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Curriculum Opinion

‘Learning That Lasts': an Interview With Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin & Anne Vilen

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 01, 2016 11 min read
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Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin, and Anne Vilen agreed to answer a few questions about their book, Learning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction:

LF: Your book’s focus emphasizes “deeper instruction” (it’s even in the subtitle). “Deeper Learning” is a phrase that is being used with increasing frequency in education. What is a relatively simple definition of it, including some practical examples of what it might look like in the classroom?

Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin, Anne Vilen:

The common definition of “deeper learning” has six parts:

  • Mastery of Core Academic Content
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration
  • Effective Communication
  • Self-Directed Learning
  • An Academic Mindset

While this is a simple definition, it is not always helpful because it is broad and vague. Every school and district in America could look at the list and say: “That’s what we aim for” or “that’s what we do right now.” While there may be places in every school where deeper learning is taking place, it is not the norm in most schools. Yet.

Teachers are compelled these days to cover a vast amount of content quickly. The pressures of high stakes testing make this especially intense. Under those conditions, we all are pushed toward shallow learning. Harvard educator David Perkins reminds us that if we truly understand something, we can transfer that understanding to new situations adeptly and use it in real life. That’s both a simple description of deeper learning and a high bar for education.

Many of us who are teachers learned mathematics in school and did fine on tests. We learned to divide fractions by flipping the second one and multiplying; we memorized the quadratic formula and used it to solve non-linear equations. If you asked us to explain how those things worked, however, most of us would be silent because we never really understood it. Few of us could solve a problem in the real world using a non-linear equation.

Consider the following example as a contrast. High school freshman at the Springfield Renaissance School, an urban public district school in Springfield, Massachusetts, learned math deeply and with a purpose--they were trained by city engineers to conduct energy audits of city buildings, which involved application of math concepts typically taught through rote memorization. The scientific report these students produced resulted in the city investing over $150,000 to renovate the buildings. Within two years, the city had recouped its entire investment in energy savings.

Those students not only learned the math more deeply, they also learned to collaborate, communicate effectively, and solve real problems. That was deeper learning. When those students graduated from high school, every single member of their graduating class was accepted to college, a first for any high school in the city.

Our new book, “Learning That Lasts,” provides a framework and models for how classroom instruction can be transformed to instill deeper learning in students. We describe a three-part structure for instruction that challenges, engages and empowers students. It’s not always going to be possible for teachers to arrange for students to conduct energy audits, but it is always possible to give students time to grapple with challenging problems, engage them in quality discourse, and empower them to own their learning. Daily instructional moves like those can lead to deeper learning.

LF: In the book, you talk about the importance of models of student work, and Ron’s video, “Austin’s Butterfly,” that uses student models for instruction, is well-known. Could you elaborate on your thoughts about that strategy.

Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin, Anne Vilen:

As teachers, we carry a vision in our heads of the great student work we are hoping to receive. Unfortunately, students can’t read our minds. We try to describe in words what “good” is; we create rubrics that describe what “good” is, and we mark up the work we get from students with suggestions of how to improve it. Regardless of the genre of the work--a mathematical proof, a persuasive essay, a lab report, an artistic presentation--students can almost never translate from words on a written rubric, or from our description and critique, to a vision of what quality actually looks like in that genre.

In the world beyond the classroom, almost everything is learned from models. When students are learning sports, music, dance and visual art, when they are learning to become good citizens as part of a family, church, or club, they are looking at models--good people, good work, and video or audio recordings of good work. They learn what excellence looks like, and they get critique from coaches to get closer to that clear goal.

This is exactly what we suggest for the classroom. Collect examples of great work from students and from the professional world, examine that work together with students, discuss the qualities that make it strong, and build criteria lists and rubrics with students based on that examination of work. As students gain comfort with creating work based on models, they often start by copying and then begin to improvise and make it their own.

Working from models and receiving critique in the process of revising and improving work is a great example of deeper instruction. When students analyze models of great quality work, they are challenged and engaged to create quality work themselves, and the models empower them to give thoughtful and useful peer critique. When they are able to create beautiful work of their own they feel proud because they have persevered and done something they may not have thought possible at first.

We have spent 25 years collecting student work exemplars to support teachers in this process. That student work lives online as a free, open resource you can access at Models of Excellence: The Center for High Quality Student Work.

LF: You also talk a lot about the importance of questioning -- both by the teacher and the student. Can you share some of those tips for educators?

Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin, Anne Vilen:

Questioning is an essential intellectual habit of learners--both adults and children--who are curious, critical, and creative. What we’re advocating here is not the quiz-show scenario where the teacher asks low-level questions and students answer (notably some students answer and many remain silent), which is typical in many classrooms. Instead, we suggest that teachers pose open-ended guiding questions, followed by pre-planned strategic and text-dependent questions that push students to grapple with text and other evidence in order to find their own answers. Protocols and other structures that encourage discourse allow students to grapple collaboratively so that everyone can have a voice.

A “we-want-to-find-out” classroom culture reinforces scholarly dialogue as the way we talk about and get to the bottom of things collaboratively. “Learning That Lasts” features classrooms where teachers lecture less and wonder aloud more, and where student voice is paramount. Teachers frequently ask, “Why do you think that?” or “what would happen if?” or “that’s interesting, can you tell us more?” If you’re interested in seeing some inquiry-based conversation in action, check out these videos:

Elementary classroom:

Teaching Students to Prove Their Mathematical Thinking through Questions, Charts, and Discourse from EL Education on Vimeo.

