By Joshua Yardley, News Contributor
Mrs. M. is a second grade teacher in a low-income school district of San Jose, California. Back in November, Mrs. M. was looking for ways to fund a “clicker system” for her classroom. This clicker system would allow her students, many of whom were performing below grade level in math, to engage with the material in a way that would motivate them and advance their learning. Mrs. M. explains, “Students in second grade love to play computer games and interact with technology… [Clickers] make it possible for these children to master second grade math and build the learning blocks for later math in third grade and beyond.”
Three thousand miles away, a clicker system is being used in a classroom rather different from Mrs. M’s. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Dan Levy started using clickers several years ago after observing them being used by Professor Eric Mazur in Harvard’s Physics Department. “I see teaching as an experimental process,” Levy explains. “I try things with a clear understanding that some of them won’t end up working out.”
If the feedback from Professor Levy’s fall API-201 class is any indication, his use of clickers most certainly worked out.
On the final day of classes in December, Professor Levy’s 60-some-odd students turned the last 15 minutes of class into a touching show of gratitude for their teacher’s obvious passion for teaching and commitment to their learning. One by one, students stood up, flipping their name cards to reveal “Thank you, Dan Levy” and sharing out loud a brief thought on what Professor Levy and his teaching meant to each of them. There were not many dry eyes in L140 that day.
“So often we go about our daily business and then when it’s too late, we realize our appreciation for something,” says Alexander Kapur (MPP1). “In Levy’s case, I didn’t want to let this gratitude escape us.”
Referencing Professor Levy’s commitment to education and pedagogy, Leora Falk (MPP1) added, “People in the class who either worked as teachers or are going to work as teachers after graduation said that they were inspired by his teaching style and that they learned a lot about teaching from him.”
The last student to stand up and thank Professor Levy that day was Rohit Malhotra (MPP1). “I had the privilege of ending it by telling Professor Levy that his passion was contagious and that we saw no better fit than making a donation in his name to a high-poverty school in San Jose looking to use clickers in the classroom.”
On December 6, Mrs. M. in San Jose was notified that a group of Harvard public policy students had decided to fully fund her clicker project with the message: “Our professor, Dan Levy, used clickers as a tool to teach us how statistics are used in every day policy situations. We are indebted to him for his passion and commitment to teaching and want to pass that inspiration on to other. We wish you all the best.”
Professor Levy was moved. “I was so touched by the gesture. It was really extraordinary. I think it says more about the class than it does about my teaching.” He says his teaching hasn’t always been worthy of praise. “I was born with the passion for teaching, not necessarily the talent. My first class at HKS was API-209 and it was a disaster. Anytime I start feeling good about my teaching, I pull down the binder in my office that has the students’ evaluations for that year’s course and take a look.”
Professor Levy is a strong believer that teachers are made, not born. “When I started, I lacked some of the natural talents that are usually associated with effective teaching: I’m an introvert, not a great public speaker.”
Levy got his first teaching job at Georgetown as a part-time professor. He came to HKS as a visiting professor in 2004 and liked it so much that he stayed. Along the way, he has developed the philosophy on teaching and pedagogy that his students are benefiting from today. “I shifted from thinking about my teaching to thinking about the students’ learning. Teaching is more about what goes on in students’ minds than what goes on in your own as the teacher. It sounds obvious, but once you start taking that idea seriously, it changes everything.”
“When I first started teaching, I was introduced to the concept of Think-Pair-Share (having students pair up to discuss questions). It was my first exposure to how powerful those experiences can be. Clickers are an extension of that.”
Like Professor Levy, Mrs. M. recognizes the power of really engaging students in the material. She expressed her gratitude to Levy and his class for helping give her the tools to engage her children: “Thank you, not only for these resources, but also for sending my students the message that society is invested in their education. My students do not hear this enough. You will always be remembered in our classroom and by my students as an example of human kindness. Thank you for making a difference!”
Thank you, Professor Levy, for making a difference.