Dr. Nikhit D'Sa: Education, Ventured.

Think. Pair. Share. Podcast Transcript

0:00:11.8 Audrey Scott: Welcome to this modern education podcast that explores learning from the everyday exchange of thoughts and ideas to the theories and practices behind entire systems. You think education is cool? So do we. So we paired two conversations: Learn about our guests, then learn from our guests. Share your takeaways and come back for more. You're listening to Think.Pair.Share with me, Audrey Scott.
0:00:41.1 AS: Today I welcome Nikhit D'Sa, Assistant Professor and Senior Associate Director for Research, Evaluation and Learning at the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child in the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. D'Sa is a developmental psychologist with over a decade of experience as an education technical advisor and applied researcher, where his work focuses on social-emotional learning, teacher well-being, and the role of play in low-resource and fragile contexts. He views himself as a youth advocate and prevention scientist, and his easy laugh and hopeful outlook offer an encouraging entry to the vital work he is doing around the world in the service of others. It is my distinct pleasure to welcome, Nikhit to Think Pair Share. Hi, Nikhit. Nice to see you.
0:01:23.5 Nikhit D'Sa: Nice to see you too. Thanks for having me, Audrey, it's lovely to be here.
0:01:26.2 AS: I'm so glad we got a chance to organize this. I know you're in DC, correct?
0:01:30.5 ND: Yeah, so I live just outside of DC in Virginia, but I tell everyone I live in the DC area.
0:01:36.4 AS: How do you like DC?
0:01:37.6 ND: I love living in DC, I really enjoy it.
0:01:40.5 AS: And you have not lived in South Bend, but you visit quite often.
0:01:43.3 ND: I do visit quite often, but unfortunately, I haven't lived in South Bend yet. [chuckle]
0:01:49.6 AS: That's your bucket list. [chuckle]
0:01:50.4 ND: Yes, yes, yes, it's such a gorgeous campus and the buildings are beautiful and just the way it's laid out. So I do enjoy visiting.
0:02:00.6 AS: I know that I'm spoiled with it, but I do think it's one of the more beautiful campuses around.
0:02:06.7 ND: We're both a little bias.
0:02:09.9 AS: I think so too. I think so too. Okay, and on that score, I think we're all sort of honorary Irish people when we are affiliated in some way with Notre Dame, so our fun questions, since we're in the month of March, it's maybe a no-brainer, but I'm gonna do a Irish/St. Patrick's Day theme.
0:02:29.7 ND: Alright.
0:02:30.4 AS: Thanks for bearing with us. [laughter] Let's go for it. I've been learning a lot, even researching this...
0:02:36.5 ND: I'll try my best.
0:02:38.7 AS: I was like, "I'm not sure if this is our wheel house, but we'll go for it."
0:02:41.4 ND: Yeah, yeah.
0:02:42.2 AS: Okay, first, a couple of true or falses. St. Patrick used the Shamrock as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity when he was first introducing Christianity to Ireland.
0:02:52.4 ND: True.
0:02:54.3 AS: Do you know that or are you just guessing?
0:02:54.4 ND: I'm just guessing. [laughter] It sounds true.
0:03:01.2 AS: It is true, or at least...
0:03:02.0 ND: Oh, good.
0:03:03.2 AS: Yes. At least by Irish lore, I guess. I'm not sure if we can really fact-check this. Apparently, it's not to be confused with the four-leaf clover. The Shamrock is the three-leaf Shamrock.
0:03:14.1 ND: I'm learning something right now, Audrey.
0:03:17.0 AS: Good. I think if nothing else, they're fun little things to think about, I suppose.
0:03:21.2 ND: Yeah, yeah.
0:03:22.1 AS: Okay, so true or false: St. Patrick wasn't Irish.
0:03:25.2 ND: False? I don't know. [laughter] I'm just guessing, Audrey. False.
0:03:30.9 AS: I know.
0:03:31.0 ND: I'm gonna say it with a lot of authority. False.
0:03:35.3 AS: I'm sorry that I tricked you on that one. He was not Irish. He was from Great Britain.
0:03:40.0 ND: Oh, okay.
0:03:42.5 AS: I think he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland and then came back and then went back on his own volition and helped teach them about Christianity.
0:03:51.0 ND: Oh, okay.
0:03:53.2 AS: See, we really are learning a lot. [chuckle]
0:03:54.7 ND: Yeah, yeah. I hope in the comment section for the podcast, people can come in and fill in a bunch of information.
0:04:01.3 AS: That's a great idea. I love that. Okay, great. I'll have to peek back and see they're like, "How dare you trick him? This is supposed to be the fun section."
0:04:11.0 ND: I'm having fun, so yeah.
0:04:13.5 AS: Okay, good, good, good. Thanks for your good sense of humor. So one more true or false: Ireland is the only country in the world to have a musical instrument as its national symbol.
0:04:23.7 ND: I don't know if it's the only country, but I do know they have it as a national symbol. So I'm going to say false because it feels like in 192 countries, there's probably another that has a musical instrument as a national symbol.
