Monthly Archives: April 2015

Musings from AERA 2015

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting is a massive event. This year’s conference took place in downtown Chicago, and as usual, clustered around a number of hotels within a relatively small radius. This means that there is always a high density of education researchers (some 15,000 attendees, from the rumors I heard) in a small area. There’s a lot of flux between sessions and bumping into colleagues, and of course, an impossibly large conference program to navigate, with over 2,600 sessions according to AERA’s website. The sessions span nearly every conceivable area of education research, from policy to informal learning, assessment to advanced learning technologies, with most centered towards this year’s conference theme, “Toward Justice: Culture, Language, and Heritage in Education Research and Praxis.” The conference also serves a number of other purposes besides being a venue for presentations and panel discussions. Receptions, working meetings, and special interest gatherings are another huge part of the AERA experience, adding to the already exhausting five-day, 8am-6pm schedule of programs. All of this makes, in what in my opinion, for one of my favorite times of year. I get to interface with colleagues from across the globe, with whom I’d never have a chance to meet or reconnect with otherwise. I get to take part in conversations with experts in my field, talk about future research directions and challenges to existing ones. It can be overwhelming in the moment (intellectually and physically!), but at the end of the day, I find AERA incredibly satisfying and rejuvenating – inspiring, really.

But there’s something I find indescribable about what happens when all of these people get together to talk about education and learning. Something about the proximity of ideas, theorists, practitioners, and thinkers all converging in a single space (sometimes in a single symposium) can make for some incredible insights into, and reflections about, education and learning, and it is in these moments that I find a lot of my own interests in education come to life. Like most attendees, I tend to only go to sessions that pertain to my own research areas (STEM education, equity, instructional technologies, and the learning sciences, in my case). This year, I found myself engaged in a number of really great discussions around issues of diversity, youth empowerment, affect, and the power of emotional and social connection in learning. The underlying theme connecting these discussions seemed to revolve around a serious commitment to reflecting on who benefits from our current education system (K-12 as well as higher ed), and what we as educators and researchers can do to create opportunities for individuals who come from disenfranchised, disadvantaged, marginalized, and “othered” communities to participate in meaningful learning activities, forge their own pathways to success, and disrupt the privileged spaces of our institutions. Rather than recount my notes from each of these sessions, I decided that I will highlight a few key papers and discussions that addressed these issues in some really forward thinking ways. Consider this a “playlist” of my favorite tracks from AERA 2015 (the last one is a shameless plug to a poster session I was lucky to be a part of!). My thanks go out to all the presenters for sharing this incredible work. I already cannot wait for next year.

Symposium: Learning as Transformation: Examining How Youth Author New Learning Pathways/Ecologies in Science, Engineering, and Technology (Friday 4/17 – 4:05pm – 5:35pm)

Description: This symposium brings together a set of papers focused on science, engineering & technology learning across formal and informal ecologies and over time, with a particular focus on “learning as transformation.” We use the metaphor of “learning as transformation” to focus our conceptual and empirical attention on how youth are constantly re-authoring and re-purposing their identities and practices as they author pathways into/through science/engineering /technology and engage more deeply in problems that matter most to them. Drawing from socio-cultural perspectives on learning and critical orientations to equity and justice, the papers in this session examine the multiple forms learning as transformation takes for youth as well as understanding the tools and strategies that support this movement and transformation.


Youth Pathways in Becoming Community Engineering Experts – Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University; Daniel Birmingham, Loyola University Chicago

Expansive Meanings and Makings in ArtScience – Ann Rosebery, TERC; Beth M. Warren, Cheche Konnen Center, TERC; Megan Bang, University of Washington

Youth Participatory Action Research and Learning as Transformation – Takumi C Sato, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Que’Ann Williams, ProjectERASE; Charda’e Alexander, projectERASE; Daco’Ria Evans, projectERASE; Chris McAbee, project ERASE; Stephen McAbee, projectERASE

From Half-Pipe to Full-fillment: Leveraging Interest-Driven Identities as a Strategy for Technology Learning – Dixie Ching, New York University; Rafi Santo, Indiana University – Bloomington; Tal Bar-Zemer, City Lore; Jessica Forsyth, Harold Hunter Foundation; Christopher Hoadley, New York University

What Matters? Instances of Science and Engineering Learning Among Students Living in Native American Communities in Idaho and Washington – Sameer Honwad, University of New Hampshire; Anne L. Kern, University of Idaho; Melinda Howard, University of Idaho; Fritz Fielder, University of Idaho; Laura Anne Laumatia, Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians; Christine Meyer, Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians; Nora Numkena, Spokane Tribe of Indians

