Five questions for Alan Lesgold

Alan Lesgold is the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education. The university’s School of Education first opened its doors in the fall of 1910 and graduated eight men and women in its first class. In the late 1980s, 15 departments and programs within the school were reorganized to form three academic departments that are still in place today: Administrative and Policy Studies; Instruction and Learning; and Psychology in Education. More recently, a separate department of Health and Physical Activity was split off from Psychology in Education, which continues to have programs in Applied Developmental Psychology and Research Methodology. Recent additions outside the departments are programs in urban education and in learning sciences and policy. Today, more than 100 years after it was established, the School of Education enrolls more than 1,000 students, mostly at the graduate level (all teacher preparation is done at the graduate level).

What was your first role working in education?
As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I worked at a research center that was pioneering the use of computers in the social sciences. Somehow, they also got involved in teaching a course for high school kids on computer programming in 1964. A grad student and I taught the course.  Later, it was described in Saturday Review (of blessed memory) as the first programming course for kids, but I’m sure MIT had one earlier. In any case, I’m confident that I was able to demonstrate every failing of new teachers during that experience.

What is one pivotal moment in your career in educator preparation that left a positive impact on you or others?
In the mid-80’s, I was studying radiology expertise, looking at what changed in the performance of radiologists as they accumulated years of experience. I recall seeing several young residents, one of whom was a professor’s dream. No matter what we asked him about the films we were using for our tests, he gave a very academic answer that was well-reasoned and (based upon post-mortem pathology) correct. I mentioned this to a very senior expert, and he said that this resident wasn’t actually one of their better ones. Because we followed the residents for several years, I was able to confirm that, in fact, he was well-schooled but not a top performer later on. My belief that performance assessment requires considerable depth of information and examination of performance in a range of tough situations began with this experience. It was reinforced years later, when studying electronics technicians in the Air Force. They had passed mastery tests at 100 percent on topics on which, in the field, they exhibited virtually no understanding. Again, it’s too easy to attribute more to a test score than it really represents.

Why did you decide to join Deans for Impact?
Public education in the U.S. is attempting something never before done in the history of the world: to educate a mix of children from multiple cultures, economic levels, and language communities, using teachers almost entirely from a small subset of those communities, without forcing the children to abandon their home culture. And, with all the routine jobs eliminated by information technologies, we must provide a better education for all than ever before. This is a really big challenge. To produce educators who can do this, we simply must do the very best possible, measure our progress continually, and push for continuous improvement. I believe that the deans in Deans for Impact are a group that believe this and that we can do better by challenging each other and teaching each other.

What most excites you about the opportunity to transform the field of educator preparation in the years ahead?
We have only begun to use information tools that afford opportunities to dramatically expand learning by doing. Today, it is possible to record teaching experiences and even to provide some of those experiences using augmented reality. This means that coursework in teacher preparation can be anchored in examples of real experience, by oneself and one’s peers. That’s been true in medicine and law for a long time, but it’s still new for teacher preparation. I think we will, over the coming years, learn to use this opportunity to produce teachers who are better at the coaching side of teaching and who have experienced, one way or another, more teaching challenges in training than currently is the case. Combined with the emergence of a wide range of information tools for creating learning opportunities, I think that future teachers will have skills both deeper and wider-ranging than ever before – but only if we push ourselves to prepare them to use the new affordances. 

What is one surprising thing that everyone should know about the program you lead?
The University of Pittsburgh School of Education is one of the few to have been started through the efforts of a psychologist of learning (Dewey’s efforts at Chicago are another example) rather than in response to broad demand for preparing more teachers. E. B. Huey, who wrote the first real scientific research book on reading (The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading in 1908) lobbied the Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh to create a school of education. By the time the School started in 1910, Huey had moved on. Even now, though, the School of Education is tightly tied to research in psychology, neuroscience, and computer science through its connection to Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series featuring Q&As with all the member deans of Deans for Impact.

Alan Lesgold

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