The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning
reviewed by Susan Pass - January 12, 2007
Title: The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning
Author(s): Eleanor Duckworth
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747300 , Pages: 224, Year: 2006
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The "Having of Wonderful Ideas" and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning is a delightfully charming book that explains complex genetic epistemology (e.g., Jean Piaget) in a very reader-friendly manner. In many ways, especially when it comes to synopsizing Piaget's experiments, the analysis is more clearly written than what Piaget himself wrote. The author also reveals little known facts about Piaget's genetic epistemology as she writes about what good teaching should be.
Most accomplished teachers would agree with the author's major premise that one has to get to know one's students (and their learning proclivities) before being able to teach them well. What separates Eleanor Duckworth from the rest of the pack is that she does this in a thoroughly Piagetian way.
Basically, Duckworth argues that it is only through constructivist-based education (where one is prompted to explain how one learns) that one really learns. According to Piaget and Duckworth, people learn by observing a problem, internalizing the problem, and then, in their own way, solving the problem. Piaget calls this assimilation (i.e., taking an experience into one's previous understanding of schemes) and accommodation (i.e., based on one's schemes or structures, creating a mental model by which the problem can be solved). The teacher's task is to understand the unique method that the student used to solve the problem. "We cannot assume that an experience whose meaning seems clear to us [as teachers] will have the same meaning to someone else" (p. 158). Using many studies and lessons, Duckworth develops a good case for why teachers need to get into the learning thoughts of their students. As everyone perceives a problem and internalizes it differently, there can be different ways of solving a problemand knowing that is important for teachers.
Duckworth argues that "Piaget's fundamental point, so rarely really acted on in formal education, is to know the value of paying attention to each other's ideas, to see how they can expand their own through making the accommodations necessary to assimilate other points of view" (p. 153), thus, expanding one's learning. Duckworth explains Piaget's ideas with clarity that makes difficult concepts (like schemes, assimilation and accommodation) easy to understand.
The value of this work is that the author presents facts about Piaget that not many teachers might know. For example, she correctly mentions that Piaget's stages of cognitive development are "norms not universals" in the first chapter, and that not all learning is concretely pegged to chronological development. She also writes correctly that (unlike Vygotsky) in Piaget's pedagogy, language is not the sole instrument of learning (although Piaget recognized that it can be part of learning). She adequately defends this view of Piaget in Chapter 2 by describing ways that learning can take place without language and how language can sometimes actually stand in the way of learning. In Chapter 5, Duckworth explains how (to Piaget) mistakes are not "bad," and how they can make for great learning opportunities. She correctly explains that Piaget also made room for social learningthat this is not just the exclusive idea of Vygotsky (p. 162). Duckworth cites Piaget's The Psychology of Intelligence (1947/1981) as proof of the socialization of learning, but Piaget did this as early as 1932. "There are no more such things as societies qua beings than there are isolated individuals" (Piaget, 1932, p. 360).
Drawbacks to this work also point to a tragedy occurring in American education. Duckworth's approach is just not practical for today's American schools, and she acknowledges this at the beginning of Chapter 6. With high-stakes testing, American teachers simply do not have a lot of time to spend on constructivist learning. There are only so many hours in the school year to cover so many items that the child needs to know to pass this test or the next (McNeil, 2000). In her defense, however, Duckworth correctly writes that Piaget would argue it is not how fast you go but "how far you go" (p. 6).
Instructors also need to be concerned about pointing out a student's errors in front of the class. Experienced teachers would argue against Duckworth's belief that, when a child finds out his/her solution was wrong in front of the whole class, it does nothing to "disgrace" him/her (p. 67). Perhaps it was Duckworth's approach when she did the lesson, but most teachers would find an angry parent calling the school office complaining about embarrassing their child in front of his/her peers. This reviewer is concerned that Duckworth ignores the fact that, when Piaget allowed students to find out "error," it was done quietly and (more often than not) one-on-one (i.e., no classroom audience of peers listening in on the mistake) (Pass, 2004).
Another issue with the text is that engaging constructivist teaching with college-level students lowers the student evaluations of instructor ratings (SEIs). Many education professors need to obtain tenure and promotion; low SEIs will not allow these advancements (Rhem, 2006; Thorn, 2006; Nilson, 2003). As a result, many untenured education professors might regretfully prefer to do traditional teaching and not let the class have "wonderful ideas." Duckworth focuses on this by citing a lesson undertaken by future teachers in Chapter 12 in which the adults have difficulty in initially seeing the importance of inquiry into how they "knew." Fortunately, Duckworth continues on with the moon-watching unit until all can see the value of discovering how they learned/thought (see students' comments at the end of Chapter 12).
Finally, this book is a must read for science teachers. It overflows with examples of Piaget's experiments and Piagetian science lessons. Readers in other disciplines might find it tedious, as so much time is spent on science and very little in other subject areas. To get around this, one needs to remember the goal of the book: namely, to explain how Piagetian principles of teaching can work in today's classrooms. Piaget was a scientist; Duckworth was a science teacher; and genetic epistemology (with its student-inquiry approach) lends itself to the scientific method.
Finally, one of the major criticisms leveled today against the use of constructivism in the classroom is that it is a "let-me-entertain-you approach to learning. Duckworth combats this by stating that she is against "it's-fun" and "self-confidence" types of teaching strategies (p. 57). However, this reviewer believes that discovering how one thinks is gratifying. So, if learning about how the mind learns is "fun" or builds "self-efficacy," maybe that is a delightful byproduct of genetic epistemology. Indeed, Bruner has shown us that the building of self-efficacy leads to higher motivation and that leads to increased learning (Smith, 2002).
In summation, despite what some might argue as its impracticality in today's world of education, this book is recommended for its excellent approach in promoting not what is being done, but what should be done.
McNeil, L. (2000). Contradictions of school reform: The educational costs of standardized testing, New York: Routledge/Falmer.
Nilson, L. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.
Pass, S. (2004). Parallel paths to constructivism: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Greenwich, CT: Informtion Age Press.
Piaget, J. (1932). Language and thought of the child. Paris: Delachaux & Nestle.
Rhem, J. (2006, October). The high risks of improving teaching. The National Teaching and Learning Forum. 15(6), 1-4.
Smith, M.K. (2002). Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved December 12, 2006 from http://www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm
Thorn, P. (2003). Bridging the gap between what is praised and what is practiced; Supporting the work of change as anatomy and physiology instructors introduce active learning into their undergraduate classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Austin, Austin, TX.