Learning for Tomorrow

The School of Education and Social Policy doesn't just prepare teachers; its professors and researchers are studying and changing the way people learn at every stage of life.

by Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

The 28 students in Nina Hike-Teague’s environmental sciences class at Curie Metropolitan High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side learned that the road to environmental decision making is paved with sponges.

They carefully measured water into beakers, then poured the liquid onto yellow sponges placed inside silver aluminum pie tins. The sponges swelled and expanded until the water flowed onto the containers.

“Now squeeze the sponge and measure how much water comes out,” Hike-Teague, a 10-year teaching veteran, said as she circulated the room. “That amount will be the available water for crops.”

This simulation of water retention by soil was an important step in teaching students how the properties of soil determine the efficiency of water use on a farm. Using Northwestern associate professor Daniel Edelson’s (GMcC93) environmental sciences curriculum, the students employed simulation software to try to balance a farm’s water budget and visualization tools to examine California’s network of rivers, dams, wells and canals. These activities laid the groundwork for a final project recommending how California should balance the needs of residents, farmers and native ecosystems.

Jelani Mandara, assistant professor of human development and social policy, is hard at work on his latest research article, which examines the impact of fathers’ absences on their children’s drug use habits. Mandara’s research focuses on African American family dynamics and the effects of fathers on child and adolescent social and personality development. His research also takes him on visits to several Chicago Public Schools, where he observes interactions between teachers and students.

Toward the end of the fall quarter Beth Schneider, a junior human development and psychological services major from Des Plaines, Ill., completed her practicum at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. At the hospital she worked with children affected by conditions such as schizophrenia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in the inpatient psychiatry division. The work was often grueling, but Schneider had a breakthrough moment near the end of the quarter-long practicum when she gave an 8-year-old boy a time-out and he obeyed her instruction, rather than ignoring her as he had all the other adults. It was an unexpected accomplishment, and Schneider was proud of it.


Although it might seem at first glance that Hike-Teague, Mandara and Schneider have little in common, their work respectively as high school teacher, academic researcher and undergraduate reflects the broad and innovative range of programs and research on learning and social policy that Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy offers educators and students alike today.

The University’s smallest school, SESP seeks to understand and advance learning communities — ranging from schools and workplaces to families and neighborhoods — and to improve social policy. The school’s faculty concentrate on learning across the lifespan. United by their commitment to innovation, an interdisciplinary approach to training and scholarship, and collaboration within and outside of the University, SESP’s 23 professors have made seminal contributions to the emerging fields of learning sciences and human development. A rising force in the national educational landscape, SESP has extended its original and still thriving focus on teacher preparation while cultivating an intimate, nurturing and flexible community for the school’s 500 undergraduate and graduate students.

SESP is having an impact inside and outside the academy that is far greater than one would expect based on its size, according to Penelope Peterson, dean and Eleanor R. Baldwin Professor of Education, who offers a provocative analogy to describe the school.

“We are like the Marines,” says Peterson, who has served as dean since 1997. “We are the smallest of the top 10 schools of education. Yet just as no one thinks of the Marines as the small army, but rather as an elite corps of talented fighters, we are a small but elite school of education and social policy with a unique mission.”

A Tightknit School

Bonding for SESP’s undergraduate students starts when they arrive at campus to begin their first year. Peterson invites students to her house for a picnic dinner and Northwestern welcome. Once classes begin, SESP undergraduates choose one of four tracks within the school — a choice that Peterson says is unique among undergraduate schools of education in the country.

Students in the Learning and Organizational Change program examine how organizations and the people within them use knowledge to respond to and shape change within their environments, while students in Social Policy, the track with the highest enrollment, explore the reciprocal influences between people and social policies. The Human Development and Psychological Services program looks at the impact of school, community, the family and the workplace on human development, while Secondary Teaching, the track with the fewest number of students, is the only one that leads directly to teaching opportunities in elementary, middle or high school classrooms. (Graduates are recommended for secondary teaching [grades 6–12] or for “special” teaching [grades K–12] in art and foreign languages.)

Despite their different curricular emphases, the students are linked by a common desire to help other people, according to Schneider, a junior human development and psychological services major.

