Institute at Bank Street College Established to “Propel the Teaching”
Adam B. Kushner
the silent and empty halls of the Bank Street College of Education,
after students had deserted for the day, one room bustled. In
it, deans, teachers, and trustees were witnessing an astonishing
demonstration of how the Sally Kerlin Institute would use a grant
to strengthen the teaching of natural and environmental sciences.
The Kerlin Institute’s Endowment for the Teaching of the Natural
and Environmental Sciences was initiated by a bequest from Sally
Kerlin, who had been involved with Bank Street for most of her
adult life. The endowment stipulates that her institute investigate
new methods for teaching the sciences and impart them to teachers
in training. It works in conjunction with the American Museum
of Natural History and the Wave Hill Center for Environmental
Sciences, as well as Bank Street.
felt that this was a discipline that needed a new methodology,”
said Gilbert Kerlin, her husband, who survives her. “The purpose
of this grant is to propel the teaching of natural and environmental
At the Friday afternoon demonstration, Dr. Charles Liu, an astrophysicist
for the American Museum of Natural History, wowed participants
with his presentation, in which he helped them deduce the laws
of reflection by playing with mirrors. Rather than tell attendees
the properties of reflection, he broke the conference into groups,
handed out palm-sized mirrors, and asked them to figure out the
That method of teaching, said Liu, is called inquiry-based learning.
“It’s a modern buzzword for a philosophy of teaching and learning
that’s existed for a very long time,” he said. “It’s a way of
giving knowledge that is based on answering questions. The philosophical
manifestation of that is the Socratic method.”
As if on Liu’s command, the room erupted with noise. The attendees
separated into break-out groups, and just like an elementary school
science class, participants tried to figure out why a mirror does
what it does. “What if we tilt it back at this angle?” could be
heard from one side of the room. “I can’t see his face anymore,”
The experiment was developed by Eleanor R. Duckworth of Harvard’s
School of Education, to demonstrate inquiry based learning.
like learning by doing and learning by asking as opposed to learning
by sitting passively in a lecture,” said Liu. “It’s not easy to
execute if you’re a teacher . . . As an educator, it’s easier
to present information to them, and [that] has a value, but it
doesn’t necessarily foster the transformation of information into
Liu said that inquiry-based learning was difficult to teach and
that the Kerlin Institute had its work cut out. It will have to
teach teachers a whole new skill set.
of the challenges of inquiry-based teaching is that the instructor
needs to be flexible. The instructor needs to know how to bring
the discoveries of the students into the main theme of the lesson.
You need to know not only how to teach that way, but you need
to know what you’re teaching very well.”#
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