0:04:37.1 AS: I will say this, there's gonna be a chance to get bonus points because it really is the only one, but you sound like you know which one it is, so bonus points if you can tell me what instrument it is.
0:04:48.7 ND: I don't know what it's called, but I believe it's the hand drum.
0:04:52.2 AS: I think it's a harp.
0:04:53.4 ND: Oh, is it the harp?
0:04:54.8 AS: I guess so, I'm like thinking of a bottle of Guinness, and I think that might be a harp on there, but I'm not sure.
0:05:01.0 ND: I think there is. You're gonna get so many comments on this podcast, Audrey, just wait. [laughter]
0:05:07.1 AS: Hey, I hope we do, I hope we do. Okay, so we're done with the true or false. That was a little tricky to make you sort of answer on your own, but these are just what you'd rather, so I think this is an easier section. [chuckle]
0:05:17.5 ND: Okay. [chuckle]
0:05:18.9 AS: Corned beef and cabbage or shepherd's pie?
0:05:21.5 ND: Oh, corned beef and cabbage.
0:05:22.5 AS: Okay, cool.
0:05:23.7 ND: Yeah.
0:05:24.6 AS: Yeah, my mom and dad love that. Green beer, Guinness or neither?
0:05:27.7 ND: Oh! I would say neither. I don't get the fascination with green beer, I'm sorry to everyone out there, and I enjoy Guinness now and then, but I'm not terribly fascinated by it.
0:05:38.5 AS: I know. I hear you. Which would you prefer, the Emerald Isle or the Emerald City?
0:05:45.0 ND: Probably the Emerald Isle.
0:05:46.9 AS: Is it too far a field to do a Wizard of Oz reference? [laughter] It's the only other Emerald I can think of. Okay. Chicago River being turned green or the London Eye being turned green?
0:05:58.8 ND: The London Eye, because that would just be so much simpler than the Chicago River being turned green, [chuckle] and probably much more environmentally conscious as well, but yeah.
0:06:09.3 AS: I did... I used to live in Chicago, and I think they used some kind of vegetable dye, but it is awfully electrical green, it does seem quite odd. [laughter] Oh my gosh. Okay, U2, Van Morrison or The Dubliners?
0:06:25.2 ND: U2, definitely U2. This one is an easy one for me.
0:06:28.6 AS: I actually saw them at Notre Dame back in the day, so it's fun.
0:06:31.1 ND: Oh. I saw them in person at a bookstore at a signing in Dublin.
0:06:36.8 AS: Stop.
0:06:37.8 ND: Yeah, in 2006, I believe.
0:06:41.1 AS: You win for sure. [laughter] Oh my gosh, I would love to be that close. That would be so... I don't know, that seems crazy. Just in a bookstore?
0:06:51.8 ND: They were signing their, I think it was their biography.
0:06:54.7 AS: My gosh. Awesome. Okay. Did you get their autographs?
0:06:58.0 ND: Oh no, the line was way too long. [laughter] I saw them, but not more than that.
0:07:04.3 AS: Yeah, that's good enough. And last but not least, which are you more apt to find: A four-leaf clover or a leprechaun?
0:07:12.6 ND: Depends on where you are, but I believe it would be a four-leaf clover. They're not actually that rare. It's just harder to see and find. But yeah.
0:07:21.6 AS: I feel like around here, maybe a leprechaun is easier, but maybe the only place in the world.
0:07:27.7 ND: I will be on campus next week for St. Patrick's Day, which until very recently, I didn't realize that St. Patrick's Day fell kind of in the middle of Lent most often, which I still don't understand, like having grown up Catholic and we don't have St. Patrick's Day in India, but it still doesn't make sense to me. But maybe someone can explain that to me when I'm up at Notre Dame.
0:07:53.4 AS: And we shall do our best to find the real answer. I don't know if this is true, but I think they picked it because I think he might have passed away on this date. So I don't think that that might be the immovable time that this happened to happen. But we shall get to the bottom of this at some point. Thank you so much for your kind sense of humor, and going through those with us. A couple more fun things if I could ask, do you play cricket?
0:08:17.9 ND: Yes. I don't play cricket right now. I don't really have many opportunities to play cricket right now, but I grew up playing cricket. So I play cricket through all of my childhood and into my youth. So yeah.
0:08:31.0 AS: That's a sport I know nothing about. It's not as popular here in the States. [chuckle]
0:08:36.0 ND: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The best way to explain it is, it's like baseball, except you don't have to run every time you hit the ball, and instead of a diamond, you just play it in kind of straight way, so a rectangle instead of a diamond.
0:08:50.8 AS: I think that's super cool. I'd love to see it.
0:08:53.1 ND: You have to decide on how invested you want to be, Audrey, because there's the five-day game, which is literally five days, there's the one-day game, which is like six hours, and then there's the three-hour game. So I would start with probably three-hour, and then work your way up to the five-day game. But the five-day games are fun just because there's tea and sandwiches in the middle, and it's like a relaxing five days to spend with friends at a cricket ground, like lazing on the green, watching cricket.
