Aaron Grill, Director of Technology

"From Theory to Practice" showcases the expertise of our teachers as they share the "why" behind the "what" of their teachings. Director of Technology Aaron Grill, first recipient of The Browning School’s STEM Chair, offers the second installment in this monthly series. Mr. Grill, who joined Browning in 2003, is a classroom teacher and also responsible for planning the direction of technology at the School.

Inspiring Learners: At the Root of The Browning School

Mr. Grill with Form VI student in engineering class.

Enter my classroom and you’re not likely to find me lecturing my students. Instead, the class is working on a challenge, defining a question, researching existing knowledge, or most importantly, imagining. My primary role as a teacher and mentor is to help the students improve how they learn, which is often surprisingly overlooked as an important process in schools today. Seymour Papert, an MIT professor and Computer Science and Robotics advocate focused his career on researching constructionist theory. He challenged the traditional school model to “break away from the old patterns, where children were born as learners, they learned from their own energy until they went to school,  and when they went to school, the first thing they had to learn was to stop learning and begin being taught.” This is not to say that I don't see the value in lectures, direct instruction or traditional pedagogy. Instead I more often find greater value in inspiring curiosity, framing well-defined questions, utilizing the power of the Internet, and giving students the time and freedom to imagine, discover and share ideas. 

I more often find greater value in inspiring curiosity, framing well-defined questions, utilizing the power of the Internet, and giving students the time and freedom to imagine, discover and share ideas.

Seymour Papert’s constructionist theory advocates student-centered, discovery learning through which students use information they already know to acquire more knowledge. Students learn through participation in project-based learning, where they make connections between different ideas and areas of knowledge, facilitated by the teacher through coaching rather than using lectures or step-by-step guidance. (Alesandrini 119-121) As both a teacher and learner, I have always been drawn to the ideas of progressive educational philosophers like Seymour Papert, John Dewey and even John A. Browning, the founder of The Browning School

I see great similarities between Papert and our school’s namesake founder, John A. Browning. In a 1942 article in “School and Society,” Alfred Pinneo describes John Browning’s philosophy:

The idea of Progressive education is to bring to bear upon the task in hand some creative, personal or social motive, so that one is carried on and on by the sheer joy of doing things. All the time, the pupils are learning, and what one learns by doing he can never forget. 

The Project Method of teaching, as far as I know, originated with Mr. Browning and in the early [18]90’s was already an established teaching procedure in his school. In essence this method includes the group development of some constructive enterprise, involving study, exploration, research with manual construction and decoration.

Others have also observed John Browning's fidelity to student-centered learning. R. Thomas Herman ’64 writes in his history of the School stating: 

Mr. Browning’s students recall that he concentrated less on grinding facts into his students than on teaching values, good study habits, perspective, and a lifelong love of learning. The school was renowned for its field trips, even going as far as Pittsburgh to visit the U.S. Steel plant.

I still see this spirit alive today at Browning and would like to encourage our community to continue defining and promoting the kind of educational philosophy outlined in our institutional history. I see the following constructs as vital in this theory:

  • Values and ethics
  • Study habits
  • Perspective
  • Research
  • Exploration
  • Construction

While these ideas have always lived in our classrooms and our institutional history, we must continue to create a common language around these concepts so that every student can better take hold of his own education and truly live out our school's mission to become a lifelong learner. As Seymour Papert noted, we have only common language to describe what we consider the best methods or practices of teaching: “pedagogy.” Why do we not also have shared terminology for best practices in the methods of learning? I believe Browning has a powerful opportunity to share methods and define language that captures how our students learn best. The six constructs outlined above suggest that perhaps our opportunity to describe a shared learning mission for our future might best begin with a look to our past.