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Here’s a description of a classroom where a wealth of learning occurs.

Students choose small groups and the teacher asks them to plan a vacation. They can go anywhere.

The first group decides on Washington, D.C. After they do some online research they mark on a map the sites they hope to visit while they’re there. The teacher suggests one student check to see what the average March temperature is for D.C. so they’ll know if they need to dress for snow or sunshine. The teacher also talks to them a bit about what “average” means.

Someone else in the group points out that Virginia is very near the Capital and wants to know if they can drive to Virginia and see some historical sites while they’re so nearby. The teacher tells them to do a little online research and determine if they can fit that into their four days in D.C., given the full schedule they’ve already developed.

She also gives the group one iPad and asks them to find two people who already have been to D.C. They must develop five questions to ask these travelers about the destination and use the iPad to videotape the responses.

The first-graders fire up the iPad and get to work on finding the driving distance between D.C. and Williamsburg.

That’s right, first-graders.

Decades of research show that project-based learning – an approach that encourages students to create, design and implement project ideas that interest them – promotes deeper learning of academic content, boosts problem-solving skills and increases students’ motivation to learn.

It’s only recently, though, that scholars and teachers have embraced the approach for the youngest students.

“Before children enter school their lives are about exploration and learning – they’re going through an extremely rich, rapid phase of development and then, all of a sudden, that can be shut down when they get in the classroom,” said Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair, a College of Education assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and an early childhood education expert.

“Children are made up of a plethora of capabilities, and in the early years they’re developing very quickly in several different domains. When you have children this young sit still at a desk and listen, for 45 minutes at a time, about one way of doing something, you’re only addressing a miniscule area of their capabilities. And you’re shutting down their natural curiosity and drive to figure things out.”

According to Adair project-based learning gets to more of those capabilities quicker, more deeply and more effectively, and children retain the content longer.

Research also shows that children taught with project-based instruction reach academic benchmarks and tend to perform on standardized tests as well as or better than traditionally taught peers.

“Standardized scores are not the reason to embrace project-based learning, however,” said Adair. “The reason is to develop children who become adults who have a wide array of capabilities. They’ll be able to become scientists, problem-solvers and thinkers who can tackle the issues facing their families and communities.”

“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time, but the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children.” – Dr. Jennifer Adair

In a class where project-based instruction happens, activities start with an inquiry, with children pondering and then formulating questions that puzzle or interest them. The teacher acts as a facilitator and guide in their exploration.

Students, even as early as pre-kindergarten, are motivated to search through books, conduct online research, interview fellow students, consult experts and do experiments to answer questions that excite them.

“The students don’t just choose a topic to pursue but they also get to choose the way they want to learn more it ” said Adair, who has spent over 10 years in classrooms with varying levels of what she calls “school-based agency,” or the ability to influence how and what you learn in a classroom. “They’re given the opportunity to fail and then pick right up again and keep exploring. The teacher gives them direction and pushes them to keep moving when they stall, but it’s amazing what children are able to figure out on their own and through discussion with their peers.”

Adair noted that project-based learning also has been successful at narrowing the achievement gap and promoting learning in traditionally low-achieving student populations.

“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time,” said Adair. “But the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children. Young children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.”

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey


  • Dr. Jennifer Adair examines how much autonomy young children can manage in the classroom.
  • Traditional instruction limits the amount children learn.
  • Project-based teaching yields deeper learning, better problem-solving skills, increased student motivation.
  • Low-achieving student populations benefit from project-based instruction.

How much science do four-year-olds know? More than you’d think.

To find out if the youngest students bring science knowledge with them to kindergarten, and if they’re capable of learning more than previously assumed, College of Education program coordinator Mary Hobbs and her research team observed, mentored and gathered data alongside 24 Austin area pre-kindergarten teachers.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

An additional 24 AISD comparison classrooms were observed and, in all, 2,500 children were involved in the landmark project.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten,” said Hobbs, who is coordinator for science initiatives in the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching. “They may come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and have parents with different levels of education attainment, but each child has absorbed some of what we’d define as science content by kindergarten.”

To assess children’s knowledge, teachers involved in the project gave them several tasks – like sorting and categorizing – that would reveal their grasp of basic, foundational science concepts.