0:09:22.8 AS: Oh, I had no idea. It actually sounds really nice. So five-day... Do people do that a lot?
0:09:29.7 ND: Well, I think it used to happen much more, but now I think we're so used to quicker gratification. And so the three-hour game is really, in my sense, it's been done to bring in more people because people wanted more kind of quick, immediate gratification from the game. So it's almost like if you take baseball and instead of nine innings, you're saying, "We're just gonna make it, let's say three innings. But we're gonna change some of the rules so that runs come a lot easier." Right? So similar to that.
0:10:02.2 AS: It sounds like it may be a good idea. I don't think we're gonna win any baseball fans 'cause I do think they'd...
0:10:06.8 ND: Definitely won't. [laughter]
0:10:10.0 AS: Be very upset if we start tweaking that game. But it sounds really cool. So how did you, can I ask, become interested? Is that the most popular sport?
0:10:17.3 ND: Well, yeah, so I grew up in India and it was never a question, I don't think. It wasn't something where you're like, I have to choose sports, it's just like you played cricket. Especially as a boy or a male growing up in India, and growing up in my community, it was cricket and football or soccer. And so normally, it was soccer on the beach and cricket on the school playground. And so it's fun, it was a lot of fun playing.
0:10:41.6 AS: I'd love to try it at least once, but never say never.
0:10:44.5 ND: Yeah. [chuckle]
0:10:44.9 AS: I know that you've been... Obviously, you've lived in a lot of places and done a lot of things, but help us understand a little bit of how you got interested in developmental psychology and what brought you to now be at Notre Dame.
0:10:54.9 ND: I grew up in Bombay in India, and for the last two years of high school, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go to an international school in India itself. And as part of that experience, we had to do a Capstone Project, and that Capstone Project for me ended up being one in human geography, where I went back home to Bombay and worked with some friends and acquaintances who lived at a small slum or shanty settlement near my home and we worked together to figure out how we could make that space more, like humanize it, so that the houses were more comfortable, like how the sewer system work, how the roads work, and it was a wonderful project and I still remember all about it. And I talk about it because it was this very influential thing for me to be able to partner with folks who live in that slum and designed this with them, and it did really well and I got an A. But as a 17-year-old, something felt wrong and I couldn't figure out why. I couldn't articulate what was wrong with that. And I think over the years as I've done more work and the international development sector partnered with more communities and youth and adolescents especially on work, I've realized that the reason why that experience has sat with me for so long and has affected me so much is because it felt very extractive.
0:12:14.0 ND: It was a great relationship I had with my friends and the folks that I worked with in that community, but in the end, I was the only one who benefited from that experience. I got the A, I got the progress in my career, but nothing went back to the community. And so I think that experience has really shaped how I tend to approach thinking about how we can do research and how we can work with communities that are more generative rather than extractive. And that led to me doing a lot more work in the international development sector. After university, I've worked with international development organizations as an adolescent development counselor, as an educator, as a grant writer, and through all of that work, one thing that I started to see over and over and over again was that there were these groups of children or groups of adolescents that I were working with who were doing a lot better than I would have expected, doing a lot better than their peers who had had similar experiences.
0:13:10.1 ND: They were "resilient" to some extent. Either academically they were doing really well, socially, they were doing really well. Some of them were entrepreneurs and had started a small business. And so I was really intrigued by why. What is it about them? What is it about their situation that allows them to do that? And what can we learn from them to be able to develop either programs or approaches that might help other children, other adolescents? That work inspired me to come back to grad school and study resilience, to try and better understand what that looks like. As I was doing my doctorate, I had an opportunity to work at a charter school for adolescents who had previously either had to drop out or had been expelled from a high school because of behavioral or social issues. So for a lot of them, this charter high school was seen as kind of the last option before they might have to do a GED if they wanted to move in that direction.
0:14:10.5 ND: And a lot of them had brought with them a lot of the experiences that they had primarily of witnessing or experiencing physical or sexual and emotional abuse in their families, in their communities, in their broader neighborhoods. And the first semester of that course was basically for the seniors to write out the experiences that they've been through and how that affected where they were currently, and in the second semester, we would make a future plan. So what do you want to do next? Do you wanna go to a community college? Do you wanna start your own little business? What's your next step and how does your trajectory from where you are affect where you want to go? And that work in that school has been very influential for me because I think even though academically, we know that resilience is not just a trait, it's something negotiated, it's something that's about the person, but about the person in their setting. That became very, very clear and apparent to me in that senior seminar, in working at that school, in working with those adolescents and helping them write those narratives and try and understand how they made meaning of what they've experienced and how they were negotiating where they wanted to go.
