Adding Depth to the Classroom

At High Tech Middle in San Diego, sixth-grade students walked into class on their first day expecting a lesson. Instead, their humanities teacher asked them: “What are your questions about the world and about yourself?”

The kids scribbled their queries on Post-it notes, sticking them around the classroom. After a few days, the walls were covered. The humanities teacher and a colleague who taught the same students math and science combed through the questions, uncovering a common theme. The students were curious about the end of the world.

The teachers developed a curriculum that sought to answer the students’ questions. Throughout the year, the students completed projects on the Mayan calendar, tsunamis, famines, and wars—and even wrote a book about what they learned. The lessons met the state standards in all subjects.

San Diego’s High Tech High network practices “deeper learning,” an educational approach with a growing following. Advocates say deeper learning improves equity in and outside the classroom. Using students’ experiences and backgrounds as a springboard, the system engages kids—particularly those who fall through the cracks in traditional schools—and prepares them for success after graduation.

Deeper learning seeks to cultivate the critical-thinking skills and creativity demanded in the real world. Companies like Google have declared test scores “worthless.” Leading colleges and universities, too, are on track to replace standard applications with portfolios that give a fuller picture of a student’s achievements in high school. They are looking for candidates who have more to offer than textbook knowledge.

The term deeper learning came into the lexicon in 2010, when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation used it to describe an educational approach that encourages problem solving, collaboration, communication, self-directed learning, and a belief in oneself alongside mastery of content. Implementation varies, but at its core deeper learning is student-centered, project-based, and interdisciplinary.

The ideas behind deeper learning are age-old, but new research and applications have given rise to a movement. A Gallup poll found that young workers who reported learning 21st century skills—those promoted through deeper learning—were twice as likely to say they had high work quality. In a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93 percent of employers said a job candidate’s ability to think critically, communicate, and solve problems was more important than their college major.

Deeper learning shares values and methods with other contemporary learning-science theories. Connected learning, for example, similarly posits that students’ interests are the ideal launching pad for learning, as well as academic or professional opportunity. Connected learning differs a bit in that it emphasizes technology and digital media creation as tools for empowerment and civic engagement. But advocates of both approaches believe that learning should not be confined to the classroom, and that young people learn best when the material is relevant to their lives.

Educators are quick to explain that deeper learning is not an all-or-nothing system. Replacing one memorization-based lesson with a group project is a step in the right direction. In other cases, entire schools like High Tech High are dedicated to the approach. At IBM’s P-Tech schools, deeper learning permeates every subject. Even the algebra classwork involves writing and presenting. Each student is paired with an adult mentor and completes a paid internship with a chance for a job after graduation.

Experience as entryway

For Megan Cicconi, director of instructional and innovative leadership at Fox Chapel Area School District, it is imperative that educators address how schools are failing at-risk kids. “With underserved populations, there’s a lot going on socially and emotionally that doesn’t afford students the luxury of dedicating cognitive effort to playing the game” of school, she said.

That’s why deeper learning makes a lot of sense to her. “It validates students’ knowledge and experiences,” and makes them realize that school is for them, she said. With project-based learning, a student’s musical skills, or leadership and collaboration skills picked up at an after-school job, become useful in the classroom.

“We focus on what the student is bringing into the classroom as a resource,” said Lara Evangelista, principal of Flushing International High School, at a discussion hosted by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and Jobs for the Future. “Many of them bring in life skills at a young age.” Many of her students are not fluent in English, but they are taught that their native language is an advantage, not a hindrance. A native language project is part of a series of performance tasks required for graduation.

When Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High, taught public school English, he made a habit of never asking students questions to which he knew the answer. A classroom can feel divided when some students are better able to memorize the content of a book than others. But all students can use their own unique background to offer an interpretation of a passage, said Riordan, who gave the keynote address at a recent deeper learning conference at High Tech High.

