A Glimpse Inside | My journey of Teaching and Learning: “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”

Teaching and Learning: The Having of Wonderful Ideas”, T-440 was my first course at Harvard and here in the US as a learner. Unlike various academic programs and educational curricula where there is only one way to understand a problem, this course gives people appreciation for their own ways of understanding.

This course not only brought changes in my ways of thinking about the current education model and ways to improve it but also affected my personality in a positive manner. By taking this course, I not only learned how to make things look bigger but also learned to appreciate other people’s work, nature, and surroundings. Moreover, this course and the related readings gave me an opportunity to look back, ponder over my childhood memories from kindergarten and high school days and reflect upon them.

During the span of this course, it was tremendous fun to carry out the fieldwork assignments sometimes in-person and sometimes over Skype with friends back in India. My understanding about the moon grew deeper with classroom discussions and classroom activities. After carrying out my final field work around “Creating Geometric Patterns with Scratch”, I feel more confident and powerful as a facilitator today. Though I am a non-native speaker, I never felt shy about putting forth my ideas and observations in class, as they were always honored and respected. In short, appreciating multiple perspectives, incorporating different styles in teaching for learners with different capacities, and the art of effective facilitation were my big takeaways from this course.

Appreciating multiple perspectives

The first class of “Teaching and Learning: The Having of Wonderful Ideas” was one the most memorable experiences of my academic life. The first exercise of this class was the “Going to the Movies” (GTTM) activity in which there were four people sitting together in a movie theater and we were asked to think about all possible arrangements for these people sitting in four consecutive seats. Initially, this activity reminded me of high school days where teachers expected students to write not only precise answers but also only those that existed on the answer key. The following is a screenshot of a math paper that I visualized while solving this problem [Figure 1].

Figure 1: Math Paper

Unlike in a traditional classroom setting, when a question is put forth by a teacher, you start panicking or feel inferior if you don’t know the right answer. And the same happened with me initially after Lisa introduced the exercise.

I had a false assumption that there would be only one way of accomplishing this activity. But when I started looking around, I felt a bit overwhelmed seeing people making amazing patterns and deeply engaged in the activity. I was quite tensed thinking, how would I explain my approach to Lisa when she would come near me, how would I articulate something to her that I was not sure about.

When professor Lisa came near me and asked what approach I was following, I told her that I felt stuck and wouldn’t finish on time. I was completely amazed at her response. She said, “You have come up with a very good approach so far.” I felt so relaxed and confident at that moment. Following this incident, an intense discussion in the classroom, where Lisa was trying to understand other people’s approaches to solving problems, made me realize the importance of encouraging the learner, watching carefully for the learner’s actions while he/ she is performing the activity and appreciating multiple perspectives in a classroom. I tried my best to incorporate the same style in my facilitation.

Figure 2 DNA Pattern from GTTM Activity

I also started to look at ways in which I could draw something useful from my learner’s observations.

For example, in the GTTM activity, the patterns that emerged out of the first five rows from my learner’s activity seemed to me like a DNA structure with zigzag lines. Although, relating this pattern to a DNA structure was instant, it helped me in understanding Nikita’s approach better.

I established a fairly deep connection with different object positions, and could comprehend the symmetry, repetition and uniformity in the design well.

For instance, Cashew person in one these DNA patterns (indicated in Figure 2) always appeared on the right, and there were three zig zag line traversals for the remaining objects. Since the position of one object was always fixed in these designs, the remaining objects in each of these five rows changed positions.

Autonomy and Its Connection with Literature

This course gave me a completely different perception of understanding poetry and gave me an opportunity to establish a deep connection between autonomy and literature. I do think that autonomy is valuable in every sphere of life, be it for Kindergarteners, high schoolers, undergraduates, or people working in big companies. Autonomy plays a key role in solidifying their own goals, making them feel more confident about themselves and their ability to solve intricate life problems. By Lisa’s style of teaching poetry, I could well connect the deep relationship between autonomy and literature. Being the readers of the poem, we were given full-fledged permission to interpret, explore and analyze the poem directly and build, from our own responses, individually or collectively.

