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Northwestern learning scientists partner with Chicago school

Collaboration with Bennett Day School over ‘design thinking’ benefits both sides

What happens when inventive K-12 students work side-by-side with university students on a design problem?

Northwestern University researchers are testing the idea with Chicago’s Bennett Day School, an innovative partnership that aims to redefine what a traditional laboratory school might look like.

The initiative brings together learning scientists from Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy – including faculty and undergraduate and graduate students – with the students of Bennett Day, an independent progressive school for children age preschool through 12th grade.

Designed by Northwestern learning scientist and computer scientist Mike Horn and Bennett Day School’s Frances Judd, the programs are based on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education, where students and teachers learn from one another.

“When it comes to science and design, combining the different ways of thought across K-12 and university students can be an inspiring and productive approach,” Horn said.

The partnership incorporates curriculum, learning and other elements from Bennett Day School’s classrooms and Tinker Lab activities at its Reggio Emilia-inspired schools. In addition to piloting learning methods and analyzing how the different generations work together, the two schools also are developing tools to enhance digital portfolios of student work.

Northwestern learning scientists, for example, will work closely with Bennett Day School to analyze what the teachers write in digital portfolios that accompany pictures, video and more.

“Our goal is to build technology and tools together to better recognize patterns in how our students learn,” said Bennett Day School CEO and founder Cameron Smith, a Northwestern University alumnus. “The key is to personalize a student’s learning experience around cognitive-based goals rather than content-based.”

The collaboration was initially piloted during the 2015-16 school year. In one experiment, Northwestern students designed prototype activities and tools to encourage preschoolers and kindergartners to play collaboratively rather than side-by-side.

“The collaboration is a tremendous opportunity to put theory into practice alongside those at Northwestern,” said Judd, a teacher and special projects coordinator at Bennett Day School and member of Horn’s Tangible Interaction Design and Learning Lab (TIDAL).

Horn studies how design can address large and small problems in society and ways to incorporate those solutions into a K-12 curriculum.  He has designed and tested computer programming language games in science museums and early elementary school classrooms as well as designed multi-touch tabletop exhibits for natural history museums.

Like Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, Bennett Day School strives to develop lifelong learners and leaders.

“We are excited to empower both groups of students, younger and older, to innovate together in research and design of new and exciting applications for K-12 learning,” Bennett Day School’s Smith said. “Given my own connection with Northwestern, I am very excited about this partnership to put theory into practice in our real-world setting.”

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