“The Virtues of Not Knowing”—Brockwood Park’s Education Conference

The Brockwood Park School education conference “When is Teaching? Getting In or Out of The Way at The Right Time,” with emeritus Harvard University Graduate School of Education Professor, Eleanor Duckworth, was held at Brockwood between August 16 and 18, 2013.

Duckworth was one of the students and colleagues of the renowned Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. According to Professor Duckworth the teacher must be ready to stand out of the way. One of the themes in her work is the virtue of not knowing, about which she has said in her classic work The Having of Wonderful Ideas: “The virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that really count in the long run. What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will know.” For more on her approach to teaching and learning see this article.

Nita G. Pettigrew, a former student of Duckworth’s, has put it this way: “My ego is always ready to get between the students and their explorations— ‘like a robber breaking in upon their thoughts.’ I must be vigilant. To practice a pedagogy of critical exploration, a listening pedagogy, the teacher must be ready to stand out of the way.” To read her whole essay click here.

Exchanging intentions

The conference was a great success. We had a full house and a motivated audience eager to explore the nature of learning. More than 50 people participated in the conference. They came from near and far. They were joined by a committed group of volunteers, who took care of logistics from preparing the rooms to cooking the food to doing morning jobs.

During these three days, participants delved deeply into questions on the nature of learning and also watched learning unfold in several hands-on demonstrations. The first night participants exchanged their burning questions and introduced one another.

Then during the first Saturday morning session we studied a poem together. After reading the poem Eleanor Duckworth asked everyone to share one observation about it with the group. Every now and then she asked someone to read the poem out loud. What was interesting was that after each reading the meaning shifted or grew deeper and more complex.

Then she asked us about any puzzles, things we were curious about but could not make sense of, in the poem. Following that, we shared some of our interpretations of some of these puzzles with each other. At the end she asked us to write for a few minutes about the poem, to consolidate our thoughts. Finally we shared our experience of the activity and reflected on what it revealed about teaching and learning.

By this time some of us really wanted to know who had written this lovely poem. It turned out to be a poem by Audre Lorde entitled “Progress Report”:

Progress Report

These days
when you do say hello I am never sure
if you are being saucy or experimental or
merely protecting some new position.
Sometimes you gurgle while asleep
and I know tender places still intrigue you.
when you question me on love
shall I recommend a dictionary
or myself?

You are the child of wind and ravens I created
always my daughter
I cannot recognize
the currents where you swim and dart
through my loving
upstream to your final place of birth
but you never tire of hearing
how I crept out of my mother’s house
at dawn, with an olive suitcase
crammed with books and fraudulent letters
and an unplayed guitar.

Sometimes I see myself flash through your eyes
in a moment
caught between history and obedience
that moment grows each day
before you comply
as, when did washing dishes
change from privilege to chore?
I watch the hollows deepen above your hips
and wonder if I have taught you Black enough
until I see
all kinds of loving still intrigue you
as you grow more and more
rude and tender
and unfraid.

What you took for granted once
you now refuse to take at all
even I
knock before I enter
the shoals of furious choices
not my own
that flood through your secret reading
nightly, under cover.
I have not yet seen you, but
I hear the pages rustle
from behind closed doors.

Coffee & milk thought experiment

During the second Saturday session Prof. Duckworth spoke a little about her background and then left us with a problem, which goes as follows: you have a perfect tongue. The C’s stand for coffee parts and the M’s for milk parts. The C’s and M’s on the left make up one cup of coffee with milk and the C’s and M’s on the right another. You taste both cups of coffee with milk. The question to be answered is, “which one is milkier?” You can use numbers to figure it out but you can’t explain it using fractions or math. So how can you explain which one is milkier using just your perfect sense of taste?

Small group workshops

The point of this exercise was not to find the one right answer but to experience just how difficult it is to describe something in creative ways that show that you have really understood something, rather than using formulas and fractions, which will allow you to give the right answer but don’t show whether you understand the logic and ‘truth’ behind them.

Saturday afternoon there were several smaller workshops, which included role-plays and presentations on the theme of learning and teaching.

Saturday afternoon workshops

During the first morning session on Sunday, KFT Trustee (and long-time former staff member), Gary Primrose took conference participants outside to the Grove. There he asked everyone to take off his or her shoes so as to have a more direct contact with the land. Then participants walked around and exchanged their observations in small groups. Finally they came together in a large group to reflect on the whole experience.



Listening to Gary Primrose

During the second morning session on Sunday, conference participants watched as Professor Duckworth worked with two young students, both from Inwoods Small School. The goal was to have a clear demonstration of what it means and what it looks like to get in and out of the way at the right time, while teaching. Participants all seemed to agree that this session was the highlight of the conference as it really showed what learning and teaching can be at their best.


Duckworth working with students

For the final session on Sunday all participants came together to reflect on their essential questions and how they looked at them now, after having participated in the conference. Participants also shared their thoughts about the conference with one another. It seemed that everyone had learned something specific pertaining to their situation and questions but all agreed that it had been an immensely meaningful and valuable three days.