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Retirement: John Frederiksen

John Frederiksen, professor of science education and cognitive studies at the UW College of Education, has wanderlust when it comes to his professional interests. He’s gone from being a Harvard undergrad psychology major to psychometrics at Princeton, through cognitive studies and into education. Yet, in all of his research, he applies cognitive theories to educational practice, and uses evaluations of learning and instructional processes to illuminate further development of cognitive theory.

Frederiksen’s background in cognitive science encompasses work in experimental cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and educational measurement.  In his research, he has sought to apply computer and video technologies in developing collaborative learning environments and educational assessment practices that will foster improvements in learning and teaching.

Frederiksen graduated magna cum laude with a BA in psychology from Harvard University in 1963. He became interested in cognitive psychology and research while he was a research assistant at the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies. He completed his Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he was an ETS psychometric fellow, specializing in psychological measurement, and research methods. He also became interested in using computers to model psychological processes using a language called IPL-V, the precursor to LISP.

One experience that sparked his eventual career trajectory was teaching a five-week computer course to a group of fifth graders. Using a Sorcerer microcomputer, the idea was to have them learn about computer by building an arcade game which they could play and show to others. As the basis for his class, Frederiksen guided the group through the design of a computer game. Using his programming skills, he followed their vision to create an asteroid game.

“They were figuring it out,” he explains. “I did the coding and they led the development. In the end, we had a game that allowed them to move around the keypad to progress through an asteroid field. A simple thing, but it really interested me because the kids had all sorts of design ideas. And in the context of this situation, they learned about the possibilities of how using code instructions a computer can be used to create such a thing.”

Frederiksen’s interest in the burgeoning computer science field led to continued work in that field. After post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard and MIT, he moved to Brandeis where he taught courses in quantitative methods, experimental psychology, and cognitive processes in the early 70s. During that time he developed a research program in which he developed a computer-based laboratory for studying cognitive processes in reading. His design was to connect a satellite microcomputer to the university mainframe, which would send instructions to the satellite and receive back data on students’ responses and reaction times, which could then be analyzed. This work eventually led to the development of lab-based computer games to help develop reading skills based on a componential theory of reading. Later on, he realized that he had created a client-server system.
As his passions for computer science and education merged, Frederiksen became “more and more interested in studying learning processes in higher order thinking.”
This led him to work for thirteen years at a high tech company, BB&N. Here he undertook building models of how experts understand and troubleshoot complex systems, and how to design computer tutors to develop such skills. “Working there  was like getting another Ph.D. in computer sciences,” he attests. “The ABCs of BB&N were acoustics, behavioral science, and computer science.” His research at BBN integrated cognitive models of performance with computer systems for teaching.

During this period, he also was a member of the Black Studies Center at the Harvard School of Education, focusing on evaluating schools for effectiveness in teaching all of their students.

In 1990, Frederiksen joined ETS as a principal scientist while also being a part-time faculty member at UC Berkeley. His ETS work focused on assessment that supports learning, or what are now called formative assessment, in situated learning contexts, such as upper elementary science classes. Much of this work, carried out with colleagues at UC Berkeley, was with middle school youth at inner-city schools.

“We were building a way of thinking about scientific inquiry in the context of learning about Newton’s laws of motion through video simulations,” he explains. “We gave students a series of situations to study and each time they had to come up with ideas of what they thought was going on. Then, through studying a computer simulation of motion phenomena and also using real-world materials, they sought to test their ideas. Not only did they learn and develop Newton’s the laws of force and motion, they stated their laws as word equations. And they learned how to carry out inquiry in a fairly sophisticated way. We also found that having students' engage in peer and self assessments of their inquiry processes facilitates their learning. “

Frederiksen’s research on assessment focused on both teachers and students.  He and his colleagues developed a prototype assessment system for the National Board for Professional Teaching Studies. The idea was that teachers' use of video portfolios for assessing teaching would support their inquiry into effective teaching practices.”

Working with Alan Collins, Frederiksen wrote a paper on assessment and introduced the idea of systemically valid assessment and led into a large NSF grant on the topic. The grant work, carried out with Barbara White at UC Berkeley, had students carry out self assessment of their joint work, finding that such reflective assessment improved students’ work. It was important that this was an assessment of their work, not of themselves. They particularly found that students who were low achievers were performing at the level of high achievers on their projects at the end of the seven-week science unit on force and motion that they were doing. This they felt is likely because they were assessing strengths and ways to improve their work, rather than being graded using opaque scales that have no reference to the particulars of their accomplishments. “Our paper showing how reflective assessment closes performances gaps among students has found its way into the literature and it’s one piece that caught on as sort of a viral paper. “

While he was focusing on student learning and the burgeoning idea of video clubs, Frederiksen turned towards an increased emphasis on using reflective assessment in promoting excellent teaching. He joined a startup called Teachscape, which at that time was a web-based video resource for high school teachers in literacy, science, and math. Teachscape built web sites for these audiences and is still, to this day, using the idea of looking at videos of project presentations, looking at experts discussions of these videos, and then discussing the work and applying it to their own practice.

Up next? The UW College of Education. Frederiksen was familiar with Deborah McCutchen, then editor of Cognition Instruction, as well as Buzz Hunt, Philip Bell, and our current Dean, Tom Stritikus, who was a student of Frederiksen’s in a seminar at UC Berkeley.

In the past twenty years, Frederiksen had focused on the application of the cognitive sciences to learning and instruction within classroom settings. His recent work focuses on how elementary and middle school students can develop an understanding of scientific inquiry processes, how they apply this knowledge in creating models of scientific phenomena, and how formative assessments may be used in state-wide assessments without reducing their value as reflective tools for learning.

He says he has greatly enjoyed working with students at UW, particularly the Curriculum and Instruction master’s students and some wonderful doctoral students. “They do absolutely stupendous work,” he enthuses. “Students today come with ideas that didn’t exist when I started out.”

In his next phase, Frederiksen will relocate to Santa Cruz, where he will focus on writing, consulting, perhaps learning to surf using a paddleboard, and spending time with his granddaughter, Maya.

“I never just wanted to do one thing,” Frederiksen explains. “I followed various things in many fields, from cognitive science and psychology to learning sciences and then teaching. I intend to keep learning.”

To read memories and tributes for John Frederiksen or to add your own, click here.

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