Campus & Community

Getting to the core at HGSE

6 min read

With first-ever core course, HGSE teaches ‘thinking like an educator’

For Terry Hawkins, the young new principal at the Frances Perkins Elementary

photo illustration of a teacher writing on a
Staff photo illustration Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office

School in Worcester, each day’s work demands a multitude of skills. She juggles student discipline and achievement, teacher development and satisfaction, accountability to standardized test scores, and parent and community involvement, each layering a complex set of concerns atop the other. Challenges abound, and of course, time and money are always in short supply.

Hawkins is, in fact, fictional, but the multifaceted issues she grapples with – from bilingualism to budgets to bullying – are very real to educators. That’s why a groundbreaking new core course offered at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) for the first time last spring, “Thinking Like an Educator: Modeling an Integrative Approach,” featured Terry Hawkins and the Perkins School in a case study. The case, written by GSE faculty, stood at the center of the course’s aim to provide students with a shared core of knowledge, one that will ultimately align and further professionalize the field.

“At the moment, educators in different places are educated differently. No two schools of education teach the same thing,” says GSE Dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. “The purpose of this curriculum is to embody a body of knowledge and skill that will make people who graduate from the Ed School demonstrably more effective in practice than people who haven’t been to the Ed School.”

Yet Lagemann is hopeful that won’t always be the case. Just as Harvard curricula are now replicated in the study of law, medicine, and business nationwide, she looks forward to setting a similar standard for the study of education. While it may be one of the nation’s first core curricula at a school of education, Lagemann is “unabashedly imperialist” in her intentions.

“We are trying to create a new model in our use of case-based core curriculum. We fully intend to disseminate our cases to other schools of education,” she says. “If we can do all this, we will have taken some big steps toward being able to ensure effective instruction for all children.”

Integrating educational perspectives

This fall, the elective “Thinking Like an Educator” enrolls 50 students (up from 36 in its initial outing) and continues to tap the GSE’s rich faculty resources to help students think integratively about the range of issues educators face. Shattuck Professor of Education Catherine Snow, who leads the course with Robert Kegan, the Meehan Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development, brings her literacy research to the class. Robert Selman, Larsen Professor of Education and Human Development, will engage students in a discussion of child development and social awareness. Senior Lecturer on Education Kay Merseth and Richard Elmore, the Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership, will walk students through the challenge of school reform.

Collaborating faculty members Chris Dede, the Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies; Susan Moore Johnson, Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning; and Aronson Associate Professor in Human Development and Education Wendy Luttrell lend their respective expertise in technology, teacher job satisfaction, and children’s social worlds.

“This is really an effort for a thicker engagement in a number of different disciplines,” says Kegan, adding that the course aims far higher than a smorgasbord-style survey of faculty expertise. “What does it mean to bring multiple perspectives together to think about education problems? That activity is one of the core distinguishing features of the profession of an educator.”

Kegan, one of the leading thinkers in adult learning, opened the class last month with a hands-on demonstration of some of its guiding principles. He asked students to produce a signature, then to attempt the same signature with their nondominant hands. Giggling and grunting through the awkward task, students proclaimed the chore clumsy, frustratingly slow, and lacking in control.

“Most of us have a whole side of ourselves with which we’re less comfortable. It’s not just the right hand but the right way,” Kegan told the class. “In this course, we’re going to see if we can’t take a friendlier view toward our less developed side.”

Looking through new lenses

With the Perkins School case study as a jumping-off point, students in “Thinking Like an Educator” work in small groups to grapple with an assigned challenge and present a solution that integrates a range of perspectives. Last spring, standardized tests and student achievement, teacher professional development and culture, community relations, and English language learning all got careful examination from every angle in vivid student presentations that demonstrated, say Kegan and Snow, that “Thinking Like an Educator” was a success.

“They achieved fairly impressive levels of subtlety in thinking about these problems,” says Snow.

Students in the inaugural semester of the course gave it high marks for helping them integrate a variety of ways of thinking about education.

“The explicit focus on not finding ‘one right way’ but looking at a topic from different angles was very useful,” says John Hilton, M.A. ’04. “I have a couple of ‘lenses’ that I am strong in and tend to see education from those issues. It was helpful to see other ways of looking at education.” The former high school religion teacher now plies a variety of educational viewpoints in his work teaching religion to college students and training other religion teachers.

For Andrew Mandel, a master’s degree candidate who took the course last spring, “Thinking Like an Educator” connected the dots between his other courses. Mandel’s group leveraged the knowledge of assessment scholars like Professor of Education Daniel Koretz to help the fictional Hawkins with an especially difficult external assessment.

“‘Thinking Like an Educator’ forced students to confront theory, design, and practice in the context of some pretty knotty problems,” Mandel says. As director of curriculum for Teach for America, Mandel now approaches quick-fix solutions, be they vouchers, charter schools, teacher salaries, or funding, with a healthy skepticism and a deeper understanding of the complexity of change.

Creating more powerful educators

Concurring with students that “Thinking Like an Educator” is a positive step toward a common core of training for educators, Lagemann is now engaged with the faculty in the trickier business of creating a true core curriculum for all HGSE master’s students. While time and space constrain its creation, Lagemann points to possible changes in the University’s calendar and the Ed School’s possible move to Allston as facilitating this curricular change.

Still, Lagemann asserts that a core curriculum using the case method is not the goal but rather a means to an end.

“We’re asking more of education today than ever before in history. If we’re going to have education that is powerful enough to educate all people well, we’ve got to have more powerful educators,” she says. “We are betting that people will be better teachers, better curriculum developers, better school leaders, better technology specialists if they master this curriculum.”