Teaching a class at Harvard

Apr 19, 2014 by

Kenneth J. Bernstein –

Well, to be more accurate, this is about my experience of being a guest speaker for about half of a 3 hour class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on April 16.  As a side note, Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America, was the speaker in another class the previous day.

The class is run by Pasi Sahlberg from Finland, and is titled “A-317 International Lessons from Successful Education Systems.”    Sahlberg is author of the widely read and highly regarded Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from Educational Change in Finland?, which I reviewed here.  Sahlberg and I have developed a professional friendship, and he invited me to visit his class, which put me in the company of some fairly prestigious people-  Andy Hargreave of Boston College, a former Prime Minister of Finland, and next week Tony Wagner.   To say I felt both honored and somewhat awed by being invited would not be off topic.

So allow me to share my experience.

As noted, the class is about 3 hours.  The first part was devoted to a student presentation as if they were presenting to the education minister of a country a proposal for a change of policy.  Three very bright young ladies did a presentation on China that was well researched and well organized.  Sahlberg pretended to be the Chinese education minister.  He and his teaching fellow asked some questions, and then other students also chimed in with comments and questions.

The visiting speaker was allowed to finish this portion.  The students had talked about doing Chinese professional development, particularly in the lower level (often rural) schools through online instruction.  They presented as if this were something new.  I pointed out that the US has quite a history of online education for educators, ranging from the likes of Walden University, to a new doctoral program at Johns Hopkins.  Arizona State is doing hybrid courses for training of teachers –  I knew about this because I was a peer reviewer for the social studies material.  At K-12 the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins has a well-developed tradition of online education and we are now seeing states (eg Virginia) requiring at least one course taken online as a condition of graduation.  I suggested that they might want to research these and more to see what kinds of efforts work and what are less successful, in order to further hone their presentation.

We had a brief interlude –  Otto, officially Pasi Sahlberg Jr., was to celebrate his birthday the next day, so Petra (Pasi’s wife) brought him and the students held a birthday celebration for him.

The primary topic for the session this week was what lessons could we learn from PISA 2012. PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, is produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).   This topic was particularly relevant for the course, whose description reads as follows:

The performance of education systems has become a common indicator of nations’ success or failure, and has both economic and social importance when countries are seeking more ecological sustainability and inclusive economic growth. The growing popularity of international benchmarking of education systems in the 1990s provided governments and media more comprehensive and comparable tools to compare educational performance in different parts of the world, and created a group of countries or jurisdictions where educational performance has exceeded that of other countries as measured by standardized student assessments. This course will take a closer critical look at what constitutes high performance and the transferability of successful practices between educational contexts, exploring questions such as: What should a good education system look like? How are high performing education systems similar? What are the principles of good international policy analysis and advice? How do international development organizations use the lessons from high performing education systems? Students will: explore, compare, and contrast the characteristics of high-performing education systems; learn to think deeply and critically about international education benchmarking, the opportunities and limitations of transporting policy ideas between systems, and the main principles of policy borrowing and lending to develop education systems around the world; and develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are needed in policy analysis and advisory using the lessons from high-performing school systems.

As it happens, I have studied international comparisons as part of my doctoral work about a decade ago, and have stayed current on the literature.  Thus I am able to offer some cogent commentary.  But the students are also learning how to advocate for educational policy, learning how to do op eds and blogs.  As part of their work they have followed a number of blogs, and I had helped select some at Pasi’s request.  He also wanted me to talk about significant players in American educational policy, where at this point the single most influential person is clearly Bill Gates.Sahlberg made some remarks about PISA, about international comparisons.  Finland is no longer absolutely at the top of the table, and he provided some data for why, and noted the inclusion of several non-OECD members in the league tables.  Rankings seem to be of greater importance in the US than in most of the rest of the world, and he transitioned to my portion  by asking why I thought that might be.

My portion was a mixture of my presenting and my dialoguing with the students. There are about 3 dozen, heavily female, a mixture of masters and doctoral students from a variety of programs at the Ed School.  There are also several auditors from the Kennedy School.

