Teaching Profession Opinion

Deeper Learning: 10 Ways You Can Die

By Jal Mehta — August 25, 2016 10 min read
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My colleague Bob Kegan once wrote a memo for our program on education leadership titled “10 ways you can die.” The idea was that there was no way to guarantee success--improving education systems is damn hard--but there were surefire ways to fail, and knowing what those ways were would at least give you a fighting chance to succeed. On Bob’s list were things like, “if you don’t know the history of the system you are doomed to repeat it; if you can’t manage yourself you can’t manage change of others"-- and many other nuggets which have guided us since the memo’s creation.

Today I thought I’d try to offer a similar list about deeper learning. Some are for teachers and some for system level leaders. I’ll avoid obvious points, like you need to know what you want to teach, and try to focus on some that are a little less visible.

You will die:

1. If you haven’t experienced deep or powerful learning yourself. This seems obvious but is frequently ignored. I remember once showing a video in a class at HGSE of a constructivist math class in which students were having a fairly animated discussion about the relationship between area and perimeter. One of the students in my class said, “Oh--that’s what they were trying to show us in my school last year when we were moving towards Common Core math.” One of the things I’ve learned in my own journey in trying to teach people about deeper learning is that the most powerful things you can do is give adults models and experiences that mirror what you are hoping they will do for students. We also call this “symmetry” in our work--that if, as a system level leader, you want teachers to teach students in a particular way, you have to give teachers opportunities to have those same kinds of learning experiences.

2. If you are unwilling to reimagine the “grammar” of schooling. Almost inevitably, once people start down a deeper learning journey, they become frustrated by some of the constraints that seem baked into schooling. It is possible to create powerful experiences within the constraints of traditional schooling and many teachers do, but, over time, ambitious teachers will want to break some of those constraints. Longer blocks. More opportunities to work across disciplines. Less press for coverage and more room for depth. If, at each of those obstacles, one concludes that nothing can be done, it will lead to a very cramped vision of learning. There are ways to tackle these problems--schedules can be reimagined, Carnegie units can be divided for interdisciplinary units (so that you get ½ of a unit of science and ½ of social studies)--but you have to have the courage to take the plunge.

3. If you don’t respect your students in the present as opposed to the future. Dewey famously said that education was not preparation for life, it was life. The best teachers we’ve seen have taken a similar attitude towards their students--regarding them as people whose interests, questions, and ideas are worthy of attention and respect. Doing this also eliminates the easy out--you need to know this because it will help you down the road in college/life/job--and forces you to develop a purpose that actually matters to the people in front of you.

4. If you don’t give students some choice. People are a varied lot and they have different interests. This is something we want to build on, not suppress. I remember the first course I taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I had just finished my sociology Ph.D. and wanted to show the students I was serious. So I required that everyone write a 20 page research paper at the end of the semester. But a brave student came up to me, and he said, “Look, after this course I want to start a school, and this course would be a great way to think through the values, goals, and means for my school. But rather than write a research paper, I want to do it as a charter application.” That was a real lesson for me. Now students can produce final products of all sorts--charter applications, business plans, law review articles, academic papers--we try to find models of what good things look like in their genre, have them analyze the criteria for what makes them good, and then produce something which matters to them in the genre they choose. This approach unleashes much higher levels of energy and investment, which creates opportunities for sustained learning. It also signals respect for your students’ interests and desires, tying to the previous point.

5. If you don’t live by “less is more.” Deeper learning requires, almost by definition, devoting more time to fewer topics. Within a class, it means spending more time on a small number of questions or activities. And it also means, as a teacher, being okay with the fact that a class may end without finishing what you planned to “cover.” You have to accept that the benefit of giving your full attention to what was of interest to the class on that day models the kind of inquiry that you want from students, as opposed to fretting over what was missed. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn; even after 10 years of higher education teaching, I find myself planning overstuffed lessons, and only then painfully cutting, cutting, cutting, to try to reduce it to the most essential things. But, on the other hand, the rewards are considerable--when a class realizes that it is not a race to get from here to there, but a chance to explore every angle of a topic until it is really exhausted, it creates the kind of intellectually engaged atmosphere that you want.

6. If you aren’t willing to admit you don’t know the answer. My colleague Sarah Fine and I have visited a lot of high school classrooms over the past five years as part of our deeper learning study. One of the biggest differences we saw between skilled and less skilled teachers in our study was their approach to what they didn’t know. Unskilled teachers were terrified of what they didn’t know, tried to conceal it from their students, and tried to structure lessons in controlled ways that avoided territory which might reveal their ignorance. Strong teachers took a very different attitude - that we are exploring this subject together, that there is lots that we all don’t know, and that we will figure it out together. A related point is that the best teachers we saw were less focused on teaching their students what to think, and much more focused on how to think. If they helped their students learn how to think in ways that were consistent with the highest standards of the discipline or domain, they are less worried about whether those students had come to the same conclusions that they had.

