Education Opinion

Race, Grit, Unlearning, and Systems Change: A Dozen Favorites From the Past Five Years

By Jal Mehta — January 07, 2019 3 min read
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As we start the New Year, I wanted to look back at a dozen of my favorite blogs over the past five years. I’ve organized them by category.

Race and equity:

1. “Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem” (June 20, 2014). This piece argued that the world of “deeper learning” needed more diversity, a problem which, to the credit of many in the movement, has received considerable attention over the past five years.


2. “A Pernicious Myth: Basics Before Deeper Learning” (Jan. 4, 2018). While it is common to think that you have to learn the basics before you move to deeper learning, good teachers show that you can thread the building of basic skills through higher-order, engaging tasks.

3. “Breadth and Depth: Can We Have It Both Ways?” (July 15, 2015). Here I argued that “deeper” learning should not preclude “broader” learning and that there are ways to balance the twin imperatives.

4. “The Problem With Grit” (April 27, 2015). In this post, I suggest that emphasizing students’ “grit” is a way of avoiding the harder question of whether schools give students tasks that are worth investing in.


5. “No One Has a Monopoly on Deeper Learning” (April 18, 2014). This blog post argues that “deeper learning” emerges at the intersection of mastery, identity, and creativity, qualities that are found in schools, classrooms, and extracurriculars of all different stripes.

6. “Unlearning Is Critical for Deep Learning” (Jan. 6, 2015). Existing commitments can make it difficult for schools to invest in new ones, I argue; thus deep learning can require significant unlearning.

7. “Deeper Learning: 10 Ways You Can Die” (Aug. 25, 2016). While producing powerful or deep learning requires a lot of things to go right, it is easy to predict when it will go wrong. This piece names 10 of those ways, with the hopes of helping us avoid foreseeable obstacles.


8. “Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers” (July 16, 2014) and “Five Inconvenient Truths for Traditionalists” (July 18, 2014). In these two posts, I suggest some blind spots in both the “reform” and “traditional” approaches to reform and offer an honest appraisal of what significant change would entail.

9. “Why Reform Sometimes Succeeds” (April 2017). This is cheating a bit, because it is a paper and not a blog post, but the thinking is consistent with the others on this list. Co-authored with David Cohen, the paper argues that it is not true that reform never succeeds, and that, rather, reforms sometimes succeeded when they: 1) addressed problems teachers had rather than problems reformers wished that teachers thought they had; 2) were consistent with prevailing norms and values; 3) built a significant public constituency; and 4) provided the needed educational infrastructure to accomplish their goals. Reforms that failed to do those things systemwide could also succeed in niches, smaller protected areas where those conditions were present. Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Montessori, and thematic charters are examples of niche reforms.

10. “The Case for Human-Centered Systems Design” (Jan. 6, 2016). This post considers what it would mean to move from top-down to bottom-up design and combines the “user-centered” focus of the design process with an emphasis on the need to build new and different kinds of systems.

11. The Paradox of Leading for Deep Learning” (Dec. 20, 2018). In this piece, I consider the apparent paradox of how we can move toward teachers and students owning an approach to powerful learning that most of them haven’t experienced. I suggest ways that districts can lead learning and use a leadership approach focused on “emergence” to resolve this seeming paradox.

International education:

12. “Why Queen Bees and Wannabes Is Not the Right Way to Think About Global Education” (Jan. 8, 2016). This piece critiques the “follow the leader” mentality that often pervades the PISA discussion and suggests systems thinking as a better alternative.

If you are interested in a longer treatment of these ideas, you might be interested in Sarah Fine’s and my book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, which comes out April 1. Thoughts on any and all of the above are always welcome.

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