A former student and translator of Jean Piaget, Eleanor Duckworth is Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, is a classic in the field. In this edited version of remarks at the High Tech High GSE Speaker Series, Professor Duckworth describes the roots of her thinking in the work of Piaget and Inhelder, and in her early work in the Elementary Science Study. Her approach to teaching and learning is grounded in a fascination with what and how students think, along with her sense of the classroom as a place for the liberation of ideas. In this talk, Duckworth explores what classrooms look like when they are led by a teacher who listens and “honors confusion” as a way to help students develop and express their thinking. The interviewer is Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High.
Twenty years ago I audited a class of yours that forever altered my relationship with the moon. So my first question is about that “moon class”—where it came from, and what it was about.
My first entry into education was a curriculum development project called the Elementary Science Study (ESS) in the early 1960’s. I had studied with Jean Piaget in Geneva, and he was starting to be heard of, so ESS hired me even though I knew nothing about science, nothing about curriculum and nothing about elementary schools. I had everything to learn about all of those things, but it was a fantastic organization, and I got hooked on education and have been ever since.
Most of the curriculum development staff were academic scientists who took time off from university teaching to develop elementary school curriculum. They loved their subject matter—the development of frog eggs, the movements in the sky of celestial bodies, and pendulums and single celled animals—whatever their area was, they loved it. For them it was essential that the children learn, not from words about the material world, but from the stuff of the material world. They worked very hard at designing ways for those things to be available for study by kids.
The Teaching and Learning course, often referred to as the moon class, came years later when I had taken to heart the idea of giving students the subject matter itself and not just words about it. In that course I wanted people to have experiences of teaching and learning that were different from the experiences they might have had, and to learn from those experiences rather than just read about what teaching and learning ought to be.
I had two major teachers in Geneva. One was Piaget, and the other was Bårbel Inhelder. She was his co-author and research director, a much neglected but very important person in child psychology. Piaget’s fundamental theoretical concept is that we learn and develop our human intelligence by assimilation—that is, we take everything in, or assimilate everything, in the ways we are able to take them. Each of us has our life history, so each of us takes things in differently, and each of us has a slightly different understanding of what might be thought of as the same thing. We have to make sense of things in terms of what we already know, and it’s complicated work, and sometimes it takes a long time. Part of what Piaget showed us was how little effect words have on what you understand and what you believe—not only words, but also experiences.
From Inhelder I learned the method of talking to kids and trying to find out what they think. Piaget at first called that method clinical interviewing. Inhelder changed the name in the 70’s to critical exploration. It’s more than interviewing—you give kids something challenging and interesting to think about, and often that takes the form of experimenting with things, and you want to know what they think about it. As a psychological researcher, you really need to listen, and you do your best to make sure you get at what the kids think, without any suggestion from you and or even a suggestion that they might have come in with.
When my Elementary Science Study colleagues would pilot things, I would go along to ask kids what they were doing, why they were doing it, and what they thought of it. I learned a lot that was very helpful to my colleagues, because I was good at this—that’s what I’d learned to do in Geneva. And then I noticed that the more I asked the kids questions about what they thought, the more they thought. And they got interested in their own thoughts because I was interested in their thoughts, and they kept thinking, coming up with more questions, and trying out more experiments to answer their questions, and they got more and more involved because I wasn’t trying to tell them anything—I was just trying to hear what they thought.
Later, in the Teaching and Learning course, I applied that same principle—that the student should do the explaining and the teacher should do the listening. The notion of people making their own sense and how hard it is to change the sense they’re making, that I learned theoretically in Geneva, and the method, which I learned practically in Geneva, are at the core of the course. The other core principle, which I learned in the ESS, is that you don’t give students words about the subject, you give them the subject.
So I tried to give my students the subject—teaching and learning—as I saw it, and that took three forms. One was that I would do demonstrations with kids, with questions that I knew would be engaging. I would have 50 people sitting in a circle watching two or three kids working, and the kids would get so involved they wouldn’t notice the people at all, and my students would notice how involved the kids were, how they didn’t notice the adults watching, how long they would work, like an hour and a half, how little I said, how I managed to ask questions without giving away the answers, and how much the kids learned, though I said nothing. For most of my students that was a new experience as opposed to words about the experience, and that happened three times over the semester.
The second part of “giving them the subject” is that the students go out and work one-on-one with somebody to get them engaged with the subject matter and find out what they think about it, without telling them what to think. That is really hard to do. Eventually they design their own series of sessions and keep somebody going for six sessions, and that’s very hard to do also.
The third part of the course is that they become students in a subject matter that they didn’t bargain for, and this is where the moon comes in. As learners, they experience learning something that I try to engage them in without telling them what it is that they should be learning. I’ll do this, for example, with a poem. I ask people what they notice, and I try to get everybody to say something, and I want it to be non-interpretive. They’ll say, “Look, it’s in line 3”—maybe where the commas are, references to water, the fact that lines get longer and then get shorter again, so that anybody could say, “Yeah, I can see that.”
Then I ask them to say again something they notice, or something that puzzles them. They list things that puzzle them, such as how come the flower is white in line 3 and blue in line 17, and then I choose one of these puzzles and ask the person who mentioned it how they are thinking about it. Other people share their ideas, and that’s how we proceed, with things we notice and things that puzzle us. In the end we see there are many different layers of meaning in the lines, and they are related in different ways, and people may continue to have different ideas about what’s in the poem. The students have the experience of not being told what to think, but being kept connected to the subject matter.
