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Ed. Magazine

Master Class

Master Class

The idea was to invite inspiring teachers from across the university to teach a onetime class at the Ed School. Afterwards, a facilitator, with the help of the audience, would then interview the teacher and ask questions about his or her teaching. They might even talk about what didn't work or make sense.

The hope was that this new series, called Master Class, wouldn't be just a typical lecture, but a way to learn about craft from magnetic teachers. It was also, as Dean Jim Ryan pointed out at the first-ever session held in February in Askwith Hall, a way to celebrate good teaching around the university.

"Harvard is well known for having some of the very best researchers, but it's also known for having some of the very best teachers," he said. "At the Ed School, we are intensely interested in what makes for good teaching."

In February, armed with props like peanut butter and jelly, David Malan, a senior lecturer on computer science from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, proved he was worthy of the master teacher title. He started his The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth class by tearing apart a printed phone book as a way to talk about problem solving, algorithms, and being precise. Throughout the class, the fast-talking, constantly pacing Malan used other hands-on demonstrations to explain his ideas. At one point, he pulled out a loaf of bread, plates, peanut butter, jelly, and a knife. He asked a simple question: Who knows how to make a PB&J sandwich? Almost every hand in the audience went up. Malan then asked them how. Following orders exactly — "open bag" with Malan ripping the bag and bread flying — he reminded them of an important lesson: Be more precise. Five minutes and 21 sometimes-funny steps later, Malan said this "overthe- top" demonstration "revealed the assumptions or carelessness with which a lot of us typically think. This doesn't fly when it comes to programming."

The exercise is one that Malan uses when teaching CS50 at the college — a computer science and engineering course he once took as an undergraduate and has since elevated to "must take" status. In 2006, the year before Malan joined the Harvard faculty, roughly 130 students were enrolled in CS50. After Malan started teaching it, enrollment skyrocketed, reaching 700 in 2013, when it had to be moved to the spacious Sanders Theatre. Last year, the number of undergraduates concentrating in computer science also jumped to about 50, including 21 women — up from about 25 in 2006.

Following Malan's Master Class, Matt Miller, Ed.M.'01, Ed.D.'06, associate dean for academic affairs and a lecturer at the school, said the approach was not only engaging and experiential, but also community building.

"We were thrilled to see members of the wider Harvard community participating along with Ed School faculty and students at the event," he said. "That's just what we hope to spark with each master class — an authentic experience of learning that brings Harvard together to reflect on how great teaching and learning happens." Last fall, a similar process took place during the school's inaugural Teaching and Learning Week, where Ed School faculty taught mini classes and got feedback from students.

After Malan's Master Class session, facilitator Karen Brennan, an assistant professor at the school, had Malan talk about how he thought the class went. When asked if it's easier or harder to use props and do experimental demonstrations when there's a large audience, Malan was honest. It's easier with a larger crowd, he said. "There's an energy you can build on. If there had been just 12 of us, it would be completely awkward for me to be making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

Watch the session, as well as the master class second session with Jennifer Roberts, a professor in the department of history of arts and architecture, go to

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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