Administrators at schools that embrace deeper learning say the numbers speak for themselves. High Tech High, whose admissions process is a zip-code-based lottery, sends 96 percent of its graduates to college. A recent study found that attending a school that promotes deeper learning increases a student’s chance of graduating high school in four years by eight percentage points. (However, something about the types of students and teachers who choose these schools could skew the results of the study, which was funded by the Hewlett Foundation.)

Still, skeptics wonder whether student-centered, project-based learning withholds important, if sometimes less interesting, classic content knowledge. “Before they can apply it, they’ve got to learn it,” said education researcher Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, at the LPI event.

Riordan is often asked, “What about the Great Books?” He likes to tell an anecdote about a High Tech High class in response. When a teacher there realized many of the area’s homeless residents were veterans, she partnered with a local veteran’s center and had her students interview the vets about their experiences.

At the same time, Riordan said, the teacher incorporated study of Beowulf into the unit. In the poem, the bard sings the warrior’s story to honor him. Bringing that tradition off the page and into contemporary experience, the students also composed poetry using the veterans’ own words from the interviews.

“That’s deeper learning,” Riordan said. “When we offer students experience, it becomes a platform from which they can explore a whole variety of other texts.”

Teacher as facilitator

In a deeper learning classroom, the teacher’s role changes. They are no longer the “sage on stage,” Cicconi said. They facilitate the learning rather than control it.

But the job is every bit as critical. Teachers work to understand and respect each student’s background and strengths, Riordan said. Social-emotional development is vital preparation for the real world, and teachers who know their students well help foster those skills. In many deeper learning schools, students are matched with formal mentors who guide them through the emotional and academic trials of youth.

That’s partly why informal learning spaces—libraries, museums, afterschool programs—and their staffs play an important role in cultivating deeper learning. These “third places” create a continuum of learning between students’ personal and academic lives. The idea is to give youth the opportunity to parlay their passions and skill sets into learning and career preparation. Networks like Remake Learning convene programs—be it makerspace Assemble or Spanish language and culture center El Círculo Juvenil—that make learning relevant to young people.

But none of this happens on its own. What do teachers and administrators need in order to implement deeper learning? In short, a lot of support. The High Tech Middle teachers could never have crafted an entire curriculum around students’ questions had they not had a built-in hour at the beginning of each day to trade ideas with colleagues and prepare lessons.

“You need to look at what needs to change structurally,” Cicconi said. “Maybe it’s team-teaching in a high-capacity way. Maybe it’s block scheduling.”

Deeper learning principles also apply to educators themselves.

“We ask teachers to do what we ask students to do,” Flushing said. “Work together in groups, think deeply.” At the San Diego conference, educators attended “Deep Dive” sessions, where they put their heads together to discuss challenging topics like emotional support for adolescents, community engagement, and developing curricula at the intersection of mathematics and art.

With that kind of hands-on training, “you experience what it’s like to be a learner engrossed in that deeper learning,” said Cicconi, who was one of hundreds of educators in attendance.

In that sense, deeper learning not only demands but also provides a framework for better professional development. High Tech High has its own graduate school of education program, integrated into the school system.

Schools and districts cannot go it alone, however, said Patricia Gándara of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, at the LPI event. The education researcher called for state and federal investment in professional development. In a Jobs for the Future report funded by the Hewlett Foundation, researchers say deeper learning requires rethinking traditional school credit and assessment systems as well as educator training.

During a break in the San Diego conference, Cicconi wandered the halls of High Tech High. She came upon an electronic Rube Goldberg machine that students had built together out of found materials. It demonstrated the domino effect of U.S. history, showing how one event gave rise to the next.

The fully functional machine could not have simply come out of a traditional history class, nor an art class. Instead, Cicconi said, it exemplified deeper learning’s special confluence of content, creation, and collaboration.

The students who made the machine “have absolutely mastered the different content areas, with different entry points,” she said. “They have created something that can teach others.”