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Harvard Research Group Brings Conference to PDS via the Martin Institute

On February 13–15 at Presbyterian Day School, educators from all over the world will engage in hundreds of conversations about how students learn and how to design learning experiences that help students thrive.

Presbyterian Day School and the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence are hosting this 2.5 day conference featuring the work of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, a long-term research study group at Harvard. Project Zero’s work is devoted to understanding and quantifying the learning process in order to spread teaching practices that foster critical thinking and engaged learning for students.

In 1967, researchers at Harvard began to study ways to make people better thinkers. Researchers quickly discovered that “zero” knowledge had been firmly established in this field; hence, the project’s name. Over the years, Project Zero’s research has looked into the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, ethics and other essential aspects of human learning.

Today, drawing from years of research, Project Zero researchers work to teach teachers and schools how to create communities of reflective, independent learners. Their work encourages interdisciplinary learning. “After all, the world does not present problems to us in distinct math, science, reading, writing categories,” says Jim Reese, education chair for Project Zero’s off site conferences.

Memphis joins Atlanta, Washington DC, New York, and London as locations outside of Harvard’s campus to host a conference featuring the researchers of Project Zero. Over 700 educators from 24 states and 6 foreign countries will populate the PDS campus through Saturday. Over 300 teachers in attendance will be from the Memphis area.

Presbyterian Day School was specifically selected to host the Project Zero Conference because over 90% of our teachers and administrators have been trained at Harvard’s Project Zero.


Never before have we seen a school that has so pervasively, deeply and consistently embraced and implemented Project Zero’s research, ideas and practices in their classrooms, from PK - 6th grade, everyday. Everywhere we look at PDS, in and out of the classrooms, the evidence is clear that PDS is a school dedicated to cultivating thinking and problem-solving in meaningful, challenging and thoughtful ways in order to empower and prepare students. Shari Tishman, Director of Project Zero

Teachers at PDS promote learning by promoting thinking. Project Zero’s work contends that learning is a consequence of thinking, and thinking is the cause of learning. Because PDS teachers want students to learn, they teach them to think. Teachers design learning in their classrooms in a careful manner so that they are working from specific and clear goals in the type of thinking they want each assignment to promote.

Because of the inspiring and model practices PDS teachers have developed, there is a pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, February 12th, that gives a select group of teachers and school leaders the opportunity to observe teaching and learning in PDS classrooms with Harvard researchers guiding their observations.

Since 2010, the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, a not-for-profit founded by PDS, The University of Memphis, and the Brad Martin Family Foundation, has sent 26 teachers from the Memphis area to Project Zero’s summer program at Harvard. These teachers have returned and all said the Project Zero experience has impacted their teaching.

“Project Zero has completely transformed what I do as a teacher,” explains Heather Fisher. “Project Zero has motivated me to seek out new adventures because it is imperative that we, as teachers, enlighten ourselves to better serve our students.” Fisher teaches at Dogwood Elementary School and was selected as Shelby County Teacher of the Year in 2013. Fisher was sent by the Martin Institute to Harvard to Project Zero’s summer program in 2012.

For the conference held in Memphis, the Martin Institute granted over $100,000 in scholarships for teachers within a 175 mile radius of Memphis to attend. About 230 teachers received scholarships. Collectively, this group of teachers impacts about 33,000 students in our area.

We are excited about the great potential impact this conference offers for teaching critical thinking and problem-solving for student is Memphis,” says Brad Martin, Co-Founder of Martin Institute and President of The University of Memphis.

Why does this conference and the Project Zero teaching approach matter? It matters primarily because thinking, collaborating socially and intellectually with others and the ability to continuously learn are crucial for student success in further schooling, college and life.

It also is of primary importance as the standardized assessments schools use, like the SAT, ACT, AP tests and the PARCC assessment (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) are quickly changing their formats from assessing retention of facts and information to assessing the ability to think critically and problem solve.

It is impossible for students to be successful on these newly-designed assessments without strong critical and creative thinking skills. It follows that to teach thinking, teachers and schools must change what and how they teach. The Project Zero Conference will be a great introduction for many Memphis area teachers to designing and leading learning that pushes students to think deeply on their own as well as collaboratively.

Some true education “rock stars” will lead the conference in Memphis. Ron Ritchhart, lead Harvard researcher, will discuss the explicit instruction of critical thinking beginning with three and four year olds through high school. Tina Blythe will discuss ways to assess the mastery of thinking and creativity. David Perkins will discuss how breaking learning into distinct categories and bite-sized pieces cheats students from developing a sense of the whole problem or context and its relevance. His work in how to teach for student understanding and application, which go far beyond just knowing information, is legendary.

Educators will learn explicit instruction practices that foster student thinking. There is no better way to unpack what that means than to share a quote from Ron Ritchhart’s book, Making Thinking Visible written with Mark Church and Karin Morrison:

“To develop understanding of a subject area, one has to engage in authentic intellectual activity. That means solving problems, making decisions, and developing new understanding using the methods and tools of the discipline. We need to be aware of the kinds of thinking that are important for scientists (making and testing hypotheses, observing closely, building explanations…), mathematicians (looking for patterns, making conjectures, forming generalizations, constructing arguments…), readers (making interpretations, connections, predictions…), historians (considering different perspectives, reasoning with evidence, building explanations…) and so on, and make these kinds of thinking the center of the opportunities we create for students.”

Ron Ritchhart’s work has focused on developing specific instruction tools for teaching a and stimulating thinking that develops into highly skilled, connected, creative and robust thinking. These tools have been dubbed “Thinking Routines.” There are dozens of them and boys at PDS learn their names and their procedures. Different thinking routines have different purposes. By the time a boy is in upper grades at PDS, he is well versed in the routines, and knows when and how to use them. One of the more frequently used thinking routines is I See, I Think, I Wonder. After the these 2.5 days of world-class professional learning, PDS hopes that teachers and school leaders from all of the various schools attending the conference leave with, perhaps, these thoughts:

I see that teaching thinking can be done in a meaningful and engaging way.

I think that students who can think deeply and connect with ideas and people can do anything.

I wonder if PDS and the Martin Institute might offer additional amazing learning opportunities like this in the future.

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