Teachers and students also created raised bed gardens to give the children an outdoor lab in which to use their current science skills and learn even more about science.  Building the gardens, filling them with plants and nurturing the plants provided rich and varied opportunities for teaching life science, physical science and earth science.

According to Hobbs, the garden was an ideal resource to support student learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics because:

  • research has shown that preschool children normally are very drawn to the natural world and natural objects.
  • an onsite project like the garden gives all children, regardless of background and family financial resources, a common learning experience.
  • it’s a context in which children can learn everything from facts about plants, animals and the weather to concepts of force and motion.
James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

“Learning tends to increase and problem-solving skills improve when children have opportunities to explore and they’re able to indulge their natural curiosity,” said Hobbs, “The garden allows children to learn through hands-on activities and inquiry-based instruction. It’s also a learning environment that can be adapted for any age group and in a variety of settings.”

The $2 million, four-year research project, called Building BLOCKS for Science, was the first of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation. Dr. James Barufaldi, director for the college’s Center for STEM Education, and Hobbs were co-principal investigators on the grant.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten.” – Dr. Mary Hobbs

“The teachers were remarkably responsive and very excited about learning more science themselves as well as discussing with us the best ways to engage the children in science,” said Hobbs. “In working with the students, they started with what they thought was appropriate for that age group and as soon as they observed the students were capable of handling more, they adapted and began to add more varied and challenging activities.”

As part of the grant, the teachers were given intensive professional development training and mentoring support.

Hobbs and her team have shared their project findings with AISD, other Austin area school districts and many private day care facilities. The schools have implemented many of Hobbs’ recommendations, including building over 200 school gardens to use as teaching tools.

“We discovered that adults tend to consistently underestimate how much young children know and understand,” said Hobbs. “Seeing that they’re capable of much more, we can aim to adapt curriculum and do the necessary teacher training and mentoring to better prepare these students for the learning opportunities they’ll encounter later. Science is best taught by doing, and we are doing science in Austin!”

Photos by: Christina S. Murrey


  • Dr. James Barufaldi and Dr. Mary Hobbs were co-principal investigators on a grant to examine how much science pre-K children know and can learn.
  • $2 million, four-year project
  • First of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation
  • 2,500 Austin area pre-K students were involved in the study
  • 24 teachers received mentoring and helped the researchers gather data

Dr. Deborah Palmer is a leading national expert on creating bilingual education settings where students can thrive and training teachers for multilingual and multicultural classrooms.

What way of teaching a second language works best with early elementary children?
A: Research shows two-way dual language bilingual classrooms seem to be most effective.

What is a two-way dual language program?
A: In two-way dual language bilingual education classes you have English-speaking students and non-English-speaking students in the class, and all students are taught in English as well as the minority language. In Texas schools the most common non-English language in these programs is Spanish.

How much time is devoted to teaching each language?
A: In a well-implemented two-way dual language program, language use is intentional. As far as how much time is devoted to each language in class, there are “50/50 programs,” which divide the time evenly between the two instructional languages. There also are “90/10 programs” and the positive learning outcomes for these appear to be more powerful. In the 90/10, children start out in pre-K or kindergarten working in the non-English language for 90 percent of a day or week and in English for 10 percent of the time.

They continue to do this through 12th grade?
A: In the ideal 90/10 program teachers gradually progress to a 50-50 approach, and by fourth grade students are working in English half of the time and in the other language half of the time. This continues through 12th grade, and they graduate with a dual language diploma. There aren’t many programs in Texas – yet – that do this through graduation.

Even though they’re only hearing and using English 10 percent of the time, the students still manage to become proficient in it?
A: Definitely. Studies show that students in 90/10 programs gain English proficiency at the same rate as they do in 50/50 programs.

That’s very surprising – why is it the case?
A: One extremely important fact to remember is that skills in a first language seem to predict your level of skills in a second language. Research shows that if your first language is strongly supported, respected and honored in the classroom – and you’re immersed in it there – you’re going to learn a second language quicker, easier and better. Children also perform better academically and build stronger language skills if their native culture is respected and recognized in class.

Do you have any current projects in the works that address early elementary dual language programs?
A: I do, in fact. I’m working with Austin ISD to examine the ways in which the implementation process for a two-way dual language program affects its success, and we’re doing a district-wide survey of teachers’ language ideologies as they implement dual language. I should have some results to report in the very near future.

