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The Having of Wonderful Ideas

August 29, 2012

I started reading Eleanor Duckworth’s book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, after hearing Brian and Abby rave about it.  The book is a collection of essays that Duckworth wrote over the course of 35 years.  So far I’ve only read the first essay from which the title of the book is drawn.  Some thoughts…

I was a little wary after the first paragraph.  Duckworth is describing some interviews with children that she conducted when she worked with Jean Piaget.  In the interviews, children were given ten straw segments of different lengths and asked to place the segments in order of increasing length.  She describes one student, Kevin, who enters the interview and immediately says, “I know what I’m going to do.” and proceeds to arrange the straw segments in order of length (having some difficulty along the way).  Duckworth claims that Kevin’s statement did not mean, “I know what you want me to do with these straws.” but rather meant “I have a wonderful idea about what to do with these straws and you will be surprised by my idea.”  Absent any other information about the interview I’m not automatically inclined to believe Duckworth’s interpretation of Kevin’s statement.  This was the source of my initial uneasiness.  I worried that the essay would be a collection of claims about what was occurring inside children’s heads with little evidence to support the claims.  Reading on, I found that the story of Kevin was simply meant to set the stage for Duckworth’s thoughts about ‘Wonderful Ideas’ and their role in education and conceptual development.  The essay does not hinge on the interpretation Kevin’s statement and having read the entire essay I would now say that it is a fantastic essay.

So what is the essay about?  Duckworth begins by describing her time as an elementary teacher and her struggles to figure out how Piaget’s research on cognitive development might be relevant to the classroom.  One of Piaget’s principle results was that children’s cognitive development progresses through stages and that there are certain concepts (ex. conservation or transitivity) that cannot be successfully learned until the child reaches a certain stage in his or her cognitive development.  A classroom consists of students at a variety of different cognitive levels who are each progressing through the different levels and different paces.  With so many differences within a single classroom, what practical use is Piaget?

After observing several experiences that students seemed to find transformational, Duckworth came to the following realization: When a student is ready to transition between Piagetian stages, the student, given the opportunity, will naturally ask a question that she considers deep and meaningful and whose solution will propel her forward.  These transformational questions do not have to come from the teacher.  In a class of 30 students, each at different stages and with different previously meaningful experiences, it is virtually impossible for the teacher to provide individual transformational questions to each student.  The solution is then to allow the students to have their own wonderful ideas.  To allow students the freedom and support to come up with their own questions and to figure out on their own how to try to answer them.

I’ll write about some of Duckworth and my thoughts about how a teacher might support students having wonderful ideas in a separate post.

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