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10 Questions With New College Of Education Dean Kimberly Lawless

College of Education dean Kimberly Lawless officially began her tenure on September 1. Her appointment came following a nationwide search to replace David Monk who announced last October he would be stepping down.

Dr. Lawless comes from a 20-year career at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston College, and a master’s and Ph.D in educational psychology from the University of Connecticut.

A few weeks into her tenure, we sat down with Dean Lawless to discuss her future plans for Penn State, as well of some of the most important issues facing the world of education today.

OS: Why did you choose to come to Penn State?

Lawless: I don’t think I necessarily chose to come to Penn State, but it was more of like a meeting of the minds. We kind of chose each other.

Penn State’s a great school. It’s a college that has a great reputation and a university that has a great reputation. While that could describe a number of places, what really sparked my interest initially in Penn State was the fact of how the one university works.

The founding fathers, as the university developed, placed the central campus literally right in the center of the state and then used the geographic area of the state to its advantage, creating the commonwealth campuses as spoken that come out from the hub. I saw that in education as an opportunity to think about how education works in multiple different contexts for multiple different people.

OS: What role do you think research plays in higher education, and education in general?

Lawless: In higher education, I think the two go hand in hand. When you are at a premier institution like Penn State, one of the things that sets that apart from many others institutions that are less research-intensive, is the fact that we have a full complement of faculty and a breadth of expertise.

This allows our students to experience not only a really high-quality education in your classrooms, but an education that is replete with cutting edge thinking. So it’s not just learning about the past and what we are currently doing, students have the opportunity to engage in what might be. That can kind of ground the future thinkers in our nation, and that’s what we’re in the business of doing.

OS: What role do you think technology plays in the classroom?

Lawless: For me, in today’s context, if we are not leveraging technology in ways that people are using it in their everyday lives, we are missing an opportunity to build a bridge across in school and out of school context. More importantly, technology affords us the ability to do things with students that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. So, for example, there could be a project that takes classrooms of kids from all over the country and gets them to collaborate in a multi-perspective simulation. It allows us to aggregate large numbers of people operating in a similar space and working together to solve problems.

Additionally, it gives us the opportunity to provide experiences to students that are impossible to provide otherwise. Imagine trying to learn about the circulatory system, and you’re now in a simulation that now allows you to be a blood vessel moving around the body. As we continue to learn about technology, I think its critically important that we continue to think about how technology can be integrated into meaningful and robust ways in our classrooms.

OS: How do you think your experience being a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology influences your work as a dean?

Lawless: As a dean, you have a lot of different jobs. You have to manage budgets, think about curriculum, and you have to think about faculty. On a day-to-day basis, what the job of a dean internally really is about is making the lives of the people that inhabit the geographic space of a college, whether that’s a virtual space if we’re talking about World Campus or a physical space if we’re talking about one of the buildings here at the College of Education, be as robust and impactful as possible.

Being a faculty member gave me the grounding to understand what the parameters and characteristics of that need might be. As a faculty member, I needed to have space, I needed to have access to students. I needed to have technology that enables me to research and write. I needed to have the support of people to help make connections and collaborations and develop partnerships for me. So being a faculty member for 15 years before I went into administration gave me a perspective of what I would expect of administrators. That’s part of what I’m trying to roll out as I am a dean, because I know what it’s like to be a faculty member.

OS: How do you think teaching students about STEM adequately prepares them for the future?

Lawless: There are lots of different ways to teach people about STEM that aren’t necessarily productive for preparing them for their future. So, if you think about what’s wrong with our STEM pipeline and why people are leaving STEM behind, part of that stems from the fact that we had made a mistake for several decades in STEM education. We thought that it was all about content, and how well someone can perform on a standards-based test that is an indicator of whether or not they are actually accruing STEM. What happens is some might be able to learn a lot of content and go on to have very successful careers in the STEM fields, but it leaves a lot of others behind. For me, much like how I think about technology, in order to actually help people be prepared for life, it’s not just about content. It’s about the underlying thinking skills that are necessary to be successful in a discipline. It’s not just learning the content, it’s learning the thinking skills and why that information is important for your life and circumstances.

OS: In terms of students who may be underrepresented in the classroom what do you think the importance is of ensuring that they have equal opportunities inside the classroom and out?

Lawless: As a teacher, you do not have the ability to ensure that they are going to have equal opportunities. What you can do is ensure that in your classroom, students have equal opportunities. Having the opportunity to achieve the highest level of success in your classroom sets them up for finding those spaces and using those skills in ways that will continue to make them successful.

