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In Search of Deeper Learning

Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine discuss how educators can home in on the powerful learning happening in all schools and how they can adapt their own practice to replicate successful engagement.
Teaching for Deeper Learning

When Associate Professor Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, Ed.M.'13, Ed.D.'17, set out to study nontraditional, innovative high schools, what they discovered was that these schools weren't exactly breaking the mold. Instead, they were much like what many have come to experience in traditional spaces: lectures, rote tasks, bored students. But within this sameness, there were pockets of powerful learning happening that piqued their interest and which, they hoped, were leading to deeper learning.

“Powerful learning can happen in an hour, deep learning happens over time,” Mehta explains.

Their efforts to chronicle the good work being done is the focus of the new book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School. During the six-year study, Mehta and Fine shadowed students, interviewed teachers and administrators, and accumulated 750 hours of observations in 30 high schools, discovering where and how powerful learning was occuring — in all types of schools.

“Early on one of the things I’d ask a kid…which classes are the most rigorous,” says Fine, who is a faculty member at High Tech High Graduate School of Education and a lecturer at the University of California San Diego. “I’d get answers — often math, sometimes history — and those classes did not match up to what I think of as powerful learning…. Whereas if I ask a kid, ‘Where are you doing work that’s meaningful?’… then we would get answers that would reflect the places in school where the most powerful learning was.” 

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Mehta and Fine discuss the work that stood out in classrooms, the elements that made these learning experiences so powerful, and how other educators can take steps back in their practice in an effort to replicate successful engagement.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

When researchers Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine set out to study nontraditional, innovative high schools, what they discovered wasn't exactly breaking the mold. Instead, they found that these high schools were a lot more like what many of us have experienced — lectures, rote tasks, bored students. They almost gave up on this study entirely, except that there were these pockets of powerful learning happening that piqued their interest. 

They shadowed students, interviewed teachers, and spent 750 hours observing what was going on in 30 high schools. They decided to focus more on the good work happening in those places where students seemed excited and engaged in learning. We spoke a lot about those special teachers and elements they bring that set certain learning experiences apart from others and really this idea of deep learning. 

What do you mean when you say deep learning? 

Jal Mehta: We say that powerful learning can happen in an hour, but deep learning only happens over time. People have probably had some sort of experience that you go to a lecture, or you read a book, or somebody asks you just the right question, and it really sparks something for you. And that can be powerful learning, whereas deep learning we think of as something like no one has deeply learned at anything without some time passing. And so I guess we would argue that the characteristics that are involved in powerful learning environments are the things we should be trying to create in the moment. And then if we do those things over time, that will accumulate towards deep learning. 

Sarah Fine: Deep would be the iterative, cyclical continuing to inquire on what it is kids need, and how can I do that? And let's experiment. Let's try together something new. And the depth comes from cycles of learning and not just a single kind of one-off experience. 

Jill Anderson: Did the students seem aware of these differences? 

Jal Mehta: Yes. Students were penetrating ethnographers of their settings. Often the best part of our day was sitting at lunch with students and just asking them about different aspects of their schools and their school experience. 

There's a concept in education called the hidden curriculum, which is essentially like the difference between what you're being taught, and if you sit in rows and lines, you're being taught to be compliant as well as being taught math or whatever it is. And some of our students literally said, in theory, I'm being taught this, but really I'm just being taught to give answers back to the teacher, whereas over here in this space, I'm being taught how to lead, how to empathize, how to work with others. 

I'm thinking in particular of a woman in a theater production making a contrast between what was expected of her in English class and what was expected of her as the assistant director of the show. And she was just describing how her role and the expectations of her were very different. 

There was a student who said something along the lines of, the teachers say that they're asking questions which are open-ended, but in practice, they have an answer that they want. We watched Dead Poets Society. And then the teacher put up a PowerPoint explaining the main takeaways we should take from Dead Poets Society, which was the exact opposite of the point of the movie. 

So our students were quite insightful. In the No Excuses School, which we spent a lot of time in, students pulled us aside and said, we think we're learning things. In some ways, we think it's better than the neighborhood school that we came from. But just so you know, nobody likes it here. They told us really honest opinions of the places they were in. And that really did help us get a sense of what sort of institutions these different places were. 

