October 2019 J-WEL Week: Big Challenges in pK-12 Education Around the World | MIT J-WEL

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October 2019 J-WEL Week: Big Challenges in pK-12 Education Around the World


Big Challenges in pK-12 Education Around the World at the October 2019 J-WEL Week

Malek presentsHave you ever thought about how education can address global challenges around the world? From October 28-31, 2019, 127 J-WEL members and guests from 33 countries did just that, coming together at MIT to consider this question and collaborate across the pK-12, Higher Education, and Workforce Learning spaces. The event began with powerful stories from J-WEL members, who shared details of the programs they are implementing in their own countries with the support of J-WEL. Save the Children, a member of the pK-12 Collaborative, spoke about the Transforming Refugee Education towards Excellence (TREE) initiative in Jordan, which is focused on teachers’ well-being and teaching quality. Four million refugee children worldwide do not attend school, and those who do are often faced with educational systems that are not equipped to meet their socioemotional needs, which can lead to lifelong mental and physical health problems. The team has been working with J-WEL to implement the Compassionate Systems Framework there, with the goal of developing emotionally intelligent, scalable solutions for traumatized children and overworked, undertrained teachers. 

These concrete stories shared during the panel transitioned well into the J-WEL Week pK-12 program, which focused on Big Challenges in Education Around the World. With climate change, the global refugee crisis, and vast socioeconomic inequality, today’s challenges in education are more pressing and complex than ever. UNICEF’s 2019 findings indicate that half of the world’s pre-primary age children are not enrolled in early childhood education, totaling at least 175 million kids. In low-income countries, this ratio is as high as one in five. Dr. Claudia Urrea, Senior Associate Director for pK-12, noted these challenges in her opening address while discussing the tremendous societal benefits to addressing these issues. For example, she said, empirical evidence shows that children who attend preschool stay in school for nearly a year longer on average and are more likely to be employed in high-skilled jobs. Studies also show that early interventions targeted at children in their first years of life have the potential of increasing future earnings by 25%. Urrea also discussed the vision for J-WEL Week, noting:

“Our goal is to end this event with an actionable agenda for J-WEL pK-12 with inputs for future programs, events, grants, and collaborative efforts with members of the MIT community and among members.”

MIT's Departments, Labs and Centers examine big challenges in education with J-WEL Week attendees

Participants use VR headsetsThe pK-12 program gave an in-depth look into how members of the MIT community are addressing some of those challenges; for example, “Climate Action through Education,” run by MIT's Environmental Solutions Initiative, introduced curriculum to use in high school classrooms to teach about the complexities and economics around climate change science. Their group is developing interactive educational resources that can be incorporated in schools around the world to increase understanding of people and policies that affect climate change and inspire timely action.

Presenters shared information about the problems they are trying to solve in education, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and ethics, educational opportunities in humanitarian crisis, early childhood education, connections to jobs and skills, and other topical challenges. Interested readers can view the full program, which included many other groups across MIT. Some participants followed a parallel track that dove into two particular themes of the Compassionate Systems Framework: global citizenship and collective well-being. The track featured the systems thinking work of Dr. Peter Senge and Dr. Mette Boell. Using various hands-on tools and practices, attendees explored how we, as global citizens, can take leadership and action towards collective well-being for ourselves, our fellow humans, and the planet we share.

A final design challenge on the last day of J-WEL Week

Participants at Edgerton CenterOn the last day of the event, the J-WEL pK-12 team gave the attendees a hypothetical design challenge. For their design challenge, participants had to form diverse teams, identify an education issue in their local contexts, and, with a budget of $500,000, design a call for innovative solutions to tackle the issue. In the design scenario, participants examined their priorities and worked together to determine what a transformational project or solution might look like. They also had to include criteria such as the challenge’s parameters, how the solutions might be tested, and what best defined impact. 

Many of the teams selected the improvement of student and teacher well-being as their issue. Of this trend, one participant noted: “We’re sitting at the center of innovation, but we’re also recognizing that, with these rapid developments happening in the world, well-being is crucial.” Several educators from Hong Kong discussed the high student suicide rate in their schools, and the stressors they face: “Our students face not only academic problems but social and political problems as well.” Addressing mental health concerns, one team discussed creating an active learning development program for teachers to deal with children struggling with mental health and socioemotional development. 

Peter SengeJ-WEL Week ended with participants from all three collaboratives coming together for a final reflection led by Dr. Peter Senge. Asking participants to form small circles of five people each, he facilitated a number of check-ins using questions to encourage inter-collaborative connections, which spoke for the key goals of this J-WEL Week: “We aren’t just learning about innovation,” Senge noted during the session, “We’re building a global community.” The goal of the week was not just to understand the priorities of each member but also to determine potential actions for the whole of the J-WEL pK-12 collaborative. With the Big Challenges of Education in mind, these goals may seem daunting, but by acting as a global community that continues to grow stronger with each convening, we can all aspire to continually make local improvements by connecting with each other, sharing our knowledge of global issues, and taking action together to have a transformative impact on the way that people learn.


  1. Malek Alraddad of Save the Children discusses Save the Children's work with the Compassionate Systems Framework in Jordan
  2. Participants test out VR headsets during the “AI and Ethics in the Classroom” session
  3. J-WEL members build monochords at the Edgerton Center
  4. Dr. Peter Senge facilitates the closing session of J-WEL Week