Waterbury Summit sparks discussions about the learning sciences

Jim Carlson
May 23, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — How the learning sciences play out in our work, our learning and our analyzing learning, as well as having an impact on the world, are topics that some of the country's top learning scientists broached at the recent Penn State College of Education Waterbury Summit.

Sessions covered in the conversational conference included heterogeneity of the epistemic, data and cultural variety, and speakers were content to answer questions with questions about topics in this burgeoning field that advances understanding of the learning process and the design of innovative learning environments.

Katie Headrick Taylor, an assistant professor in the learning sciences at the University of Washington, posed the question of what learning scientists are willing to unlearn.

"A question for us as a field should really be around the things that we're doing that aren't working or the things that we're doing that don't allow us to see other possibilities," she said. "That is this place of openings and maybe new beginnings that might give us some hope."

Taylor was one of many nationwide experts on hand who joined fellow learning sciences colleagues from Penn State, including Scott McDonald, associate professor of education (science education), director of the Krause Innovation Studio and convener of the Learning Sciences Initiative, and Rick Duschl, Waterbury Chair in Secondary Education in the College of Education.

"I think the goals of the conference really were to engage the local folks in an interesting conversation with some people from outside in the learning sciences to help us think about what we're doing and to position Penn State in the learning sciences," McDonald said. "Let people from the outside who have positions in learning sciences to recognize that we're doing good work here and there's interesting faculty and interesting graduate students and interesting things going on; I think it was successful."

Duschl, who is approaching his retirement from Penn State and told the conference participants in his parting remarks that "it's been a good run,'' cited new methodologies within the learning sciences field.

"It became very clear to me, with time, that the world has changed so much because of the accessed information and the children's ideas that have opened up through the uses of technology and everything else that the real challenge now for educators, whether it's in schools or out of schools, is how to manage the ideas and information that children are having," Duschl said.

"Which speaks to the complexities when we want to work with, or teach with, any of those ideas, that we have a lot more to learn about how to manage ideas and information and do so in productive ways that are culturally relevant, age-developmentally appropriate, and based on some of our emerging theories."

Marcela Borge, assistant professor of education (learning, design, and technology), questioned what it means to learn the inherent underlying higher-order processes that are valued in the sciences and are becoming more necessary for these types of processes and collaborations and the complex types of problems people are facing more and more in the world.

"One of the things I took out of these sessions is the need to step back and really question the ways in which I'm using the theory and the lenses that I'm using to examine the phenomena that are happening in the classroom to see if they are working to the end that I would like to see," Borge said.

"For me, that is some sort of a change; for me, broader impact is important. There's a lot of information in regard to who is learning what and who is privileged to what information and what types of educational concepts … the part that makes us all a little bit uncomfortable. Because it's easier just to do what we know."

David Gamson, assistant professor of education (education theory and policy), noted that public schools are still operating on notions of intelligence and IQ.

"I'm still wondering how systems and classrooms are going to change in order to accommodate those nonindividualistic notions," Gamson said. "How are we going to move away from school systems that spend five or six weeks of their years lost to the various assessments and they won't get results for next year. … They're not very useful. 

"Many states are still focused on individual basic skills. I'm really curious in terms of where we're going to go in terms of our policymakers. …  How do we move away from these assessments that are so focused on individualized cognition and how do we move forward developing new epistemologies that incorporate that?" he said.

Karen Murphy, distinguished professor of educational psychology and the Harry and Marion Eberly Faculty Fellow, believes some academics can display tendencies to envision what people might mean instead of actually listening to what they do mean.

"When we do work with teachers in schools, we move our participatory actions to my ideas that the teacher is an expert as well, or even more than I am," Murphy said. "I have some expertise and some knowledge and we do have goals of what we're thinking, but I negotiate that with them.

"I do write it down, I do say I'm coming in with some ideas, these are some things that I assume based on where I'm coming from and what I have studied and what we have learned from the research that we're doing … what do you think about that?

"And oftentimes," Murphy said, "whether it's a teacher or a student in a classroom, they'll tell you what part they think is crap and what part might have some viability to it. That's one of the moments in which I think being forthright and being honest and building these partnerships is about having a really critical dialogue up front. You have expectations but they have expectations, too, and they have to not just be honored, they have to be forefronted. We do have assumptions, we all do, and to suggest that we don't I think is ill-founded.''

The learning sciences are very broad, according to Katie Bateman, a graduate assistant in research in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

"The learning sciences have a really hard time defining themselves as a field," she said. "We're trying to bring people together to get at that conversation of what is it that we're doing and who are we as a group and how we can support each other with ways to forge those connections to better the field."

And because the field is wide-ranging, the conference didn't particularly focus on actual teaching.

"There are some people looking at computer sciences and adult education and learning science technology," Bateman said. "A lot of what we do is interdisciplinary. We're working with bringing together different fields to come up with new ideas. "We're trying to bring in different people with different expertise so that we can better solve problems."

The Waterbury Summit helped Jonathan McCausland, a dean's graduate assistant and curriculum and instruction doctoral student, integrate himself into a new field.

"For me, it really helped me situate myself within in a field we've been trying to define here at Penn State," McCausland said. "And it was really great to listen to scholars like Eve (Manz, Boston University) and Katie (Taylor), who are newer in the field, to articulate how they see this world working, but also have a chance to hear people like Kris Gutierrez (UC-Berkeley) about her work over decades and be able to put all of that into conversation."

Despite the various academic-based discussion surrounding heterogeneity, the networking aspect of the summit was vital, especially for the graduate students in attendance.

"The opportunity to be in the same room with these great minds within the learning sciences and to get to have deep conversations with them about the direction of the field was more than I could have asked for," said Zachary McKinley, a graduate student in learning, design, and technology.

"I am happy that a few first-year LDT students were able to attend and get this experience early in their careers as I believe that it will help them set a firm foundation for what this type of research means for us and for those we research for."

McDonald agreed that the exposure to veteran researchers was important for the graduate students.

"At a conference like this that's so intimate, they get to interact with these people whose research they are reading but they don't really know them personally; then they get to sit next to them at a table and talk to them and have lunch with them and do all this stuff. It sets them up and gives them a network and lets them be recognized as scholars and that's very important," McDonald said.

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Last Updated June 19, 2019