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Is Steven Tepper Superman?

"Unfortunately, many of my own students have no idea how to approach a creative question."


The great debate over public education in America made its way to the big screen as the controversial Waiting for Superman (BW, Screen, "Waiting for Superman,"Oct. 20, 2010) opened this past week in Boise.

The documentary and its director Davis Guggenheim, of Inconvenient Truth fame, boldly claim that the education we're providing our children is woefully unable to prepare them for the real world.

Steven Tepper of Vanderbilt University echoes a similar charge: We need to update the nation's universities. He brought his message to Boise State on Oct. 19 as part of the program "Time for a 'C' Change in Higher Education," sponsored by the university's Center for Teaching and Learning.

In a challenge to higher ed in general, and Boise State in particular, Tepper said, "If you're not surprised every day, there's a problem."

Tepper is associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy and assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Vanderbilt University.

"It's about building knowledge across disciplines, about making the classes our students pick a part of learning, rather than just unrelated stepping stones to a degree," said Tepper. "College is supposed to be about interrogation. Unfortunately, many of my own students have no idea how to approach a creative question."

"What makes a modern company like Google so successful?" challenged Tepper. "They weren't the first in their field, and they weren't doing things that other companies hadn't. Rather, they succeeded not because of the 'what,' but because of the 'why.' As evidenced by their sprawling fun house-style campus, their play-as-work and work-as-play mentality has been part of their continued growth. The whole persona of their company asks for one thing: creativity. Let your inner curiosity guide your work."

Tepper said the same "Google logic" was behind select universities pushing to make creativity inherent in every degree.

"They're starting off small, like Michigan State's Work/Play North Campus, Dartmouth's Innovation 'Play Cube,' and Syracuse's Co-Lab, essentially a 'make shit happen' room," said Tepper.

Both Superman and Tepper suggest that it is attitude that matters in changing the education system. They suggest radically rethinking curricula, the quality of teachers and how students learn.

"Everything has changed in the last 100 years--shouldn't education?" asked Tepper.