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How Deeper Learning Can Transform Schools

Twelve districts in the United States and Canada are remaking their schools to bring deeper learning for all, and their stories could change the entire field
Deeper Learning Dozen Convening 2019
District leaders gather for the third Deeper Learning Dozen Community of Practice Convening held in Cowichan, British Columbia in 2019
Photo: Deeper Learning Dozen

If it takes a village to raise a child, how large a community does it take to transform an entire education system?

That’s the question that a consortium called Deeper Learning Dozen (DLD) is attempting to answer by bringing together a dozen superintendents from districts across the United States and Canada committed to creating equitable, accessible deeper learning experiences for their students and teachers. 

The DLD founded by Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Jal Mehta and educator John Watkins, Ed.D.’97, in part based on Mehta’s decade-long hunt for innovative examples of deeper learning — educational experiences where students develop mastery, identity, and creativity.   

“There are a lot of teachers and some great schools doing great work around deeper learning, but very few examples at the district level,” Mehta says. While they are harder to spot, there are district leaders interested in working to upend traditional learning environments, and Mehta and Watkins selected 12 to come together as a network, to share deeper learning experiences, refine new ideas, and to scale change.

“Jal and I both came in with the aspiration of fundamental district transformation and the reality that that has never worked and is incredibly difficult to do,” Watkins says. “We didn’t think we had the answer, but we thought the best way to tackle the problem was to get together a group of like-minded superintendents and their leadership teams and see what we could learn together.” 

>> Watch a video of the third Deeper Learning Dozen Community of Practice Convening held in Cowichan, British Columbia in 2019

Through initial funding from the Hewlett Foundation, and current funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Grantmakers for Thriving Youth Policy Working Group, and the Stuart Family Foundation, the DLD originally began with a plan to work with 12 districts for three years. Now, the program is entering its fourth year with no plans to slow down. The group is also starting to share the impact its partners are having with folks beyond the dozen with the release of a new podcast

“The way schools are organized is not aligned with the best of what we know about learning,” Mehta says. “Schools were designed to sort, batch-process, and reproduce racial and socio-economic privilege. We’re working with people to transform and humanize schools and the larger institutions that house them.”

Three original DLD partners — the Abbotsford School District in British Columbia, Revere (Massachusetts) Public Schools, and Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado — offer prime examples of the innovative efforts of district leaders working to transform their schools. Mehta says the superintendents in each of these districts reflect “the desire and courage to do something new.”  

“We said, there’s an approach to help you realize what you already feel inside, and they were ready for the kinds of things we were saying,” Mehta says. “We didn’t have all the answers, and we learned a lot from them, and they from each other.”  

Together, DLD partners are guided by three distinct principles: that equity (and inequity) is structural; that adult and student learning happens in symmetry; and that leadership accelerates the emergence of deeper learning. A look inside the work done by the leaders in Abbotsford, Revere, and Jeffco show how these ideas have been put into action to transform their school systems. 

Abbotsford School District   

About 45 minutes east of Vancouver you’ll find Abbotsford, British Columbia, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada. For the last decade, its schools have become known as innovators in transforming their education system, in particular by ensuring that their community diversity is reflected in student learning. 

For a decade, Abbotsford Superintendent Kevin Godden has been working to completely overhaul the district’s curriculum, which he described as “a mile wide and an inch thick,” to give students a chance to really explore topics about which they are passionate.

“One of the knocks on the curriculum was that the learning outcomes were too many and they weren’t really connected to the lives of our kids,” Godden says. Teachers now have the time to dive deep into the curriculum, and students can discover areas that are topical and meaningful. 

Abbotsford School District Aboriginal Honoring Ceremony
Abbotsford celebrates Aboriginal Honoring Day, as part of its Indigeneous curriculum, in 2019

One of the significant ways the school has accomplished this is by weaving Indigenous history and culture into all subject matters. Those efforts were spurred by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which encouraged not only incorporating Indigenous curriculum but to utilize Indigenous teaching methods and consult with Indigenous elders. 

While the curriculum helps Indigenous students find greater connection and meaning in their learning, Godden says it has supported all students in finding new ways to learn. As a former teacher himself, Godden says he is thrilled with how the Indigenous curriculum has transformed schools in Abbotsford, but the change is also a stark reminder of the DLD principle that inequity is structural to all school systems.   

“As a former teacher, it’s with great sadness that I followed the old curriculum and taught Indigenous students and feel I did them a tremendous disservice,” Godden says. “We have these structures we’ve built over time and because we’re in it, we don’t notice, and we create these inequities. Unless we can be thoughtful about it, we can’t disrupt it.”  

Today, Abbotsford works closely with the Indigenous population of the Sumas First Nation and Matsqui First Nation, on whose land the schools are located. Teachers are trained to deliver Indigenous curriculum and, through funding by the Canadian government to support this work, the district features an Indigenous Education Department, comprised of Indigenous administrators and cultural support workers who serve as guides for teachers to add historic and local context to lessons.   

“We’ve been on this journey, in particular in British Columbia, about what it means to make learning more meaningful and experiential, and not hold kids victim to a school system created for the 19th century,” says Godden. 

