Monthly Archives: May 2016


Visiting an art museum with your children is one of those-meaningful. Aducational activities can always aspire.

But what happens-once-you walk through the gallery doors? Maybe you haven’t had an art class since high school (or earlier). Maybe you’re not quite sure how to talk with your kids about an exhibition in the same way you would about a picture book or a favorite TV show.

Once you’re at the museum, how can you actually get your kids thinking and talking about art?

We asked Eve Ewing, an educator, artist, and writer, if we could share the conversation starters she originally published on the Boston Children’s Museum’s Power of Play blog. As the museum’s inaugural artist-in-residence, Ewing created an installation called “A Map Home,” which encompassed themes of place, childhood adventure, and how we make meaning of our everyday surroundings through text and image. In addition to her work in the arts, Ewing is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where her research focuses on race, social inequality, urban policy, and public schools.


In her post, Ewing outlines six ideas for parents who want to use art as a point of connection with their children:

  1. Let children lead the way. “What would you like to look at?” or “Take me to a painting that you want to see!” invites them to survey the space and find something that looks interesting to them.
  2. A question like “What do you see here?” or “What do you notice?” is a simple but fruitful place to start.
  3. You can use a pretend game to invite children to describe what they see in detail. “Let’s pretend we’re calling (grandma, auntie, friend) and let’s tell them about this painting. They can’t see it so you have to tell them everything!”
  4. Encourage children to share emotional responses. “How does looking at this make you feel? What parts of the painting make you feel that way?” Emphasize that art does not always need to be pretty, and it’s okay to have a range of feelings (including sadness or anger) when looking at a piece of art.


Who gets to attend school, and for how many-years? In many parts-of-the world, these are questions without a straight-forward answer and they grow far more complicated in the context of refugee education.

A new case study of decision-making in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, examines the problem. Set within the framework of a monthly meeting between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO partners, the case demonstrates the difficulty of providing schooling to an ever-growing, under-resourced, and possibly impermanent population, and it poses questions about the role of education in refugee camps. It’s one of a series of new refugee-centered teaching cases co-authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education researcher Sarah Dryden-Peterson.


The Kakuma case, co-authored by Michelle Bellino, Ed.D.’14, of the University of Michigan, describes how a previous policy emphasis on access to education in the developing world resulted in large numbers of students completing school without basic literacy or math skills. As a result, the UNHCR’s most recent educational strategy emphasizes access alongside quality, protection, and sustainability of educational programs. UNCHR now frames education not only as a service to provide, but also as a “tool of protection and an essential element of any durable solution for refugees.”

But with the new strategic direction, one particular problem continues to vex: how to provide quality education to all in resource-constrained settings.


Kakuma, a large camp in northwestern Kenya, received more than 20,000 refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan, Somalia, and other countries in 2012 alone. These numbers have increased, with the population of Kakuma spiking to 125,000. Many of the inhabitants are long-term refugees, with little hope of returning to their home countries.

Providing an education to each child in Kakuma is hugely challenging. At the time of Dryden-Peterson and Bellino’s study, in a single month 800 more children enrolled in primary schools that were already serving 10,000 children. With the population continuing to rise, many leaders realized that building more schools was no longer an effective option. UNHCR had built fifty additional classrooms in Kakuma, and within one year they had all been filled beyond capacity.

To increase access, UNHCR introduced a “double shift” in primary school, in which children came to school either in the morning or the afternoon. But while this innovation increased primary enrollment by 65 percent, it compromised quality. Many classes had one teacher serving 150 students. Without enough space for desks or chairs, students knelt on the floor, and few had textbooks. And those students not sitting in the front rows could barely hear or see the teacher.

This struggle between access and quality intensified at the secondary level. With only four secondary schools to serve tens of thousands of children, the schools used a cutoff score on an entrance exam to determine which students would enroll. The selective entry avoided many of the problems existing at the primary level, such as overcrowded classrooms, damaged infrastructure, and overwhelmed teachers. In other words, the students in the secondary school received a higher quality education.

But this selective entry had a clear downside. “The cutoff score was essentially arbitrary in terms of academic performance on a national scale,” one of the partners in the UNHCR meeting realized. “It was merely a decision about allocating resources, and in this case the decision favored quality for some over access for all.”


Teaching cases are instructional tools aiming to place learners at the center of real-life dilemmas. This case does just that, introducing deeper questions about the purpose of education in Kakuma, and in refugee camps in general. Is the goal to support the success of individual students right now, or to improve educational systems that will, eventually, support all students?

In Kakuma, by limiting the amount of students permitted to attend secondary school, the educators were ensuring that those few students would receive a higher quality education. And, in the long run, those same students would likely become teachers themselves in the camp, increasing educational access for future children.

Solve Your Hard Brain

Stress happens, especially in education. A packed schedule,  papers to grade, an accidentally-missed-appointment, spilled coffee. your Feel like head pounds, your shoulders tense, your eyelids droop. You feel stuck. Then, How can you get a better handle on this?

One valuable, often overlooked, and durable way to manage stress is to build positive habits, slowly and over time. Our brains are hard-wired to focus on the negative, but by practicing mindfulness, we can reprogram them — teach our brains to accentuate positive experiences and maintain serenity.