On the topic of learning additional languages in general, is it true that it’s much easier for children to learn a new language than it is for adults?
A: It does tend to be but not for the reasons most people think. Before children are five, they’re still acquiring basic grammar and vocabulary in their primary language If children are exposed to a second language before the age of five, then I like to think of it as a “two-fer” – they can become fluent in two languages and be considered “primary bilinguals.”  Another reason it may seem like children learn a new language more easily is because they tend to be more open and less anxious or inhibited when it comes to trying something new – they’re willing to jump right in. Also, young children have less to learn in order to sound like their age-peers in a second language, so their language agility can be deceptive.

The truth is, adults or older children with more fully developed primary languages have more tools to draw on to learn their second language, and they often do it better and faster than young children.

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey

Sharon Vaughn, Executive Director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk

Dr. Sharon Vaughn, an internationally acclaimed reading expert and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER), has been honored with the University Co-op Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards program’s very prestigious Career Research Excellence Award.

Vaughn, who is the H.E. Hartfelder/Southland Corp. Regents Chair in Human Development, is the first female ever to win the award and only the second winner from The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

The Research Excellence Award, which is accompanied by $10,000, is given to a UT Austin faculty member or staff researcher who has maintained a superior research program across many years.

In addition to serving as the Executive Director of MCPER, Vaughn also is a professor in the Department of Special Education and director of the Center’s Reading Institute and the Dropout Prevention Institute. She serves on the board of directors for the college’s nationally renowned Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts as well.

“Nationally, among literacy and education scholars, Dr. Vaughn’s name is virtually synonymous with reading research and instruction,” said Manuel J. Justiz, dean of the College of Education. “She’s a pioneer in the development and implementation of intervention practices designed to prevent literacy difficulties and improve reading and writing abilities in some of our most in-need student populations – her impact in this area is unprecedented. The College of Education is incredibly fortunate to have someone so highly accomplished.”

At MCPER, over which Dr. Vaughn presides, faculty from a variety of disciplines in addition to education conduct research on autism spectrum disorders, literacy, dropout prevention, English language learners, math learning disabilities, and response to intervention.
Recently Vaughn and colleagues were selected to partner with the George W. Bush Institute and, with a $2.6 million grant, launch the Middle School Matters Institute. The Institute will focus on translating research into practice in middle schools and will address struggling learners’ needs in several core subjects.

In 2010, under Vaughn’s leadership the Center secured the largest grant the College of Education has ever received – $20 million from the Institute of Education Sciences – and what is thought to be the largest grant ever awarded to any college or school of education.
In total, Vaughn has been responsible for around $60 million in funding since she joined the College of Education.

Currently, she is principal investigator on several Institute of Education Sciences, Texas Education Agency and U.S. Department of Education research grants as well as a major National Institute for Child Health and Human Development grant which is allowing her to investigate response to intervention in students with reading difficulties.

During her more than three decades of scholarship, Vaughn has been recognized with numerous honors, including:

  • Distinguished Researcher Award from the American Educational Research Association
  • UT Austin’s Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Award
  • Special Education Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)
  • Jeannette E. Fleischner Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Learning Disabilities from the CEC
  • Albert J. Harris Award from the International Reading Association
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from The Institute for Literacy and Learning
  • J. Lee Wiederholdt Award from the Council for Learning Disabilities

She has authored more than 35 books that have informed instructional design and other other researchers’ scholarship. She has also written more than 250 research articles. In addition, she has been editor-in-chief of the Journal of Learning Disabilities and serves on the editorial review boards for 10 different journals that focus on individuals with disabilities.

“This Career Research Excellence Award is such a fitting tribute to Dr. Vaughn’s stature in the field of education,” said Justiz. “And it is a wonderful way to say ‘thank you’ to her for working so diligently to make sure that all children have an opportunity to learn.”

Photos by: Christina S. Murrey

Dr. Joan Shiring
The Texas 10
The Alcalde
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“Shiring, MEd ’81, PhD ’86, says that beating cancer made her more grateful for a job she already loved: training future English teachers in UT’s College of Education, where she spent 32 years, first as a student and then as a faculty member.”

Dr. Harold “Bill” Kohl
The Marathon Runner as Couch Potato
The New York Times
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“… the data showed that ‘time spent exercising does not supplant time spent sitting.’ It seems that people can be simultaneously very active and very sedentary.”