I think it is our responsibility as educators that everyone has an opportunity, but it doesn’t need to be the same opportunity. So the needs of one student may be very different than the needs of another student. If we are doing our job well as teacher educators, we’re helping to train the next generation of the education workforce to think about how we can figure out what it is that student’s need, when they need it, and how to provide it, so that everybody has an equal opportunity to succeed.

OS: What is your opinion on the Department of Education and some of its policies and ideas, specifically around special education?

Lawless: With special education, as in many areas in our country right now with education, there has been a widowing of the importance of the area. This has led to fewer regulations that are put in place to make sure individuals that need services are getting the services, and as a result, this means fewer people are moving into special education as a profession. This is part of a narrative that these things somehow aren’t needed. I don’t know-how with any level of conscience an individual can have that particular belief. As educators, we are responsible for educating everyone in society and lifting them up to the highest potential. I don’t know if there is necessarily any rhyme or reason as to why they are doing it, but I vocally disagree with them.

OS: You’ve been pretty vocal online about the controversies surrounding gun laws in America and numerous school shootings over the past few years. What is your opinion on school safety and how we can make students feel safer?

Dean Lawless: Again, this is a complex problem because we are talking about one issue that is a cog in a giant system. With respect to safety in schools, one of the things that we need to realize is that many of the ramifications that are happening because of the mass shootings, is creating more policed school environments as an effort to keep danger out. We are seeing innovations like bullet-proof backpacks and mass shooter drills where students are taught where to hide or how to protect themselves or how to get out.

I don’t think those are making schools safer places overall. I think they come with a lot of trauma and negative feelings that are placed on the students who are at a stage in their development where they’re trying to figure out the world. Basically, what’s being told in the schools underneath that guise is that the world is a super dangerous place and you’re going to get injured.

What I think needs to happen more rather than those types of projects, although keeping our schools safe is critically important, is we need to invest in more resource personnel in schools. So, more counselors. More school psychologists. Better training for our teachers and better training for our non-academic personnel in schools around issues of mental health. This ensures that people feel safe and that they have spaces where they can talk about their feelings and we can begin to recognize much earlier if there are signs of trouble that might be coming along. Policing all students because of one or two individuals doesn’t quite feel like the right solution to me.

OS: What changes or ideas do you have that would shape the future of the College of Ed at Penn State?

Lawless: I have actually been having a lot of conversations with faculty and staff both inside and outside of the College of Ed trying to onboard and learn more about the current status and the current priorities and values. When I have those conversations I ask everybody in all of their settings to keep three things at the forefront of their mind.

The first one is diversity, equity and inclusion. The College of Ed has made great strides over those pathways over the past years, but there’s a long way to go. So constantly thinking about our environment, who we are inviting in, and how we can create a sense of belongingness in our community so that we can have an open environment where all perspectives are valued and can engage in conversation is where I think change is going to come from.

The second thing that I am trying to push toward is a growth mentality. I think here, what has been done in the past is we’ve just added new curricula. We see a target area and we add new curricula without necessarily thinking about revisions, it’s just an added model. Over time that has built quite a tower of programs and curriculum. The growth mentality will allow us to ask where can we find synergies across existing programs so that we can create space to create new programs. What that will do, I think, is allow for greater collaboration of our students across programs so that there’s less isolation for them when they come into the college. The same can be said for respect to our faculty so that we don’t have a monolithic or isolated view of how we convey education.

The third thing that is very important to me, this one is close to my prior role, is building out the research portfolio. By building out the research portfolio what I’m really talking about is not just getting external funding because we need money to do our research. It’s about thinking about how can we integrate all of the bodies that are engaged with the College of Education.

What does it look like to support an undergraduate research program, that works on a mentor model so that teachers who go out to classrooms can participate in research studies to understand what best practices? It’s about individuals who are in a masters degree in counseling and how they engage in research projects to help innovate the practice of that field. I think if we can expand our portfolio, yes it will help us get additional dollars to do that work, but what’s more important to me is that we can share that work and the skills that it enables across more of our students.

OS: Finally, as per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur what would you be and why?

Lawless: The tongue-in-cheek answer here in State College is I would choose a shopasaurus, because there is a lot more shopping in Chicago than there is in State College. On a more serious note, I would choose to be a brachiosaurus because that would allow me to have my head up high enough that I could see the perspective of everything that is going on.


Some of these responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a senior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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