Catherine Louise Dornfeld Tissenbaum

Personal profile

Research Interests

Collaboration and learning with people, tools, and technology in formal and informal learning environments, distributed scaffolding, influence of social and cultural factors on learning

Research Interests

My research investigates how people collaborate and learn with other people, tools, and technology in formal and informal learning environments. In classrooms, I study how students “get on the same page” and adopt roles to work together. In museums, I study how families, adults, and school groups make sense of exhibits by connecting past experiences with exhibit content. I consider myself to be a blend of museum educator and learning scientist, with influences from teacher education, instructional design, and biological sciences. The main conferences I participate in are the International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, and the American Educational Research Association.

One theoretical construct I’ve 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. I use “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, I’m interested in understanding how peers with similar knowledge can support others - and themselves - by co-constructing explanation of concepts (e.g., Fernández, Wegerif, Mercer, & Rojas-Drummond, 2002).

I’m also interested in distributed scaffolding, which is 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! On 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 I practice design-based research, or DBR (Barab & Squire, 2004). DBR allows researchers to design scaffolds for real-world environments with limited control (e.g., classrooms), observe what works and what doesn’t, then make changes so that people can collaborate and learn more effectively. It’s an incremental process that can entail a blend of qualitative, quantitative, and computational methodologies.

The next step in my research is to consider how social and cultural factors influence how people learn. For example, while many museums are technically open to everyone, the ways that museums present information can make people feel excluded, unrepresented, or unwelcome. I’d like to work on this problem as a joint effort between museums and local communities.


Barab, S., & Squire, K. (2004). Design-based research: Putting a stake in the ground. The 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 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. The 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.


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