Dr. Jonathan Dingwell
From Athletes to the Elderly: The Science of Trips and Falls
The Wall Street Journal
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“…research, at the University of Texas at Austin, tracked healthy people as they walked and ran and found that older individuals are more at risk from small variations in steps than younger people. Jonathan Dingwell, a professor in the department of kinesiology and health education, said younger people can more quickly adjust to the changes than the elderly.
The study was conducted by attaching reflective markers onto various parts of participants’ bodies. The positions of the markers, which reflected infra-red light caught on cameras, were reconstructed in a computer to generate a digital image that allowed researchers to analyze the gait of the participant.”

Dr. Kay McClenney
Ramping Up Engagement to Boost Student Success
Community College Times
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“Improved student success and college completion isn’t about having a checklist, or one of everything—a collection of boutique programs. Quality of design and implementation is critically important. Integrating discrete practices into coherent pathways is essential. And community colleges will achieve the improved results they seek only when they commit to high-quality implementation at significantly higher scale.”

Montserrat Garibay, Curriculum & Instruction alum
Closing a Fear Gap So Children Can Achieve
The New York Times
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“At a time when Latinos have surpassed whites to account for a majority of public school students in Texas, Ms. Garibay is taking an unusually direct approach to one of the most deeply entrenched challenges in education: the achievement gap in test scores and low graduation rates that are plaguing schools disproportionately populated by the children of immigrants.”


Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration and UT Austin’s vice president for diversity and community, joined President Barack Obama on Feb. 27 at the White House for the introduction of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.

Gregory J. Vincent, Ph.D.

Gregory J. Vincent, Ph.D.

Education, public sector and philanthropic leaders, including General Colin Powell, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Honorable Michael Bloomburg, also were on hand for the rollout.

The initiative will use proven tools that already are helping young men and boys of color in select communities reach their full potential and replicate those successful practices and programs on a large scale. To make this happen, the initiative has engaged the support of private philanthropies, governors, mayors, businesses, faith leaders and non-profit organizations. The President also has signed a presidential memorandum to create a federal government task force that will evaluate the efficacy of various intervention strategies so that all partners in the initiative will have a set of best practices to follow.

At UT Austin, Dr. Vincent has played a key role in establishing mentoring programs nationwide for young Black males through the work of the national fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and has been a leader in Communities in Schools’ X-Y Zone. X-Y Zone is a leadership development and peer support program that builds beneficial life skills in high school-age males of color.

Dr. Melissa Mosley Wetzel and Saba Khan Vlach
Language and Literacy Studies

Melissa Mosley Wetzel is An Associate Professor of Language and Literacy. Her research and teaching focus on how preservice teachers integrate critical literacy and culturally relevant practices into their field-based literacy teaching experiences.

Saba Vlach taught elementary school for 17 years.  She is currently in her first year of Ph.D coursework in The University of Texas at Austin’s Language and Literacy Studies program.



Title: “Fly Free”
Author: Written by Roseanne Thong, Illustrated by Eujin Kim Neilan
Age range: Grades K-3
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press, 2010
“Fly free, fly free in the sky so blue. When you do a good deed, it will come back to you.”  Mai softly sings these words when she invites Thu to help feed the caged sparrows outside the Buddhist temple in Vietnam.  Mai’s invitation begins a circle of kindness that will help all who join to “fly free” (including the readers).



Title: “This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration”
Author: Written by Jacqueline Woodson, Illustrated by James Ransome
Age range: Grades K-3
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2013
According to the illustrator, “I wanted to tell the story of how some Black people came to New York City. When I began writing it, my mom was still living. She didn’t live to see the final book but I think it would make her very proud. She came to Brooklyn a long time ago and if she hadn’t come to New York, I wouldn’t have grown up here! I couldn’t even imagine that!”



Title: “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale”
Author: Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Age range: Grades 2-5
Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013
Pancho, a young rabbit, sets out on an adventure with the reader to find his papa. His story is one of migration and an emotional journey. Readers will delight in Tonatiuh’s beautiful illustrations and word choices. Pancho’s story has won numerous awards, including the Pura Belpré Author and Illustrator Honor book for 2014 and most recently, the Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award.



