Archive for the 'Research' Category



Wait, why should classrooms care about participatory culture again?

Because participatory cultures are more authentic! Because they’re more democratic! Because kids love the internetz! No. No. No.

In fact, I’m going to go all out and say that classrooms may not have all that many reasons to care about participatory culture and the current form it takes in so many online spaces like fanfiction communities, massively multiplayer games and our favorite online, collaboratively edited encyclopedia. Henry Jenkins, who reminds us that they predated the internet (omg!), defines participatory cultures as spaces with low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations with others, informal mentorship, social connection and personally meaningful participation (see Jenkins et al. 2006 for more on this). Sound like great places, right? Like we should want classrooms to look more like them, right? And you might be saying to yourself right now “But Rafi, you’ve been talking for months about the importance of interest driven affinity spaces (a variant on participatory cultures via Jim Gee) for weeks when you’ve talked about your model for technology and learning!” Guilty as charged. I did, and will continue to, talk about these spaces as important. For learning though, not necessarily for the classroom. At least not yet.

I make two big points (among others) about the importance of participatory cultures in my model. One is that we should be figuring out ways to configure the many and varied places that youth learn in ways that get more youth get involved in participatory cultures. My reasons for this are many and varied, not least of which being that research shows that deep participation in these spaces can serve as gateways into increased civic engagement, but I’ll save these for another post since it’s a much bigger topic. But the other point I make, the one I want to take up and interrogate/revise a bit here, is that formal learning institutions such as K12 schools and Higher Education should look to participatory cultures for inspiration in terms of creating better models for learning. I should have chosen my words more carefully, and reading for class this week reminded me why. It’s because many of the tools and practices associated with participatory culture run into some interesting walls when we try to bring them into the classroom.

In an insightful, if somewhat dense, article titled “Web 2.0: Inherent tensions and evident challenges for education“, researcher Nina Dohn outlines just some of the many tensions involved in bring Web 2.0 practices into the classroom. Web 2.0, of course, is closely related to participatory culture, though as Jenkins notes, Web 2.0 is a business model more than anything else, and participatory culture focuses much more on the unique and valued practices that are mediated by these models and technological designs. Dohn makes sure to focus on practices rather than tools, which is for our purposes close enough. But I digress.

Dohn does a great job of articulating well intentioned desires of educators (herself included)  to foster Web 2.0 practices, specifically through wikis, in higher ed classrooms, but were confounded by the existing norms, expectations and structural pressures of these spaces. I’ll share an example. In a participatory culture, posting a summary of a public presentation to the internet is good practice; information about the presentation is now available to more than just the people present when it was being given, there’s a persistent and searchable record, etc. In a classroom aiming to utilize web 2.0 practices though, doing this when the public presentation was made in class by peers who did all the work to structure the knowledge and the summary post to a wiki was done for a participation requirement, well, it’s not exactly the same thing, is it? Likewise, when making edits to other people’s wiki entries becomes part of your grade, students can (and did!) come up with schemes to leave small spelling errors in their posts so that their peers have low hanging fruit to work with, and they can then reciprocate.

What Dohn really points to well is that bringing the tools, and maybe some of the practices, of Web 2.0 into classrooms doesn’t mean that you’re bringing in a participatory culture. Larger institutional requirements around individually oriented assessment, challenges to making participation personally meaningful and intrinsically motivated, and perhaps most of all, student expectations about what it means to participate well in classroom contexts serve to easily complicate and derail efforts to create participatory cultures in classrooms. In my opinion, culture is something that has to emerge organically in some ways, and also needs a bigger pasture than a semester long course. One class swimming upstream within a larger institutional river made of molasses is not surprisingly going to encounter some resistance. To me, this is why the grain size for the initial recommendation I made about participatory culture inspiring better models for formal education perhaps should have been specified as ‘larger than the classroom’. Not that the classroom isn’t relevant, it of course is, but creating a larger institutional context that supports a paradigm shift in how we value participation and think about learning becomes critical to letting participatory classrooms succeed, and in enabling other, yet-to-be-created, forms of learning groups and structures to emerge within formal education.

