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Enhancing education from pre-K to MIT and beyond

Two new initiatives take an in-depth look at learning.
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Members of the MITili and pK-12 Action Group convene to discuss learning and research directions.
Members of the MITili and pK-12 Action Group convene to discuss learning and research directions.
Photo: Isaac Chuang

To improve education — whether pK-12, college, professional training, or online courses — one must first gain an understanding of how people learn. Applying that learning on a large scale requires a forward-thinking focus on expanding the reach of high-quality education for learners of all ages, all across the globe. 

These are the challenges that drive two Institute-wide initiatives announced by President L. Rafael Reif earlier this year: the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) and the pK-12 Action Group

The integrated sciences of learning, now emerging as a significant field of research, is at the core of MITili (pronounced “mightily”). By applying scientific rigor to investigate the methods that lead to effective learning, MITili aims to enhance the educational experience at all perspectives — from improving education at MIT to inspiring lifelong learning online to advancing the Institute’s campaign to promote STEM understanding within elementary, middle, and high schools.

Fueled by MIT’s residential education and global online efforts, MITili pulls together resources from across campus to integrate faculty insights and foster rigorous quantitative and qualitative research in education. The initiative leverages expertise in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, economics, engineering, public policy, and other fields. 

It is this cross-discipline thinking that led to the recent appointment of Parag Pathak, professor of economics and a founder of the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII), as MITili deputy director. Pathak, who has worked extensively with the Boston school system to make it easier to navigate school assignment systems and level the playing field for city families, will join MITili Director John Gabrieli, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, in guiding the group’s vision. Based on Pathak’s background, the new position is a natural fit.

“MIT is known for solving problems, so if we can improve how people learn then we can improve how much education they get,” Pathak explains. “Individuals who have more access to education not only learn more but live longer and are better citizens.” 

Supported by two new staff members, Associate Director Jeff Dieffenbach and Program Coordinator Steve Nelson, Pathak and MITili are off and running on several projects, including continued exploration into Boston’s school assignments, an in-depth analysis of charter schools and their effectiveness for special education students, and an upcoming study on the impact of affirmative action policies in education. Says Pathak: “A lot of our work is very fresh and new. By taking a scientific perspective to solve problems, we are breaking free of the old way of thinking.”

The Office of Digital Learning has also established a separate, though related, initiative called the pK-12 Action Group, which enables a diverse MIT community to collaborate on STEM projects for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students and teachers. By working together, MIT faculty, staff, and students amplify their impact on existing efforts — studies, classroom technologies, curriculum, teacher professional development — while driving new work and outreach, all with the goal of understanding how learning happens and transforming how students learn. 

Professor Eric Klopfer, director of both the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program and MIT Education Arcade, has been involved with the pK-12 Action Group since its early stages. Recently named co-chair of the pK-12 advisory group, Klopfer joins Professor Angela Belcher and provides breadth to the leadership team. Associate Director Claudia Urrea brings over 20 years of experience in the field of education and technology. She works together with the faculty to coordinate direction and vision and to engage the larger pK-12 community at MIT.   

“We come at this from different perspectives,” Klopfer says. “Angie is passionate about science and engineering and making them accessible to all, while I come from a more established learning and education focus. Both angles are important to tackle these global challenges and make a significant impact on pk-12 education. We’re thinking big.”

Collaboration with the community is key. For this reason, the effort is led by practicing educators, not administrators. And it’s why the work is already making a big difference, with the following initiatives:

  • Connected Learning Initiative (CLIx), a cross-unit project with MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, gives thousands of young people from under-served communities in India an opportunity for quality education through the meaningful integration of technology;
  • Teaching Systems Lab (TSL), working in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, examines what it takes to prepare new teachers for today’s classrooms and the systems needed to help these teachers transform learning through tomorrow’s learning environments; and
  • on-campus workshops, which leverage many existing pK-12 efforts at MIT, are designed to provide professional teacher development, advance STEM curricula, and explore new ways to enhance educational experiences.

The goal of influencing how people around the world get educated is big, bold — and shared by both MITili and the pK-12 Action Group. But that doesn’t mean the goal is out of reach. As Pathak says: “It all starts with the science of learning.”

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