“Education should be about teaching to think wisely, creatively, and independently about difficult issues that have not yet been resolved and fostering minds capable of solving problems that have not yet been posed.” – USA

“I was sitting in Mrs. Metzler’s calculus AP class in high school and, for the first time, understanding every idea as it was introduced—it was a magical experience because Liza Metzler was a magical teacher,” says Edward Burger. “Something clicked in my mind and I realized that mathematics would somehow be an inevitable part of my future. That experienced changed my life.”

And today, Burger – who is considered by many to be the nation’s leader in math education – is changing the lives of math students and teachers everywhere. Among just a few of his
accolades, Reader’s Digest named him “America’s Best Math Teacher” in 2006. In 2010, he was named the winner of the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching by Baylor University, an award that carried a $250,000 prize and is believed to be the largest and most prestigious award in higher education teaching in the US across all disciplines. In February of 2011, he was named Vice Provost of Strategic Educational Initiatives at Baylor University. And on July 1, Burger became the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College.  

Burger acknowledges that, on the surface, math may not be the most exciting topic. But he cannot hide his enthusiasm and passion for his subject. Perhaps this is why he is so sought
after – not only as a math educator, but also as a pre-eminent speaker. He starred in NBC’s “Science of the Winter Olympics” in 2010 (which won him a prestigious Telly Award), explaining math in understandable terms for anyone. He even did a stint as a stand-up comedian and a writer for late night talk show host Jay Leno.

But when it comes to educational technology, Burger is indeed a pioneer. He was the first person to offer online video lectures specifically designed and created  for the Internet. He has over 3,000 lectures on all levels of mathematics, from  6th grade through calculus II. That pioneering work—first launched in the mid 1990’s with www.thinkwell.com “has led the way for many others to provide distance-learning opportunities via video and other means and now even major academic institutions are joining the experiment,” he says. Burger’s fast-paced review of all of calculus (“Calculus in 20 minutes”) on YouTube has had more than one million viewers. And don’t miss the “Top 10 Algebra Mistakes” music video count-down.

In addition to all of this, Burger has been offering workshops, courses, and consultation with faculty, administrators, and institutions at all levels for more than 15 years.  “My work has been answering the question, ‘What will students hold with them from their formal education 10 years after graduation?’” says Burger.

But that’s not all…add one more achievement to Burger’s history: Author. He has written 12 books and has had more than 30 papers published in scholarly journals.  He most recently co-authored The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, which Burger says “offers  concrete, practical answers, and specific, learnable habits of mind for teachers, students, parents, and all other professionals.”

I hope you enjoy Edward Burger’s interview on today’s Daily Edventure.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

Everything has changed—although I don’t know if it was a result of any of my efforts. The
world is now engaged in a global exchange of ideas as together we wonder, imagine, and redefine what education will look like in the future. When I first coined the phrase, “invert the roles of classwork and homework,” and touted that vision as the future, it was not seen as a viable possibility—and for good reason: At that time, the Internet was so young that on-line, streaming video was essentially stop-and-go action. Back then, those videos were burned on CDs and thus were not as nicely integrated into a suite of learning and assessment tools as they are today. As technology caught up and others joined the effort, that original phrase of flipping roles is now a practical reality and part of the educational lexicon.

As colleges and universities enter in these conversations, I believe we will see a dramatic
shift—not only in what actually transpires inside and outside the classroom, but what defines a formal education. Through my own video series and texts I’m now reaching millions of students of all ages, who want to learn and understand.  It’s humbling to be part of such an important and vast undertaking and I’m truly delighted that my contributions have had an impact. When I receive emails and calls from students I’ve never met, thanking me for making mathematics meaningful for them (or at least allowing them to ace the class), that’s when I know my efforts have made a difference.  The point of education is to transform lives—and that is what I hope to continue to accomplish both locally and globally.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

The main problem, as I see it, is the conventional definition of “education.” For example, I would like to see a very clear distinction between “formal education” (before graduation) and “life-long education” (beyond graduation).
That is, we should not see our education as ending with a diploma, but rather view the experience that comes before the diploma as providing us with the ability to be independent, creative, and wise learners and thinkers.  With this new point of view, education takes on an entirely different meaning and focus: Instead of just teaching a list of facts to be checked off and then forgotten after an assessment of short-term memory, we would be centering our course offerings in all disciplines around the process of learning to think and grow. That is, we would be explicitly teaching habits of mind that would allow individuals to intelligently and artfully analyze a situation and then imaginatively offer a new approach or solution. Life is all about what to do when you don’t know what to do—and our formal education should be of practical value in living the quintessential life.

An intentional and sustained focus in the curriculum on training the mind (rather than simply checking off requirements that students perceive as of little or no value) will reap far-reaching and far-greater intellectual dividends.  We need to move away from an ducational template that purports to present thinking about a subject (facts and figures are the measurable final goals) and move toward a rubric that effectively and overtly offers thinking through a subject (the discipline provides an important context to instill life-long habits of thinking that transcend the course material at hand).

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Given the bleak reality of the economics of higher education, individuals are now wondering, more than ever, about the true value of education. Ideally, that uncomfortable national discussion will inspire or provoke an honest conversation about what formal education should offer—at all grade levels—to truly transform lives. If creative voices prevail, formal education will be the most precious and important resource this country can offer the world—its value would be priceless.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Teachers, students, and parents need to be honest about the long-lasting, positive impact of formal education.  Once we all agree that your education is all about making up your own mind, then we can move forward to identify methods of thinking and have those practices be recurring common themes that appear at every level in every class. Education should be about teaching to think wisely, creatively, and independently about difficult issues that have not yet been resolved and fostering minds capable of solving problems that have not yet been posed.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Meet your students where they truly are… and move them from there.
Inspire your students to cultivate a mindset of curiosity and wonder, discover their intellectual passions, and embrace the joyful habits of life-long learning.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Students are helped when they’re drawn away from mindless memorization and mimicry and are moved toward making meaning and understanding. Actions taken by rote memory have little long-term value, while actions taken by rigorous and creative thought can change the world.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

As described in The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, I would show students of all ages the way to truly understand deeply, to fail productively and successfully, to create questions in order to make discoveries, to focus on the flow of ideas, and finally, to invoke all these habits of mind to achieve the ultimate goal: To flourish and change—to be the greatest “you” you can be.

About Edward Burger

Birthplace: New York City
Current residence: An international airport near you
Education: B.A., Connecticut College; Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin
Websites I check every day: chronicle.com , msnbc.com , twitter.com
People who inspire me most: (in chronological order) Pythagoras, Euclid, Jack  Benny, and Johnny Carson
Next travel destination: 
New York City to sit down for a live-streaming, video interview with Big Think in their “Experts” Series (watch it live on August 13); later that day I’ll be off to Orlando, Florida to lead a series of professional development workshops for teachers from Orange County.
When was the last time you laughed? Why?  Earlier today—talking with the Provost from Baylor University. Dr. Elizabeth Davis is both a brilliant leader as well as a very funny individual… she makes me laugh—even when the cross-hairs of that wit are pointing directly toward me.
Favorite book:  The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (everyone should reread it every two years)
Favorite music:  Classic rock, pop and jazz. Favorite math song: Take it to the Limit (The Eagles)
Your favorite quote or motto: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” —Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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2 Responses to “Education should be about teaching to think wisely, creatively, and independently about difficult issues that have not yet been resolved and fostering minds capable of solving problems that have not yet been posed.” – USA

  1. Nicole Adams says:

    Looking forward to reading more. Great blog post.

  2. Amber Lind says:

    Thanks for the post. Fantastic.

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