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King David goes to Harvard

| March 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


Last winter, from 22 to 26 July 2019, the heads of King David Pre-Primary Schools attended the weeklong Project Zero Classroom Institute,1 hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the US.2

In the company of Project Zero (PZ) researchers and experienced educators from around the world, we were able to be at the heart of teaching and learning and pose the following questions: What kinds of learning experiences and assessment practices will best prepare students for the demands of an unpredictable, ever-shifting future? How does understanding develop? How do we nurture critical and creative thinking? How do we ensure that all our students are learning? Through this programme, we were offered frameworks and tools developed through PZ’s research, giving us as educators the opportunity to learn how these frameworks have been implemented and adapted in a variety of contexts, across grade levels and disciplines; to deepen student engagement; support learners in thinking critically and creatively; and make student learning and thinking visible. We engaged with 391 international educators from 94 countries in analysing our current teaching and assessment practices. In plenary sessions, intense, specifically constructed mini courses and study groups, we attempted to develop new approaches to planning and instruction that respond to the diverse ways in which our students engage and learn.

‘We dissected what learning looks like.’

So, what is Project Zero?

PZ was founded by philosopher Nelson Goodman at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1967 to study and improve education in the arts. Goodman believed that arts learning should be studied as a serious cognitive activity, but found that the general communicable knowledge about arts education was zero. Goodman therefore gave the project its name, ‘zero’, as that was its starting point. From the beginning, PZ took a cognitive view of the arts, viewing artistic activity as involving mental processes fully as powerful and subtle as those used in the sciences or public policy. During this early period, position papers were written and modest experiments were undertaken. In the 1970s, PZ researchers focused their attention principally on empirical work in the area of cognitive psychology, with a continuing emphasis on artistic issues. However, PZ also began to examine issues that went beyond the arts, looking at problem solving, critical thinking and brain organisation. By 1990, research and development at PZ was of a distinctly applied nature, and PZ began working with schools that were based on multiple intelligences, ‘smart schools’ that encouraged creative and critical thinking, and research collaborations all over the world. In the 1990s, PZ turned its attention towards the challenge of making the work, and particularly the work in education, better known, both nationally and internationally – most notably via the summer institute that convened researchers and educators to explore pressing questions in education. Today, research at PZ continues to explore the challenges facing education today and tomorrow. How can schools create access to personalised learning for a diversity of students? How can students develop 21st century skills such as lifelong learning, critical thinking and creativity? How can teachers recognise and develop each child’s full intellectual potential? These are but a few of the contemporary conundrums that impact educational theory and pedagogical practices in cultural settings around the world, including Argentina, Australia, China, Colombia, Italy, South Africa, Sweden and the United States. PZ is an intellectual wellspring, nourishing inquiry into the complexity of human potentials – intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural thinking and ethics – and exploring sustainable ways to support them across multiple and diverse contexts. Anchored in the humanities, and with a commitment to melding theory and practice, PZ continues to work towards a more enlightened educational process and system that prepares learners well for the world in which they will live and work.

The experience of a lifetime

And so, what of our journey to the hallowed intellectual halls of Harvard University? Not everyone can become an alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero Classroom. We had to submit extensive answers to questionnaires and commit to adhere to the codes and conducts of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to our visit to the PZ Institute, we were asked to choose from a myriad of mini courses, which were three-hourly different segments on each day. Attendance at plenary sessions, conducted by the most senior of PZ researchers, were non-negotiable and set the stage for the day’s learning, teaching and interacting. Our own personal study groups comprised senior members of the Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty and about 20 of us randomly divided into groups in which we stayed throughout the week – a home room of sorts – a place where people knew your name, and food and knowledge were shared exponentially and with gay abandon. This was three hours a day of debating, dissecting and sharing what was learned through the day and pulling it all together in comprehensive way. Walking through the Harvard Campus, along Massachusetts Avenue and through the infamous Harvard Yard, surrounded by the incomparable Harvard wrought-iron gates, was indeed the stuff of which dreams are made. Harvard is grand. Majestic buildings of yesteryear covered with ivy, surround the visitor. Tourists abound with their identifying lanyards clearly evident, clustered around tour guides; summer students wander about looking lost, while faculty and professors are quite indistinguishable from their students strolling through the Cambridge Common adjacent to the Harvard Graduate School of Education in deep conversation. Night life is exhilaratingly simple: one can sample Harvard Square’s myriad coffee shops, ice cream parlours and bookstores, where the studious rest their weary feet and the smell of new and old books is invigorating. The town of Cambridge itself, on the outskirts of bustling Boston, is the quintessential student haven, where the Charles River divides the campus into undergraduate dorms and postgraduate splendour within Harvard Yard. The imposing statue of John Harvard, who bequeathed his large estate and his magnificent library to Harvard University, presides grandly over Harvard Yard, and potential Harvard graduates line up to touch his toe – lore explains that this will confirm a place for you at this wondrous prestigious university. The Harvard crest of three books inscribed with the Latin ‘veritas’ (truth) is a common sighting within the campus. The Harvard crimson on the myriad caps, scarves and the musthave Harvard T-shirt is everywhere, denoting the exclusive membership of a most unique club – a Harvard student.

What did we learn?

How very difficult it is to encapsulate the micro levels of learning that took place within the five days of plenaries, mini courses and study groups, as well as the valuable casual conversations entered into with our fellow students over coffee and while striding from one venue to the next. The teaching for understanding framework was one aspect of our learning. This has been designed as an action theory for teaching and learning, and involves questions concerning understanding our students. It includes what we do as educators and what we want our students to understand, what we are going to ask our students so that they can reach that understanding, and how we as educators know that our students are understanding. In addition, we dissected what learning looks like – and of course how we support this learning, both individual learning and the learning of others. We discussed at length the notion that teaching is an art, is creative and collaborative, and that there is no recipe for teaching. Cultural forces in the classroom were investigated as well, to emphasise that our words matter and how we say these words has consequences with regard to overall learning. Words increase connections, as understanding is connected knowledge. We interrogated Visible Thinking, which is a flexible and systematic, research-based conceptual framework that aims to integrate the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters. This approach emphasises three core practices: thinking routines, the documentation of student thinking, and reflective professional practice. Thinking routines were, of course, significant within the pre-primary context, and these methodologies have certainly been utilised within our classrooms.

How to become an analytical teacher

In essence, the Project Zero Classroom Institute featured various frameworks and tools that enable us as educators to look at teaching analytically, to develop new approaches to teaching and learning and to make informed decisions about our teaching. We explored ways to deepen student engagement, to encourage our learners to think creatively and critically and to make their thinking and learning visible. And what a time it was, indeed – a time of learning and interacting, of growing and developing and intersecting with ideas of cognition and cultures, thinking and understanding and knowledge and reasoning, all to the benefit of us as educators for the children in our care.

Caron Levy is principal at King David Rosabelle Klein Nursery School in Johannesburg.


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Category: Autumn 2020

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