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Cover Story: Transforming America’s Schools
By: Jonathan Potts
Koedinger Challenges Conventional Education
If your child gets sick, you wouldn’t give her medicine that hadn’t been tested to make sure it works. You wouldn’t take her to a pediatrician who didn’t rely on sound medical research. Yet few of us even blink at sending our children to schools where even the most gifted teachers are unfamiliar with the best research into how children think and learn.
Just ask Elida Laski. A former kindergarten teacher, she was a literacy coach in the Boston public schools when she discovered how little her fellow teachers knew about educational research.
“Education suffers to the extent that teachers are guided often by their own intuition and their own philosophies, so instruction can vary greatly from classroom to classroom and from school to school. Few teachers are guided by established learning theories,” Laski said.
Now, Laski is in a position to do something about it. She’s enrolled in the Program in Interdisciplinary Educational Research (PIER), a Carnegie Mellon initiative to train doctoral students from several disciplines—including psychology, computer science, philosophy and statistics—to conduct applied educational research. PIER is funded through a 5-year, $5 million U.S. Department of Education grant.
PIER is but a single example of Carnegie Mellon’s multi-faceted education research initiatives. Decades of research examining human thought and learning have produced revolutionary advances in education technology and teaching methods. Although the university has no education school, its interdisciplinary culture has propelled researchers in departments ranging from Psychology to Statistics to Computer Science to produce innovations that are revolutionizing K-12 and college classrooms. Among the most exciting examples is Cognitive Tutor, a comprehensive secondary mathematics curriculum and computer-based tutoring program that is in use in 2,000 schools nationwide, thanks to the spin-off company Carnegie Learning, Inc.
All the university’s education programs share a common goal: to raise student achievement through rigorously tested technology and curricula and to help teachers and school administrators make data-driven decisions to improve learning.
The first step is to produce the research, which is where PIER comes in. In addition to fulfilling the requirements of their own departments, PIER students are required to take a three-course sequence to train them to perform education research. They must complete a field project in an educational setting—working either in the classroom or with school administrators—and their dissertations must address an education question. In exchange, the students receive a generous stipend and up to $12,000 toward tuition. Now in its second year, PIER has 11 students.
“The program is premised on the notion that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, so instead, you train a whole new generation of researchers,” said Psychology Professor David Klahr, the PIER program coordinator.(Continued …)