George Mason University

News at Mason

Award spotlights Mason research, outreach

October 10, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Anne Horak

Given a chance to use role-playing to solve real-world problems, middle schoolers who might be overlooked for advanced academic programs can perform just as well as their high-achieving peers, research by George Mason University assistant professor Anne Horak has shown.

For the third consecutive year, the curriculum written for that research has won an award.

Horak’s “Not for Sale: A Problem About Gentrification, Soccer and Building Community” has been recognized by the National Association for Gifted Children as “a model of exemplary curriculum,” according to awards chairs Christine Briggs and Carol Ann Williams.

The writing team included Rebecca Brusseau, an education master’s student at Mason, and Dana Plowden, a curriculum writer and consultant.

The curriculum is part of Horak’s five-year study called Project ExCEL—Experiences Cultivating Exceptional Learning—that is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.

“What this means,” Horak said of the award, “is that I feel comforted by the fact that if teachers are doing problem-based learning, they’re engaging all students, and that all kids are challenged and learning something every day.”

In the curriculum, which is for grades six through eight and was used in three school districts in two states (Virginia and South Carolina), students take the roles of members of a city parks and recreation department that is planning to develop an abandoned lot into a soccer field but is faced with concerns from older residents about gentrification. After researching gentrification, students collaborate on a plan to build bridges between older and newer neighborhood residents to convince the community that the renovation is a good idea.

The curriculum helps students develop conceptual reasoning and critical thinking skills.

“The takeaway I remembered the most was when a teacher told me she was so impressed by the level of conversation the students were having in the classroom,” Horak said. “She was impressed by the fact they could discuss and think critically about things such as power inequities.”

“This program has been highly valued by our school partners and has had a major impact on identifying and serving students who historically have been underserved by gifted programs,” said Mark Ginsberg, dean of Mason’s College of Education and Human Development. “It is a good example of a consequential initiative of our university that promotes quality in education and assures that all of our students have opportunities for learning, development and life success.”

Horak’s team made sure they included teachers in the curriculum development process.

“If the teacher perceives [the curriculum] as us having written it in a silo, they won’t think it will work and won’t do it,” Horak said. “Also, the curriculum is better for the teacher input. The teachers really help us ground it.”