Sarah Fine: Early on, one of the things I at least would ask a kid if I was spending time with them shadowing them through their day is like, which classes are the most rigorous? And I would use that word. 

Jill Anderson: Right. 

Sarah Fine: And I would get answers which were it was often math, sometimes history. And I would go with them to those classes. And those classes would inevitably not be matching up to what we think of as powerful learning. And so then I would probe. And I think the word "rigor" in particular, or which class is hard, kids see that as like, how much do we have to force ourselves to memorize or digest? 

I wouldn't often get answers that reflected where the most powerful learning was happening. And my theory is they had internalized this sense that a class is rigorous if it's hard, and it's hard if you're doing a lot quickly, whereas if you asked a kid like, where is a class where you are doing work that's meaningful, where the time goes — flies by, where you're not watching the clock, where you're actually doing something that you care about that you won't throw out when you get the worksheet back at the end of the day, then we would get answers that would often reflect the places in the school where the most powerful learning was happening. To Jal's point, for the most part, kids were incredibly incisive, far more so than the adults we often would talk to. 

Jill Anderson: Can you just expand a little bit on that because that's interesting? 

Sarah Fine: Early on, we'd spend a lot of time talking to principals, and deans, and teachers trying to figure out the landscape of a school and its strengths and challenges. And all we had to do really was go to the cafeteria and talk to kids for 20 minutes. We would have a more accurate and less varnished version of the story from them right away. 

People would say, why are kids willing to talk to you? There were almost no high school students who were not thrilled to be asked what they thought about their schools. They also recognized that the adults around them are working very hard, but they inevitably would have sharper insights than a lot of the adults in the building did. 

Jill Anderson: So why don't you tell me a little bit about the four schools you identified and chose to look more deeply at the practices that were happening there and why? 

Sarah Fine: I think to answer that question, we should start just by sketching out our working definition of deep learning, just because the schools that we chose we saw as embodying one of those aspects in particular. So we define deep learning as combining elements of mastery, creativity, and identity, mastery being the most conservatively like the virtue we would think about high schools often trying to support. So kids knowing consequential things and being able to do things with what they know, the knowledge and skills piece that would show up, for example, in the Common Core State Standards. 

Identity is the learning that is happening connected to who kids are and who they would like to become. And do kids actually see what they're doing as becoming absorbed in how they think of themselves? So not just like, I sit in my class, but I am a mathematician or somebody who can think mathematically. 

And then creativity being the part around actually using your knowledge to do something distinctive, creative, new that makes a contribution. So more than just spinning back knowledge on a test or even just writing a paper. 

The schools that we picked, we had four focal schools. One is a progressive, project-based school, socioeconomically diverse. We call it Dewey High. 

And we saw that school as being particularly strong on creativity and identity. And we saw their work in progress and their challenges as how to make sure that kids are also getting enough content, knowledge, and skills embedded. Kids there just experienced a really high sense of belongingness, a lot of joy, a lot of mutual support, kids doing work that, for the most part, they really cared about, believed in, had connections to who they were, had a lot of choice, authentic audiences, opportunities to perform. 

And the ongoing challenge for that school, which they're very aware of and working very hard on, is like, OK, we're creating these projects. They're interdisciplinary. They culminate in exhibition that feels very real. 

How do we also make sure kids are developing as readers, writers, thinkers, speakers in a systematic way? And it's not that kids aren't. It's just the piece around, how do we make sure all kids from all backgrounds are developing along certain trajectories? So that was Dewey High. Do you want to talk a little bit about No Excuses High? 

Jal Mehta: Sure. And so then a school that we called very creatively No Excuses High, which was the school that served 80% free and reduced price line students, almost all students of color, and had a strong college prep mission, really careful systems of control of both teacher work and student work. 

So teachers would submit lesson plans by 2:00 PM on Sunday, and they would get them back by 8:00 PM. And someone would watch them teach on Monday, and they would debrief it on Tuesday, and they would talk about their next lesson on Wednesday. And then on Sunday, they would send in their next lesson plan, which first and second-year teachers loved, and third and fourth-year teachers found was a bit much. And similarly with students, lots of timers counting down the minutes till a task or a sub task was over. 

