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About Catherine's Research

Dr. Catherine Dornfeld Tissenbaum investigates how people collaborate and learn with support from other people, tools, and technology, in both formal and informal learning environments. In classrooms, she studies how students “get on the same page” and take on roles as they work together. In museums, she studies how families and school groups make sense of exhibits by connecting past experiences with exhibit content. Catherine considers herself to be a blend of museum educator and learning scientist, with influences from teacher education, instructional design, and the biological sciences. The main conferences she participates in are the International Society of the Learning Sciences and the American Educational Research Association.

One theoretical construct Catherine has studied in depth is scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Scaffolding is an approach for providing assistance so that the learner achieves tasks in “bite-sized” pieces. Eventually, the learner understands how these pieces are connected and can accomplish the task on their own. Catherine uses “scaffolding” to describe the process of providing assistance, and “scaffolds” to describe the people, tools, and technologies that support this process. There’s often an assumption that the person providing assistance is someone with more knowledge about the task, like a parent or a teacher (see Vygotsky, 1978). However, Catherine is interested in understanding how peers with similar knowledge can support others - and themselves - by co-constructing explanations (e.g., Fernández, Wegerif, Mercer, & Rojas-Drummond, 2002).

Catherine is also interested in distributed scaffolding, which involves the inclusion of multiple scaffolds with specific functions in a learning context (Puntambekar & Kolodner, 2005; Tabak, 2004). To effectively support learners, we need to understand how, when, and why to include specific scaffolds at specific times - something we’re still learning! One way to untangle this is to examine each scaffold’s affordances (Lyons, 2018). Affordances shape how we interact with objects and other people based on the material, social, and cultural properties of the objects. For example, picture yourself playing a 2-player arcade game with a friend. Depending on the game, you might see yourself pushing buttons or moving joysticks; engaging in cooperative or competitive talk; and thinking about your end goal, such as winning or just having fun. When we put multiple scaffolds together, we have to think about complex systems of affordances and how they impact people’s interactions.

Sometimes we design scaffolds with certain affordances in mind, only to find out that they don’t work the way we intended. This is why Catherine practices design-based research, or DBR (Barab & Squire, 2004). DBR allows researchers to design scaffolds for real-world environments with limited control (e.g., classrooms), then observe what works and what doesn’t, and make changes so that people can collaborate and learn more effectively. DBR is an iterative, incremental process that incorporates a blend of qualitative, quantitative, and computational methodologies.

The next step in Catherine's research is to consider how sociopolitical factors influence how people learn, and broaden the informal spaces in which she works. As an example, while many museums are technically open to everyone, the ways that museums present information can make people feel excluded, unrepresented, or unwelcome. Catherine is working on this problem as a joint effort across the university, museums, and local communities.


Barab, S., & Squire, K. (2004). Design-based research: Putting a stake in the ground. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 1-14.

Fernández, M., Wegerif, R., Mercer, N., & Rojas-Drummond, S. (2001). Re-conceptualizing "scaffolding" and the zone of proximal development in the context of symmetrical collaborative learning. The Journal of Classroom Interaction, 40-54.

Lyons, L. (2018). Supporting informal STEM learning with technological exhibits: An ecosystemic approach. In the International Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 234-245). Routledge.

Puntambekar, S., & Kolodner, J. L. (2005). Toward implementing distributed scaffolding: Helping students learn science from design. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(2), 185-217.

Tabak, I. (2004). Synergy: A complement to emerging patterns of distributed scaffolding. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(3), 305-335.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society— The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89-100.