“Deep Engagement”: A Conversation about Learning with Dr. Barry Fishman

Dr. Barry Fishman, University of Michigan Professor of Education and Professor of Information is a world-renowned expert on Educational Technology as well as Science, Technology and Society. He has developed a company, GradeCraft, which is a grade inspired learning management system. His current research focuses on video games as models for learning environments and creating scalable learning system.

Dr. Fishman was also co-author of the Obama administration’s 2010 U.S. National Educational Technology Plan.

I am deeply humbled that this award winning professor and passionate advocate for teaching and learning was able to answer a few questions for us. My hope is that this conversation will be helpful to high school educators and their students.

  1. When you were in high school was there a particular class or subject you enjoyed that led you to want to pursue higher education or advanced research?

Dr. Fishman: “I had two favorite classes in high school: English Literature and Geology. And as often happens, the teachers of those two classes were also my favorite teachers. And as a result, I started as a Geology major, but ended up majoring in English.

My interest in becoming an academic researcher and professor didn’t happen until after college, but it was inspired by two different experiences in college, both revolving around English Literature. The first was a new system based on an emerging technology called ‘hypertext’ and ‘hypermedia.’ ‘One of my English professors was an early experimenter with this technology and we used it in English classes to help build our understanding of connections between the texts we were reading and and other authors, other texts, politics, religion, history, and so on. It was the beginning of me seeing that the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines were barriers to understanding. And it was also the start of my thinking about transformative technologies for learning.

The second experience was in my studies of Middle English (e.g., Chaucer). I had to frequently look up words in the Middle English Dictionary at the library. But I couldn’t find any volumes after the letter “S,” ‘Where are they?’ I asked the librarian. ‘They’re still working on that dictionary, and haven’t written them yet,’ was the answer. This seemed shocking to me, and was the first time I really thought about scholarship as something alive and ongoing all around me. By a surprising coincidence, the Middle English Dictionary was being created at the University of Michigan, where I now work. And that final volume of “XYZ” was finally published the year I started my faculty job at Michigan, nearly a decade after my experience as an undergraduate.”

2. With the massive shift to learning through videos, educational games, etc. what role does reading text and primary source material have at the high school level-is it still important?

Dr. Fishman: ” Reading and especially primary sources, has never been more important. Students need to be able to read critically in order to make sense of arguments, to weigh evidence, and to pursue sourcing when necessary. But it’s also important to note that ‘reading’ isn’t limited to text materials. Students ‘read’ all kinds of material, so I am an advocate of literacy across all media.”

3. With your research in social media, Twitter, specifically, can you talk about how teachers might be able to use social media effectively to engage learners in a thoughtful manner?

Dr. Fishman: “I’m feeling a bit sour about social media in general at the moment. But what I can offer is that it is important for teachers to stay aware of different communication channels that their students use, and help their students think about how to be thoughtful and respectful and safe users of any media they engage with. I wouldn’t put pressure on teachers to necessarily be active participants in new media (like TIk Tok). Teachers have enough to do!”

4. With so much of public education being driven by high stakes testing, state or district level curriculum mandates, etc. how can teachers use your ideas for increasing engagement on an individual classroom level? How can they instill a love of learning (the process, not the outcome)?

Dr. Fishman: ” Sometimes as teachers we need to work around or within larger systems that we may disagree with. Teachers still have a lot of control over how to organize learning within their own classroom (though your mileage may vary depending on where you teach). Classroom learning and assessment can help students become more engaged and resilient, and also help prepare them for dealing with those high stakes tests without ‘teaching to the test.’ It isn’t always easy, but it is important to help students preserve and develop their intellectual curiosity and humanity.”

5. What are the intellectual habits or behavioral dispositions that you feel students can cultivate at the high school level now to prepare for life and education after high school?

Dr. Fishman: “What I want more for students is for them to be deeply engaged with whatever problem they are working on, to seek out challenges, and to develop resilience and the recognition that struggle (and sometimes failure) can be important steps on the way to ultimate success. Students need our help with this, and a lot of their experience will be shaped by how teachers frame and support learning and progress.”

6. I would love to see every high school student graduate from high school having conducted some form of “research” project or capstone project- is this a worthwhile “vision” i.e. would it help increase student engagement?

Dr. Fishman: ” I could definitely endorse this idea. Ideally, a capstone project would help them make meaning across multiple different subject areas. It should also be focused on a topic or goal that the student cares deeply about. By pursuing something with personal meaning, students will also be working on the intellectual habits and mindsets of engagement, challenge, and resilience that I advocated for earlier.”

In closing, I want to once again thank Dr. Fishman for his thoughtful and insightful responses- it was a true pleasure conversing about these important issues facing educators and their students.

For Dr. Fishman’s personal website, please click here.

Source information and photo credit to the University of Michigan School of Information website and Dr. Fishman’s personal website.

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