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Kids' Minds Awaken Through Critical Exploration

Professor Eleanor Duckworth and Alythea McKinney, Ed.D.'04, want to get the word out to educators about the importance of using the teaching approach called critical exploration.

Through the innovative nonprofit organization, Critical Explorers, they help teachers by offering exploratory curricula and instructional approaches that inspire students to think critically and construct knowledge in exciting and creative ways. In particular, a recently launched interactive website provides educators the opportunity to find materials to use in the classroom and locate colleagues with whom to engage on the topic. The organization has developed three curricula geared toward middle school-aged students: Industrial Revolution, Ancient Greece, and Slavery and Reconstruction. They plan to add other subject matters and expand the age range.

President of the organization's board of directors, Duckworth says that critical exploration allows kids' minds to "awaken" and "find that this subject matter can be interesting and accessible to them."

As opposed to conventional curriculum, which is focused on explanatory text more than on objects or other primary sources, critical exploration offers no script. "Learners make their own observations of primary sources, develop and express increasingly complex understandings, and experience themselves as competent thinkers," says McKinney, Critical Explorers' founder and director. "And teachers listen to their students' ideas and select additional materials that will help their students think further."

A teacher of history, McKinney, began thinking about using historical materials in the classroom in more exploratory ways while at HGSE. As a first-year doctoral student, she took Duckworth's course Teaching and Learning where she listened to learners and noticed how materials engaged them. "We practiced following where the learners' ideas actually went, instead of trying to make them go where we thought they should go," McKinney says. Eventually, in her dissertation, she demonstrated how the teaching/research method of critical exploration can help educators engage students with historical objects, and support, understand, and document their efforts to make sense of the objects.

What McKinney discovered is that work in which the teacher, researcher, or curriculum developer selects materials and listens closely, and allows questions to come from the students (and not from a teacher's guide or the all-to-common "list of questions to ask about a historical document") is extremely rare. "I became convinced that there should be a place, an organization of some kind, where critical exploration is the first priority -- where engaging students with primary sources, and finding out their ideas about them, guides teaching and curriculum development," McKinney says.

The lack of such resources prompted McKinney to contact Duckworth and fellow HGSE alumni about starting an organization where critical exploration is the primary focus.

"We want to offer teachers more complex materials and more flexible curriculum for the topics they are required to teach, and we want to help them to use it well," McKinney says. "We want to offer children occasions to work directly with primary sources and to develop, express, expand, and refine ideas about the topics they are required to study. In these ways, we can help set the stage for engagement and excitement, for original observations and deepening interest and understanding -- in history and other subject matters -- in public school classrooms."