Education Opinion

Why the ‘Best’ Public Schools Often Struggle With Deeper Learning

By Jal Mehta — May 08, 2017 12 min read
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Much of the discussion about “deeper learning” has focused on high-poverty schools, and with good reason. Those are the schools where historically students have received the least, and where the consequences for not getting a good education are the greatest.

At the same time, there has been an assumption made by parents and policymakers that affluent suburban public schools are the opposite; these are the schools that parents buy houses so that their kids can attend, and they are the ones that are held up in contrast to city schools.

In this post, I want to focus in on some of the challenges of creating “deeper learning” in these more advantaged settings. This is not a takedown of these schools, nor a claim that they are just “free-riding” off the social and cultural capital of their students. Rather, it aims to offer an empathetic assessment of the challenge of creating deeper learning in these schools. Here I will focus on high schools, which is where we have been doing most of our work. Here are five challenges I see:

1) Performance vs. learning orientation - Part of what defines these schools is external pressure for achievement. Parents want their kids to attend top colleges, which means they need to accumulate credentials in the form of good grades and scores on AP and SAT II tests. This dynamic means that schools are similarly rewarded for the same things--passage on College Board tests, and giving students high grades. The result is a situation where, ironically, there is still teaching to the test (even among students who have easily surpassed the state test), and where academic risk-taking is discouraged because it might endanger the college process. Scholars have discussed the difference between performance and learning orientations: a performance orientation emphasizes getting the answer the teacher is looking for; a learning orientation emphasizes willingness to explore and make mistakes. Learning orientations are more highly related to lots of positive outcomes in the long run, but both forms of motivation can produce results in the short-term. These institutions and their surrounding ecologies are long on incentives for performance orientation, and thus that is what they often engender from kids.

2) The long hand of the grammar of schooling - Such places continue to be defined by what Tyack and Cuban called the “grammar of schooling” - siloed disciplines, age-graded classrooms, short blocks, batch processing, tracked classes. These features are so commonplace that they often go without notice, but they are critical in shaping the nature of the learning opportunities. Accepting them means that other forms of learning are all “extras"--things that need to happen in electives or when a school makes a concerted effort to move away from the norm. Any learning that is interdisciplinary, project-based, apprenticeship-oriented, cross-age, connected to the world, or asks students to use their bodies and their emotions as well as their heads is not part of the normal diet. Efforts to re-invent this grammar are particularly challenging at such schools precisely because of their “success"--because they are meeting community expectations and placing students in good colleges, making significant changes to a long-standing formula is especially challenging.

3) Teaching as transmission - Such schools accept, on the whole, the longstanding vision that the purpose of teaching is to transmit knowledge that was discovered by previous generations to the next generation. Students get a lot of practice at assimilating knowledge created by others--Newton’s laws, Darwin’s theory of evolution--but have very few opportunities to actually create knowledge or discover it for themselves. This pattern is reinforced by state standards, district pacing guides, and SAT II and AP tests which, on the whole, emphasize breadth over depth, racing through lots of topics rather than taking the time to delve into a few of them. There are lots of problems with this approach, but I’ll just emphasize two: 1) It socializes learners into a fairly passive approach to learning, where their goal is to do what others have set out for them. But the world doesn’t come at you like that. Whether it is the modern world of work, interpersonal relationships, or making sense of public issues, the key skills are defining problems, interpreting complex information, collaborating and empathizing, and making judgments. Schools do little to help students practice these advanced skills. 2) It provides a misleading picture of how these disciplines actually work. The accumulation of knowledge in any field proceeds in very messy and partial ways, and the received scholarly wisdom at any given point in time is simply an interpretation that has been verified through certain processes among scholarly peers. When one does science one appreciates that, but many students are engaging more in what one of my colleagues called “science appreciation” rather than actual science.

4) Tracking - This is an old story. When my Mom attended Ithaca High School in the 1950s, she only knew the small subset of students who were in the same track as she. The same is true in many schools today. This is important because, despite some of the reservations above, it is still the top track classes where students have more opportunities to engage in higher order thinking tasks. Schools have made some progress on this issue - they are more likely to enable students to take advanced classes in some subjects and not others, and they are more willing to revisit placement decisions at different points along the high school trajectory. However, at least in some schools we’ve visited, in an effort to make the process more open to anyone who wants to try a higher-level class, the ironic result is that students with more advantaged or pushier parents will take advantage of this latitude and push their students ahead, which reifies inequality. There is also much more ambivalence about equity in such schools than one sees in some hard-charging schools in high-poverty areas. In ambitious high-poverty schools, there is a clear sense that the goal is to push everyone forward, to clear bars that have not previously been reached by this student population. Whereas in affluent schools that have some racial or socio-economic diversity, the modern push for equity uncomfortably co-exists with older notions that high schools are supposed to sort or differentiate, and that only some kids are “cut out” for higher-level work. This is a huge challenge for these schools.

There is also an interaction between tracking and batch processing. If you assume that a class has to be a whole class moving lockstep through a set of material, then it is difficult for a teacher to deal with the challenge of differentiation, because if the variance in what your class can quickly grasp is too wide, it’s hard to simultaneously make it interesting to the most advanced students and understandable to those most struggling with the material. The result is that many teachers that we have talked to have quietly support tracking because it makes their job more manageable. But ... if more of schooling were re-invented in a competency-based direction--with students working individually or in small groups on projects or tasks that were at their level--then it is more possible to have a greater range of learners in one class. We saw this pattern repeatedly in elective classes, but core disciplinary classes almost exclusively retained the batch processing model.

