Equity & Diversity Opinion

How to Scale Up Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — May 01, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Libby Woodfin, director of publications at EL Education.

Educators from all over the world convened at High Tech High this March for the Deeper Learning Conference. The event was inspiring, as always. So too was the school. In fact, it’s the most beautiful school I have ever seen. Student work lines every inch of every classroom and hallway (even the bathrooms). It feels more like a museum than a school, and evidence of deeper learning is everywhere. Student work is complex and authentic and done with great craftsmanship and care.

Educators who come to this conference leave motivated to return to their own schools and make a little bit of this magic happen there. This idea of bringing deeper learning to more classrooms was in fact the theme of the conference. We were challenged to consider how to scale innovations that are so complex and how to keep the fire burning.

The reality is that deeper learning can feel intimidating. One look at the six-foot wide installation piece composed of dozens of laser-cut wooden gears of varying sizes that is meant to be a physical manifestation of why and how civilizations rise and fall (created by High Tech High ninth graders!) is enough to make busy teachers, saddled by mandates and weary, start to wilt. I can’t do that. I don’t have time. My students just aren’t capable. Feeling defeated before you even start risks keeping deeper learning opportunities from students who need them the most.

These risks are real and at EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) we have felt their impact within our own network of more than 150 schools. For nearly 25 years we have worked with teachers around the country to design learning expeditions--interdisciplinary studies, usually lasting six to twelve weeks, which include case studies, projects, fieldwork, experts, service learning, and a culminating event that features high-quality student work. The Inspiring Excellence video series, for example, illustrates a second-grade learning expedition about snakes. In Part I, you can see how students’ engagement leads to a high-quality product:

In-depth projects like these can be truly transformative deeper learning experiences for students and teachers alike. But learning expeditions are not easy for teachers to plan or execute, even with clear systems and structures for collaboratively designing curriculum. The reality is that this is not an easily scalable approach to curriculum design for deeper learning.

Deeper learning is in our DNA at EL Education. So too is our commitment to equity. We want to help deeper learning find its way into more classrooms so that more students get to feel the spark that comes from doing more than they thought possible (and having fun while doing it). How can we make sure that all students get the chance they deserve to learn deeply?

Go Bigger by Starting Smaller

My colleague at EL Education, Ron Berger, and I led a session on deeper instruction at this year’s Deeper Learning conference. If deeper learning is the bonfire of in-depth, complex, and authentic projects, we hope that deeper instruction can be the box of matches that will get it lit. Deeper instruction is all about challenging, engaging, and empowering students during daily lessons. We encourage teachers to start smaller, rather than shrinking from the thought of a three-months long project. Try exchanging a traditional lecture for a student-run Socratic seminar, where teachers talk less and students talk more. Or, give students a real opportunity to grapple with challenging problems in math, rather than conducting a traditional I do-we do-you do math lesson. Allowing students to build their own knowledge individually or collaboratively (versus being “filled up” with information by teachers) leads to deeper learning in small but impactful ways every day.

We wrote about deeper instruction, along with our co-author Anne Vilen, in our book Learning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction. The book is a good way to get deeper instructional moves into more classrooms, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, but its reach is not enough. I’m more convinced than ever that the fire we need to keep burning is the one that brings deeper instruction and deeper learning opportunities into the nooks and crannies of classrooms everywhere.

Expanding Our Reach

In 2012, a team at EL Education wrote an English Language Arts/Literacy curriculum for grades 3-8 that is built on a foundation of daily deeper instructional practices. This yearlong grades 3-8 curriculum, which is a free open educational resource, has been downloaded more than eight million times. Offering a high-quality comprehensive literacy curriculum like this, written by a non-profit with teachers at the table as co-authors (rather than by a textbook corporation) is a real disruptor in the industry. And teachers are hungry for it. This summer our new K-5 Language Arts curriculum will be released and presumably will be downloaded many more millions of times. This work has given us, as an organization, an authentic opportunity to grapple with questions of scale.

The curriculum is infused with deeper instructional practices that are now potentially reaching millions of students. Every day, in every lesson, students are challenged, engaged, and empowered. Here are a few examples of what that looks like in the curriculum:

  • Teachers guide students to grapple with texts, questions, and ideas with scaffolded support. They don’t “give away” too much too soon. Students make meaning; teachers don’t give it to them.
  • There are no textbooks in the curriculum. Students read authentic texts, and analyze perspectives from multiple sources rather than read predigested analysis.
  • The curriculum design reflects the idea that “learning floats on a sea of talk.[1]” Teachers talk less; students talk more.
  • Students set goals, reflect on what and how they learned, and take ownership of their progress every day. Character isn’t built with catchy slogans and it doesn’t hold meaning in school when it is disconnected from learning.

I’m not trying to make a sales pitch for the curriculum here. Getting the curriculum into the hands of teachers around the country who are eager for a comprehensive and innovative approach to literacy has already proven to be the easy part. It is now up to us to consider how a curriculum infused with deeper instructional practices that build in students the habits they need to learn deeply (e.g., the ability to collaborate, to use their voices, and to think critically in order to make meaning) can be a lever in our efforts to scale deeper learning.

Our next challenge is to help all of the teachers who use the curriculum to see themselves as deeper learning teachers. Because it’s not just a curriculum about what to teach; it’s also an instructional tool that suggests how to teach (e.g., how to structure student talk, how to make room for grappling). Rather than viewing the curriculum as something to be implemented, we want teachers to see it as a tool they can use to help their students learn deeply, and, consequently, as a tool to help them learn and grow as teachers.

Obviously deeper instruction is not the same as in-depth projects like those that line the walls of High Tech High. But it is a place to start. Projects that are metaphors for the rise and fall of civilization don’t just happen. Students need practice--they need to build their capacity and their mindsets to do work like this. And often teachers need practice in what it feels like to let students truly grapple with challenges, release control in order to make lessons more student-driven, and give students the tools to take more ownership of their learning.

In the end, the reality is that scaling up deeper learning is not really about curriculum or instruction. If only it were so simple. It’s more about the fire that burns in teachers to inspire their students to learn deeply and do more than they think possible. Let’s fan those flames.

Photo: EL Education

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The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.