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Academic Festival 2013: The Sessions

Faculty, alumni and students tackle a range of issues, from mobile technology to group therapy for people living in the aftermath of disaster

[Editor’s note: The following includes write-ups and videos of only some of the sessions at Academic Festival. More will be posted soon.]

All the Right Moves: Learning With Gestural Mobile Devices

Ever notice that people talk with their hands?

So have the creators of smart phones, iPads and other latest-generation tools that are rapidly consigning the keyboard-and-mouse, point-and-click era to the dustbin of technological history.

These changes reflect a growing body of research showing that gestures are not random, but in fact correspond to ideas being expressed, said John Black, TC’s Cleveland A. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education, in introducing a panel of students and alumni who are working at the cutting edge of learning technology.

Ayelet Segal (Ph.D. ’11) told listeners that in her dissertation research, she found that children who played certain mathematics learning games on iPads performed better and were more engaged than when using a mouse version. But the gestures the app requires have to be the right ones, she said. “If the child counts individual blocks, the gesture has to be discrete. But for estimating a number on a continuous like, a continuous gesture” – such as swiping one’s finger along a line – “supports performance better.” Segal has applied her research in an app, titled MathGlow, released by the company she founded, iGeneration.

Michael Swart, a TC Doctoral Research Fellow, showed clips of researchers talking to children about concepts used in teaching fractions: What is the whole? What are the parts? Are some parts bigger or smaller than others? “Watch the gestures the child makes,” Swart said. Different gestures -- such as grasping, pointing, making a gathering motion -- apply to different steps on the way to learning fractions and putting them in use. “We’ve found out what gestures kids use when talking about fractions,” Swart said. Now his team is developing a game, illustrated by cartoon characters from the educational television program Cyberchase, to put these results into effect.

But every interface has its limits as well. Inputting information remains awkward, as anyone who has tried to write a long message on an iPad knows, said Nabeel Ahmad (Ed.D. ’09), a TC adjunct professor and a Learning Developer at IBM. “The new big thing is voice,” Ahmad said, pointing to Apple’s “Siri” tool as an illustration. Segal said researchers are now studying the cognitive embodiment of freeform, three-dimensional gestures. Touchscreen devices have quickly opened new horizons for learning and made new tools possible, but the next revolution might be coming even faster.




The Changing Face of Leadership

When David Johns (M.A. ’06) was serving on the committee planning President Obama’s second-term inauguration, he ran up against a colleague who wanted to seat the surviving Tuskegee Airmen – the first African American military pilots, who served in World War II -- in the balcony at a presidential gala.

The hell she’s going to put them in the balcony, Johns remembers thinking -- but he also was careful not to blow up. “It was important to acknowledge she wasn’t thinking maliciously,” he recalls. Instead, he invited his colleague for a walk and a coffee, and engaged her in friendly discussion of the Tuskegee Airmen and their significance in national and African American history. Outcome: seating decision rescinded. 

“We always have resources,” Johns, now Executive Director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans, said during a Milbank Chapel panel discussion on “leading for inclusion” in today’s diverse workplaces and society. “We have to find ways to be strategic connecting the dots, listen to what people articulate as concerns, find people who can carry water you can’t carry.”

Other speakers shared similar moments of vexation. Danielle Moss-Lee (Ed.D. ’06), CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York, recounted how a funder informed her that “14 year-old African American girls don’t know how to keep their legs closed.” “I need to tell and repeat that story,” Moss-Lee said. “We tend to be self-congratulatory and say we have overcome, but we haven’t overcome. At some point you have to say, ‘Flag on the play!’”

All the panelists agreed that the cultivation of allies is a critical practice in building an inclusive community is in the cultivation of allies. “Straight allies have been absolutely critical for the LGBT movement,” said Kevin Jennings (M.A. ’94), executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a former Obama administration official and founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. “The real role models we need are what non-sexist men look like, or non-racist white people, and so on.”

Current M.A. candidate Joianne Pyram said that building inclusive communities requires “challenging people in power to recognize privilege.” That extends to new leaders who are themselves minorities. “It’s essential to be accountable to give back and help others along the way,” she said. “Those of us who come from marginalized groups, sometimes we forget to give that hand back. We too have a social responsibility.”

Finally, there was general agreement that while it’s important to be able to draw a line in the sand, leaders also need to take the long view. “As Linda Darling-Hammond taught me here, change is a process, not an event,” Jennings said, referring to the former TC professor who is now at Stanford. “We haven’t been working on this since the 1960s, we’ve been working on it since the 17th century. Each decade, our circle has broadened. Let’s take joy in it. Our job is to do our piece.”