0:15:24.2 ND: That negotiation that they were doing was not a negotiation about my individual skills or my individual competencies or my individual abilities, it was about me, about them in their settings, in their families, in their relationships, with a loved one or with a significant other, with a relationship with the child that they just had, with the relationship within their community, within the health services, within the education services. That was a negotiation that they were going through and that's where their resilience lie. It lay in that negotiation that they were constantly doing. And so for me, that has been very influential because my work and why I moved in this direction is really trying to understand how we see developmental psychology, how do we see work with adolescents and children really as this negotiation that they're doing, of their own resilience within these settings? Right? So taking a whole child development approach to this work. And then I think the last thing is for several years before I joined the University of Notre Dame, I worked with practitioners, so educators, administrators, principals in education programs, both formal and non-formal around the world. Over and over again, the thing that came up is people would say, "We shouldn't make it so academic." That was the tagline.
0:16:40.8 ND: So academic was seen as synonymous with technical and hard to understand. And for me, that is so telling that we have these different silos of, this practice and this is academic. And really, I think these three things, that how do we do this work so that it's generative and not extractive? Trying to understand kind of resilience in this whole child development perspective of the settings that children and adolescents are trying to negotiate and really trying to do work that's focused on what best supports practitioners. That's I think what drew me to the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child. When the center was first being set up, so I started when the center was just about like a proposal, and Neil approached me about it, Neil Boothby, the director of the center, and we had this long conversation about this, and what I saw was that he reflected those very same things that I was working towards. And so it became this symbiotic thing where we were working towards the same goals.
0:17:37.9 ND: And so it was really cool in some sense to be able to set up a center where we could focus on that, like an academic center that's focused on whole child development. The center being based within the Institute for Educational Initiatives makes so much sense to me because that's the focus of IEI. It's about working with principals and teachers and training them, but also working with them in their careers, working with practitioners to make sense of how this research, how this "academic technical" thing actually works when you're standing in front of 30-odd students trying to teach them math or trying to teach them science, right? And so for me, that's what's meaningful, is being able to do that work and being a researcher trying to do that translation. And so that's what brought me to the Center and to IEI.
0:18:25.0 AS: What a wonderful feeling though to feel like you found somebody that gets it.
0:18:29.8 ND: Yeah, yeah.
0:18:30.6 AS: That's great. And we are so lucky to have you here. Now, you have two streams of your research, can you tell us a little bit about those?
0:18:36.4 ND: When I talk about these kind of two streams of work, I think of the focus on measurement is one stream, measuring children's social-emotional skills, well-being both in children and adults, and the other stream is much more focused on programs and practitioners and trying to understand where the programs are working for children, why, how, and how can we change them. And so if we think about this kind of first stream on measurement, I think the biggest caveat that I always give people is that I'm not a psychometrician. I'm a developmental psychologist who kind of fell into measurement by mistake. And the story behind it is that in 2015, I was working for Save the Children, which is a non-profit international NGO, and I was in charge of a small research team that was meant to build evidence about education programs in emergencies. And what we realized was there were a lot of Save the Children education programs that were focused on social-emotional learning, but there wasn't a concise way of measuring it or an easy way for different programs around the world to measure social-emotional learning. So we did a big scoping and we mapped out all of the skills and competencies that Save the Children's programs were focused on, different ministry criteria, all of that, and we came up with a bucket of eight or nine skills and competencies, and then we were like, "Okay, let's find measures to measure that."
0:19:55.6 ND: So we went to the web and did what you should never do, which is Google social-emotional skills, primary grades, and there are hundreds, there are hundreds of measures. But the challenge that we faced was that most of those measures were developed in high-resource context primarily in the US, which is fine, but oftentimes the way the skills were described don't always translate well to a low-resource or emergency context, especially skills that are socially norm and the behavioral manifestation of those the skills depend on the context where you live. So then measuring them necessitates kind of a more contextual understanding of those skills. And also, back in 2015, there were lots of subscription services for these measures. You have to pay to use them. And you couldn't adapt them a lot. That's changing now, but there was such strong copyrights that you couldn't change the tools in any way, which is really hard to take a tool that was developed in the US and then say, "I'm going to use it in Thailand or Bangladesh," without changing much besides translating.
0:20:57.8 ND: So we decided to develop our own tool. And so over three years, we went through a process of like in 10 different countries, testing out different items, crashing and burning and rising from the ashes again, hopefully, trying different things, and we ended up developing the International Social-Emotional Learning Assessment, the ISELA, which measures five different social-emotional learning competencies, it's been used by several different organizations now. And so that's how I kind of got into this measurement area. And through that work, one thing that I realized was that there was still an appetite in the sector to develop more context-specific social-emotional learning measures. And so right now what we're doing is we're partnering with USAID on supporting holistic and actionable research and education activity. It's called the SHARE activity. It's one that we partner with the Pulte Institute at Keough, at Notre Dame to do this work with USAID, where in four countries, so Liberia, Honduras, Haiti and Colombia, we're working with teachers, children and students to understand what they mean by social-emotional learning, how do they define these skills, how do they rank them, and then using those narratives, using that information to actually develop a measure of social-emotional learning, and then testing it out to see if it works.
