November 15, 2016

Leaders in Learning: Charissa Fernandez

To help celebrate our 20th birthday, Mouse has asked a dozen leaders in learning, technology, youth development and design to share their thoughts. For our next post of this series, we are thrilled to welcome Charissa Fernandez, Executive Director at Teach For America.

Charissa: Before I dive in, I wanted to share a story I’m not sure I’ve ever told you. If memory serves, shortly after Mouse launched (maybe around 1999), the organization was operating out of the Armory at 168th Street. (Am I remembering this correctly?) At the same time, I was running the Liberty Partnerships Program at Columbia School of Public Health (also known as the WOW [Workers of Wonder] Program), a dropout prevention program for middle and high school students in Washington Heights. Our office was downstairs from Mouse and across from Teach For America- New York’s office. I love these stories of how people at organizations continue to cross paths decades later so I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the field as Mouse marks its 20th anniversary. 

Mouse celebrates its 20th year this coming spring. How would you characterize -- in education & youth development generally -- the changes in theories of learning and to practiced pedagogy in the past two decades?

When I started my career in education, just a few years before Mouse was founded, the catch phrase at the time was “student-centered.” There was also a lot of emphasis on learning styles, helping students figure out what theirs was and then adapting teaching to suit them. Also, because most of my career was in informal education settings (after-school and summer), we spent a lot of time and energy trying to make learning fun. We wondered and experimented with how we could make school more like after-school: relevant, hands-on, inquiry-based, etc. These were important steps in the right direction though I’m not sure we ever fully made these shifts. We made the technical changes (restructuring seating in classrooms, creating more opportunities for student voice, assigning more projects), but so much was and is still determined by the teacher. I’m even more excited about the current challenge to make learning student-driven. 

The future belongs to schools and programs, like Mouse, that put students in control of their own learning – the content, the pace, the direction. Technology has definitely facilitated this trend, but the concept of student-driven learning is also at the core of culturally responsive pedagogy. Culturally responsive education expects and encourages young people to bring their whole selves to their learning experiences. We still have so much to learn about how to do this well and consistently, but I’m excited about what it means for students and society.

What do you imagine we'll experience in the coming two decades, likewise in terms of both learning theory and what learners actually experience? What factors do you believe will be the key drivers of what's coming?

I have to believe we’re on the verge of a major breakthrough in public education, one that removes the limitations of our current systems. Given the advances in communication, transportation and information technology, it’s hard to imagine we’ll continue to be constrained by our current paradigm of public education, which is still largely unchanged from its origins. I think higher education will see this change first. It used to be a big deal to study abroad for a semester. Now major universities operate in multiple countries, on multiple platforms, and for a broader range of audiences. Perhaps not in my lifetime, maybe in my children’s or grandchildren’s, but I see no reason students won’t soon spend a semester in space (though the very concept of semesters may become irrelevant). 

As we’ve learned more about brain development, we’ve started to intentionally educate students earlier and there are increasing opportunities to continue education throughout our lifetimes. As we figure out new ways to recognize competencies (think badges on steroids) I suspect the very notion of PK-12 education will soon be a thing of the past, that people will move in and out of formal and informal learning opportunities in much more fluid ways. (In that world, I might be able to participate in a Mouse program and try to catch up with the kids.) It seems to me everything from the physical location, to the calendar and schedule, to the staffing structure is up for grabs. Ironically, I expect that big cities, which are usually early adopters of innovations, will likely lag simply because of the challenges presented by scale. One thing that I believe will remain constant is the centrality of relationships in learning experiences. Not all of these relationships will be 1:1, student:teacher, but authentic and enduring learning requires a degree of openness that’s only possible in the presence of trusting relationships.

How should we best define success in public education and in the less formal settings where young people also learn -- especially since learning outcomes may take years to manifest and since attribution of cause & effect can be difficult in social endeavors? 

College readiness is important because it ensures that young people have options, but to me, this is actually the bare minimum public education should provide. The benefits of college readiness accrue primarily to individuals and their employers, perhaps the economy more broadly. Ultimately, I believe education must both liberate individuals and strengthen our civil society. The deepest flaws in our current political climate and culture are, in my view, a direct result of an educational system and practices that a) are focused mainly on individual outcomes; b) do not recognize the full potential of students to solve problems and to lead and c) doesn’t do enough to promote community outcomes. Educational experiences should prepare people to make informed decisions and take action in their own best interest as well as that of their communities. We should probably worry less about who gets credit or blame for various outcomes and assume greater shared responsibility for moving all kids forward.

Research and common sense strongly support the centrality of effective teachers for learning outcomes, yet support for teachers is too often lacking. What might you recommend we do to bolster teacher education, professional development, and day-to-day support? It starts with the people we attract to the field. We need to make teaching appealing to a diverse cross section of high quality candidates. That means promoting teaching as the intellectually stimulating and rigorous endeavor that it is. Because teachers are entrusted with such immense responsibility, we should have high expectations of them and we should compensate them accordingly. And precisely because it’s so challenging, we have to ensure teachers have the ongoing support they need to grow and develop. As we’ve just discussed, the field is constantly evolving. I’m a proponent of strong peer networks, they foster learning and collaboration and provide much needed support in a profession that is still much more of an individual than a team sport. This is especially critical for teachers whose work, if done well, is mentally, physically and emotionally taxing. 

How best can we deploy digital technologies in the classroom, and digital tools/concepts/languages in our curricula? 

This is a question better answered by students who know what they want and need and know far more about the available technology than I do!

Our understanding of how the brain works has advanced dramatically in the past 20 years but translating findings from the cognitive neurosciences into useful classroom practices has been difficult. How might we collectively accelerate and target the translation? 

I don’t have a substantive response here, but I think we need to be willing try more stuff. Truly, we can take responsible risks without being reckless. After-school has always been the perfect venue for experimenting with creative ways to accelerate progress in education.

Equity in educational access has remained elusive. How might we close the opportunity divide once and for all? 

If I knew the answer to this question, we would all be happily out of work : ). I am, however, quite certain that there’s not a single solution and I think our search for THE answer has probably slowed our progress. Every time someone comes up with a good idea (charter schools, online learning, etc.), everyone rushes to create their own version of that thing rather than continuing to plug away at some other new ideas. That said, attention to diversity and inclusiveness must be part of any and all strategies to address inequity. I don’t think it’s possible the close the divide with a strategy that isn’t rooted in a deep understanding of institutional and systemic isms that shape our society.


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