“What we all have in common is that we’re making some impact with people, whether we’re improving people’s mental health, helping kids learn or making an organization work smoothly,” she says. “One of SESP’s strengths is that focus. We care about the future. That’s a thread that runs through all the majors.”

The attention advisers show their students is another thread that helps strengthen the sense of undergraduate community. Advisers Meg Kreuser, Susan Olson, Evelyn Tsai and Mark Hoffman combine personal touches, such as learning students’ names, schedules and even their birthdays — SESP undergraduates routinely receive birthday cards — with a high level of professional ability to answer school- and career-related questions.

Advisers’ help in solving problems is not limited to academic issues, though.

When Jennifer Ochsner, a second-year secondary education major from Irvine, Calif., had to fly home last winter to support an ill family member, she heard repeatedly from Kreuser, her adviser. Kreuser spoke with Ochsner’s professors and reassured the then–first-year student that she would be able to keep up with her classes. “I could concentrate on being there for my family,” says Ochsner, who has resumed her studies and whose loved one has regained strength.

Senior Sarah Miller of St. Louis says the support she and other secondary education students received from their professors in their classes continued throughout their time as student teachers, when they were supervised by Margaret Kritzler and David Renz (SESP67). Both supervisors created a safe classroom environment where students could voice their views. They also challenged students to think about and explain their burgeoning teaching practices.

Adil Mansoor, a sophomore from Naperville, Ill., credits his adviser’s support as well as the content of his classes for his success as producer of a major on-campus production of Romeo & Juliet in November 2005.

He drew on communication skills he learned in SESP classes when the play’s set designer spent 96 percent of the allocated set budget on lumber. Resisting his initial temptation to yell at his friend, Mansoor instead applied techniques he learned in his classes to listen to the set designer, who successfully made the case for a larger budget for the next project. “The classes helped me … understand where the other person is coming from,” says Mansoor, who is double majoring in English.

Mansoor adds that initially many undergraduates do not realize the wide range of content areas covered by SESP, mistakenly thinking that the school is exclusively focused on teacher training. Word of mouth from satisfied SESP students contributes to an ever-growing undergraduate population.

Olson, assistant dean for student affairs, says that typically 35 to 45 first-year students enroll in the school. By the time the cohort graduates the class includes around 100 students.

“When they are in high school, many students don’t know what social policy is, and they think education is just about teacher preparation,” Olson notes. “When they get here and start to better define those interests and hear about the program, that’s when the ideas of interschool transfer start to percolate.”

Improving Lives Through Policy

Students in Human Development and Social Policy, one of SESP’s two doctoral programs, focus on how to improve human lives through policy. Promoting an interdisciplinary approach toward human development, students and professors examine how personal experiences and social contexts shape people’s life choices and consider how political forces distribute opportunities in a democracy.

Sometimes the answers come in unexpected places.

For Jennifer Romich (G00, GSESP03), insight arrived during a conversation with a mother in a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Chicago’s South Side.

The mother told Romich, then a doctoral student, that she loved all her children but worried most about her boys. If she had extra money, the mother said she would funnel it to her sons to combat the allure of gang recruitment. Intrigued, Romich turned to national survey data that tracked how parents spent time with and money on their children and found that the mother’s practice was part of a nationwide pattern — in difficult neighborhoods, parents spent more money on their sons than on their daughters.

Romich’s blending of quantitative and qualitative methods exemplifies one of human development and social policy’s distinctive features, according to Greg Duncan, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. While many programs emphasize in-depth interviews with research subjects, and others stress crunching data from large statistical databases, Northwestern’s students learn to do both.

The only graduate program of its kind when it was founded in 1981 by Bernice Neugarten, a pioneer in the study of aging, human development and social policy marked a major expansion beyond SESP’s traditional teacher preparation mission.

P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, professor of human development and social policy and an IPR faculty fellow, explains that the program is animated by three major precepts: a focus on the life course and human beings’ continual development; a commitment to multidisciplinary learning; and a concentration on contexts such as the family, the community and neighborhoods that influence people’s life trajectories.

“Our goal is to conduct research and to teach our students how to conduct research that not only reflects cutting-edge science but also will be useful to policy makers, civic leaders, teachers and school administrators and service providers,” Chase-Lansdale says.