5) Creating a shared granular academic vision for deeper learning - Because of the size of such schools and traditions of classroom privacy--hiring “thoroughbreds” and let them teach--it can be difficult for administrators to move towards a common vision of what good instruction looks like. This is important if the goal is to disrupt the above patterns and move consistently towards deeper learning. Creating such a shared vision is in part just a problem of size and diversity--so many different pockets of learning that a one-size-fits-all solution is hard to make work--and in part a problem of culture, where accepted norms of autonomy run counter to efforts to create more common expectations. There is also the fact that “common expectations” entered the United States through an unrelenting focus on fairly low level state tests, and thus many faculty are resentful of even the idea of joint expectations, which brings to mind the worst of top-down planning. In such settings, it is frequently the department that is the right unit for creating academic change, as it brings together colleagues who teach the same subject who can have subject-specific conversations about what it would mean to “deepen” the work in their field. But doing so requires very skillful department chairs, who themselves have a full-blown vision of what such good learning looks like and have the ability to delicately manage a process of organizational change.

Part of the irony here is that some of these schools have already crossed one critical bridge when it comes to “deeper learning"--they regard their students, for the most part, as bright, interested, and capable people who are deserving of respect and attention. Perhaps because of the shared class and often racial background of students and teachers, we found such places to be respectful rather than draconian, friendly rather than authoritarian. Because students want to attend selective colleges, they mostly do what teachers ask; in return, teachers do not micro-manage their every move. And in extracurricular and club spaces, students are empowered to take on significant leadership roles. We would have killed to see this kind of environment in many of the high-poverty schools we visited, where it seemed as if teachers’ only instinct was to control the every move of students. But the healthy interpersonal attitude towards students that we saw in more advantaged settings was stymied in classrooms by traditional approaches to instruction, which drew on a much older set of notions of teacher as dispenser of all knowledge and students as passive learner. We came to think that some of these schools were divided against themselves, where what they really wanted to do with students was frustrated by their longstanding academic approaches.

As we have stressed elsewhere, they also already have a lot of good learning already going on under their roofs. We see this in particular in electives and extracurriculars. Electives show what is possible when you relax some of the aspects of the traditional grammar of schooling: electives featured mutual choice of teacher and student, often greater levels of teacher and student passion, depth in one topic rather than a survey of many topics, sometimes interdisciplinary learning, sometimes hands-on learning, and sometimes competency-based or project-based rather than traditional batch-processing orientations. Extracurriculars possessed an entirely different grammar, one which emphasized apprenticeship with older kids and more experienced adults, learning by doing, explicit feedback, authentic performance, and what my colleague David Perkins calls “playing the whole game at the junior level.” Even despite some of the constraints of core disciplinary classes, some of the best teachers were able to create powerful learning in those spaces as well. The question is how we could move such learning from the “periphery” to become a consistent part of the “core.”

What could be done? In the short-term, a huge part of the challenge comes down to leadership. Principals and teachers need to make the case to parents that the kind of learning that their students need is not what they conventionally have received, and that a more inquiry-oriented approach will serve them better in a modern economy and society. As long as this doesn’t seem to endanger college chances, I suspect this argument will resonate with parents, because these parents already work in this economy and are well aware of the kind of skills needed to succeed. These communities are also rife with opportunities to connect with the outside world--every variety of professional is likely represented among parents--which creates opportunities not only for senior projects, but also to connect regular learning in school with the professional spheres with which they will eventually be associated.

If one part of the challenge is external, there is also an internal challenge. Many teachers, even teachers with advanced degrees and high levels of retention in such schools, have only experienced teaching as telling, and many of them have spent many years becoming increasingly good at it. Helping these teachers reimagine their practice is a huge lift, especially given that many of the external signals they are receiving are reinforcing their approach. My guess here is that the best bet is to invite these teachers to talk with their students, especially the ones they are not reaching, and to try to hear through their eyes how they are experiencing school. This can provide the initial impetus for change--if it becomes part of a longer inquiry, with support from administrators, it can gradually lead teachers to reinvent their practice in more student-centered ways.

At the policy level, states and districts could lessen the emphasis on breadth and increase the push for depth. Part of making the case here is that discussions of standards and curriculum tend to focus on what will be covered--we can’t cut this play, or that key scientific discovery--but they pay almost no attention to what the average student actually learns, which is some fraction of the various things that they have covered. In John Goodlad’s A Place Called School, he cites a study which suggests that high school students forget about 80 percent of what they have learned. As someone who has recently sat in a lot of high school classrooms, I can attest to the accuracy of this statistic! In contrast, I had one fabulous high school history teacher who made us write a real history paper--primary sources, 50 pages or more, choice of topic, assignment given out on the first day and due in March--and from that I learned what it was like to actually do history. (Or at least do history like an 11th grader on a first try.) He took someone who had cherished math and opened up human affairs--I realized that you could use your brain not only to do equations but to understand how history unfolds. I’m still writing history today--that experience really shaped me. While there are some arguments for breadth, they need to be surfaced and we need to consider the tradeoffs, in light of actual empirical evidence about what students remember and can do when immersed in different approaches.

Advantaged public schools should be leaders in showing what is possible in a public setting. Too often, they are inhibited from doing what their financial, cultural, social, and economic resources should make possible. They can be the vanguard of reinventing public schools, but only if they are willing to reimagine what good education can look like.

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