A Year Studying Learning & Teaching at Harvard

“Children grow into the intellectual life around them” ~Lev Vygotsky

In 2010-2011 I spent an inspiring year studying learning and teaching at Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was the culmination of a dream that emerged in 2007 when I spent a week at Harvard’s Project Zero Classroom. Three years later I came to be walking through Harvard Yard every morning, past historical sites from the war of independence, past views immortalised in Hollywood, past some of the world’s top intellectuals, and past the most obvious evidence of the USA’s current woes – the homeless in Harvard Square. I was one of around 600 graduate students studying for a Masters degree in the Education faculty, and my cohort in the Learning & Teaching strand numbered 42. My fellow students ranged from career-changing 60-year olds, to fresh faced students in their mid-20s directly from their undergraduate studies. There were three Singaporeans, several Canadians, a Nigerian, a Kiwi, a Mexican, an Aussie, and the rest were pulled from the various corners of the USA. What bonded us together was an abiding interest in finding out more about how people learn, and what this might mean for those who teach.

The Having of Wonderful Ideas

My Advisor was the 76 year-old sharp-witted Eleanor Duckworth, protégé of Jean Piaget. Duckworth grounds her work in Piaget and Inhelder’s insights into the nature and development of understanding and in their research method. She seeks to bring a Freirean approach to any classroom, valuing the learners’ experience and insights. Her course ‘The Having of Wonderful Ideas’ was life-changing.

Duckworth’s course focused on how people learn and what anyone can do to help. She views learning as developing understanding, and teaching as helping learners construct their own understanding. Just as Piaget argued that to understand is to invent, Duckworth views the having of wonderful ideas as the essence of intellectual development. Duckworth exhorts us to follow children’s thinking instead of leading it. She conceives of education as being where teachers do the listening and learners do the explaining. Duckworth (2006) warns that, “We cannot learn anything about what children think if we signal to them what we hope they will say” (p. 162). As teachers, our role is to utilise our expertise to design powerful learning experiences and then listen carefully as our students help each other make sense of their confusion. The mark of our success is when our students are ready to continue their learning without us.

Duckworth uses the powerful metaphor of the construction of a tower. A tall tower can be built quickly, but one built on a broad base or with deep foundations takes longer to construct. Students who come to depend on narrow, easy success will not learn. To learn is to be confused, to fail frequently and to try again until success occurs. Confusion and conflict are needed in order to learn, and failure is a necessary building block for ultimate success. Thinking is difficult and doubt is the basis of all good thinking. Exploring wrong ideas is always productive. A wrong idea corrected provides far more depth than if one never had a wrong idea to begin with. By considering alternatives and working through them, learners come to master the idea much more thoroughly.

Emerging Educational Technology

The second class I signed up for was ‘Emerging Educational Technology’ with Chris Dede. We were paraded through the likely evolution of multiuser virtual environments, intelligent tutoring systems, Web 2.0 tools, robotics, and I wrote papers examining the pedagogical value of videogames and augmented reality immersive interfaces. The key themes of the course were that while educational technology is only having minor impacts in schools, it is fostering powerful engagement and mastery in informal learning environments, and disruptive innovation suggests that changes to schooling will commence on the fringes of the current system.

Group Learning

My third course was ‘Group Learning’ with Daniel Wilson. Wilson is a principal investigator at Project Zero where he explores adult collaborative learning. His course provided an overview of the key research findings on the nature of group learning and offered several occasions to apply the concepts in practice by designing and observing group learning experiences. The course examined and compared seminal lessons on co-operative learning, peer-to-peer teaching, team-teaching, communities of practice, psychological safety, conflict resolution, and social facilitation. I was particularly struck by the fact that 80% of professional learning is informal and incidental.

Sociology in Education

My final course for credit in Fall Semester was ‘Sociology in Education’ with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Unbeknownst to me when I enrolled, Lawrence-Lightfoot is one of the great luminaries of Harvard Graduate School of Education and she is the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honour. For this course I wrote a paper on the history of resistance to school reform, in which I argued that the complexity of school culture and the conservative nature of the teaching profession provide powerful resistance to school reform. The isolation of cellular classrooms operates against professional interdependence and the potentially powerful voices of teachers are neglected in the reform discourse. Schools are difficult places to enact meaningful change because they are designed to only tolerate limited individuality, there is widespread support for the conserving roles that schools play in society, and the historical weight of bureaucracy constrains schools. My argument was based around the work of: Willard Waller (1961) who asserts that schools are complex institutions based around control and stability; Dan Lortie (2002) who describes teachers as conservative and isolated; and Theodore Sizer (2003) who placed blame for the failure of school reform squarely on bureaucratic systemic structures.