Leading the Way: Higher Education in the 21st Century

“What’s the biggest challenge facing higher education?”

That was the central question posed by TC President Susan Fuhrman to a panel of TC graduates who serve as college or university presidents.

For Joel Bloom (Ed.D. ’78), President of New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), the answer was: “Encouraging more pre-college students to engage in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.” At NJIT, addressing that challenge has entailed sowing the seeds in high schools and even elementary and middle schools in the university’s home community of Newark and Essex County. Each year, he said, about 150 students enroll at NJIT as a direct result of these local programs.

Regina Peruggi (Ed.D. ’91), President of Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York, similarly flagged the importance of alignment with K-12 schools.

“Unless something happens with the high schools, thousands of students are coming out without the skills they need to do college work,” said Peruggi, whose institution serves students from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. “There’s a real problem arising where you could not have the capacity to open the doors for thousands who want to get in and get skills to be successful. And then you’ll end up with a two-tiered society.”

Joseph Bertolino (Ed.D. ’03), in his first year as president of Lyndon State, the only college in a 50-mile radius in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, said his challenge is more about convincing high school students and their families that Lyndon State is aligned with their needs. “We’re a small rural college, the only game in town,” he said, with a high proportion of first-in-family students. “We need to be reassuring folks that college education is still valuable.”

To that end, schools certainly need to position themselves as cutting-edge by offering co-curricular activities, joint volunteering, clinical work and, above all, high-tech resources, including distance learning and MOOCs, or “massive open online courses.” But the speakers also cautioned that technology’s value extends only so far.

“We do a lot of distance learning, but the real education goes on on campus,” Bloom said. “College goes beyond technology. It’s the ability to communicate, interpersonal relations, being part of a learning community, working as a team.”

Marcia Keizs (Ed.D. ’84), President of York College (also part of the CUNY system), said that brick-and-mortar college learning is particularly important for students from marginalized backgrounds. “They need connection to the institution and quality face time with faculty who are going to mentor them up,” Keizs said. “Especially inner city students who have been failed – we need to bring them into these traditions.”


TC’s Global Engagement: A Sampling of Past, Present and Future Programs

“TC’s international impact has always been through its exchanges. Educators of all stripes have come here from abroad, from graduate students to Ministers of Education and of course our faculty, students and alumni have been active around the world.”

The speaker, Marion Boultbee, knew whereof she spoke. In addition to holding a TC doctorate in in International Education Development, Boultbee served for years as the College’s Director of International Services.

Boultbee moderated a session that gave the flavor of TC’s extensive international engagement through presentations on several key efforts. She was joined by Portia Williams, Executive Director of TC’s Office of International Affairs, which was established by President Susan Fuhrman in 2008.

“Susans vision was that, while a lot of our faculty were doing work in regions all over the world, she wanted to engage institutionally with other universities and ministries of education,” Williams said. “We do that in ways that are collaborative – not by establishing campuses abroad, but instead by working with other countries to help them build capacity.”

Peter Moock, a veteran of TC’s 1960s-era Teachers for East Africa program, recalled that the program grew out of a conference convened at Princeton University by the American Council on Education during the fall of 1960, at which African educators expressed concern about their nations’ capacity to produce a new generation of citizens who could assume leadership roles.  Those fears were amplified by the region’s acute shortage of secondary school teachers, said Moock, who later served as Associate Professor Economics and Education at TC and then Lead Economist at the World Bank.

Out of the meeting came a request by USAID for TC to put together a teacher prep program. It was a tall order, made even tougher by the fact that the African nations themselves were looking for seasoned professionals. 

“They said, we want people with more than just a BA and enthusiasm – and if they don’t have the training, let them get it by spending a year in school in Africa first,” said Moock, who did just that in Tanzania.

In the first year, the program received 1,300 applicants, out of which it chose only 157 candidates.  (The pool grew after President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous inaugural speech in which he asked “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”) Overall, the effort lasted for just six years (an additional program, to train teacher trainers, was added), but its impact was profound, Moock said.

“I worked in East Africa thereafter, and I never met an African official who hadn’t met or been taught by a TEA teacher,” he said. Meanwhile, alumni of the program not only still meet for reunions (this year will be the 50th) but also raise money for the African schools they worked in long ago.

“We’re still at it,” Moock said.

A presentation on TC’s second Afghanistan project, which concluded in 2005, was supposed to have been made via Skype by one of its core members, Frances Schoonmaker, Professor Emeritus of Education. However, a minor earthquake in Karachi, Pakistan, where Schoonmaker has been working on another TC project, scotched that plan – so Boultbee read a brief statement that Schoonmaker had emailed instead.

It said, in essence, that when the Taliban fell in 2003, TC was asked back to Afghanistan, where a team from the College had spent 25 years developing textbooks in Dari and Pashto. This time, though, the focus was on creating materials and programs that reflected values put forward by the Afghans themselves.

“We asked all the participants to list 10 characteristics of an ideally educated Afghan citizen and the kinds of schooling that would be required to instill them,” wrote Schoonmaker.  From the responses received emerged eight standards, and from those, a conceptual model for teacher education. That framework is still in use in Afghanistan today, and similar models have been adopted in Pakistan and other countries.

Madhabi Chatterji, Associate Professor of Measurement- Evaluation & Education, spoke about TC’s global engagement and legacy in measurement, assessment and evaluation. That legacy – and to a very large extent, the field itself – began in 1904 when TC education psychologist Edward L. Thorndike published An Introduction to the Theory of Mental and Social Measurements, since hailed as the first textbook to define the knowledge base now known as classical test theory.

During the 1950s, Thorndike’s son, Robert L. Thorndike joined forces with two other TC faculty members, Elizabeth Hagen and Irving Lorge, to create the the Lorge-Thorndike Intelligence Tests, later called “Cognitive Ability Tests,” which were widely used to test scholastic ability. In 1971, the younger Thorndike and Hagen also co-edited the second edition of Educational Measurement, which has become the best-known reference handbook in the field and has been regularly reissued since.

Still another faculty member, the late Richard Wolf, served as the United States General Assembly representative for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IA), which launched large-scale international assessment programs such as TIMSS and PIRLS. In 2005, IEA established the Richard M. Wolf Memorial Award.

In 2006, Chatterji herself established TC’s Assessment and Evaluation Research Initiative (AERI), which seeks to promote meaningful use of assessment and evaluation information in practice and policy contexts, internationally and across disciplines. From 200-8-11, AERI collaborated with The Global Educational Leadership Foundation (tGELF) on designing and assessing tGELF’s Life, Skills and Global Leadership Program, conducted in pilot schools in Delhi. Last yearwith sponsorship from the Educational Testing Service, the National Science Foundation and TC’s Provost’s Investment Fund, AERI held a major conference on educational assessment, accountability and equity that drew 250 attendees from around the world. Chatterji is in the process of publishing an edited volume, Validity and Test Use, based on presentations from the conference.

Susan Jay Spungin (Ed. D. ’75), President of Blind Biz and former Vice President for International Programs and Special Projects at the American Foundation for the Blind, described her recent efforts to help the Sultanate of Oman, in the Persian Gulf, establish a system of inclusive schooling for all children with disabilities.

Spungin, honored at this year’s Academic Festival as a recipient of Teachers College’s Distinguished Alumni Award, said Oman was initially failing in this effort because it lacked  a universally understood and agreed-upon definition of “inclusion.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that when you set up a system of special education, it has to serve all disabilities,” Spungin said. “Also, there has to be cooperation with the government and with parents of both disabled and non-disabled children – particularly the latter, who often don’t want that involvement.” 

After winning buy-in for that definition, Spungin’s team, which included Linda Hickson, TC Professor of Education, recommended that Oman stop importing special education teachers from Jordan and Egypt, advice that has since prompted the creation of a university-level special education teacher training program in Oman. Oman may now lead a Gulf-wide conference on special education.

Donald Fulton (Ed. D. ’91), a former New York City principal ande Director of Children’s Education at the New York Botanical Garden, described his efforts (through TC’s Office of International Affairs) to create a U.S. study tour for Indonesia educators in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Fulton, in collaboration with Columbia’s Center for Environment, Economy and Society (CEES), identified six New York City high schools with exemplary STEM programs, as well as leading science educators at the American Museum of Natural History and the Botanical Garden. He then brought a group of Indonesian educators to New York City to visit those institutions and to learn from TC faculty members. The group also met with the Consul General at the Indonesian Consulate to frame out the challenges of introducing progressive STEM education methods in Indonesia’s school  system, which, though centrally directed, spread out across the 13,000 islands that make up the nation.  

Today there is a CEES program in Indonesia, and Fulton said he would be going there soon to assess implementation of modern STEM teaching. 


The Use and Abuse of Data in Educational Planning in Developing Countries

The good news, if you like data, is that when it comes to education, there’s an incredible enthusiasm right now in developing countries for data-based decision-making. The bad news is that the data isn’t always reliable – at least, not when taken entirely at face value – and that the enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into effective action

To underscore their point, the presenters – Mark Ginsburg and Kurt Moses of FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization, displayed a photo of a flooded-out dirt road in South Sudan, captioned “accuracy is difficult to get to.”

