September 19, 2016

Sharon Wolf brings expertise in early childhood to Penn GSE, Ghana

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Sharon Wolf is helping education leaders in Ghana reimagine the school experience for the Gold Coast Country’s very youngest students. If they succeed, their work could change early childhood learning in Ghana and beyond.

Dr. Sharon Wolf
Developmental psychologist Wolf, who joined Penn GSE’s Human Development and Quantitative Methods division this fall, is interested in the social and environmental determinants of child development and inequalities, focusing on disadvantaged populations in the United States, and low-income and conflict-affected countries. She also studies the role high quality education plays in bolstering development for children who face adversity. In the spring, she will teach a course on poverty and child development, with a global perspective on how different countries approach child poverty.

Wolf’s work in Ghana is a homecoming of sorts: she spent time in the country while studying abroad as a Penn undergraduate. Ghana touts universal preschool, and while the country has succeeded at getting children to school with some of the highest enrollment rates on the continent, ensuring quality instruction in these schools has proved more difficult. And, as Wolf points out, exposure to poor quality care and education could even be harmful to a child’s development.

Teacher training in Ghana

Together with the Ministry of Education and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), Wolf’s research team has been working to develop and evaluate an in-service training program that can be implemented nationally, delivered by local teacher training centers, and focused on play-based and child-centered instruction. And the initiative has received funding from UBS Optimus Foundation and the World Bank to do so. The training program is delivered within local government infrastructure, and includes training local district coordinators to serve as coaches for teachers. 

The play-based curriculum is paired with proactive classroom management and positive behavioral supports, which have led to a need for outreach and education to parents, who’ve come to expect strict rules and corporal punishment in the school setting.

“We’re seeing a positive and sizable impact in the quality of interactions between teachers and children in the classroom,” Wolf said. “The Ghanaian government recently received $70 million from USAID to implement in-service teacher training for 51,000 teachers across the country beginning in 2017 and is interested in using components from the model we have developed, which is very exciting.”

Wolf traces some of her research questions to her bicultural childhood, which she split between the United States and Israel. She examines what makes for cultural perspectives in early childhood development, and what are simply universal values when it comes to young children. Having worked both in and out of academia, Wolf is now a key voice in the growing conversation around global early-childhood education policy.

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Wolf worked in Uganda, focusing on community health and education. During her time there, she became interested in the broad policy context around this work, finding the intersection of psychology and public policy to be fertile ground for research. This, coupled with her interests in early child development, brought her to New York University to pursue her doctorate in psychology and social intervention. She researched an anti-poverty program that had been implemented in Mexico and South America that the Bloomberg administration adapted into practice in New York City. She’s excited for her next chapter at Penn GSE.

“Penn GSE is an amazing place to work at the intersection of research and policy,” she said. “It’s a place where I can work with governments and organizations as a researcher, but also have room to consider the works’ scholarly implications, providing a space to bring in theory to applied research and deepen the knowledge base around early childhood development.”

For the first time ever, one of the targets of the education-focused international sustainable development goals is high quality early childhood education. Indeed, Wolf says, research in early childhood development has effectively penetrated the policy conversation, and governments around the world are showing the desire to invest in it. And while her current work in Ghana has focused on in-service teachers, Wolf is also investigating programs to improve pre-service training for early childhood teachers in Ghana to ensure that play-based, child-centered methods are taught to teachers from the start.  

 

Faculty Expert