August 8, 2018

“T” for Trust

by Kurt Gottschalk

Devin Thornburg, Ph.D.‘s classroom manner is well known beyond the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education. His Levermore Global Scholars first-year seminar attracts students from all fields of study. That global perspective has given the perennially popular professor—known affectionately as “Dr. T”—a new drive for excellence in teaching, not just his own but what could be learned from sharing styles and practices around the world.

Now, Dr. Thornburg is expanding his own vision of teaching. Ultimately, he said, it’s all about trust. In addition to imparting information, teachers need to be building positive relationships with students, with their parents and with the community—something more prevalent in other cultures than in our own.

“I had an awakening that teaching had to be embedded in people’s experiences and that I wasn’t going to be teaching so much as modeling learning,” he said. “I had been so caught up in trying to get knowledge into people’s heads that I wasn’t really thinking about how people were understanding it. But now I can no longer envision teaching without being a partner in how people are learning.”

This aim has become a focus for research, with a sabbatical and two book contracts to frame the endeavor.

Not in His Own Backyard

Dr. Thornburg is in the process of visiting schools in 10 countries on three continents and writing case studies of three schools in each country. He maintained a blog during his travels, writing about his adventures and misadventures, from watching Argentine tango to cracking a rib in a bad fall while observing lemurs in a forest in Madagascar.

He has also documented some of the distinctions in school systems he’s discovered. He has written, for example, about Spain’s efforts to innovate and embrace the widely diverse, international population of students in an inclusive model of schooling (one school he visited has students from 40 different nations), how the caste system is reflected in schools in Madagascar and how the history of slavery still causes prejudices in Argentinian schools.

What he has learned is that industrialized nations tend to focus on mastery of knowledge whereas schools in developing countries are more geared toward the school’s place in the community.

Dr. Thornburg explained that in addition to imparting information, teachers need to build positive relationships with students, parents and communities. The goal is to find practical and workable models of both approaches from which all schools learn and benefit.

“I’ve broadened as I’ve gotten older,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve learned that the answer may not be in my backyard. It turns out I’m not Dorothy.”

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