J-WEL’s 2020 pK-12 Grantees Are Transforming Teaching and Learning Across the Globe | MIT J-WEL

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J-WEL’s 2020 pK-12 Grantees Are Transforming Teaching and Learning Across the Globe

By Danielle Pagano
June 8, 2020

Even before the current global health crisis, 617 million children and adolescents around the globe were failing to meet basic proficiency in reading and math despite the fact that two out of three of these children were actually in school, according to UNESCO. With the worldwide pandemic, learning is even more challenging for many students, and 9 out of 10 kids worldwide are out of school.
For the past several years, J-WEL’s pK-12 collaborative has worked with both the vibrant MIT pK-12 community and J-WEL members around the world to create and share tools and strategies that have the potential to address some of the most pressing challenges in education. These challenges include racial and gender inequities, a lack of socioemotional support in schools, and curricula that does not engage or empower students, which hinders their learning and fails to equip them with the skills they need for the 21st century.
This year, J-WEL pK-12 has provided nearly $350,000 in funding to eight projects within the MIT community that aim to create educational innovations that benefit learners, educators, and schools around the world. Addressing several of J-WEL pK-12’s focus areas, these projects support learning through play and invention, foster STEM education and teacher professional development, and promote equity in schools. A full listing of each project’s team members can be viewed on our grants page.
Photo: Youth attend school. Courtesy of Deshan Tennekoon/World Bank.

Learning Through Play

Several of this year’s grants are focused around the idea of play in learning, while also incorporating STEM concepts. “Crop Circle Kit,” a project by Associate Professor and Director of the Matter Design Lab Brandon Clifford aims to address schooling’s lack of focus on play for adolescents by creating artifacts that build their curiosity.

“Adolescents delight in play,” says Clifford, “They play with ideas, with words, with materials, with identities, with realities, with relationships—and through this process, they learn to take risks, make novel connections, and collaborate authentically.” 

This project will distribute kits and manuals to teachers, with activities that incorporate collaborative world building, complex drawings, and learning about geometry, culture, and computation.

Another project J-WEL funded this year, “Learning Games for Middle School Math and Science in Nepal, and Beyond,” recognizes that, in Nepal, many children’s schooling is focused on rote learning. As a result, many students are unable to learn foundational concepts in math and science, and a majority of students are unable to complete the state-mandated curriculum. To help address this, this project creates STEM games for 6th to 8th graders, disseminating a digital curriculum to support educators to teach math and science in a way that fosters creativity and makes learning fun.
Photo: The Crop Circle Kit project has students learn basic geometries using string

"Mens et manus": Not Just for Students

Learning through “mens et manus” ("minds and hands") is an important form of learning — and not just for students, but for teachers, as well.  Unfortunately, many teachers do not encounter this type of learning during their teacher education programs, and some have little experience with active learning in the classroom as pK-12 students. Despite these setbacks, teachers can still be supported to implement these principles in their classrooms. One way is to engage and collaborate with teachers so that they can co-create their own meaningful learning experiences.

Additionally, to build capacity, teachers need to be able to create resources to expand this type of learning in their communities. With appropriate support, teachers can achieve this by learning design thinking and becoming designers in their own communities. This year, J-WEL has funded three projects focused on supporting teachers around the world to develop their own design thinking and "mens et manus" skills. 

The J-WEL-supported “Community for Partners in Invention Education (C4PIE)” project, spearheaded by Stephanie Couch, Executive Director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, “will help educators overcome barriers to teaching integrated STEM through the hands-on, inquiry and problem-based approach, known as invention education,” explains the project team. The project will also create “a new teaching partnership model” that pairs faculty, staff, and students from MIT with J-WEL member teachers, providing them with innovative curriculum and professional development opportunities.  

Similarly, the project “Teachers as Designers: Facilitating the Learning Process for Design Thinking,” led by Dr. Glenda Stump, Education Research Scientist, and Judy Perry, Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program, will build resources that engage teachers in learning about design thinking and related pedagogical tools. Stump and Perry note that these resources focus on human skills that both teachers and students need for the 21st century — “collaboration, authenticity, and learning from error” — and will help build educator capacity to design learning experiences, first in India and then globally.

