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McGraw Prize Juror Discusses the New Learning Science Research Category

As the field of education continues to grow, so does the need for new, innovative thinking from leaders within the discipline. For Robert Feldman, that need is what inspired him to become a juror for the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education. Feldman, who works as senior advisor to the chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, believes that the McGraw Prize will continue to recognize innovative leaders within the field of education.

Feldman originally began as a juror three years ago within the Prize’s higher education category. During that time, he realized that more focus should be shifted to learning science research as a discipline, leading him to suggest the new category for the 2018 McGraw Prize. Feldman spoke with us about the significance of learning science research within the field of education, and what led him to recommend the inclusion of the category.

When did you originally become involved with the McGraw Prize? What interested you about working as a juror for the Prize?

I was originally asked to become a juror three years ago for the category focusing on higher education. I’ve known about the McGraw Prize since its inception, and knew what a prestigious award it is in the field of education, so I was honored to be involved. One of the biggest research interests that I have had throughout my career is student success, and how we can help students reach their potential, and one of the things I appreciate about the McGraw Prize is that it brings in truly great and accomplished nominees that are working to help students become successful academically. When we recognize individuals who are doing exciting work in the industry with the McGraw Prize, we help bring more recognition for their work, while elevating the discipline of education.

I understand you proposed the idea of the Learning Science Research category, what encouraged that idea?

When we looked at the 2017 nominees for the McGraw Prize in the higher education pool, we found that the work from several nominees had a very strong focus on learning science research. I recommended that the category be included for the 2018 Prize because I wanted to be sure that it specifically captured what was going on in the learning science field, regardless if it’s happening in K-12, higher education, or internationally. The category cross cuts into the other categories in an important way, and I am expecting to get nominations that we might not otherwise receive.  I strongly believe that the largest advancements will come in the future from people who are working in the field of learning science.

What criteria are you looking for with the Learning Science Research category?

I’ve always thought of teaching as both an art and science, and historically we have focused too much on the art aspect. Focusing on the science can lead to important advances in the field of education in the future. This notion provided a baseline for the category criteria. Next, we really took a look at what was going on and what was important for the field. Learning Science is a broad category that encompasses quite a few disciplines, including psychology, education, linguistics, and computer science, to name a few. We wanted to try and capture people, regardless of their specific discipline, who are doing the very best work and are having the greatest impact on the field.

What is the process you will go through after nominations are completed?

 The first time I learned about the nomination process, I was very impressed with the seriousness of it. It truly is a rigorous process. We start with a staff that helps summarize each nomination and provide us (the jurors) with an in-depth evaluation of each nominee. Following this step, the jurors meet as a group to discuss the nominees and look at their accomplishments, the impact they have had on the field of education, and their potential future contributions to the field. Once we have sorted through all of that information, we make our suggestions to the McGraw Prize Executive Committee. 

How did your work with UMass Amherst help you when working as a higher education juror? How will it help you when working as the lead juror for the Learning Science Research category?

For a period of time, I served as dean for the College of Education at UMass Amherst, and in that role, I got a very good perspective on the kinds of things that are happening in education, the trends, and the important activities going on. It gave me a broad view of the field, and that contributed in important ways. Being at a research university, you’re in tune with ways that research informs practice. The exciting thing about learning science research is that it is a scientific discipline, but with a goal that is very practical. Looking at learning as a science, I think you really get new perspectives that are going to be effective and make a real difference in education.

What kind of impact do you think Learning Science Research has had on education? What kind of impact will it have in the future?

 Learning science research is a very exciting field, because it offers the ability to collect large amounts of targeted data, and use that information to figure out what is going on in the industry, and what can be done to improve it. Learning science will continue to provide more information on how teaching can be improved, because it will help us understand what it takes for students to be successful. Through being able to use things like artificial intelligence to present material, we can gain insight into student learning so the education process becomes more effective and more efficient. When we develop new ways of educating students, and give them materials in the most effective manner, we can help students overcome barriers to their education.