In the following letter of remembrance from Dean Mia Tuan, collaborators of Professor Emeritus John Bransford share their reflections on his impactful contributions to the field of education and generous influence as a beloved mentor and colleague.
Dear colleagues and friends of the UW College of Education,
It is with great sadness that we write to let you know that our friend and colleague Dr. John D. Bransford passed away on April 11 after a lengthy battle with Lewy Body Dementia. John joined our College faculty in 2003 as Professor of Learning Sciences and Psychology and held the Shauna C. Larson Endowed Chair in Learning Sciences until his retirement in 2013. He was the founding director of the Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center, a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center. He was a close colleague and collaborator with many faculty, students, educators and educational leaders in our College, region and organizations around the world.
John’s work was instrumental in guiding educational practice through cognitive psychological insights time and time again across more than five decades of work. He had a storied research career that leveraged insights about how people learn to inform education. Throughout his career, John was deeply committed to educational equity, to practitioners and to improving educational practice, and to always seeing the best in people.
"I cannot adequately express what a privilege it was to work with John. His positive energy and enthusiasm for ideas was infectious, and shared with all. As many know from spending time with him, his brilliance was coupled with a sense of fun and playful creativity. He truly enjoyed thinking and imagining — and I still marvel at his writing which literally seemed to 'pour out' of him. There was always the sharpest case example or a wonderfully-compelling story. John also had a remarkable ability for discovering and promoting people’s unique interests and talents; many of John's former students have remarked to me — and I include myself in this group — that without John they would not have seen a path for themselves in graduate school and beyond. Together with his humility and deep integrity, John was an inspiring individual. I deeply miss my longtime friend and collaborator." —Nancy Vye, former principal research scientist, UW College of Education
Through his work and collaborations, he profoundly influenced education — from fundamental work on the nature of remembering, metacognition and expertise — to powerful educational approaches like anchored instruction, challenge-based project-based learning and “preparation for future learning” forms of assessment. As co-chair of the immensely impactful How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School research consensus report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), many of these powerful ideas have been deeply woven into the fabric of educational practice around the world.
"John was one of my dearest and most cherished colleagues during my career at the University of Washington. He was kind, brilliant, modest and committed to social justice and equality for all youth. My life was enriched by his generosity, intellect, and caring." —James A. Banks, Kerry and Linda Killinger Endowed Chair in Diversity Studies Emeritus, UW College of Education
John built vibrant and impactful intellectual communities wherever he went. He was deeply committed to collaborative approaches to research and educational change. And he loved interacting with practitioner colleagues and with students. Dr. Déana Scipio, director of graduate and higher education programming for the Islandwood environmental education nonprofit and affiliate faculty member at the UW College of Education, was a graduate student who interacted with John in the LIFE Center. She tells stories of how he would casually stop to talk with students at their desks and open up generous, caring and insightful conversations about whatever they were working on: "John asked wonderful questions full of genuine curiosity and then really listened to the answers. You had his full attention when you were in conversation with him. He’d respond and then share so many relevant resources and connections to what you’d shared. You walked away feeling like your ideas were worthy and that he’d seen you as a person and scholar."
Dr. Cathy Kim, assistant professor of education at Pacific Lutheran University and John's former doctoral advisee, shared this reflection:
"There really are not words to capture John’s immense impact on the field and on individuals. His genuine warmth welcomed everyone and he always had time for you. He made me feel supported, heard and valued — both in the instructional tech work I did for the College to support faculty/students and (at the time) as a doctoral candidate. John told the most amazing stories — researchers (imagine that!) became real people, more than just names and theories to be studied. Humble, generous, kind and brilliant. I will continue to pass along his wisdom to every new teacher I prepare."
For those who feel the loss of John’s passing, our heart goes out to you. He was deeply grateful to be a member of our community and to be able to work with so many of you.
"John was such a kind man and a brilliant and creative scholar. Ever curious. Always reaching for a book to inform a conversation. I find my mind turning to his generous and warm conversational approach and how he would share insightful story after story with a sparkle in his eye, with the gentle twist of his hand to highlight a point, and always with a sweet and inviting smile. He was a powerful mentor, collaborator and friend to many." —Philip Bell, Shauna C. Larson Endowed Chair in Learning Sciences, UW College of Education
John received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology in 1970 from the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining the UW College of Education, John was Centennial Professor of Psychology and Education and co-director of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University. John’s family has shared pictures and reflections about John and will be posting information about an upcoming memorial. They ask that in lieu of flowers that individuals consider donating to the Alzheimer's Association.
Dean Mia Tuan, UW College of Education
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