“What do you think?”
I’m sitting in a room with two researchers who are silently studying my first attempt at organizing data gathered from thirty-six schools they work with. After looking at the spreadsheet projected on the wall for a few moments, they turned and asked to hear my thoughts.
I had barely known what qualitative research was two weeks ago, and now, that’s exactly what I’m doing for two of the top researchers in the constructivist learning field. For my internship at Project Zero, I get to sit in a room with Jessica Ross and Dr. Edward Clapp, the people that literally wrote the book on Maker-Centered learning, and be trained in how to analyze data that will eventually help teachers better assess project-based learning experiences. I came into this with no research experience, but they are teaching me. I’m starting to recognize patterns, understand the ideas, and see data like they do. My thinking gets pushed every time I meet with them.
I’m not running to get them coffee, organizing files, or shining their shoes (yet). Quite the opposite–I’m doing real work as part of a team brought together by the shared pursuit of student agency. I get to be part of this weighty and purposeful work, not because I have anything especially interesting to say, but because Edward and Jessica value everyone’s ability to think and offer a different perspective.
This is the way things are here. You are surrounded by incredible thinkers, authors, and teachers that are dedicated to transforming education and making sure students leave equipped and empowered to make that happen. In this culture of investment, professors want their ceiling to be your floor, for you to be able to use their work and knowledge to create change in your own way. They take the time to share what they know and create opportunities for you to learn not just from them, but alongside them.
Over breakfast one day, I got to hear James Kim share his passion for being a mentor, not just a professor. Joe McIntyre consistently works in the library just so he is available for students. Monica Higgins hosts lunches to get to know her class better. Howard Gardner explained the research project he’s working in the buffet line. Rick Weissbourd makes time to laboriously break down answers to the ridiculously broad questions I throw at him. The generosity here is astounding. It’s like you’re surrounded by more relational and less cryptic Dumbledores. These professors don’t just share their learning, but work to develop us as thinkers and practitioners. It’s this apprenticeship that makes the community feel more like a family than a school.
An equally valuable part of this experience are the other students you’re here with. I am consistently blown away by the quality and experience of the people I’m surrounded by. Everyone is ready to learn, excited to talk, and not afraid to ask the hard questions or to be viewed as too serious. Conversations with peers over coffee have led to some of my best learning here. At HGSE, because you’re on a team united by common purpose, there is an ethos of camaraderie with people you haven’t even met, which makes it easy to build relationships and have conversations. It isn’t hard to find people that are excited about the same things as you are. As a former teacher, I didn’t always feel I had the space to have the meaningful conversations about education. Now, I’m surrounded by people that are ready to talk about the things I care about, but are also ready to push and deepen my thinking.
This has already proven to be a special time and space to develop the knowledge, habits of thinking, and understanding that I’ll pull from for the rest of my life to better my work. But it’s the people make this place. It’s the community that pulls you into something greater; something, in the words of the unicorn from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, “Further up and further in.”
Written by Brendan Fereday
Brendan Fereday is a former elementary school teacher now in the Human Development and Psychology master’s program and a research assistant at Project Zero. He is currently investigating organizational change, school reform, moral development, and fostering learner agency through making things. He now likes qualitative research.