How can teachers further develop new professional learning and then share it? Is there an “authentic audience” for us, beyond our classrooms, and can that audience also learn? When 25 Cambridge Rindge and Latin School faculty members attended professional development institutes offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero (PZ) in two consecutive summers, we tackled this question in a new way: we became a learning group whose collaborative inquiry culminated in a public exhibition. To date, there have been seven exhibitions of teacher learning—complicated, enriching, frustrating, worthwhile works-in-progress. Each of them has attempted to respond to our colleagues’ and our own hopes, questions, and needs, despite our school’s increased focus on national, state, and local mandates.
Our learning group’s original decision to share our new learning through an exhibition lay in the nature of exhibitions themselves.
In general, exhibitions provide space, time, and stimulation, with suggestions about why and where to listen and look. Rather than preach and assert, they encourage and entrust visitors to observe, wander, wonder, and interpret—to make their own meanings.
The invitational spirit of exhibitions was particularly important to the large group of us who attended the 2007 PZ Classroom (PZC) summer institute, some as participants and others as faculty members. Both eager and expected to share PZC practices and ideas when we returned to CRLS in the fall, we feared that our initiative-weary colleagues–in an eight-year period, CRLS had had four different principals and multiple improvement plans—would resist any ideas and practices they themselves had not chosen to explore. Most of our group had voluntarily attended PZC because we were discouraged by the deficit view of children, primarily based on quantitative data, that prevailed in the climate of No Child Left Behind (New, 2007). At PZC and other PZ learning events, we encountered a conception of “children as competent, resourceful, inventive, and having ideas that are worthy of being listened to” (Fraser, 2007, p. 18), along with new tools, methods, and frameworks for making our classrooms places of student empowerment and rigorous, personalized learning. Upon returning to CRLS, we began experimenting. When our initial results made student thinking processes, products, and “answers” equally visible—and revealed the interests, capabilities, feelings, and attitudes of students as well as their academic weaknesses and knowledge gaps—we re-envisioned our anticipated exhibition: not only would it present innovative ideas, examples of their implementation, and student results (qualitative data); but it would solicit our colleagues’ responses to those results, broadening school-wide conceptions of student assessment in the process.
On the afternoon of March 6, 2008, Listening to Learn, and Learning to Listen opened in the CRLS Teachers’ Resource Center. The exhibition consisted of seventeen brightly colored triptych display boards representing a variety of PZ and other innovative ideas that one or more of us had incorporated into our work with students. Nearby posters explained key aspects of the ideas our boards featured. Two commonalities unified our exhibition. The first was a common question: “How can listening better improve teaching and deepen learning at CRLS?” The second was a common focus: students’ and teachers’ learning, especially as developed through reflective, often collaborative engagement with stimulating artifacts, problems, and questions. Four prompts accompanied each exhibit and explicitly invited visitors to contribute their own perceptions, theories, questions, and relevant experiences on nearby chart papers and post-it notes.
Over the next six weeks, roughly one third of CRLS’ 200+ faculty members visited the exhibition. Some visited it multiple times; others lamented being unable to visit even once. To some extent, exhibition visitors, most of whom were CRLS faculty members, did respond to its invitation to engage and learn. At the festive yet serious opening event to which all CRLS staff members were invited, many expressed their interest in and appreciation for our work, and their pleasure at seeing students represented as engaged, capable, caring, and progressing. Several said they wanted to be part of next year’s exhibition, while others asked about opportunities to learn more about featured pedagogical ideas. Some voluntarily explored “Listening at Fifteen,” Susie Bonsey’s exhibit about the listening attitudes of tenth-graders, using a See Think Wonder thinking routine. As the weeks passed, post-it note and chart paper responses slowly accumulated. Though less abundant than we had hoped for, they included thoughtful questions, comments, and suggestions that truly provoked our thinking and sometimes referred to other visitors’ responses.
Elaine Wang’s final reflection captured the difficulties of assessing the exhibition’s impact:
I sense sort of a collective disappointment that our colleagues may not have learned as much or reflected as deeply as we hope they would have. I’m wondering how we can assess whether that impression is valid or not . . . [since] we certainly don’t know what we made people ponder about unless they record their thoughts. Furthermore, there’s some definite value to written comments/reflections, but I wonder if it’s somewhat “artificial” and not inviting of continued dialogue.
