It’s time for the Learning Sciences to embrace queer & trans* theory.

By | February 11, 2016

IDK if you knew that I have a PhD in Education. More specifically, my PhD came from a Learning Sciences program, so I’m technically a learning scientist.

I have a very complicated and fraught relationship with the Learning Sciences–a field that has been extraordinarily slow to integrate the concerns of queer and trans* folk, and even slower to integrate queer and trans* theory–frameworks designed explicitly to account for and investigate queer and trans* concerns, experiences, and lives. Imagine being a queer/trans* person, working inside of a field that has not been able to develop sustained interest in you or your concerns. Imagine having to insist you matter.

Well. Today I had a really wonderful conversation with another learning scientist who also struggles with the commitments of our shared discipline. That conversation led me back to my dissertation, where I wrote a short section demanding that learning scientists begin to integrate queer & trans* perspectives and theories. I thought I’d share an excerpt with you, in case it seems relevant and/or interesting. The excerpt begins below.

It’s time for the learning sciences to embrace queer and trans* theory.

As Pinar (1998) notes, educational research is a “highly conservative and often reactionary field” (p. 2). This is in some ways even more true of the field of the Learning Sciences, which makes no bones about emerging in response to so-called “instructionist” (Papert, 1980; Sawyer, 2006) approaches to teaching and learning, and in response to the cognitivist views of learning that came to dominate educational psychology in the mid- to late-20th Century (Barab & Squire, 2004). Indeed, the opening chapter of The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Sawyer, 2006) notes that “[s]ince the beginning of the modern institution of schools, there has been debate about whether education is a science or an art” (p. 15) and then goes on to place the Learning Sciences firmly on the “science” side of the debate. The commitment within the Learning Sciences to putting forth a “new science of learning” is evident in the prevalence of positivist and post-positivist frameworks among the most prominent Learning Sciences-focused journals and edited volumes. Even the increasing popularity of sociocultural theories of learning have only just barely approached the cliff that overlooks the postmodern, but to date no learning scientist has taken that leap.

No article ever published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences has included the word “queer” anywhere in its title, keywords, or body. None have used any of the following the terms: “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “LGBT,” or “transgender.” Six articles have cited Foucault, known to many as the, er, father of post-structuralism (Packer, 2001; Randall, 2000; Sfard, 2002, 2007; van Oers, 2002; Vosniadou, Pagondiotis, & Deliyianni, 2005); but none have cited Judith Butler, known as a foundational thinker in poststructuralist gender theory. It seems, these days, that JLS is nearly the only education-focused journal that has not devoted any space to issues of sexual and gender identity and to the post-structuralist theories that aim to theorize the role of those identity categories in learning.

As I hope I have shown throughout this dissertation, educational research that addresses gender stands to gain a great deal by expanding its framework for defining and interpreting this category of human life. It is not simply that educational research must develop strategies to account for the increasing number of learners who identify as gendervariant, genderqueer, and transgender—although for goodness’ sake, that would be a nice start—but also that predominant theories of gender and learning fail to account for the variety of ways in which people experience and express gender in their everyday lives. Queer and trans* theory offer alternative frameworks to the dominant, binaristic model of gender that has been accepted largely without question within the Learning Sciences. These alternative frameworks come with alternative epistemological and ontological commitments—commitments that have not yet been seriously considered within the field but that stand to expand contemporary theories of learning and cognition in important and dramatic ways.

But enough about you; let’s talk about me.

The guiding principles of many dominant threads within the learning sciences are directly anathema to those driving queer and trans* studies. The learning sciences has what queer theory would characterize as an embarrassing tendency to fetishize validity, reliability, and generalizability (Barab & Squire, 2004; Derry et al., 2010; Patel, Yoskowitz, & Arocha, 2009; Pellegrino, 2009); it aims for “rigorous” and “scientifically sound” approaches to theorizing, designing, and capturing learning in context (Bell, 2004; Sawyer, 2006).

