“Every student is unique in his or her strengths and challenges, and it is the job of the teacher to foster highly individualized learning in response to the student. Not the other way around.” – Ellen Brandenberger, USA

It has been said that inspiration comes in many forms. And when it comes to the heroes we speak with here at Daily Edventures, that sentiment is especially true. For Ellen Brandenberger, inspiration came in the form of summer school. “I helped run a summer program for low-income K-12 students in 2010,” says Brandenberger. “Every day my students brought back stories of violence, poverty, and numerous other challenges. I was inspired, and wanted to make a change for them, but initially was not sure how to go about it. While one hundred percent of my students ended up in college (thanks to widespread community support), one of the biggest challenges they faced was upon entering college — they were three to seven grades behind in school. They had been pushed through the system, only to drop out of college. It was then that I realized I needed to focus my attention and my career on education, as its impact was most central to their success, so that all children can have access to a quality education.”

And focus she did. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame with her Bachelors in Fine Arts, Brandenberger switched gears and joined City Year Boston as a Corps Member. There, she partnered to teach 14 5th graders. She helped facilitate daily literacy and math interventions and planned literacy initiatives — including a $10,000 fundraiser. Her work was so outstanding, she was selected for the New England Leadership Academy, a competitive 36-hour seminar, and awarded the Coolidge Citizenship Award for outstanding leadership, and civic engagement.

Today, Brandenberger is a student herself – this time at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where as an intern in the Best Foot Forward Program, she collaborates with a team exploring if video can make the classroom observation process more reliable. A key part of Brandenberger’s work includes training teachers and stakeholders in the implementation of video technology in their classrooms.

“Education continues to energize me, not just because I find it incredibly dynamic and constantly interesting, but because I am excited to find ways to give schools the tools they need to innovate locally and ensure student achievement,” Brandenberger says. “Most importantly, I am interested in the ways that technology shapes and changes access through differentiated instruction, 21st century skill-based learning, and reducing cost and access barriers, both at the K-12 and Higher Education levels.”

Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Ellen Brandenberger.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

My high school ceramics teacher, Ms. Kubacki, who after I completed my first project, immediately realized my talents and responded by creating an entire course curriculum just for me. In doing so, she placed an incredible amount of trust in me to produce quality work, and encouraged me to develop my own unique talents. This model inspires me to this day, and I regularly used it in my classroom to differentiate coursework for my students. Every student is unique in his or her strengths and challenges, and it is the job of the teacher to foster highly individualized learning in response to the student.  Not the other way around.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

Being a graduate student, I like to focus on the future. I’d like to use my time at Harvard to advance educational innovation in a variety of ways. New technologies will require new paradigms for education and the leadership to bring about such innovation: leaders will be forced to be consummate learners, adapting and changing quickly within an exploding and exciting industry. I hope to explore new educational paradigms as foundations for a meaningful career at the intersection of education, technology, and social innovation. Ultimately it is my goal to shape my career in evaluating, designing, managing, and/or implementing instructional technology after my time at Harvard. 

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Kids love technology, and I think in many ways they appreciate adults who give them the space to use it for their own learning. I always encourage my students to grow their learning in any way possible, and tech is quite possibly always the most fun for them. They see it not as work, but as games, or the space for creativity and competition! This concept is not new, but needs to be remembered; if we make learning fun through technology, children can drive their own learning and continue it outside the classroom!

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cell phones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work?

Technology has made learning limitless. Children and adults both learn using technology all the time; learning no longer happens exclusively in school or the library. Instead, I can watch a TED talk, read a book, brush up on my statistical skills, or learn about European history right from my cell phone on my commute to work or school. Much of this content is free and thereby reframes questions of access to education; geography or socio-economic status no longer limits the accessibility of learning.

In removing these barriers, technology places the burden of education on the individual: we only stop learning if we consciously choose to stop. In college, for example, I became so focused on my formalized learning, that it took me nearly a year to rediscover the love of independent learning I had growing up (I was an avid reader and to this day love non-fiction). What brought me back to self-directed learning was the desire to break out of my own experience, and grow personally and professionally through reading, independent coursework, and new experiences and conversations.

