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November 30, 2016

Leaders in Learning: David Dockterman

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 David Dockterman, Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Chief Architect, Learning Sciences for the Intervention Solutions Group at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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?

The education world, like the business world, is often captivated by fads – ideas that seem intuitively right but that may have little basis in the research. And even theories that are well founded by the research are often poorly translated into practice. That individual students have distinct learning styles – visual, kinesthetic, oral, and so on – is an example of a resilient bit of pseudoscience that continues to be embraced by educators and parents despite debunking by noted academics like Dan Willingham. Growth mindset, on the other hand, has quite a bit of solid research behind it, but it often gets inappropriately turned into the practice of blindly praising all student effort. This persistent gap between research and practice in education makes it difficult for me to describe general trends in pedagogy.

I can, however, share a bit about how my own theories of learning have evolved in the last 20 years, part of an ongoing evolution that probably started when I was in elementary school and hopefully won’t ever stop. For instance, I have a greater appreciation and understanding of the roles of emotion and beliefs, or mindsets, in learning than I did in the 1990s. I also have a more nuanced view of individual and group differences and what it means to both respond to and leverage those differences productively. My practice as a parent, teacher, and mentor have evolved in response as I pay closer attention to how I give praise and feedback, set expectations, and support the learning process for different learners and groups of learners. Windows into the biological mechanics of learning along with evidence of successful and unsuccessful interventions continue to feed ongoing revisions and refinements to my theories of learning. And I work hard to sort through the hype to find the most valid guidance from the research. It’s an ongoing process.

What do you imagine we'll see 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?

Rather than predict the future, I prefer to suggest one for us to embrace. Let’s build the future rather than wait for it to happen to us. To that end, I’d love for us to shine a bright light on how students learn, not just what they learn. Yes, students need knowledge and skills, and we have instruments to measure academic performance. But we also need students who have the curiosity and ability to put what they know and can do to work in the service of ongoing growth. I want to create generations of resilient, insatiable learners. Fortunately, we have some trends already swimming in that general direction. Current enthusiasm for Social Emotional Learning and non-cognitive elements of learning support this shift in focus. They illuminate the importance of engagement, focus, persistence, empathy, strategic problem solving, and other elements that propel learning and learners forward. The maker movement similarly encourages exploration and iteration as natural mechanisms for attacking problems and learning from mistakes. As technology continues to take over more and more jobs, workforce demands continue to change. Old jobs are redefined or eliminated as new jobs we never even anticipated emerge. We need to prepare our children for this dynamic environment. I’m looking to help construct a future that’s about producing students who are ready and excited to learn and relearn in a rapidly changing world that they can help to define.

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?  

Great question. Everything these days seems to center around college and career, preparing children for an economically productive future. Elite colleges and high wages are the desired goals. College needs to be “worth it”. Employment needs to pay back the investment in learning. I’d somehow like to get happiness and satisfaction into the definitions of success. Forgoing salary to do something that feels important, that satisfies a drive to help others, should also count as success. Learning because the content and questions are interesting and intriguing, even if they aren’t along a career path, should be okay. To support these “softer” definitions of success, we need to expose the characteristics of good learning, including empathy. We need to define and recognize taking on challenges, being resilient and strategic in the face of obstacles, and knowing when and how to get help and work with others. These are incredibly valuable traits, even when a particular effort ends in failure.

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?

Teachers do matter, particularly for our neediest students, those who may lack self-efficacy or purpose. We often try to solve the problem of devalued teachers by paying them more. Higher pay is good, but the subtle message is that money is the driver. It isn’t, but pay needs to be sufficient that money isn’t a primary worry. We need to invest in teachers in the way we invest in other professionals. We need to grow them. That means we need a training and support system that targets development rather than weeding out the “bad” teachers in the vain hope that “good” ones will magically appear to replace them.

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

Technology should serve a purpose. Its use is not the goal. Honestly, I think we need to temper first adopter hubris and constantly look at the learning goals for students and teachers. It’s tough to do anything today without technology. The key is defining the “anything”, and then seeing if and how technology can support achieving it.

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? 

Neuroscience provides just a piece of the learning puzzle. Even when we identify a part of the brain involved in a particular type of action, we often remain clueless about its internal mechanism. We have to put the neuroscience research into the mix with cognitive and behavioral psychology. Research from a variety of areas will feed those evolving theories of learning I mentioned in response to question 1. And we have to test any emerging theories in real settings with real learners. A single brain isolated in an fMRI machine may not respond in the same way in a classroom or on a playground.

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

A child’s development starts long before he or she enters school. Healthy, engaging homes feed productive brain development, cognitively and emotionally. Even if children somehow gained equal access to high quality kindergarten, the early experiences of some will leave them better prepared to take advantage of the opportunity. And then there’s the issue of implicit bias. A recent study at Yale revealed that expectations for different students based on gender and race begin to manifest themselves in pre-school. Equity is a big and complicated issue that must be addressed on multiple levels, institutional and personal. One productive step, though, is to recognize the differences among individuals and groups of students and to take a UDL (Universal Design for Learning) approach to responding to those differences. We can move toward equity with people, materials, and technologies that can acknowledge and adapt to the inevitable variation among learners. Not all our children will start at the same place, but we all have the gift of being able to learn. That’s a gift we want to keep on giving. It’s a start.

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