McGraw Prize winners discuss how educators can adapt to meet the moment

February 18, 2021
2020 McGraw Prize in Education winners, from left, Estela Mara Bensimon, Michelene (Micki) Chi, and Joseph S. Krajcik .

2020 McGraw Prize in Education winners, from left, Estela Mara Bensimon, Michelene (Micki) Chi, and Joseph S. Krajcik .

The last year has challenged educators at every level, while further exposing inequities throughout American society. How can schools and universities create solutions that will bring lasting benefits to all learners?

That question brought together Estela Mara BensimonMichelene (Micki) Chi, and Joseph S. Krajcik — winners of the 2020 McGraw Prize in Education — for a February 16 virtual discussion about how educators can adapt to meet the moment.

“This conversation could not be more timely in sharing solutions these three education innovators have developed that directly address these inequities, solutions they have taken to scale,” said Catalyst @ Penn GSE Executive Director Michael Golden.

The discussion also marked the opening of nominations for the 2021 McGraw Prize. Prizes in Pre-K-12 Education, Higher Education, and Learning Sciences Research will honor outstanding individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education and whose accomplishments are making a difference. The winners, who will be announced in November, will receive $50,000 and a prize trophy. Nominations are being accepted through April 15.

Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman began the February 16 conversation by noting that schools and universities have made changes that many previously assumed to be impossible, including creating meaningful online lessons and making enrollment decisions without standardized test scores.

“These changes and others like them came in response to the crisis,” Grossman said. “But how can we nurture these innovations to accelerate change in our classrooms without the disruptions of what we hope is a once in a century pandemic? And how do we make sure the breakthroughs we have invented can benefit all students and not just the students whose schools have the most resources?”

The McGraw winners each identified challenges to progress but offered different paths forward.

A new student connection

Chi, the Dorothy Bray Endowed Professor of Science and Teaching at Arizona State University and director of the Learning and Cognition Lab, said one of the main challenges of teaching and learning online is maintaining student engagement.

But she is seeing changes in college classrooms designed to make students less passive and engage with professors and their fellow students more. She’s also seeing instructors forced to try, and then embrace, blended learning approaches that have proven benefits.

Chi also suggested we might see a breakthrough in how schools understand and use tutors to help students.

“People think tutors have to be content experts,” Chi said. “In fact, tutors don’t have to be content experts at all. It’s not the feedback that helps students learn, it’s the fact that tutees have a lot more opportunities to be generative.

“We should get away from the idea that tutors have to be domain experts, which makes tutoring a very expensive solution to implement. If you go away from that constraint, you can think a lot more about peer-tutoring and cross-age tutoring, which can be very effective.” 

Skills to transform

Before the pandemic, Latinx students were the fastest growing group of new college enrollees. In the last year, those numbers have fallen off by about 20 percent. Black new student enrollment is down about the same percentage.

These enrollment drops reflect the broader challenges the pandemic has imposed on minority communities, according to Bensimon, the Rossier Dean’s Professor in Educational Equity at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and the founding director of the Center for Urban Education.

But they also reflect academia’s longtime failures to serve students of color. As we move forward, Bensimon said institutions should undertake equity audits to understand their failings. 

“Our hiring practices, our curriculum, our tenuring practices — racism circulates through the veins our of our institutions,” Bensimon said. “Dialogue is important, but I also think we need to deconstruct our practices through a racial equity lens.”

Some significant changes can seem rather small. Bensimon recounted working with a community college professor in Colorado who previously assumed his white and Latinx students had similar outcomes. After Bensimon encouraged him to break down his class roster by race, he found white students had an 85 percent success rate, compared with 33 percent for Latinx students.

He also learned that Latinx students rarely missed class but struggled with handing in homework. After changing his homework policies and reaching out to Latinx students more proactively, the professor found Latinx students succeeded at the same rate as their white peers.

“We need to give faculty skills so they can transform themselves,” Bensimon said. 

Moving forward, not back

The pandemic risks setting back more than a decade’s worth of progress in how students learn math and science, said Krajcik, the Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education at Michigan State University and director of the CREATE (Collaborative Research in Education, Assessment, and Teaching Environments) for STEM Institute.

“We know kids have to experience phenomena. We know we have to get kids involved in building models, using sets of data, and asking questions,” Krajcik said. “This is a challenge of the world we’re living in, but we have to take it head on, because once we fall back, it will be what it was will be before, and we know that talking head model just doesn’t work for most children around the world.”

But teachers are still finding ways to create project-based learning opportunities. He’s even seen a lesson for third graders that asks “Why can I see squirrels in my neighborhood but not stegosauruses”? Kids have options to observe squirrels in a yard, out a window, or on a video. The stegosauruses, of course, are harder to spot. 

“Squirrels are very adaptable, and we have to get kids to see that,” Krajcik said.

He also says teachers will need to find ways to bring the benefits of online lessons into the classroom. Chat features, for example, have allowed students who rarely speak in class to find their voice.

“When we go back into the classroom, we need to think, is there a way to make use of that technology?” Krajcik said.