I noted that in the US we want to rank everything, but that we have never been at the top of any international rankings.

I am not going to go through all of the topics we covered in any depth – after all, it included how the comparisons are built, the roles of Bill Gates and Diane Ravitch as major figures in the debate on educational policy, how I know Diane, issues of equity, how the US ranks when you adjust the data by degree of poverty –  here I remind people that US schools with less than 10% of their children in poverty rank at the top of the world, even above Finland (with <5% of students in poverty) and South Korea.  in otherwords, the issue in the United States is not how poorly we are doing as a country in educating students, but perhaps how poorly we have done in addressing poverty?

I did discuss my background.  After all, I now teach AP US government, STEM Policy, Environmental Media, and Research/Data Analysis, and i was a music major.

I explained how I came to be a blogger.

We had some discussion of how you shape an op ed or a blog.  Since most op eds are relatively short, perhaps 600 words, you can usually address only one main point.

I talked about how illustrating with a real example can help grab and hold a reader’s attention.  For this I related how Reagan started the practice in the State of the Union of telling a tale about someone in the balcony, for example, Lenny Skutnick, who dove into the water multiple times to save people in the Air Florida crash in DC several decades back.

Part of our discussion is how education policy is driven in this country.  We have the problem that there has been a narrowing of ownership of major media, which limits voices, especially when the editorial position of newspapers favors what Pasi Sahlberg has deliberately named GERM – for the global educational reform movement that is now also infecting other nations besides ours.  I pointed out how a Nation at Risk drove discussions by what was in its executive summary, scary language not fully supported by the data of the report, which itself was flawed.  This mean that often it is not the data that matters, but what you can get others to repeat.  I pointed them at the debunking of that report by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle in their book Manufactured Crisis

It was a fascinating hour and a half.

One thing I noted that bothered me, but which I did not directly address.  Several times students pushed me for what ONE thing I would do or propose to address certain things.  That is in fact one of the problems, the constant search for the ONE way, the “magic bullet” if you will when in fact what we may need is a quiver full of arrows as well as hand knives, clubs, bear traps … not the greatest of imagery.  I probably should have used it, but didn’t.

I had said the most important issue in American education is equity, and one of the young ladies who had presented challenged me, because I talked about individualizing instruction.  She wanted to know how that addressed the issue of equity.  I tried to explain the importance of meeting each child where he/she was, rather than treating them as a group, which treats many unfairly.

I do remember as time was running down I was urging them to consider an idea – that if their goal is efficiency rather than the students perhaps they should try a field other than education.  Too much of what happens in American education, going back to the days of Frederick Taylor, is designed for the efficiency and convenience of the adults, not the well-being and best learning of the students.

I chatted with some students briefly afterward.  I have already been in touch with several via Twitter and Email.  They all have my email if they want to continue the conversation, and I urged them to push back, either online or directly to me.

In one case, a student shared a published op ed, for which he asked my evaluation, which I have given.  The topic of it actually connects with the work of someone whose books I have reviewed, so I have connected the two of them via email.

After we got back to his home where Pasi and Petra were hosting me, we continued the conversation for several hours, and also picked it up a bit in the morning before I left for the airport.

Pasi is a Finn.  He has established a practice of a “sauna” –  without the steam.  He and several students and the guest speaker will sit down for a brief (15 minute) discussion that continues on some of the topics from the class.  This is broadcast live on Youtube, with several hundred regularly followers.

Wednesday was Episode 11, as you can see here:
If you take the 15 minutes to watch and listen, you will get a sense of what the class was like (although in the class I spoke much more quickly and with far more energy).

I am honored to have had this experience.  I hope  to remain in contact with those students so inclined.

So that was the most significant thing I did on my Spring vacation.

If you want to know more about the class, if you follow the link for the youtube, you will see links for other episodes.

You can also go to Twitter and search on the hashtag for the class  #hgsea317  –  and yes, I did a batch of tweets after I got home yesterday.

So, if you want, tell me what you think.

And if not, thanks for at least reading.


by Education News
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teaching a class at Harvard.

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