PastForward Preview: Milton Chen, Senior Fellow and Executive Director Emeritus of The George Lucas Educational Foundation

By Forum Online posted 10-17-2018 15:04


Dr. Milton Chen, senior fellow and executive director emeritus at The George Lucas Educational Foundation and chair of the education committee of the National Park System Advisory Board, understands the deep connections between place, story, and the preservation of cultural heritage. In his presentation at PastForward 2018, he will share his passion for K–12 education and challenge us to consider our work preserving tangible and intangible heritage as foundational to educating the next generation. 

We asked Chen a few questions in preparation for his upcoming TrustLive: Intangible Heritage at PastForward. Register for the conference today!


In your work in K–12 education, you promote “edYOUcation”—a “you-centered” learning ecosystem. Can you explain what that means and why you feel that it’s important for the next generation to learn about intangible heritage in their communities and cultures?

The traditional concept of a "curriculum" is based on experts deciding what knowledge is important for students to learn; states and districts then "adopt" the resulting curriculum in materials such as textbooks. The trouble with such a model is that, once a curriculum is put in place, it is very difficult to change. Often, courses and content are based on what experts thought was true 50, even 100 years ago. A case in point is the "layer cake" approach in high school science: first biology; then chemistry; then, for more advanced students, physics. Leon Lederman, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics, noted that, while our understanding of biology has changed enormously in the past 50 years, the laws of physics have remained the same. Thus, he advocated for reversing the layered approach and having all students start with physics. But even if we could more quickly transform curricula, providing teachers with opportunities to teach to new curriculum standards with new technologies would remain a challenge.

I propose something simpler and perhaps more radical: create individualized curricula based on students themselves—their interests, questions, bodies, families, homes, cultures, and communities. Students should be at the center of their own learning, hence "edYOUcation." These curricula would motivate students by giving them a voice in the design of what they're asked to study. In learning about their families, neighborhoods, and communities, they would develop a deep appreciation of themselves, who they are, where they've come from, and where they live. And that deeper appreciation would lead to valuing and preserving their cultures and places. (This is what I mean by "personalized learning," even though that term has been hijacked by some to offer more detailed analysis of students' test scores!) The preservation community, including local historical societies, scholars, and architects, can be important partners with teachers and librarians in making local history come alive for students. 

One of your “six leading edges of education” is project-based learning (PBL). Can you provide an example of that? How can the preservation community be better involved in PBL—not only to enhance students’ educational experiences but also to further the preservation movement?

One of the reasons I advocate for national parks as our best outdoor classrooms is that they preserve our nation's history for all to enjoy and learn from. From Civil War battlefields to the Manzanar internment camp to the historic homes of Frederick Douglass or John Muir, experiencing these powerful places can provide the impetus for deeper PBL. 

Rigorous PBL starts with a complex driving question. How did the Civil War lead to advancements in military strategy and technology? How did the World War II internment camps exemplify longstanding racism towards Asian Americans? What do Frederick Douglass, an enslaved person who escaped bondage, and John Muir, a Scottish immigrant, have in common? PBL and place-based learning are siblings, and students' curiosities come alive when they visit historically significant places. 

The preservation community could collaborate with educators to create lessons about its work telling the stories of these places as well as determining which sites merit preservation. Local history is often ignored in history curricula, but it can be very motivating for students. With help from local historians and preservationists, students could create websites to tell the stories of their own cities and towns through their key historic sites as well as intangible heritage such as cultural practices, art, music, and cuisine. The techniques of historic preservation, which blend art and science, could also be of great interest to students and teachers. 

What should PastForward attendees consider prior to hearing your TrustLive presentation?

In the spirit of "edYOUcation," I'd ask them to reflect on what led them to become advocates of preservation. What were the formative experiences, people, and places that influenced their paths? If we shared more of our own learning journeys, we could help the next generation go on similar ones.

If you are participating in the PastForward Challenge (Gamification) for points and prizes, please enter the following passcode for the "Blog: Q/A with Milton Chen" challenge: QAMC.


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