At one point while talking with Professor Richard Durán of the Gevirtz School’s Department of Education, he mimes part of what he’s explaining about how students perform in the class, first playing the student with a hand eagerly raised, then playing the student sunk into himself, not making eye contact, hoping not to be called on. He’s trying to stress how we need, in his words, “to understand people acting as members of a learning community.” It’s a way to explain what he sees as “the value of a more ecologically complex approach to improving educational outcomes.” He explains, “We need to expand our assessment of student competencies. Going beyond scores on multiple choice tests, e.g., we can measure the qualities of student products and performances, typically, in terms of numerical scores utilizing a rubric for quality. But this does not go far enough. What’s missing from this perspective is an understanding of how performing competently in schools and classrooms is like being a performer in a drama where you are a character, a whole person acting out your competencies in a sociocultural setting that can’t be represented easily or at all by a rubric.”
For an example he discusses the so-called “bad attitude” student. “I believe that quantitative measures of learning achievement using tests and other psychological measures are an important window into understanding the effectiveness of teaching and learning,” he asserts, “but they are a very narrow window when it comes to understanding students’ interpretation and projection of their identity as a lived experience in the classroom. If students lack skills and competencies, we have to find a way to have them learn these skills and competencies based on what they can already do and who they can become as lived personalities in a classroom. While some insightful researchers might label these skills and competencies as ‘non-cognitive,’ I believe that these skills and competencies are the deep roots of cognition as exemplified in the writings of Jerome Bruner and Alex Kozulin on narratives and projection of self. ”
One part of Dr. Durán’s research through which he has worked to explore and expand contexts for learning has been the Parents Children and Computers Project co-led with Prof. Betsy Brenner. Immigrant parents first develop basic skills like word processing but then move on to collaborative projects – often with help from their children – such as a bilingual newsletter focusing on key educational issues and exploration of culture and contemporary events. The children in the program get help with their homework and participate in other enrichment activities, as well as collaborating in publishing with their parents.
“The parents are very eager to understand the world around them and how to interact in this world to improve the well-being of their families,” Durán says. “The parents we work with are very enthused about accessing material on the Internet in Spanish and ever more as they can English to learn about institutions and newsworthy events, and culture. In our project parents learn to communicate what they’ve learned to others, and in so doing learning is more than a passive practice, it’s combined with communicating, in this case with other immigrant parents.” Durán is properly proud of the print and on-line newsletters the parents write and design. “These kinds of skills are often termed new literacies,” he notes. “In this way parents are researchers and learners combined.”
Durán, who recently was part of the steering committee for ISCAR 2008, the International Society for Cultural and Activity Research Conference at UC San Diego titled “Ecologies of Diversities: The developmental and historical interarticulation of human mediational forms,” will continue working to help people see learning as something occurring everywhere and not just in the classroom. For the future of education he says it’s important to “promote learning opportunities in the classroom so as to better connect with the social, cultural, and linguistic resources of communities and experiences outside of the classroom. We also must develop ways to transform the learning identities of students so as to become competent in the literacies that are needed to enter the economy, generate new kinds of scientific and cultural knowledge and new kinds of expertise to solve complex social and natural problems.”