Ron Berger started his career teaching low-income white kids in rural America. He has spent the last 15 years working with urban schools educating mostly kids of color. No matter the context or the population of students he has worked with, his definition of equitable education hasn’t changed. “My view of equity is that kids of all kinds are capable of doing beautiful work,” Berger said at High Tech High’s Deeper Learning Conference. This year the conference focused on equity and how the Deeper Learning Movement can position itself to demonstrate what quality learning in public schools could look like.
Now the Chief Academic Officer for EL Education, Berger and his organization work with 150 schools using the Expeditionary Learning model deeply. He often notices that the language of deeper learning -- terms like project-based learning, expeditions, makerspaces -- doesn’t always connect with low-income families trying to choose the best education path for their children.
“If you go into a school of very low-income kids, and that can be an urban school or a rural school, it could be either, and it could be white kids or it could be kids of color, doesn’t matter, those parents are worried about their kids succeeding in life,” Berger said. “And they’re worried with good reason.”
Unlike peers from wealthier families who have a family narrative of going to college and achieving success (as well as more resources and connections to fall back on), kids from low-income families have little guarantees that they will succeed. Often their lived experiences demonstrate that people like them often don’t go to college or get good jobs. And schools in low-income neighborhoods are often worse than ones in higher-income areas. Parents are rightfully worried about the quality of education their children will receive.
“For them if you use words like makerspaces, project-based learning, different pedagogies, it scares them,” Berger said. “They feel like, ‘don’t experiment with my kids. My kids are already at risk. My kids just need the basic skills. They need to pass those tests. They need to do well in life. Don’t try crazy new ideas with our kids.’ And I empathize with that. I totally understand it.”
That’s why when Berger talks with parents and educators about deeper learning he starts by pointing out the success stories of kids at other Expeditionary Learning schools, serving kids with the same demographics and family backgrounds, who have thrived in this kind of model.
“We go into those schools and we lead with what they are hoping for for their kids,” Berger said. “We lead with the outcome. And then the way we get there is second.” When he is able to show examples of schools that are far outperforming the other district schools in the area, while complying with the same rules, it’s much easier to get traction. It also helps convince doubtful educators or administrators.
“It’s the same kids,” Berger said. “You could say it’s a lack in the kids, there’s a lack in the families, but this school is proving that’s not it. It’s not a problem with the kids. It’s not a problem with the families. Under the right conditions those kids can be ready and get into college.” Berger is trying to demonstrate to anyone who falls back on these common excuses that they don’t hold up. Deeper learning can be done with all kids; all kids are capable of producing beautiful work, but it does take more time and a willingness to break from the sheer breadth of content and dig deeper in a few areas.
GETTING STARTED WITH DEEPER LEARNING
Berger understands the pressure many teachers feel to cover every topic that might be on statewide exams, but he also knows most teachers didn’t get into the profession to skim through content, knowing full well students aren’t understanding or remembering everything. Most teachers got into the profession because they love kids, want to help them become lifelong learners and deeply care about the subject they teach in all its complexity. Berger suggests that teachers in a traditional setting stop the coverage marathon at least once a year and go deep on one, rich topic.
“Start small and do some really powerful, complex and beautiful work with kids that they can share with their families with pride, and that you can share with the community with pride, and build from that,” Berger said. Maybe that’s a project where students identify an environmental problem in the community, do data collection, write up a scientific report, bring in scientific experts to critique it, and read real scientific papers. Crucially, there should be time to get reflect, incorporate feedback, and turn in multiple drafts.
“That alone could change the whole school experience for those kids,” Berger said. “And it’s not totally interdisciplinary; it’s not totally project-based learning; it’s not scary. But once you’ve done that, then the parents and kids are proud to have done something much deeper and more complex and challenging.” He firmly believes that once a kid does high-quality work, she will never be the same after that. She will know she’s capable of that kind of work all the time.
“Give them time to do it and struggle through it," Berger said. "And let them be proud to have done something more valuable and more meaningful than they’re used to.”
Another way to introduce deeper learning principles to families in a non-threatening way is through the practice of student-led conferences. This is a central practice at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), a school Berger’s organization works with closely. Principal Tom Rochowicz says now that the school is in its tenth year, families trust its results. But when parents come in for the first student-led conferences in sixth grade, it’s an educational moment.
Parents come in expecting to hear mostly from the teacher about their child's progress. Instead, most of the conference time is taken up with the student presenting his or her work, focusing on strengths, weaknesses and learning habits. “Parents see their students talking about their work in meaningful ways and they say, oh, that is better,” Rochowicz said.
At WHEELS even the pre-K students lead their own conferences, often disproving their parents’ belief that they aren’t ready for the challenge. “That’s the greatest example of a powerful practice that we do here consistently well,” Rochowicz said. It takes time to explain to parents what’s going to happen and why it’s different, but the payoff is enormous.
DAY TO DAY CHALLENGES
WHEELS is the type of school Berger points to when he tell educators everywhere that deeper learning is possible in every community. The New York City district school mostly serves the community in the surrounding few blocks, which is overwhelmingly low-income. Over the past ten years it has developed a reputation as the “good” school in the neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean the teachers and administrators don’t struggle with the same behavior issues as other schools or that they don’t have high school students reading at an elementary school level. The difference is how those students are treated.
“We seek to know kids well,” Rochowicz said. “And then we get to know families well and communities well.” Rochowicz is in his first year as the school’s principal after apprenticing with the outgoing founding principal. He also taught high school social studies at the school for five years.
When he taught seniors, Rochowicz would often ask his students what qualities they hoped the school will always have, no matter how much change it undergoes. “They all agree almost unanimously on the relationships and the rigor,” he said.
At WHEELS, rigor looks like engaging students in tasks with real consequences that also allow for broader conversations about concepts. For example, one of Rochowicz’ favorite projects was when he asked students to create business plans about something important to them. These weren’t pretend business plans. Rochowicz downloaded a small business plan template from the New York City website and students used those to build their plans. They interviewed people in the field doing the same type of work, talked to potential consumers and found business advisors. At the end, entrepreneurs came in to evaluate student pitches in a "Shark Tank" style event.
“That engaging task meant that my kids wanted to argue about whether Keynesian or supply-side economics would best support their business,” Rochowicz said. He believes that most behavior management problems in classrooms are actually instructional problems.
“They didn’t plan well that day or their unit plan is not authentic and engaging where students want to work towards it,” he said. When students are involved in work that matters to them and that really gets them thinking, there are often fewer behavior issues. He says social justice is a great place to start with many adolescents; they find issues that affect them daily engaging.
The other common structure many Expeditionary Learning schools have is the crew, a consistent group of peers and a facilitator who meet daily to check in, talk through life problems and support one another. “That’s where you start to see some of the peer-to-peer relationships that have significant impact,” Rochowicz said.
Ron Berger’s organization, EL Education, partners directly with district or charter schools to implement the whole school model at work in schools like WHEELS.* Additionally, Berger and other staff are mining best practices from the initial 150 schools to create free online resources any district could use. This approach has advantages and liabilities. On one hand, the organization has much less ability to control for quality, but on the other hand, their resources are reaching far more educators.
The English Language Arts curriculum EL Education created out of novels, primary source documents, and non-fiction books has been downloaded six million times. Berger has no idea how the curriculum is being used, but he and his staff have tried to design it in a way that encourages teachers to use it to build school culture. Most of the curriculum is not teacher directed and many of the protocols call for students to analyze text together, think together and present together. These are good first steps towards a deeper level of learning that can reach any teacher looking to get started.
*This post was updated to clarify that EL Education still works with its original partner schools, but has also shifted to focus on free online resources.