The post-exhibition reflections of other members of our group expressed a similar sense that the CRLS teacher-learning exhibition needed to evolve in theory and practice.
Between 2008 and 2013, our group experimented with various exhibition designs and grew more adept at designing exhibits that could be fully explored in 15 minutes. We also expanded the exhibition to include the learning of colleagues working on other school-wide initiatives. 2010’s Under Construction: Moving from Abstract to Concrete featured the learning of the teachers mentoring seniors creating graduation projects. 2012’s “Who’s Behind the Data?”: Making Our Diverse Learners Visible included the exhibits of CRLS student “teacher apprentices” who were exploring their own teaching-and-learning questions. 2013’s The Power of Our Own Questions featured the inquiry not only of the teacher apprentices, but of members of the large cross-disciplinary faculty cohort learning to use the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique.
And yet, despite our group’s efforts, the thorniest questions and challenges we identified in 2008 persisted. The exhibition never became the stimulus for focused, whole-school inquiry into teaching and learning that we envisioned, despite our colleagues’ positive perceptions of it: 73% of the faculty responding to the 2010 CRLS professional development survey agreed or strongly agreed that “The CRLS Teacher-Learning Exhibition contributes positively to teacher learning and to our sense of being a school-wide professional learning community.”
But even if our exhibition didn’t have a large impact on our colleagues’ learning, it had a marked effect on our own. As Doug McGlathery explained in May 2008 to a visiting teacher group (through our PZ connections, various educational researchers and school groups became annual exhibition visitors), “[W]e just loved being together. We loved sharing our work and . . . it really strengthened the twenty people who participated whether or not it had a big impact . . . on the culture of the school.” Our group, composed annually of veteran members and newcomers, developed confidence in ourselves as a highly functioning learning group: “a collection of persons who are emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically engaged in solving problems, creating products, and making meaning—an assemblage in which each person learns autonomously and through the ways of learning of others” (MLV Web Site, Learning groups). Various group members particularly nurtured the group’s consciousness of its own learning power: photography teacher Debi Milligan, for example, routinely shared when and how she learned “through the ways of learning of others” who taught other subjects, reminding us to take advantage of the diverse perspectives within our group (MLV Web Site, Learning groups).
Contributing also to our learning capacity were our regularly scheduled meetings, designated leadership, connections to the Making Learning Visible (MLV) Project, knowledge of the Teaching for Understanding (TFU) framework, experience with collaborative inquiry processes, and trusting intellectual interdependence.
Meetings: We met in regularly scheduled two-hour workshop—eight before and two after the exhibition opening—to prepare for and learn from the exhibition. Leadership: From 2006 to 2014 when I retired, I was responsible for facilitating the group’s regular meetings and guiding the exhibition’s creation.
Making Learning Visible: Since CRLS participated officially in the PZ MLV project, which sought “to create and sustain powerful cultures of learning in and across classrooms and schools that nurture and make visible individual and group learning” (PZ Web Site), our group regularly explored ways to advance learning by making it public and visible in classrooms and in exhibitions. In 2008, we began to understand “documentation” collectively as possible indicators of learning deliberately selected, arranged, contextualized, and then shared for the sake of learners’ further learning. But because our understanding was still evolving, many of us were unsure what to exhibit and how to exhibit it. For example, initially, Vera Outeiro had no plans to include the story of the day that one of her English language learner students had begun a sentence with “I wonder,” eliciting his classmates’ laughter because “we weren’t even doing See Think Wonder.” For Vera, this moment signified a transformation, given her students’ formative experiences in schools that generally encouraged rote learning, not curiosity and questioning: that one of her students was wondering without being prompted to do so while his classmates were affectionately teasing him suggested that their ideas about learning in school might be shifting. After consulting with others, Vera decided to share this story as part of her exhibit in order to illuminate an aspect of learning not reflected in her students’ responses and related reflections.