0:22:16.7 ND: We're also doing the same thing for teacher's well-being. We're trying to understand, how do teachers define their occupational well-being, what's important to them in their occupation, and using their words to develop a measure? So that's the kind of broader measure development stream, which is really trying to marry that the quantitative pieces of rigor and reliability and validity, with much more of the qualitative work around understanding these skills and using that understanding to develop the measure. So that's kind of one stream. And then the other stream of work is much more focused on programs, and how do they work, why do they work, do they work, and working with practitioners on that. And in that stream, we're trying to do a lot of different things. It depends on where the program or the intervention is. So in the early stages of an intervention, during the pilot while we're designing something, we're working a lot more on understanding the nuts and bolts, the mechanisms, and doing short service to see, are we moving in the right direction? Not big impact evaluations, just short iterative rapid studies.
0:23:24.7 ND: And one example is a project in Haiti that we did with colleagues called "Alo Mama", which means "Hello, Mother", and at the start of the pandemic, a lot of the mothers in the communities where we were working mentioned their disengagement from the community and they didn't like that because of shutdowns. So we started a project where we had a few trained colleagues call a group of mothers every week to just check in, "How are you doing?" "Hello, Mother. How are you doing?" This was just a few mothers, so about 60 mothers, and we had a small comparison group. And we did a stress survey with the mothers. We did a survey about their levels of stress, and what we saw is we expected the levels of stress for mothers who were getting the phone calls to go down, but we actually saw that the level of stress went up. And so this was a big "Stop, pause, let's think about this moment for our team" because it meant like we needed to figure out what was going on, so we went and talked to the mothers and found out that they liked the phone calls, but they were feeling frustrated that it wasn't connecting them to more resources. So they felt like they were voicing concerns, but it wasn't going anywhere.
0:24:30.5 ND: So the next iteration of the program led us to connect mothers to more resources, which led to more small studies, which led to a bigger parent ambassador and parent training program. And so we can use research and this iterative rapid cycle way to shine a light and say, "If this is not working, we need to stop and change things. Don't just power on." So that's kind of one piece of work that we're doing. We're also looking at better trying to understand the perspectives of stakeholders, parents, teachers in the programs itself. Do they think that these programs are having an impact on their lives? Because in the end, we want these programs to be adopted and embedded within the communities, whether it be a parent training, a teacher training, an early childhood development program, we want communities to take them up, but if they don't believe that these programs are effective, they're not going to do it. So we're working on much more qualitative research to understand, do they think that these programs work and have an effect?
0:25:30.7 ND: And then the last is broader kind of experimental and non-experimental impact evaluations, randomized control trials where we might have a treatment and control group. But we get to that stage only after we've been through all of this kind of development, rapid iteration phases, right? And I think a lot of times in the education sector right now, there's a race to get to the RCT, there's a race to get to the randomized control trial, while I think the more important piece are the much more development pieces that need to happen all year on.
0:26:02.5 AS: When you do something like, I'm not saying it with the nice accent and, "Hello Mama", "Hello Mother", how rewarding is that to have a relatively quick turnaround to say, "Hey, this isn't working"?
0:26:14.3 ND: I wish Alo Mama wasn't so much of a unique example in our sector. I wish there was more standard practice to do those rapid cycle learning checks and actually see if you're moving in the right direction. So it was a little disheartening, of course, for some on the team who had worked on the project, but I think it was rewarding for the team as a whole to realize, "Okay, we have a process where we can question whether we're heading in the right direction and change things based on that." I think the bigger challenge for us is us. We're still controlling the rapid cycle. We're still controlling the learning. How do we get principles? How do we get stakeholders in the communities to adopt this process of learning so that they can make those decisions and we can be taken out of the system? That's the goal. The goal is that we are not needed. The goal is that the system can do this. For me, that's still the challenge is, How can we make sure that it's better embedded within the Haitian education system or the partners that we work with in Haiti, so they can make those decisions themselves?
0:27:20.1 AS: Talk yourself out of a job.
0:27:21.8 ND: I'm fine with that. [chuckle] That's my goal.
0:27:26.3 AS: I love it. Okay, I wonder how social-emotional learning factors into your work?
0:27:30.5 ND: You can think about social-emotional learning as your ability to understand and manage your own feelings and emotions, and then understand feelings and emotions in other people, and use that information to have strong relationships, healthy relationships with people, and then use that internal knowledge and external knowledge to build relationships, but also make responsible decisions in your community as a broad paradigm, that social-emotional learning. And the way sometimes I think about social-emotional learning is through a children's book called the Seven Blind Mice, and I think a lot of people know the story, is there are the seven blind mice who go down to the river, I believe, and they come upon something and they all scurry in different directions and they go explore this and then they come back, and one of them says, "Oh, it's a huge rope," and another says, "No, it's a tree trunk," and the third says, "No it's a wall," and another says it's a snake. And they're all exploring the elephant, but they're exploring it from different perspectives, from different angles. And I think partly the challenge right now in the sector is, we're all exploring the same elephant, but from different perspectives. So some people call it social-emotional learning, others call it life skills or soft skills, or 21st century skills, or non-cognitive skills.
