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Change for the Better: Joyce Bidi-Olagunju, MBE'22

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Mind, Brain, and Education reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
 Joyce Bidi-Olagunju

"This picture, taken in my second-grade classroom, was as a part of my Designing for Learning By Creating Remix project, in which I worked to redesign the stagnant teacher portfolio and infuse a creative twist to the traditional resume. This project was a pivotal moment in my time at Harvard as it stretched my ability to think outside the box in new ways and unlocked a new level of innovation, creativity, and tinkering in my practice."

Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Bidi-Olagunju

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes graduating Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Joyce Bidi-Olagunju will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) Program during HGSE's Convocation exercises on May 25.

Lecturer Ola Ozernov-Palchik, faculty director of MBE, comments on Bidi-Olagunju's selection: “Joyce is a beautiful thinker and writer. Over the past two years, she has enriched the intellectual journey of her classmates (and instructors!) through sharp observations, poignant reflections, and proactive questions. Joyce is the embodiment of science to classroom translation, as she continued teaching throughout her time at HGSE. Her classroom experience brought a critical perspective to class discussions as she challenged us to think about issues of translation and the role of educators in shaping scientific inquiry. Joyce’s classmates commented on how much they have valued her insights and enjoyed her collaborative spirit.”

We spoke to Bidi-Olagunju — who will be relocating to Thailand for a position at the International School of Bangkok — about her time at HGSE and how online learning shaped her experience.

What brought you to the Ed School and what were your goals — and have those goals changed?

I had visited Harvard twice before to attend the Project Zero Classroom and Deeper Learning for All. Each time, I was impressed by the caliber of teaching and knowledge that I was imparted. I was particularly drawn to Harvard's Mind, Brain, and Education Program as I have always been curious about the mechanisms that underpin learning, along with the research and theory that serve at its foundation. As a teacher, I seek to provide a clear "why" for my students, and I desire to understand the "whys" behind the decisions I make as a teacher. My desire has been to use my newfound understandings of cognitive science to enrich my instructional designs and create greater access for all learners. In addition to that work, I would like to coach educators around the world to do the same as well.

"It is my job to change my neck of the world, for that little child who cannot see a way forward; for that single mother who cannot afford to move into some high-income neighborhood just so her child can attend a quality school."

What were your experiences with online learning and what do you think makes it effective?

Online learning has been a gift and a blessing, and I wouldn't have been able to complete my master's if not that it was virtual. I was also 6 months pregnant when I applied. The very first day of school was September 2, and my son was due September 4. It was an eventful two weeks! I expected to be able to remain connected to my family while learning in deep and meaningful ways, and I was impressed with how deep the learning remained, even from a distance. I was also pleasantly surprised by how my classroom became a lab site, as I was able to take research and theory and immediately put thing into practice in my classroom. Online learning can be quite intimate, as you are invited into the homes of your colleagues, to work face to face, tackling some query together. It was surprisingly beautiful. 

What are some of the creative or special ways you able to connect with your peers and instructors?

At times, my newborn son, Yohannes, would join me in class, nestled on my lap, below the camera's view, listening intently to the lessons on brain plasticity. I would often feel like he was my little secret, nervous that he would be a distraction to others if he cried and I was unmuted, or that I would be judged for bringing him to the section, which is silly, but that's how I felt. That was never the case. Occasionally, when a peer caught a glimpse of his little hands and feet, they would beam and invite him to be brought into view. Of course, I should have known that those in education celebrate children. That made me feel a greater sense of connectedness as they welcomed this very special part of my life into the space. This helped me feel especially connected with my peers.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

Karen Brennan and her team in the inspiring Designing for Learning By Creating course. Through this course, I came to realize that much of what I feel so passionately about in education, falls under that beautiful constructivist umbrella. This class felt like entering a land where everyone spoke a language that my spirit could grasp, but my mind hadn't yet learned the words, until others gave me power to articulate. I discovered, I’m a tinkerer at heart, an architect of student learning (made this video in her class), and I have discovered how to be so much more intentional about the choices I design as an educator, in collaboration with my students’ needs and voices. Most importantly, I’ve learned “there is no learning without reflection!

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education? 

One thing I've gleaned from my time here at Harvard Graduate School of Education is to be BOLD, be audacious, and with that which I have learned, I will be luminescent in every dark space that I enter. I take away that it is my job to change my neck of the world, for that little child who cannot see a way forward; for that single mother who cannot afford to move into some high-income neighborhood just so her child can attend a quality school. I have what they need to give them that chance and I'm prepared to use it. This year, I've been pulled and stretched in all sorts of directions, and it has made me broader, it has made me malleable, it has made me a wide net able to catch others when they fall.