Our Studies


Basic research shows that learning is an intrinsic property of the mind. Rather than being an unpleasant chore, learning is a very basic process of how the mind functions. Yet, when one looks at schools’ report cards, the opposite seems to be the case: Many children seem to have trouble learning. To address this conundrum, we pursue three lines of research, each infused with community-based participatory research and insights from complexity theory.


Math Learning: The Role of Math Practice


Educational Challenge: Math is perhaps the most troubling shortfall of the current education system. Many students do not reach proficiency, a problem particularly acute for children from traditionally disadvantaged populations.


Complexity Theory: In math, very few symbols convey a great deal of unique information. Note, for example, how the meaning of the symbol [2] changes here: 2+0.22-1/2. The mind needs a lot of time to build this understanding, far more than what it takes to become a fluent reader or to learn a sport. Importantly, children differ in how much time it takes to become proficient.


Our Activities: The typical curriculum expects children to learn in lockstep, making it difficult for those who need more time to develop a stable math understanding. We are working on developing ways in which children can catch up. “Modulative practice” is a potential solution.


Implications: Education agencies need to do more to expose children to math practice. This exposure needs to be (1) at the child’s own level of competence, (2) tightly coupled to feedback, and (3) positive. Technology might help.


Science Learning: How the Young Mind Learns About the World


Educational Challenge: Science education is strongly promoted in preschool and kindergarten, the idea being that early exposure is a predictor for later learning. The problem is that there is no consistency in what should be covered, how exactly it should be covered, and how to measure learning success.


Complexity Theory: The mind continuously decides what to pay attention to, what to ignore, what to remember, and what to forget. It does so by looking at what changes and what stays the same from one moment to the next. This sense-making is by no means fool-proof: Children sometimes pay attention to something irrelevant, or they ignore something that matters. And children sometimes remember something irrelevant, or they forget something that matters.


Our Activities: Preschool teachers have many options of how to bring science into their classroom. We are working on better understanding what kinds of environments help young children develop science-valid beliefs (vs. misconceptions). The precise balance between what changes and what remains the same during children’s explorations is likely to matter.


Implications: An important goal of science education is to help children overcome misconceptions and change mistaken beliefs. Our findings can help shed light on the kind of balance between novelty and stability is ideal towards this goal.


Learning to Read: Precursors and Remediation


Educational Challenge: Despite established guidelines on literacy education, a surprisingly high proportion of students have difficulty reading at grade level, beyond what could be explained with learning difficulties. This is perhaps the strongest sign of a broken education system.


Complexity Theory: Even established innovations do not easily get implemented. This has to do with the systemic processes that keep ineffective procedures in place past their time. Top-down forces are insufficient to change such an established system. For example, it is not enough to merely apply a top-down literacy requirement. Instead, an intricate balance of top-down and bottom-up forces are needed that empower decision making at all levels of the hierarchy.


Our Activities: In an effort to understand how to improve reading proficiency, we look at ways in which school systems can be changed from within, without a top-down mandate. We build upon the idea of “continuous improvement and study it from a system-based perspective.


Implications: Our work re-defines the role of students in their education. Rather than thinking of students as the receivers of educational innovations, a system-based perspective puts them in the driver seat. This might ultimately help them reach the required literacy level.




Student Presentations

Andino, A. (2017) Measuring Self-Efficacy Across Development: Do feelings have an affect on math learning? (Senior thesis)

Arwood, Z. (2017) Exploring Adversity: Does perception of childhood trauma influence the development of Executive Functioning in adulthood? (Senior thesis)

McIntire, M. (2017) Relevance of Math Fluency in Middle School. Poster presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference of the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Oh.

Cartwright, M.D. (2017). Addressing math competence in low SES-children using a CBPR approach: The role of personalized math practice. (Master's thesis)