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The risking of observations in the classroom: teacher as cultural critic.

The eye sees more than the heart knows.


Eleanor Duckworth taught me how to listen. Yes, this is an essay about observation--but it is also an essay about what happens when teachers invite students to observe. The invitation is empty if the teacher is not ready to listen. (1)

I extended many empty invitations in my first two years of teaching. My own experience as a student had taught me enough to know that I did not want to lecture at others. I wanted my students to have, gratis, the right I had earned by fighting: to see and think independently. But I couldn't make it work. I presented my high school history classes with a text and asked my students to tell me what they thought. Then, like an addict watching himself relapse, I watched myself evaluate their comments, steer them toward specific points, get nervous when they did not follow my lead, and eventually all but take over the conversation. My colleagues were the same, and so were all the teachers I could remember. But hadn't I become a teacher partly to redeem my own experience? After two years of hit and miss, I decided something had to give. I handed in my resignation and signed up for a master's program in education. There, amidst professors who relied more than I ever had on lectures and rhetorical questions, and who spoke for three uninterrupted hours on the importance of classroom discussion, I met Eleanor Duckworth. In her 2hour sessions, with a few significant exceptions, she rarely spoke more than a combined fifteen minutes. Most of what she said was expressed in questions.

Duckworth (1987/2006) has described the methodology through which she teaches teachers to listen. Briefly put, she creates a space wherein teachers learn to take their ideas, and the ideas of others, seriously. Three aspects of this learning process are particularly important for inviting and sustaining observations. First, the materials we offer students need to be complex enough to engage their interest for a long time. Materials cannot spoon-feed ideas the way most textbooks do. They should contain the complexities and conflicts inherent to the world. Second, all 'wrong' ideas, if taken seriously and attended to, can become productive or significant. Third, learning often rises out of a concentrated effort to reconcile conflicting observations. The teacher's role, then, involves "keeping the conflict on the floor as an issue worth trying to resolve, and refusing to believe too readily that we [have] resolved it" (Duckworth, 1987/2006, p. 141).

This paper is about conflicting observations of a particular kind. It is not about contending observations held by students--as in when they notice that iron balls sink in water but also notice that iron ships float. What I want to address are those instances when student observations disturb the teacher. Here we are dealing with situations where the teacher is trained for (through Duckworth's method), and committed to, facilitating lessons that can only arise by student initiation and exploration. And yet, something in what students observe in the materials disquiets the teacher and forces renegotiation of his or her view of the lesson. Such instances are neither rare nor easy to navigate, and how they are addressed--by learners, teachers, and a community--is at the heart of the relationship between a listening and a critical pedagogy.


On a basic level, the teacher's problem with what his or her students observe is a pragmatic problem. The lesson, as the teacher had imagined it, comes to a halt or takes an unwanted turn.

After my first encounter with Duckworth, I began teaching in an elementary school. Early in the school year, I asked my third graders to solve an addition problem that I knew was slightly harder than what they were used to.

347 + 268 = ?

I was not trying to test or trick them. I presented the question as a way of getting at how they thought about addition. They were free to use whatever method they wished, so long as they would demonstrate it. Up to that point, I had steered clear of the common algorithm for addition (involving carryovers, etc.) because I knew using the algorithm this early would prevent them from grasping a deep understanding of the underlying arithmetic concepts. (2)

Working in small groups, students wrote down a variety of solutions that I then posted for all to see. The more sophisticated responses involved neat and intuitive breakdowns of the numbers. Other solutions were more arduous: a lot of finger counting, complicated systems where numbers were dissected into semiarbitrary increments, and, of course, some wrong answers. As expected, some groups used the common algorithm, with varying success.

When all solutions were up, I asked the class to take their time and tell me what they noticed about what they saw. Immediately, Lucy, the only one who had used the common algorithm correctly, raised her hand. "I notice," she said "that my way is the best way of doing it." I have a recording of that session: (3)

Houman: What do you mean by 'the best way'?

Lucy: The easiest! Look, it's so much shorter than everyone else['s].

Houman: Shorter is better?

[Lucy nods her head in agreement.]

