Building Teacher Leaders

Disseler_webDr. Shirley Disseler has witnessed the power of the “brick.”

She’s seen children pick up what seems to be a shiny, plastic toy and use math and science skills – without even realizing it – to transform it into a moving robot. Then she sees new knowledge and concepts illuminate their minds.

“When I look at a LEGO, I see a building block of learning,” she says.

Disseler, an assistant professor of education at High Point University, is passionate about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education – the fields that drive 21st century learning and jobs. Her passion is evidenced by her position as one of only 10 professors from 1,100 applicants around the world selected to serve on the Global LEGO Education Advisory Panel (LEAP). It’s an opportunity that allows her to assist LEGO in developing new products to be used in the classroom.

With 17 years of public school teaching and curriculum development under her belt, she joined HPU’s School of Education to share her expertise with aspiring teachers. Through undergraduate and graduate programs centered on STEM, Disseler focuses on one key component:

“It’s not about 2+2=4,” says Disseler, one of 19 dynamic education professors at HPU. “It’s about why does 2+2=4, and can you prove it?”

DSC_9241Developing Teacher Leaders

The LEGO Education opportunity sent Disseler to its headquarters in Denmark, where the iconic LEGO was created in the 1940s. She worked with education leaders from across the globe, including teachers from the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, China and more to understand how teaching styles and methods vary.

In the new School of Education, equipped with SMART Boards, a lab modeled after an elementary classroom, a resource center and a children’s book library, Disseler says she teaches education majors not only how to teach, but how to be teacher leaders who solve learning challenges. Her global experience in education gives her students an opportunity to absorb teaching models from around the world and influence LEGO Education’s product development.

“In Copenhagen, the teacher does not stand in front of the classroom,” she says. “They put their students in groups, give them a lesson, and move from group to group as the students work through it. Finland doesn’t do homework and spends less time in class, yet they are more prepared than children in the United States. They center on creativity and play.”

That’s where LEGO comes in, says Disseler. It’s not about a specific brand or toy. It’s about teaching education majors to take hands-on methods that foster creativity – something that’s required to be globally competitive – and prepare children with 21st century learning skills.

Secondary PhotoTaking it to the Community

To put her beliefs about the learn-by-play process into perspective, Disseler brought back numerous LEGO kits and products and challenged HPU education majors to hold “LEGO Build Days” for local children. The HPU students went to nearby classrooms and invited elementary students to campus for workshop builds. In total, more than a dozen LEGO Days were hosted by the students in the spring alone.

How effective were they for children?

“Even in classrooms that weren’t always well behaved, manipulative products like LEGOs instantly increased the engagement and attention levels of the children,” says Ellie Tehan, a student in the fifth year STEM graduate program created by Disseler. “Through the LEGO workshops, I saw that children need their own hands-on learning experiences to be able to grasp the common core curriculum. One teacher told us that the event had a profound effect on all of her students, including one who hadn’t picked up a pencil all year.”

Global Development in Denmark

The reaction from children and the outcomes of the LEGO Days are documented by Disseler and HPU students, who then report the findings to the global LEAP board. Disseler is constantly working with LEGO to develop products conducive to learning, giving HPU students the opportunity to shape a product that improves learning for children.

“LEGO Education will send their ideas for a new product to me, and I’ll discuss it with my HPU students. We’ll give them feedback based on what they’ve seen,” she says. “That alone is amazing.”

The experience has been eye-opening for both the children and the soon-to-be-teachers, who now have a connection to a global education company and a cutting-edge perspective on preparing children for success.

“We’ve seen a lot of kids who have never held a LEGO, and we’re working to change that,” says Tehan. “Having the opportunity to bring new LEGO products to students before they are released is an opportunity I wouldn’t expect to find anywhere else than High Point University.”

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