Teaching Profession Opinion

Teaching Deeper Learning

By Jal Mehta — October 09, 2014 4 min read
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Over the past two years I’ve been teaching a course on deeper learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course both reflects what I’ve learned about deeper learning and has been a serious occasion for my own learning. Here are a few lessons that I’ve taken from the course:

1) If you want to build systems for deep learning, start with the most granular level. The course is organized in a peeling the onion format--first we consider what deeper learning is, then what it looks like in classrooms, then schools, and only then larger systems. I’ve come to believe that if you don’t have a granular vision of deeper learning--down to what biology should look like at 10 a.m. on Thursday--then everything else is essentially built on quicksand.

2) Thinking about deeper learning across the life course is helpful, and forces us to revisit some assumptions about classroom practice. We read books like Developing Talent in Young People, The Talent Code, Fires in the Mind, and The Quest for Mastery, and we had each student interview one “deep learner” of his or her choosing. Across these sources, a fairly similar picture emerged of how people become deep learners:

  • There was an initial event that ignited interest in the field or domain, usually prompted by “playing around” in that domain;
  • People began to do structured practice in the domain, usually under the tutelage of someone who knew it better than they did;
  • They gradually became part of the community in the field and began to see themselves as striving to meet the standards set by the field;
  • Their identities shifted (from “someone who swims” to “a swimmer”);
  • And then there was another period of play, but this time more advanced play, drawing on the tools and ideas of the field.

One group of students described this process as a spiral, in which the learner might repeatedly return to the same activities but is able to approach them in increasingly sophisticated ways.

If you take this point of view, then it suggests a considerable rethinking of most classroom activity. Instead of asking, “What should we cover” and “Did they learn what we covered” we would ask “Did we get them passionate about a domain?” “Were their opportunities for play and practice?” “Did we help them join a field that will far outlast a particular class?”

There are potentially a number of ways to do that, but I’ve found particular luck with the project-based method. By letting students define a project of significant scope that they themselves initiate (designing a school, starting an organization, writing a scholarly article or essay), we invite them to assume larger identities (school designer, entrepreneur, scholar). We then draw on the power of those fields to set the standard for what good work looks like, use experts in those fields (and alumni of previous classes) to coach the projects, and invite other experts to evaluate them. Everything is done through drafts, drafts, and more drafts, a discipline that not only helps students to develop and refine their thinking, but also normalizes failure as an expected part of exploring the unknown.

3) Deeper learning is as much about adult learning as it is about kid learning. There is a section of the course where we ask students for their theories of how adults learn, and whether that is the same or different from how kids learn. Actively thinking about how to help adults grow is a huge part of what it means to do deep learning.

4) Relatedly, helping adults do deeper learning means that you have to engage them in deep learning as you are trying to teach them the content of deep learning. High Tech High runs workshops for teachers and principals that have nothing to do with education, at least on the surface--they might involve exploring how race and immigration has played out in the local community, for example. But by taking people through this exploration, they are modeling the kind of learning that they are hoping the teachers will do for their students. The medium is the message, as one of my students succinctly described it last year.

5) Planting seeds is probably the most important thing you can do. All of us are heavily shaped by our own educational experiences, and most people have not experienced much (if any) deep learning. We’ve found that showing videos or doing school visits are the most powerful experiences for students, just because they show, concretely, what it is you might be able to do. This also relates to the medium is the message point, because our classes are a time when we can try to help students experience what it is they might try to create.

You can find the syllabus for the course here; and there is a google doc in which people can make suggestions for readings and activities for future years here; we would love to hear from you. There is not an online version of the course, but we do welcome visitors, if you happen to be in Cambridge on a Wednesday afternoon.

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