Employee Spotlight: Q&A with John Wachen

The Learning Partnership partners with K-12 school districts to identify and address computer science education problems of practice through research on learning, teaching and systems change. In honor of CS Education Week, Claire Cronin spotlights, John Wachen, one of our postdoctoral researchers who focuses on computer science education policy.

Question: How did you become an educational researcher?

Answer: My undergraduate degree is in Secondary Education English, and I have been involved in education for most of my professional career, in one form or another. I’ve always known that I wanted to do something in the education space. And I feel like being an educational researcher was the sweet spot for me because it brings together the art of teaching and learning with the more scientific side of things.

Question: Can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing before you came to your position at the Learning Partnership?

Answer: I earned my doctorate in education policy and then I worked for a year in Washington, DC doing consulting work with K-12 schools. And even before getting my PhD, I was doing education research, so I knew I wanted to stay in the space. At the time, The Learning Partnership was looking for a researcher to help with their research-practice partnership work collaborating with Chicago Public Schools. And it seemed like it was a good fit based on some of the work that I had done in the past in terms of working closely with districts in this type of partnership model. 

Question: What attracted you to the position at the Learning Partnership?

Answer: It was really about the kind of things that The Learning Partnership was doing in collaboration with Chicago Public Schools. My background is not in STEM education, so I saw this as an opportunity to expand my experience in terms of the disciplines within education in which I was working. 

Question: How would you describe the company culture at the Learning Partnership?

Answer: I think of it as being like a startup in the sense that it’s a small company; staff meetings are everybody who works for the company. Since it’s small, there is a sense of maintaining that personal connection with the folks we work with at the district. It doesn’t have that kind of impersonal feeling that you can get with larger organizations. And it also means that it’s easy to understand and stay updated on what different people within the organization are doing in terms of their research.

Question: In what ways has your current position helped you develop professionally?

Answer: A lot of the work that I do builds on what I was doing either before graduate school, or refining those skills as a doctorate student. In a sense, it is just that next logical step of taking those skills and projects that I worked on in graduate school and going deeper into some of that work. Additionally, I think the partnership with Chicago Public Schools has been particularly helpful because it’s a reminder of the real-world challenges that exist out there for educators who are doing this challenging work in large, urban districts. It’s important for researchers to remember that while we are doing this work – our work should not exist in a vacuum. It needs to be connected to those real-world challenges and working in Chicago has certainly helped me to further think about those challenges and how to be flexible and able to adapt to barriers and changes that occur. The research process almost never goes as planned, so you have to be able to deal with that and figure out ways to adapt as you go.

Question: What are some research projects that you’re currently engaged in?

Answer: One of the research projects I’m working on right now is an evaluation of a research-practice partnership, and that’s been really interesting because it’s given me a different perspective. Not only am I a member of a research-practice partnership, I’m serving as the external evaluator for another partnership. So, I have seen both sides of that work which has been interesting. I’m also working on a large study of the policy process for computer science – it’s focused on the computer science advocacy movement. That’s a project that I’m working on in collaboration with one of my colleagues, Mark. We came up with this idea for a policy research project and were able to follow it through. Now, we are at the tail end of the work and we are getting ready to present and publish some of the findings. And then various other projects related to helping the district with their computer science implementation – there have been different aspects to that over the last couple of years that I’ve helped with.

Question: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the outcomes of your research projects? So far?

Answer: Unfortunately, with the pandemic, a lot of academic conferences have been canceled or turned virtual. But this past spring, I had presentations at several conferences – the International Society of Learning Sciences and the American Educational Research Association. I wasn’t able to attend in person, but those conferences did, in some form or another, go on as planned. With my colleague Mark, we just released on a policy report on issues of equity in remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Question: How do you plan to disseminate your work? Any specific venues or websites you use?

Answer: The Learning Partnership website is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Our policy briefs and working papers are uploaded to the website. Conferences usually have paper repositories or proceedings that get published, so that’s another way that our work is disseminated.

Question: So we touched on this a little bit just now, but can you please explain further how COVID-19 has impacted your work and how the Learning Partnership has provided support to you?

Answer: Obviously, it has been incredibly disruptive for school systems. But fortunately, as a researcher, I was in a good position relative to that massive disruption because I had mostly finished the data collection process for the projects I was working on. So, I was already transitioning into the analysis and interpretation stage on several of these projects, and that meant that even with the disruption, it wasn’t particularly disruptive for me personally because I was able to continue the work I was doing. The advantage of working for a small research organization is that we can pivot easily; the transition to working remotely was relatively straightforward. I did have to do things like focus groups and interviews through Zoom, but that wasn’t a particularly challenging transition. 

Question: Great. Can you tell me about a time that you felt rewarded by the work that you’ve done?

Answer: For a side project, I got to work with our data intern on an exploratory study of AP computer science courses in the district. That was enjoyable because I am primarily a qualitative researcher, so it was a chance to do a little bit of quantitative work. I also work with my colleague Mark on several projects, and that’s always great because he and I have similar perspectives about research and a similar mindset when thinking about and interpreting our work. I appreciate that because I think my best experiences as a researcher are when I’m partnered up with folks and have an opportunity to collaboratively come up with research questions, design projects, and see where it goes. 

Question: Is there anything that you would hope to achieve but have not yet been able to?

Answer: I want to have my work published in a peer-reviewed journal as part of this postdoc. The other thing is that I’m always looking for opportunities to work on projects that involve quantitative work that can help me refine my skill set in that area.

Question: What are your long-term goals and how does your current work align with those?

Answer: The projects I work on now are the kinds of things I hope to continue to do. I value working on projects where I’m collaborating closely with a team of researchers and folks in the district, so I want to continue with that line of work. My longer-term goal is to have my own research grants where I’m studying education in partnership with other researchers and educators.