in their passion and have become re-inspired to improve their craft. Teachers generally feel excited and hopeful to have a very clear and succinct way to use the required curriculum in innovative ways that help students to become independent and adaptable.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is making sure that teachers have time to collaborate and plan for engaging units that facilitate learning that transfers, which is why we have recently adopted a lot of support structures such as long-term partnerships and a variety of online courses to help with implementation. 

IHE: What changes are you noticing from your work with teachers? Can you share some examples of how teachers are transforming their classrooms and the impact that this is having on students and on their communities?

Julie: I have a growing collection of newspaper clippings and other evidence of students impacting the community that helps to propel me to continue working hard on this mission. Those moments are the ultimate goal. For instance, upper elementary students recently synthesized their understanding of surface area, volume, habitats, ecosystems, and the skills of persuasion to design and create a school garden, and to convince the school administration to allow them to do it. We can use amazing, hands-on experiences to help students build a deeper, organizing understanding of how the world works.

Another common change is when students tell their teachers how something they saw in the news, or even noticed in their neighborhoods or in pop culture, reminded them of concepts we discussed in class. One day while playing with a hoolahoop in our driveway, my preschool-aged son told me that the moon is like the earth’s hoolahoop, “Because it orbits around it,” he added as he shook his hips. Amazing! 

Teachers of students in all age groups often tell us that their students link new topics introduced later in the school year back to topics discussed months and months before! Students stop forgetting what we’ve taught them which, in and of itself, is exciting, because it means more time for authentic learning opportunities. 

The most frequent and immediate change we see is intentional planning for organizing concepts that build a structure or framework of understanding in the brain. Teachers organize their units to have an overarching frame, so that all of the various activities help students to connect what they are learning to their lives outside of school. What felt disjointed or fragmented now feels connected and whole, to students and teachers alike. 

IHE: If you could rewrite the U.S. Department of Education mission statement – which currently reads, “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access” – what would it be?

Julie: The word “competitiveness” jumps out to me as a tad antiquated, straight from the Industrial Era design of schooling. Even the World Economic Forum and other business leaders advocate for collaboration as a critical skill for 21st Century employment. 

More importantly, I’m enormously concerned about our fragile democracy. It stands to reason that informed citizenship and the promotion of democratic ideals appear somewhere in the mission statement of the federal Department of Education. And I’d put “equal access” at the top, not as an afterthought. 

Here’s a stab at a revision: 

“To promote equitable access to high quality education that prepares students for informed, active participation in a healthy democracy and thriving communities.” 

IHE: I love that mission Julie! As Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek would say, “Make it so.” Thank you for all that you do.