Talks from the Launch Party, Part II

Author: Eleanor Duckworth

Posted by Alythea

I want to thank all of you for your support of this work.  All through its development I have been dependent on colleagues who shared the same goals for teachers and kids, and encouraged me in the way I was trying to go about it.  In a large and ever increasing number of cases, these colleagues had once been my students.   And I’d like to say to current students that I get support from you, too.  From your willingness to push yourselves into and through confusion to different ways of thinking — and from your questions and your wonderful ideas.

This organization takes its name from the name I gave to the work we do. Why I thought the work needed a name at all is another story, not worth our time right how.  Some of you will remember taking part in my searches for a new name from time to time — there have been at least four different names!  Now — and I think it’s not going to change again — the name is critical exploration in the classroom.  Barbel Inhelder, Piaget’s long-time co-author and research director, gave the name of critical exploration to the research method which Piaget had first developed (and which he had called clinical interviewing).  I want to say why the added ‘in the classroom’ seems important to me.

The Genevans were interested in finding out children’s ideas of space, number, weight, speed, chance, time, causality — so they gave them something interesting to think about, and then watched what they did, and tried to get them to talk about their thoughts.  The Genevans were not interested in getting the children to think something different.  They really wanted to know what the children thought.

I got pretty good at finding out what children think.  But I kept wanting to know what else they might think — if I gave them something related to consider.  As a research assistant, I never wanted to stop an interview and summarize the child’s thinking.  It was difficult for me to render what I was learning.  A child thought this, but with this extra insight, except that she didn’t seem clear on that other aspect of it.  I had to add little partial understandings in extra little marks, inside the main boxes of the results sheets.  Inhelder teased me, referred to my reports as hieroglyphics.

So although I was good at getting at the children’s thoughts, and absolutely fascinated by that job, I wasn’t so good at rendering what I was learning in a systematic way that lent itself to describing groups of children at once.

That should have been a clue to what my life’s work should be!  I didn’t get it, though — not yet.

It was a couple of years later, having dropped out of my doctoral program, that I took a job in elementary school science curriculum development.  I knew almost no science, and was not really interested in education, but I was offered the job because of my work with Piaget, and I took the job because I needed one.

It was there that I found the magic of the Genevan approach to finding out what kids think about things — what we now are calling critical exploration (though Inhelder had not yet called it that).

One way that I turned out to be useful was by going into a classroom with my colleagues when they were piloting a few lessons.  I talked to the kids about what they were doing and what they were understanding.  This was my training, and I did it pretty well.  I knew that it would do no good for anybody if I tried to lead the kids to some well received answer.  And I knew from Geneva how to ask kids what they were thinking without giving them clues to guess what I wanted them to say.  So I was able to contribute a lot to my colleagues.

And at the same time, I saw the following: that the kids got interested in their ideas, too.  And no matter what the subject, if I paid attention to their ideas, they got interested.  And one could keep that interest by providing other materials or questions or activities that could take those thoughts further, and listening to those thoughts, too.

So this is how critical exploration comes into THE CLASSROOM.  I try to help teachers develop their capacity to be Genevan researchers.  The teachers listen and the learners explain.  Teachers try to really follow the students’ thoughts and not try to shape them to align with some specific other ideas.  They try to develop a researchers’ stance.  —  It is the only basis for deciding what to do next.  Follow them, see where they are tending to go, present more things for them to think about, that reveal to them more aspects of the subject to take into consideration.

And then — the enterprise depends on materials to help take learners’ thoughts further.  I know many teachers who are committed to listening to their learners’ thoughts, but do not have time to find materials and build their own ideas of how to do this.

The Genevan researchers themselves would spend weeks working on a way to present a problem which would catch the child’s interest, and get her or him thinking about the deep issues.  One colleague, Alex Blanchet, wrote that a good situation for their research “must permit the child to establish plans to reach a distant goal, while leaving him wide freedom to follow his own routing.”  This applies to work in the classroom, too.  And of course the material must anticipate the various possible routings.

So this organization will continue the work of helping teachers see the value of following their learners’ ideas.  We plan to work with teachers as individuals, or in their classrooms and schools and school systems.

And, starting with this website, we will try to provide material that can help them do so.

Eleanor Duckworth is President of Critical Explorers.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Need an account? Register now!