The research topics are wide-ranging indeed. Emma Adam, assistant professor of human development and social policy, an IPR faculty fellow and a developmental psychologist, studies the effects of stress on parents, parenting and child development, while Mandara examines how parenting styles displayed by different cultures and ethnicities affect academic achievement, sexual activity and behavior. Barton Hirsch, professor of human development and social policy, looks at after-school programs, and Carol Lee, associate professor of learning sciences, associate professor of African American studies and co-coordinator of SESP’s Spencer Research Training Program, examines how cultural contexts impact learning generally, and literacy specifically.

All of these scholars have helped shape public conversation on critical social issues.

Chase-Lansdale’s study of welfare reform’s impact on mothers and children in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, for example, led to a 2002 congressional briefing, and Duncan notes that research directors for U.S. senators and representatives inquire about his work.

On a local level, the Chicago Housing Choice Voucher Program adopted some of Duncan’s suggestions about the importance of familiarizing families in the Chicago public housing system with areas to which they may be relocated. His suggestions were based on research he and James Rosenbaum, another SESP professor and IPR fellow, did on the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program. From 1976 to 1998 Gautreaux assisted approximately 7,000 low-income African American families in moving from public housing in the city to predominantly white middle-class suburbs or to other integrated and mixed-income neighborhoods in the city.

Peterson explains that Chase-Lansdale’s and Duncan’s research exemplifies the uniqueness of SESP. “Both might easily be hired by a nationally ranked public policy school or by a disciplinary department such as psychology or economics, respectively,” she says. “Fortunately, both are intellectual leaders in our Human Development and Social Policy program. With their colleagues, they strive to improve people’s life chances by designing and evaluating policies and programs that enhance human development throughout the course of life.”

Building Tools for Change

Like their human development and social policy colleagues, professors in the Learning Sciences program, also the first of its kind, seek to give people a better chance in life, but through a different approach. They use technology to design and create learning tools — ranging from computer models and curricular units to whole school design — that help improve the lives of elementary and secondary school students.

Several learning sciences faculty focus on bringing positive change to Chicago classrooms, many of which need the help. A decade after Mayor Richard M. Daley took over the city’s schools in 1995, and the investment of billions of dollars in the public school system, less than half of Chicago’s public elementary school students performed at or above national norms in standardized math and reading tests. The numbers were even lower for Chicago’s public high school students, about a third of whom earned similar scores on high-stakes tests.

Learning sciences faculty aim to change those results and often bring an engineering-based approach to that effort. Associate professor Edelson explains that he holds a consistent goal of having students gain experience in posing questions and using technology to help answer them.

“An engineer starts with science, and the work takes over where the science doesn’t tell enough to actually be able to solve problems,” says Edelson, who has worked at Northwestern since 1989. “I am using the findings and theory coming out of cognitive science and working on what it actually means to translate those into real-world applications.” For Edelson, the applications integrate software, curriculum and professional development for teachers who implement his materials (see “Learning to Ask the Right Questions”).

Hike-Teague of Curie Metropolitan High School says the formula is effective. Edelson’s land-use unit encourages students to think deeply and formulate their own opinions about key questions of population growth and human consumption and their impact on ecosystems.

Learning sciences faculty’s work also extends into shaping school structure. Louis Gomez, Aon Professor of Learning Sciences, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and coordinator of the Learning Sciences doctoral program, has worked intensively for seven years to help Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School establish six smaller learning communities that provide accountability and nurturing for the Chicago school’s 2,300 students. Despite incoming students’ declining test scores over the past three years, Clemente registered gains in English, science and reading during that time — an increase many at the school attribute in part to the school’s reorganization (see “Building High School Communities”).

Learning sciences professors work in a freewheeling and informal environment, full of robust exchanges between professors and their students that help both groups learn more. Gomez acknowledges learning from James Spillane, Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change and professor of human development and social policy, professor of learning sciences and IPR faculty fellow, about the concept of distributed leadership, while Spillane says colleagues including Gomez and learning sciences professor Brian Reiser have influenced his thinking about cognition.

Peterson explains that learning sciences professors are driven not by a desire to generate technology for its own sake, but rather in support of improved learning and teaching. “Learning sciences professors do not think that technology itself is going to change schools,” she says. “But rather they start with a vision of learning and teaching, and they develop new technologies to facilitate and support that vision.”