Really, the same could be said about the model of technology and learning that I’ve been envisioning in general. The shift in focus that stems from the challenges in just intervening on the classroom level to consider the broader school culture to me is much like my decision to not focus my model specifically on any one of the spaces where youth learn, whether it be in schools, in online communities, in afterschool spaces or libraries or even from TV. Rather, I argue that all of these contexts need to be taken out of isolation from one another in order that they can be re-conceptualized as nodes within a broader youth learning ecology. To me, all of these areas need to support and participate in a cultural shift in terms of what their relationships with youth people are, and how they envision they role in creating a culture of lifelong and lifewide learning for all.

**Disclaimer** I want to make absolutely clear my support for the many amazing, inspirational, tireless teachers out there in their canoes, some swimming upstream in seas of institutional molasses, others in free flowing rivers that they helped to make more fluid by creating cultural change from within. I don’t want this post in any way to diminish the work that you’re doing. I’m more articulating what I believe will be necessary in order for a broader cultural shift to occur that will make it so you guys don’t need to row quite as hard.

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Avoiding the “Creepy Treehouse” When Using Technology to Connect Learning Ecologies

Photo by AlmostJaded, licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-nd

In going through a series of readings this week on the topic of games and learning, I found myself looking at the model for technology and learning that I’ve been working on in a new way, and asking a new question, namely: if we create technologies that connect the various nodes in a young person’s learning ecology (online communities, libraries, school, pop culture, etc.), how do we avoid the phenomenon of the “creepy treehouse”, whereby youth avoid participating in a given space or using a given technology because of its affiliation with institutional structures and adult cultures?

I’ll say more soon about this “creepy treehouse” phenomenon and how I’m thinking about it in terms of my model, but first it’s important to acknowledge the ways that I’m seeing various technologies already doing work to connect youth learning ecologies. For those that haven’t gone through some of my past posts on the subject, one of the things that I’m very interested in is a system that personalizes youth learning via creating automated and social recommendations (like Amazon and Yelp, respectively) that allow youth to follow their interests and connect the various places in their life that they learn (more on that here, if you’re interested). While reading about Quest Atlantis this week, a educational game that I’ve known about for quite a while as it was developed and housed in the very Learning Sciences department that I study in, I remembered that there are many existing projects already out there that do work to connect these nodes in youth learning lives, though not necessarily in the way that the particular project I’ve been thinking about does.

In a paper on Quest Atlantis (Barab et al. 2005), the designers reference this idea of connecting different learning nodes, if not explicitly. One way that the game is framed is as a space where education, entertainment and social commitment are intertwined to create a compelling learning experience. In terms of the learning ecology that I visualize in my model, this is doing work to connect formal school (the “learning” part of the triad where Quest Atlantis is mostly used,) to online affinity spaces and popular culture (“entertainment”) and civic and community action (“social commitment”). They reference some of the issues I talk about in my model in terms of popular culture’s success in engaging young people but failure to effectively leverage this success for learning purposes (p. 90). They also claim that the game’s connections to real world issues “are frequently as motivating to children as are the entertainment aspects of the project” (p. 98). Clearly, a lot of thought went into considering the various places that youth learn and engage in terms of the design of this project.

One other project that aims to do some linking of learning nodes that I’ll mention briefly is called RemixWorld, which comes out of a Chicago project called Digital Youth Network (DYN). DYN is a youth development program that trains youth in various forms of new media production via both in and out of school programs. An innovative project in and of itself, DYN does good work to integrate media production into the core content of schools, leveraging skills developed in afterschool hours within the classroom to create richer learning experiences. RemixWorld, though, does unique work to link the out of school lives with time spent in school and afterschool DYN related programs. A private social network where youth post their media creations, the space serves as a bridge between many of the interests that youth have outside of school, such as anime, video games and hip hop, to a program that recognizes and validates these practices in more intentional learning contexts.

Acknowledging that there are numerous projects that aim to weave together the learning lives of young people, we come back to the question of how to avoid the “creepy treehouse” effect. First, a couple of words on what I’m talking about here. One definition of “creepy treehouse” (among many variations) is:

Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

It can also refer to practices of educators requiring students to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, resulting in an institutional encroachment on friendship driven spaces. More often though, the educational technologists using the term are referring to created online environments that are meant to be reminiscent of things that “digital natives” love, such as “the social media”. Online learning management systems with personal profiles, “friend feeds” and a variety of other features often find themselves guilty of evoking the “creepy treehouse” effect. Students know that these spaces still represent the often conservative priorities of the educational institutions that house them, and many use them as minimally as possible. This often has both to do with who’s controlling the technology as well as the fact that the spaces it aims to create are inauthentic.