7. If you don’t normalize failure and create opportunities for revision and improvement. One of the biggest challenges in school is moving away from the paradigm of the teacher knows the answer and the student is trying to guess the answer the teacher wants. This both models schooling as a close ended enterprise, and makes students fearful of being wrong. We need to move more to the paradigm we see when hitting a baseball or singing a song--that failing to hit the ball or the note is normal, and that we learn by trying and trying again. One good way to instantiate this approach is in a project-based mode where students have something they are trying to produce for a major public exhibition, but have opportunities to develop drafts, give each other structured feedback, and revise.

8. If you don’t help students feel like they belong in your class or in your domain. This is a corollary to the previous. Students can only feel free to fail if they have some basic confidence that you care about them, that they have some competence in the field, and that they belong in that field or domain. There is also the point that historically there has been a tremendous underestimation of what was possible or expected for female and minority students, and thus students were frequently subject to harmful stereotypes. Students need to have experience that show them that they are welcome in the fields if we expect them to excel within them.

9. If you aren’t willing to set the world a little askew. Part of what happens in powerful learning experiences is that students experience disequilibrium. Something that you thought you knew is brought into question, which creates a period of chaos and searching before a new equilibrium is reached. The Theory of Knowledge class within International Baccalaureate is one good example. There students learn a lot about epistemology, which leads them to question virtually everything they know, ranging from how they know that a chair is really a chair to how they come by their moral beliefs. One devious epistemology teacher in an otherwise STEM-focused school asked them to write a paper on what David Hume, a notorious skeptic, would think of their most recent science lab, thus undermining the intellectual edifice on which the school was built. In my own education, I can remember an almost off-hand comment by my college sophomore social studies preceptor, now almost 20 years ago--"Well, you know Kant was a Christian thinker"--as a comment that almost entirely upended my worldview. (I was a secular person who admired Kant’s philosophy as a non-religious way of developing an ethical value system; he was saying that that value system was simply a secular application of Christian morality, a juxtaposition that put much of my belief system in flux.) Powerful teachers revel in creating these disruptions.

10. If you don’t realize that creating deeper learning is a countercultural enterprise. With all the talk of 21st century skills and deeper learning, you might think that we have moved into an era where doing this kind of teaching and learning was the rule and not the exception. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Almost everything about our system--from the tests on which schools have been measured to how teachers are recruited and trained to how the grammar of schooling is constructed--is organized around a teaching as transmission model, in which coverage is king. We can hope someday that we move to a world in which the larger systems are organized to incentivize and support deep learning, but we are not living in that world today. This means that teaching in the ways elaborated above is a subversive and countercultural act. I can remember going to Shanghai, and a number of people telling me that the best schools, even there, were the ones where the leaders had eschewed an all-encompassing focus on university exams and were taking a more holistic picture of what makes for good learning and good students.

Even if you do all of these things, there are no guarantees of success. Having a powerful class or igniting someone’s interest in a domain is too complicated, variable, and uncertain to be reduced to a formula. We have all had the experience of teaching a great class and then trying to replicate it an hour later with a different group and wondering why it fell flat. But they do give you a fighting chance, and viewed more as gardening than engineering, if you create the right kind of soil, over time and on average, good things will happen.

I think they also free you from some of the internal mental constraints that impede powerful learning. As the same Bob Kegan says, often when we fail to achieve our goals, it is because we are “driving with the brakes on.” In other words, in theory we would like to achieve something, but in practice, we are preventing ourselves from achieving it because of a competing commitment that is slowing us down. In the list above, you can see a variety of those competing concerns--that if we prioritize depth over breadth our students won’t be “prepared” for college; that if as teachers we admit we don’t know the answer we will be seen as frauds; that if we give students choice we are renouncing our responsibility to educate them. If we are going to make progress towards deeper or more powerful learning, we need to surface some of these competing commitments, examine them, and realize what we are sacrificing to maintain them.

At the same time, as Sarah and I have written before, deeper learning is captivating. Hard to achieve, yes, but once you’ve experienced it as a student or led it as a teacher, it’s like moving from black and white to color. Once more people have tried to teach and learn in line with some of the precepts above, the ranks of advocates will grow, until maybe one day, such ideas will be the rule and not the exception.

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