Teaching for Understanding: The TfU knowledge that many of us had led us to view our exhibits not only as documentation, but as understanding performances requiring us to develop deep understandings of our chosen innovative ideas. As Natasha Labaze explained in 2008, “This exhibit was basically a culmination of the work started this summer. It allowed the summer institute . . . to flourish through a real pragmatic attempt for me to reflect and share what I learned.”
Learning from Protocols: Protocols, structured conversations that promote deep listening and reflection, routinely shaped our group’s professional learning, even though not all of us chose to share work or questions. In their exhibit “Exploring Shared Reflection as a Teaching and Learning Tool,” Danielle Corke and Mia Grassia acknowledged the critical role that a protocol about Carrie Dodson’s students’ work had played in their classroom-based inquiry. Meanwhile, newly intrigued by the interactive web-based technologies other group members were exploring, Carrie decided to shift her inquiry focus away from the work that had inspired Danielle and Mia, and to focus instead on the quality of listening in her Advanced Placement history students’ online conversations.
Community/Productive Interdependence: All of us experienced the value of the group’s—and on a number of occasions, the MLV researchers’—intellectual contributions and emotional support as we learned together and went public together. As Quilda Macedo explained, “I’m a doer and planner, always looking ahead to tomorrow, not back to yesterday. Working on this exhibit has made me have to look closely at what I actually did. It’s been hard (pause) but it’s been good. (Longer pause) But it’s been hard.” At some point, every one of us described the group not merely as an emotional support, but as an essential intellectual context for doing our best individual and collective thinking, learning, and public sharing.
But even as the aforementioned factors helped our group thrive in some ways, our efforts were complicated by the conflicts and contradictions inherent in our simultaneous commitments to continuing our own learning and supporting the learning of others. Other groups attempting to mount exhibitions of teacher learning might expect to encounter tensions similar to those we experienced, and also to those experienced by teachers who help students prepare for public exhibitions of learning:
The CRLS teacher-learning exhibition experience has been fraught with difficult tensions—and replete with inspiring examples of teaching and learning. Currently, new district-wide mandates are shaping professional learning and sharing at CRLS: last summer, several CRLS educators shared their work at a district-sponsored professional development institute. But to date, no one has been appointed to facilitate the CRLS teacher-learning group’s work toward a next exhibition. Still, as Reggio Emilia educator Loris Malaguzzi once said, “’Teachers—like children and everyone else—feel the need to grow in their competences; they want to transform experiences into thoughts, thoughts into reflections, and reflections into new thoughts and new actions” (Malaguzzi, 1998, p. 73). Perhaps those “new actions” will dictate new directions for the still vital learning group who created past exhibitions; perhaps they will join with other colleagues to develop a more relevant, inspired, and effective way to share and extend faculty learning. Until they do, though, other school-based learning groups should consider mounting teacher-learning exhibitions of their own. For those who create them, exhibitions offer powerful opportunities to make their collaborative and individual deep learning real, visible, beautiful, and available for their own and others’ further exploration. For those who visit them, exhibitions offer powerful reminders of the always important, often complicated relationships between teaching and learning, and between teachers and students, all of whom are learners.
Blythe, Tina and associates. (1998). The teaching for understanding guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Fraser, S. (2007). Play in other languages. Theory Into Practice, 46(1), 14-22.
New, R. S. (2007). Reggio Emilia as cultural activity theory in practice. Theory Into Practice, 46(1), 5-13.
Making Learning Visible Web Site. (2010). Learning groups.
Retrieved from makinglearningvisibleresources.wikispaces.com/file/
Making Learning Visible Web Site. (2010). Documentation.
Retrieved from makinglearningvisibleresources.org/uploads/3/4/1
Malaguzzi, L. (1998). History, ideas, and basic philosophy: An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach – advanced reflections (pp. 49-97). Westport, CT: Ablex.
Project Zero Web Site. (2014). Past Projects.
Retrieved from pz.gse.harvard.edu/project_zero_past_projects.php
To read more of Joan’s work, visit her blog: So Already: A Blog about Moving Forward and Staying Connected at: soalready.blogspot.com