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Unconventional Wisdom

Paradigm-changing work byTC faculty and staff members


Education’s Final Frontier       

Barbara Tversky explores the untapped power of spatial thinking 


In February, the sound of two black holes colliding billions of light years away confirmed Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves linking time and distance. 

It also underscored what Barbara Tversky has long asserted: that “our ability to use spatial thinking to understand complex abstract concepts separates us from other species.” 

“I’m fond of language — I use it all the time — but we think in other ways, too,” says Tversky, TC Professor of Psychology & Education, and Stanford University professor emerita. “We live our lives in space, we navigate space, we know firsthand about distance and direction and we use our bodies and space to understand, reason, communicate and create.”

“We live all our lives in space, we navigate space, and we use our bodies and space to understand, reason, communicate and create.”    
—Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology & Education 

Language is a product of spatial and visual thinking, Tversky argues. In individuals’ development and that of our species, gesturing precedes speaking: pointing, connecting things with lines drawn in the air, or showing the size of the proverbial big fish by spreading the arms wide.

Both physical gestures and (in Tversky’s parlance) “frozen” ones — sketches, maps, diagrams — express meanings more directly than words, which have arbitrary relations to meaning. “Upwards, in gesture or diagram, is readily produced and understood, even by preschoolers, to indicate more, better and stronger,” Tversky says. “Going up requires overcoming gravity and overcoming gravity takes health, strength, wealth. By expressing meanings more directly, both forms of spatial communication — gestures and diagrams — foster thought and creativity.”

Spatial thinking enables leaps in understanding that, quite literally, are beyond words. Tversky and her former postdoctoral student Masaki Suwa have documented the “conversations” architects have with their own sketches, through which, by keeping drawings ambiguous and repeatedly reconfiguring them, they continually discover new possibilities. Another former student, Andrea Kantrowitz (Ed.D. ’14), similarly documented artists’ “conversations” with their initial renderings. Gestures integrated with explanations can change thought. Work by Azadeh Jamalian (Ph.D. ’14) shows that gestures help students understand subtle temporal concepts such as cyclicity and simultaneity. And gesturing can support memory and thinking. Tversky, Jamalian, postdoc Valeria Giardino and students Melissa Bradley and Yang Liu have shown that when students study complex descriptions of space or STEM systems, most model the spaces or the systems through spontaneous hand gestures. They then perform better on tests of memory and inference. Similarly, in her dissertation with Tversky, Eliza Bobek (Ph.D. ’12) showed that creating visual explanations of STEM phenomena benefits learning more than creating typical verbal explanations. 

The takeaway? “We need to better understand how the human mind learns and thinks spatially and how we can improve that thinking,” says Tversky, who was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013. “We need to teach spatial reasoning — how to create and understand diagrams and maps and how to make inferences from them, how to think about spatial transformations.” She herself teaches two such courses, Spatial Cognition and Visual Communication. But the focus on spatial thinking should begin with young children, she says, and should be as fundamental as arithmetic and writing.

Otherwise, that proverbial big fish will get away.

Joe Levine


Not Judging the Bookish By Their Covers 

So…what’s the point of those higher ed rankings, anyway? 


Does ranking high in the annual “best colleges and universities” listings really reflect the quality of teaching and learning in a school?

In a word, no, says TC’s Corbin Campbell, Assistant Professor of Higher Education. “It might signal to employers that students are smart coming in, but it has little to do with what’s actually happening inside that university.”

“I’m interested in starting a conversation with the broader public about what’s important in a college education. What environments foster good teaching and learning?”    
—Corbin Campbell, Assistant Professor of Higher Education 

Campbell spearheads a unique research program that quantifies post-secondary educational quality down to the classroom level and compares it within and across institutions. In a multi-institutional study in 2013 and 2014, she, her TC students and others watched hundreds of class sessions and analyzed syllabi at nine diverse institutions, including public and private, more and less selective, and research-based and liberal arts.

One preliminary finding, albeit from a small sample size: classes taught in so-called “broad access” institutions scored higher than those in more selective, prestigious schools on teaching quality indicators such as leveraging students’ prior knowledge and connecting it to a course’s core ideas. 

There’s precedent for Campbell’s detailed observations inside schools.

“In K-12 education research, we have tens of thousands of videotaped observations, used in countless studies,” she says. “But in higher education, there has been little quantitative observational research.” Ethnographies exist, she says, but do not lend themselves to structured comparison.

Campbell, an Academic Fellow for the Institute for Higher Education Policy and Lumina Foundation’s Policy Direct program, reports strong interest in her project — including from faculty her team has observed. “I think they feel they put a lot of effort into teaching practice that sometimes gets ignored.” Ultimately, though, she’s targeting a larger audience.

