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Harvard's Project Zero

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

By Rachel Hovington
Head of School 

This week twenty-four of our teachers embarked on eight weeks of Project Zero (PZ) online workshops in their own free time. They are working in small school teams to learn about visible thinking routines. Planning a lesson that involves understanding what students are thinking, how that thinking is evolving throughout the lesson and ensuring that the lesson structure is deepening and transforming student thinking is, at its heart, the essence of teaching.

In my career I have seen no more impactful teacher learning that has transformed how our teachers plan instruction and execute meaningful, structured and engaging lessons that result in deeper learning. During my time in Atlanta International School we hosted the first Project Zero in school workshops as a new model for Harvard Graduate School of Education that aimed to impact learning on the ground with practicing teachers. Professors and researchers ran conferences biannually and, in off years they were hosted by Washington International School. The experience transformed the quality of teaching and learning to new levels on both campuses and continues to do so. The International School of Amsterdam later hosted a Harvard PZ Conference and Harvard PZ conferences have now been hosted in several places annually around the World and online. More recently staff have had access to collaborative online workshops where the power lies in having HGSE PZ workshop leaders working with small teams in multiple schools resulting in deep thought partnership about classroom implementation practices. In this model teachers learn, implement their ideas, reflect together and repeat and upgrade what they are doing something a one-off conference cannot achieve. The learning is job embedded and contextualized.

In the 1960’s, Project Zero laid the conceptual groundwork for better understanding the nature of learning in and through the arts. In the 1970’s, co-directors David Perkins and Howard Gardner shifted focus to cognitive and developmental psychology. That pioneering research broke with decades of psychological tradition and gave birth to the idea that not only are intelligences multiple, they are also learnable.

“If we all had exactly the same kind of mind and there was only one kind of intelligence, then we could teach everybody the same thing in the same way and assess them in the same way and that would be fair,” Gardner has said. “But once we realize that people have very different kinds of minds, different kinds of strengths … then education, which treats everybody the same way, is actually the most unfair education.”

Over the past sixteen years, the Visible Thinking Team at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have been developing, refining, and implementing thinking routines using an educational design-research paradigm. Project Zero thinking routines ground a teachers work with thinking routines in a model that scaffolds and deepens what students know and can do in a classroom environment as opposed to what the teacher knows and can impart.

Visible thinking views thinking, and more specifically the disposition toward thinking, as something that must be nurtured in students over time (Tishman, Perkins, & Jay, 1993).  Back in most of our educational experience we were student consumers of teacher’s knowledge. Classrooms had very little by way of thinking routines. Instead there were classroom routines that kept order, teacher routines that lent stability and the student was passive albeit for a good question and answer session. We thought about what the teacher was telling us, we wrote it down, we tried to understand it in the moment or studied later and then we were asked to memorize it and apply it to an exam situation. This old paradigm is the one size fits all approach that many Schools keep saying that they have moved away from but have yet to realize substantive change.

These online workshops are an opportunity for our staff to gain more insight into their own most powerful teaching methodologies, learn some new ones and talk to one another about thinking in their classrooms and the learning of our students. Having seen its impact over a number of schools I am excited that our staff have the opportunity to have these opportunities for learning experiences and that our students will be recipients of them. Deepening their craft and ensuring that content coverage is no longer the defacto approach to lesson planning and instruction is the difference between students who have enduring understanding, critical and creative thinking skills. It is the difference between kids who can apply their knowledge to the increasing prevalence of questions on IB Diploma exams that use novel scenarios and information to see if students can apply their critical thinking skills to new concept and situations. This is not ´fluffy stuff´ it is the skill that makes all students reach their potential regardless of where they are on the rungs of their learning ladder. It is what leads to them reaching their highest potential on summative exams like the IB Diploma and in achieving in life.

“Why have well intentioned, skilled and hardworking educators, over the years, so often lost sight of the goals causing understanding? Why is it so easy for teachers to get side-tracked by content coverage, test prep, or engaging activities un-moored from worthier intellectual purposes.” (Wiggins and McTighe, Schooling By Design).   With Project Zero training we hope to be side-tracked less often in pursuit of our mission to engage our diverse school community in the pursuit of educational excellence and success for all students.

Want to read more about Harvard Project Zero and Schooling by Design?