Building Curriculum Around Real World Problems

Location: Independence Ballroom A Level:

We all know that our educational attainment is the foundation of future economic success. Yet we continue to teach using 19th century methods. Elizabeth Coleman, President of Bennington College, has been leading a revolutionary revamp of her college’s curriculum, building it around finding solutions to real-world problems. She wants to refocus education around “stuff that matters” with curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults.

Photo of Elizabeth Coleman

Elizabeth Coleman

Bennington College

One of the country’s leading innovators in higher education, Dr. Elizabeth Coleman has been the ninth president of Bennington College since 1987. Her vision for the liberal arts, and their role and reinvigoration in society, has been widely recognized in the United States and abroad. She speaks nationally and internationally including giving the concluding presentation at the 25th anninversary TED Conference. Coleman also serves on the board of advisors for the newly founded European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin. Prior to assuming the presidency at Bennington, Coleman was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of humanities at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she founded and directed the school’s first ventures in undergraduate education, and a professor of literature at SUNY-Stony Brook.

In 1994, Coleman led Bennington College through a major organizational restructuring initiated by the Board of Trustees to reanimate Bennington’s vanguard educational mission. Since then, the College has experienced record fiscal health and launched new pioneering curricular programs—among them a distinguished low-residency graduate program in writing, a unique center for the study of language and culture, and the recently established Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), which invites students to put the world’s most pressing problems at the center of their educations.

CAPA is the latest incarnation of Bennington’s trailblazing spirit. Says Coleman: “The College’s genius with regard to whatever is taught—its belief in learning as a task of discovery rather than ‘learning about’ and its readiness to invite the student immediately and directly into their education—remains as distinctive, daring, and invaluable as ever.”

Coleman has served on the boards of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the Council for a Community of Democracies, and the Committee for Economic Development. She has also been a consultant to the Annenberg Corporation and a visiting fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in California, where she currently serves on its board. Throughout her career she has addressed a wide range of audiences—educators, journalists, designers, policymakers—and notably delivered the keynote at the Artes Liberales General Conference in Warsaw, Poland, on “The Relationship between Liberal Education, Freedom, and Democracy” and at the Getty Museum on “Art, Artists, and the Challenge of Liberal Education.”

A scholar of Shakespeare and Henry James, Coleman graduated with honors from the University of Chicago, where she was a Ford Foundation Scholar. She completed her master’s degree in English and American Literature at Cornell University and received her PhD with distinction at Columbia University, where she was a Woodbridge and President’s Fellow. She has received honorary degrees from the University of Vermont and Hofstra University.

Coleman is married with two children and two grandchildren.

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