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Usable Knowledge

What Will We Be Reading This Year?

While it’s hard to know what’s on the horizon, these are the topics we know we’ll be thinking about in 2020
The Year 2020

Immigration — and welcoming newcomers

While the story of migration is a human one, in the past few years, it has become a contentious political one as well. Within the United States, classroom demographics have shifted dramatically, teachers struggle to support students whose families have been torn apart, and stories of abuse at the border haunt news cycles. At HGSE, Professor Roberto Gonzales leads the new Immigration Initiative at Harvard. As part of the initiative, Gonzales will work with a community of Harvard researchers from different schools to conduct non-partisan research that informs immigration policy. “Research aimed at understanding the mechanisms that facilitate and constrain immigrant incorporation is incredibly useful to policymakers and practitioners on the ground — in communities and local organizations,” Gonzales told us. “It is my hope that through IIH we can lift up this work and make it available to inform key stakeholders.”

Usable Knowledge has a series on how schools are welcoming newcomers; we'll continue to develop that theme this year.  


Last fall's results of the NAEP exam were disappointing to say the least, showing that most reading scores, as measured by NAEP, dropped significantly, despite a combination of reform efforts and government spending. This drop left experts searching for a culprit — was it balanced literacy? Pedagogy? The amount of time students spent on screens? The way we think about and evaluate test scores themselves? Still, some states performed well and perhaps offer interesting case studies moving forward. Looking ahead to the new year, Usable Knowledge has editorial plans to offer insight and research from HGSE experts on the best contemporary approaches to literacy instruction.

What should students be learning — and how should we be measuring it?

NAEP and other assessments tell part of the story, but what components of learning do they miss? Are there things we should be measuring but aren’t? After all, research suggests that there may be a disconnect between what kids are learning in schools and what they need to know to be successful in the future. How can we align curricula to match? In Search of Deeper Learning, a 2019 book by HGSE Professor Jal Mehta and educator Sarah Fine, explored the importance of a curriculum that allows space for authentic learning — and showed what that kind of learning looks like in highs schools across the country. They discussed the topic in-depth on the Harvard EdCast, in what became the podcast's most popular episode to date. HGSE Professor David Deming also picked up the theme, writing an op-ed for The New York Times about the importance of collaborative thinking in contemporary workplaces and the startling lack of curriculum, especially in higher education, that allows students to build this skill.

Digital literacy

From smart phones to smart boards, children and teachers need to navigate digital worlds daily. But when are kids actually taught to use and engage with technology meaningfully? And whose responsibility is it to teach them? A forthcoming study from Project Information Literacy, led by researcher Alison Head, will explore how college students navigate the news and information that the internet and their devices flood them with — and how they make decisions about what to trust and act on. This research is especially important considering the network of algorithms that now influences behavior and the choices people make about what products to buy, what news sources they consume, and even how they construct their world views. 

And what does all this digital action mean for kids' privacy and their healthy development? “Unlike us as adults, [kids] have not yet had a chance to have a childhood and adolescence that is protected; a childhood and adolescence where they can make mischief, even make some mistakes and grow up better for having made them by figuring out who they are, what makes them tick, and how they want to be in the world,” law professor and author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online Leah Plunkett told the Harvard EdCast. “And if we're depriving them of that space, we really do run the risk of depriving them of, or at least limiting their ability to become the grownups that they're meant to be.”

Trauma and supporting vulnerable students

Studies continue to demonstrate the impact trauma has on young minds and bodies, as well as on the practitioners who work with communities that have absorbed trauma. But researchers still have unanswered questions on the best way to support students, practitioners, and communities and how to help nurture resilience. Education Redesign Lab director and HGSE Professor Paul Reville says, “The challenge [for trauma-sensitive schools and educators] is to broaden that set of contacts [and resources] to the whole community, to take the whole village into the challenge of raising young people who can be successful and participate in a 21st-century democracy.” At HGSE, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, the Education Redesign Lab, and the new REACH Initiative are advocating for research that supports and informs the development and expansion of trauma-sensitive schools and communities in the United States and around the world.

The election and civics education

After a historic vote in the House of Representatives to impeach President Donald Trump and a looming trial in the senate, the 2020 elections stand as an important marker for the future of American democracy. Yet teachers may fear that discussing politics and elections in classrooms can be contentious. Still, educators need to help even young students develop the critical thinking skills and knowledge necessary to participate in a democracy. HGSE Professor Meira Levinson’s work on civics education gained traction in the 2016 election cycle and will likely continue to influence the way teachers talk about democracy in classrooms in 2020. Levinson recently debuted a multimedia case study that expands on her work with Justice in Schools to bring conversations about ethical and educational dilemmas into the classroom, and there will be more to come in the year ahead.

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