So what to do? Not all technologies that promote learning fit the profile of the usual suspects accused of being “creepy treehouse” (Blackboard tends to get a lot of flack in this regard, and I have to say they’re not going to get any sympathy from me), but ones that aim to connect to places where youth learn outside of school certainly might be at greater risk since they are interested in many parts of youth lives often considered off-limits to adults, such as hobbies, pop culture, and other interest driven activities.

In terms the technology driven personalization/recommendation system (which needs a much snappier name), I’m thinking about a couple of things. For one, something like this can’t be affiliated with an existing formal learning institution, period. To begin with, most of these institutions have their own internal logic and agendas that would likely corrupt such a system, but moreover being actively affiliated with institutional educational is a great way to lose credibility with a young audience. More importantly, the system would be an example of technology that’s both for youth as well as by youth, with youth actively involved in it’s design and development. I’ve seen in earlier work that when youth are actually involved in creating a space or technology, they implicitly have greater ownership over it and don’t see it as “other”. Finally, I think that in and of itself, a technology like this naturally avoids falling into the “creepy treehouse” trap mostly because it’s not aiming to be a space where youth are meant to spend significant amounts of time – it’s meant to connect them to the spaces where they actually want to do that. Think of it this way – the time I spend on the social recommendation site Yelp itself is minimal compared to the time I spend eating at the restaurants it recommends. What I’m envisioning is less a learning destination in and of itself, but rather the connective tissue that links other legitimate learning environments, and thus would (hopefully) avoid the taint of the “creepy treehouse”.

Learning Technology for Youth, Learning Technology By Youth

In synthesizing my recent ideas around a model for technology and learning, I realized that I’d been limiting my conceptions of what role youth should play within a broader learning ecology. I’d placed them, both physically and theoretically, at the center of the layout of the model. I wanted to convey my priority around keeping the model centered directly on the learner. To some degree, this was also meant as a subtle shot across the bow of traditional educational approaches and, to be honest, most educational technology, which are generally more oriented towards administrators, teachers and the larger accountability systems that surround them and thus reflect priorities other than the learning experience of the young person. But in writing up my ideas about the role of a larger technology system that aims to personalize and link up the various nodes in a youth’s learning ecology so that they can better pursue their interests, I fell into a common trap: I didn’t include youth in the role of co-designers of such a system.

I’ve updated my model here to include this role (click on the “Young Person” node to see the addition). I also added in a snazzy back button (woo!).

I was inspired by readings I’d done about other educational technologies, notably two projects that came out of the University of Maryland Human Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL). The first was the StoryRoom project, which aims to create physical objects that youth can program without a computer interface in order to tell embodied stories (totally cool in my opinion). The second was on designing intergenerational mobile storytelling apps for the iOS platform [pdf here]. In both of the projects, I noticed that youth were not positioned as playtesters or as part of focus groups, but rather as designers themselves. On further digging into the lab’s work, it’s clear that they’ve had a priority around involving youth in the design of new technologies for over ten years, creating what they refer to as “an intergenerational, interdisciplinary design team”. Incredible. But not, however, without precedent.

In a not-entirely-former life, I worked at a great organization called Global Kids that regularly approached educational work from the perspective that kids should be in decision making positions. Youth ran workshops for their peers on global issues, co-developed highly successful educational games, designed and ran our annual conference, and even had positions on the organization’s board of directors. This is an approach grounded in the youth development movement, which was a reaction to “deficit thinking” approaches that viewed young people, especially those coming from under-privileged and marginalized communities, as “at-risk” problems waiting to happen. Consider what terms like “dropout prevention” and “keeping kids off the streets” say about those young people. Youth Development assumes strengths, and gives opportunities to display those strengths by creating opportunities and situations in which they take on real power and responsibility. For instance, being designers of technologies they’d ultimately use.

