Last year I had the inspirational opportunity to take a class with Eleanor Duckworth at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Professor Duckworth views learning as developing understanding, and teaching as helping learners construct their own understanding. Just as Piaget argued that to understand is to invent, Professor Duckworth views the having of wonderful ideas as the essence of intellectual development. However, there are disturbingly few occasions in schools where students have the opportunity to come up with their own ideas.
In addition to weekly classes with Professor Duckworth, we were placed into smaller ‘sections’ or ‘tutorials’ of around 12 students, which met weekly for two hours to discuss our reactions to readings and classes. Typically our section discussion followed a protocol or thinking routine. We began by commenting on what we had noticed in class and then we proceeded to discuss what puzzled us.
Over the course of the semester something extraordinary happened in these section meetings. A disparate group of people developed close bonds and we often elected to meet together an hour before the allocated time to discuss what we were learning. We were required to keep written journals of our thoughts and submit them weekly to our section leader, Victor, for feedback. Although we did not realise it at the time, Victor often plucked ideas and questions out of our journals and fed them back to the group for discussion, forming a powerful feedback loop whereby we answered our own questions through developing shared understanding.
The course exam was a similarly powerful learning experience. We were asked to go back through our journals, reflecting on our reactions to classes, readings, and section discussions, and use key moments in our journaling as evidence to write a paper about what we had learned in the course.
It was the most powerful learning experience in my life. Now in my own teaching, I endeavour to build similar community bonds within my classroom, to make myself superfluous to my students, to regularly require my students to reflect on their learning, and to feed their key ideas and questions back to them so that they can develop their own shared understanding. Next, if only I could get rid of standardised testing…