Going for Depth: How Schools and Teachers Can Foster Meaningful Learning Experiences

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There are no magic solutions in education. But after visiting 30 schools, conducting 300 interviews and sitting in on classes for 750 hours, authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, who wrote In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, have much to say about how the best schools and teachers operate. What they noticed, in particular, was how these teachers and the administrations that support them invite students to engage deeply in their educations.

For Mehta and Fine, “deeper learning” consists of three interrelated conditions: mastery, when students fathom a subject; identity, when they connect the knowledge of the subject to their own sense of self; and creativity, when they can apply that understanding to another endeavor in what Mehta calls “the next layer of learning.”

The best teachers Mehta and Fine observed all adopt a posture toward their vocation—and their purpose—that varies from the traditional classroom approach. These teachers see themselves not so much as purveyors of information but as champions of the subject; their purpose is to initiate students into the field. They dive deeply into a few domains rather than skim the surface of many. They consider failure a feature of learning rather than a shameful mistake. And they expect their students to build something from what they learn, not simply to behave like passive recipients of another’s wisdom.

One of their most surprising findings? Much of the richest learning occurs outside the conventional classroom, during electives, clubs and extracurricular activities like drama, music and sports. In these “peripheral” places, as the authors call them, students are free to explore what interests them and to do what it is they’re learning; the activities are a form of apprenticeship for students. And often, those doing the teaching or coaching on the periphery are steeped in the subject themselves, and thus better able to model what they’re trying to convey. They also are more able to resist “the expectations of the external ecosystem”—testing, parental pressures, stress of college admissions—to build something enduring for their students.

Having discovered how the best environments promote deeper learning, Mehta and Fine suggest ways teachers and schools can apply some of these principles to their classrooms and hallways. Mehta is an associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Fine is program director of teaching apprenticeship at High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

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Teachers:

Slow down. “If kids are asking questions that are interesting, don’t tell them, ‘we have to get through chapter 5,’ ” Fine said. “Slow down as much as possible to get a richer, deeper, slower inquiry.” Consider what you’re trying to teach—the skills of historical inquiry, say—and address those skills in the context of the student’s question. Though deviating from the day’s plan, this approach can accomplish the same goals while addressing kids’ curiosity.

Yoke assignments to the real world. Students feel more connected to their work when it touches on their interests and life outside the classroom. At one school the authors studied, most student projects involved hands-on creative work that had some practical application. With a startup approach in mind, students identify real-world problems that trouble them and create prototype solutions, all under the guidance of a teacher. The authors call the school’s ethic of contribution, which is manifest in student projects that address real-world concerns, one of the most distinctive and motivating features of the school.

Think open-ended. Teachers who approach their subjects as on-going endeavors that are full of mysteries inspire student learning. Viewing the subject as dead and done, on the other hand—here are the causes of the French Revolution, these are the lessons of A Separate Peace—can stultify curiosity. Better to adopt a stance that welcomes new interpretations and views students as possible contributors to the field—or apprentices who are beginning to develop something under the supervision of their teacher and with input from peers.

Offer choice and agency. Students are free to choose their extracurricular activities, and this choice is motivating and reinforcing. Unlike required classes, where student interest is irrelevant, a club or sport that teenagers select out of curiosity builds a community of like-minded kids where each feels accountable to the others. As one teenager put it, “I’m happier to be at rehearsal than at school, because it is something I want to do, love to do, with people who want to do it.” To mimic what works in these looser extracurricular settings, those who teach required classes might add as much choice as possible to their course work. A chemistry teacher intent on teaching the scientific method, for instance, might allow students to choose the content of their experiment. In English, the teacher could invite students to select some of the books they’re analyzing. The more agency students have over their learning, the more apt they are to engage deeply in the content.

Ask yourself, “what will my students need in life?” The most compelling teachers they found were over 35 and experienced in the classroom. The perspective they’d picked up allowed them to see more clearly what students needed, broadly, to succeed every day. Usually, this boiled down to three abilities: to write, communicate and think critically. Regardless of the subject, these top teachers oriented their instruction around these skills.

Think about times when the learning was deepest and do more of it. “What made it better or different?” Fine asked. If the class was engaged during an elective, where choice was plentiful, find ways to introduce more options into top-down classes. Reflect on what worked best in one setting and apply it to others.

Schools:

Develop a detailed and clear vision of sound teaching. The best schools Mehta and Fine observed possessed a crystalline vision of how students should be taught, which permeated the classrooms. This “north star,” as they call the shared vision, helped guide decision-making about how and what to teach, and minimized variation in quality among classrooms. School leaders striving to build a place where deeper learning can happen should start by defining that vision for high-quality instruction that is owned and shared by teachers.

Create “thick mechanisms” of learning for teachers and administrators. To enact that vision, all adults in the school need to be educated about how to get there. “Thick mechanisms” give adults the openings and the time to see clearly what they’re trying to do and allow them to work with other knowledgeable staff to figure out how. At an International Baccalaureate school the authors studied, for example, teachers went through several three-part feedback cycles: first, a conversation to identify a problem; then a class observation; and finally a post-class discussion between teacher and observer to hone the thinking and approach to the problem. Other thick mechanisms included giving new teachers an abbreviated course load to allow for more coaching and extending opportunities for new staff to work with mentors.

Guide teachers just as they guide students. Fine and Mehta call this “a quality of symmetry,” wherein schools apply the same stance to teachers and students. Thus, in schools that prize collaborative learning among students, teachers too are expected to work together to solve problems. In schools where students are expected to bring outside-the-classroom experiences to their work, so too are teachers invited to call on and use their practical knowledge with their students. In one project-based school the authors examined, for example, new teachers started their tenure with a two-day, collaborative project that reflected what students did. “Structuring the model so that teachers’ experiences mirror those of their students adds critical energy and coherence to the school’s work,” the authors write.

Be visible. In schools where learning runs deep, student and teacher work is public to all. This transparency invites accountability and allows teachers and students both to see and own the shared school vision. Greater visibility also gets away from the “egg crate” style of many schools, where each classroom seems to exist in its own veiled space and teachers are unable to learn from one another. When classroom practices are visible, teachers are motivated to keep up with their peers; “no one wants to be the one playing a fool,” as one teacher told the authors.

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The one thing all teachers and schools should strive for? “Build a culture of rigor and joy,” Mehta said.

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