We do this in more depth with the moon over the course of the semester. I tell everybody to watch it and see as much as they can, to get familiar with the habits and movements of the moon. This fall I taught the course and we had lousy weather, so they had much too little to see, but they still came up with great stuff at the end. Every once in a while we talk about what they see, and over time they start to see generalities, and they start to wonder how come, and they can’t look it up anywhere because there is no publication about how the moon looks from Harvard Square. At the end we start making models of the solar system and putting things together.
There’s a wonderful chapter in your book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, called “The Virtues of Not Knowing.” Could you talk about that?
I came to realize that the virtues of knowing were very overrated. The work you have to do if you don’t know is far more valuable than just snapping off an answer for something you already know. A student once complained about my course, “If you know anything, you’re not allowed to say it. You’re only allowed to say something if you’re confused.” It’s pretty much true. Honoring confusion is an enormously important part of teaching. As a doctoral student in cognitive psychology, I saw that it wasn’t allowable to be confused. You could ask a sharp question to show that you understood, but you couldn’t just be muddled. So I hold the record of 17 years between my course work and my dissertation. It made me definitely honor confusion.
What sort of strategies would you recommend for honoring confusion in the classroom?
I look for people who might be on the verge of saying something or who look perplexed, and I ask them what they’re thinking. My students say that I make it clear that it’s all right to say something that you’re not sure about. I couldn’t tell you how I do that, but you can see it in the approach to poems that I described earlier: what are the puzzles? What is it that you don’t get? I try not to convey that I’m holding onto some secret that I could tell if I wanted to—because I don’t really believe I am. I’m always interested in what they’re thinking, and I don’t know that.
How do we get our teachers to honor their own confusion, along with their students’ confusion?
It takes a certain amount of self-confidence and confidence about the subject matter. I think teachers have to work on this together—to get together and consider the playfulness of the subject matter, and help each other see that there are many different ways to think of subject matter, and that it’s richer to stop and say, “Well, I hadn’t thought about it that way.” Try to get a group of teachers and work at it together, that’s the main thing.
Could you say something about how your work relates to that of Paulo Freire?
I met Freire in 1972, and I was very taken with his work then and remain so. My work didn’t grow out of his, but I’ve thought of my work as liberating work. I’m concerned with the interpersonal relationships and the oppression of ideas in classrooms. Teachers oppress children’s ideas often, by having the right answer and not listening to other answers, and children can oppress each other’s. I think it’s really important to liberate learners’ ideas, so that people discover the power of their own thoughts and that their thoughts are as valid as anybody’s. It doesn’t mean that they’re true, but they’re worth holding onto and expressing and trying out against other ideas. I think of that as an important aspect of Freire’s work—maintaining the democracy of ideas in the classroom.
Could you elaborate on democracy in the classroom—what that looks like and how one can achieve it?
The hardest part is to make sure that the kids value each other’s ideas. The more you hear other people’s ideas, it becomes clear that it’s not the kids who have been thought of as smart that have all the best thoughts. Once in the Teaching and Learning course, when everybody had seen the moon the day before, I had students draw on the board what it looked like at the hour when they saw it. It was a crescent moon, and many people drew it with the crescent sort of lying down on the right side for many hours, and then later in the day the crescent part was up, and the opening went down to the left. There was one person who drew it quite differently, with the horns of the crescent pointing downward. She said she thought that’s what she had seen, and she would check her notes, but everybody else figured she had made some mistake. Then the next month, when the moon was in that same phase, they were better observers and they all saw that the shape they had drawn, with the crescent lying on its back, is the conventional shape that we see in all the drawings and all the children’s books, but in fact the moon was turned over, and the woman was the one person who had drawn it as she had seen it and as it actually was on that one day. That is a dramatic example, and it took a month to straighten it out, but it happened.
How can teachers apply the powerful idea of assimilation in their teaching across the different subject areas?
Assimilate has two meanings. One is to take in, and the other is to liken—to compare something with something else. That second sense is very powerful in Piaget’s way of thinking of it—you understand something in terms of something you’ve understood before. It’s metaphorical—assimilating by comparing. So using metaphor can be a help, but sometimes that’s just an extra overlay, trying to make up a metaphor for what they’re thinking. The only way I can think of is just to keep on trying to understand what the students are understanding. I think it would be good if teachers practiced one-on-one with kids, not within classroom time but in professional development time, to try to understand what one kid is thinking about something important. That gets you into the mind state of trying to conceive how this kid might be thinking about it if it’s not the way I’m thinking about it. And it’s hard, so it does take practice.
A group of us have brought some really top-notch artists together to work with trained classroom teachers to teach subject matter. If you were to work on such a project, how would you approach it?
A community of teachers and artists, teaching through the arts—I know some dancers who do that. Celeste Miller is a great one. I was at a workshop of hers this summer where we were trying to articulate, what do the kids learn about the subject matter through dance that they could not learn otherwise? I think that’s a good question to start with—what might they learn by being an artist? One example from Celeste Miller’s work is that the kids were trying to figure out something about the cell in biology, and one came running up to ask some technical detail about the cell. The reason they were interested in that technical detail was that they needed to know what the dance needed to do next. If they hadn’t had the dance, they wouldn’t have had the need to know that.
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