Torch - Spring 2017

Thinking About Thinking: Havergal’s Latest Chair of Teaching and Learning Goes Deep

minimal teacher intervention and the exercises she observed at Bard College in New York, where students engage in a write-to-learn approach, whereby conversations were enhanced through the practice of preliminary writing exercises. “It became clear that matching the conversational piece with a writing piece was incredibly important to enriching the conversation,” says McRae. Students also cited conversational classrooms as a source of rich thinking at Havergal. “Students talking to each other was, overwhelmingly, where students saw learning and thinking happening,” McRae says of her survey. Class size was also important. “Not too small and not too large, so they had enough ideas, but not too many,” she adds. McRae notes that a focus on thinking can be one of the best ways to challenge students. “One of my students said that you can always do the knowledge piece, you can always do more research and you can always check your commas. But thinking, you never know exactly when you start and you never know exactly when you stop. That makes it both the scariest and the most exciting part of any project because it’s what gives you the most excitement, yet it’s the part where you feel the most exposed.”

If Havergal encourages students to pursue their insatiable curiosities, it only seems fair to give teachers the same opportunity. That’s part of the idea behind Havergal’s Gardiner Chair of Teaching and Learning, where teachers are given time to explore a curriculum-related topic and then report back to the community. For the past two years, Havergal English teacher Laura McRae took on one of the biggest topics you could imagine: thinking. Thinking about thinking seems like a very meta exercise, overflowing with possibilities. How do you even approach it? Aware that there were already some great examples of thinking going on at Havergal, McRae started by asking those around her. “I ran a survey of students and teachers about what kinds of teaching or classroom situations they felt created the best thinking environments and why,” McRae says. She then moved on to mixed-grade focus groups with students from Grades 7 to 12 and sat in on classrooms to see thinking in action. Inspiration also came from reading about and observing learning at other institutions. As examples, McRae points to the Harkness method originated at Phillips Exeter Academy, where students engage in conversation with


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