High school classroom:

Prioritizing Evidence to Address a Document-Based Question from EL Education on Vimeo.

Perhaps the most difficult and most important thing teachers can do to establish the habit of questioning in their classrooms is not to answer students’ questions so readily. Let the questions that generate important debates hang in the air. Capture them on anchor charts. Repurpose them in quizzes and essay prompts. Then provide opportunities for students to use resources and discussion protocols, and engage in projects that enable them to find and defend their own conclusions. Such intellectual detective work stokes students’ intellectual courage and empowers them with the tools for effective life-long problem-solving.

LF: I was impressed by the length and breadth of your chapter on differentiation, a topic often glossed over or missed completely in books for teachers. The whole concept of differentiation has been under attack What led you to make that such a big part of the book, and what’s a suggestion or two that you think Ed Week readers would find helpful?

Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin, Anne Vilen:

One thing that’s not up for debate is that too many students in this country are unfairly denied opportunities to engage with challenging and meaningful work. We believe that all kids deserve the kind of deeper instruction that we promote in “Learning That Lasts.” For this to be a reality, teachers need to differentiate their instruction (not their curriculum) so that all students have access to a quality education. If you start from the premise that you’re going to challenge all of the students in your classroom, including advanced learners, you can scaffold from that “high bar” to lift all students up to the richest and most engaging learning experiences.

One key to our approach is differentiating the process for students, not the content. For example, a struggling reader should not be given an easier text to read; instead, she should be given scaffolds to help her read it. Perhaps she should read smaller chunks at a time with an embedded graphic organizer. Or perhaps she (and the whole class) would benefit from a pre-reading activity to help dig into tricky vocabulary. If we deny weaker readers the opportunity to read challenging texts, they’ll never catch up. And, importantly, they’ll miss out on the opportunity to engage in rich conversation about that text. Just because she may struggle to read doesn’t mean she struggles to think! We don’t want to deny weaker readers the opportunity to work through challenging text, with scaffolds and support, but, importantly, we also believe that those students need time and structures during the school day to read for pleasure at their independent reading level. Both are important.

As far as resources for your readers go, this two-part video, “Reading and Thinking Like Scientists,” is a great way to see what strategies like these look in action in a heterogenous middle school classroom:

Part 1:

Reading and Thinking Like Scientists--Day 1: Strategies for Making Meaning from Complex Scientific Text from EL Education on Vimeo.

Part 2:

Reading and Thinking Like Scientists--Day 2: Deepening Conceptual Understanding Through Text-Based Tasks from EL Education on Vimeo.

The author you reference, at the center of this recent debate, suggests two possible solutions. The first is homogeneous ability groupings. Not only do we not believe in that strategy, we don’t have any control over it--school and district leaders do--so we’re not going to engage in that well-worn debate. But we can get behind the author’s second suggestion, which is quite reasonable--give teachers the tools they need to differentiate well (i.e., make this sophisticated practice seem less impossible). That’s why we included a chapter on differentiation in the book, to provide teachers with tools to give all students an education that is challenging, engaging, and empowering.

LF: All three of you are associated with EL Education. Can you give a little history of the organization and future plans? What do you think prompted Paul Tough to talk so extensively about you in his recent book?

Ron Berger, Libby Woodfin, Anne Vilen:

EL Education (formerly, Expeditionary Learning) was formed 25 years ago as a collaboration between Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound, USA. The idea was to join the spirit of Outward Bound--doing more than we think possible; getting everyone to the top of the mountain together--with Harvard pedagogies for building deeper curiosity, understanding, and active voice in students.

We partner with public district and charter schools, Pre-K-12, who use our model, and also with large districts that are using our 3-8 literacy curriculum. We offer professional development, coaching, and high-quality resources for teachers and school leaders. Beyond our books, all of our resources (curriculum, videos, documents, models of student work) are free and open source. It’s also important to note that, unlike many other school reform organizations, we’re not a charter management organization--we don’t run the schools; we partner with them. This allows us to work with public district schools as well and reach a greater number of teachers and students.

Paul Tough’s new book describes something that we believe deeply--character is the key to student success, and it can’t be taught like an academic subject. Character is forged through experience, and we need to build school cultures that cultivate positive character in children all day long. Visiting schools in our network, Tough quickly recognized that our model does not separate character from scholarship--character is taught all day long as students take on challenging work together, struggle together, and succeed together. Tough believes that our model of education is unusually effective because it honors all students with meaningful work and high expectations, and because it prioritizes student character beyond grit, which is such a buzz-word these days--qualities like integrity, courage, collaboration, kindness and contribution to a better world.

For the future, our goal is ambitious. We are not looking to expand our school network greatly but rather to take the wisdom of our schools and spread it broadly to help change the national conversation about education. Our definition of student achievement is three-dimensional: mastery of knowledge and skills; positive character; and high-quality student work. We hope to contribute to a national shift in how we as a nation discuss and assess education. Good test scores are not enough--deeper learning, beautiful work, and developing good human beings is the higher bar we’re most interested in.

LF: Thanks, Ron, Libby and Anne!



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