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A teacher leaves a legacy for future teachers

A teacher leaves a legacy for future teachers

Author: Tara Fatemi Walker

With a B.A. from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. from the University of Bristol, both in England, Gordon Wells dedicated his life to education—including writing books on socio-cultural theory, teaching in his native England and in Canada, and teaching graduate students in the U.S. He taught in UC Santa Cruz's Education Department from 2000-2012; before that, he was a faculty member at the University of Bristol and the University of Toronto/OISE (Ontario Institute of Educational Studies).

His wife Mari Haneda, Professor of World Languages Education and Applied Linguistics at the Pennsylvania State University, says that some of Wells' best qualities were his positive outlook and his true love of life. His close friend Trish Stoddart, UCSC Professor Emerita of Science Education, refers to him as a world-renowned scholar and a wonderful man. That seems to be the consensus from everyone who had the good fortune to come into contact with Wells.

Embodying Intellect, Passion for Teaching, and Kindness

Stoddart will never forget Wells' gentleness and kindness. "He was also a humble person. Despite being the most recognized scholar in the Education Department he never talked about his accomplishments or prominence," she says. After his death, she was contacted by senior scholars from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada who mourned Wells' passing and mentioned how his seminal 1999 book Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Socio-cultural Practice and Theory of Education had influenced their work. "Over the last 20 years, this book has been cited nearly 5,000 times," says Stoddart. Wells' former student Dr. Tamara Ball says the fundamental principle of Dialogic Inquiry is Wells' belief that "human capabilities and consciousness evolve when fueled by natural curiosity and cultivated through our mutual responsiveness to one another."

A major theoretical scholar of applied linguistics and socio-cultural theory, Wells was a leader in applying CHAT (cultural-historical activity theory) to education. "In essence, CHAT argues that human knowledge is shaped by an individual's linguistic, social and cultural experience," explains Stoddart. "Gordon embodied these ideas in his teaching by providing students with experiences that actively involved them directly with the academic content they were learning. He explicitly engaged them in analyzing how these experiences and models influenced their understanding."

Improving students' learning and their ability to teach was the center of Wells' philosophy.

"Coming from a humble background, he worked his way through his own Ph.D. by teaching and lecturing while raising his family. He understood the great personal sacrifices made by many who pursue the Ph.D. degree," says Stoddart. "He supported his Ph.D. students both academically and personally. He was delighted by the quality of the M.A. teaching credential and Ph.D. students he taught and mentored, and thoroughly enjoyed working with them."

These students include Ball, who is very grateful for the opportunity. "I was one of the last doctoral students that Gordon took under his wing. As an academic, he saw something in me that I don't know that I was able to even see in myself. And with kindness, patience, and care he did everything in his power to nourish and tease the best of that out of me over a six-year period." Ball is now Assistant Project Scientist and Academic Coordinator for the Sustainability Studies Minor at UCSC.

Renaissance Man

In addition to being a prolific academic who appreciated intellectual work, Wells really liked physical activities such as long bike rides, hiking, and walking. He was also a skilled craftsman and gardener. When he lived in Santa Cruz, he remodeled his house and did most of the work himself. "He spent several hours each day working in his garden, which was a place of wonder with flowers, vegetable and fruit trees and many rare plants," says Stoddart. He also was a talented musician and played the flute in small ensembles. "It seemed there was little he could not do." In addition, he was always generous with his love and support to family, friends and colleagues. For example, he built collegiality in the Education Department by hosting gatherings in his garden for faculty, staff and students, engaging them in informal discourse while sharing food and wine. "He was a well-balanced individual with robust energy for life," says Haneda.

Roots of Generosity

Haneda believes Wells' early experiences impacted his desire to contribute to the common good. He was the son of an Anglican vicar, and he and his family lived frugally. "From ages 11-18 he attended a boarding school, Christ Hospital, on scholarship. He served for the Royal Navy, and went on to study at the University of Cambridge on scholarship," says Haneda. "Following that, he worked in France for a non-profit organization that is equivalent to the U.S. Peace Corps, doing manual work as well as teaching English to Lycée students." Throughout his life, Wells remained very prudent with his personal spending, but regularly donated generously to a variety of charitable organizations.

Wells and Haneda moved to Pennsylvania when she joined the university's faculty. When he died after a bicycle accident in 2020 at the age of 85, he left a bequest for graduate student fellowships in UCSC's Department of Education. "He respected how UC Santa Cruz values teaching," says Stoddart. "He wanted to provide support for UCSC's teaching mission and also support the development of a new generation of educational researchers."

If you would like to discuss how you can include the university in your estate plans, please contact the Office of Planned Giving at gift.planning@ucsc.edu or (831) 332-3934.


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