Eric Klopfer

Professor of Science Education

Joining up globally to educate the young

Joining up globally to educate the young

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab pK-12 Collaborative aims to create better learning approaches for children in every country.

By: Eric Bender

In some advantaged schools globally, students enjoy individual attention, well-trained teachers, and even access to state-of-the-art technologies such as virtual reality headsets for exploring King Tut’s tomb or coral reefs. But at the other extreme, hundreds of millions of children don’t attend school at all, and hundreds of millions of others more are crowded into classrooms with precious few resources beyond their teachers.

MIT is now building a global collaborative of pre-kindergarten through grade 12 stakeholders to jointly research, develop, and share scalable learning across this enormous spectrum. The collaborative is one part of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), an ambitious organization that seeks “to make a world class education available to all of those people in the world who desire that education,” says Eric Klopfer, professor in the Department of Comparative Media Studies & Writing and faculty co-director of the J-WEL pK-12 collaborative.

Equity and social justice are really important parts of J-WEL. We want to make sure that we can provide improved education to everybody who desires it.

Sponsored by Community Jameel, a social enterprise organization chaired by MIT Corporation life member Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ‘78, J-WEL was launched in May 2017 to form communities of leaders across pre-college education, higher education, and workplace learning. In each community, members partner with experts at MIT and each other to explore, design, and reform curriculum and programs.

J-WEL offers its members access to a wealth of MIT education services and gathers its communities at two major meetings each year. Held in October 2017, the first J-WEL Week drew participants from 22 countries (including the United States). The initiative also offers grants to MIT faculty in education innovation, emphasizing learning strategies that work for the young across socioeconomic classes and geographic locations.

“Equity and social justice are really important parts of J-WEL,” says Klopfer, who also directs MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program. “We want to make sure that we can provide improved education to everybody who desires it.”

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Rethinking pre-college education

“When we tackle problems here at MIT, we don't necessarily think about the disciplinary boundaries that we might face along the way,” says Klopfer. “We’re famous for our interdisciplinary centers that work on global problems like energy and the environment, or cancer. We think we can apply that same lens to education.”

Although MIT is best known for expertise in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) higher education, research at the precollege level has been a fabric of MIT for many years, he says. One famous example is the work by Seymour Papert in learning theories and computers in early education, which has been continued by Mitch Resnick, professor of learning research and his colleagues in the Lifelong Kindergarten program, among many others.

Another current example of precollege research comes from work by Laura Schulz, associate professor of cognitive science, who studies learning in early childhood. “What are the habits of mind and skills and ways of thinking about the world that are really beneficial for helping kids at those young ages?” Klopfer says. “A lot of new science is contributing to ways that we can foster their development, which includes not just socialization and working with their peers and how to exist within a community, but how they think about the world, collect data within their own lives and understand the world around them.”

Better scientific understanding must be translated into practical precollege education and made available to all populations of children around the world, Klopfer says. “How can we make that education more accessible, more helpful, more beneficial and more available?”

One key challenge is finding ways to scale up successful pilot programs and make them sustainable. Another is to find the right mix of customization. “As we move around the world, we have to think about the unique attributes to problems, and how do we solve those in ways that are both locally sensitive and draw upon our expertise,” Klopfer says.

Teaching for all

MIT often focuses on the role of teachers as learners themselves, Klopfer says.

“We think about teachers not just as deliverers of information to students but rather really active learners and participants themselves, who have their own desires to learn and their own desires to think about the way they practice,” he explains. “How do we leverage that to get them excited and mastering challenging topics in science and math that they can then bring to their classroom?”

As we move around the world, we have to think about the unique attributes to problems, and how do we solve those in ways that are both locally sensitive and draw upon our expertise.

Klopfer credits Angela Belcher, faculty co-director of the J-WEL pK-12 collaborative, and professor of biological engineering and materials science, with the idea of presenting elementary school teachers with eight exciting topics in chemistry or biology each year, before giving the teachers resources to bring these concepts into their classrooms.

In J-WEL, educators hope to further extend this method to classrooms with minimal resources, or to non-traditional settings outside the classroom. One extreme but enormous need comes from the more than 30 million children now displaced around the world. “We've had a lot of demand from multiple sources about refugee education,” Klopfer says. “We are thinking about the ways in which we can uniquely contribute and partner with those other organizations.”

MIT’s expertise in digital education can’t be delivered directly to students in refugee camps or elsewhere who lack the necessary equipment. “But the teachers themselves might have digital technologies, so can we use online courses, interactive learning experiences and digital communities to share ideas and help to make these teachers successful?” he asks.

Finding the right partners

To date, most J-WEL partners are education organizations “who say, I know where I want to go, I just don't know how to get there,” says Klopfer. “We can provide consultations around how those groups can get to those goals. We can do special projects to help them develop materials, processes, teacher training materials and technologies to help support those goals. And, importantly, we bring them into the community and help them make connections with other entities who are trying to solve those same problems.”

“In some cases, the organizations that are most in need of our help are the ones probably least able to engage with us,” he adds. “Many of the most needy schools around the world may not be able to join on their own behalf. One of our jobs is to find partnerships that help make that triangle between MIT, the organizations in need and those that can actually help support that effort.”

In some cases, corporate sponsors or their related foundations may help by aiding schools in their communities, he notes. In others, industry may back relevant new initiatives leading to learning materials in bioengineering, computer science or health sciences.

Overall, at the first J-WEL Week, “We wound up getting a great diverse set of people representing agencies, teacher colleges, governments and school systems,” Klopfer says. “We didn't get anybody from Antarctica, but people came from every other continent.”

“We're looking to help solve some of the world's biggest educational problems in the pre-college space,” he sums up. “The backbone of J-WEL is the community that we're creating.” Read more about J-WEL here.