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Building a Foundation

Campus came alive earlier than usual this summer as HGSE welcomed master's students to campus for their Foundations coursework

What do successful teams have in common? What kind of evidence helps you evaluate the success of an early literacy program? How do injustices show up in the education system? As part of the new Foundations courses, the incoming class of Ed School master’s students gathered this summer to discuss these questions alongside other critical concepts in education while also getting to know their classmates before fall classes officially begin.

Designed around the belief that, much like doctors or lawyers, educators, too, should enter the field with a common foundation of knowledge and skills, the four Foundations courses — How People Learn (HPL), Leading Change, Evidence, and Equity and Opportunity — serve as common building blocks for students’ year of study at the Ed School.  

“What’s unusual about what we are doing here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with our redesigned Ed.M. program is that we have a set of four required foundational courses that all [students] — no matter what your specific course of study, what program you are in, what concentration you choose, what anticipated professional role you have post-graduation — all of you will take and will take them together,” says Professor Meira Levinson, co-chair of Equity and Opportunity. 

While How People Learn continues to take place online, this is the first time the other three required courses are convening on campus in an official capacity, allowing students to connect with their cohorts in person. The shared knowledge, skills, and toolkit master's students develop in these courses will provide a common language as they deepen and specify their areas of study. 

"[We’ve] set an intentional path for educators, no matter their interest or where they practice, by outlining what they need to understand to work in a rapidly changing sector essential to our society’s success,” says Professor Monica Higgins, co-chair of the Leading Change course.

The Foundations courses all help instill students with that grounding, basic knowledge in core tenets of education. The longest-running course, How People Learn, helps students understand how people learn and develop, introducing core concepts such as how learners make sense of new ideas and how to design systems to support growth. Leading Change introduces students to organizational theory — how systems and organizations operate, how teams work effectively, and what it takes to lead change. Evidence, meanwhile, engages students in analysis and data-based problem solving to understand what works in education and what doesn’t. Finally, students reflect on their own identities, learn and apply concepts and frameworks to identify patterns of inequity and injustice, figure out why and how those patterns are perpetuated, and consider how to disrupt them in Equity and Opportunity. 

The topics and content covered in the month before classes begin position students to explore these issues more deeply and richly in the coming months so that when they leave HGSE, they’ll be well-positioned to tackle and study complex problems in the field. 

“In order for you to master a common body of knowledge, do you know what you have to do?” says Professor James Kim, co-chair of the Evidence course. “You have to read complex texts, and the principal determinant of how well you’re going to understand really complex texts … is how much you already know about the topic.” 

But it’s not just about establishing a firm grounding in academic content. Many of these courses also help students connect with one another. 

Students working together

“We’re trying to give [students] the space to hang out and get to know [their] colleagues who will have various life experiences and journeys, and to be able to talk with them  …  and learn from them, [creating] a collective class of educators who are ready to go out and make this a better world,” says Lecturer Aaliyah El-Amin of the Equity and Opportunity foundation she co-chairs with Levinson.  

In addition to laying the foundation for what’s to come in their year at HGSE, students are also setting on a course to impact change in the field — something which already grew out of the Foundations courses for some students.

While taking HPL, Ed.M. candidate Lindberg Heitmann became motivated to design a proposal focused on how the University of Utah — his alma mater — can support a sense of community and belonging among international students like himself. “I’m a strategist,” he says. “As I was going through HPL, I started to think about international students and how we can help them.” 

He shared the proposal with the university as "Forever Utah" — a platform designed for connecting alums, students, and others in the community. He says they are eager to hear more. 

While Heitmann admits taking on the Foundations course — both online and in person — while working full-time and moving across the country was a lot, he says it was also a great experience and opportunity. 

“I learned so much,” he says. “When I think about why I’m here, it’s because I want to have an impact in what I do … when this opportunity [to create Forever Utah] presented itself in HPL, I thought maybe this could be a business but let’s see what comes out of it.” 

Additional reporting by Jill Anderson


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