Looking ahead to PhD: Focus and Vision

As the first of my classmates were congratulating me on my PhD acceptance, the inevitable question came: "So what do you want to study?" As I started to answer, I stumbled. I didn't have the 12-second, sure-of-myself answer I was supposed to have, despite having thought hard on the question when I wrote my application essay.

I learned of my acceptance five days ago and ever since I've been thinking about how I'm going to make the most of this opportunity. CU-Boulder's School of Education is home to some of the finest researchers in the field, and my experience in the master's program has been excellent. I've always been intellectually curious, and in the PhD program I'll learn how to apply methodologies to that curiosity in ways that are both personally satisfying and helpful to others. To clearly answer the "What do you want to study?" question, I need to develop "focus." The best demonstration of "focus" that I've seen lately is Gary Vaynerchuk's "Linchpin" video he made for Seth Godin's blog:

Linchpin: GaryVee from Seth Godin on Vimeo.

Even if you think P.Diddy's hair was an odd example, I think you get the point. As I prepared my application essay, I tried to focus on one specific thing in both curriculum and instruction (my major):

Curriculum Focus: I'm interested in the intersection of policy and practice, specifically when and how state and national standards become the curriculum that is experienced by students. I studied the math wars for my undergraduate thesis ten years ago, and my new area of interest is how our standards' increased demand for statistics (including all forms of data analysis and visualization, uncertainty, and probability) is causing change in textbooks, course sequences, standardized tests, and traditional perspectives on school mathematics.
Instruction Focus:Teachers' views of standardized assessment are affecting classroom assessment practices, and in turn poor classroom practice in assessment and grading has an inordinate influence over how teachers teach and how students learn. Additionally, negativity towards assessment deters teachers from climbing the mountains of potentially helpful data produced by assessments. I'm interested in understanding both the theoretical and practical problems teachers have with assessments and grading, and how to develop pragmatic solutions that are favorable to practicing teachers.

It's good to have focus. Unfortunately, I've never been comfortable with the pigeon-holing that happens when someone declares a specialty. I remember talking to other undergraduates after we had declared our majors, frustrated with the feeling that because we had chosen a field, people assumed we were now ignorant of everything else. I might be overreacting, and I hope to "crush it" (as GaryVee says), but not at the expense of stifling my curiosity, or losing sight of something bigger, which I'm calling "vision." Vison is big. I was afraid my vision would be too broad or vague in a specialized world, but my attitude was helped greatly by Aaron Eyler's blog post about connecting research with K-12 teachers. Eyler is personally frustrated with how little research makes its way into the hands of K-12 teachers, and the little that does is presented in a "cookie-cutter" fashion that has little of the impact intended by the researcher. Why don't teachers and administrators do a better job keeping up with research, and why don't researchers spend more time working with K-12 educators?

So what's my vision? In short, I want to help teachers be better teachers. It's that simple. I hope to interact with teachers (or future teachers) whenever possible, whether it be teaching methods classes, visiting schools, giving presentations, or whatever else that might engage me with a community of teachers. When I do research, I want to always think of teachers as my audience, not some journal editor or professor who might be refereeing my work. I want to write things that teachers will want to read, and explore ways of delivering research to teachers in helpful ways. That's my vision, and I should be confidently unapologetic about believing you can't focus without vision.