And while this approach is vital, it’s by no means uncomplicated. As a colleague of mine mentioned today, most of the time youth involvement is an afterthought, done in a perfunctory way. I had this experience bringing youth to conferences that “wanted to have youth voices” but rarely considered what this would look like. On numerous occasions while I was still at Global Kids I wrote about how having youth as equal partners at the table and as collaborators on projects is not as easy as it sounds. There are limits to youth time, understanding and interest in relation to any given project, and for it to be a fruitful process for all parties, especially in a design process, it makes a lot of sense to invest resources into an infrastructure that provides youth with experiences and context that will allow them to contribute in meaningful ways. It sounds like the UMD lab has done just this, and so I applaud them and would look to their model as I consider how youth can play the role of co-designers in my own work.

What Cognitive Tutors Can (and Can’t) Teach Us About Personalized Learning

Many educators, and especially those interested in educational technology, are currently obsessed with the idea of personalized learning. It’s at the heart of some well hyped initiatives such as the School of One in New York, in which students have tailored schedules, called “Playlists”, that guide them from activity to activity and computer algorithms that generate specialized lesson plans based on a student’s prior performance. The EU’s iClass experiment is also based on this idea of personalization via technology.

The basic promise of personalization is easy to grasp – not every child in a classroom is at the same level, and there’s (presumably) no way for a teacher to teach to all of these differences effectively. In the past, many  educators largely relegated personalized learning to those in need of remediation, the so called “low performers” in a class. This remediation often took the form of tutors, an expensive but effective approach. Later we also saw (and continue to see) Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s, in ed lingo), usually reserved for high risk or special education students. But the idea of having every student engage in some form of personalized learning, evidenced in initiatives like the School of One, may seem unique, but it is not new. Cognitive Tutors, computer programs that aim to replicate the effective guidance and adaptability that human tutors have been proven to provide, have been in the personalized learning game since at least the 1980’s.

Cognitive Tutors essentially incorporate cognitive models of both novice and expert thinking around a certain domain, like math, into a computer program. A learner is challenged to solve a problem that relates to that knowledge with the program providing hints but also taking into account multiple paths towards solving that problem as well as some common misconceptions that are represented in its novice models (Koedinger & Corbett, 2006). Most of the tutors that I’ve seen deal with math and science, and are predicated on the idea that there is one right answer to a problem, though potentially multiple paths towards getting to that answer. Even the most progressive (and impressive) amongst technology of this sort, Dan Schwartz’s Teachable Agents, which flip the model of the cognitive tutor by having the student school the computer as opposed to the other way around, are still predicated on there being one right answer to a particular problem. To me then, I see these as highly sophisticated ways to teach the basics, ie, the stuff that we as a society already know. But what about what we don’t know? Isn’t that the sort of thing that we need to have our future leaders grappling with?

This leads me to what I believe cognitive tutors can shed light on in terms of the model of technology and learning that I’m developing for a course I’m taking, a model I originally introduced and contextualized here and which you can interact with here. I’ve included a static image of the model for reference here:

One of the key innovations that I include in the model is this “Technology Driven Personalization System”, and it’s this idea that I think cognitive tutors can speak to, not because of what they do but because of what they don’t do. The general idea behind this personalization system, for me, is some kind of coordinating body that’s paying attention to all the “nodes” in a youth’s learning ecology and making recommendations for the young person about what might be best to pursue based on that from a learning perspective.

What I’m seeing in the proposal I’m making about personalization here is far less structured than how cognitive tutors conceive of the idea of personalization. It does not assume that there is one “right answer” as to the learning trajectory a learner should follow, indeed, it doesn’t envision an end goal. In contrast to heavily scaffolded learning technologies like cognitive tutors and many games (a technology I’m a fan of from an educational standpoint), what I’m envisioning is much more something that’s about resourcing the young person to pursue their own interests and their own values, as opposed to an imposed standard of what’s important to know. My model assumes that we must trust youth to become active learners, but doesn’t assume that they already have access to the tools and opportunities they need to do so. This is the role of the system I’m presenting here.

At the same time, I acknowledge that every system has its own politics and priorities, and so the question of what kind of  ideology is baked into the system is a very good one. Ideally, what I’d like to see is a system where the inherent ideology is itself  based on the idea of having others bring their own ideologies to the system and ‘make recommendations’ based on them.  Since many teenagers are often not quite at the stage of having very clearly articulated value systems and interests, I can envision the system integrating data about them in multiple ways, some more explicit (profiles with interests they’ve filled out, information about programs they’ve gotten involved with, classes they’re currently taking) and others less explicit (having some sort of match question system, common on dating sites, that don’t directly ask you what you’re interested in or how you think but rather pose situations or hypotheticals for you to respond to that then serve as indicators). All of this would then be integrated to make a profile of a given learner and what they’d like to pursue, which brings us, of course, to the issue of privacy and surveillance.