With these ideas in mind, I believe schools will change over the next decades, in large part because they have been slow to adapt to the changes brought about by technology in the past century. Education will become more individualized. If children really are to be prepared for the 21st century, they will need to learn more than they ever have previously, and this means that their learning must be specifically tailored to each child.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

I am extremely excited about Sugata Mitra’s work, especially his creation of Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE’s), which put the child at the center of learning by encouraging exploration through technology. This model has the potential to re-shape the way we approach schooling, and creates an alternative that enables informal, student-centered, and creative learning. Such learning in-turn would be centered on 21st century skills such as critical thinking, and social emotional skills. If we can trust that children will be invested in this model, I believe it has a lot of potential. Whether we trust children in their learning is not a new question (Montessori, Piaget, etc.) but increasingly a salient question since there are many more paths to learning, due in large part to today’s innovations that individualize learning.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

Its hard to pick just one. I’ve always envisioned that schools should center children’s time not around subject matter but on learning these skills in project-based settings. Math and logic can be incorporated into problem solving, communication would encapsulate writing and public speaking, collaboration would be learned through team-based projects, and creativity can be enhanced not just through art, but the creation and design of new ideas and engineered structures and systems. Thus students could learn soft skills by practicing hard ones, with content integrated throughout their learning experience.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would give every two children one laptop with Internet access. With this model, students could work together under the guidance of an adult to foster their own learning and teamwork no matter geography or cultural relevance. Despite this, I believe very strongly that technology should only be a starting point, and not a destination in education; we need to give children much more, but this is a good place to start.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

One of the things I believe is so wonderful in American education right now is simply the attention it receives and the investment we make in it. There is widespread effort to address any issue or problem in education, and we invest in it at the community and national levels, and in both the public and private sectors. We don’t see a challenge as an end point in education, but rather an opportunity for innovation and creativity for our children, and our nation.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

Education is a tough nut to crack. Positive change to education is, and has been, very slow and very incremental: often affecting one student and one school at a time. While individual outcomes are still encouraging, many Americans feel that bigger change needs to take place in our education systems. One of the greatest innovations I have seen of late, the development of online open courseware (or MOOCs), has begun shaping what I believe to be a new positive model for education with one important point of emphasis: openness. The future of education will not be restricted, or confined by location or income; it must instead be an open invitation to all with the desire to learn and adapt to the world around us through such learning. Only such change will enable our citizens to be the life-long learners that our evolving economy and world require.  

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Honestly — and it has been said before — children who live in poverty face an uphill battle in their education. While they can absolutely overcome this obstacle, it is extremely difficult for a child who has not eaten in twelve hours to focus on algebra. These children need our support, as one in every five children in America lives in poverty, and they need extra attention and encouragement to reach their educational goals. At the same time, teachers must maintain high expectations for these children in order to ensure their success.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

I think the most important thing to remember is that high need in a child necessitates both high expectations and highly individualized support from teachers and school community members. While this is easier said than done, and can often feel like an uphill battle, each child deserves a quality education, but needs very different things to get there, whether it be a hot lunch, a literacy coach, a math tutor, or otherwise. 

How have you incorporated mobile devices/apps into your classroom and have you seen any improvements?

I told this story in my Harvard essay, but one of my students was really struggling to learn long division, and despite diversified efforts on my part, could not master the concept and was becoming increasingly self-conscious as they fell behind in class. After many efforts, we found the solution in “First in Math,” a computer-based math program that teaches K-8 students concepts in a highly individualized and game based context. The result was a huge gain in math over the course of the year, and a speedy mastery of long division! 

About Ellen C. Brandenberger

Student – Master of Education Candidate in Technology, Innovation and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education; Intern, the Best Foot Forward Project at the Center for Education Policy Research *

Boston, Massachusetts, USA


  • Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Current residence: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Education: Bachelor of Arts in History, University of Notre Dame 
  • Website I check every day: http://www.bbc.com/
  • Person who inspires me most: My parents
  • Favorite childhood memory: Spending summers outside in the sunshine.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): New York City (to visit a lifelong friend)
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? Last night we had an excellent going away dinner for a friend who is moving across the country. It was non-stop laughs.
  • Favorite book: Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies
  • Favorite music: The Black Keys
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Laugh everyday, and often.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” –Albert Einstein

 *Views are my own and do not represent Harvard University or City Year Boston


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