Houman: [to the rest of the class]: What else do you notice?

Yuel: I agree with Lucy.

Houman: Okay. And do you notice anything else?

Yuel: The way we did it was too hard ... [Inaudible, but referring to Lucy.]

[Many students nod]

Lucy's comment seemed to preoccupy them. This was not where I wanted the conversation to go. I did not want the lesson to promote the common algorithm.

Houman: Tell me things you notice about the other solutions.

[They look for a while].

Andrew: Casey used the same way as Lucy but got a different answer.

Houman [disguising satisfaction]: I see.

Casey: We were wrong. Lucy is right.

Lucy: Of course!

Houman: [to Casey]: What makes you think you have it wrong?

Casey: I checked with a calculator.

Casey's answer was, in fact, so far off the mark it showed a fundamental misunderstanding of not just the algorithm, but also of addition and number sense. If at this point he concentrated on learning the algorithm, he would lose the opportunity to deal with the more essential problems.

Houman: [making sure]: Casey, why do you think your answers were different?

Casey: I don't know.

Houman: So, if you [tried to solve the same problem] again?

Casey: I don't know. Maybe I'll get it, maybe not.

Houman: [to the class]: Some of you agreed with Lucy that her way was the easiest. Do you still think so?

[Many students indicated that they do].

Casey: I still think Lucy's is the best.

Houman: What about the different answers?

Casey: We just have to learn from Lucy how she did it.

At this point, I gently scrapped the discussion. I felt conflicted about my own reasons against the algorithm. In my own mind, I had not dealt with the fact that the algorithm was, in fact, the easiest way of solving the problem. In any case, I did not manage to deal with the conflict that day or for many days to come.

The problem this example highlights seems to be a practical one. It is conceivable that addressing it is a matter of better preparation. A different task would have made algorithms less effective: I could have begun from a sum and asked for solutions (e.g., 347 = ?). Also, a more experienced facilitator would have steered the conversation toward other things the students noticed. At the same time, there are questions embedded in the above example that are not purely practical. Why, for example, should teachers feel so wedded to the traditional format of addition problems while so many sound alternatives exist? What has turned this format into the dominant approach to addition for the last 300 years? These were the questions that went through my head as I tried to make sense of my experience.

Many teaching conflicts cannot be addressed purely at a practical level.


Teachers who choose their own classroom materials often choose with passion. What they select is important to them. It could become important to students as well for very different reasons. The teacher who opens up the materials of her curriculum to observation is, therefore, risking her or his emotional attachments.

A little-documented aspect of Duckworth's work is conducted through the communities she sets up where teachers work interactively on developing curriculum. (4) In these groups, teachers develop materials as they work with one another outside of the classroom. Within the teacher groups, they test their ideas with each other and also explore evidence from their teaching practice. The curricula that emerge are not rigid sequences of materials. They are suggestions of materials along with some things that could be done with them.

I have participated in and led such curriculum communities on several occasions. Within the shelter of these environments, teachers manage to speak about their reactions to student observations with a striking level of complexity and openness. I will discuss three interrelated anecdotes from these meetings that shed light on conflicts that can arise out of student observations.

Nakida, a high school teacher, wanted to design a social studies curriculum to center on issues of peace and violence. Her starting material was a carefully selected episode of Star Trek: Next Generation. Her choice rested on her personal connection with the show and her belief in its capacity to engender discussion. "Star Trek," she wrote in her notes, "left an indelible mark on me":
   It did a wonderful job helping me imagine other worlds and consider
   the arbitrary conventions of culture. I consider the writers of the
   series, which aired when I was a teenager, visionaries ... I am
   willing to see what questions arise from watching the episode.

Before taking the episode to her students, Nakida tested her lesson with our group of teachers. She showed a 10-minute clip of the episode and began the discussion by asking us to talk about what we noticed--concrete things we could refer to in the film.

Off the bat, the observations moved in a direction she did not expect. Instead of using the clip to reflect on cultural conventions in general, the group found the episode itself to be culturally insensitive. Sharone, one of the teachers in the group, pointed out the appearance of the female actors. "I notice," she said, "that the only woman in the show is wearing an extremely short skirt."