In Latin America, J-WEL grants are also supporting teachers to implement hands-on, project-based STEM learning in their classes. “Empowering Latin American Teachers to Develop and Deliver Innovative Learning Experiences,” will work with teachers in Latin America to co-develop maker activities adapted for their own contexts, with a focus on students of low socioeconomic status.

Project PI Diane Brancazio, Lead Maker Educator at the Edgerton Center, explains a goal of the project, “A major component of our training is equipping teachers with the tools and confidence to lead an innovation community in their schools, rather than continually relying on outside experts.”

Photo: Young learners test prototypes during a Design Thinking workshop held in India. Courtesty of TISS

Reducing Inequalities and Increasing Well-Being in Schools

In addition to making learning more meaningful through invention education and design thinking, schools need to consider the fact that students can become less engaged in learning when the material is not culturally appropriate or contains racist, sexist, and other stereotypes. In 2020, with a global pandemic causing fear and harming more than physical health, and pre-existing socioeconomic and racial inequalities in education widening, supporting equity and promoting psychological wellbeing for all students is even more urgent. 
This year, two projects were awarded funding focused on this issue. The first, “Extending the MIT-Haiti Platform for Educational Innovation,” led by Professor Michel Anne-Frederic DeGraff and Professor Haynes Miller, builds upon its previously established online platform, “Platfòm MIT-Ayiti,” to create educational content and support active learning in Haiti in Kreyòl. Platfòm MIT-Ayiti allows students to learn in their native language in culturally sensitive ways. This can be contrasted with standard educational materials in Haiti, most of which are in French, the language of Haiti’s colonizers, and a language that many students and even teachers are not proficient in.
A second innovative solution to issues of inequality and biases comes from Professor D. Fox Harrell, whose project, “Scaling a Virtual Reality (VR) pK-12 Anti-Bias Intervention,” uses “VR to enhance racial and ethnic socialization (RES) practices in classrooms to reduce bias and enhance youth self-esteem, coping strategies, and achievement.” As part of this work, his Center for Advanced Virtuality will partner with the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan and the Center for Educational Transformation in Cedar Falls, Iowa. This collaboration will create an intervention with youth in Michigan and teachers in Iowa to assess the system’s pedagogical efficacy.

Image: Platfòm MIT-Ayiti

Macro-Level Education Reform 

There are many innovative ways for schools and teachers to engage their students, as mentioned earlier — invention education, innovative professional development for educators, STEM games, and anti-bias intervention, just to name a few. But many reforms to improve education quality are not implemented due to political opposition, notes Ben Schneider, Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT-Brazil Program.

His project “The Politics of Sustaining Quality Education Reforms: Teacher Unions, Civil Society, and Voters,” which focuses primarily on policy and politics, was also awarded funding this year. The project will identify stakeholders in Latin America, including K-12 teachers’ unions and civil societies, willing to support the type of reforms for teachers’ careers that will help to improve teaching quality and therefore student learning outcomes.
Photo: Children attend school near Manaus, Brazil in the Amazon region. Brazil. Courtesy of Julio Pantoja / World Bank

Looking Ahead 

The current global crisis has impacted education significantly, in many cases magnifying pre-existing inequalities and other issues. But this “great pause” can also create opportunities to bring about real change. For J-WEL, this change includes transforming education in a way that benefits all learners through the work of MIT’s faculty, MIT’s pK-12 community, and our members.

To succeed in the 21st century, learners need to develop critical human skills — including leadership, creativity and critical thinking. At the same time, they must learn concrete concepts from different disciplines, so that they can advance transformational projects. They need to engage their minds, hands, and hearts on projects that feel meaningful to them, with the support and scaffolding necessary to thrive in an ever-changing world. Thus, their teachers should also feel confident that they possess the skills and knowledge to bolster their students’ explorations, and that they themselves are supported. 

With support and knowledge, pK-12 students will become the leaders needed to solve the biggest challenges of our century - whether it be climate change or another global health crisis. J-WEL pK-12 will continue to support projects that help all learners to realize their potential and create better futures for all. 
Photo: October 2019 J-WEL Week participants try on VR headsets in a session on "Virtual Reality (VR) to Support pK-12 Anti-Bias Education," led by Professor Fox Harrell and Danielle Olson