Sometimes people think of those schools as all behavioral control and no real learning or all teaching to the test and no real learning. There was some teaching to the test. A task might be something like, between 1890 and 1930, the US was oriented more towards the private interest. And from 1930 to 1970, it was more oriented towards the public interest. Assess that statement with respect to economy, society, and culture. 

And then they would be given a graphic organizer and eight minutes to fill out the boxes of each of the time periods. And to the kids' credit, they knew stuff that you could put into those boxes. But on the other hand, historians could spend a career debating that question, and they had eight minutes. 

So basically, over the time we were studying the school, when they started they were very proud of what they'd done. But then a lot of the students dropped out. And of the students who graduated, a lot of them really struggled in college because in college, the environment was a lot more open-ended, and no one was sitting over them with timers and demerits and all that. 

And so our story about that school is like the mirror image of the Dewey High School, which is like they were trying to figure out like, could we give students more agency, choice, projects, electives, African-American history, et cetera? But they were caught because all of their foundation funding, acclaim, media coverage all came from how well their kids did on the tests. So if they did anything that seemed to in any way endanger that, it was hard for them to make that shift. 

Sarah Fine: The third school that we spent a lot of time at was again creatively called I.B. High, International Baccalaureate High. It's kind of a niche program. Not everyone in the US knows about it, although it has become more widely adopted in US schools. 

But it was originally conceived in the '60s as a curricular program and a set of assessments for elite international students who were in international schools, the children of diplomats and so forth, who wanted to have a way to certify their readiness to enter elite American colleges. I.B. was not conceived originally as an equity project at all. 

What it does have going for it is that it really balances a lot. Like those three virtues that we describe, identity, creativity, and mastery, it's really a blend of those three things. It's somewhat traditional in that subjects are organized the way that you might expect. It's not highly interdisciplinary. 

But kids are really encouraged to go deep and not too wide on subjects. So for example, in I.B. History, every year the I.B. organization releases the three to five big topics that a history teacher might choose to cover. And they have to choose three, only three, to dig into for the year. And those are the topics that appear on the I.B. assessments. 

And then the system of assessments is fairly robust by comparison to advance placement. So it's not just an end of year test. There is a fairly elaborate system of internally administered, externally mediated tests where teachers are, for example, doing oral exams, and they're sending samples off to make sure that the way they're grading reflects the standards of the organization. So I.B. High was really using the I.B. framework very powerfully. 

And they are a non-selective charter school. So they ask all kids to do a full I.B. curriculum, which is quite rare. They do really have this culture of intellectual rigor. There's a fair amount of choice embedded inside of the classes. 

And I.B. High, we thought, was pretty promising in the sense that it was using this framework and also pairing it with a school culture that was very inclusive, mutually supportive, high standards of quality but not competitive. Kids really felt like this is a big deal to be part of this elite program even though we might not be traditionally successful students. 

They have a lot of kids with disabilities who are in that program. And you don't see a lot of kids with disabilities doing I.B. at schools that have adopted it. So we thought that school, actually, that program and the way the school had adopted the program was a nice blend of some of the qualities that we saw in more extreme forms at some of the other schools. 

Jal Mehta: And then our last example was a school we call Attainment High, which was an affluent public school in a suburb. And the main thing that we drew on is the relationship between learning and performance. Carol Dweck has this idea that there's learning for learning's sake and learning for performance sake. And Carol Dweck also has a related notion that we should be encouraging people to have a growth mindset. 

So at this school, all over the walls there were posters which said, "Growth mindset. Your next mistake is your first opportunity for learning." That was what it said on the walls. But in the water, it was like, you need a 98 if you want to get to this college or that college. 

The relationship between the students, and really the parents' and community's need for credentials, and the desire of the teachers and some of the students to have more engaging, in-depth, intellectual explorations of things were really in tension. And so we heard about that from both the students and the teachers. It seemed like both students and teachers had been conscripted into a game that neither of them really wanted to be playing. 