Nakida acknowledged the observation and asked if there were others. Sharone's comment, and Nakida's calm reception, however, gave the others courage to make other unfavorable observations. "I notice," observed Enrique, "that the main characters are a group of explorers that visit another culture. They have weapons and use them. They speak English and dress in Western clothing. The culture they are visiting does not wear Western clothing."

Though Enrique had merely stated what he saw on the screen, it was hard to ignore the connotation of his observations. He was linking the show with the history of White, European (and American) exploration, and inevitably exploitation, of non-European peoples. This gave rise to a new set of similar observations.

At some point, Nakida addressed Sharone and Enrique's comments. "To be fair to the creators of the show," she said, "they deal with the issue of skirts in later seasons. In the later seasons, both men and women wear skirts. Also, the issue of cultures is something they are aware of and care about. There are entire discussions about the role of visitors and the difference between cultures."

Once Nakida defended the show, the energy of the discussion took a noticeable dive. When the activity was over, per our usual procedure, (5) we began to share our observations of the activity itself. This step allows the teacher to know more about the experience of the group. At this point the group shares only observations, and not judgments or suggestions. I mentioned that I noticed Nakida's defense of the show's creators. Nakida listened, shook her head, and moved on to hear another comment.

Toward the end of that session, however, she spoke about the experience:
   I stopped the conversation with my comment. I brought in what felt
   like privileged knowledge of the show and used it to cover up
   something I didn't like. But Sharone saw what she saw: the skirt is
   really there, and it's really short, and it's on the only woman in
   the episode.

Nakida's realization highlights two important ideas. First, it demonstrates the power of a group setting where teachers are given a chance to observe their own work from a variety of angles, without the pressure of judgment. In the above example, nothing was at stake that the teacher's own interest in her work had not placed on the table. But the things she missed, or perhaps actively tried to ignore, were brought up again, giving her a chance to grapple with them.

Second, the example underscores the necessity of a certain loyalty to the materials. If something is really there, then it's there--it's fair game for observation. The immediate exercise of this faith is in the presence of students' and not in the teacher's head. The other episodes Nakida referred to in order to defend her materials are not present in the lesson. They cannot be reduced to Nakida's description of them because that description would reduce their complexity. (6)

When Nakida eventually met with her students, she made sure to account for the possibility of their noticing what Sharone and Enrique had noticed in our group. As secondary materials, she brought along a text on historical depictions of women as well as a segment from the first chapter of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which describes the encounter between Columbus and the native Arawaks from the perspective of the latter.

Her readiness to treat the episode of Star Trek in a light she initially found disquieting has an ideological grounding. She understood and sympathized with Sharone and Enrique's observations, and her commitment to the social issues they evoked overpowered her attachment to her original view of the episode--though not without struggle, and not without the support of a reflective environment.


The teacher's inner struggle with student observations, however, does not always end in favor of the exploration. In a different Duckworth-inspired teachers' group, Jill, a ninth-grade English teacher, wanted to test a lesson on the first book of the Harry Potter series. She brought a two-page selection from the novel to our group. The passage described a ceremony in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In the passage, all Hogwarts students and faculty are assembled in a lush dining hall, and the incoming freshmen are to be sorted into different "houses." A magical hat will read their minds and assign them to the house that best suits their character.

Jill selected the text hoping we would discuss the clarity of the author's descriptions in passages such as this one:

Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles that were floating in midair over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting. These tables were laid with glittering golden plates and goblets. At the top of the hall was another long table where the teachers were sitting. (Rowling, 1997, p. 72)

Instead, people in our group noticed the richness of the decor, the golden cups, and the parallels between the sorting that took place in the novel and ability-sorting in public schools. As the discussion continued, someone mentioned excess; someone else said the sorting of students in their first year of school reminded him of the brutality of a caste system.

