Skip to main content

Career of the Month

An Interview With Cognitive Scientist Lindsay Portnoy

The Science Teacher—September 2019 (Volume 87, Issue 2)

By Luba Vangelova

An Interview With Cognitive Scientist Lindsay Portnoy

Cognitive scientists study how people learn. This type of knowledge can be applied in a diverse array of fields, ranging from advertising to journalism and academia. Lindsay Portnoy is a lecturer at Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Education in Boston and is the co-founder and chief learning officer of an educational-games company called Killer Snails. She also writes articles about education and is the author of a forthcoming book called Designed to Learn: Using Design Thinking to Bring Purpose and Passion to the Classroom (due out in November).

Work overview

I split my time between teaching, writing, and Killer Snails. I’m most heavily involved with Killer Snails during the up-front work, when we’re using cognitive science to develop game ideas. In my academic work, I advise doctoral students and teach courses on research design. The rest of my time is spent presenting at conferences, writing articles and books, and leading workshops and seminars about the practical applications of cognitive science.

At Killer Snails we design games alongside teachers and students. Playful learning is the best kind of learning because it’s exploratory and fun and is also low-stakes. The most exciting part of creating games is testing the prototype with students. 

I love collaborating with different types of people, across many different spaces. It is empowering to be part of the changing nature of learning, even though the pace of change is sometimes slow. And it’s also important to design experiences and opportunities that are as equitable and inclusive as possible. 

Career highlights

I love it when students reach out to me years later. A former student found me on Facebook more than a decade after he’d been in my class. He told me that I had been his favorite teacher, that I had made learning fun, and that he had learned more from me than from anyone else. Educators also reach out to share how theories of learning have shifted their thinking and have increased student engagement in the classroom by simple shifts that invite student voice and choice in learning. 


Career path

I have always been interested in science and understanding behavior, even when I didn’t know it was called science. I majored in marketing and advertising, and my first job after college was for an advertising agency in New York City. I analyzed audiences of different media sources, to find out what kind of people were reading different publications and TV shows. I became fascinated by brand strategy, which uses behavioral science, or the study of why people do what they do. I realized there was also a science to learning. 

I decided to make a shift after September 11th and was accepted into a teaching fellowship program that allowed me to get a master’s degree while teaching in an urban elementary school. I then decided to go on and get a PhD in educational psychology because I was broadly curious about how people learn; why they are motivated to learn; and what makes them feel powerful, knowledgeable, and able to make changes in the world. I also wanted to learn what I could do to help folks feel that way.

During my doctoral studies, I worked in a lab that researched cognitive learning in unsupervised environments. I also studied how to shift the narrative toward more authentic formative assessments that would drive a less-standardized type of instruction. By the time I completed my PhD, I was an assistant professor teaching a full course load in theories of learning, motivation, assessment, and human development.

I began Killer Snails with a fellow faculty member at Hunter College and an MBA from Columbia, to take science out of the lab and into the hands of learners globally. We wanted to make science accessible and fun. Every time we try something and have to try again in a different way, it’s science, because we’re testing hypotheses and iterating based on what we learn. We received a Small Business Innovation Research grant that included a lot of support, and was essentially the equivalent of an MBA program. 

Knowledge, skills, and training needed

Expertise comes in many different forms. To be a tenured college professor, you need a PhD, but to teach courses, you can have a master’s degree, or in some instances just a great deal of life experience. To design games or start a company, you need to have deep content knowledge and an understanding of how to build a company, but you also learn a lot along the way. 

There are no rules about how to get to your destination; everyone learns in different ways, and a lot also depends on your goals and interests. I believe everyone should study psychology to understand how and why people behave in certain ways. It’s also great to take courses on critical thinking, whether it’s a sociology class about how to think critically about history, or some other class that considers different perspectives. Learning how to write effectively is another important skill.

Advice for students

Changing careers is not only okay, it’s encouraged. Your knowledge will transfer, and along the way you will find what really makes you happy and gives you a sense of purpose. It’s also okay not to know, but it’s not okay not to ask when you have questions, and anyone who makes you feel you shouldn’t ask questions is someone you should separate yourself from. Just because you’re not working in a particular profession doesn’t mean you can’t understand that subject matter too. There’s no special magic to it—you have the magic already within you to understand anything. Find someone who is doing something you like or are curious about, reach out to them, and ask to shadow them on the job. 

Bonus points

Portnoy’s education: BA in marketing and advertising, Michigan State University; MSEd in early childhood and urban education, Mercy College; PhD in educational psychology, Fordham University

On the web:

Related careers: Learning-lab researcher; policy maker; business brand strategist; human-resources professional


Careers Interdisciplinary High School

Asset 2