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When Less is More


The creation of a new Education Policy and Social Analysis Department, announced in January, clearly strengthens Teachers College’s expertise in the policy arena. But it also creates a more logical and focused alignment within another department – Human Development -- that is giving up some of its faculty members to the new effort. 

“With faculty members of the sociology program moving to the new policy department, Human Development becomes a tighter unit with common threads that more clearly unite those who are staying with us,” says the department’s chairman, John Black, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education. “It’s a chance for us to reconfigure and bring our work more in line with the core themes of the College’s upcoming capital campaign.”

The “new” Human Development department will focus on three distinct but overlapping areas, Black says: measurement, evaluation and statistics; cognition studies; and developmental psychology. Taken together, the work positions TC as a leader in understanding how people learn – both in terms of the underlying mechanisms of the brain, and also how human thinking works at different stages of development; what kinds of environments most effectively promote learning, with a particular emphasis on technology; and how to measure learning in a way that provides genuine insight about what students do and do not understand, and why.

On the developmental side, for example, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education, continues to build on her pioneering large-scale studies that have documented the connections between poverty, health and academic achievement.

As announced earlier this year, Brooks-Gunn, funded by a $1 million by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is co-leading a study that will quantify the impacts of affordable housing on financial stability, housing quality, and physical and mental health, as well as school outcomes for children. 

Deanna Kuhn, Professor of Psychology and Education, has designed “Inquiry and Argumentation,” a multi-year curriculum that teaches students to support their arguments with substantive, well-considered reasons.created curricula for middle school children. First piloted in 2007 at Columbia Secondary School, “Inquiry and Argumentation” is being used by the New York chapter of Say Yes to Education, a non-profit committed to increasing graduation rates of urban youth, and by schools in the Dominican Republic, spurred by Dominican President Leonel Fernández’s 2008 visit to CSS.

And Joanna Williams, Professor of Psychology and Education, has devised new methodologies to improve text comprehension among beginning readers with learning disabilities or whose socio-economic circumstances place them at risk. 

The creation of new, technology-based learning environments may constitute the department’s core strength, with faculty members working from different perspectives.

Herbert Ginsburg, the Jacob H. Schiff Foundations Professor of Psychology, has pioneered in identifying the “every day math” capabilities of very young children, based on years of observing and videotaping very young children in classrooms and other settings. Children as young as 18 months have an informal sense of quantity and degree, Ginsburg has shown – or, as he puts it, “What infant would not know the difference between a lot of food and a little food, or a lot of attention and a little attention?” Earlier in his career, Ginsburg codified many of these observations into a curriculum called “Big Math for Little Kids. More recently, working with outside technology companies, Ginsburg has developed handheld tools that teachers can use to conduct in-class assessment of children’s math learning. He is also in the midst of developing a math software program for children ages three through third grade. 

Gary Natriello, the Ruth L. Gottesman Professor of Education Research and Director of TC’s Gottesman Libraries, has focused on the social organization of online learning, and the generation and capture of knowledge when people do that in groups. In both his own research and as the Libraries’ director, Natriello explores how networks of people learn from one another; how different people within a particular network learn from one another; and at the different kinds of environments that lead to unplanned learning. 

Black himself heads two centers within the department – the Institute for Learning Technologies and the Cognition and  Learning Laboratory. Both are advancing the field of grounded cognition, which employs technology to create perceptual experiences that enhance learning (see story on page X). And Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology and Education, has explored the relationship between visual thinking, gestures and learning.

On the evaluation and measurement front, the department’s expertise centers on cognitive diagnostic assessment, an approach that tries to identify the specific knowledge and skills a student does and doesn’t have. The field of cognitive diagnostic assessment was pioneered by Kikumi Tatsuoka, who retired a few years ago after serving as Distinguished Research Professor. Research on cognitive diagnostic testing continues in the department, conducted by various faculty members, including Young-Sun Lee, Matthew Johnson, Lawrence DeCarlo and Jim Corter, along with many student collaborators.

Corter, Professor of Statistics and Education, and his student collaborators are investigating new ways to construct and analyze tests that can reveal such fixed misconceptions and at the same time identify missing subskills that are critical to performing specific intellectual tasks.

“Standardized unidimensional tests like the GRE mathematics subtest are fine for making high-stakes admissions decisions, awarding certification or serving as the criteria for a pass or fail grade,” says Corter, “but they don’t generally provide a fine-grained assessment of what a kid does or doesn’t know. They don’t tell you how someone arrived at a right answer—whether by guessing, memorizing, cheating or using the targeted problem-solving methodology.”


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