The DLD has been an important resource supporting Abbotsford’s work to deeply engage students and teachers in disrupting past learning practices, but it has also been a tremendous experience for Godden personally. He credits the DLD with helping him bring the love he had for teaching into his role as a district leader.  

“I count myself a pretty capable teacher, but I also lamented the joy I lost when I stopped teaching kids,” Godden says. “Thinking like a teacher is what the DLD brought back to me, and to bring that same joy to my interaction with my principals and my board.”  

Revere Public Schools

Revere Public Schools in Massachusetts has enjoyed nearly a quarter century of steady leadership. Dianne Kelly is only the third superintendent of the district in that time, having started off as a high school math teacher 27 years ago. This past year she finished her sixth as superintendent. 

Over that time, the district has revitalized teacher engagement, revamping everything from educator evaluations to career ladders for teachers, and their efforts to get teachers a voice at the table in decision making aligned perfectly with the DLD. 

“It’s created a culture of stability and a common vision,” Kelly says, crediting her predecessors for helping to establish the foundation for a community that embraces teacher leadership. But under Kelly, educator empowerment has truly thrived.   

Students at Garfield Elementary School in Revere
Students at Garfield Elementary School in Revere, Massachusetts

For her, it was natural then that the DLD principle of adult learning and student learning being symmetrical would resonate so strongly, and she says that after all the work the district had done, joining the DLD showed her how much more they could be doing. 

When students are engaged in deeper learning, their voice is at the center of their learning, giving them opportunities to direct their learning to topics that interest them, she says. Teachers had started to receive similar choice, like being able to select which professional development topics to cover over the course of the school year. 

“But we hadn’t explored it as deeply at the adult level,” Kelly says. “We hadn’t embraced fully the whole idea of deeper learning, of exploring and delving deeply into a topic.”

What they came up with was a new program called Colleague 2 Colleague (C2C). Teachers who are experts in an area of focus can apply to become consulting teachers. If selected, they are relieved of their academic duties for two years and are partnered with participating teachers to focus on a particular topic. 

While many schools offer programs like math and literacy coaches, C2C is unique in both its expectations for teachers and its scope. While coaches often move on to administrative positions, consulting teachers intentionally are able to return to the classroom after two years, where they can bring with them the new ideas and resources developed as consultants. 

The program also covers a wider variety of fields, like a social worker who recently consulted with teachers to think about how to embed mindfulness in their lessons. “To extend to other ideas and areas is a unique piece of it, and for teachers to have the leeway to explore,” Kelly says. 

That freedom has been a large part of the success of the program, and Kelly credits her teachers who have gone in front of the school committee over the years to share why it’s been such a rewarding experience for both themselves and their students, helping convince the district to expand the program. 

Kelly says her experience in the DLD gave her important insights into how to convince folks who are often skeptical at first about deeper learning. 

“It’s really helpful to hear what other superintendents’ experiences are and how they’ve overcome challenges. The larger challenge around deeper learning work is that it’s nontraditional. It doesn’t feel familiar to school committees and parents,” she says. “It takes a level of patience to make something take hold.” 

Jeffco Public Schools 

The Jefferson County School District in Colorado is a study in contrasts. It serves a wide geographical area, from the western edge of Denver to the rural foothills of the Rockies. 

The schools that make up the district are just as varied, including neighborhood schools that uniquely reflect their communities, to charter schools focused on Montessori and Core Knowledge curriculum, to option schools focused on experiential learning and technical training. 

To say it is a challenge to get all these different schools to agree on anything is an understatement according to former Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass. So, as he thought about how to transform the instructional model of the district, he knew he wouldn’t be able to simply hand down a directive.   

Jason Glass in classroom with students
Former superintendent of Jefferson County Schools, Jason Glass, visits a classroom in the district

“There is a longstanding tradition of site-based decision making in Jeffco,” says Glass. “There is a huge variety of different instructional philosophies operating in the district, and the community appreciates that diversity, so we needed a way to talk about changing the experience of the students that transcended the different approaches.” 

What Glass landed on was the daily student task – that time when the teacher hands work over to the student, typically to solve a problem or practice a concept. It’s a feature of every school day, whether in a traditional public school or a Montessori classroom, and a moment that could be changed across the district to provide students more engaging, authentic learning. 

Through his Transforming the Task initiative, Glass asked teachers at every school to think about student activities, like worksheets that mostly encouraged memorization or repetitive procedures, and turn them into something more valuable. 

“We talked about what was under the hood of [daily] student tasks and how we could change the work into a project-based and problem-based model, and intentionally include deeper learning skills,” Glass says, including communication, entrepreneurship, innovation, and a student’s own life experiences.

Glass’ efforts at the district level are a prime example of the third principle of the DLD, that leadership accelerates emergence. Glass says rather than forcing change on everyone, he sought out examples where deeper learning had successfully been instituted and used those schools and leaders as examples and inspiration for others in the district.  

“There was no way we could mandate things from the district level and think it would happen,” says Glass, who, in a new role as commissioner of education for the Kentucky Department of Education, is continuing as the first state level member of the DLD. “The idea of emergence and solutions coming from the practitioners helped us reframe our work to support and highlight the places making breakthroughs.”  


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