As someone deeply concerned about issues relating to exploitation and privacy online, my own proposal makes me nervous. Most of us are currently in a situation online where we’re not the customer in places like Facebook, Twitter and Google – we’re the product. Personal data is being packaged and sold to the highest bidder in the form of marketers, and governments are increasingly surveilling their citizens in these spaces. And it’s exactly the kind of personalization and recommendation engines that exist in places like Netflix, Amazon and Facebook, ones based on the existing data about a user, that I would imagine powering a personalized learning system of the sort I’m envisioning. That’s why it makes me nervous, and it’s also why the point I make above about politics and priorities being embedded in the system is so important – given the level of information that something like this would have about a young person it’s essential that it be clearly designed off of the principal of resourcing a young person to pursue their own interests according to their own values.

Finally, I’d envision the system incorporating some of the designs that drive Diaspora*, the open source social network that arose in response to Facebook privacy issues in 2010. In Diaspora, users have full ownership over their data, can share or not share to whomever they want, and simple ways to control privacy are put at the forefront. I would imagine the same, and more, for a system that would have so much data about a young person. And if I truly did believe in the idea of self-determination on the part of the young person, putting them in the position where they were in full control over their footprint within this system would only make sense.

A Model not for Technology in Education, but for Technology & Learning

For a while now I’ve been kicking around a hodgepodge of ideas about technology and its relationship to learning and education. Having worked in related fields for over five years now and gone to grad school to study more about this subject, I guess these are good questions to regularly ponder. Until  now though, I haven’t had a good opportunity to formalize these thoughts. As an assignment for the course “Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems“, we were tasked to create a model of our vision for technology in educational contexts, a really fantastic project that we’ll be refining over the course of the semester and that I’ll periodically post publicly about here on the old blog.

I decided to push the edges of the assignment somewhat, and rather than create a model for technology in educational contexts, I created a model for technology and learning writ large in the lives of youth. I’d be lying if I said the ideas here are all my own – for the most part, they’re a synthesis of ideas coming from emerging bodies of research and from colleagues I’ve worked with and been inspired by within the budding field of “Digital Media & Learning“, which in some respects positions itself as distinct from educational technology.

I share here I call a Youth Technology Learning Ecology, made up of a variety of “learning nodes” that youth interact with and which I believe can form better interconnections with one another in the future for the benefit of young people. What I’m really interested in is what digital culture and technology can offer us in terms of both inspiration for redesigning the learning systems that society has available for young people, as well as practical tools and practices that allow us to do that. I offer some initial thoughts on what a redesign of these systems might include.

To check out the interactive model, click the image below, which will take you to the Scratch website where you can interact with it. For best effect, I recommend enabling full screen.

I realize that right now not everything is totally clear in the model (it assumes some prior knowledge and some terms could use definition) and over the course of the semester I hope to refine it to clarify all of what I intend to be conveyed through it. In the process, I’m sure that the model itself will shift and evolve.

One of the big ideas in the model that I’d like to address is that of looking to “Interest Driven Affinity Spaces” (a fancy name for the places that kids geek out, online or off) as inspiration for reforming other learning contexts. I’ll start by referring to some of the readings that we did for the course this week, which offer some nice perspective on how people generally think about technology and education. In his classic book from way back in 1986, Larry Cuban shares an important insight about the ways that technology fads come and go in schools. The point is well taken. In looking to affinity spaces for inspiration though, I want to be clear that the model is not really advocating the integration of technology, even done thoughtfully, as one of many “passing fads” in schools, but rather for the rethinking of what counts as learning and what pedagogical practice and larger school cultures look like.

