Questions & Answers

Mark Szymanski began teaching at Pacific's College of Education Eugene campus in 1999. He earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. He taught in Milwaukee, Wis., and has focused much of his work on technology and the power of connecting communities.

Mark Szymanski, Assistant Professor of Education

What led you to leave K-12 education to work with future teachers?

I remember a moment when I was working with some kids who were struggling in school with English. I kept thinking to myself, "Why aren't they getting it? What's going on in their heads?" If I understood more clearly the science of (the students') thinking and their motivations and behavior, then it would help me help them, and help me be a better teacher.

Much of what you teach and research is about linking psychology and teaching. How do these fields go together?

If you are going to try to modify or influence any sort of system, you have to understand how the system works. In this case, the system is the student's mind. I always challenge my students to ask why. Why are schools built this way? Why are classrooms run this way? It used to be that people thought young children didn't think differently than adults; they were simply waiting to become adults. Developmental psychology research has taught us that children are incredible thinkers, and that they do things that are incredibly predictable, but also flexible. They're built to learn.

You've also focused much of your energy on using technology in education. Can you talk about your involvement with the Berglund Center and your work in South Africa?

My second year at Pacific I received a fellowship from the Berglund Center for Internet Studies. My research for the fellowship was built on the basic question: "How do I use technology in ways that help kids in school and also helps community?" I built a Web site that used Internet communication technology to connect kids in high school social studies classes with people who were studying and managing Waldo Lake in Oregon. I created "a knowledge network": a network using technology to build knowledge and understanding about things that would be sort of hollow if you just read about them in a book. The purpose of the project was to have students learn how values influence the management of sacred places like Waldo Lake.

My South Africa work grew out of the Berglund Center fellowship. After the fellowship project, I started to think about how technology could be used to support community causes. I got an e-mail from someone who had read my Berglund paper online about the Waldo Lake project. As a result, I connected with Professor Claudia Ford at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa and we began to collaborate on a project to support HIV education in Soweto, a black township outside of Johannesburg. With support from the Berglund Center and the College of Education, I traveled there and worked with students and teachers in five schools in Soweto to support HIV education efforts. In addition, the students were working on a project that examined the impact of HIV on economic and environmental sustainable development. I accompanied the students to the United Nations Summit on Sustainability in Johannesburg where they presented their findings. Violet, one of the workers at the University, would drive me into Soweto. It can be a dangerous place, so I wasn't comfortable going there by myself, and she didn't want me to go in there by myself either considering the history of racial tension. I was the only white person I would see all day. I taught teachers how to use the curriculum and Web site we built for the project. I also helped them with anything in their schools that related to technology and computers. It was a powerful experience.

Are there things you learned from your experience in South Africa and with this project that you are using in your teaching at Pacific?

Culturally, just being able to talk about my experiences working with students and people from a completely different culture – blacks in South Africa who were for years beaten down and suppressed by white people. It was interesting to be in that situation. The most profound impact on my technology classes was to experience the power of connecting people. I try to share with my students that there are many opportunities for them to connect their students and themselves with people from all over the world and even in their communities using electronic tools.

Teaching in K-12 education has gotten a tough reputation because of school funding issues. Why do people still want to earn teaching degrees?

It's a calling for most people. There will always be government and bureaucratic barriers to overcome, but the kids help you overcome those. We get people in our program that have been doing other things like selling insurance, being a lawyer, being a doctor, they come to us and say, "I want to teach. It's what I've wanted to do, and I've been putting it off." One of the things that teachers bring is that they're optimists in many ways, and they're hopeful. That hope and optimism allows teachers to keep thinking, "It'll get better."