0:28:43.3 ND: There's so many different terms. I think the more important thing is for us to understand the importance of the social and emotional domains in children's lives, as well as the academic domain in education and schools. So for a long time, especially in the global south, there's been so much focus on literacy and numeracy. Like children need to be able to read at a grade three reading level and they need to be able to do basic numerical functions and operations. That's great, but they're also developing in societies, in communities that need them to have the social and emotional skills. So there's this change now in the global education sector from seeing the priorities of education as not just basic literacy and numeracy, but also social and emotional skills, developing these skills within this environment. And developing them for themselves I think is important, but there's ample evidence that they also affect academic skills. So having strong social-emotional skills can have an impact on children's literacy and numeracy. And especially in emergencies, in emergency context, the focus on social-emotional learning has become more and more important because of all of the evidence that has been generated in the US that social-emotional learning and those skills are important for children in the context of adversity especially.
0:30:06.3 ND: So there has been more of a focus of that on that and emergencies. Now, the tricky piece is we still don't have enough evidence from those emergency contexts about social-emotional skills. We know how it functions in the US. We have a lot of information from high-resource context. There's still a huge gap in the literature about social-emotional learning and low resource and crisis context. Are they important? How do they work? We're still trying to build that evidence. But I think there's a lot of focus on it right now, primarily because we're getting closer and closer to defining it, to understanding it as a sector and realizing it's important in the lives of children.
0:30:49.8 AS: A couple of follow-ups to that. In your day-to-day work, how does that manifest itself?
0:30:55.5 ND: How do we understand different types of skills specifically around well-being for children, adolescents and even adults? And in terms of the practitioners that I work with, one of the things that's very apparent is, a lot of these measures are too technical for them. So if we're talking about social-emotional skills for children sometimes, we end up measuring anger dysregulation or hostile attributional bias or peer victimization. What does that actually mean for a teacher? How do they translate anger dysregulation into practice? How do they translate hostile attributional bias into practice? That guidance isn't there. And so for me, that translation is important. It's one thing to be able to measure hostile attributional bias, it's a completely different thing to then say, "Okay, this is what we've learned from measuring that, and this is what we think we should do in terms of programming," in terms of how you approach children in your classroom, or what you do in a non-formal educational setting. So I think that is the translation that's missing and we haven't figured it out. I haven't figured it out. It's not like I have the magic formula. But it's something that we're trying to work towards is really trying to figure out, how do we translate that really for practitioners and for people who actually will be able to directly affect children's lives?
0:32:11.6 AS: Thank you, that's actually very helpful.
0:32:12.7 ND: Yeah. And then if you think about like a teacher in an emergency crisis, if you have a teacher who's working either in a refugee camp, who's working in a setting where you have children who are in your classroom for many different identities, from internally displaced refugee identity, they might have different language identities as well, a lot of them might not speak the language, and then the teacher themselves have their own identities, teachers themselves might have been displaced as well. So you're trying to request to ask this teacher who has very limited support and training and is going through a lot themselves in terms of their own displacement, their own identities, to work with this diverse group of children who are really there, they really want to learn, but they have a lot going on in their lives in terms of their own kind of linguistic displacement, maybe even ethnic identities that are affecting how they learn. That is a really hard negotiation for a teacher. That's a really hard thing for teachers to do. And I don't just mean teachers in a formal setting. It's a facilitator in a non-formal setting, it might be a counselor in a child-friendly space. There's a lot of different "teachers" and those roles.
0:33:26.3 ND: And I think one thing that we're trying to work towards is, how do we ensure that the teachers themselves in those settings are doing well, that they have the support that they need and they feel that they can approach this task that's ahead of them?
0:33:39.3 AS: How do you keep from feeling overwhelmed?
0:33:44.5 ND: It is hard, especially right now it's hard because of the crisis in Ukraine, obviously. It's hard, but I go back to a lot of the experiences I've had. So pre-pandemic, I did travel a lot and I worked directly with teachers and with children, and for me, those experiences are what keep me going because their lives continue, they're continuing to grow and hopefully flourish, and anything that we can do to help in terms of translating research and knowledge or helping practitioners work with children, I think is helpful in that sense. So that's what keeps me going is all the stories that I have from that and the experiences that I've had in those settings. And I have a hard time articulating this sometimes, but even devoid of... There's a lot going on, right? So one thing that I remember is in terms of... We were working to develop a measure of children's self-concept in a Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which was primarily for Syrian refugee children, and we were measuring self-concept, which is this idea of children's understanding of themselves, their strengths, their limitations, do they know themselves, and the measure was just not working.
0:35:02.8 ND: We were trying to develop this measure to evaluate this program and the measure was just not working. And we sat down with teachers and they were like, "You're measuring the wrong thing." They said, "It's not about them knowing who they are. The struggle that these children are having is figuring out who they will be tomorrow, who they will be in five days, who they will be in a year. The struggle that they're having is about their future orientation. They really don't know where they can even go and that's affecting where they are right now." And so we changed our way of measuring self-concept and that measure based on teachers' reflections that really what we needed to be doing is looking at future orientation, is how children express their future and whether they could even envision or imagine this future self for themselves. And so really, I think it is about valuing the fact that teachers have a wealth of knowledge, but are we able, and in these kind of donor cycles that we have of our programs, able to incorporate it into the work that we're doing in that way, in a way that values and looks at their lived experience as a valuable point of information for these programs or these measures that we're working on.
