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A Salute to Kurt Fischer

As a longtime professor retires, two colleagues reflect on the ideas and efforts that led to their inception of Usable Knowledge

April 9, 2015
Professor Kurt Fischer

Over the course of 27 years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Kurt Fischer established an internationally known research program that explored how neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology illuminate cognitive and emotional development and learning throughout our lives. He spearheaded HGSE’s degree programming in neuroscience and education with the development of the Mind, Brain, and Education master’s program, considered a flagship in the field. Among many other research, teaching, and mentoring activities, Fischer also helped to launch the original iteration of Usable Knowledge, in 2006.

When Fischer announced his retirement late last year, Usable Knowledge wanted to acknowledge his role as a preeminent researcher who never failed to think about practice — and whose ideas have changed the way practitioners work. Below, excerpts from a conversation we convened in his honor, featuring the two other founders of Usable Knowledge, Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt and Associate Dean Keith Collar.

Tell us about the first conversation that led to Usable Knowledge.

Blatt: There had been an open solicitation from then-Dean Ellen Lagemann for projects. People submitted proposals, and I wrote something I called Usable Knowledge that had some of the ideas that became the project. It turned out that so did Keith and so did Kurt.

Collar: What was great for me was that Joe and Kurt were so collaborative, both with each other, having come to these ideas separately, and also with me and with others as we brought people on, and that was one of the through lines of the whole project. The other thing I liked about it was that it was a concrete idea. We had been talking about dissemination, outreach, and connecting with the field, and here was this really concrete idea of how we were going to do it. 

Blatt: We started to pull in some pretty important fellow collaborators.

Collar: What was great about what Joe and Kurt did early on was that they engaged our students. And that gave it some additional energy. We saw that this was a project that really could involve a lot of the school.

As you planned, what was the process like?

Blatt:  I have a production background, so I think what I brought to it was the idea that we have to make concrete goals and establish a timeline and actually get there. What Keith brought to it, besides an incredible ability to keep track of everything, was the continuing commitment and support of the Dean’s Office. And of course Kurt brought his knowledge of the field.

It was a long, difficult process to figure out how you parse the field of education into manageable categories so you can actually talk about it usefully with practitioners.

Collar: Coming up with the five categories was really important, because it was a way that we made this intersection of the school’s strengths and what the field was looking for, and I really appreciated the fact that there was attention to both of those things. It would have been easy to say, “Okay, here are the five things the school is known for. That’s what we’re going to do.” But there really was attention given to what do people care about and what is really going to be impactful. That was one of the themes that emerged the first time we sat down — this is a different venture, a way to reach people that we’re not reaching otherwise. It really was filling a gap.

Tell me why this project was so important to Kurt, given his full docket of teaching and research.

Collar: Kurt had this conviction that what was happening at the Ed School needed to get out to everybody; not just people who were reading journals, and not just people who were coming in for a degree. Joe had that same vision. But what was striking about Kurt was here was somebody who had had all these amazing academic accomplishments and was still thinking about ways it was going to make a difference.

Blatt: Kurt really is committed to knowledge making a difference in people’s lives, and Usable Knowledge was one major example of that. But he was also starting what is now an international network of research schools that Christina Hinton has taken over, where ideas are tested in reality and then disseminated. And he also founded the Journal of Mind, Brain, and Education. So you’re right — it’s amazing that he would add to all his other commitments and responsibilities, but, in fact, it’s perfectly consistent with his worldview and his commitment to the field.

And then of course he also embodied that commitment personally, in the sense that some of our very first pieces that we created for Usable Knowledge were about mind/brain education, with Kurt being willing to step forward and talk about it in popular ways.

What is the imprint that Kurt left on Usable Knowledge?

Blatt: I know that my commitment to trying to make every aspect of the project just as good as it could be, as right as it could be, was inspired by seeing Kurt behave that way. Here is this senior faculty member, with an endowed chair, with his sleeves rolled up, caring that much. His commitment [to the project] was inspiring.

Collar: The vision part was really important. When you’re trying to mobilize resources or get different people across the school engaged, there has to be a pretty compelling vision, and that was there from the beginning. Kurt’s collaborative and collegial way of doing things really stuck with that project throughout the time we worked on it. We were starting something new. It wasn’t always a linear path. There were challenges along the way. But we knew we were in it together, and I give Kurt a lot of credit for that.

Blatt: Yes, and Kurt certainly helped us identify some of the best doctoral students to participate in the project as writers. They were students of his, or students in the Human Development and Psychology program more broadly. And he was a great sounding board. Whenever I had an idea for something I thought we should do, a new direction or new technique, I would always discuss it with him first and get his help in thinking about how to pursue it.

He was publicly very proud of the project and happy to be identified with it, and that always helped with the faculty engagement. Whenever Usable Knowledge came up in a faculty meeting, he would chime in, and people would know that here is this world-renowned, respected senior faculty member — that makes a difference in terms of people’s willingness to participate.

What will you miss about having him as a campus collaborator?

Blatt: Being able to test ideas and get reactions — honest, thoughtful reactions. If Kurt likes the idea, he’s always be willing to partner in it, to help carry it forward, or speak to people about it. As a colleague with whom you can be really be direct, and who will offer direct responses, he is pretty special.

And Kurt is a genuine intellectual with wide-ranging interests, and when we would go out to lunch to talk about Usable Knowledge, we would also end up talking about movies and fiction and all kinds of interesting stuff that he was really on top of. Now, you might think that that is an obvious description of a Harvard professor. It’s not. And I really value that about him.

Collar: One thing that I’ll always appreciate and respect about Kurt is how creative a person he is. He's always very willing and eager and excited about doing things differently, because he always thinks things could be better and do more good. That comes through in everything he does. He really believes that the Ed school needs to be connecting with the field in lots of ways, because that’s how we’re really going to make a difference.

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