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Vossoughi Named One of Northwestern's Best Teachers

April 15, 2022
Shirin Vossoughi interacting with a student
Some of Vossoughi's research explores the pedagogical role of gesture, gaze and language.

School of Education and Social Policy professor Shirin Vossoughi was honored with a Northwestern University Teaching Award for bringing justice-oriented, intergenerational, and collaborative teaching to a new level and for championing the “half-baked idea.”

Vossoughi, associate professor of learning sciences who received the School’s Outstanding Professor Award in 2021 and 2016, approaches the design and study of learning as a poetic craft. Keenly aware of the critical first moments of a class, an afterschool program, or a conversation with a child, she partners with educators, families, and students of color to create learning environments that foster dignity, deep connection, and creativity.

As a young teaching assistant, Vossoughi once witnessed University of California at Berkeley professor Tesha Sengupta-Irving begin an undergraduate class by writing ‘I revere the half-baked idea’ on the whiteboard. She has since borrowed and embraced the notion in her own work by stressing the importance of emerging ideas, rough drafts, and the importance of multiple perspectives.

Several current Northwestern programs and partnerships are based on her research findings, including the SESP Leadership Institute (SLI) and a collaboration with the McGaw YMCA program, MetaMedia. She recently launched Blue Dandelion, a home for public writing and zines for teachers which she calls “an experiment in the learning humanities.”

Vossoughi, now the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, is SESP’s sixth winner of a University Teaching Excellence Award. She joins luminaries such as Cynthia Coburn (2021), Danny M. Cohen and Mesmin Destin (2019), David Rapp (2015), and Dan McAdams (1995), all current SESP faculty members.

“Shirin has an unshakeable devotion to educational dignity and a deep commitment to expanding equity and justice at Northwestern and beyond,” said School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio. “She has made countless contributions to SESP’s curriculum and community.”

Vossoughi is known for spearheading collaborative and intergenerational efforts both inside and outside the classroom. In one, she co-designed a hybrid course in which Northwestern undergraduates sit side-by-side with colleagues from Evanston Township High School to investigate educational justice.

In her classes, Vossoughi helps students build new, more joyful relationships with reading, writing, and learning. Often, that’s done by helping students reframe their backgrounds and life experiences as deeply relevant to learning, rather than as deficits. She’s considered both a “personal and professional role model” and many students described how she makes them feel safe to share during class in ways they can’t in other spaces.

Vossoughi’s students learn how to analyze field notes and recordings of learning interactions; how to connect complex theoretical ideas to their everyday lives; and how to thoughtfully engage with fellow scholars, in person and through their writing. They also witness–and learn from–Vossoughi’s extreme care with language and gestures, whether in her written feedback or class discussions.

“Shirin spoke from the heart on all issues and topics; she gave her all no matter what it was about because she knew someone in the classroom (or Zoom room) would resonate with her words,” said current SESP student Cam Campbell.

One of Vossoughi’s primary goals is to create learning environments that foster justice and to disrupt and transform educational inequities. She sees teaching as a conversation between generations that often introduces new perspectives and builds on students’ own questions and ideas.

She teaches three undergraduate courses: Qualitative Field Methods, Culture and Cognition, and Community Based Research & Educational Justice. The latter two evolved through two programs she helped develop: the SESP Leadership Institute and the Northwestern/Evanston Township High School hybrid course.

SLI, launched in 2017 and directed by Vossoughi and Destin, is both a rigorous academic program and supportive community for incoming first-generation and low-income SESP students. Distinct from a remedial “bridge” program, it challenges students to grow as writers, thinkers, and doers.

Vossoughi teaches Culture and Cognition as part of the program. Students take two SESP core requirement classes and participate in a variety of leadership and teambuilding activities. Vossoughi's classrooms offer community, powerful written feedback and support, and deep academic engagement with peers and faculty.

Vossoughi also co-designed and co-taught Community Based Research Methods with professor Megan Bang, two teachers from ETHS, and two learning sciences graduate students in 2020.

The course puts high school and college undergraduates into the same classroom; for the first time in Spring of 2022, the high school students will earn Northwestern University credit. Both the SESP Leadership Institute and Community-Based Research Methods are more than classes. They’re also innovative models for undergraduate teaching that her mentees have adopted.

Vossoughi has taught in schools, after-school and summer programs, and served as the director of a summer camp for youth in the Iranian diaspora. As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, she is personally invested in the design and study of educational settings for youth from migrant, immigrant, and diasporic backgrounds.

She was recently named to the National Academies' Committee on Equity in PreK-12 STEM Education. In 2021, she and her student co-authors received the Paper of the Year Award from the Journal of the Learning Sciences and she received the Early Career Award from the International Society of the Learning Sciences. She also earned Outstanding Reviewer Awards from the Journal of the Learning Sciences and the American Educational Research Journal.

In 2020, Vossoughi won the Ver Steeg Award for her outstanding work supporting and mentoring graduate students. And 2019, she received the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies from the American Educational Research Association.

“In her various roles as teacher, research mentor, and organizer of transformative learning spaces, she empowers students to pursue the same rigorous scholarly work and to make the same critical impact on their communities as she does,” said alumna Suzanne Chen, who took Vossoughi’s Culture and Cognition Class, worked on her research team, and served as a resident assistant for SLI.

“An excellent educator not only designs meaningful curriculum but also nurtures spaces of possibility that live on through the students that had a role in creating them. Vossoughi has done that and more,” Chen said.