0:36:24.0 AS: It sounds like you had a really good relationship with them so that there was lots of input. Is that a norm? Is that integral?
0:36:32.3 ND: I think it's integral, but it's not the norm. So in a lot of places, it depends on who you're working through and how you work with teachers. So we tend to try and partner with organizations, all with the ministry that already has a certain program or a certain relationship with teachers and that partnering affects what you can do. So a lot of times when, for example, where we're currently working with the LEGO Foundation, we're working to develop a formative measure for teacher's use of play in the classroom, so we're doing that in Colombia, Bangladesh and Uganda, and what we're trying to do is understand, how do teachers use play to support children's learning in the classroom, and what do children think about this? And we're trying to use all of that information to develop a formative assessment that teachers can use in the classroom to improve their practice, a reflective tool for teachers. But the challenge with that is, in a lot of context, entering information or data is seen as an evaluation that might affect teacher's salary, teachers' contracts, teacher's performance appraisal in a system. So how do we get teachers to do reflection and be honest and enter data and information when the setting within which we're collecting that data treats data and information given by teachers as an evaluative act? Right?
0:37:51.0 ND: So it's one thing to say we want the information from teachers and want to use it, it's another thing to say, We have to understand the context within which teachers are being asked for this information.
0:38:02.6 AS: Yes.
0:38:03.6 ND: And so we have to be aware of not just a relationship with the teacher, but a relationship with the teacher in the context of the school, in the context of the system within which they're working.
0:38:14.5 AS: Wow, it just keeps getting more complicated, but [laughter] that's such a good point, it is realistic to think that they are also in a system that they need to navigate.
0:38:25.3 ND: Yeah, yeah.
0:38:27.0 AS: How important is that relationship of trust?
0:38:32.9 ND: It's a lot about who we partner with and what their relationship is with teachers as well. So generally, in most of the context, me myself, like I am not partnering directly with the teacher, it's working with, for example, we have partners in Uganda who have established relationships with teachers and relationships of trust with teachers, and so we try and work through those relationships; one, because they're already established, but two, we also know it helps teachers be more honest of their experience, and even children, if we can work through systems that they already understand and we work with partners that they already have trust with. So, trust does play a very big role, but it's not just about trust, I'm gonna add even more complexity to this. It's about trust, but it's also about positionality, it's about who I am as a researcher from the global North, going with the Notre Dame aura behind me to a refugee camp or to a school in Uganda and saying, I want to collect data. Like, we have to question that. And I remember when... This was a long time ago, right after I finished undergrad, I received the fellowship to work on an ethnography of street children, and I went to four different countries to collect this data, and I was in the Fiji Islands for a while.
0:40:02.1 ND: At one point I realized, I was going through my notes one evening, the information I was getting was a little too good, it was a little too clear, and I started to question like, why am I getting the same stories, the same reflections, the same thing again and again? And the next day I decided I'm not gonna take my notebook with me, I'm not gonna take any notes in the field, I'm just gonna go out and spend some time with the kids, and I'll take notes when I finish at the end of the day. And things changed dramatically, the information that I got. The very act of taking notes and having a notebook in front to me changed how they approached me, the position between me and them. They saw me as a researcher. So I think similarly, in a lot of the work that I've done previously, the data that we collect depends on trust, but it also depends on how we position ourselves as researchers, how we position ourselves as practitioners in the communities where we work.
0:40:58.1 ND: If we show up to a community in a branded van with a branded vest and a branded notebook and say "What do you think of this program that is being provided through this branded organization?" Of course, you're going to hear this really rosy picture. And so I think it's not just questioning the trust that you have, but also the position and the positionality that you have in terms of who you are and what your position of power is in comparison to the partners that you have and the communities that you work besides.
0:41:31.8 AS: Are you excited about upcoming partnerships, current partnerships? I know that you have the LEGO Foundation, can you tell us more about that?
0:41:38.5 ND: I'm excited about a lot of the work that we're doing. With the LEGO Foundation we're specifically working, there's two different projects, one of them is called Play and Learning in Children's Eyes, the PALICE project, and that's the project where we're working with teachers and children in three countries, Colombia, Uganda, and Bangladesh to understand how play is used in the classroom, and what teachers perceive as the role of play to support children's learning in the classroom, what do children view as the role of play. And then using that information to develop a formative assessment that teachers can use in the classroom to improve their practice. At the same time, we're also developing a qualitative research protocol where we can continue to collect data from children about their perceptions of play, so it's a much more formative tool development process, so that's one project, and the other is specifically focused on our work in Haiti, where we received funding from the LEGO Foundation after the August 14th earthquake to work on a resilience project in a specific department called Nippes in the south of Haiti that had been affected by the August 14th earthquake.