What’s hard to convey is that a shift to thinking about learning ecologies also implies a shift in our theory of learning, and both of those imply that schools need to be organizing themselves in much different ways. To engage in this reorganization, I believe that we can take a lot of inspiration from these affinity spaces that might considered “technology in the wild” (online communities, massively multiplayer games, fan sites, blog networks and many others) and what they do well, something scholars like Jim Gee and Mimi Ito have looked at in their work. The big idea about these spaces is that they provide youth with meaningful contexts and communities that not only keep them engaged and speak to their interests, but also are built around the development and learning of extremely complex practices and processes, have authentic and just in time feedback and assessment mechanisms as well as clear standards about what counts as “good work”. Schools rarely embody these qualities. This isn’t to say that we need for school to integrate these affinity spaces and their associated technologies, but rather to look at these spaces to see what makes them powerful learning environments and aim to bring those principles and characteristics into more formal educational settings. More importantly, I believe that we can not only shift the practices of any one setting, like school, but also the larger learning ecologies of which they are a part as well.

In his book, Cuban also makes a big assumption that anyone interested in technology and education is one way or another always going to point to technology’s ability to make content delivery more efficient. To me, this is off for a couple of reasons. First, it assumes that anyone interested in technology has an “accumulation of decontextualized bits of information” vision of what learning is, as opposed to one that uses participation in meaningful activities to foster dispositions, practices and processes that young people can tap in the future. Second, the ways that I think about “efficiency” deal mostly with reformulating pedagogy so that it’s actually effective by actively connecting to the other nodes in a child’s learning ecology. This is the second big point I’m aiming to get across in the model. Affinity Spaces are good to look to for inspiration, but there’s a huge opportunity to be tapped in aligning all of these various nodes a youth’s learning ecology so that they’re working together for the sake of that young person. This is where my (extremely underdeveloped) idea of a technology driven personalization system that accomplished this function comes from, an idea which I hope to develop more as the semester goes on. Importantly though, it represents a reframe of technology from being a “teacher’s helper” (or worse, their replacement), a view that starts not with the priorities of the formal educational system, which has consistently proven that it only values the transmission of decontextualized bits of information, but rather one that starts with the ways that youth are currently using technology in their everyday lives to further their own learning (though they rarely see it in these terms) and aims to connects these to all the other parts of a young person’s life.

Finally, another one of our readings validates this idea of looking to interest driven digital affinity spaces to inspire more effective pedagogy. Roschelle et al. (2000) [pdf] point out a number of processes that effective classroom technologies foster – active construction of knowledge, participation in groups, frequent feedback and connections to real world contexts. It is in fact just these kinds of processes that are at the heart of the kinds of deep learning activities that many youth are engaged in out of school through digitally mediated affinity spaces. The authors even reference these spaces, in the form of (now antiquated) electronic bulletin boards that dominated the early internet. Its heartening to see that in 2000, which is fairly early on in our current shift to a digital culture, there were already researchers that had identified practices technology can foster to provide more effective learning experiences.

I know that as it currently stands this is an incomplete model, and some things might be unclear, so feel more than welcome to leave a comment with any questions or thoughts and I’ll do my best to address them. And of course any critical feedback is definitely helpful on this first draft.

Swinging the Pendulum Too Far on Teacher Training

Photo by Pseudopam. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC

While it’s generally not my area of research, I’ve started to pay more attention to current debates about teacher quality and training that one inevitably encounters when in the education field. Even outside of taking any policy or curriculum courses, Learning Sciences students and professors at my University teach courses, mostly educational psychology, to undergraduate pre-service teachers and so invariably have to grapple with the questions about what it means to prepare those students well for their roles in the classroom. And so this article in the New York Times about teacher education programs caught my eye.

The article reports, mostly positively, on a new movement in teacher education that’s focused almost exclusively on in-field placements and instructional practice and technique. The movement builds off of, in my opinion, valid critiques of traditional teacher education programs in which students mostly spend their time in courses, with some field placements that are often largely observational. I know of at least one undergraduate teacher education program where the students don’t actually get into any sort of direct instructional role until their third semester spent in the field. That there are enormous retention problems for teachers in their first three years in the classroom is no surprise – they’ve been ill-prepared by a broken teacher education system.

Both personally and as student of learning, I’m not a huge fan of the model of education we find in higher education courses (with some recent exceptions). The best learning experiences I’ve had were after I left college and were a result of diving deeply into real problems, grappling with solutions, and watching others. The best learning theory agrees with my experiences here too. And yet I’m deeply disturbed by this new, entirely practice oriented teacher education movement’s apparent disregard for theory. Take a look at this quote from the article:

“I can study Vygotsky later,” said Tayo Adeeko, a 24-year-old third-grade teacher at Empower Charter School in Crown Heights. She was referring to another education school staple — Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet theorist of cognitive development who died in 1934. “Right now,” she added, “my kids need to learn how to read.”

