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A Teacher Who Truly Values the Learner

Eleanor Duckworth
Professor Eleanor Duckworth teaching in 2002
Photo: Tony Rinaldo

When students enrolled in Professor Emerita Eleanor Duckworth’s class at HGSE, they did not know quite what they would get. What they could be sure of, though, is that their own experience and insights would influence the direction the class would take. Duckworth’s unique approach to pedagogy, known as critical exploration, builds on the ideas of Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder to create a classroom experience almost entirely driven by the learner, with the curriculum adapting to the students as they engage with materials to build new levels of understanding.

In the Winter 2020 issue of Harvard Ed. magazine, high school teacher Victoria Short, Ed.M.'99, reflected on her experience in Duckworth’s class — and on how Duckworth’s pedagogy continues to influence her own.

How Eleanor Duckworth’s critical exploration continues to inspire, guiding students through the comfort — and discomfort — of learning.

One of [Eleanor Duckworth's] earliest assignments was to establish a moon-watching journal. We were to share our drawings, descriptions, and discoveries with the class. I must admit I was a bit baffled by the assignment. What did this have to do with improving classroom instruction, I wondered. I wrote to friends back home and told them that I had discovered there was an upside-down rabbit in the moon. They thought I was nuts. By the time winter rolled around, I found myself more than once running around Cambridge at midnight (secretly cursing Eleanor's name), just trying to find the moon, let alone wax philosophically on it. After leaving my Teach For America site in Louisiana of six years and investing $20,000 I could ill-afford, I began to wonder why I had decided to put my life on hold for grad school.

But I cannot tell you how many times I have returned to the metaphor of moon watching in my subsequent teaching career. By the spring of 1999, I had come to some rather stunning conclusions. Every time I had tried to establish a definitive pattern about the moon, something unexpected would occur. Sometimes the moon was a cold and distant orb; sometimes it looked as though it must be shining so brightly only over Harvard Square. In class, fellow students would begin with literal descriptions of the moon only to end with mythical references. In the years since I have taken the class, former and current students continue to submit fresh insights. The lesson for me has been that no matter how well I think I know something, further study will reveal new possibilities. When we think we’ve exhausted the options to solve a problem, that's when we must be open to new ideas that will emerge if only we are willing to embrace them.

I currently teach 12th-grade English in a suburban high school in Pennsylvania serving 2,400 students. In my AP literature course, we begin with poetry explication because the process can be daunting. One of the first things I tell my students is to embrace ambiguity. In a world of close analysis and clarity, they are often uncomfortable with the request. I am not suggesting unsupported assertions, but I am discouraging definitive answers.

The theory is initially put to the test with Browning’s "My Last Duchess." The dramatic monologue is narrated by the duke, who is by turns disarming, ruthless, and insecure. Upon subsequent readings, students determine that the duke may indeed speak most loudly on behalf of his seemingly silent duchess. Through his pointed complaints emerges a woman who was truly selfless.

Students learn tenacity and sensitivity through the process of returning to this poem and other literary works, and ultimately, they learn to not only manage but also embrace their frustration over not finding easy answers.

Such refection is critical for teachers and their students if we hope to improve the quality of classroom instruction.

Okay, I get it now. Thank you, Eleanor, for sharing with me an instructional strategy that continues to inspire.

Learn More and Connect

Read about an organization founded by HGSE alums, inspired by Eleanor Duckworth's instruction.

Learn about the Harvard Teacher Fellows program.

Visit HGSE's Teaching and Learning Lab.

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