Amber Dixon '90 on the Future of Learning

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March 19, 2012

Amber DixonAmber Dixon ’90 looks at the future of learning and thinks of her past as a Medaille College student in the late 1980s and 1990.

Dixon, who was named the interim superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools in September, came to Medaille as an early education student while working as a Niagara Mohawk electrician and having previously taken courses at several other colleges.

As a single mother, she worked at Niagara Mohawk by day and took courses at Medaille at night.

In a wide-ranging interview over tea, Dixon recalled her college experience, discussed the influence of government programs on education and addressed the decline in critical thinking among students. 

"I’m going to go back to who I was," she said when envisioning the future of learning, "somebody who was raising a child alone and was working a full-time job with mandatory overtime. Getting to school on time was an issue for me. Taking care of my family at the same time was an issue for me. There’s no reason for that to be an obstacle in the future. None whatsoever... The electronic media is going to make it possible for someone like me to stay home and take classes at the same time.

"That’s just one pragmatic view of how it is going to be. The other is I think we should recognize the learners in front of us are incredibly diverse, especially if you are talking about urban education."

Dixon noted the classroom of tomorrow will include English language learners with a lot of education, some with limited or no formal education who come from refugee camps, students from impoverished families, and students who come from upper and middle class backgrounds. 

"You are going to have to be training people in the school of education to address more needs," said Dixon. "The students at Medaille in the future are going to have to learn a lot more about targeting their skills. The world is getting bigger." 

She is concerned about the widespread view that future classrooms won’t be in classrooms because of the changes brought about by technology.

"There has to be a balance," said Dixon. "Maybe I’m old-fashioned. I don’t want to negate the power of sitting in a room with some of the professionals I sat in a room with. Maybe not every single night, but there is a power to a conversation with professionals. I think it is all about options, it is all about opportunities. And I think with the use of technology and the use of standard communication we can really all learn a lot more in order to meet the broadening needs we are going to be confronting."

She didn’t have many options when she was educated at Medaille two decades ago.

"It was very traditional," said Dixon. "It was the teacher in front of the room. The groups of learners in front of you were a little diverse but not incredibly diverse. The range of skills was within a manageable level." At that time, classroom techniques relied on lectures and textbooks.

In fact, she had more textbooks than she or anyone else taking a course at night could afford.

"I remember in one class we actually rebelled," she said. "Being at night, most of us were working parents. So this was already a stretch. We were supposed to buy six books. We said we’d each buy one, we’d share and asked ‘can you put some in the library?’ Then they started changing with the times, recognizing the reality of the situation."

In her view, textbooks weren’t always the entire educational answer. 

"The value came from the people of Medaille, it didn’t come from the textbooks," said Dixon.

Dixon also questions whether government programs like President Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2001 and President Obama’s Race to the Top in 2009 always have the right answers when it comes to their influence on the future of learning.

"We’re talking about shrinking dollars," said Dixon. "The feeling is, let’s not provide anything to anyone. You can see a real pulling back, let people fend for themselves. So when it comes to education, ‘if we are to get money, what’s the group that’s working? What does society get out of it?’" 

She said No Child Left Behind started out with a higher motive and helped those who needed it the most.

"There was a perfect moment at the beginning of No Child Left Behind which meant just what the title gave us," said Dixon. "We’ve moved beyond that. So now it is more what are we getting for our public dollars? What are these people on the public dole giving back to society? There is a feeling if we want to put public funds in it, we want to monitor it and we want results."

She thinks that policy can be wrong-headed.

"I think it is worse," said Dixon. "Because it is not that simple to quantify what education is. I think this spills into the bigger issue of a liberal arts college like Medaille. Not every course I took was targeted toward education. I took a course in poetry, a course in writing and a wonderful art and music course.

"Those are valued educational courses that can’t always be reflective and centered on textbooks. So just in the microcosm of education, I don’t think you can measure Medaille by seeing how children do on a math or English test."

She added that a liberal arts education helps in an area that many employers view as a major problem today: critical thinking.

"You need thinkers, we need inventors, we need creative people," said Dixon. "That’s the background every one of us in this society needs. I don’t think this push toward more regimentation is helpful."

She does like one thing about Obama’s Race to the Top.

"I like the urgency of it," she said. "I’m a big fan of urgency. I think every day, when we’re with a child, if we’re not adding to their development we’re holding them back... What I don’t like are a lot of the regulations that try a cookie cutter approach."

Dixon’s education certainly wasn’t cookie cutter. She credits Medaille with putting her in position to be the leading educator in the city of Buffalo.

"It was an incredible influence," said Dixon. "It was a pivot point that changed my career trajectory."

She remembers the night she made the decision to go back to school and attend Medaille. She was dealing with a power outage in Amherst for Niagara Mohawk at the same time her son’s school called and said the five-year-old was sick and she needed to get him.

She couldn’t get her son because of the power outage and called her mom. In the age before cell phones, she couldn’t get to a telephone until about 5:30 p.m. near the end of her shift to see where her son had been taken.

"That was the night that I decided I would not live like this," said Dixon. "I thought, maybe education makes sense."

She thought of attending Empire State College, but was told that it didn’t accept people who worked full-time because it was not good for students. Medaille gave her credit for all the courses she had taken at schools in other cities where she had lived.

"When I was floundering, Medaille stepped in and said ‘we can do it,’" said Dixon.

That isn’t even her favorite Medaille story.

She was good in math and was taking a math methods course. One night, the teacher noted that she looked concerned and asked why. Dixon’s son had a soccer game that night and she had arranged for him to get a ride with a parent she didn’t know that well.

"The teacher looked at me and said, ‘go to the soccer game,’" recalled Dixon. "You are fine. You’ve covered the material I’m covering tonight. You have a child, he plays soccer. I have boys, they played soccer. Go take care of your son and I’ll see you next class."

"Unnecessary, unconventional and it made a difference. It made a huge difference."

It was an important lesson in the education of Amber Dixon that the future leader of Buffalo schools never forgot. 

- Alan Pergament

This content originally appeared in the winter 2011-12 issue of the Medaille Magazine.

photo courtesy Buffalo Public Schools

 

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