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2017 McGraw Prize Winners Honored at ASU+GSV Summit

We must embrace the notion that education is for everyone.




This common thread woven throughout the 8th annual ASU+GSV Summit was also echoed in the words of the three 2017 winners of the prestigious Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education, who were honored at the annual gathering of educational technology leaders in Salt Lake City earlier this month:

  • Christine Cunningham, Founder and Director of Engineering is Elementary (EiE) at the Museum of Science, Boston
  • Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia College
  • Chris Anderson, Curator of TED

Selected out of hundreds of nominations, these outstanding individuals were recognized in three categories – U.S. K-12 Education, U.S. Higher Education and International Education, respectively – for their dedication to improving education through new approaches and for challenging the status quo.

“When my team and I began this work, it was virtually unheard of to teach engineering at the elementary level. Many people thought I was crazy,” recounted Cunningham during her acceptance speech in an awards reception hosted by McGraw-Hill Education and Arizona State University. “Over and over again I got the message: ‘Teach engineering in elementary school? Never going to happen.’ This motivated me to think about what age-appropriate engineering looked like and demonstrate that children can do it.”

Today, Cunningham and team have developed five sets of engineering curricula that span from pre-school through middle school, along with resources for school classrooms as well as after school programs and summer camps. By working intensively with classroom teachers to leverage their expertise and ensure her team designs for schools as they currently exist, Cunningham continually works to develop curricula that support learning for all students. This is particularly aimed at those who are underserved and underrepresented in STEM disciplines – girls, children from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, English learners, children with disabilities and children from low-income households.

“I am more convinced than ever that we cannot close out this vast pool of talent and insight,” said Cunningham.

Equity, Humanity & Curiosity

Like Cunningham, fellow prize winner Dr. Sandy Shugart believes equity – providing opportunity and access to all – should be a pillar of all education institutions. However, he builds on this to say that access is not enough in the equity equation – that it’s imperative to create the right conditions for students to learn.

He argues the high scrap, American model of manufacturing that was applied to education in the middle of the century – wherein “students are treated as raw material on one end of the process and the product at the other” and the supreme value was productivity, completion – no longer works. Nor does it consider a learner’s personhood, their humanity.

“If you haven’t thought deeply as a practitioner about what it means to be a human adult learner, then your practice as a teacher is ungrounded,” explained Shugart. “Everything you do in the classroom tells a student what you think of their humanity. And that’s true, by the way, of every process that a college or university imposes on our students and every system that we build to serve them – they imply anthropologies.”

“My anthropology says two things about students, about people. The first is that they are amazing,” continued Shugart, during an emotional moment during his acceptance speech. “To be human is to have an imprint of amazingness in you. It can be deeply hidden. It can be almost impossibly hidden. And in some people, it can be so deeply hidden that you wonder if it’s even there – but it is. And our job is not to only recognize it, but also to call it out of the people we serve.”

As technology rapidly advances and we move into a future of unknown challenges to overcome, fellow Prize winner Chris Anderson agrees that the industrial age education system in which much of the world operates “will probably not cut it.”

“One simple idea might be to try to get our kids to dream a little differently about the future,” explained Anderson in a video message during the awards reception. “The purpose of education – a huge part – is to spark curiosity and to build the character that will inspire a kid to look for the knowledge and avoid the distractions” that oft-characterize the digital era.

The Path Forward

With the shared belief that education is for everyone, Dr. Cunningham, Dr. Shugart and Mr. Anderson are pioneers in creating opportunity, access and the right conditions for learner success.

Leveraging the expertise of those on the frontlines – classroom teachers, college/university professors and subject matter experts – these innovators are demonstrating that a learner-first commitment and a no-excuses approach to designing new education models are keys to solving the challenges in our academic landscape, which will in turn improve our economic outlook.

Leadership for learner impact rather than leadership for institutional success must be the collective objective of education institutions. With U.S. workforce projections indicating a shortfall of five million educated workers by 2020, according to a study from Georgetown University, it is imperative that leaders in education work toward this objective in order to develop learners who are equipped to fill these jobs – and future jobs that do not yet exist.