There were some exceptions. We talk a lot about extracurriculars as a space where students have opportunities to lead the learning, and create an authentic product, and do peer learning and apprenticeship learning. And this school had a lot of such extracurriculars, and clubs, and electives. And when we asked where was the deeper learning, people consistently pointed us to those spaces. 

Different teachers had the ability to create different worlds within their classrooms. So like in AP psychology, for example, there was a lot of like, the College Board is trying to trick you this way. And this is how you're going to beat the test and so forth. In that class, students were like grade grubbing kind of people because that's what was being expected of them. 

And then across the hallway with a lot of the same kids, there was a philosophy teacher. And he was exploring questions like, Descartes says, "I think, therefore I am." What about computers? They think, but do they exist in the same sense? 

Or what if people are in a vegetable state? They can't really think, but they still exist. And so in that class, kids were like amateur philosophers. And it wasn't about what's going to be on the test, or when am I going to get my next mark and so forth. 

So I do think that schools are still loosely coupled systems. And so within it, different teachers could create different kind of norms. And so sometimes that's how good stuff came out. 

Jill Anderson: I mean, so you did find in all of these schools, there were pockets, I guess you could say, of this extraordinary teaching work being done on top of the extracurricular engagements. And I want to know more about these teachers. What set them apart from the other teachers that maybe were staying in, I guess you could say, straight lane? 

Sarah Fine: All of the teachers that we felt were really, really cultivating powerful learning in their classroom within regular academic subjects — so not outside of the system — most of them were at least 35, if not older. Most of them had been in the classroom for 10 years or more. And I say that not because we want to say it's impossible to do good work as a novice teacher, but we didn't think it was a coincidence. 

I think there's a piece there about maturity, not just psychological maturity, but to your point, beginning to see tests and the system as a kind of object. Rather than the thing that is dictating your work, it's in the background. It's there. It's inevitable, but they had a sharper vision of what it was they really wanted students to come out of their classes with that was not necessarily about the tests. And some of them did what they needed to do for the test, but they really had made a shift in their thinking about the role of those assessments. 

All of them had really authentic relationships with the work of their disciplines in some way or another. And that was one of those things that allowed them, I think, to see beyond the tests and the college admission pressures. 

We followed one English teacher who works at a high poverty high school. And he had been a teacher for a long time. That was his career, but he had a very rich relationship as a consumer of texts in the world. So he talked about receiving multiple physical newspapers on his doorstep every day, even in an age when everybody is reading digitally. And he was always seeing movies and plays and reading novels himself. 

And so he had a authentic sense of the work of the domain that he was trying to help kids wake up to and build some skills in. He was constantly saying like, I saw this movie this weekend. And as I was watching it, I was thinking, how can I bring this into my class next week? Which is something most teachers do, but I think to a degree, that was sharper than what we saw. 

And so he really — when we saw him teach, in some senses what he was doing could be called somewhat traditional in that he was helping his students become better analytic writers of essays. But he was more focused on like, what would you actually write if you were working in this domain as a professional? So rather than having kids write five-paragraph essays, he was having them explore different forms, like look at essays in the real world. 

None of them are five-paragraph essays. How do they work? How does the form work? How can you experiment with your form? And so it was subtle, but it was really a powerful shift. 

And he, I think, also had made his peace with the fact that if he could teach really well in the ways he was trying to, his kids would do decently on the kinds of conventional assessments that they needed to do well on. And they would learn how to write in ways that would allow them to do OK in college. That was the background. It was like, no, let's teach them to be thinkers and writers in the real world. By the bye, that will help them get what they need to get on these metrics as well. 

Jill Anderson: And were these teachers aware that what they were doing was different than maybe what was going on next door? 

Jal Mehta: They were aware that they had a conception of what they thought it was important for students to do. And so in the case of the teacher Sarah is talking about, one of the things he did was he just followed some of his kids to college. Some went to four-year college; some went to community college. And he just went and talked to them and their instructors and said, OK, now you're here. What did you learn in high school that you really need, and what didn't you need? 

Jill Anderson: Wow. 