0:42:40.5 AS: I love the idea of Legos and studying play. When you say play, what does that kind of mean in the context of this project?
0:42:47.5 ND: I think this is part of the challenge. Play is so much, it is such an encompassing thing, I have a toddler, play is everything for her right now, it's everything that she do is seen in the light of play, or seen in that lens. So I think when we think about play, where specifically the way the LEGO Foundation talks about, and I think it's a good kind of paradigm to think about is five different characteristics. Is the activity joyful? Are you having fun? Basically is it iterative? Are you able to build on previous experience within the activity or beyond the activity that you're doing? Does it have personal meaning? Is it meaningful? Are you able to connect to what you're doing? Is it socially active or interactive? So, are you actually having the opportunity to work with others or not? Sometimes you might just be doing something by ourselves. And then is it actively engaging? Are you constantly in the zone, so to say, in the work that you're doing? So those are kind of the characteristics of play.
0:43:49.5 ND: And then there are different ways to think of play facilitation in the classroom. There's a broad spectrum where it goes from free play, which is children defining very, very child-centered, where children have the kind of autonomy to decide what they want to do and go ahead and do it, to guided play in the middle of the spectrum, which is much more kind of a relationship with the teacher suggesting what to do and the child making a decision with maybe more teacher-directed activities, which might be a game that the teacher suggests and organizes and the children participate. All of those have value in different types of lessons and in different places in the classroom and in the curriculum, what we're trying to study is how teachers and children approach that, if they do, and what is seen. And what we're finding is in the context where we're working, it's primarily teacher-directed play, because if you think of a classroom, for example in Uganda, a teacher standing in front of anywhere between 50-100 children. Doing free play in that environment might not work well for teachers, it might be too hard for teachers to control what's happening in the classroom, so they might have to have more direction and more control, so it's not just about use guided play or use free play in these context, it's about use them in specific situations, but also consider what the setting is around the teacher.
0:45:06.0 AS: Interesting. Are you using Legos?
0:45:09.2 ND: So they don't provide Lego and we're not actually studying the use of Lego in the classroom, we're studying broadly the use of play, meaning we know there is an educational element to play, there is a value to it, it's been happening for centuries. Since time began, children have been playing, adults play too. We've all been playing and we learn through it. It's just about figuring out how do we articulate it and conceptualize it in a way so that we can better support teachers, we can better suggest where and how it might be used in what context and in what forms.
0:45:45.1 AS: Great, thank you. Within the context of the IEI and ACE, the teacher well-being piece, seems like it's something that might be applicable for this community, is it?
0:45:56.7 ND: I hope it is. So I think this is something that we're still working on, is trying to find more connections and more ways to collaborate across IEI. And so I think the teacher well-being work, we were at the end stages of it in Uganda, and we're just starting it off in Colombia, Liberia, Honduras, Haiti. But I definitely think there is this, in terms of methods, in terms of some of the tools that we developed might be useful for other folks in IEI as well, so we would definitely be open to a lot more collaboration and learning across different streams of work at IEI.
0:46:35.8 AS: You seem awfully positive and hopeful, even though the work seems like it could be very daunting. Are you hopeful?
0:46:41.4 ND: Oh yeah. I am probably too optimistic, but I'm very hopeful. There are moments of depression in thinking about where we are in terms of a global community, and especially in terms of the most vulnerable children, in terms of children who have been displaced, in terms of children living in refugee camps, in terms of children who are on the move right now, but I am very hopeful because I have seen the impact of a lot of this work, I have seen children who have lived in refugee camps and have gone on to do amazing things in their communities, I think there's still a lot of work. That's why I'm not worried about talking myself out of the job, I wish we could talk ourselves out of a job because that would be the day where we know that hope is actually paid out and we've accomplished that. So, I think there's a lot of work to do, but I can't help but be hopeful because of all of the kids that I've worked with, all of the adolescents, even after all that they've been through, they are still hopeful, they are still looking for that future, they're still trying to negotiate and find that future for themselves, so we have to be hopeful, we have to have our hope accompany theirs.
0:47:58.1 AS: My gosh. I'm hopeful right along with all of you, so we're just so happy to have you working on this and whatever we can do to support that, and just know you have our gratitude for sure. But thank you so much for this conversation. I've really enjoyed it.
0:48:12.2 ND: Yeah, yeah, thanks Audrey. I had fun having this conversation and I hope it generates a lot of comments, not just about our bad knowledge about St. Patrick's Day, but also about this work, and hopefully there's more collaborations across IEI and the university for this kind of work.
0:48:28.5 AS: Oh, I'm hopeful for that too. Thank you so much, you have a good rest of your day and we'll talk soon.
0:48:33.7 ND: Perfect, thanks Audrey.
0:48:35.5 AS: And thank you all for joining us for Think.Pair.Share. If you enjoyed this episode, head on over to Apple Podcasts to subscribe, rate and leave a review, it's very much appreciated. Check out our website at iei.nd.edu/media for this and other goodies. Thanks for listening and for now, off we go.