Focus: Seokhee Cho, PhD-A Series of Discussions on Research at St. John's

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Seokhee Cho, PhD, is associate professor of administration and instructional leadership in The School of Education at St. John’s. She has written 12 books and roughly 200 articles on methods for teaching gifted students in science, math, and language arts. Before coming to the University, Dr. Cho served for 20 years as director of the National Research Center on Gifted Education in Korea, as president of The Asia Pacific Federation of the World Council for the Gifted and Talented Children (WCGTC), and as a member of the Korean Presidential Advisory Council for Educational Innovation.

Why did you come to St. John’s University?
Although I had important responsibilities in Korea, the opportunity to work at St. John's was what brought me to the United States. I was at a conference in Finland in 2006 when I learned about the position from Dr. Campbell [James R. Campbell, PhD, professor, administration and instructional leadership], whom I’d known for many years. St. John’s seemed to be an ideal place to make further contributions to the development of education globally by gaining a wider perspective on my own areas of research.

What is the focus of your research?
My work involves helping gifted students who face challenges due to their social or economic situation. In Korea, my research focused on identifying and teaching gifted students from lower-income families. At St. John’s, I became interested in developing methods for teaching gifted students who face challenges because they’re learning English as a second language.

Currently, I’m continuing the research (Project HOPE) I began under a $450,000, five-year federal grant I received through the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program. It expired in 2011, but I’m working with the same students thanks to assistance from the Allied World Foundation.

The project involves 200 mathematically gifted, third-grade students who are English-language learners (ELL) in New York City and District of Charleston (South Carolina) schools. We selected them based on teachers’ assessments of their English proficiency and math behaviors; then, the students were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group. Our study implements and evaluates the effectiveness of the Mentoring Mathematical Minds (M3) program—a research-based math curriculum for promising students. It takes an acceleration and enrichment approach, applying students’ communication skills toward mathematical problem-solving.

My colleagues in The School of Education connected me with public schools where I could recruit teachers and students as participants. We found that teachers who used our methods are better able to help students improve in English and math than those who did not.

I wanted to make up for the lack of research on creative ways to teach gifted English-language learners. Their difficulties with English often lead to their being placed in classes where they’re under-stimulated and lose interest. They’re in danger of developing bad learning habits that waste their talents.

Have you faced special challenges in your research?
Recruiting schools to participate in this study was an especially big challenge. When I began, I had not yet developed a strong network for this purpose. However, I did invite several professors—from my department and The School of Education graduate programs in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)—to join the project. They were wonderful: they helped me reach out to former students of theirs who are now administrators in the schools we contacted. They were quite willing to participate.

That’s one of the great things about St. John’s. My colleagues, the administration—everyone’s very eager to support you. It’s more than professional courtesy; it’s the warmth you find here.

What impact have these efforts had on your students?
My research project has provided wonderful opportunities for my graduate students, who assist in the project. They’ve gained firsthand research experience in educational investigation. That includes designing research; reviewing previous studies for use in our current work; collecting quantitative and qualitative data through testing and classroom observation; data “cleaning” and analyses; and writing reports and papers.

Students in my gifted education courses also benefit from the vivid research examples that arise from the project, as well as internship opportunities at participating schools.

What is the inspiration behind your work?
I personally saw the difficulties that English-language learners face when my son was in school. He came to the United States when he was in the sixth grade, and he had to wait three years before learning anything new in class.

What do you do in your free time?
For many years, I had no free time at all. But now, I try to go to New York City at least once a month to enjoy a musical, an orchestra performance, or the opera.

What advice would you give to novice (or prospective) researchers?
I found that, in the United States, networking and making connections really matter. I recommend that students develop a network of fellow professionals through writing and attending conferences. Above all, researchers should always be willing to ask their peers for assistance in reviewing drafts for proposals and other materials—our colleagues are always a valuable resource.