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The Study Hall

There is No Achievement Gap at Birth. Dr. Knatokie Ford's InstructureCon Keynote

Dr. Knatokie Ford boasts a long list of impressive identities — biomedical scientist, international advocate for STEM inclusion, former White House senior policy advisor. 

But in her first semester at a Harvard Ph.D. program, the accomplished scientist only described herself as one thing — a fraud. 

In her InstructureCon 2021 keynote address, Dr. Ford shared how her experience as one of the few black women in STEM motivated her to inspire the next generation and how using edtech can foster empowering, equitable learning experiences. 

Imposter Syndrome — Yes, Even at Harvard

As one of the few, or sometimes the only, African-Americans in her Harvard courses, Dr. Ford felt self-conscious and resisted speaking in class.

“I didn’t want to make a mistake or sound silly because, in my mind, I thought that might confirm what I figured everyone else around me suspected — that because I’m black and female, I’m not supposed to be good at science.”

This “stereotype threat” coupled with her imposter syndrome shattered her confidence and caused her to take a leave from her studies and move to Southern California. During her break from the Ivy League, she worked as a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District to make ends meet. 

Teaching middle school in South Central LA was the hardest but most rewarding job she has ever had. But her payoff was a newfound passion for inspiring the next generation. 

“If those feelings were so significant that they could prompt a person like me, who 
already had this track record of success, to leave a place like Harvard, how damaging could they be for a seventh-grader?” she asked. 

From “Imposter” to the White House

Dr. Ford wanted to inspire kids from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in science. But she wondered — would a Ph.D. be required? When her students held her accountable for finishing her degree, she realized what an impact she could have with a Dr. prefix attached to her name. 

I wanted to be a role model, hoping that someone, somewhere, someday will see a person who looked like me and is like, wow, she's a scientist. Maybe I can do it too.

“Those kids were a major driving force in my transition from just surviving at Harvard to thriving,” she added. Dr. Ford completed her Ph.D. in 2011. 

In her roles as a senior policy advisor in Obama’s White House and now the founder of consulting group Fly Sci Enterprise, Dr. Ford deeply impacts the nation’s STEM education initiatives and the public’s perception of STEM.

Using EdTech for Equity

Dr. Ford said technology is a critical tool in helping improve the quality of and access to STEM education. A lack of attention to the “Instructional Core” — the interaction between teachers, learners, and content, and how technology impacts that — is where most education innovation tends to fail, she said. 

But she warned against a one-size-fits-all approach to edtech tools: “We can’t assume we can give everyone the same [tool] and have it be effective for all students.”

Discussing the difference between equality and equity, Dr. Ford emphasized that students are operating at different levels due to factors beyond themselves. As author and educational researcher Lisa Delpit aptly said, “There is no achievement gap at birth.”   

Dr. Ford called on edtech innovators to consider barriers to a child’s education — systemic issues like educators’ unconscious biases and situational issues like unstable home environments — to level the playing field with technology. 

Underserved is an experience. It’s not a demographic.

Sowing Seeds of Success in Students

Covid-19 has “forced our hand” in using educational technology indefinitely. Even more, it’s forced teachers to think intentionally about how to use it. As a passionate STEM educator, Dr. Ford sees this as a positive. But the most powerful tool, a teacher’s impact, can’t compare to any innovation in edtech, she said.

Dr. Ford personally experienced the truth of Henry Brooks Adams’ quote: “Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.”

As a sixth-grader, Dr. Ford’s teacher told her she was going to become a leader someday. “That is a seed that a teacher sowed in me many, many, years ago, that I still to this day am experiencing the benefits of,” she said. 

Want more inspiration?  Watch Dr. Ford's keynote here and check out all of the sessions from InstructureCon 2021.