In our session, Jill did a wonderful job of listening to what everyone had to say. Only when her lesson ended and the group had reconvened to discuss her work did she tell us that she found the observations hard to hear. She was not sure if this is the direction she wanted her future lessons to follow. She later explained her reasons to me in writing. The Harry Potter novels, she wrote, were something she enjoyed and loved. "I was certainly fine with listening to people's different ideas and intrigued by them," she explained:
   I just don't want to analyze some of them for myself, or at least
   ruminate on them ... I want to keep a positive attitude on those
   books. One can argue that it is important to take on new
   perspectives or that one can still hold onto the positive while
   learning about the negative, but it's not an argument I want to
   risk on this book.

This is a very self-aware statement. What stops Jill from continuing the exploration is not that she does not care about issues of class embedded in the books; she does care, but her other loyalties take priority. Neither self-awareness nor a reflective environment can help here. In her actual lessons, Jill found that she had to steer her students to concentrate almost exclusively on the plot of the novel, moving quickly from plotline to plotline in order to avoid the type of criticism our group brought to the text.


I suspect that, in most classrooms, the observations that disquiet teachers are those that touch an ideological nerve. They touch this nerve, at first, by challenging the personal attachments and priorities of the teacher. If attended to, they will challenge his or her values--the basis of priorities. If the conflict does not reach this level from the get-go, it is only because the classroom setup is often rigged so that the get-go is determined by the teacher. He chooses the materials; he sets up the discussion.

I need one last example to describe the implications of this point regarding values, which is at the core of all the other points.

Sara Egan (2011), a museum educator in Boston, wanted to teach high school students about the curatorial process. She brought her project to one of our teacher groups. Egan's idea was to use the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston as the basis of exploration. This is a museum founded near the turn of the previous century by one of the wealthiest women of Boston to house her massive visual and decorative art collection. Gardner curated the entire space and stipulated in her will that none of her placements ever be changed. Egan wanted students to think about Gardner's decision making in order to see curating as a democratic process, as something anyone can engage in. She also began the exploration hoping they would feel inspired by Gardner's example.

Students in this project attended a predominantly working-class public art high school in Boston. For the first few sessions, Egan chose the "Gothic Room" of the museum, as it seemed to exemplify Gardner's style. The room is put together as a sort of living room. It holds furniture, mantlepieces, candelabras, tapestries, and other knickknacks from the aristocratic homes of the Gothic era. In the middle sits an ornate dining table. In a prominent corner, there is an anachronistic display: a life-sized portrait of Mrs. Gardner herself, presiding over the room.

When Egan asked her students to talk about what they saw, they initially talked about the work on display. As they began to feel assured that Egan would take all their comments seriously, they turned to other things, such as the ropes that separated them from the objects. Why were the ropes there? Were they part of Gardner's original set up?

Some students speculated that perhaps the ropes are there due to the fragility of the objects. Another student, Joe, mentioned a couch in his grandmother's house he can use only on formal occasions. Another student, Brandon, offered a more nuanced observation:
   Yeah, they're fragile, they're made a long time ago; they're
   valuable it seems like. But I think if you really look at the
   people who made these chairs, they weren't the people who actually
   sat in the chairs. They were some person who had some job to put
   these chairs together for this big party. Maybe they [the Gardner
   family] had a party in this room.

Egan (2011) described to our group that Brandon's comment caught her off-guard. It seemed to touch on an important point she had not considered. She decided to keep the students thinking about this idea, though she was not sure where it would go. Maybe because her own emotions had become involved, she asked the students about their emotional response. The ensuing conversation is worth quoting directly:

Egan: Is this room giving you any sort of emotion?

Michaela: It's making me feel belittled.

Egan: What do you mean?

Michaela: I don't know. It's the feeling of it. Maybe ...

Joe: Belittled? Is that a word?

Michaela: Belittled is a word. It's when someone makes you feel inadequate or unimportant. This room kind of makes me feel like I'm an accessory, that I'm not important to this room.

Brandon: Technically, we are unimportant in this room.

Michaela: We are kind of accessories to this room.

Brandon: If Barack Obama came in here, he would be allowed to touch all kinds of things. He's not going to be restricted.

Michaela: He would be allowed to sit on the chairs.

Egan: So you think some people can do more?

Brandon: Like if the Pope came in here, he would be able to touch stuff.