Title: “Parrots Over Puerto Rico”
Author: Written by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore
Age range: Grades 2-5
Publisher: Lee & Low Books, Inc., 2014
“Parrots Over Puerto Rico” is a nonfiction picture book that recounts the history of the Puerto Rican parrot and the efforts of the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program to save these beautiful birds from the danger of extinction.  The illustrations, created with paper and fabric collages, are breathtaking and unforgettable. “Parrots Over Puerto Rico” won the 2014 Robert Siebert Award by ALA as the outstanding informational Children’s Book.

To maintain our ranking as one of the top-rated U.S. education programs we have to do a lot of things right. We balance the rigorous disciplines of instruction and research while striving to maintain such core values as diversity, discovery, innovation and leadership. But there’s one unifying theme to this multi-faceted labor of love: Teaching is at the heart of everything we do.

Video by: Christina S. Murrey


“Read. Read widely. Read beyond the syllabi. It will pay off in ways you can’t imagine.”

Program Area: Language and Literacy Studies

Tom’s Story
I was 25 when I entered the Ph.D. program, after having taught three years in a pretty desperate high school in


Dr. Newkirk taught a graduate seminar in the history of composition at the University of New Hampshire in the fall of 2011. He was inspired by a UT class he took the summer of 1973 taught by Geneva Pilgrim.

Boston. During those three years I was immersed in African American speech and forms of behavior that intrigued, puzzled, and (occasionally) tormented me. Graduate school, I hoped, would help me understand this situation better—particularly ways in which these oral performances and rituals could map onto reading.

Why UT?
I loved Austin from the moment I set foot there, and I loved the freedom of the doctoral program. Geneva Pilgrim, Jim Kinneavy, and Bob Kline were supportive and accessible, yet gave us all great freedom to find our way in a great and rich university. Kinneavy had recently published his magnum opus, The Theory of Discourse , which to this day shapes my map of language use. I also benefited tremendously from taking courses in the Speech and Communication Department, especially working with Beverly Whittaker who helped me understand the rhetoric of fiction.

NewkirkLife After UT
In the years, now decades, since I graduated I find myself coming back repeatedly to the work I read there. It seemed to me an age of “big” thinkers—along with Kinneavy there was James Moffett, John Dixon, Wayne Booth, James Britton, and Louise Rosenblatt. I know that the term “foundation” gets thrown around a lot, but I truly gained a foundation at the University of Texas.  For example, in my writing this week I revisited Kinneavy’s concept of “surprise value” in informative writing (timely because of the Common Core emphasis on non-fiction). It’s always with me.


NewkirkAdvice For Students
As for advice, I would say stay open to new directions; don’t get locked into a set project too early. Although I came to Texas with an interest in reading, it was writing and writing development that came to excite me—following that new interest was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  And read. Read widely. Read beyond the syllabi. It will pay off in ways you can’t imagine.

Finally, for heaven’s sake, enjoy your time in graduate school, enjoy Austin. And if you can find your way to the Scholz Garten, lift a Pearl for me.

Photos by Melissa Cooperman

To read more about our Curriculum and Instruction Alumni, go to: http://www.edb.utexas.edu/education/departments/ci/alumni/

Meet new faculty member Dr. Katherina Payne, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s Social Studies Education area –

“I’m really interested in how elementary school teachers prepare students to be active democratic citizens. In classes where teachers are addressing this issue, you see them giving children ample opportunities to participate, make choices and solve problems themselves or with their classmates, as a small community.

I’m also very interested in helping teachers become more effective at and comfortable with talking about sensitive social and cultural topics with very young children. I’ve spent a lot of time studying how teachers do this and working with future and current teachers on successful strategies. When we say “social issues,” we’re talking about things like racism, perhaps, or atypical family structures, immigration, divorce, incarceration, issues around gender, and so forth.

Children know much more about these topics than we adults assume, and they don’t see them as ‘controversial’ in the same way that adults can. They want to discuss them and they have a great natural sense of fairness when it comes to talking about things like discrimination and prejudice. Teachers usually discover that at least a few of their students are directly affected by one or more of these issues.

One of the best ways to broach these topics in class is to use relevant children’s literature as a launching point. For example, in kindergarten through second grade, the topic of families comes up often in the age-appropriate literature. Using books, the teacher can open up a discussion about what a family is supposed to look like and all of the different kinds of families there are.”

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey