Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jim Kelly launches annual prize for educational innovation

Tags: current students, dimond, educational innovation, kelly, learning levers


Through the creation of a new annual prize, students will compete to design tools called “Learning Levers.” A Learning Lever, as Dr. Jim Kelly explains, is “a digital tool that enables students to learn more effectively and assume greater control over how they learn.” At the launch event for the James A. Kelly Learning Levers Prize on October 26, Kelly addressed students, staff, faculty, and community members who gathered to celebrate the prize and imagine the possibilities for it.

The prize started with a gift in honor of Kelly, given by his long-time friend, collaborator, and colleague, Paul Dimond. Jim says, “The idea for this prize grew out of many conversations over the years between us. Paul possesses a rare combination of keen intelligence, analytical insight, and visionary boldness that, when focused on an issue or idea, can only be described as extraordinary.”

While the competition is administered by the School of Education, Dimond and Kelly predict that the most successful projects will be interdisciplinary. The launch in October was an important opportunity to invite the first class of participants to engage in this competition.

Kelly’s inaugural address introduced the prize against the backdrop of various institutional perspectives on learning: “Societies have always found ways to assure that their citizens grow up with common understandings of the society’s core cultural beliefs and values, and with an understanding of what the society expects of them at various stages of their development. Much of this is shaped by the economic system in which the citizens live.”

As Kelly points out, schools “batch” kids by age in order to serve the 50 million children in American elementary and secondary schools. “But there is a fault line that runs through this organizational arrangement. It is that kids are individuals. Each learns at his or her own rate and not necessarily at the rate assumed in the ‘batch’ system.” Even with a skilled teacher, students’ individual learning needs are not always met. “Tapping into and stimulating this underdeveloped capacity is one way to describe the challenge of the Learning Levers Prize,” says Kelly.

In his remarks, Kelly thoughtfully situated the current U.S. educational system in the context of the country’s economic history. This analysis reveals some of the shortcomings that Dimond and Kelly both consider critical failings impacting the prosperity of our country: “The hard truth is that students aren’t learning enough, and aren’t learning what is needed for them to succeed in the new economy. What’s needed is for almost all students to begin to learn how to meet higher standards, and how to develop much more independent control over how and what they learn.”

Its creators envision that the prize has the potential to inspire tools that address the growing educational opportunity gaps that are evident along socioeconomic, geographic, and racial lines. Educational access stands to expand quickly through the creation of low-cost technologies that leverage widely available hardware and software.

In Kelly’s address, he identifies several educational areas which could be assisted by the creative application of a Learning Lever:

  • Early Childhood Education. Given the tremendous developmental potential of young minds, Kelly suggests that tools aimed at reading readiness for pre-kindergarten children would position students for increased success in school. Furthermore, while indeed some children are already exposed to reading readiness materials at three or four years of age, it is far less common in low-SES households and those with uneducated parents, contributing to educational disparities before children even arrive at kindergarten.
  • “Summer Slide.” Traditional school years start near Labor Day and end shortly after Memorial Day. Most schools are open for about 180 days of the year. As Kelly points out, most students will spend every day of their three-month summer hiatuses in front of a computer, smartphone, or tablet. Kelly proposes that a Learning Lever can motivate and challenge students to reinforce what they learned during the school year and explore topics not in the official school curriculum.
  • Undergraduate Education. Here, Kelly points to the potential use of Learning Levers to draw students into in-depth investigation and collaboration.

Dimond and Kelly now look forward to seeing the first Learning Levers pitched to a panel of experts this Spring. While it is just the beginning of this annual competition, it is also the culmination of decades of conversation and planning between Dimond and Kelly.

We invite you to read Jim Kelly’s full remarks given at the October 26 launch of the James A. Kelly Learning Levers Prize.  

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