Conspiring to Create Community Labs: How Program and Relationship Shaped Practices Between Youth and Educators – Angela N. Booker, University of California – San Diego; Kindra F. Montgomery-Block, University of California – Davis; Bel Reyes, University of California – Davis


Invited speaker session: How People Learn II: The Science and Practice of Learning. Symposium and Discussion Forum on a New National Research Council Study (Thursday 4/16 – 2:15pm – 3:45pm)

Description: In 1999 the National Research Council first published the report, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, which served as a catalyst for new interdisciplinary research and as a programmatic map for agencies and organizations (e.g., National Science Foundation, private foundations) supporting education research and practice. How People Learn II will update and extend the original report by critically reviewing research that has emerged in the past decade and a half on learning and learning contexts across the lifespan. How People Learn II will focus particular attention on research and research approaches with the greatest potential to influence policy and practice and on cultural differences and similarities in learning. In this open forum symposium, commentators—including members of the NRC committee that produced the original report—will reflect on what has changed or become more apparent since the publication of HPL. Commentators will also look ahead by sharing their aspirations for the next generation of HPL and their ideas about what it should address. Members of the audience will be invited to join the discussion and share their comments. This forum will offer a [rare] and important opportunity for community engagement prior to the launch of an NRC study.


Heidi A. Schweingruber, National Research Council

Sujeeta Bhatt, National Research Council

Barbara Rogoff, University of California – Santa Cruz

James W. Pellegrino, University of Illinois at Chicago

Penelope L. Peterson, Northwestern University

Carol D. Lee, Northwestern University

William R. Penuel, University of Colorado – Boulder


Structured poster session: New Tools, New Voices: Innovations in Understanding and Analyzing Life-Wide Ecologies for Youth Interest-Driven Learning (Saturday 4/18 – 2:45pm – 4:15pm)

Description: The presentations in this interactive poster session represent diverse perspectives on understanding and analyzing the supportive, life-wide ecologies necessary to help youth from a diverse range of backgrounds and ages develop strong interest-based identities and agentic stances toward learning. This session also presents new perspectives and methods for investigation, including engaging youth as research partners and exploring the utility of different ways of collecting and visualizing data and the implications of that for future research in this area.


Chairs: Kylie A. Peppler, Indiana University – Bloomington and Christopher Hoadley, New York University

1. Developing Pathways During Adolescence: Intersecting Identities, Interests, and Literacies – June Ahn, University of Maryland – College Park

2. Pathways to Consequential Learning and “Science That Matters” – Daniel Birmingham, Loyola University Chicago; Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University

3. Youth Voices on the Sponsorship of Literacy in an Emerging Participatory Culture in a School Setting – Ashley Cartun, University of Colorado – Boulder; William R. Penuel, University of Colorado – Boulder

4. Google Mapping the “Last Mile”: Youths’ Spatial Analysis of Interest-Driven Opportunities – Josie Chang-Order, University of Colorado – Boulder; Michael D. Harris, Colorado University – Boulder; Ben R. Kirshner, University of Colorado

5. Mapping the Social Learning Ecology of Support Around Adolescent Youth’s Interest-Driven Pursuits – Dixie Ching, New York University; Rafi Santo, Indiana University – Bloomington; Christopher Hoadley, New York University; Kylie A. Peppler, Indiana University – Bloomington

6. How Youths’ Experiences of Connected Learning Cluster: Results From a Longitudinal Survey Study – Nathan Dadey, University of Colorado – Boulder

7. Youth Voice in Mentoring – Tene Gray, Digital Youth Network

8. Engaging Youth Ethnographers: A Critical Analysis of the Promise and Challenges of Youth Participatory Research – Michael D. Harris, Colorado University – Boulder; Josie Chang-Order, University of Colorado – Boulder; Ben R. Kirshner, University of Colorado

9. Designing a Community-Based Student Interest–Focused Sustainability Science Curriculum – Sameer Honwad, University of New Hampshire; Marlena Koper, University of New Hampshire; Eleanor Diane Abrams, University of New Hampshire; Michael J. Middleton, University of Massachusetts – Boston

10. Designing a Pathway to Support Teen Engagement in Writing – Sybil Madison-Boyd, Digital Youth Network; Jennifer Steele, Digital Youth Network

11. Pathways and Network Effect: Understanding Social Ecologies of Connected Learning – Timothy Podkul, SRI International; Denise Sauerteig, SRI International

12. Challenges in Organizing Opportunities for Young People to Become Creative Civic Producers – Adam J. York, University of Colorado – Boulder

Discussant: Kimberley Gomez, University of California – Los Angeles


Structured poster session: Decentering Dominant Discourses and Reimagining Privileged Spaces in STEM Education (Sunday 4/19 – 8:15am-9:45am)


We argue for the need to decenter dominant discourses and reimagine privileged spaces in STEM education. We draw from a variety of approaches that consider human action and development within social, cultural, and historical contexts, including: cultural-historical activity theory, theories of situated learning, ethnomethodology, participatory action research, Critical Race Theory, and feminist theories. Our work privileges and supports the ways community members are working to disrupt standardized and hegemonic practices and creates new possibilities for how STEM education can be organized. We hope to further the conversation about how research can be brought to bear on STEM education and how this work can and should support equity and justice in the field.




