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The Project Zero Classroom: Lessons Learned Go Beyond Participants

Hobbs Professor Howard GardnerThere's something remarkable about the faculty one day before the Project Zero Classroom (PZC) begins. In Harvard's Currier House, the excitement of the instructors is palpable as they gather in a large circle discussing their hopes and fears for the week to come. This isn't just another day at the office for them, but more like their first day of school.

Every summer for the past 11 years, HGSE's Project Zero and Programs in Professional Education have offered the Project Zero Classroom, a one-week, intensive summer institute designed to help pre-K–12 educators create classrooms, instructional materials, and out-of-school learning environments that address learning dilemmas. The PZC tackles challenging issues about the kind of teaching and learning that should be done in classrooms all around the world, but is not being done, in part because of the pressure for certain performances on certain kinds of standardized tests, in part because teachers teach what they were taught and in the ways that they were taught 10 or 50 years ago. This year the Institute gave educators from 37 states and 42 countries an opportunity to be exposed to cutting edge ideas, and interact in a variety of settings with the faculty of practitioners and researchers who are developing these ideas and putting them into practice.

In order to provide these lessons and aid educators, the PZC is organized around plenary sessions, study groups, and mini-courses that help teachers to encourage students' efforts to understand content, recognize and develop student's multiple intellectual strengths, help students learn to think critically and creatively, and assess student work in ways that promotes further learning.

"We are preparing students for the 21st century, and not for the 19th or 20th centuries," says Hobbs Professor Howard Gardner, who initiated the institute 11 years ago. "I know of no educational institute of this size, scale, and focus in the world."

This year, 71 faculty members from eight different countries planned to help educators face these challenges by working as instructors for the 325 participants who attended this summer's institute. "There are a lot of things they could be doing [with their summer]," says Bauman and Bryant Lecturer Steve Seidel, director of Project Zero and the Arts in Education Program about the faculty. "But, they choose to be here."

The reasons that faculty members choose to participate in PZC vary, but most agree that what sets it apart from other programs is the intellectual community and the sense that they're not only giving back, but getting back as well.

"This is rejuvenation and revitalization coming to a place like this with people like this," Gardner says.

"There's so much here," says Terry Edeli, head of school at The San Francisco School, now in his third year with the institute. "Every time you come back you develop more skill and awareness as an educator."

Joan Soble, a professional development teacher coach from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, has been working at PZC every summer for the past 10 years. What keeps her coming back each summer are the common underlying values of the faculty members. Soble explains that exposure to the insights and ideas of others who use Project Zero ideas in their classrooms and schools allows her to continue her own education as a teacher, even as she's working as a PZC faculty member. "We all come from different backgrounds and you get to see how these ideas play out in different settings," she says.

"The original aim of PZC was for it to be a personal experience for each involved," says Lois Hetland, a principal investigator with Project Zero and former educational chair of the institute. A goal of the institute was to create both large and small learning environments for a large number of participants to have the opportunity to work in personalized ways with the faculty. "By default, to personalize it, we had to have all these people [teaching]," Hetland says.

Initially, the number of faculty able to teach Project Zero ideas at the PZC was small, so Project Zero relied entirely on researchers and practitioners who worked with them directly. But, as the institute grew, so did the faculty. As the years went by, PZ researchers began to identify others they knew in the field to come and teach, broadening the faculty significantly. Most new faculty go through an apprenticeship program of sorts, beginning as a study-group fellow or co-teaching a mini-course.

Faculty members receive a stipend for participating in the institute, but Hetland speculates that many would be willing to give their time for free.

What sets PZC apart from other conferences, says Hetland, is its unique study-group structure that requires participants and teachers to work closely together throughout the week. It's in these study groups that many participants and faculty build personal connections that make the institute feel like a community by the end of the week. Many faculty maintain contact throughout the year and for many, each institute feels like a reunion.

But, even though the structure of the program and many of the ideas presented remain the same from year to year, Edeli says that Project Zero's on-going research is constantly bringing forth new topics of conversation. This is part of the continued appeal of the institute to educators.

"Project Zero is getting the best, the brightest, and keeping them here," Edeli says.