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The Next Level of Work and Learning

Project Zero’s new lab looks to better prepare lifelong learners for an uncertain future.
Next Level Lab graphic

The workplace of the not-so-distant future will be one filled with volatility, complexity, and ambiguity. To navigate this changing and uncertain terrain over the course of their careers, students and adults will need to become lifelong learners, armed with the knowledge of how to transfer their skills to new workplace opportunities. 

Project Zero’s Next Level Lab will look to unlock the wealth of recent research from the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience, and the learning sciences to better understand what it means to be an expert learner and to reimagine how learning happens — in both K–12 and workforce development. Born of an idea first pitched in 2019 to Professor Chris Dede and Principal Research Scientist Tina Grotzer by Ph.D. student Tessa Forshaw, the Next Level Lab will focus on giving a more expansive view of how these sciences can be applied in understanding learning and the important role technology can play in the process.

“A lot of people are interested in notions of the future of work, but there’s a complete absence of research from the lens of neuroscience and cognition about what it means to learn workforce skills and to then transfer to a workforce,” says Forshaw.   

Intrigued, the faculty members signed on with Grotzer becoming Next Level Lab faculty director. With funding from Accenture Corporate Citizenship, the lab will bring together practitioners from across a variety of fields to create new visions for the possibilities of human performance. 

The Next Level Lab launched its website this past October and includes updates on research projects along with helpful resources for educators and workforce development practitioners. 

We spoke with Forshaw and Grotzer to learn more about Next Level Lab, it’s research, and the future of learning.  

Tessa Forshaw and Tina Grotzer

T-b: Tessa Forshaw, Tina Grotzer

One of the main focus areas for the Next Level Lab is exploring workforce development programs. Can you explain a bit about how these programs work?

Tessa Forshaw: The sector typically considers workforce development programs to be programs that are for 16-year-olds to older adults and that focus on preparing learners with workforce skills. They can be found at community colleges, vocationally focused high schools, at non-degree granting intuitions, coding boot camps, workforce development boards, industry groups, companies or employer organizations, or nonprofits like Jobs for the Future, Goodwill, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and NPower.  

That said, there isn’t a widely agreed upon exhaustive definition of what a workforce development program is, and that’s part of why it is important we start studying the sector more closely. In 2015, McKinsey estimated spending on the sector to be $300 billion per year, and Georgetown University estimated it closer to $1.1 trillion. 

Despite the size of the sector, something that the Next Level Lab is particularly interested in is that unlike in K–12 education, there’s no professional development or minimal certification requirements for workforce practitioners. Their backgrounds span from some of the most incredible and skilled educators to individuals who graduated from the program the year prior and are teaching while they find a job placement. We want to support workforce development educators to engage in a community of practice that centers around pedagogy and research-based instructional moves developed through the lab’s own research and from working directly with practitioners.  

The lab will be doing research that will also help students. What will that work look like?

Tina Grotzer: All students can benefit from strategies about how to use their minds well through intentional processes. Our particular focus is on vulnerable youth who are underserved and/or who have struggled in traditional schools. My own work has considered how findings from cognitive science can help students to do their best learning. Research has demonstrated persuasively that effective thinking can be taught. Despite this, I don’t believe that field has delivered on the promise for how these findings could broadly benefit society, in particular around issues of transfer and accessibility. Too often, programs on thinking are focused on privileged populations. The skills may be unaligned with the cognitive neuroscience findings and may be too generic or taught in decontextualized ways, limiting their applicability. Informative and helpful findings exist, and we could do a better job translating it and getting it in the hands of the people who can use it. Further, this research offers new visions for what learners are capable of with the right kinds of support. That’s why we’re calling it Next Level Lab, to update our conceptions of what learners are capable of and to provide tools and resources to educators and learners to help actualize those conceptions. 

Can you share some examples of the projects the lab is currently working on?  