What is happening here? Through an hour of honest observation, the students arrived at an aspect of museums that entrenched art historians and museum educators delicately ignore (7) and that is, nonetheless, an integral part of the museum experience. Egan's students noticed nothing less than the function of the museum as an ostentation of accumulated wealth and power. They also talked about the exclusion of the majority of people from those centers of power, and subsequently, from feeling valued when in museums.

What they express is not imaginary. Part of the room's message is that the collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner, is able to recreate and own an aristocratic living space from the past. The collector is an heir to the victorious faction of history. We, the larger public, are the heirs of the other factions: the ones who made the furniture but could never afford to sit in it, the ones who are roped off, and often, the ones whose cultural heritage was looted, bought, and brought to these heavily guarded spaces.

John Berger (1971/2001), expresses similar observations:
   Museums function like homes of the nobility to which the public at
   certain hours are admitted as visitors. The class nature of the
   "nobility" may vary, but as soon as a work is placed in a museum it
   acquires the mystery of a way of life which excludes the masses.
   (p. 215)

The difference between how the students and Berger describe their ideas is not just a matter of eloquence or erudition. They have seen the same things and described them, but the students have not yet had a chance to grasp their own observation. They have not held and explored their own thoughts.

Egan's own experience with museums was different than her students'. As she thought about how to help them deepen their ideas, she struggled with her own notions and values--a struggle for which the teaching group provided a supportive space. On her own, she read about museums in general and the Gardner museum in particular. Her view of Gardner, the woman and the museum, became much more complex than it had been at the beginning of the project. Even her idea of art criticism changed. She writes:
   My own thinking about interpretation was also stretched, as I
   resisted the temptation to privately validate only those
   interpretations which I knew best corresponded to the meanings
   attributed by art historians.

Still unsure, she made a transcript of the above conversation and brought it back to another session in order to help her students grasp their own observations. (8) Listening to their new puzzles, she then brought in selections from Gardner's will and newspaper clippings from the period.

This is an example of the type of work it takes to address student observations seriously. It begins with simple observations. They have to be simple and direct in order not to hide behind commonly accepted ways of interpreting things. The work calls on a willingness to reengage our own perceptions, and through them, our ideologies. In this view of teaching, the teacher becomes nothing short of a cultural critic.


A critical tendency is not a pedagogical add-on. It is an integral part of engaging openly and directly with materials. A novel, a film, a museum are all cultural products. They carry within and about them their history, the relationships of production that gave shape to them. Often, this history hides behind the common use of the product: the worldview implicit in Harry Potter hides behind the book's function as entertainment; a museum's founders hide behind public service; the historical roots of mathematical activity hide behind the need to solve an arithmetic problem. The teacher offers an invitation to observe and explore, a committed invitation that follows through, and sets the stage for students to blast open prefab notions of what an artifact is and does. The objects stand naked.

This potential of observation has been recognized by all revolutionary movements. The harsh words of Walter Benjamin (1950/2007), voicing the battle cry of the critical tradition that began with historical materialism, express the modern manifestation of the same will to see:
   Without exception, cultural treasures ... have an origin which a
   historical materialist cannot contemplate without horror. They owe
   their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and
   talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of
   their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is
   not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a
   document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner
   in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. (p. 256)

Observation can release the subconscious of objects. Children and adolescents, by the virtue of being less entrenched in institutional ways of seeing, are well equipped to point beyond the veneer of civility that covers things. They can point, but they may not have the required background experience to synthesize what they notice. The reason we, teachers, begin to feel uncomfortable in the face of their observations is that, whether we know it or not, we do have some of the required background information. On the naked body of valued things, we suddenly read the scars left by many violent relationships that define much of our history: class struggle, racism, oppression, repression, etc.

