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Retirement: Stephen T. Kerr

When Stephen T. Kerr, professor in Curriculum and Instruction at the UW College of Education, was twelve, his career path was gently shaped by a cinematic visit. While waiting to see Journey to the Center of the Earth, Kerr saw a short by Harold Edgerton. Edgerton’s high-speed photography techniques captured the trajectory of a drop of milk falling into a glass or a bullet going through a water balloon. When edited correctly, the images displayed a precise slow-motion view of the occurrence.

“Those films made a big impression on me,” Kerr explains. “It helped me understand how the world worked. It was the precursor for my work on how technology in education allows you to think about alternative ways to organize and design education for kids and for adults.”

Kerr specializes in educational community and technology and in the learning sciences. He was a graduate student at the College of Education from 1973 1976 and became a faculty member in 1985.

In the past few decades, Kerr has seen the College undergo serious transformation.

“While I’ve been here, I’ve tried to understand this place as a living institution,” Kerr enthuses. “The way that organizations work has always fascinated me and this one has been interesting to watch. I’ve been in enough different kinds of positions to watch how it has changed and evolved over time. One of the things that this perspective gives you is a sense of who are the people who really help the place thrive.”

From faculty members mentoring struggling students to staff that labor on largely invisible projects, Kerr says that the people have really pushed progress at the College of Education. He believes that the caliber of student has also improved over the decades. 

The institution has gotten increasingly complex over the past few decades, with more activities, grant monies, and faculty engaged in broader research. “When I came here it was a rarity for faculty to attend AERA or other professional meetings,” he explains. “Now it is expected. Not only of faculty but of our students, who we also encourage to publish.”

One notable highlight was his office in Miller 206 during the cherry blossom season. “Like floating inside a pink cloud,” says Kerr. When Dean Jim Doi retired, Kerr took up Doi’s springtime tradition of a Miller Hall Sakura festival, complete with sake sipping, traditional Japanese music, and Japanese foods.

It was in this job that Kerr learned to encourage students to think about settings and jobs and how to think more deeply about place. In his own work, he can identify two major themes.

“I think there have been two major things that I’ve worked on at the UW,” Kerr explains. “One is the significant shift in technology and one is Russian education.”

In terms of technology, Kerr has seen computers become commonplace and critical to faculty communication and research. It’s influenced his teaching, both technique and curricular conversations, as well. Take, for example, a recent class that thought through the processes of video recordings and subsequent video responses to create a new type or professional conversation. Kerr’s future academic work will likely focus on the radically different vision of education in the future as seen through the lens of technology.

In terms of Russian education, Kerr has been a participant and an analyst of Russian education from the nineties until today.

“I’ve seen a bell curve of very low levels of activity ramping up to high levels and dropping off again,” he explains. “There was a period of radical experimentation in the early 80s and since then they’ve been putting things back in place in a kind of more traditional, centralized model. The period of high-level enthusiasm had experimental schools, new curricula, ways to get the community involved. And it was a time when it was not just OK but expected for really prominent members of the public, beyond entrepreneurs, to get directly engaged with education. It would be the equivalent of holding a meeting about next steps in education for Seattle schools and having the head of the Seattle symphony, president of the university, manager of Seattle art museum, a major author, a film director, and more at the table.”

Up next? Continued teaching on professional development, travel, and a whole lot of personal growth.

“Retirement is about creating a new life,” says Kerr. “I’ve always thought of having a variety of interests and ongoing life activities. So this doesn’t feel like leaving behind everything I’ve ever done, it feels like I get to prioritize and expand some things. It’s a transition point. Why not think of it in terms of professional activity, think of it as the opportunity to rethink who you are?”

To read memories and tributes for Steve Kerr or to add your own, click here.


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