Developing Historical Understanding in Students

I also took the opportunity to audit a short class on ‘Developing Historical Understanding in Students’. I have since maintained contact with the teacher, Liz Dawes Duraisingh and my Year 12 class is currently involved in her research project examining how young people think about themselves as being part of history. In this class I also met a visiting Swiss scholar, Alex Binnenkade, an expert in visual memory and how this connects to historical learning. She was researching pedagogy in history classrooms around the issue of violence. I was able to help with her research and in return she took the time to explain her approach to authoring an award-winning secondary school history textbook, which focuses on getting students to understand their own cultural lens and seeing themselves as archaeologists of everyday life.

Leadership for Instructional Improvement

In January I took advantage of a winter course ‘Leadership for Instructional Improvement’, a hands-on practical course, which trained me in the instructional rounds network model. Instructional Rounds is a useful process of improving internal school capacity by placing teaching under systematic examination and focusing on what students are doing in class. The process assists teachers to develop a shared understanding of what high-quality teaching and learning looks like and how it can be supported. Instructional Rounds has now been incorporated into the professional learning programme at my school with close to 70 staff taking part, and I have trained staff from ten other schools and the University of Sydney in the Instructional Rounds process.

Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement

I approached the Spring term with a determination to find out how to scale learning and teaching initiatives across a school. This drew me to Richard Elmore’s class on ‘Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement’. Elmore’s research focuses on building capacity for instructional improvement in schools.

Elmore argues that most school structures are based on adults’ fear of children running out of control and adults always underestimate the capabilities of children. The best indicators of student learning are the tasks that they undertake. Task predicts performance. Yet the task that students most frequently undertake in schools is listening to a teacher talk. “The majority of the 20,000 tasks that make a school career are teacher specified, cognitively simple, and done either by oneself or involve listening to the monologue of an adult” (Fisher & Hiebert, 1990, p. 15).

Schools are operating on a 19th century bureaucratic model. It is a compliance-oriented structure, based on:
• Deficit-based versus asset-based models of student learning.
• Teacher to student versus student to teacher models of authority.
• Extrinsic versus intrinsic models of motivation.
• Fixed versus incremental models of intelligence.
• Cognitive versus social-emotional models of knowledge.
• Status versus developmental models of performance.

Over recent decades, a large theoretical and empirical base has emerged for understanding the sources of successful classroom teaching and for understanding how to bring successful classroom teaching to scale. My reading of the body of knowledge on teaching and learning revealed that students learn best when:

• The student considers the knowledge important.
• Extrinsic motivators are not the primary motivation.
• The teacher helps students make connections between the new and the familiar.
• There is a high proportion of student talk, a significant amount of it occurs between students, and there is a climate of respect for what others have to say, which values constructive criticism and the challenging of ideas. “What children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 85).
• The lesson involves fundamental subject concepts, enhances students’ abilities to recognize meaningful patterns by organising content knowledge around big ideas, and the teacher has a solid grasp of the subject matter content.
• The teacher tries to find out what meaning students are making by asking open-ended questions and actively soliciting student ideas.
• Students are nurtured to be thoughtful learners who are able to identify and think about their own thinking.

The second part of Elmore’s course focused on how schools as organisations learn best. We know that schools learn collectively in groups, and teams are the fundamental learning unit. Teachers get better by working in teams on teaching issues. The team is the source of learning and the source of diversity, and leadership is about building highly functional people into highly functional teams. Elmore (2009) states, “People have to learn how to work together in teams to accomplish collective purposes, rather than engage in parallel play, each within their own cell in the organization.” A team focus on learning helps teachers to discover causal connections between teaching and student learning, and encourages collective questioning of ineffective teaching routines. High levels of teacher collaboration are likely to improve teaching and learning, student behaviour, and student achievement on high-stakes tests.

Organisations are likely to be learning effectively when:

• They support risk-taking. Edmondson (2002) writes about how perceptions about the costs of interpersonal risk consist of “taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as by asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea” (p.6). When leaders display readiness to consider alternative points of view, staff can feel empowered to suggest their own innovative ideas. Risk-taking is also enhanced when leaders model their own learning publically and serve as a ‘fallibility model’ by admitting their own mistakes. This helps to foster a psychologically safe learning environment and a willingness to experiment.

• The learning is widely shared or distributed and the locus of decision-making is at the classroom level. Distributed leadership develops leadership capacity and talent throughout the organization. The key is to redesign school internal social architecture so that leadership becomes a collective endeavor.

• There are high levels of lateral accountability. High lateral accountability, as opposed to hierarchical accountability, is present when staff are interdependent and accountable to each other, and work together towards achieving school aims. When peers have high expectations of each other, there is a strong incentive to perform well.

• There is a powerful culture of expectations that shapes individuals’ views around a common purpose. A common purpose plays a large role in determining an organisation’s overall learning effectiveness.

