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VOL. 129 | NO. 30 | Thursday, February 13, 2014

Harvard Project Zero Comes to Martin Institute

By Bill Dries

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At a time when it seems every assumption about the mechanics of education is being questioned, educators at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero have been deconstructing the same assumptions and trying to analyze more objectively what should happen to help students learn.

The researchers come to Memphis this week for a two-day conference that educators across the country usually travel to Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, Mass., to attend.

Project Zero began as an outgrowth of the examination of education in the U.S. following the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

More than 600 teachers from 24 states and six countries meet for two days starting Thursday, Feb. 13, at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, housed on the Presbyterian Day School campus, to learn more about what the researchers are finding in their latest explorations and perspectives from others on the work.


“We need to teach children not just to know things but teach them how to think critically, creatively and connectively,” Martin Institute Executive Director Jamie Field Baker said in describing the premise of the discussions.

For teachers, that means talking about changes in classroom culture to better engage students – changes Project Zero has organized around 26 routines.

“They are the equivalent of teaching kids how to go way beyond the surface understanding of something,” she said. “A kid might say, ‘That really looks like it’s hot,’ and a teacher, instead of saying, ‘Yes, you’re right,’ would say, ‘What makes you say that?’”

David Perkins, a professor of the Harvard graduate school, is among the speakers. He will discuss making learning “whole.”

“One of his big ideas is that we segment learning into discreet areas – math, science, history,” Baker said. “But the world is not segmented like that. We haven’t traditionally done a great job telling kids why they need to know something. He says kids have a hard time engaging if they don’t have a sense of the whole.”

Perkins and others in Project Zero advocate doing that through projects that cross the boundaries that have separated subject areas before. Perkins is also an advocate of “junior versions” of real-life situations.

“Schools should have a lot more opportunities where kids can have a smaller experience that mimics a real-life experience,” Baker explained. “An example would be writing for real audiences or doing oral history interviews. Those are things that would be a junior version of what you would do in real life.”

The idea of teachers collaborating across classrooms using a common learning plan for students is already a reality in many Shelby County Schools classrooms. Much of the emphasis has been on intervention strategies for students who are falling behind in student achievement standards that have become much more specific with the dawn of Common Core standards in Tennessee and most other states.

Project Zero is a different emphasis that isn’t limited to intervention.

But Baker said it is also important to the higher standards for student achievement at a critical time.

Tennessee schools are making a transition from Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing on all subjects, to a mix of TCAP on some subjects and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career – or PARCC – test on other subjects.

“Once schools are taking that PARRC test next year, it’s going to be a lot more focused on measuring critical-thinking skills,” Baker said.

For the last four years, the Martin Institute has sent teachers to the Harvard graduate school to learn more about Project Zero. This is the first year Project Zero researchers are coming to Memphis.

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