AERA 2021–22 President Na’ilah Suad Nasir Provides Vision for the Future of Education and Learning in a Multicultural Democracy
AERA 2021–22 President Na’ilah Suad Nasir Provides Vision for the Future of Education and Learning in a Multicultural Democracy

May 2022

AERA 2021–22 President Na’ilah Suad Nasir

In her presidential address, titled “A Vision for the Future of Learning,” AERA 2021–22 President Na’ilah Suad Nasir provided a thought-provoking and research-based assessment of how education and learning systems in the United States could be better organized for a multicultural democracy.

Nasir started her lecture by posing a fundamental question: “How do we build systems that transcend and transform how we have been doing ‘education’ and that are designed to support rich and engaging learning, critical thinking skills, and to fully educate young people in ways that honor their whole humanity, their developmental needs, and their families and communities?”

She noted that this a time of extreme social and racial inequity; a time when educators and systems are weary from navigating the complexities and fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and national political polarization; and a time in which it is undeniable that learning is a political act, intertwined with processes of cognition, identity, belonging, and social-emotional well-being.

Nasir also stressed that this is a time of possibility. Education systems are more aware than ever of the need for fundamental change. Furthermore, it is a time for the field to engage new ways of thinking about the goals and means of education and to create the educational systems that students and society need, informed by expansive scholarship in the learning sciences.

“I want to make clear that while I will be focused on hope, and a vision of what we could build, I do so fully mindful of the issues of power that underlie funding, as well as how power and privilege reproduce themselves in our current system,” said Nasir. “I am also aware of the power of a people who want something better for the next generation, and of the power we hold individually and collectively as the education research community, and I am suggesting that we not cede our power—rather that we garner it and use it for collective good.”

Nasir noted that the way the nature of learning is theorized has direct implications for “the ways we teach, how we arrange classrooms and other learning settings, and how we organize schools.”

Nasir presenting her address, "A Vision for the Future of Learning"

She explained that learning has been theorized in three waves over time: behaviorism, cognitivism, and social-culturalism. Nasir said each of these theories contributes partial truths, but what is really needed is a theory of learning that integrates these insights and holds at its core a holistic perspective of learning and of young people.

“There is another problem from the prior science that we need to attend to; what is required is a science of learning that takes multiplicity, difference, and cultural context very seriously,” said Nasir. “This has not been our history as a field.”

“In other words, we need to better attend to cultural diversity,” Nasir said. “To not do so leaves us at risk of a science rooted in deficit theories and misunderstandings.”

Referencing the recent Handbook of the Cultural Foundations of Learning, which she co-edited, Nasir highlighted the RISE principles of learning, which contend that learning is rooted in the evolutionary, biological, and neurological systems of our bodies and minds and inseparable from our social and cultural activities; integrated with all other aspects of development to establish a wide-angle view of the whole child; shaped by everyday life cultural activities, both in and out of school and across the lifespan; and experienced in our bodies, through coordination with social others and the natural and designed worlds.

“It is important, as we think about building systems, to note that our systems were not designed with this kind of learning in mind and were certainly not designed for all students to learn,” said Nasir. “Creating something new will require a radical imagination to think something better is actually possible, the faith to believe we can use our power to bring it into being, and the will to do it.”

Members of the audience at Nasir's Presidential Address

Nasir reflected on the role of research in supporting this new vision for learning and how research training and structures in the academy must also evolve.

“There are research habits we need to strengthen as a field,” said Nasir, noting that researchers need to view those who they study as partners, not subjects; that there is a need for more collaborative and interdisciplinary research across fields and methodological approaches; that studies need to be more ambitious; and that research needs to focus more on implementation and systems change.

Nasir added that fostering these research habits would require research training, academic incentives, a bolstered research and development infrastructure, and vastly increased funding, especially at the federal level.

“Our scholarship must take up issues of equity as a central and abiding question and fixable challenge, meaning we have to believe we can do something different, and work from an imperative to do so,” said Nasir.

“We are having a collective moment in education,” Nasir said. “It is one of those rare moments where it seems clear that our choice is to do the same thing and perish or figure out a new way of being so that we thrive. It is a time for radical hope and for collective action.”

Nasir and AERA President-Elect Tyrone Howard
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