Elmore uses the Victorian Education Department in Australia as a model case study of the future of learning organisations. Every student and every teacher has an individual improvement plan. It is a child-focused, mastery-based environment with the students in control and the teachers as support. Teachers have individual conferences with students every day. Student assessment is individualised and teacher coaching is individualised. The schools are also creating physical spaces for flexible learning, mobility, movement, and group spaces.

While Elmore believes that there will always be a place like school for students to interact with teachers, he warns that the school education sector as we know it will soon be obsolete. We are increasingly organising ourselves around social networks and there is more learning going on in social networks than in formal organisations. The future of schools lies in networks rather than hierarchies, in lateral rather than vertical organisations. Networks cannot be managed the same way that hierarchies are managed. Social networking is simply a different way of organising.

“There is no future in the organisations you used to work in. Our future is not a future of fixed practices. Our future is a future of dramatic transformations. The more I know about learning, the more problematic I find this institution called school” (Professor Richard Elmore).

Adult Development

Another class that I was drawn to was Bob Kegan’s class on ‘Adult Development’. Kegan is a psychologist who teaches and researches about adult development, adult learning, and professional development. His constructive-developmental framework, considers how the systems by which people make meaning grow and change over time. According to Kegan people use a variety of filters to make meaning of information, and development is a process of constant movement through stages which represent increasingly more complex ways of making meaning. However, the confusing, changing demands of modern life may be developmentally inappropriate for most adults. The bar has been raised so high, so fast that the level of awareness and self-motivation expected today is far greater than anything required of previous generations.

Kegan writes about the need to move beyond an informational stance to a transformational stance which adults as growing and changing people are in much more need of.

An informational stance leaves the form as is and focuses on changing what people know; it is essentially a training model for personal change. I would contrast this with a transformational stance, which places the form itself at risk for change and focuses on changes in how people know; it is essentially an educational model for personal change. (1994, p. 164)

Transformation is about changing the very form of the container, making it larger, more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty. According to Kegan, transformation is about changing the form of the meaning-making system, making it more complex and able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty. Transformative learning occurs when someone changes “not just the way he behaves, not just the way he feels, but the way he knows – not just what he knows, but the way he knows” (1994, p.17).

My interest in this class was to ascertain the implications for the professional learning of teachers. Kegan claims that we have no right to demand that people change, instead we must develop environments where change is encouraged. People tend not to develop unless they are challenged in some way to question what they take for granted, and people tend to slip back into old comfortable ways of thinking. Environments which support the growth of teachers include: working in collaborative teams, individualised coaching and reflective journal writing.

Applying Cognitive Science to Teaching and Learning

I had come to Harvard hoping to take a class with founding member of Harvard Project Zero, David Perkins, and finding him recently retired I decided to take Tina Grotzer’s class on ‘Applying Cognitive Science to Teaching and Learning’. The class was a whirlwind tour of the application of cognitive science to pedagogy: conceptual change, transfer, metacognition, and the use of analogy. The assessment involved producing a detailed curriculum unit incorporating key concepts from cognitive science. My curriculum unit was based around the HSC Modern History course on Pol Pot and Cambodia.

Investigating Learning and Teaching Through Close Collaborative Examination of Student and Teacher Work

My final class was ‘Investigating Learning and Teaching Through Close Collaborative Examination of Student and Teacher Work’ with Tina Blythe. Her research focuses on professional development, teacher inquiry, and collaborative assessment of student work. Tina was known to me as the author of The Teaching for Understanding Guide (1998) and her class was a hidden gem.

Blythe argues that teachers should be expected to learn in public, and that the most powerful source of information about teaching and learning in a school is the students and teacher work that occurs in classrooms, day in and day out. Her class was about how to use that work to better understand learners and their learning, teachers and their teaching, and how to support the collegial collaboration that leads to better learning for both students and educators in a school. We focused on three specific tools: protocols (or structures for guiding reflection and discussion); documentation (ways of capturing student and teacher work so that it can be examined and discussed); and collaborative inquiry (working with colleagues to identify important questions about teaching and learning and then to pursue those questions through the close examination of student and teacher work). Essentially, I learned how to have conversations about students and teaching and learning with my colleagues, and how to make sure those conversations are focused and productive.

As a bit of an aside, I became quite deeply interested in the fact that two of my classes were only able to be taken as Pass/Fail courses, that is, there was effectively no grading. What surprised me was that these were the two classes that I was most deeply invested in, and the two classes that I found the most stimulating and challenging. I found myself wondering about the role grades play as instruments of social control and how we are socialised to accept a simplistic number as learning. Kohn (1999) presents convincing research that suggests that grades tend to reduce students’ interest in learning, reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks, reduce the quality of students’ thinking, encourage cheating, and spoil teachers’ relationships with students and students’ relationships with each other.

