Meet Milton Chen: Champion of the unexpected
Educational innovator. Elmo Award recipient. Jedi Master. With over four decades in education, Dr. Milton Chen’s professional journey is expansive, impressive and definitely entertaining. The author of Education Nation and senior fellow and executive director, emeritus, at The George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF), Chen is a leading voice within the educational media landscape and a longtime advocate of the Tiger Woods Foundation.
The son of Chinese political refugees, education not only played a role in Chen’s life, but it was the guiding force in the lives of his parents. His father, a coal-mining engineer, earned a Master’s and Ph.D. from Penn State, while his mother, who sang opera and taught piano to school children, earned a Master’s in music. Chen’s own academic journey began at Harvard College, where he had plans of pursuing a law career. But a summer research position at the Center for Law and Education under famed children’s and civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman changed that.
“I got bitten by this bug very young,” Chen said. “I loved thinking about new ways of teaching and learning. That’s been my passion and profession for all of four decades. And now I’m excited that we have an even more powerful media to teach and learn with.”
Chen’s early passion for education led him to an internship at Sesame Workshop in New York during the summer of his sophomore year. The internship led to a full-time director of research position right out of college, where he worked on a handful of television shows, including “Sesame Street.”
Born out of the tensions during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “Sesame Street,” Chen believes, still stands as one of the great educational innovations of our time. While he left Sesame Workshop in the 1980s, Chen, who joined their board of trustees nearly 10 years ago, still applauds their social justice agenda — from showing kids with disabilities to addressing social-emotional learning, tackling poverty and hunger, and even speaking to public health concerns.
“‘Sesame Street’ was founded as a way to provide an enriching educational experience for all children, and in some sense, to try to close the achievement gap,” Chen said. “It had a very strong multicultural and social justice agenda. Back then just to see blacks and whites interacting on a television program together was amazing. Just to hear Latinos speak Spanish on a children’s program, really on any program at all, was revolutionary.”
Revolutionizing education has been Chen’s purpose throughout his career. And it’s this particular moment, this digital age, that has him so excited.
“This is a great time to be a teacher and learner,” Chen shared with an auditorium full of educators at a recent keynote address he gave this month at the TGR Learning Lab’s OC STEM Ecosystem Institute seminar. “Now is the time to learn. We have all the apps and tools that make learning a lot more interesting and intuitive. Technology is supporting our learning in ways that were not possible 20 years ago.”
Improving the way children learn was high on the agenda when Chen joined The George Lucas Educational Foundation as executive director in 1998. Chen and George Lucas, who himself admittedly struggled through high school, shared the basic but often disregarded belief that learning should be fun.
“In many parts of education, we forget that,” Chen said. “The use of music, the use of animation, characters, humor. I don’t think we do enough with humor in learning to make it stimulating and fun. Kids love to laugh.”
Edutopia.org, GLEF’s website focused on innovative K-12 education, allowed Chen to document and disseminate new ways of learning. The nonprofit site, which as Chen explains represents passion-based and project-based learning, aims to help find what kids are interested in and build a curriculum around that.
“That’s what the TGR Learning Lab does so well,” Chen said. “When kids are surrounded by so many interesting things, they have that opportunity to become interested in robotics or engineering, for example, in a way that perhaps they weren’t exposed to before.”
As part of his work at Edutopia.org, Chen and his team understood that learning could be a week-long and even a year-long activity — that it shouldn’t stop when the school doors close.
“The fact that the TGR Learning Lab was created to fill that gap between school and the rest of children’s learning lives was one of the most important things that we can do as an educational system,” he said.
Michelle Kim, the Tiger Woods Foundation’s vice president of strategic partnerships, brought Chen on as an informal advisor during the infancy of the Anaheim, California, TGR Learning Lab. Kim truly believes that TWF has benefited greatly from Chen’s counsel and support over the past 10 years.
“As a champion of innovative K-12 education, Dr. Chen provided guidance on TWF becoming a leader in STEM education as well as the Ed-Tech integration movement,” Kim said. “George Lucas named Dr. Chen a Jedi Master, and indeed Dr. Chen’s mastery as a thought leader, connector and committed educator puts him at the top of the class.”
Chen’s support far surpassed providing counsel as the Learning Lab designed program strategy. Through his work in the field, Chen continues to serve as an inspiration as he describes efforts around the country to integrate new ways to approach education and learning.
“Milton has been a wonderful advocate for TGR Learning Lab programs,” shared Dr. Katherine Bihr, vice president of programs and education at the Tiger Woods Foundation. “He encouraged us to develop new pathways for students to help them develop their ideas for the future — and excite them about learning. He believes in immersive learning experiences and we are honored that he highlights the TGR Learning Lab as one of the best programs to engage students in this way.”
As Chen travels the country, he’s hopeful more communities will see the need for learning centers, like the TGR Learning Lab. Many libraries, he reports, are already introducing maker spaces, rooms where kids and adults can come together to learn, explore, innovate and share. He envisions a future where more classes are organized by project rather than subject. And where technology in the classroom does more than supply content, but gives kids the tools to help them create.
“The TGR Learning Lab is the gold standard because you have the means to show what this can look like fully realized,” Chen shared. “You have a wonderful building created for collaborative learning, and you have great resources and tools. You are doing STEM in the context of teaching the whole child, bringing in social and emotional learning and character building.”
With over four decades in the educational trenches, Chen’s ultimate takeaway is quite simple: What students are dealing with is not an achievement gap, but rather an experience gap. And all it takes, according to Chen, is one teacher and one experience to light the fire in a child’s learning trajectory. And technology is proving just how quickly this flame can be lit.
“It’s an exciting time,” Chen reminds us, “for kids to have the experience that they have, at their fingertips. They can go further faster than we ever could.”
Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.