Northwestern University Learning Scientists Partner with Bennett Day School

Collaboration over ‘design thinking’ benefits both sides

CHICAGO, Ill.  – What happens when inventive children work side by side with university students on a design problem? Northwestern University researchers are testing the idea with Chicago’s Bennett Day School, an innovative partnership that aims to redefine what a traditional laboratory school might look like.

The initiative brings together learning scientists from Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy – including faculty, undergraduate and graduate students – with the students of Bennett Day, an independent progressive school for children age preschool through 12th grade.

The programs, designed by Northwestern learning scientist and computer scientist Mike Horn and Bennett Day School’s Frances Judd, are based on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education, where students and teachers learn from one another.

“When it comes to science and design, combining the different ways of thought across early childhood and university students can be an inspiring and productive method,” Horn said.

The partnership incorporates curriculum, learning and other elements from Bennett Day School’s classrooms and Tinker Lab activities at its Reggio Emilia-inspired schools. In addition to piloting learning methods and analyzing how the different generations work together, the two schools are also developing tools to enhance digital portfolios of student work.

Northwestern learning scientists, for example, will be working closely with Bennett Day School to analyze the content teachers have written in digital portfolios that accompany pictures, video, and more.

“Our goal is to build technology and tools together to better recognize patterns in how our students learn,” said Bennett Day School CEO and founder Cameron Smith, a Northwestern University alumnus. “The key is to personalize a student’s learning experience based on cognitive-based goals, rather than content-based.”

The collaboration was initially piloted during the 2015-16 school year. In one experiment, Northwestern students designed prototype activities and tools to encourage preschoolers and kindergartners to play collaboratively, rather than side by side.

“The collaboration is a tremendous opportunity to put theory into practice alongside those at Northwestern,” said Judd, a teacher and special projects coordinator at Bennett Day School and member of Horn’s Tangible Interaction Design and Learning (TIDAL) lab. “We’re excited to empower both groups of students, younger and older, to inspire new approaches in design.”

Horn studies how design can be used to address large and small problems in society, and ways to incorporate that into K-12 curriculum.  He has designed and tested computer programming language games in science museums and early elementary school classrooms as well designed multi-touch tabletop exhibits for use in natural history museums.

Like Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, Bennett Day School strives to develop lifelong learners and leaders.

“We are excited to empower both groups of students, younger and older, to innovate together in research and design of new and exciting applications for K12 learning,” Bennett Day School’s Smith said. “Given my own connection with Northwestern, I am very excited about this partnership to put theory into practice in our real-world setting.”


Frances Judd, JK Teacher and Special Projects

Bennett Day School is a PreK through 12th grade progressive, independent school in Chicago.  The only independent school in downtown Chicago nominated for a 2015 and 2016 Chicago Innovation Awards, Bennett Day is home to two campuses, an Early Childhood Campus in the West Loop at 657 W Fulton Street, and its Lower School Campus in West Town, at 955 W. Grand Avenue.  Bennett Day is a tax-paying social enterprise backed by the Code Family Foundation, Wintrust, Chicago ArchAngels, Chicago Capital Partners and more.  The school is now accepting applications for the 2017-2018 school year. To learn more about Bennett Day School, attend an information session and tour by registering here