Understanding poetry was one of my most difficult tasks that I faced in high school. Most of the poems, devoid of characters in them, with peculiar rhyming schemes and incomplete sentences, used to blow over my head. In order to perceive poetry better and score well on the English exam, I used to follow a variety of textbooks and still could understand the poems only from the surface. I couldn’t figure out anything deeper. In the T-440 classroom, it was fun to watch other people reading the poem with different pauses and rhythms and articulating their thoughts and ideas about the poem. Initially, I didn’t understand why Lisa was so calm and composed during the course of this activity. I was thinking about she chose to remain neutral throughout and didn’t claim a single idea or opinion about the poem as right or wrong. At that point, I felt a bit uncomfortable for not being able to understand her reasons.

From the classroom lessons, I got the sense that it is important to keep a note of, what kids want to learn and how they want to learn. I appreciate the theory of constructivism which says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. And this approach through the method of critical exploration was adopted in Lisa’s classroom, encouraging kids to ask questions from each other and then observing how they make sense of the world. With these lessons by now that I have understood Lisa’s approach towards teaching and learning, I can relate her expressions months ago in the poetry class with her teaching practice better.

I performed the poetry assignments of this class with my younger sister and we had the same English teacher in high school. My approach of making her participate in the activity was different from the school poetry lessons which fascinated her. At the end of the poem activity, she asked me numerous questions like: “Who is the author of the poem?” “If her observations were right?” “What is this poem all about?” “What is the meaning of the poem?” After exploring that even I didn’t know the exact answers, she was a bit annoyed. She further addressed that, “If I don’t have an understanding of the entire poem, she won’t be able to do well in my exams.” My work with my younger sister aroused interesting questions: “How important is it, in subject matters like poetry, to withhold the gratification of telling students the right answers, letting them head in a wrong direction and not intervene when then they start exploring something irrelevant and off the topic?” and “How do we let them explore the subject matter directly and build from their own responses”?

These are great questions and I think that I am still looking for answers to some of them. I strongly appreciate the value of sparking curiosity among learners and let them explore a subject matter by building upon their own responses. Still, I see a wide disconnect between these effective teaching techniques and assessment as in an actual classroom setting, there are standardized tests that need to be taken for scoring good grades which require knowledge about accurate and precise answers. At times, I wonder how far we are from applying these amazing techniques and approaches of teaching and learning styles of T-440 to different educational curriculums across the globe.

My Childhood Writings

Anne’s words, in ”Cirino, H. (2001) “Journal Journeys”, “Kids need to learn by thinking from themselves” still echo in my mind. Anne’s mother’s interference resembled my mother’s interference in my writing during childhood days. While I was a kid, my mother would suggest me some topics and force me to frame stories around them, so that she could send them out for publishing in children’s books or magazines. Probably, it was her belief that publishing the small articles in the newspaper right from early childhood would motivate me to become a Hindi writer or a poet like her in the future. But, I never felt motivated from inside to write the way I was being asked to write. As I was growing, I started hating her for being so pushy and I do remember that while I was in 7th grade, one day I told her that I am not going to write anymore. While going through the “Journal Journeys”, I wonder if my mother had adopted the playful manner or the right approach to enhance my writing skills, the scenario would have been completely different then and would have contributed to sharpening my interests towards writing.

Hallie’s approach to teach the three kids writing in a collaborative way, to embody in them this belief that we write for an audience and we write for ourselves too, reminds me of a recent article that I have read on how the social networking websites (e.g. Facebook, twitter) have transformed the writing skills of high school students for better. Although, the article does mention that these networking websites have eroded the students’ writing conversations, expressing in the public helps students to retain self-reflection and emotion honesty in their writing. James, June and Anne’s writing significantly improved in Hallie’s classroom. I think that just as for the preschoolers, who were learning to spell words correctly and learning the alphabet through words that start with each letter, learning is a gradual process, similarly for adult writers, who are learning the ways to write effectively, learning happens gently. As my writing has significantly improved over the years, I consider all the posts I wrote on my blog four years ago as a piece of garbage.

Fostering Curiosity and Exploration Among Students

One of my startling observations from T-440 sessions was that in all the activities, Lisa chose not to let learners coin the scientific terms related to the subject matter in the classroom. Right from the GTTM to the Mirrors experiment, I didn’t hear Lisa or our TF’s using terms like permutation and combination or talking about some of the physics concepts of incidence or reflection. I think not using these terms was quite helpful in establishing the virtues of not knowing a topic thereby leading towards the building of the breadth and depth of a complex subject matter.