I do not intend to develop the simplistic notion that all tensions and conflicts that arise in the classroom are, at core, ideological. But I do mean to say that, as teachers learn to listen, the conflicts that disturb them will increasingly be of the sort that challenge their values. When that happens, teachers can dig themselves a new trench and set up for resistance. It is a position far behind the lines they abandoned earlier when they managed to overcome the institutional mandate to be the sole voice in the classroom, but even from this new position, they can put a short stop to the group's exploration. The first remedy in this situation is a deepening of the exercises that led them to open up the classroom space to observations. Duckworth's approach in this regard is particularly effective, and not the least due to its physical qualities. Externally, the physicality has to do with the need for a space where the teacher can hear her own mind going in circles as she tries to resist what she has noticed. The environment should be able to reflect the dilemma without beating the teacher over the head with judgment. Internally, we are dealing with emotions--the meeting point of mind and body--in this case, the fear and frustration felt by teachers. The teacher needs to be able to recognize and hold these feelings, not dismiss the disturbance, but also disallow it to dictate an escape route. A great deal of Duckworth's (2006) writing and work centers on developing the ability to appreciate confusion and uncertainty. Teachers can learn to keep a finger on their own pulse, watching it rise and fall, waiting, with absolute enthusiasm, for moments when it skips a beat.

And yet, even such a teacher will inevitably come across walls in her own thinking that she cannot transcend merely by the force of her enthusiasm for further observation and learning--though she will need that enthusiasm if she is ever to accomplish it. The wall here is not made just of fear, but of the teacher's own vested interest in maintaining the false halos that surround things. She must become a cultural critic, ideologically, a rebel against the orders that seem to sustain her own position. Museum educators, for example, are sustained by museums. Who other than a rebel can try and see through the structure that feeds her? So we have the living relationship between a critical ideology and a progressive pedagogy--progressive, because it tries to overcome its own limits.


Benjamin, W. (2007). Theses on the philosophy of history. In H. Arendt (Ed.), Illuminations. New York, NY: Schocken Books. (Original work published 1950)

Berger, J. (2001). Understanding a photograph. In G. Dyer (Ed.), Selected essays. New York, NY: Viking Press. (Original work published 1971)

Duckworth, E., & The Experienced Teachers Group. (1997). Teacher to teacher: learning from each other. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Duckworth, E. (2006). "The having of wonderful ideas" and other essays on teaching and learning (3rd ed). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 1987)

Duckworth, E. (Ed.). (2001). "Tell me more": Listening to learners explain. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Egan, S. (2011). "What does it mean?" Critical exploration at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Unpublished manuscript.

Freire, P. (1970/2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Goodman, N. (1985). The end of the museum? The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 19(2), 53-62.

Kamii, C., & Livingston, S. J. (1994). Young children continue to reinvent arithmetic-- 3rd grade: Implications of Piaget's theory. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lerman, L. (2003). Liz Lerman's critical response process. Takoma Park, MD: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.

Rowling, J. K. (1997). Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone. London, England: Bloomsbury.


(1.) In part, this paper is also a tribute to Duckworth, who last year retired from teaching her influential course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

(2.) The lesson's purpose and underlying assumptions were borrowed from Constance Kamii's (Kamii & Livingston, 1994) work with elementary students.

(3.) Duckworth's methodology asks teachers to assume a researcher's stance toward student learning and their own practice (Duckworth, 1987/2006, p. 162). Tape-recording my sessions is a habit I picked up working with her.

(4.) Some of the essays in Duckworth (2001) and (Duckworth et al., 1997) were written by teachers about their work in these communities.

(5.) The discussion procedure used in the meetings is in part inspired by the choreographer Liz Lerman's (2003) critical response process.

(6.) See also Freire's (1970/2005) discussion of the importance of maintaining the "richness" of materials (pp. 119-120).

(7.) Or they acknowledge the problem without addressing its underlying causes. Nelson Goodman (1985) suggested, in bold bourgeois fashion, that the discomfort people feel in museums would go away if they would learn to collect art themselves!

(8.) The idea came directly out of our group's reading of the methodology described by Freire (1970/2005):
   The important thing, from the point of view of libertarian
   education, is for the people to come to feel like masters of their
   thinking by discussing the thinking and views of the world
   explicitly or implicitly manifest in their own suggestions and
   those of their comrades. (p. 123)
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Title Annotation:CHAPTER 5
Author:Harouni, Houman
Publication:Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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