Nancy Ares, University of Rochester

1. I Come Because I Make Toys: Unpacking Refugee Youths’ Critical Science Agency in a Community-Based After-School Science Club – Edna Tan, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

2. Contested Legitimacy: Filiation Work in the Sorting Out of Engineering Students – Kevin O’Connor, University of Colorado – Boulder; Frederick Peck, University of Colorado – Boulder; Julie Cafarella, University of Colorado – Boulder

3. “Looking Through the Kids’ Perspectives Made Me Change”: Teacher Learning From Youth Narratives – Daniel Birmingham, Loyola University Chicago

4. Nondominant Students’ Struggle for Legitimate Participation in a Laptop Classroom – Nicholas C. Wilson, Stanford University

5. Belonging, Staying, Making It Better: Students Create Space for Their Conceptualization of Community – Ashley Seidel Potvin, University of Colorado – Boulder; Rebecca G Kaplan, University of Colorado – Boulder

6. How Does the College of Engineering Make Student Accounts Consequential? – Julie Cafarella, University of Colorado – Boulder

7. Acknowledging Counternarratives and Diverse Visions of Communities as Beehives, Family Quilts, and Rubik’s Cubes in Educational Engineering – Cecilia Angelica Valenzuela, University of Colorado – Boulder

8. Defining Gender in Engineering: Redefining Nondominant Discourses of Women in Engineering – Joanna R. Weidler-Lewis, University of Colorado – Boulder

Discussant: Megan Bang, University of Washington

Some Thoughts on the Development of a DBR Argumentative Grammar

DML Commons Design Research DOCC

This week’s introduction to design based research (DBR) hosted by Rafi Santo and Dixie Ching has kicked my brain gears into a real grind mode. Last night, I jumped into a Twitter chat about the challenges of coalescing an “argumentative grammar” for DBR, but I still have a lot of  questions about what such a grammar could look like, and its role in studying and reforming education (and education research). As the DBR community struggles to define this grammar, here are some of my thoughts/concerns:
  1. Since DBR often (always?) involves a process of cooperation between researchers and practitioners (teachers, school admins, other stakeholders) designing interventions, there is a need for a common language that both researchers and practitioners understand and can use to converge on shared goals, interpret events, and augment/alter the design of an intervention as needed. I’ve found that in my work with practitioners (and as one myself), the theories and evidence that help structure…

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A new representation of CHAT?

CHATting about Triangles and Representations

This week I’ve been organizing a poster presentation on the use of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as a lens for thinking about privilege, power, and legitimate participation in high school science. Even though the theory has its detractors, many (Anthony & Clark, 2011Roth & Lee, 2007; Trust, 2015Yamagata-Lynch, 2007;)(including myself) have found CHAT to be particularly useful for considering systemic problems (or “tensions” as they’re commonly referred) that (1) inhibit the accomplishment of certain goals (e.g., successful implementation of a one-to-one laptop program) within a social organization (e.g., a school), and (2) end up advantaging certain points of view, ways of behaving, or cultural backgrounds over others. Obviously, any theory or tool that can be used to help researchers, scholars, or practitioners understand problems of practice, especially when they relate to issues of equity, is a good thing to have, but I’ve found that I often have a hard time getting started with a CHAT because the concept of “activity” is a slippery one to define.

Technically, “activity” refers to any kind of goal-motivated behavior. This is different, however, from what we might call a “task” because, as it’s been theorized, an activity, unlike a task, takes place with a social context. And context matters. Consider the task of getting dressed. This task has a very different meaning depending on when and where it’s done – telling someone that you got dressed in your own room in the morning might earn you a totally different reaction from telling them that you got dressed in a stranger’s house or a public place in broad daylight. It’s the context that makes this task seem common and mundane, or strange and embarrassing. (Really, in a way, this means that all tasks are activities, because when is a task not contextualized? But I digress…)

“Context” is also a slippery term, because it can include pretty much anything. Socioculturalists might say that context is made up of everything that exists in a place in the moment, as well as everything that led up to that stuff being there for that moment – the history of the physical objects, the cultural values that give those objects meaning, the arrangement of objects and people in the setting… each of these things matters in how one decides to use a tool and for what purpose, as well as how one’s behavior gets interpreted.

