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Posted at 12:35 PM ET, 06/ 8/2010

Arne Duncan's 'learning story'

By Valerie Strauss

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The following is a story that Education Secretary Arne Duncan told about his most powerful learning experience. It is one in a regular series of “learning stories” that I am starting to publish and that are focused on effective teaching and learning.

The stories are told by people around the country, some well-known and others not, and are part of the nonprofit Rethink Learning Now’s “Learning Stories” campaign. Rethink Learning Now is a coalition of education advocates, civil rights groups and philanthropic organizations focused on successful education reform and its three pillars: learning, teaching and fairness.

Author and educator Sam Chaltain has collected some of the stories --including Duncan’s and others that I will be share with you -- in a book that will be published early next year.

You can submit your own learning experience by going to and relate a story about your most effective teacher and/or your most powerful learning experience. Take a little time and read some of the stories there. It’s a nice relief from the incessant talk in education today about standardized tests.

Arne Duncan's Learning Story
I grew up going to my mother’s afterschool tutoring program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago. It is the best learning community I’ve ever been a part of and the best learning experience I’ve ever had. That is high praise because I have been lucky enough to attend extraordinary schools and to have great professional development and learning experiences as an adult.

My mother created a unique culture. Everyone was challenged to do their best, every single day. It was the ultimate in high expectations, both for individuals and the group as a whole. There were no short cuts or excuses. We did lots of things in teams and groups. These collaborations created positive peer pressure where we encouraged one another. Folks who were strong in one thing were helping ones who were weak in something else. We had a sense of camaraderie. We were all in it together.

Everybody was both teaching and learning. Ten-year-olds taught five-year-olds, and 15-year-olds taught 10-year-olds. At every stage, you were expected to continue to learn and improve, but you also were expected to help others. The older students took great ownership for how the younger children were doing. At a very young age, children felt like leaders, role models and teachers. It also had the benefit of helping students understand what they were learning because one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it or explain it to someone else.

In the learning environment, everyone was both a teacher and a learner. We were constantly pushing each other’s limits. There was no valid excuse for not working hard or for misbehaving. We had clear rewards for working hard, and there was a sense of teamwork and support across age groups. Finally, there were adults in students’ lives who would stay with them for the long haul. They were there day after day, week after week, year after year, through good times and bad.

Schools should combine all of those things: passionate, caring adults; teams of students learning together by helping each other and pushing each other; students constantly both learning from others and teaching others, and having the highest expectations for everyone. If every child had the chance to have that kind of learning environment, education in this country would reach an entirely different level. It would change students’ lives.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 8, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Learning  | Tags:  arne duncan, effective teaching, learning stories, powerful learning  
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Cute story, Arne, but no gusto. Now, for a robust story about quality learning, check out this story in today's NYT:

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 8, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Funny how Duncan's own experience is full of collaboration and cooperation, but his Race to the Top program as secretary of education is all about competition and reward and punishment.

Sounds like he didn't learn his own lesson very well.

Posted by: efavorite | June 8, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I wonder who wrote the story for Duncan. Sounds phony to me.

Posted by: aby1 | June 8, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

during duncan's tenure in chicago, students in special education were secluded, relationships between the school district and parents were terrible, and system- wide performance on standardized tests stagnated. i'm not sure why the wp never provides that context when it writes articles about duncan as a reformer.

Posted by: jobrie18 | June 9, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

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