Deeper Learning in Our Schools: Our Shared Voices

by Susie Morice

At the heart of human-centered school transformation we find a pumping culture of deep learning.  Not just the text-driven, test-driven, industrial revolution-driven model of do-more-and-do-faster learning, we, instead, are striving for the learning that insures our students and our adults are collaborating to learn more deeply so they might act on that learning to make our community a better place.

What is Deeper Learning?  In their book Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century, Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath point out that deeper learning is learning how to learn in a “process of preparing and empowering students to master essential academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, have an academic mindset, and be self-directed in their education.”  Our own Deanna Kitson shares, “Deeper learning has three critical components:

  • Content – critical thinking,
  • Collaboration – working with others, and
  • Learning to learn – working with yourself.

Dr. Kitson reminds us of the important task of lacing these three together to create “a path to equity; that is, all students must have access to deep learning.”

HTHAt the end of March 2017, thirteen educators headed to High Tech High in San Diego to immerse themselves in what it means to engage in deeper learning in our schools.   It doesn’t look the same as our images of students goose-stepping through a list of discreet skills, practicing multiple problems after learning a theorem, and then sitting to take a test, remembering next to nothing three weeks later.  Deeper learning takes students and the adults around them to the highest levels of using knowledge to figure things out in multiple ways, enacting multiple solutions to determine which might work in varied settings.  It means moving focus to the real world and becoming engaged in acts of changing and creating products they can use to move ideas and people forward.   The days of sit-n-git are gone!  Ferg-Flor educators with their partners from the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership and Washington University examined several transformative elements at the annual Deeper Learning Conference with one central goal in mind:  How will we effectively bring this high level of learning to the learning culture of Ferguson-Florissant School District?

One dynamic way to begin the journey to deeper learning is through Project-Based Learning (PBL).  Several of our team attended sessions around this topic.  One very popular session was presented by the Buck Institute and focused on trying a SLICE of PBL, giving collaborating students the opportunity to examine a problem in the community, getting a taste of the PBL pie.  Editor of PBL Blog, John Larmer, describes SLICE at his blog: Kevin VKevin Voepel gained a “clear vision of how to introduce [PBL] to the district” and is looking forward to “replicating a deeper learning SLICE to the administrative staff on June 2nd of the Summer Leadership Institute.  It’ll be a good kickoff for problem-based learning in our district.”  Adrienne Bland and Linda Henke point out that PBL takes the learner “beyond the classroom walls.”  Linda, in her PBL session, had a chance to “hone her investigative skills” as she explored pollution issues in the bay surrounding San Diego.  Joe Davis likens his experience with “solving a real problem after posing a testable question” and acknowledges how important it is to give “choice and voice” to the learning.  Further he notes, “When students have chosen a problem, they have greater ownership while investigating and looking for possible solutions.”

Deeper learning in mathematics, as Adrienne Bland examines instructional routines, “included a launch, making connections, study and share connections, representations and meta-reflection.”  She “gathered tools that build teachers’ and students’ capacity to engage in mathematical academic discourse while developing multiple strategies, encouraging agency, voice, and creativity during math instruction.”

Linda BarbAny transformative change, though, requires culture building.  For deeper learning, the effort can be as simple as trying a few small strategies, beginning the work of shifting the collective mindset.  Barb Kohm and Susie Morice, learned from Principal David Simpson of an elementary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that “small changes had a big impact on the culture and achievement of his students.  By making learning visible, exploring, organizing, and digging deeper into ideas, this school transformed the learning culture.  It all began with a $500 grant from his PTA which Simpson used to buy every teacher a book, Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools.”  The ensuing discourse pulled the staff together and launched a shift in their learning culture, and students responded positively to that collaborative attitude immediately.

While each of us found new learning as we participated in the sessions, at the heart was something quite personal, that human-centered piece.  Several of us recognized that relationship building opportunities unfolded in the short time we were in California.  Adam Smith and Chris Ries zeroed in on this relationship building and were reminded how “meaningful dialogue and conversation forge a pathway for connecting deeply,” building “understanding and acceptance.”  Eric Hadley elaborated, “The focus on helping colleagues and students improve relationships, tolerance, understanding, and collaboration was powerful.”  Moved by the words of Ashanti Branch, the leader of a school in Oakland, CA, and then through the session “Advancing Competencies for Educational Equity,” Kevin Hampton developed his own personal mission statement: “I will engage each person in a manner that expresses love, seeks hope, and fosters belonging.”  This is an important step in culture building.  If each one of us did just that, the possibilities for our students and fellow educators would be endless.