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May 13, 2015

Danah Henriksen: Learning From The Best

May 5, 2015

Danah Henriksen, visiting assistant professor in the College of Education, is a member of MSU’s Deep-Play Research Group, which examines the intersection of creativity, teaching, technology and 21st century educational environments.

I have been interested in issues of education, and what it means to be an excellent teacher, for as long as I can remember. I grew up with a mother who was a teacher – a wonderful teacher, who for most of her career worked with disadvantaged students.

When you have a family member or friend who teaches, you become aware of how much of their soul goes into their work. Teachers do not leave the classroom and leave behind the concerns of the day; they do not very often get the opportunity to “turn off” completely. Their lives are inextricably linked to their profession – to their teaching struggles and classroom ideas, to their students’ lives and struggles.

The mounting problems teachers face today set them up for difficulties. They work within a system that doesn’t value their profession or individuality, and there has been a national increase in rigid, standards-based policy curriculum. Teaching is difficult to do, and very hard to do well. So how do excellent teachers who succeed in their work do what they do? And how do they express their individuality and creativity, or bring joy to their work?

These are questions that intersect with my own research interests. With my background in design work, and my interest in teaching excellence, there has been a natural flow into an examination of creativity in teaching. For one recent project I interviewed National Teacher of the Year winners or finalists to learn more about how they do what they do. This study, co-authored with MSU’s Punya Mishra, is founded in the simple premise that if you want to learn about something, learn from the best.

It is always humbling to see a great teacher in action, and it was even more remarkable to hear the stories, examples and ideas behind their work. It was also interesting to learn that these great teachers are inspiring and successful not because they operate in the “standards-based” mode we see in national policy, but instead because they find ways to work around this restrictive environment and seek out opportunities to let their own interests and personal creativity (in music, the arts, gardening, yoga, dance, running and much more) infuse their teaching.

Excellent teachers move across common subject matter boundaries in flexible and dynamic ways – teaching mathematics through applications to music, for example, or science through artistic activities. They make learning relevant for students by situating topics in the real world or by taking learning outside of the classroom – figuratively or sometimes literally.

One of these teachers I spoke with – Sarah Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year winner – summed it up like this: “I think that we teach who we are, and I know that I teach who I am...” Sarah unintentionally helped me to realize that this idea was not only the foundation of the study, but my own basis for doing it.

She mentioned how she had gotten a great idea for a classroom lesson by drawing on an idea discussed on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” She loved this TV program because it didn’t focus on any of the sensationalism of celebrity, but merely talked to actors, directors and artists about their craft – about how they do what they do, and how they do it well.

This idea connected deeply for me, and it brings everything back around to creative teachers.

What I consider most important in my research is the opportunity to learn from wonderful teachers. It’s necessary to understand what makes them tick, and how this diverges from what national policy dictates. Perhaps then we can begin to shift policy in a direction that better suits both teachers and students, and that lets teachers “teach who they are.”

Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Read more about Heriksen's latest work