Leslie Santee Siskin is Research Associate Professor at New York University, where she is a noted sociologist of organisations and organisational change. She is a visiting fellow at CRASSH, 2019 – 2020. During her stay, she is based at Clare Hall, a graduate College at Cambridge.

Q. Leslie, you are currently a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?

Here at CRASSH, I’m working on carving a new project out of an old one, investigating the tangled relationships between new technology and traditional academic disciplines as schools bring online learning into classrooms.

While the particular focus is new, this is an extension of a project I’ve been working on for the past five years. With a team of researchers based at New York University, I’ve been studying 35 schools across North America as they moved to adopt Online/Blended Learning.

Education in the year 2000, as imagined in 1910 by French postcard artist Villemard. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

That topic has suddenly become much more salient in this year of pandemic pedagogy, as schools across the world have suddenly needed to make that shift to online instruction, with very little time to prepare. The schools we followed had at least a bit more time to prepare and plan, and to adapt and pivot when plans turned out not to work as well as expected. So they have much to offer in the way of lessons learned for schools thrust into these strange new circumstances.

Our research team had time, over four years, to sit in on their planning meetings, to observe about 80 classes (virtual, blended, and face-to-face), to interview 120 teachers and administrators, and to review dozens of documents and instructional programs. Overall, our focus was on intentions, implementation, and effectiveness issues and we produced a number of reports and publications about those issues — but the schools also gave us so much rich and extensive data that we can use it to explore a lot more.

One insight that repeatedly appeared, though we didn’t have the time or resources to dig into it in great depth then, was the difference subject matter differences made in the purposes, practices, and resources available to teachers.

The Fellowship here at CRASSH provides the opportunity to revisit these data, and really dig into those issues.

Q. What would readers be surprised to learn about in your work? 

One of the great things of doing a mixed methods study is that fieldwork always offers the big advantage of small surprises, and there were certainly lots of those. But in this project, there were two very big surprises.

First, we had expected to find a pronounced generational difference among teachers using technology. And in one sense we did — we had the full range, from young teachers who were social media mavens or career changers from IT to older teachers calling themselves ‘digital dinosaurs’ or asking if the device I was typing on ‘is what you call a tablet.’ But once you got devices functioning, the advantages of having developed a wide repertoire of classroom strategies over time balanced out against familiarity with digital tools. All teachers, it turns out, are beginners in actually teaching with technology.

The second big surprise was that as they expanded access to digital content, they often did not turn to textbook publishers and education specialists. Instead, they searched for, and found, a vast array of new resources outside the education sector, but within their broad disciplinary field. So, earth science teachers, for example, access satellite data to track ocean currents in real time. Marine biology students go on a virtual dive with scientists from California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, while art students visit the virtual Louvre. Social Science students engage their peers in South Africa in sustained conversations about government and political change. For my own project, this new surprise — a largely unexplored territory of subject-specific networks and virtual connections that cross sectors is a fascinating place to start mapping out disciplinary differences!

Q. What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?

For most of my academic career, I have been drawn to issues at the intersection of the organisation of knowledge (Disciplines) and the organisation of schooling (Departments). The distinctive differences are always interesting, and often underestimated. These ‘Realms of Knowledge’ (the title of my first book) first drew me in during graduate school, where I worked on subject departments as a fundamental context of secondary school teachers’ work. They continued through investigations of interdisciplinary efforts (The Subjects in Question), and the effects of high stakes testing on tested and untested subjects (The New Accountability). Being able to keep coming back to a big question you find interesting, and to explore it in very different contexts has been for me a big draw to the academic life in general. It continues to puzzle and intrigue me.

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