Harvard Educational Review
  1. Tell Me More

    Listening to Learners Explain

    Edited by Eleanor Duckworth

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2001. 202 pp. $19.95.

    In Tell Me More: Listening to Learners Explain, six authors invite readers into the rich pedagogical, intellectual, and emotional intricacies of teaching and learning. Based on Eleanor Duckworth’s educational and philosophical strategies, the teacher-authors emphasize paying close attention to the learner as he or she explores the challenging questions that arise from his or her own interests. It is a book about the passion for teaching, the politics of education, the psychology of learning, and the pure joy of uncovering a question and finding an answer.

    Unlike other education articles that depend heavily on analysis, these chapters focus on the step-by-step experiences of teaching and learning. The authors give specific accounts of the symbiotic relationship between having an idea and moving that idea forward with more questions and exploration. This up-close focus allows the reader to clearly see the pedagogy in action by hearing the educators question what materials to provide at what moment, how those materials might lead to challenging questions, and how to verbally back away from the learners’ intellectual engagement and pursuit so that the development of an idea becomes his or her own. The authors also reveal the difficulty in this pedagogy, since the movement between question and response is like a dance of uncertainty. Duckworth writes in the first chapter, "Inventing Density," that "to make a connection with [the students’] thoughts, I was groping as much as they were, and I moved toward the helpful questions stumbling as much as they did in moving toward the helpful ideas" (p. 23).

    The authors convey this method of teaching as they retell the learning experience step-by-step, thus allowing the reader to hear the evolution of the learners’ thinking and see their understanding develop. In "Understanding the Presidency," Mary Kay Delaney says of her student, Mark,
    Finding out that the United States had cut off aid to Nicaragua seemed to make Mark entertain a notion that he had not thought about before. He asserted that "it’s hard to decide which side to be on." This kind of statement was unusual for Mark. In fact it was the first time he had ever mentioned that deciding could be difficult. I wondered where this would lead him. (p. 137)
    As in each of the articles, this close focus on the learner’s new idea is essential to the teacher’s understanding of how the learners’ thoughts are progressing and how she can help facilitate their development.

    Chapter one, "Inventing Density," describes a small group of teachers who devise their own experiments with the floating and sinking of various devices, including rubber bands, wood, Styrofoam, and other liquids. Duckworth explores the struggles and pleasures of the group’s discoveries and details how their relationship with both one another and the materials they choose to examine leads them to a new understanding of "density." In chapter two, Lisa Schneier, a high school English teacher, describes her work with a small group of low-track ninth-grade students on a single poem over the course of five weeks. She ignites excitement about the details of language, the rhythm of a stanza, and the beauty of high school students’ curiosity.

    In chapters three and four, authors describe engagement with younger students. Hallie Cirino’s "Journal Journeys: An Exploration with Young Writers" describes three preschoolers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and their experiences writing journals. Cirino’s narrative shows "that children can and will happily produce writing at a very young age when provided with both the opportunity and appropriate tools" (p. 90). In "Children Map Their Neighborhoods," nine-year-old Inés illustrates her own maps to express her ideas regarding the geography of her neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ileana Quintero, the author-teacher, recognizes that Inés’ drawings are an integral part of the development of her understanding of geography, and that through her creation of maps "she was beginning to connect places independently of her body. She was facing San Cristóbal as she drew" (p. 114).

    In chapter five, "Understanding the Presidency," Mary Delaney describes how two of her high school seniors developed a photo file to explore their questions about democracy, the presidency, and their own participation in and around both of these issues. As a teacher, Delaney struggles with how to share her own political views without silencing the students’ voices. In "Newborn Developments," physician-teacher Isabella Knox describes how she supports the learning of a medical student in the neonatal care unit of the hospital. Through observations and the physical relationship with a newborn, the medical student, Aral, comes to a deeper understanding of life outside of the mother’s womb. Namane Magau’s chapter, "Looking at Learning to Understand Teaching: A South African Case Study," documents her experience with a group of teachers in South Africa who not only deepen their understanding of math and science, but also have the opportunity to engage others in teaching and learning while closely observing how they come to understand similar topics.

    In each chapter, teacher-student relationships are formed with a small group of learners. In this intimate environment, the educator can closely follow and support the learners’ ideas. A reader might question the practicality of this type of learning and teaching in larger classrooms and whether it is appropriate, given the national pressure on testing and high standards in the United States. In the final chapter, "A Schoolteacher’s View," Schneier addresses such issues with a keen awareness of current politics. She notes that in her experience large groups, a reality of today’s schools, can also create this kind of deep, personalized learning through the teacher’s and the group’s careful listening and questioning skills. Schneier also argues that students can get to "the right answer" by deeply exploring the subject’s many layers. Instead of paraphrasing the answers for given assessments, students are able to question "the very nature of the structures of knowledge" (p. 191). "If we listen," Schneier says, "they will hear their own answers" (p. xiii).

    The passion of these educators evidences a strong conviction for this teaching methodology. As Duckworth writes, "If there is any basic principle in my teaching, it’s that people are to feel free to express their thoughts about what is going on and why, and that those thoughts are to be taken seriously" (p. 19). For teachers who want to listen carefully to learners, this book is a wonderful resource and exploration.

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    Book Notes

    Classroom Discourse
    By Courtney B. Cazden

    By Dalton Conley

    Edited by Barbara Darling-Smith

    The Skin That We Speak
    Edited by Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy

    Tell Me More
    Edited by Eleanor Duckworth

    Methods of Literacy Research
    Edited by Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr

    How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work
    By Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

    By Randall Kennedy

    Gifted Bilingual Students
    By Esther Kogan

    Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching
    By Magdalene Lampert.