Welcome to the new motherfucking boss, shouts queer theory in its fury, same as the old goddam motherfucking boss. Queer and trans* theory worship at a different altar; they reject the epistemological commitments that privilege “scientific” models and argue for alternative frameworks that create room for other ways of knowing, other forms of being.

Well. I have detailed the epistemological tensions between queer theory and the learning sciences elsewhere in this dissertation. What I want to do here is only to state how queer it is for a body like mine to find itself working in a discipline that, so far, has ignored, challenged, and rejected outright its existence. How queer it is, and how excruciating. Trauma is visited upon queer bodies at all occasions, and not least among these for me was having to live through half a decade of being made aware, both explicitly and tacitly, that while my existence and my experiences matter to some branches of education, they did not matter to the learning sciences. When I made the decision to pursue queer work, I was told by some senior learning scientists that I would make myself unemployable. The message: If you work on the issues that help you, and others like you, survive a system that does not want you, this field too will not want you. When I announced that I would be drawing on queer theory to frame my dissertation, I learned that I would need to offer twice the justification, and be four times as knowledgeable, as any of my peers. The message: Your theory of survival does not inherently matter, and we will not extend a hand unless you can first prove that we should. Certainly these reactions were not universal, and I was lucky to have some advocates helping me along the way—but fighting to create space for my theories, my experiences, within my adopted field was far more difficult and painful than I could have wished.

This dissertation… is an effort to build spaces not only for others to live freely as the identities they want to inhabit but also for me, myself, to be recognized in the identities I’ve chosen for myself. My body, my identities, my interactions with students and teachers, were as much a part of this study as were the books and commercials and writing prompts that I have discussed throughout this dissertation. Those interactions, those identities, were less present in the preceding pages than I believe now they should have been—chalk it up, perhaps, to the emotional labor of the everyday. A body gets tired of fighting, tired of justifying, tired of proving they belong; could I sustain the effort of justifying my body’s presence here, too, in this dissertation?

Maybe I was too tired. Maybe I was fed up. Maybe I’d heard too many people say, too many times and in too many ways, that my body and my politics had no place in the learning sciences. Maybe I listened to that voice that told me my experiences weren’t valuable, weren’t interesting, weren’t valid. For whatever reason, I took my body and my identities out.

It is my work—it is the work of all of us who engage in scholarship that is intensely personal, intensely political, intensely linked to creating identity and justice and empathy—to undertake the work of putting myself back in.



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

Bell, P. (2004). On the theoretical breadth of design-based research in education. Educational psychologist, 39(4), 243-253.

Derry, S. J., Pea, R. D., Barron, B., Engle, R. A., Erickson, F., Goldman, R., . . . Sherin, M. G. (2010). Conducting video research in the learning sciences: Guidance on selection, analysis, technology, and ethics. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(1), 3-53.

Packer, M. (2001). The problem of transfer, and the sociocultural critique of schooling. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 10(4), 493-514.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Patel, V. L., Yoskowitz, N. A., & Arocha, J. F. (2009). Towards effective evaluation and reform in medical education: a cognitive and learning sciences perspective. Advances in health sciences education, 14(5), 791-812.

Pellegrino, J. W. (2009). The design of an assessment system for the Race to the Top: A learning sciences perspective on issues of growth and measurement. Center for K–12 Assessment & Performance Management, Educational Testing Service.

Pinar, W. (1998). Queer theory in education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Randall, D. (2000). A new unity or bad science? The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9(2), 233-242.

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). The new science of learning. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 1-16). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sfard, A. (2002). The interplay of intimations and implementations: Generating new discourse with new symbolic tools. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 11(2-3), 319-357.

van Oers, B. (2002). Fruits of polyphony: A commentary on a multiperspective analysis of mathematical discourse. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 11(2-3), 359-363.

Vosniadou, S., Pagondiotis, C., & Deliyianni, M. (2005). From the pragmatics of classification systems to the metaphysics of concepts. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(1), 115-125.