‘The Year of Curiosity’ — Designing, Developing and Drilling Down into Learning 

Insight from learning design expert Laura Fischer.   

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

This results-oriented, strategic leader in the educational publishing and edtech industries partners with organizations to manage the design and development of curriculum products and create high-quality instruction and assessment for preK-12. Laura Fischer, VP of Learning Design and Content Development for Learning A-Z, “strives to create collaborative environments that leverage the strengths of all team members through effective communication and supportive leadership,” as she puts it. Some client partners include such notable players in education as: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, National Geographic Learning/Cengage, Smithsonian Science Education Center, Pearson, Age of Learning, Riverside Publishing, College Board/SpringBoard, Capstone Classroom, Cambium Learning, Robert-Leslie Publishing/InvestiGator Club, and Loyola Press. In this interview, Laura gets into the critical areas, challenges, and issues involved in working at the intersection of education and technology and shares insight from a vantage point that only an expert professional like her could know. Enjoy!  

As VP of Learning Design and Content Development for a leading edtech firm, what are the top issues, challenges, or areas that you are facing right now?

One critical area for elementary teachers and edtech is the need to design and implement curricular materials aligned with the Science of Reading. There’s room here for that topic now since it’s a pressing need of elementary teachers facing the challenge of shifting how they’ve taught literacy to reflect new mandates from their school districts and the state. Learning A-Z is at the forefront of this shift, offering a product suite designed to reflect evidence-based practices across foundational skills, comprehension, writing, vocabulary and content-area knowledge building.

Teachers face other challenges, often daily, within their classrooms. Every class includes students with different learning needs — and a one-size-fits-all teaching approach won’t work. Educators need multiple ideas in their toolbox to ensure the delivery of effective instruction for all their learners, and that’s something we at Learning A-Z are trying to help provide. 

Another issue is the mounting piles of administrative work teachers take on every year. These tasks cut into the limited time teachers have for more vital responsibilities like developing curriculum, creating engaging lessons, developing thoughtful assessments and evaluating students. Our edtech platform includes an administrative component, where teachers can use automation to help assess and evaluate students — and also allow students to take more ownership of their own learning journey.

You’ve talked about mastering reading skills as vital, but also ‘knowledge building’ and that we could be entering a year of curiosity. Could you define and elaborate on all of this?  

In the past, we’ve seen the focus on teaching and learning literacy skills in isolation as teachers of elementary students strive to address the expectations of their state standards. But, as research shows us, students need background knowledge to help cement those skills. The more teachers can create context and build world knowledge through the materials they select, the more easily students can make meaning from text and increase their comprehension.

If we cast classrooms as knowledge-building communities, we create an environment that invites and encourages students to gain a deeper understanding of what they’re learning. I see the 2023-24 school year as the “Year of Curiosity,” where teachers use literacy instruction as an opportunity to dive more deeply into meaningful topics and themes. By leaning into this idea of knowledge-building, we access a vital way to improve reading outcomes. 

‘If we cast classrooms as knowledge-building communities, we create an environment that invites and encourages students to gain a deeper understanding of what they’re learning.’

And the Science of Reading supports this approach, too. Using research to inform instruction extends to more aspects of literacy than just foundational skills and phonics. People forget that the Science of Reading refers to any research-backed approach to teaching literacy. While writing has gotten short shrift, I’m seeing a trend where we’re once again opening up the definition of what the Science of Reading is. It’s literacy: reading, writing, speaking and listening — all those domains.

One way to support these domains is to ensure teachers have access to a variety of texts for their students. Introducing students to a wide variety of texts on different themes and topics (and choosing to go deep, not broad) grows students’ knowledge and vocabulary — which is the way to win reading gains in the long term. Digital libraries are great for providing this support, offering a multitude of texts that are accessible from anywhere. Tools like e-readers can provide scaffolding and support right at the point of use, which is a research-proven way to support comprehension.

Reading skills and strategies will always be necessary — but when you teach them in isolation or via random texts instead of taking time for more in-depth exploration, you lose a critical opportunity to create connections for students. 

What have been some highlights of your work with Learning A-Z this past year, and what do you see in the coming year?

We’re proud of the work we’ve done to enhance our suite of reading products to ensure authentic representation and diversity of voices across our digital library of texts. We’ve spent a lot of time and care and brought in external consultants with lived experience to verify that the stories we’re telling and the information we provide represent all learners and provide multiple perspectives.

Learning A-Z also recently released two new digital-first, Science of Reading-aligned products: Foundations A-Z (FAZ) and Writing A-Z (WAZ). EdReports recently awarded FAZ all-green ratings. WAZ includes a revolutionary digital writing platform, Writing and Learning Together (WaLT), which provides everything teachers and students need to engage in the writing process seamlessly, at their fingertips.

In the upcoming year, we’re focusing on creating the best user experience for teachers and students by improving our UI and navigation. We’re also looking at ways to leverage the power that digital functionality provides as it relates to supporting instruction and measuring student outcomes. We’re asking ourselves, “Where’s the value add in this digital experience? How can digital meet this expectation better than the ‘traditional’ way?”

We live in interesting times in a shifting edtech landscape—any advice to edtech job seekers?  

Being on the product development side of an edtech company, I’m seeing many educators who seek to transition out of the classroom and into the corporate edtech space. What I can suggest to transitioning teachers is that they learn about the different opportunities in edtech and think about how their skill sets transfer and where their personal interests lie.

Project management, user experience, sales, customer success, content development… the list goes on. It’s important that these folks choose a focus and pursue some professional learning in that area. They should identify the type of skills that their desired functional role uses daily to help target their learning. And also important? Networking with others in that space to grow their knowledge base and understand where their current skills fit in. 

Any trends you are carefully watching—and your thoughts on the future of learning?

One trend I’m following is the evolution of people’s understanding of the Science of Reading. Its definition has become increasingly narrow. As people see that it’s not only about foundational skills but about comprehension and meaning-making, we will see its definition expand and transform into the Science of Literacy. That trend will be part of the discussion moving forward as people understand — or remember — that the Science of Reading isn’t just about reading but about all domains associated with literacy, including writing, speaking and listening. You can’t have reading without writing, with their instruction living in separate silos rather than sharing the same bucket. When you’re in a classroom, everything is interconnected.

Another trend to watch is the increase in personalized learning. Teachers are looking for ways to customize content and learning processes based on individual learners’ needs to engage students more deeply and cultivate an effective learning environment. AI-powered educational tools and adaptive learning platforms will continue to play an important role in classrooms, helping teachers deliver differentiated content, provide remediation or enrichment, introduce core materials, assess students and use automation to manage administrative tasks. 

A third trend also connected to technology is the ongoing adoption and implementation of AI and machine learning via intelligent tutoring systems, virtual assistants and chatbots to enhance the educational experience. The industry as a whole is still at the beginning of this potentially transformative evolution, but it has the potential to reshape how we teach and how students learn.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com


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