“I’m interested in starting a conversation with the broader public about what’s important in a college education. What environments foster good teaching and learning? How much do you know about that broad-access institution next door that — guess what — has great teaching and learning practices? Don’t discount that graduate from there!”

— Siddhartha Mitter


Navigating in the Age of Information Overload   


In the 21st century, “we are swamped by input and interconnected in unprecedented ways,” says Lyle Yorks, Professor of Adult & Continuing Education. Yet we also are “siloed” by everything from our professional expertise to the news sources we trust.

“The expert mindset is critical, but you have to recognize how it hinders us from assessing trends, forming new insights and fostering needed conversations.”    
—Lyle Yorks, Professor of Adult & Continuing Education 

Yorks addresses that paradox — “perhaps the major learning challenge adults face” — through research; through workshops for corporate and institutional clients; and through “Strategic Advocacy,” his course in AEGIS (Adult Education Guided Intensive Study), the TC doctoral program he directs for mid-career professionals.

His message: How we filter information can cause us to over-simplify. “The expert mindset is critical but hinders us from assessing trends, forming new insights and fostering needed conversations.”

Culture, too — societal or professional — can blind us to alternative perspectives.

“Because people do not have a culture but inhabit one, they are never free agents capable of transcending their situation,” Yorks writes in his paper “Cross-Cultural Dimensions of Team Learning.”

Yorks asks his TC students to weigh conflicting advice in their own jobs and apply strategic tools and practices to learn from uncertainty. He also challenges organizations to navigate complexity. In his 2013 book, Strategic IT: Best Practices for Managers and Executives, Yorks and coauthor Arthur M. Langer urge chief information officers to strategically deploy technology by building collaborative alliances organization-wide. In their award-winning paper, “The Role of Reflective Practices in Building Social Practices in Organizations,” Yorks and his former student Yoshie Tomozumi Nakamura (Ed.D. ’10) argue that forming these social networks requires employees to connect with colleagues with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

In their recent paper, “Do I Really Know You? Do You Really Know Me? Empathy Amid Diversity in Different Learning Contexts,” Yorks and Elizabeth Kasl argue that intellectual understanding from an “effortful, top-down process” can’t alone bridge such differences. The two champion building an empathic understanding of others through “presentational knowing” — sharing one’s perspective through storytelling and other expressive forms. 

That’s an idea that even 20th century folks can appreciate.

Siddhartha Mitter


Youth Gun Violence: Many Causes, No Magic Bullet   


Gun violence by youth makes headlines but is difficult to research. There’s little funding, and rhetoric from the gun-control debate hampers formulating evidence-based research hypotheses about causes and prevention. 

“The conversation should be about what teachers can do in conjunction with others to support these youth in crisis.”   
—Sonali Rajan, Assistant Professor of Health Education 

The result, says Sonali Rajan, Assistant Professor of Health Education: We tend to fall back on conclusions unsupported by evidence. Take the oft-cited idea that young people who commit gun violence are mentally ill. Mining a massive federal database, Rajan and Kelly Ruggles, an Assistant Professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, found that among the 5 to 10 percent of American teens who report regularly carrying a firearm, there is a much stronger association with substance use, engagement in physical fighting and exposure to sexual violence than with any poor mental health indicator. In fact, mentally ill teens are likelier to be victims than perpetrators of violence. The study, published in PLOS ONE in 2014, found no association between screen time (including video game use) and firearm possession.  

Rajan (Ed.D. ’10), who received TC’s 2015 Strage Junior Faculty Prize (established by TC alumna Alberta Strage and her husband, Henry), believes steps can be taken on gun violence despite political gridlock.

For example, while schools increasingly budget for security to deal with “active shooter” situations, Rajan argues for prevention focused on student behaviors. In a forthcoming paper, she and Ruggles delve deeper into substance use and abuse, prevention of which they believe should be integrated with efforts to address violence. “If we asked a student who is coping by engaging in regular substance use, ‘What else is happening?’ the prevention of firearm-related violence could be a matter of schools and communities…providing additional and more comprehensive support.” 

Now Rajan is distilling current knowledge about violence prevention programs.

“The conversation should be about what teachers can do in conjunction with others — principals, psychologists, guidance counselors, parents, community members — to support these youth in crisis,” she says. “That conversation would do wonders.”

—Siddhartha Mitter

Published Tuesday, Jul 12, 2016

John Krause
Illustration: John Krause
Barabara Tversky
Graduate Stairs
Illustration: John Krause
Corbin Campbell
John Krause
Illustration: John Krause
Lyle Yorks
Student Backpack
Illustration: John Krause
Sonali Rajan