Jal Mehta: He was like, it really pained me as an English teacher to learn that reading Hamlet was not the key to their future success. But their ability to read, write, analyze, et cetera, those things were pretty critical. And so that freed me to expand the range of text that we use and so on and so forth. 

So I think the teachers were trying to — I mean they were basically trying to plant a seed. They were trying to show them how some world worked and then get kids interested in that world and then show them a little bit of what they could do in that world. 

Same with the philosophy guy and those philosophy hypotheticals. If you read professional philosophy journals, that's what they do. They just debate hypotheticals and consider like, what principles follow from this? 

And so in a sense, it was less ambitious because they weren't so worried about getting through all the things they were supposed to cover. But in another sense, it was more ambitious because they were trying to really connect the students to the domains. 

Jill Anderson: Do you think there's a way to create these kinds of teachers, because this seems like such an important piece of this? 

Jal Mehta: I do think so. Some of our most compelling teachers had been to graduate school, but not all of them. Some of them it had just come in the second half of college when they were writing a thesis or in a lab, or they spent a couple of years in the real world. 

You don't have to do it for years and years on end. You just need to have some real exposure. And I think that also connects to why we think that the extracurricular domain was so powerful, because no one signs up to coach soccer or direct a play or whatever if they didn't spend many, many years of their life being a soccer player or being in productions. So they know how those domains work. 

It's also the case that the more knowledge that the teachers had about the field, the less worried they were about the kids going off-script, about the kids asking questions that they didn't know the answers to. They just took that as normal. We could have 1,000 workshops asking open-ended questions and making it more student-centered, but it would be a lot easier if more teachers were in a position where they were working in an arena where they felt really comfortable. 

Jill Anderson: If there's teachers listening to this and they're thinking about this stuff, what would be your takeaway for teachers? 

Jal Mehta: Just take some time for yourself to — your life is so busy and so stressed. And there's so much that needs to be done. Hopefully you picked the thing that you're teaching because you have some interest in that. And so just give yourself a chance to continue to tap whatever part of that interest. 

And so that might mean reading. That might mean spending some summertime in an environment where people are doing that sort of thing. It might mean becoming part of a writer's circle. And so that follows pretty directly from what we're saying. 

Sarah Fine: I think also there's a distinction between high school and elementary school. To some extent, in contrast to what we're saying about high school teachers, a lot of really strong elementary school teachers, when you ask them why they're doing what they're doing, the first thing they say is, I just love working with kids. And on the one hand, you could call that a wishy-washy answer, but I don't think of it like that anymore, especially when I think about what it takes to spend all day, every day with 30 7-year-olds. 

But then I'll have elementary school teachers who will say things like, I love the questions that my kids ask. It just reminds me of a way of thinking about the world and a level of curiosity that I have shut down over the years. And so it's not so much a passion about something outside of school as it is willingness to go where kids want to go. 

Jill Anderson: I keep hearing what you're saying. So much of it sounds to me like there's this passion that just doesn't get extinguished in some of these teachers, whereas in others, maybe day, after day, after day with everything that you need to do, everything that you need to cover and just the stuff that has to get done, maybe the passion or that little spark kind of dims a little bit. 

Sarah Fine: So last fall, a year and a half ago, I went back to the classroom. So I had finished this project. I had finished my PhD, and I just felt like I needed to try it again. And I learned a lot of things by spending four months back working with high schoolers. But the thing that is seared in my mind is that the way we structure schools is impossible for teachers. 

All of the things I hadn't had earlier in my career — I had knowledge, I had conviction, I had supportive colleagues, I had autonomy. I didn't have a pacing guide. I was working with seniors, so the testing parameters were not strong. 

The days are so grueling, even in schools which are organized to try to be a little bit less so. I think it is really easy to lose some of that passion over the years, even if you had it. It's just it really wears you down because you have so many hats you're supposed to be wearing and so many things you're supposed to be doing, so many constraints that you're constantly bumping up against. 

If I could give one thing to teachers in our schools, it would be more time to be with themselves, and think about what they're doing, and sit and plan. And the pace of things is so fast for kids, too. It's like a treadmill that just never stops. 