Despite differences in focus, faculty in human development and social policy and learning sciences share important similarities. Professors in both programs have joint appointments in other schools. Edelson, Gomez and Uri Wilensky, an associate professor of learning sciences and Director of the Center for Connected Learning & Computer-Based Modeling, all also belong to the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, for example, while Rosenbaum, professor of human development and social policy, teaches in the sociology department and is an IPR fellow. Joint appointments reflect SESP’s commitment to interdisciplinary learning and the school’s strategic allocation of resources. And both programs maximize their impact on reform through strategic collaborations with external organizations such as the Inner-City Teaching Corps, a nonprofit organization founded by Pat Ryan Jr. (KSM97, L97) that places dozens of volunteer teachers, many of whom are recent college graduates, in Chicago classrooms. Northwestern partners with ICTC and the Golden Apple Foundation on NU-TEACH (Teacher Education Alternative for Chicago) to prepare educators for urban classrooms (see “An Alternative Route to Teaching”).

Teacher Prep Still Thriving

The School of Education and Social Policy also prepares future educators through the Master of Science in Education program, the teacher preparation program headed by Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, professor of education and social policy. About 150, or close to two-thirds, of the total number of graduate students in the school are enrolled in this master’s program. Students choose among elementary, middle, secondary, advanced teacher and higher education programs. Completion of the program requires 15 classes, including a unique three-quarter master’s project.

One student looked into the actions a secondary school and its teachers should take to help minority students meet Illinois proficiency standards in mathematics, while another student examined how a high school can best provide for the unique needs of a depressed student.

“Lots of programs talk about preparing students to be reflective,” says Haroutunian-Gordon, adding that the investigation of a key question is accompanied by extensive discussion with classmates and coaches. “We give an extended opportunity, a sustained three-course project that is focused on a question that relates to their practice.

Our students have the opportunity to cultivate the habits of mind necessary to be reflective practitioners.”

While master’s in education students usually enter classrooms after earning their degrees, SESP graduates may go in atypical directions. Steve Frederick (SESP04), who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania during a senior-year project on the impact of HIV/AIDS on children’s school attendance (see “Climbing Kilimanjaro,” News on Campus, summer 2004), accepted an offer from Teach for America in San Jose, Calif. Romeo and Juliet producer Mansoor hopes to do production work at Chicago’s renowned Goodman Theatre, while many learning and organizational change undergraduates enter business-related fields such as consulting or banking.

At the graduate level, human development and social policy students who emerge from the doctoral program conversant in fields such as economics, sociology, psychology and education are attractive to prospective employers in higher education. Many learning sciences graduates go on to academic positions, but others follow a different path. Matthew Brown (GSESP03) banded together with learning sciences alumni Eric Baumgartner (GSESP01) and Ben Loh (GSESP04) to build their own company. Founded in 2000, Inquirium is a consulting company that helps educational organizations create innovative educational tools. Inquirium also consults with clients ranging from the Brookfield Zoo and the Museum of Science and Industry to Intel Corp. Brown, who has also done projects with Inquirium for Gomez and Edelson, explains that he and the other company principals draw on the skills they honed at Northwestern as they forge an alternative career path.

Rise in the Rankings

SESP’s graduate programs have created interest and gained acclaim from a variety of sources. The school entered the upper echelon this year in U.S. News & World Report rankings. Ranked 20th by the magazine in 2001, the graduate program soared to sixth in 2006. Record-level scores from peer institutions, a low student-faculty ratio of 5.2-to-1, admissions selectivity and nearly $350,000 in funded research per faculty member all contributed to the rise.

“Northwestern’s SESP is seen nationally as an outstanding school,” says Grover Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, a U.S. Department of Education division that compiles statistics. The institute has funded projects of individual SESP professors as well as a $3.7 million multidisciplinary doctoral training program. Adds Whitehurst, “It’s different from most schools of education in that it’s focused on the training of researchers and scholarship.”

Although appreciative of the recognition, Peterson says that the school must continue to explore new areas of research and learning. Among two under consideration: education policy, where Spillane figures to be a key player, and the physiology and neurology of learning.

“We strive to maintain our tradition as a one-of-a-kind, break-the-mold school of education and social policy,” Peterson says. “To do this, we must innovate continuously.”

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein (GJ03) is a reporter for the Chicago Reporter

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