The human brain evolved with a “negativity bias,” says mindfulness expert Metta McGarvey, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Negative events and thoughts have a proportionally greater impact on our memory and psychological state than positive ones do. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense — strong recollections of bad experiences means we’re more likely to learn from mistakes and avoid a life-threatening situation.

This negativity bias also means that smaller, day-to-day stressors tend to take precedence in our thoughts, leaving less room for positive framing or constructive action planning. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Our brains can change, physically, as a result of learning, says McGarvey. In a process called “experience dependent neuroplasticity,” neural connections grow based on what we’re learning. Repeating the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors increases synaptic connectivity, strengthens neural networks, and creates new neurons through learning. In other words, practicing a positive habit can predispose our thoughts to be more affirmative.


The key to developing these positive habits? Mindfulness.

According to researchers at the Greater Good Science Center, a project at the University of California, Berkeley, mindfulness has two core components: maintaining an awareness of our immediate thoughts, feelings, and surroundings; and accepting these thoughts and feelings without judging them. McGarvey explains it as “single-tasking,” or approaching any situation with your undivided attention and keeping that attention on the present moment.

By approaching your work with mindfulness, you decrease the amount of energy you spend worrying about the past or the future, and you increase the amount of attention you give to present and positive experiences. But because stress and worrying can be so engrained, McGarvey explains, you need to practice (and keep practicing) the skills and habits you need to keep your attention on the present.

She offers five mindfulness exercises that build brain-strengthening positive habits over time:

  1. Several times a day, take a short break from whatever you’re doing — step away from the computer, put down your phone, close your book — and look at something different. Savor the feeling of calm for a minute or two.
  2. Practice looking for small moments of beauty or kindness throughout your day: raindrops moving across your window, a moment of warmth in the sunshine, an amiable exchange with a stranger. Focusing on the positive will strengthen your ability to turn your attention away from worries.
  3. Search for and comment on the positive qualities and actions of others. This behavior is especially important in exchanges with loved ones; research has shownthat successful marriages have five positive interactions for each negative one. Appreciating the good in others, says McGarvey, “creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ that builds positive communication and relational habits.”
  4. Exercise. Calming meditations, yoga, and tai chi can all activate the parasympathetic nervous system and evoke a physically relaxed state. Making any of these practices into a habit can make it easier for your body to relax after a stressful event.

Teacher partnerships is the best solution for your study

After you’ve learned to do something, how do you learn to do it better? For teachers, who still work mostly in isolation, or getting-stuck in a bad habit of practice is high.

But “learning by doing” can work in a more focused way when the “doing” is guided by a successful peer and structured around a particular task. A new working paper just out from the National Bureau of Economic Research has demonstrated that for teachers (and perhaps workers in many other sectors), there is a tangible value in learning from colleagues.

Researchers from Brown University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that pairing highly skilled teachers with lower-performing colleagues at the same school, then asking them to work together for a year on specific skills, produced meaningful and lasting improvements in teacher skills and student performance.


The study, carried out with the Tennessee Department of Education, encompassed 14 elementary and middle schools and 136 teachers in Tennessee. Using data captured by that state’s intensive teacher evaluation protocol, researchers identified teachers who were weak in one (or more) of a constellation of assessed characteristics, and then matched them with teachers who were strong in corresponding areas. School principals reviewed the matches, revising them if needed, and then approached each pair and asked them to work together on improving instructional skills in the areas the low-performers needed to bolster.

Principals encouraged the pairs to look at each other’s evaluation results, observe each other’s teaching, talk about strategies for improvement, and follow up with one another throughout the school year.


The study found that the program — called the Instructional Partnership Initiative — has substantial effects. Researchers found that students of low-performing teachers who’d been randomly selected to join a partnership scored 12 points higher, on average, on standardized tests than students of low-performing teachers who didn’t join a partnership.

That gain is roughly equivalent to the difference between being assigned to an average teacher and a low-performing one, the researchers say. It is also at least as large as the difference in performance between a novice teacher and a 5- to 10-year veteran. And the researchers found that these improvements in teacher performance lasted and perhaps grew over the year following the experiment.


It’s easy to draw inferences about the importance of coworkers in our development on the job, but until this study, there hadn’t been much quantitative evidence of the role they play in our learning, the researchers say. They cite one earlier study that found that teachers’ performances improved when higher-performing teachers joined the faculty in the same grade. This new study is more direct in its measurement of the effects of a focused partnership between colleagues.

The findings — that teachers at all levels of experience can learn new skills from peers that translate into gains for students — might help fortify a new and less costly approach to professional development.

“The peer partnerships we study — a kind of one-on-one, personalized approach to on-the-job training — are designed to focus on practical, day-to-day problems,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Eric Taylor, who co-authored the study withJohn Papay, John Tyler, and Mary Laski from Brown. “They offer as a solution to those problems the experience and advice of someone you know, someone who works under the same challenges.”


  • Based on evaluations and your observations, identify teachers who show promise but need improvement in a given instructional area. Pair those teachers with others who are strong in corresponding areas. Ask the pairs to work together — with the specific goal of improving skills in the areas low-performers need to bolster.
  • Encourage teacher pairs to work closely with one another, and to meet regularly — discussing each other’s evaluations, observing each other teach, talking regularly about strategies for improvement.
  • Create the time and space for this regular collaboration; show support for the partnerships and for the benefits of peer learning.