Talks from the Launch Party, Part I

Author: Lisa Schneier

Posted by Alythea

Welcome, everyone. I’m Lisa Schneier, member of the Board of Directors of Critical Explorers, and I want to welcome you on behalf of the Board and to say how thrilled we are to see you all here.

I’m very proud to be a part of this gathering – to enter with you into this remarkable moment that is both a culmination and a beginning. We’ve called this a “launch” party, and I think that metaphor works because what we’re launching is a vessel, a structure that has been carefully and lovingly created over the last several years as a means of carrying further into the world the work that is important to so many of us. The vessel here is the organization that we’ve called Critical Explorers, and it includes the website that is now live and available, and to which you’ll be introduced today. Critical Explorers has been built to conform to the integrity of the work that it carries. In a new form, it carries into this present moment a history that holds great significance for the field of education. It takes its name and its foundation from the approach to teaching and learning developed by Eleanor Duckworth, called Critical Exploration in the Classroom. This approach, developed by Eleanor over her fifty years of work in education, is informed by deep investigation into the nature of learning. The orientation toward teaching that Critical Exploration carries out is shaped by core convictions about what it is – what it can be – to learn. I want to highlight briefly this history of Eleanor’s work in order to embrace the fullness of what we celebrate here today, and also as an attempt to reveal the foundation of Critical Explorers.

Eleanor’s work has its theoretical roots in the work of Jean Piaget and particularly in his idea of “assimilation” – the idea that a person takes in – gives meaning to – aspects of the world through his or her own action. Piaget’s theory is often misunderstood to be primarily composed of a set of static stages of intellectual development. But what comes through most powerfully in reading his work directly, or in being guided through it by Eleanor, is the dynamism –the action – of the learner, the intricate, incremental transitions of a mind at work as a person develops knowledge. One act of understanding leads into another and that into another, act upon act upon act, each movement both a completion of what came before and an opening to something new. Reading Piaget, we are shown above all that the mind is alive.  Learning is not a matter of appending pre-made ideas to a living being; rather, it is a series of acts of creation on the part of the learner.

There are beautiful examples of this throughout Eleanor’s writing – examples of learners in the act of learning. I wish I had time to take you through one of these, but instead I’ll refer you to her signature book, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. I’ll point you to the chapter titled, “Structures, Continuity, and Other People’s Minds” for an example taken from Piaget, in which Eleanor guides us through Piaget’s observations of his baby daughter, Lucienne, as she learns to coordinate her ability to see objects with her ability to grasp them with her hands. Throughout the book are similarly intriguing examples from Eleanor’s own work of learners of a wide range of ages and subject areas, each example portraying the integrity of a mind within its own process of growth.

Part of the significance of Eleanor’s work is her creation of an approach to teaching that is equal in vitality to this view of learning. One dimension of this approach is using as subject matter the actual material of the world. As she says, “What you do is you give them the butterflies, or the magnifying glass and the water drops, and you don’t give the words about those things.” Instead of words of explanation, the teacher asks the students what they notice, or perhaps sets up a situation in which a material will surprise them or invite them to try something out. And after that, the teacher still doesn’t explain. She asks the students to explain, to say what they are thinking, to hear each other. And she actively follows their ideas as they develop, often along paths that she couldn’t anticipate. Explaining their thinking allows the students to maintain their interest, to see what holds up and where they need to revise. The complexity of real materials – whether from the natural or the social world – allows each student to find a foothold, a way into the subject.

This description of Critical Exploration brings to my mind Eleanor’s classroom, where for many years she has taught adults – teachers and other educators. The teachers become learners, have their own encounters with materials as well as opportunities to follow the emerging understanding of others. From the time I became her student in 1983, and for years afterward as a teaching assistant, I noticed something in her classroom that’s hard to describe. It’s a feeling of animation, not coming from any one source, somehow in the air – a group enlivened within a collective endeavor. What is striking is the consistency of the feeling, class session to class session, year to year. I think it comes not so much from Eleanor as from the students, from something her teaching sets off in them, an experience of their own powers as learners. Her students speak of this in different ways. Often they speak of it as a reclaiming – reclaiming aspects of themselves that have been lost in their own experiences in school, like their belief in their ability to do math or to write or to understand scientific phenomena. Or it could be expressed as reclaiming an aspect of the world that they had never thought accessible or thought to notice before.

The arena of Critical Exploration has been widely extended into varied aspects of education by students of Eleanor’s and by readers of her work. As this happens, the approach itself evolves. We have built Critical Explorers with the hope of maintaining the vitality of this work while making it more widely accessible to educators, and particularly to teachers. The mission statement emphasizes the commitment of the organization to collaboration, to offering resources that honor the autonomy of the particular setting. This includes a new form of curriculum designed to be flexible in terms of how it is used. We invite you all to use these resources and in doing so to continue the development of this work. May the new vessel be strong, strong enough to maintain itself in the face of the difficult challenges of our current educational climate. And may it be responsive enough to be of use, to nourish the work of teaching as its own original, creative act, as is learning.

Lisa Schneier serves on the Critical Explorers Board of Directors.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Need an account? Register now!