All of these nebulous characteristics of the activity context intersect and interact with each other, and together, they make up the activity “system.” Without getting to deep into the theory of it all, one of the advantages of CHAT is that it gives us a way to divvy these characteristics into six categories: subjects (the individual or group performing the task), the object (the goal of doing the task), mediating artifacts (the tools that are used to achieve the goal), rules (normative or expected ways of doing the task), community (the large social arrangement/organization in which the task is being performed), and the division of labor (the roles of the people/groups within the larger social organization for accomplishing the task). Now, I don’t know about you, but at this point, my head starts to swim with all of these terms and trying to figure out who is doing what and why and with whomever and with what tools and where did those tools come from, anyway? This is when I take out a pen and paper and start trying to draw things that can help me visualize what my brain is trying to keep track of. Luckily, CHAT has this canonical representation that it seems pretty much everyone who talks about activity theory uses, and it looks like this:

CHAT triangle

Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Look at all those triangles! What’s lovely about this representation is that it gives the impression that everything here is interconnected. And that’s the point. Don’t you just love it when simple graphics can convey complex ideas? Yay CHAT. Go team!

So that’s all good and awesome, until you start trying to think about what constitutes an activity. Where did the activity begin? Where did it end? Depending on the grain size of the activity, the various nodes might look completely different. This is very problematic when trying to consider complex activities like implementing a curricular intervention or a district-wide technology initiative. Each of these long term activities is made up of possibly infinite, but meaningful, activities (Lisa Yamagata-Lynch wrote a fantastic piece that addresses these same dilemmas).

In my dissertation, I used CHAT to look at the different ways in which students used technology in a one-to-one laptop classroom, and early on in my analysis, I found myself drowning in a pile of papers with little triangles sketched on them. My problem is that I was trying to figure out how to capture the essence of an activity when it wasn’t explicitly demarcated for me. An activity could be as long as a subject unit, or as brief as recording a single phrase of text from a lecture slide. It was up to me to decide how each of these activities were significant, and which ones related to my research questions. It’s part of that subjective research experience that gives us qualitative researchers limited street cred among our quantitative, objectivist, and positivist colleagues. But that’s another story all together…

Okay, we’re still not done. I said something earlier about CHAT being useful for looking at systemic problems or “tensions.” Let’s get back to that now.

So, the idea is that once we’ve charted all of the constituent “nodes” of the CHAT triangle for a given activity, we can go about examining how elements of these nodes interact with each other in ways that either help the subject achieve the goals of the activity, or inhibit it. For instance, let’s say you (subject) want to use the Internet (mediating artifact) to help you look up the score of a basketball game (object), but you don’t have access to the Internet. We might represent that as a tension between the mediating artifact (Internet) and object (looking up a basketball score). Or let’s say you’re a teacher (subject) and you want to learn about a new software tool (mediating artifact) that you might think would be particularly helpful for a certain lesson you are trying to teach (object), but there’s no one at your school, like a technology integration specialist, who can help you learn about or implement that software into your lesson planning (division of labor). We could represent that as a tension between the division of labor and object of the triangle. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single convention that is used to represent tensions on the CHAT triangle, but some common examples include placing an “x” or lightning bolts along the side of the triangle where the tension exists.

Now, these are relatively simple examples of tensions, so you might already be thinking, “What about more complex problems, such as a tension between rules and division of labor? Or tensions that emerge between interacting activity systems? How can we represent these?” That’s a good question, and it’s where I find myself now. The problem I am having at the moment is coming up with a way that gives credence to how the various elements of activity systems mediate each other, but also provides an elegant way of showing how a tension impacts the object of activity, as well as introduces the concept of “legitimate participation” (Lave & Wenger famously coined the term “legitimate peripheral participation” to describe how individuals are inducted into communities of practice) I feel like much of what has been done to date to represent complex tensions doesn’t adequately (or at least cleanly) show these in, say, the way a line graph can show how the amount of something increases and decreases over time. In preserving the sticky image of triangles, what I’ve been playing with is something like this:

A new representation of CHAT?

A new representation of CHAT?

What this does for me, is highlight the centrality of issues around “legitimacy” in activities, as something that is influenced (or even governed by?) the relationship of one’s participation to the privileged norms of behavior (rules), roles (division of labor), and use of tools (mediating artifacts) of a social group (community). I’m not convinced that this does any better job of achieving that than the standard CHAT triangle. But if anyone out there has any ideas, I’m all ears (and triangles)!