Teacher Education Program

While I studied at Harvard I also had the extraordinary opportunity to work part-time in teacher education. The Director of the Teacher Education Program was short-staffed when my application landed in her in-tray and I became the first ever foreigner appointed to work in teacher education at Harvard. Every week I would catch the bus to a public school in Boston, touch base with the mentor teachers, and then observe my interns (prac teachers) teach their classes. Weekly, we would meet in a classroom at Harvard, I would teach the teacher education program curriculum and we would debrief their experiences during the week. It was eye-opening to observe the high levels of bureaucracy and socio-economic disparity in US public schools, and the emphasis on direct instruction and multiple choice testing. The entire time I felt like I was in a Hollywood movie.

My year at Harvard has enabled me to bring a new lens to bear on old practices. Since returning I have been startled at the emphasis we place on tests, marks, and rankings; surprised at the language we use to pigeonhole students, “middle-ability” and ‘weak-ability”; frustrated with the acceptance of dysfunctional teams; and disappointed with the complacency, “Why should we change anything?”

I think of the lessons I learned with Eleanor Duckworth and Tina Blythe every day. My own teaching has changed quite dramatically as my approach is now essentially Duckworthian. Tina Blythe’s emphasis on close collaborative examination of student and teacher work imbues my approach to staff professional learning, Richard Elmore’s focus on teams, and Bob Kegan’s developmental framework are also important lenses for my work with staff.

Upon returning to Australia I wrote to Professor Kitty Boles, The Director of the Learning and Teaching Program expressing my unsettledness and she wrote back:

“Remember all the lessons you learned at Harvard about the slowness of change and what you can do to effect it — the importance of acting wisely, politically, strategically to move a school in a new direction. Just build a good work group — develop allies in all kinds of places….use the things you learned about school change while you were at Harvard. …I think you can make very good things happen!!! Keep me posted as you re-integrate yourself back home!”

At Harvard, for the first time in my life I felt like I was among like-minded peers and was not the odd one out arguing against the status quo. My peers were some of the most inspiring people I have ever met in my life. While I knew that I would enjoy my time at Harvard, I never in my wildest dreams anticipated that it would be the life-changing experience that it was. The intellectual atmosphere was stimulating, the close-knit nature of the Harvard community was uplifting, and the people were warm-hearted and inspiring. I miss it all enormously.


Blythe, T. (1998). The teaching for understanding guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Duckworth, E. (2006). “The having of wonderful ideas” and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Edmondson, A. (2002). The local and variegated nature of learning in organizations: A group-level perspective. Organization Science, 13(2), 128-146.

Elmore, R. (2009). The strategic turn in school improvement. Unpublished.

Fisher, C. W., & Hiebert, E. H. (1990). Characteristics of tasks in two approaches to literacy instruction. Elementary School Journal, 91, 3-18.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kohn, A. (1999, March). From de-grading to degrading. High School Magazine. Retrieved from, http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm

Lortie, D. C. (2002). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sizer, T. R. (2004). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Miflin Company.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Waller, W. (1961). The sociology of teaching. New York: Russell & Russell.

6 thoughts on “A Year Studying Learning & Teaching at Harvard

  1. Hi, Cameron
    I am glad I have your blog on my reader. This essay was great. I, too, had a great experience getting my Ed.M. ’11 at Harvard and miss it very much. Just wanted to say hi. I am now teaching math in the poor urban district of Lynn, MA to ELL students.
    Best to you,
    – Margaret (the 50, not 60, year old career changer from TEP).
    p.s. I did not take Duckworth’s course but intend to read her one of these days in my copious spare time … maybe this summer.

  2. Hi Margaret,

    Nice to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to respond. Hope that the math teaching is going well. I recommend, if you are interested in Duckworth, that you look at the couple of clips of her on YouTube. They are easier going than her books.



  3. Hi Cameron,
    I just came across this while searching for something else online — and was struck because I am finishing my EdM at HGSE now and took most of the same classes you did. (Duckworth, Blythe, Elmore, Wilson, Grotzer) What amazing teachers! Sadly, Duckworth and Elmore are retiring after this year — so I’m so glad I got in under the wire!

    Fun to read about all you learned — my learning was similarly rich and life-altering.


  4. Hi Heidi,

    Thank you so much for leaving a comment and congrats on your upcoming graduation. I miss HGSE enormously. I just loved it. Please say hello to Tina Blythe for me if you get the chance. She is a one in a billion.


  5. Hi Cameron

    Came across this blog while doing some research on visible thinking skills for a seminar I am giving.
    Fascinating reading about your year at Harvard.
    I have long fantasized about studying there. Is it possible for a middle aged Aussie teacher??
    Very much enjoyed your essay


  6. Vicki,

    Easier than you might imagine. Sit the exam and fill out the application. As a mid-career teacher you’ll be assessed mostly on your Statement of Pupose and your three recommenders. It’s an amazing opportunity. High, highly recommended.


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