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Harry Potter and the Theories of Education
By Rusmir Musić and Lyndsay Agans

A British woman writing about a fictional high school for the magically gifted has quietly reinvented higher education in the United States. Harry Potter, “the boy who lived,” has become the boy who has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of readers. In the process, J. K. Rowling has conjured new tools to understand and structure student learning. As will become apparent, many of the approaches to teaching which Rowling expertly weaves into her plots have been a subject of debate amongst national organizations of higher learning. Yet, despite its narrative setting within an educational institution, few have examined – beyond clever study aids – how Harry Potter can help one understand a student’s educational experience.1 Hence, Harry Potter as a worldwide phenomenon cutting across age and cultural differences currently lies as an unused source of inspiration to better connect to, and communicate with students.2 The shorthand language developed by Harry Potter readers allows for complex thoughts and experiences to be summarized through a series of identifications with characters, places, and ideas in the books. When, as fans and educators, we boarded the Hogwarts Express along with Harry, we found a refreshingly accessible translation of student development theories and language into Rowling’s own language, becoming instantly understandable to students, faculty, and staff. Here, we begin to utilize imagination – Rowling’s and our own – to explore new approaches to learning.

The Harry Potter series has predicted an emerging shift in educational values that calls for a new definition of learning; one that unites academic scholarship and human development. In 2004 (seven years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and right before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’s 2005 date), NASPA and ACPA – two leading associations of higher education professionals – published “Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-wide Focus on the Student Experience,” in which they insist that “distinctions among terms such as personal development, student development, and learning are meaningless, if not destructive.” 3 Claiming that “the focus of education must shift from information transfer to identity development (transformation),” 4 Learning Reconsidered rallies a cry for a new merger of academic and student affairs where all aspects of a college campus life support student learning. Hogwarts emerges as a great model for integrated learning, not only because its boarding school structure naturally leads to some of the practices called for by Learning Reconsidered, but because the school rests on a pillar of sound educational philosophy. Skeptics may question how a “children’s book” can teach adults about higher education; even Rowling insists that she is not writing a morality book.5 But, as children, teenagers, and adults alike continue to re-read and internalize Harry’s world, educators have both the responsibility to understand what makes this magical school so special and an opportunity to put into practice the shared language of metaphors and make some of Hogwarts’ magic a reality.

From a cornucopia of educational and moral principles Rowling explores in the series, we have distilled five theories, all of which center on learning communities. Harry’s first departure from Platform 9 ¾ depicts the journey towards and through Hogwarts as one within a peer-group: the students arrive at the school together and move through its educational and developmental curriculum in a cohort that does not change for the full seven years. From there on, the communal contact persistently focuses individual experiences. Contrary to Jody Levine and Nancy Shapiro, authors of Hogwarts: The Learning Community, who despite their article’s community-centered title focus more on learning, we find community to be magical, mediating all of the books’ central ideas, including learning. Learning can materialize outside of the community, but it would not be the kind we and Rowling advocate. Echoing opinions put forth in Learning Reconsidered, we view learning as a situated, grounded experience that synthesizes academic knowledge, development of life skills, and greater understanding of self and other, possible only in a community partnership between students, faculty, and staff. Rowling’s model (like that of Learning Reconsidered) transfigures the institutional focus from teaching toward learning that supports a student’s self-actualization in all its aspects. Built on a cornerstone of community, Rowling’s five theoretical pillars – challenge and support, balancing academics, communal accountability, transference of allegiance from home to school, and experiential learning – provide an integrated academic, residential, and social home for the Hogwarts students.

Hogwarts’ four Houses offer a striking example of learning communities able to draw out specific qualities from each group member through a system of challenge and support. Each House consists of a distinctive peer group that actively defines students’ experiences at Hogwarts and beyond. Even as Rowling offers increasing sophistication regarding house descriptors, generally speaking, Gryffindors are brave, Hufflepuffs caring, Slytherins are cunning and ambitious, and Ravenclaws intelligent. The fan community, however, has wondered why Neville Longbottom and Hermione Granger, both members of Gryffindor, were not placed in Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, respectively.6 Surely, with her incredible intelligence and thirst for learning, Hermione belongs “Where those of wit and learning / Will always find their kind.” 7 Likewise, Neville, often klutzy but still caring toward all, seems to be a better fit “Where they are just and loyal / Those patient Hufflepuffs are true / And unafraid of toil.” 8 Had the Sorting Hat placed Neville and Hermione in the house which would allegedly better suit each child’s individuality, they would have learned few new skills and brought little new perspective into their communities. Hermione’s intelligence would have been nurtured in Ravenclaw, but probably would not stand out as extraordinary among a similar population of peers. Similarly, Neville’s need to foster his individuality would have been lost inside the house that seems to do everything on a team level. In contrast, placed in Gryffindor, both have traveled an amazing journey of self-actualization: Hermione has learned to balance her academics with social interactions, while Neville now bravely steps up even to Death Eaters. The house they were placed in had to both support their existing personality, but more importantly challenge them toward greater personal development and draw out these dormant traits. While individual students and their peer groups require a certain dose of character consistency in order to forge their own identities, they must simultaneously be pushed outside their comfort zones. The challenge, brought out through communal interactions, ultimately becomes more important than the support.

