Claude Steele: Dean of Stanford School of Education

Claude Steele has been in his new role as dean of the Stanford School of Education for almost a year now. In an interview with Amy Yuen, the school’s former communications manager, and Mindy Hollar, associate director of development in the Stanford School of Education, Steele opened up about his role in guiding one of the world’s most influential education schools.

Before taking some time away from Stanford to serve as provost at Columbia University, Steele had previously been a member of Stanford’s psychology faculty from 1991 to 2009, chairing the department at one point and establishing an international reputation as an eminent social psychologist. Steele’s research has focused on the psychological experience of the individual, particularly with regards to threats to the self, and believes his social psychology background makes him a good fit to lead a school of education.

The importance of the social psychological aspects of our experience in learning and schooling is underappreciated. Identity and the effects of social norms shape what kids become interested in learning and how much they internalize the value of education. A fundamental goal of schooling is to help people understand the personal importance of learning, to become identified with education – in one or another of its forms.

While Steele agrees that education technology is an important and useful area, he is wary of it being touted as the future of education, noting that we are not merely walking hard-drives but are essentially social beings. So, social presence and interaction will remain an important aspect of the education process and one that should also be developed alongside technological innovation and application. Steele’s concerns have been echoed by others in the field as online education grows at a rapid pace, raising questions about the medium’s ability to deliver an education on par with a traditional classroom experience.

Steele is looking to develop a mission and vision statement for the school by the end of the year which will focus on: maintaining and expanding the academic excellence of the school; working to develop advances in educational theory and practice so helping to solve the nation’s major educational challenges rather than simply being a storehouse of knowledge; maintaining and expanding the high quality programs already in place for training and preparing teachers; building a community within the school that is more cohesive and interlinked.

Steele would like the School of Education to be a bigger part of the overall Stanford community and, as the sector does in the real world, have far more interaction with many tangentially related departments such as business, law, engineering, and the humanities.

There is some transfer to leading a school. You want to be patient and steady and listen, and have your visions and ideas grow as you learn from the community. Basically, what a dean does is try to be helpful and fashion something that will help people make their best contributions. A steadiness of effort and attention helps. It’s not like it’s an explosive thing that you do and then you can forget about it. You have to keep tending the garden all the time.