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VOL. 129 | NO. 32 | Monday, February 17, 2014

‘Zeroing’ In

Project Zero researchers discuss education at Memphis symposium

By Bill Dries

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Ron Ritchhart came to Memphis for a two-day symposium on Harvard’s Project Zero education research with a message about student-achievement testing he suggested U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan should hear.

Victoria Mizzi, left, conducts an exercise during a presentation titled “Building a Culture of Thinking in a Mathematics Classroom” during the two-day symposium on Harvard’s Project Zero. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“We really have very little evidence that our teaching makes much of a difference because we kind of game the system,” said Ritchhart, a Project Zero senior research associate. “We teach kids something, and then we test them right away. It gets them very used to learning for the short term, not for the long haul. Imagine how your teaching would be different if you were not allowed to give any test or quiz this year, but instead your students had to come back next year to sit for tests and quizzes.”

The reference to testing got a smattering of applause from the 700 teachers from across the country and several other countries who gathered at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence on the campus of Presbyterian Day School in East Memphis.

But before the applause had a chance to build, Ritchhart returned to the basic theme of the conference: research on how students learn and how to make that learning more profound.

The examination is the focus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero.

In the past, educators from Memphis and other cities have gone to Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., to talk with the Project Zero researchers about their work, ideas on how students learn and techniques to make learning more meaningful.

Last week’s meeting in Memphis is only the sixth time Project Zero has taken its conference on the road.

And Ritchhart’s message about meaningful learning for purposes broader than passing a test or meeting the approval of a school’s culture wasn’t just for teachers. He called on parents to take a larger view when their children have homework.

“They need to, as parents, get out of being monitors of the work,” he said. “If you just ask a child, ‘What does your teacher want you to learn from this assignment,’ it will reorient them to the purpose of what it is they are trying to do.”

Like Ritchhart, David Perkins, a senior professor at the Harvard Graduate School and former co-director of Project Zero, also quizzed the teachers about their classroom experiences. And he questioned experiences that appeared to be common among many of the teachers.

“How many teacher here have had the experience where you know your students have learned something over there in another subject matter that they could use here but they just don’t seem to make the connection?” he asked, with a response of hands raised across the auditorium. “It happens a lot. That’s inert knowledge.”

He also referenced students “going through the motions of stuff they are supposed to learn,” which also includes “ritual knowledge.”

A two-day sumposium on Harvard’s Project Zero was held at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, where 700 teachers gathered.

“Students learn how to cope with the content by learning the rituals and routines,” he said. “They learn how to go through the motions, and yet they don’t really understand it. It’s a pretty good way of coping, actually, but it isn’t really meaningful learning. It won’t last a long time after the test.”

That struck a chord with at least one teacher in the audience, who tweeted, “The wrong focus for American education: closing achievement gaps.” The teacher advocated an approach in which teachers try to reach every child.

Advocates of trying to make headway on achievement gaps shown in testing data, however, also take the approach that every child’s needs should be addressed in the process.

The differing views demonstrate that the ongoing re-examination of even the basic premises of American public education are frequently more complex than opinions for and against a basic concept.

Another teacher linked Perkins’ philosophy to the World Peace Game originated by John Hunter, who is teaching master classes at the institute this coming summer on the game and its impact on critical-thinking skills.

In Perkins’ terminology, something such as the World Peace Game is a “junior version,” or an experiment in which students are able to both act and learn in several ways.

“Teachers make them up or learn them from other teachers,” he said as he talked of teachers “stretching” lesson plans. “You create them.”

And Perkins likens the broader view of how students learn and the depth at which they should learn to another game – baseball.

“The next time a student raises his hand in the back of the room and says, ‘What is this for?’ – when those specific complications arise – it might be worth spending a moment to stand back … and say, ‘How can I nudge a little more toward the whole game?’”

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