Placed within this supporting/challenging learning community, Hermione undergoes an amazing transformation from utilizing only cognitive elements of learning – “analyzing and synthesizing information” – to making meaning – understanding the essence and significance of relationships.9 Hermione starts as a student who places her academic career above everything, including her life,10 who fears failing her tests above all else11 and becomes unbearable as she attempts to take on too many academic responsibilities.12 Yet, at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione has a solemn moment with Harry:

“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry.

“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful.” 13

This developmental moment for Hermione cannot be overemphasized: it is the precise instant where she becomes inseparable from Ron and Harry. Without them, Hermione is ultimately a lonely character. She will probably never stop being an academic overachiever, but here she recognizes that she must feel with her heart as much as think with her head. Learning Reconsidered invites Hermione’s moment of understanding to start occurring on an institutional level in colleges and universities across the country. Left without the support of the rest of the trio (themselves a small learning community), Hermione may have developed into the familiar student who seeks a single room on campus where he or she can bury him/herself within piles of books. Instead, her learning no longer involves just acquisition of knowledge, but begins incorporating “reflection, emotional engagement and active application.” 14 Challenged by the bravery of Gryffindor – where she was placed through the Sorting Hat’s design – Hermione takes the first step on a path toward balance, giving us one of the most popular characters in fiction today. As higher education continues to reclassify the relationship between its two ‘houses’ – that of academic learning and student development – Harry and Hermione can provide a common language of symbols, understood by students, faculty, and staff, that can help unite the two ‘houses’ to better serve student needs.

In order to engage students in their own learning, Hogwarts provides them with successful leadership development tools. Although Hogwarts does employ institutionally-based leadership,15 its primary spotlight rests on communal accountability, which again takes its form through the interpersonal relationships between the students themselves. In the community-based model, all members of the same house live and take classes together, so that older students pass their knowledge down to incoming peers. Harry, as a first-generation student, learns valuable lessons about magical culture – both in and out of line with school rules – from his older peers. Through scaffolding, existing students form a support network for students of younger generations. Communal leadership becomes most apparent when examining Hogwarts’ system of rewards and sanctions. Very differently from the focus on the individual in today’s education, achievements or transgressions in the Hogwarts house system bring forth community consequences. The individual student still sits at the heart of the system, but now as a piece of a larger puzzle. Because rule-breaking requires the sanctions of both the individual and the community, the peer group can regulate any unwanted behavior within the community to minimize the amount of violations. Consider the treatment that Harry, Ron, and Hermione receive from the rest of their house after McGonagall deducts 150 points for their after-hours transgression in Sorcerer’s Stone.16 McGonagall herself – the model of a faculty in residence – is not immune from the ups and downs of the student community of which she is a part: in a way she sanctions herself, since the deduction of 150 points disables her team from winning the House Cup, a prize she openly desires. One need no longer just theorize what schools with communal accountability might look like outside of Hogwarts: many summer programs have adopted the house structure, leaving it up to educators to conduct studies on its mechanisms and their effectiveness. While it preserves authority in the administrators’ hands, the house point system engages the students, giving them ownership over communal mores. Behavior then becomes more intentional: the trio still breaks the rules, but only when they feel there exists a justification for their actions within a larger context.

This intricate system of interpersonal relationships in communal leadership takes an even deeper root through transference of allegiance from the family toward the school. Hogwarts rather abruptly takes on a role of the chief catalyst for the students’ transformation from teenagers into adults.17 The school then becomes a vehicle through which students abandon their dependence and move toward self-actualization. Students journey toward the school on the Hogwarts Express alone, supervised merely by their peers and an occasional adult. As Steve Vander Ark points out in his essay “Why do all the kids have to go to King’s Cross?18 Magic takes away the need for such travel, but the physical journey by train prepares the students to leave a world of dependence on their parents into a world where they are expected to make their own choices. Not only can parents not apparate inside the castle (a protection many of us would at times want around our own institutions and residence halls), they are not asked to attend family weekend or Quidditch matches: once the students enter the Hogwarts Express, the school completely directs both their education and personal development.19

Magic aside, this drastic difference in parental involvement differentiates Rowling’s world most from ours. With increasing frequency, the parents’ overwhelming concerns with their children’s lives prevent the students from moving toward self-actualization. Looking at Muggles as persons not devoid of magic, but devoid of imagination,20 parents become the Muggles who refuse to believe their children will have enough imagination to solve their problems on their own. Rowling, on the other hand, empowers her teenage characters to problem-solve independently, many times in defiance of parental (and adult in general) instructions.

