Nearly 200 teachers took to Harvard Square one summer afternoon. They wandered the grounds, observing, touching, and documenting their surroundings. The professionals were participants in the Project Zero Classroom (PZC), an annual summer institute for educators. The hosts of the PZC sent their guests outdoors to get “an experiential feel” for their learning materials.
When Project Zero (PZ) began in 1967, it “functioned as a loosely knit think tank,” wrote former director Howard Gardner (the current director is Daniel Wilson). In this early form, the Harvard Graduate School of Education project, founded by philosopher Nelson Goodman, focused its research on cognition and the arts. The name was a snarky nod to the state of research on arts education at the time: Virtually “zero” was known about the field.
In the following decades, PZ expanded to encompass a much broader range of inquiry. Now, many of its programs and studies examine learning at large. PZ asks: What does learning look like? What type of learning is relevant for these students in this moment and in the future? What is the nature of understanding?
At the most basic level, this means an emphasis on all types of engaged, self-directed learning and a departure from standardized, test-based teaching.
During a period of expansion in the 1990s, PZ built the bridge between theory and practice that is now its hallmark. At Gardner’s insistence, the PZC institute began, encouraging educators to participate in the same type of critical, interdisciplinary thinking they foster in their students.
“We need to have the individuals who are involved in education, primarily teachers and administrators, believe in this, really want to do it, and get the kind of help that they need in order to be able to switch, so to speak, from a teacher-centered, let’s-stuff-it-into-the-kid’s-mind kind of education to one where the preparation is behind the scenes and the child himself or herself is at the center of learning,” Gardner said in an interview.
Although dozens of initiatives and programs under the PZ umbrella have launched and ended, a few foundational principles have remained constant. Teaching for Understanding, a concept developed in the 1990s, refers to the idea that understanding is an ever-changing activity, not a static condition. Initially a five-year research project that produced a template for a curriculum, Teaching for Understanding has become a guiding framework.
Visible Thinking is another fundamental phrase in the PZ lexicon. Although we might assume we know how we arrived at a conclusion, “Mostly, thinking happens under the hood, within the marvelous engine of our mind-brain,” according to the PZ website. Visible Thinking is a call to get kids—and adults—to trace their cognitive processes, and to integrate this type of thinking-about-thinking with traditional content-based learning.
So what do these concepts look like when applied to modern-day classrooms? Like the educators at the PZC, students might spend an afternoon taking a hands-on walk or contemplating a painting. But PZ calls for learning tailored to today’s world. And the project is a fertile setting for digital learning.
Speaking in 1997, Gardner encouraged teachers to use interactive technology to reach different types of learners. “We have this myth that the only way to learn something is to read it in a textbook or hear a lecture on it,” he said. “But that’s nonsense. Everything can be taught in more than one way. And anything that’s understood can be shown in more than one way.”
Kristen Kullberg, a Washington, D.C. teacher, told Greater Greater Washington her students’ “comprehension has sky-rocketed” since she began implementing the principles of Project Zero. “They begin to understand that ambiguity and unanswered questions don’t need to be sources of frustration,” she explained.
Another D.C. government teacher, Karen Lee, said PZ “provided a framework for deep thinking” in an exercise in which her students drew connections between a Langston Hughes poem and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Here in Pittsburgh, collaborations between schools and Project Zero have taken many forms. Most notable was the five-year Arts PROPEL program in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The Arts PROPEL curriculum emphasizes making, as well as time to observe and reflect.
And recently, teachers at Quaker Valley School District have spearheaded the development of a consortium of five school districts to participate in ProjectZero training and workshops exploring how school extension activities can incorporate lessons learned from decades of ProjectZero practice.
If it seems like Project Zero is expansive, multifaceted, and maybe a bit nebulous—well, that’s because it is.
“Attempts to create a short and sharp ‘mission statement’ for Project Zero have never succeeded,” Gardner wrote. “Project Zero is too loose a confederation of researchers and practitioners, and it is too much subject to the whims of national priorities and funding preferences, to lend itself to a simple formulation. In that sense, our ‘zero’ is both a benefit and a curse.”