Related to this observation, I actually remember a quite intriguing moment from one of the classes. After the moon-watching activity outside the Harvard campus with co-learners, Lisa addressed this question in the class to me, “What do you think the position of the moon would be in a couple of hours from now?” I knew that as moon traverses from left to right every night, it would be around 6–7 fists above the horizon. But instead of coming directly to the point, I started explaining the orbit of the moon by using the terms like parabolic / elliptical path and that was when Lisa stopped me from answering the question. At that time, I was wondering, “Why did she stop me from telling more about the position of the moon?” But, I guess by now I understand it fairly well it is a decent idea to refrain the usage of scientific terms for a deeper exploration of the subject matter.

Incorporating Lisa’s Style in the Curriculum — Engaging Learners in Learning

In all the sessions, class assignments, and sections of the T-440 class, the main focus was to spark curiosity and interest in the learner for a subject matter. All through the semester, for carrying out the fieldwork activities too, we were not expected to conduct the session keeping a strong goal or intention of teaching concrete concepts to our learners. Instead, we were to try our level best to engage them thoroughly in the activities thereby keeping their interest level alive. All this reflected how essential is the integration between the subject matter and the learner’s mind. “In order to write a curriculum, we need to write a history, what happened previous time, what did the learner notice, what were his/her observations, what is something that can be done the next time to keep the learner immersed in the process of investigation.” (Duckworth, 2005)

Grown up in an Indian state, where the current provisional data of the census indicate a negative growth in literacy and the overall country’s educational scenario requires a drastic reconstruction, provided my strong motivation to apply for the Masters program at Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. Most of the curriculum in Indian schools is tied to the 20th century. Considering this scenario, I wonder how intense discussions like those describe in Inventing Density, Moon Exploration, and Journal Journeys could be incorporated within the current model where uncertainty and experimentation are perceived as a waste of time because there is a curriculum that needs to be covered and tests that need to be taken within a prescribed schedule. Thinking deeply about the time constraints that teachers have in schools, I question myself, how do we overcome these risk factors to adopt new approaches in the curriculum?

By attending Lisa’s class and getting familiar with her style which is an assimilation of other educators’ unique approaches to learning. I perceive Lisa’s unique approach as unleashing productive inquiry and encouraging learning beyond textbooks. In addition, this approach emphasizes more on “learning to be” rather than “learning about”.

Pondering over these approaches, I am no longer wondering whether curriculum should be re-written or if needs a drastic reconstruction. In contrast (or instead) I am constantly thinking about how this whole experience of critical exploration can be integrated into the existing curriculum without compromising the pedagogy and how can we make more people (educators and teachers) to be like Duckworth, Piaget, Schneier or Inhelder.

Moon Component of this Course

The moon-watching component of this class was my favorite topic of discussion. The moon-watching activity throughout the semester not only enhanced my powers of observation but also inculcated in me the spirit to appreciate nature and my surroundings. It is so true that before joining this class, I knew nothing about the moon. I had read in my science textbooks about different phases of the moon but never felt motivated to observe this beautiful phenomenon of the universe through the naked eyes.

Figure 3: Different positions of moon on a Saturday night

After watching the moon as part of my course assignment for about two weeks, on one Sunday night while watching a movie, without any intentions to look for the moon, I first saw the moon through my room window at 2:20 A.M. After watching the moon for a while, I started watching the movie again.

At around 2:44 A.M., my gaze was drawn out the window again, and I saw the moon very close to the top of the window frame. Till this time, I didn’t realize that there was any change in the position of the moon. To my surprise, the moon disappeared in a span of 4 minutes. Curious to find out the location of the moon, I ran towards the balcony, and there it was slightly above the window frame. This experience was one of the most thought-provoking incidents of my learning phase at T-440.

I was quite intrigued and raised questions that I have never before thought of to myself and in the class. My understanding about the moon was growing each day and becoming even deeper based on the students’ thoughts, discussions, and moon-related activities in the classroom. It was quite interesting to see that how different rituals are associated with the moon. When it was Halloween here in the US, my mother in India was celebrating a festival called Karwa Chauth where married women observe a day- long fast for the longevity of their husband and break the fast only after watching the moon and making offerings to it in the night.

Final Field Work Proposal

For my final field work around “Creating Geometric Patterns Using Scratch”, I worked with Andrea and Jerry, who were both from different backgrounds, separately. Geometric patterns are among the most recognizable visual expressions of Islamic and South Asian art and architecture. The fieldwork aimed at helping a learner analyze or deconstruct geometric shapes ranging from simple to complex ones. The main idea behind these activities was to engage the learners not only in appreciating the significance of a mathematics and art combination in generating beautiful designs but also in pleasurable practices to construct different patterns using the Scratch platform. Scratch is a web-based editor that lets kids learn to code in an interactive manner by creating interactive games, stories, and animations.