Clearly, institutions of higher learning cannot operate under such severe separation from the families. Quite the opposite, we have argued elsewhere21 for an expansion of student development theory to include expanding circles of family influence. Even Learning Reconsidered takes into account only three contexts around student development: institutional, academic, and social,22 which seems to exclude a student’s family connections. Though the universities should still remain, if not the main, then a significant catalyst for their students’ self-development, educators will need to find appropriate ways to include parents in empowering students. Rowling again provides us with a model of cooperation between the family and the school in the form of the Weasley family. They are an inextricable part of their children’s social context, even though they are never physically present at the school. Unlike the so-called “helicopter parents,” the Weasleys place an enormous trust in the education system, and play off of it to guide their children toward building an identity that is both separate from and based upon their family values. While they are proud of the areas in which their children excel, the Weasley parents do not exert overwhelming pressure on them to succeed: the typical parental dreams of a star student do run in the family, but the focus rests more on raising decent human beings grounded in just values.

To assist students in this process of greater self-actualization, academic learning at Hogwarts is hands-on and applied. One of the central ideas of Learning Reconsidered states that learning can no longer be a “passive corollary of teaching,” and instead must engage and empower the students to take the responsibility for their own learning. This implies connecting the information transfer with meaning and application in the context of the student’s life.23 Each Harry Potter book finds the trio using the theory they had just learned in classes in order to overcome obstacles and save the day. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry discusses what classes would prepare him for certain career paths. Hogwarts’ educational canon is not without concerns, as the scales at times seem overly tipped toward applied magical knowledge and not enough toward knowledge for knowledge’s sake; one for example never hears about students engaging literature or philosophy. Even with this concern in mind, Rowling still gives us a model of learning that has traveled miles away from disconnected facts having little influence on students’ lives, toward an integrated learning structure that stresses the application of knowledge.

Rowling outright ridicules classes disconnected from applicable meaning, such as Prof. Binn’s History of Magic and Dolores Umbridge’s Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA). “There is nothing waiting out there, Mr. Potter” shouts Umbridge, provoking an outraged response from Harry and the rest of the class.24 In contrast, classes that instruct theory through practice are met with the most enthusiasm from students, readers, and author alike. Prof. Lupin’s and Mad Eye Moody’s versions of the DADA class remain the characters’ and fans’ favorite, constantly reminding students how to apply their skills outside of the protective walls of Hogwarts. In fact, Umbridge’s teaching tactics differ so wildly from Lupin’s and Moody’s that Harry and friends develop their own version of the class, concentrated on experiential learning. By their fifth year at Hogwarts, the students have become more aware of both their personal needs as well as the practical importance of education. Having been active and engaged learners in their tenure at Hogwarts, they create opportunities where they truly own their education. With meaning and purpose informing their studies, they are no longer learning for a grade, but to become more prepared adults.

As the de facto students’ home during their seven years at the institution, Hogwarts fosters learning as soon as students arrive on campus. Theoretical knowledge is firmly integrated with the building of practical life-skills and moral development. The school’s learning outcomes center on individual growth within a communal setting. The community is more than the one-year hall commitment we typically see in residential life, but a group of people that follows a student in his/her entire career at the school, and sometimes even beyond. With the team commitment generated by the learning community we can have students like Neville standing up to those he believes are jeopardizing the team’s success.25 Hogwarts School thus presents us with a wonderful model of what we call a holistic approach to higher education, underlining the need to educate the entire student in the context of the learning community(ies). Unfortunately, educators outside of Hogwarts do not own a magic wand like Dumbledore that can solve all our concerns.26 As today’s students require new ways of communicating with and relating to them, we can use our imagination. Harry Potter presents a unique opportunity to find not only a common language of symbols with students, faculty, and staff, but new sources of inspiration for teaching and learning. While magic wands may not be within reach, imagination – without which any magic wand is useless – already resides inside every educator.