Ok, never mind that I happen to be a huge fan of Vygotsky and have never read anybody that articulates how learning happens as well as he does. Never mind that the article also takes some pots shots at John Dewey, Howard Gardner and Paulo Freire, all people whose ideas, if they were actually well heeded, would result in a radically different, more creative and more equitable society. Never mind that. This comes down to a basic truth about the relationship between theory and practice.

Kant, among many others, put forth that theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind (and yes, the irony of quoting a philosopher’s theory on this point is not lost on me). But I truly believe that any good teacher, and really any good practitioner or designer, will have balance between these two realms. In most of the tech world, for instance, companies both large and small engage in iterative design processes that lead to the emergence of design principles (aka, theory), which lay the groundwork for more effective design processes (aka, practice) down the line. Learning Sciences’ core methodology, design-based research, does the same.

I understand and empathize with the desire to be more practical and hands on in our approaches to education. Hell, this is everything that I study and advocate for and that I think young people’s learning environments, including but not limited to school, should be based on. But if we swing the pendulum too far on this one, if we cut out spaces that allow teachers in training to pull out patterns in their experiences working with kids, we do just as much a disservice to them as we’re doing now by not giving them enough direct experience.

Setting Intentions for Research: Integrity, Utility, Humility and Social Justice

When a person first sits down to meditate, it’s a common practice to consciously set an intention for that sitting. It might simply to be present with the breath, or to be kind to oneself during the meditation, or to work to notice certain kinds of thoughts. It’s a practice I’ve used before, and found it to be pretty powerful. And so as I enter my work and role as a researcher, I figured it could be useful to do the same.

Setting my intentions as a researcher for me provides a touchstone I can come back to, that others can remind me of, and that I can build upon and revisit as I learn more about what it means to be conducting this sort of work in the world.

After getting my toes wet this past month both reading research reports and engaging in the practice of research itself more intensively than I had in my last position, I thought I’d share some initial intentions that have been developing for me as I’ve considered how I want to do research in the coming years:

  1. Integrity. I want to conduct research that lines up with the way that reality actually is, rather than how I would like it to be. This means first being curious and honest with myself about my own biases, agendas and hopes as I engage in research. After that, it means representing my findings in a way that is truthful and accurate. There’s no shortage of misleading or downright false research out there, I want to practice research that is faithful to the principles that are at the heart this profession.
  2. Utility. As I spend time reviewing literature, I’ve come across articles of all sorts. I read one, though, that really caught my eye. The content of it was quite interesting, and the analysis it made was insightful. At the same time, it was entirely inaccessible due its density and jargon, and worse, made absolutely no recommendations for practically applying its findings, or even any directions for future research. After I read it, I vowed that to the best that I can, I want to make decisions to research things that will have real applicability for people trying to solve actual problems in the world, and I want to report on these usable findings in a way that is accessible both rhetorically and conceptually.
  3. Humility. This one can sometimes be a challenge for me, as I rarely find myself without an opinion on something. But I know being a good researcher means to come first from a place of not knowing, rather than of presuming one knows what one is seeing and analyzing, or worse, making judgments for how something should be done without deeply understanding its context. Also, I believe it’s important to voice how difficult it often is to live by our  stated values and good intentions, and want to be humble in the face of my own inevitable, but hopefully small and rectifiable, failings to conduct research that holds to the intentions I’m stating here.
  4. Social Justice. Someone wise once explained this concept to middle schoolers in a way that I love: “You know bullying & being mean to people? It’s the exact opposite of that.” It’s that simple. At the same time, the question of what it means to have a just society, better the world, reduce suffering and a million other variations on doing well by others is no doubt a complicated one. And so I intend my research to come from a place of not presuming “the answer” to this question, but rather of presuming that it may need to be answered again and again, always from a place of kindness and compassion towards others.

By giving voice to these intentions, it’s my hope that I give them power to inform the work I do as a researcher. I’m sure as I delve deeply into this practice that’s so new to me I’ll have more to add, but for now this seems like a good place to start.


Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

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