Jill Anderson: What is next? You acknowledge that we're kind of stuck in this outdated system. Where do we go from here? 

Sarah Fine: There's good news and bad news. The bad news is the system has been the way it has been for a very long time, and it's very slow to change. And turning the barge around is not going to be easy. 

The good news is that everywhere we find people who are incredibly invigorated. There are so many people who would be very energized and activated if they were given opportunities to try to change things in meaningful ways. There's a lot of interest in momentum and untapped energy. It hasn't really been organized around any particular set of reforms or any particular movement, but I think it could be. 

Jal Mehta: Yeah. We say in the book that high schools are trying to shed the hand of the past but haven't yet arrived. I think that's accurate. We met lots of people who were unhappy with different aspects of the structures and who had different aspirations for their work as teachers and, in particular, for the kinds of experiences that students had. 

So, I think that there is a lot of potential energy to tap into. And across the world, kids are running from one thing to another, people are too concerned about tests and marks, credentials are overtaking learning. These patterns are very wide, but there's also a lot of energy around the world about changing them. 

Jill Anderson: Is there a small change you can make on an individual level in education? If you're working as a teacher or you're working as an administrator, is there just something — I say the word "small," but maybe that's not the right word. I'd say the word "easy," but that probably isn't the right word. But is there something you could do now that maybe isn't organized with a large group of people? 

Sarah Fine: One of the first things to think about if you're just trying to do something on your own is slowing way down as much as you possibly can. So, if you're a teacher, everything you can do in your power to advocate for and/or just unapologetically choose to do less. Stop trying to make it through the content. 

When kids ask a good question, spend two days on that question. Go down that road with them. That is constructivist learning. That is what gets kids interested. 

Jal Mehta: I'll build on that and add one. So I think part of the reason why all of our compelling teachers were over 35 is that they had initially felt like a slave to what they had planned or what objectives they had written on the board. And they had gradually and very painfully learned that — for example, I remember a history teacher saying, a student in my class asked about Thomas Jefferson and like, yeah, but didn't he hold slaves? And didn't he have this affair? And like, well, what does that mean about our Founding Fathers and our conception of a nation? 

And he's like, if I'd been a younger teacher, I would have just offered a two-sentence answer and moved to wherever we were going next. But as an older teacher, I realized, wow, that's such a powerful, rich question. And there are so many possible directions of things to explore out of that, that let's form a unit on that topic with the help of the students. 

And roughly speaking, we're still going to get to the Civil War. We'll still learn about the world wars. I'm not turning over my whole curriculum to one comment that a student made, but when things happen ... 

And then I guess the other thing I would say is I've been really impressed with dyadic listening protocols, which are just protocols where people — just for, say, four minutes, you ask someone, what's on their mind? What emotion is really governing them right now? What are they really thinking about? What are they really worried about? 

And you just really actively listen for four minutes. And then you switch, and you do it back and forth. I found that to be a really powerful process. 

I think when people talk, normally they self-edit based on what they think the other person wants to hear, particularly in schools when there are power relations and other things. And just really showing the people the attention that comes with really listening. And so, if you did that with your students, you would get some sense of what really was on their mind. 

And then I would say just try to identify one thing that follows from that. So, if students say, we feel really — this happened in my class, actually, like I'm a Latina student. And we've done a lot of Black and white race in our curriculum, but we haven't talked much about me. It took me a few years for that point to sink home. 

But then in that class, we were able to develop a session or two on that. And then for the next year, I was like, oh, all right, this isn't the only student who's experienced this. Let's think about this more systematically. So, I think if you just listened to students and thought about ways you were and weren't serving them and made small adjustments, demonstrated to yourself that those small adjustments were doing good things for students, that might motivate you to make future adjustments. 

Jill Anderson: Jal Mehta is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sarah Fine is a faculty member at High Tech High Graduate School of Education and also a lecturer at the University of California, San Diego. They are the authors of In Search of Deeper Learning, The Quest to Remake the American High School. 

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This concludes the Spring Season of the Harvard EdCast. Thanks so much for listening. 


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