2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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She Smiled, and the World Is Learning With Her

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Saadia Khan

Saadia Khan

It’s no accident that Saadia Khan, cognitive scientist and graphic designer extraordinaire, is interested in the role of emotions in learning.

“My story,” says Khan, a post-doctoral research fellow and adjunct assistant professor, “is about learning to keep smiling. I want to help people regulate their emotions in learning because doing that helped me through some amazingly difficult times.”

Born in the Punjab region of 1970s-era Pakistan – a country, she says, where even today education is “not a priority, especially for women and girls” – Khan was mentored throughout her childhood by her grandfather, Ghulam Yasin Khan Niazi, a revered figure who was the first member of his tribe to earn a doctorate and who served as both Director of the region’s Board of Education and, in retirement, as president of a local university.

“My grandfather had a library, and I’d spend time there with him and his books,” recalls Khan, a small, blond-haired woman with a sparkling smile. “He inspired me to start my own library, and we’d exchange books. As a child, I learned from him about the United States and the Watergate scandal. It was unusual that he would spend so much time with me, because I had a brother, and normally the attention would have focused on a boy. But because he was truly an educator, my grandfather saw something in me, and we discussed ideas as equals. He expected me to read and understand books and discuss them with him – to have a real discourse. That helped me with my future professors and mentors.”

Khan’s parents are both psychologists, and because of them, she is multi-lingual, speaking Urdu, Punjabi, and Saraiki (a tribal language spoken in Northern Pakistan) and English. Yet even her mother – herself the president of a college – has questioned a career path that has led to her to earn multiple graduate degrees in both Pakistan and the United States. “There were several points when they said, ‘When are you going to stop studying? How much education do you need?’” she says. “They didn’t want me to go to art school, but I had a talent for it, and I wasn’t going to accept a ‘No’ without a good reason.” She shrugs. “They meant well, but parents don’t know what will happen in the future.”

It was because of her grandfather that, after graduating from a high school run by British nuns, Khan pursued a college degree in psychology from the University of the Punjab, then a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Pakistan’s prestigious National College of Arts, where she discovered computer technology; then a master’s degree at New York Institute of Technology; and then an Ed.M. and Ed.D. at Teachers College. Along the way, she founded a commercial graphic design firm in Lahore, Punjab’s capital city; realized she could use her design skills to teach; and ultimately, encouraged by a succession of professors, realized that her real métier lay in research questions about learning itself.

At Teachers College, Khan – perhaps channeling her grandfather – tapped into some of the College’s deepest running intellectual currents. As a master’s degree student, she spent a year working as a research assistant to Ernst Rothkopf, an Austrian immigrant and former Bell Labs researcher who was perhaps the seminal figure in TC’s evolution as a center of learning technology development.  She also served as a research associate at the College’s Institute for Learning Technologies, under the direction of Professor Robbie McClintock, who led several projects that brought networked computers into New York City public schools. There she managed the Gateway Engineering Evaluation Project, an effort by the National Science Foundation to develop a more design-focused, less math-driven curriculum for undergraduate engineering students. She worked closely with Josh Reibel, another TC alum who is now chief operating officer for Wireless Generation, and with two Columbia School of Engineering deans, Mort Friedman and Jack McGourty. She completed her Ed.M. in 1999, got accepted to the Ed.D. program, and got married, to boot.

And then the world turned upside down. While Khan and her husband were visiting Pakistan, the attacks of September 11 took place. Pakistan was plunged into chaos.  Khan and her husband found themselves stuck in Lahore, prevented from coming back home to the U.S. They ended up staying in Lahore, against their will, for several years, a period during which, on top of everything else, Khan’s brother died suddenly of an aneurysm just prior to earning his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh.

“It was a very bad period,” Khan says. “I could either do nothing or try to use the time in a positive way.”

She opted for the latter, landing a position as an assistant professor at the Ali Institute of Education and winning a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to integrate human rights, citizenship rights and conflict resolution education into the language arts and social studies curricula of Pakistani schools.

“We did situational analyses of schools, texts and curricula and found many biases that we were able to address,” she says. “And it really worked. We trained principals and teachers, and the children’s attitudes changed. It gave me hope that you really can bring about change.”

Finally, in 2005, Khan was able to connect with Ernst Rothkopf. “He’d had his own war experiences, and he was pretty disturbed by my situation,” she says. “He got John Black involved, and then I was able to come back to New York to get my Ed.D. in Cognitive Psychology.”

Today, working from Black’s framework of embodied cognition, Khan is exploring ways to harness emotions in the learning process. She plans to test curricula in algebra and world history in public schools across New York City, and is also running a project for ILT testing embodied cognition in different virtual environments. Recently she and Black were asked by the Immersive Education Initiative, a non-profit international consortia that’s defining and developing open standards, best practices, platforms, and communities of support for virtual reality and game-based learning and training systems, to launch a New York City chapter.

“There’s a lot of good stuff going on,” she says, happily.

Looking back, Khan credits her grandfather’s inspiration for much of her success. “When I was in Pakistan, I visited his grave, and I met a man, a former student of my grandfather, who’d brought his two sons to pay his respects. The man told me that he wouldn’t have made it to where he was in life without my grandfather’s help. That made me feel really good because that’s what life should be about – helping other people.”

But it’s clear that Khan’s own refusal to take no for an answer is also part of her story. As interested as she is in studying the impact of positive affect on learning, she also wants to explore the role of negative emotions.

“We know that negative emotions affect learning and motivation,” she says. “So we should also explore them.”
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