Empowering 21st Century Learners

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

""Over the past five years, twenty Glen Urquhart faculty have enrolled in the Harvard Project Zero Summer Classroom in Cambridge. The summer classroom experience, held for a week every July, looks at the questions: “How can educators create experiences that engage learners and support the development of the skills that matter most in today's complex, global, and interconnected world? How can the contemporary classroom become a catalyst for learners to become the citizens and leaders of tomorrow?” Glen Urquhart School and Harvard Project Zero have many areas of alignment, both philosophically and in practice, as we create and craft our teaching to meet the needs of all learners. The faculty at GUS are always asking themselves, how can we teach to ensure that our students truly learn and find true understanding?

This fall, I was fortunate to take an online course through Harvard University Graduate School of Education with kindergarten teachers Sandy Thoms and Amy Billings and librarian Joanne Crerand. The course, Making Learning Visible: The Power of Group Learning and Documentation, explores documentation as a tool for improving teaching and student learning. Making Learning Visible began as a project between Project Zero and educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy.  Their focus was on how documentation can be used to “make visible” what students are learning and how they learn. The benefits of making learning visible are, as the Reggio Emilia innovators discovered, myriad. They include giving students power over their learning, sparking emotional connections, increasing collaboration and critical thinking, using documentation to extend learning, and deepening the learning experience of teachers.

Harvard recommended that teams enroll for this course. Teams from across the country and around the world participated in the online forums. Weekly assignments required us to post our work, both as a group and individually, and to reflect on postings from other groups.  Each group formulated one project to implement in their school. From small projects to larger questions, each team used the group model to reflect on their findings and practice.

Sandy, Amy, Joanne, and I met weekly to discuss articles, reflect with each other and our online classmates, and create a project for our kindergarten class. We explored weekly topics and assignments, such as: learning to document and documenting to learn, how to create learning groups in the classroom, challenging educational assumptions, and moving forward, how to sustain group learning in the classroom.

This year, the kindergarteners have been very interested in Mo Willems’ books and, particularly, Piggie and Gerald, so a project centered on these characters was an easy decision for the kindergarteners. And from the very beginning, they were in charge of the process. This was the goal of our assignment: to encourage the students to devise and carry out a project with minimal teacher direction. Our role was, instead, to observe how best to facilitate cooperative and collaborative learning, crucial skills for 21st century learners. The class brainstormed ideas to celebrate Piggie and Gerald and share with others, an audience, their love of these books. From their class discussions, four small groups emerged.  My group wanted to make boats for the characters, Sandy’s group wanted to make a book, Amy’s group wanted to write a play, and Joanne’s group decided to create art to celebrate the characters. 

For six or so weeks, the groups met to plan and construct their projects. During those meetings, we took photographs and videos, documented dialogue, interviewed the students, and supported the group learning. The students discussed how to give and receive feedback and learned what a working group looked like. Last week, to celebrate their finished projects, we created a “museum” in the library, to display the projects and share our documentation of the process. Parents, the kindergarteners’ fifth grade partners, and all GUS faculty were invited to visit the museum, where the kindergarteners were the experts. Their energy and enthusiasm throughout the process and at our final celebration were certainly visible! We teachers were also happy to share with our colleagues what we had learned from focusing on cooperation and collaboration with our youngest learners.

For GUS students, group work is an integral part of their day. This experience was different because we teachers truly stepped back and let the children choose their next steps and guide the outcome of their projects. We all learned a lot and became—if we weren’t already—big fans of Mo and Piggie and Gerald!


Sarah Kotwicki

Director of Lower School

Whitney Buckley