“When you see a statistic that there a developing nation has 1,490,633 students – well, no, not exactly,” said Ginsburg, Senior Advisor for Research, Evaluatno and Teacher Educatyno at FHI 360, who is serving this year as a visiting professor in TC’s Department of International and Transcultural Studies. “It might mean that in 2006 we think there were between 1.34 and 1.89 million. Which means the ministry of education may not know whether enrollment is actually rising or falling.” They might think it’s rising -- but if the government shuts off the oil again, all bets are off.

Moses, Vice President and Director of Education Practices, described the vagueness that can underlie the use of the concept of a statistical “average.” For example, an average student-teacher ratio of 45 to 1 could mean that all school districts in a sample have that exact ratio, or that one district has a ratio of 90 to 1 and while another has 9 to 1 – or all manner of variation in between. 

“The challenge of education planning is to make sure that some of what you do bears some semblance to what you’re seeing,” he said, displaying a photo of a packed classroom in in the African Republic of Djibouti. “This,” he said, “is what 100 to one looks like.

To prompt effective action, researchers must employ different ways  of representing data  to leaders, including maps, dashboards, report cards, and even Google earth satellite photos that can reveal schools that have no rooftops. At the same time, understanding the backstory behind the numbers is absolutely critical. For instance figures suggesting robust school spending in Liberia were undercut somewhat by the revelation that the money was often ascribed to “ghost schools,” of which there were an estimated 400 to 600. 

Still, the field is changing dramatically. New technologist are enabling distribution of “just-in-time” data to mobile devices. 

“That’s revolutionizing how quickly we can verify things,” said Ginsburg. “During the refugee camps in Ethiopia, we were getting data in Washington that was an hour old.”


Psychology Without Borders: Providing Hope and Healing in the Face of Adversity

Adversity takes many forms: disaster, conflict, ill health, family crisis, crime and so much more. Helping people cope, adjust and recover from adversity is a major interest in psychology and related fields that are well represented at TC. An Academic Festival panel on “Psychology Without Borders” presented ways in which new research is shaping more effective ways of helping people and communities in all cultures weather the emotional and psychological effects of crisis.

Through 10 years of research in AIDS-ravaged areas of southern Uganda, Lena Verdeli, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, found that a form of group therapy led by trained community members could significantly reduce the paralyzing depression that was afflicting many people. 

“We started with an ethnographic assessment, to understand local idioms of distress,” Verdeli said, adding that local traditional healers had to sanction the project. The protocols of interpersonal therapy also needed modifying, to recognize age, gender and other roles in the local society.

The findings –that people in therapy developed more hope for the future, became more productive in their agricultural labor, and were more willing to pay school fees for their children – exceeded Verdeli’s expectations. She had been worried at the outset, she says: “Who are we to intervene? Is this colonial? Shouldn’t we be addressing poverty and war instead? Can we really do a rigorous trial?” Instead she came away with a very different conclusion: “No mental health, no development.”

Claudia Cohen, TC Lecturer and Associate Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR), described work that the ICCCR is doing with the Fortune Academy, in Harlem, which provides wraparound support to formerly incarcerated individuals.  Here too, careful attention to the setting is crucial, Cohen said. Along with such techniques as careful listening and separating the problem from the person, understanding conflict styles and the way conflict gets expressed in different cultures – even those within neighborhoods or schools -- is a step toward resolving and preventing it.

“We’re working with them to allow people who come from cultures of violence to learn skills of non-violence,” Cohen said. Integral part of the project is to form a community of shared learning between TC, the academy, and its clients.

Conflict does not always have to end up in destruction, Cohen said. As if to echo this, George Bonanno, Professor of Psychology and Education and Professor of Clinical Psychology, shared key findings of his long-standing program of research on resilience. “Bad things” happen frequently, Bonanno said, and what is remarkable is how often we weather them. “Over the course of a life span, almost everyone faces the death of loved ones, and most people are exposed to one or several violent or life-threatening events. They can be devastating and disturbing, but we often survive them quite well.”

People affected by a particular event or type of adversity typically display one of three response patterns, Bonanno said. One is a chronic, severe adverse effect; another is an adverse effect that gradually decreases over time; and the third is a lesser effect that never becomes severe. That third, “minimal-impact, resilient outcome” typically describes a majority of the affected population, and sometimes up to two-thirds.

So what explains resilience? There is no simple explanation, Bonanno said. “Resilience is not informed by one or two things. There are likely many different routes to the same end.”

Published Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013


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