Forshaw: We’re interested in looking at this idea in response to job disruption of saying workers need to be reskilled. That’s very much a deficit mindset. You are probably familiar with headlines in the news saying things along the lines of “all truck drivers should learn to code.” From our perspective this is reminiscent of deficit theory in K–12. Telling people they had a job that’s now redundant and that they don’t know anything is such a bad message. Thus, one question we’re asking is if reskilling is always the right course of action, and one hypothesis is presenting a learner with multiple ways to sort their skills and helping them realize new contexts for how their skills might present them with a greater ability to transfer their skills from their past performance environment to a future one. 

Another piece that researcher and HGSE doctoral student Eileen McGivney and I are looking at is the role of virtual reality experiences in supporting situational learning and interview preparation for formerly incarcerated individuals returning to the workforce and the mechanisms that make those tools helpful. 

Grotzer: Chris Dede and research assistant Ashley Etemadi are pursuing two projects. The first, Project UPWARD (Upskilling Professionals in the Workforce to Augment Reckoning with Decision-making) is a collaboration with Upwardly Global. It aims to help immigrant and refugee professionals rebuild their careers in the U.S. and to understand the interaction of culture and decision-making, with a focus on reckoning and judgment. Immigrant workers are predicted to drive U.S. labor force growth over the next 15 years. Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly proficient at calculation, computation, and prediction, or “reckoning,” skills. As machines take over the reckoning part of many jobs, workers will increasingly be valued for their human judgment skills such as decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, deliberation, ethics, and negotiation. The second, Project LIFTUP (Leveraging IA for a Future of Turbulence, Uncertainty, and Possibility) is a partnership with Goodwill of North Carolina that aims to enhance the existing job training curriculum for jobseekers and to develop materials and training that will help employers keep judgment in mind when interviewing, hiring, and supporting workers. 

I am leading a project with Megan Cuzzolino, Lydia Cao, and Mingyue Sun to help learners, as embodied in social and emotional beings, understand the cognitive architecture of their minds to bring their learning and work to the next level and to function effectively in a dynamic and complex workforce landscape. In the NLL Moves: Acting like Fast Fish project, we are developing a set of moves to help learners use their minds more effectively and to modify the contexts around them to support learning and performance — just as fish create vortices in water to push off from to swim their fastest. We will test these in the classroom and workplace using a mixed methods approach and studying changes in how students frame and process tasks involved in thinking, learning, and workforce performance over time.    

How do you see Next Level Lab fitting within the scope of the work being done at Project Zero and the larger HGSE community? 

Grotzer: One of the strengths of Project Zero is that researchers are willing to study problems deeply and flexibly. They grapple in the problem space and that helps them to reposition problems and put them in a broader context, and that’s what Next Level Lab does. We can turn problems around as we consider them from a cognitive neuroscience perspective to introduce new possibilities for schools and workplace development. 

Forshaw: One of the great benefits of sitting within the Project Zero community is our ability to leverage all the fantastic prior research and thinking on research based instructional moves and how to support educators to improve their teaching practice. While there are many fantastic workforce development programs out there, there also many that have great opportunity for improvement in terms of instructional design. And that’s also why this work is so critical to be done at HGSE. Often folks think workforce development should be left up to organizational behavior or similar academic disciplines, but we’re talking about education problems and learning problems — like what does good or bad pedagogy look like, how does the mind work — and HGSE’s existing research is a great place to start.

The lab is only in its first year, but what do you see as some of the lab’s potential contributions to the field? 

Forshaw: I think one of the outcomes is that Next Level Lab will be a place for the learning sciences at HGSE to incubate design-based research. It’s an iterative method that’s about real-world findings and testing theories to see if they stand up in the real world. The second is to be a community of academics and practitioners, where the researcher and the practitioner can learn together and collaborate to move the workforce development sector forward. That’s nontraditional but there’s a real importance in having humility in how we approach a sector that provides economic dignity for a lot of people in this country. 

Grotzer: This is research that needs to take place in the contexts where people are working to address the real challenges there. We have the opportunity to work collaboratively with practitioners on the ground and to put the cognitive neurosciences and learning sciences to work for them in ways that actualize the promise of what these fields of knowledge offer.


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