Connection and Virtual Education
Read Part I of the exclusive Wren’s Nest conversation with Dean Knoeppel here.
“When we finally come back together, we are going to be different, and the world is going to be different. The goal shouldn’t be to go back to the way it always was. The goal should be to learn, grow, adapt, and change.”
Continuing our conversation, we asked Dean Knoeppel about his leadership philosophy and experiences…
How would you describe your leadership over the School of Education? Are there certain aspects of leadership you’ve taken as your own style over the years?
This might be my biggest area of growth… I’ve always thought people were really important. I’ve always thought relationships were really important. I always thought that was at the core of education, and it is. No question that it is. When I made the transition to leadership, I really still came in from that perspective…but my notion of what relationships are and how they matter has changed. Education foundationally is relational. I really thought, ‘Okay, if I have relationships with people, they are going to trust me and maybe they’ll take a risk, and they’ll grow, and they’ll change,’ like a student would in your classroom or in a counseling session. And that does work, but there’s more to it. It really is about inspiring and empowering creativity. I do think that’s how I’ve changed as a leader over time.
I really think that good leaders have relationships with the people in their organization, but it’s maybe a little different. The goal is to interact with as many people as possible, because in my job, what I need to do is share information, and it needs to travel widely and broadly. And the facility need to have that information so that they can be creative about how they attack the job, how they problem-solve.
I am a ‘go out into the world’ person. I think that education is an applied field. The stuff that we do has to matter out in the world. So you want to train great educators, whether it’s a teacher or a school psychologist or a principal or a counselor, and you want them to go out into their schools or their communities, and you want them to make a difference. You want them to transform communities. At a school like William & Mary, the faculty are also expected to do ground-breaking research. We want that to trickle down into the field. We want that to trickle down into how kids learn. We want that to trickle down into how we train teachers. We want that to inform policy. And in order to accomplish that mission, we have to do both of those things: We have to be here in the classroom and be scholars here on campus, but then we have to go out.
If you wanted students/alumni to know one thing about you or your position, what would it be?
I strongly believe that education is an applied field. As a School of Education, we want to train great educators while conducting rigorous research. In doing this, we impact families and communities and provide input on policy. I plan to be visible in my role. I want to be in the field and in schools. I want to visit our graduates and to find ways to partner with and serve the community. I want to affirm our relationships with educators, human services professionals, policy makers, and the business community to build a broad coalition to support education.
Dean Knoeppel shared his love for getting immersed in the community, including visiting public schools and the educational camps held at William & Mary—something he was not able to do this summer. This prompted us to ask about the future of education in a pandemic:
Considering the effects of virtual learning on our ability to go out into the world, do you have any thoughts on how to build community or how we might go about getting involved while physically distant?
I think that what we have to do is get better at how to use technology to be interactive. We can do that in a lot of different ways. At the USF one of the things we did that I was really proud of was we created groups for every single major, and for elementary education we had four hundred students, so we had them broken into cohorts. We had in-house advising in the College of Education there, and the advisors created a forum, a space for them. It could be social. It could be advising. One of the things that they did that was hilarious was they were doing a focus on physical health during the pandemic. One of the advisors had the kids work out, and they invited me. So picture me in a Zoom meeting with 24 elementary education majors, and we’re working out online. I think there are ways we can learn to interact and communicate.
When we went into the pandemic, what I decided to do was to become more active on social media. I started following current periodicals in education. What I really wanted to know was what are people thinking about, what are they wondering about, what do they wish they knew more about? And how do we support that? One of the things was integration of technology into education. If we can become more adept at using technology, it could be a better way to personalize learning. When you think about children, in K-12 schools, you go based on where you live. Unfortunately, sometimes kids get sent to schools and the quality of the education they get is contingent on the zip code where they live, which is not okay. Technology, if it’s used correctly, can be the new frontier on educational equity and educational opportunity. So in education we talk about words like ‘differentiation’ —how do I change the instruction to meet a student’s need? We also use the word ‘individualization’ or ‘individuation’ to talk about how do you tailor learning to a student. But you’re still doing that in a room with 32 people. In a technology environment, between synchronous and asynchronous modalities, what you really can do is deliver instruction in terms of content, but then have a much more one-on-one interaction that’s based on what the student’s learning needs and learning style is, and allow them in interact with content and then bring in partners, like parents or tutors or volunteers, into that process too. So it becomes a much more one-on-one interaction with the student. That could really be a huge break-through for equity. As we think about schools of the future and how we train teachers, teaching them how to do these things, to embed it into their instruction and their instructional delivery, is a great way to meet the learning goals of kids.
[Concerning virtual learning], I think we are looking at it the wrong way. We are saying, ‘We have to use technology.’ Well that’s not actually the right way to look at it. The way to look at it is, what did you want the student to learn? What did you want them to know and be able to do? What’s the lesson you were going to teach? And what is a technological tool that would support that? It changes the order of it. Instead of technology being the locomotive, it’s really one of the other cars on the train because you start out with, ‘What do I want kids to know and be able to do?’ We can learn how to design interactive environments for them around that. We aren’t talking about online delivery anymore. We’re talking about online learning. I think that has to be a part of how you train teachers too.
When I was dean at USF, I always used to say to the faculty, ‘I have two questions for you.’ The first question is, ‘What are the schools of the future going to look like?’ And the second question is, ‘What skills do educators need that are going to work in those schools?’ When we finally come back together, we are going to be different, and the world is going to be different. The goal shouldn’t be to go back to the way it always was. The goal should be to learn, grow, adapt, and change. I do think that this is an equity opportunity for us, how we rethink how we deliver instruction. There’s always an opportunity. It really just depends on how you look at things. You can look at it as a major challenge and a major problem—and it is a major challenge and a major problem—but this is going to force us to shake the etch-a-sketch and not alter the picture, but draw a new one.
Devon Boyers is the Associate Editor with Wren’s Nest. She is currently a master’s student, studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling at William & Mary.