The first step of the activity was introducing a complex Rangoli design to both of them. One of the interesting observations that came out in the activity was the difference in their observations in perceiving the same geometric design.

Figure 4: Block Forts

While, on one hand, Andrea compared the Geometric patterns with block forts as shown in Figure 4, Jerry emphasized the symmetry of the design as indicated in Figure 5.

While coloring the pattern was fun for Andrea, it became boring for Jerry after quite some time. Andrea was frustrated while drawing the pattern on a piece of paper and expressed that it was difficult for her to make the pattern with precision while Jerry was well versed in the symmetry of the design and drew it pretty quickly though not with precision.

Figure 5: Symmetry of the design observed by Jerry

I was highly Inspired by Deeper Learning MOOC [17], and was able to relate some of the key values highlighted in this course with T-440. Both insisted on caring more about engagement rather than the content itself in a class. This made me consider that the first two activities in the beginning of the session; coloring and drawing the pattern played a significant role in arousing my learner’s interest in geometric shapes.

The Art of Effective Facilitation in a Classroom

Initially, I was quite reluctant in carrying out my final field work the second time with Jerry, taking into account that it is going to be a lot of work and that it might be boring to repeat the experiment with same content with a learner and then document it. To my surprise, doing these activities second time was much more fun than I expected. Moreover, I was feeling confident in facilitating these activities this time as I was more familiar with the subject matter by now, and knew how to carefully observe the learner’s actions and act accordingly. I could sense the power of facilitation clearly this time and I’m still pondering over how this largely untapped power rests within each of us. I realized that “We learn about 70% of what we discuss with each other. However, to reach the 95% learning goal, we need to facilitate it with someone else. And this is what facilitation can do for all of us.

During the span of T-440 class, the process of conducting an activity with a learner, recording and writing about it, and then getting feedback on the field report was undoubtedly transformative and helped me in revising my approaches of facilitation. My key learnings from these sessions are listed below:

  • I became more careful in choosing the activity space that would be comfortable enough for the learner.
  • I ensured that I don’t pre-judge a learner’s grasping power.
  • I started recording my sessions using SoundCloud software to reflect on them later.
  • I learned how to introduce materials in the activity depending on the situation.
  • I learned to observe my learner actions, act accordingly upon them and most surprisingly became a pro in asking questions.


[[1] Duckworth, E. (2001). Inventing density. In E. Duckworth (Ed.), “Tell me more” listening to learners explain (pp. 1–41). New York: Teachers College Press.

[2] Duckworth, E. (2006). “The having of wonderful ideas” and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

[3] Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Company.

[4] Hawkins, D (1974). The informed vision: Essays on learning and human nature. New York, NY: Algora Publishing.

[5] Ramsay, L. (2000). Understanding the problem of un-prescribing the curriculum. Unpublished Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

[6] Schneier, L. (1986). Dancing in the hall. Unpublished Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

[7] Schneier, L. (2001). A schoolteacher’s view. In E. Duckworth (Ed.), “Tell me more” listening to learners explain (pp. 188–194). New York: Teachers College Press.

[8] Carini, P. (1987). Another way of looking: Views on evaluation and education. Northin Bennington, VT: Prospect Archive and Center for Education and Research.

[9] Lampert, M. (2001). Chapter 2: An instance of teaching practice. In Teaching problems and the problems of teaching. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[10] Dominick, A. (1988). Games as a tool for evaluation. Arithmetic Teacher, 35(5).

[11] Duckworth, E. (2005). Chapter 20: A reality to which each belongs. In B. S. Engel, & A. C. Martin (Eds.), Holding values: What we mean by progressive education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

[12] Gill, K. (2004). At Cezanne’s table: Exploring content-based instruction in the English language in an art museum. Unpublished manuscript.

[13] Kamii, C. (1982). Autonomy as the aim of education.

[14] Delpit, L. D. (1993). The politics of teaching literate discourse.

[15] Hawkins, D. (1974). I, thou, and it. In The informed vision: Essays on learning and human nature. New York, NY: Agathon Press.

[16] Cirino, H. (2001). Journal Journeys: An Exploration with Young Writers.

[17] Deeper Learning MOOC: http://dlmooc.deeper-learning.org/

Originally published at srishakatux.tumblr.com.