Eleanor Duckworth [E.D.]: My question that I’m interested in is: How do people learn things? And what can anyone do to help?
My own background was with a Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and his research director Barbel Inhelder from whom I learned that people must construct their own knowledge; so that leads to the question:
If people construct their own knowledge what can a teacher do? So those are the kinds of questions I address. And I believe that to teach about any subject matter, we need to give the students the subject matter, not words about the subject matter.
I started in education, and in my early years I spent a year in Equatorial Africa on this work, in primary school science curriculum development. I didn’t know anything about science when I started that, but I knew something about children’s thinking.
My colleagues who were all from the sciences clearly loved their subject matter, and they wanted kids to learn not from words but from worms, and ice cubes, and the moon in the sky, and pendulums, and torch batteries, and bulbs, and things; and to study the things from which they derive the knowledge. I believe that I was thoroughly persuaded by that.
Now I teach teachers with every kind of subject matter, and every time we try to find how to put the stuff of the subject matter into the learners’ hands – both children and adults, as learners.
So, in the case of Literature, it’s not so hard. You put the person’s writing into the learner’s hand: You get them the poem, novel, or short story.
In History it can be harder, but you give them artefacts and documents from the time they’re studying rather than other people’s words about those artefacts and documents.
In Geography you can start in your own neighbourhood, learning how to map, and learning about geological structures and so on, and by going and looking and trying to explore them.
So in every subject matter people do — dancing, and computers, and how to run a meeting, and any kind of thing — it’s always by giving the subject matter itself to the learners in some way, and then watching carefully to see what happens when the learners explain what they are thinking; that’s the second part: have the learners do the explaining rather than teachers do the explaining.
Teacher does the listening, and the learner does the explaining. And then the teacher knows what the learners think. If the teacher does all the talking, he or she never knows what it is the learners think.
So if the learners do the talking you always know where you are, and then you know what to bring in next, or what question to ask next, or what contradiction to point out, and so you have much more to work on as a teacher.
Anis Haffar [A.H.]: Excellent. Excellent. In teacher-centred (as opposed to learner-centred) methods, students merely listen to what is said, and reproduce what is said for an examination; and we are developing functional illiterates in the sense that people are not thinking critically. How is critical thinking incorporated in some of the methods you use?
E.D.: Well, learners are always the ones who produce the ideas, and the teacher has the ear all the time to see if the ideas are adequate, or if there’s something more the students need to know to develop those ideas, or if there’s something else, a contradiction within the ideas.
The teacher’s job is always to get the students to be assessing their own ideas by listening to each other, to see how their ideas compare with each other, how if they are different they can try to persuade the other person, or what gets them persuaded by that other person, or they read something that makes them think more.
In the case of the Sciences, the teacher can suggest that they do another experiment which now will contradict what they found the time before, so their ideas are always being “self-criticised”, and by each other, themselves, or by their peers; with the teacher always assessing if that idea is going to be okay for now, or I should bring in something else so they will re-assess that idea.
A.H.: I’ve learned here at Harvard that there’s a focus on community service. Is that a big thing here?
E.D.: It’s not too big here actually, but it is big in the United States, and in many places. Yes, there’s a lot to be learned from community service.
Usually they’re shaped by teachers so that there are some questions students have when they go to do the service, and in the process of doing it they start to learn about the questions they have.
That too becomes hard intellectual work, as well as service to the community. A.H.: What is the benefit of community service for students; for example, for graduate students and undergraduate students, from your perspective?
E.D.: Certainly, for learning the sociology of their neighbourhoods, for learning the structure of the food supply in the neighbourhood, the economics of the food supply, learning the economics of any commerce, often if it extends outside the neighbourhood itself; so that gets you into geography, and economics of distant places, can also get you into history, also of why things are done this way, and certainly can get you into mathematics of calculating what is needed in the situation, arithmetic mostly — not complicated mathematics. For a certain level that is good practice, that sort of thing.
A.H: I appreciate community service in the sense that sitting behind desks all day long — can be a waste of time. And then President Obama, perhaps because of his community experiences, we see that when you get involved with people, to really understand people you have to get involved with them, you want to see them, see what makes them tick, see what you can do to serve them.
We want to see what is happening outside Ghana to update our own educational system. E.D.: Did you ever know about the Science Education Programme for Africa in the 1970s, in Accra?
A.H.: No. In the 70s I was a student here in the States. E.D.: When I worked with it, it was called the African Primary Science Programme.
The funding came to Massachusetts and it was sent to Africa but then afterwards it became Africa-based and funded directly to Africa, based in Accra, for about six or seven different countries. And they did wonderful work, but I don’t know if there’s anything left.
A.H.: Thanks so much. We started from scratch; now see where we are. Thanks again.
E.D.: It was a pleasure.
Eleanor Duckworth’s book “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” published in 2006 by Teachers College, Columbia University, contain some potent suggestions especially in the chapters “Critical Exploration in the Classroom”, and “Understanding Children’s Understanding”. Here are some key points overall:
We must find ways to present subject matter that will enable learners to get at their own thoughts about it.
Helping people learn is my definition of teaching.
Devise the situations in which children are called upon to think, and to talk about what they think.
Questions must be clear; they must be broad enough to invite a response of more than Yes or No.
Critical exploration has two aspects: One, developing a good project for the child to work on; and Two, succeeding in inviting children to talk about their ideas: putting them at ease; being receptive to all answers.
When working with someone else, try to understand how they understand something, and see how we can get to the same answer.
Looking honestly at what a child really understands can be a self-evaluative act; it can be seen as a measure of the teacher’s own competence as a teacher.
Put emphasis on what the children were thinking, not on its rightness or wrongness.
The better we could judge how children were seeing a problem, the better we could decide what would be appropriate to do next.
To the extent that one carries on a conversation with a child, as a way of trying to understand a child’s understanding, the child’s understanding increases “in the very process”.