Rowling’s imagination has inspired us to search for clues to her theory of education, and it will hopefully inspire others to find new and refreshing approaches to student learning. We have found five theoretical pillars easily applicable to the world outside of the books: challenge and support, balancing academics, communal responsibility, transference of allegiance from home to school, and experiential learning, all centered on learning communities. It would not be an exaggeration to say that millions of people around the world have found reading Harry Potter a transformative event in their lives. The books’ global effect would probably not be possible without their firm foundation in Hogwarts, a place that practices transformative education that engages physiological, emotional, cognitive, and developmental dimensions of its students, and by extension, the readers.

Notes

1. This issue of Scribbulus of course changes that, but unfortunately, articles presented here probably will not reach the wide audience they deserve. Prior to this call for papers, we have been aware of only one article in a higher education journal, “Hogwarts: The Learning Community” by Jodi Levine and Nancy Shapiro.

2. We wrote this article primarily with college students in mind. However, ideas expressed here may be applied to education at all levels.

3. The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the American College Personnel Association, Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, 2004. p. 3.

4. Ibid p. 9.

5. Rowling, JK. “JK Rowling’s World Book Day Chat,” 4 March 2004. Quick Quotes Quill. 23 July 2006. <http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/2004/0304-wbd.htm>

6. We are indebted to postings on the Harry Potter Lexicon and its related site HP Forum (http://www.hp-lexicon.org/index-2.html) for some of the ideas expressed here. Itself a kind of a learning community, the fan websites serve as an open forum for sharing ideas related to the series.

7. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p. 118.

8. Ibid.

9. The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the American College Personnel Association, Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, 2004. p. 17

10. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998. p. 162.

11. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid. p. 287.

14. The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the American College Personnel Association, Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, 2004. p. 11.

15. Institutionally-based guidance takes form in the wisdom of Dumbledore. He creates a culture of ethics, much more than a culture of rules, where professional and student staff alike model responsible behavior. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but the Snapes of Hogwarts merely serve as a foil to the McGonagallls. One need only to look at the school after Dumbledore’s departure in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to understand the depth of his influence: run by Umbridge, and devoid of Dumbledore’s moral character, Hogwarts becomes a place to which students can no longer feel allegiance.

16. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1999. pp. 243-244.

17. This shift becomes even more dramatic as children from magical families are home-schooled prior to entering Hogwarts:

Rowling, JK. “What education do the children of wizards have before going to Hogwarts?” F.A.Q. 2006. JK Rowling Official Website. 29 July 2006. <http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view.cfm?id=101>

18. Vander Ark, Steve, “Why do all the kids have to go to King’s Cross?” Essays. 21 December 2001. The Harry Potter Lexicon. 23 July 2006. <http://www.hp-lexicon.org/essays/essay-why-kings-cross.html>

19. Lucius Malfoy remains the sole exception, interfering in Draco’s education directly and indirectly, even achieving Dumbledore’s resignation in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Malfoy, of course, has the socio-economic means to do so, but an in-depth discussion of SES (as well as race and ethnicity) concerns within Harry Potter is beyond the scope of this paper.

20. Kirk, Connie Ann. “Imagi©nation in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Essays. 1 May 2004. The Harry Potter Lexicon. 23 July 2006. <http://www.hp-lexicon.org/essays/essay-imagicnation.html>

21. Presentation: “In Loco Parentis, In Loco Universitatis: A Balance of Needs,” ACPA Convention, 2005.

22. The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the American College Personnel Association, Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, 2004. p. 15.

23. Ibid. p. 9.

24. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003. p. 244.

25. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p. 218.

26. Our colleague Seth Grossman points out that some might view psychological medication as the new magic wand that solves students’ problems. Prescription medications, like magic itself, can create as many problems as they solve, running the danger of preventing students from becoming self-aware, conquering their fears and overcoming their weaknesses. In the opening chapter to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling presents a nuanced view of magic that requires human interaction and deep understanding to be effective, a lesson to be applied to scientific advances in our own world.

Bibliography

Kirk, Connie Ann. “Imagi©nation in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Essays. 1 May 2004. The Harry Potter Lexicon. 23 July 2006. <http://www.hp-lexicon.org/essays/essay-imagicnation.html>

Levine, Jody and Nancy Shapiro, Hogwarts: The Learning Community, About Campus, September/October 2000.

The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the American College Personnel Association, Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, 2004.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998.

Vander Ark, Steve, “Why do all the kids have to go to King’s Cross?” Essays. 21 December 2001. The Harry Potter Lexicon. 23 July 2006. <http://www.hp-lexicon.org/essays/essay-why-kings-cross.html>


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