When we talk to audiences about our new book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, the two of us—an educator and an education professor—often get asked what teachers in ordinary high schools can do to deepen the learning in their classrooms. Is powerful learning even possible, given constraints such as short blocks, high student loads, teacher isolation, and pressures to prepare students for standardized tests?
When we respond, the first thing that we share is the bad news: American high schools are generally not set up to support powerful learning. Then we turn to the good news, which is that we saw pockets of such learning in virtually all of the schools that we visited—including under-resourced traditional schools. These examples suggest that there is a lot that individual teachers can do.
Help Students “Play the Whole Game” of Your Subject
How do professionals in the field that you teach spend their time? What kinds of activities organize their work? What are they seeking to create or produce?
These questions, we believe, should be the starting point for how you think about structuring learning experiences for students. Too often, teachers feel pressured to teach the “school version” of science, math, or English—a version of these disciplines that bears little resemblance to the actual work of the field.
Scientists, for example, don’t spend time doing experiments where they already know the outcome; rather, they try to understand phenomena that have not yet been fully explained. Mathematicians don’t simply memorize and apply algorithms; rather, they tackle unsolved problems in an effort to generate new knowledge for the field. Literature scholars rarely write five-paragraph essays in which the thesis is placed up front; rather, they play with both structures and ideas.
David Perkins, the cognitive scientist who was central to the development of Harvard’s Project Zero, has a useful metaphor: In games such as baseball, he argues, kids don’t learn to play by spending a year throwing, a year catching, and a year batting. Instead, they “play the whole game at the junior level” from the get-go. Kids can—and should—also practice the game’s individual parts, but they need to know how the parts connect to create the game as a whole. Without this, the whole endeavor will feel meaningless.
What does it mean to have high school students play the whole game of the academic disciplines? We watched an 11th-grade English teacher at a high-poverty urban public school unwind a recent column by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In short succession, he had students annotate and summarize the essay, debate its thesis, and then examine its form—a form that was strikingly different from the classic five-paragraph essay. Finally, students drafted and refined essays in which they took a stand on Coates’s thesis while also making strategic choices about the form of their argument.
In essence, the teacher was inviting students to participate in the world of column writing by exploring argumentative journalism as it is written beyond school walls. A promising next step would be to have students craft original argumentative columns on topics relevant to their communities—and then try to publish them in local newspapers.
Use Your Own Powerful Learning Experiences as a Compass
What was the most powerful learning experience you’ve had as a learner? What characteristics made it so powerful? How were you as a learner guided through the experience? Who did you learn with and from? What was the goal, and why did you care so much about reaching it? How did the learning accumulate over time to help you go deeper in the domain?
Both of us regularly sit down with groups of educators and ask these questions. The exercise is like a magic trick: Every single time, no matter how wide the range of examples might be, participants end up identifying the same list of characteristics that make powerful learning powerful. At the risk of spoiling the surprise, some of the qualities that make a regular appearance are purpose (there’s a real reason I want to do this), choice (I have chosen to take this on), community (I’m part of a community that cares about me and is supporting this work), apprenticeship (I’m being coached rather than taught toward developing a skill), peer learning (I’m learning from fellow participants in the field), and learning by doing (I’m learning from trying, getting feedback, and trying again).
What does it look like to bring some of these qualities into the classroom? Start by asking yourself what students are going to do or make that they will be proud of. This is easier if you’re working in a project-based environment, but it can also happen in traditional schools—a fourth grader drafting, revising, and performing a spoken word poem is playing the whole game too.
Next, ask yourself if there are ways to give students some choice, even while building the core skills that you want to hold common. From elementary school reading to middle school science experiments to high school history papers, students are more likely to invest if they can choose the content of what they are doing.
Embrace the notion of productive struggle—your powerful learning experience likely wasn’t spoon-fed to you step-by-step. Give your students different roles, teach them the standards of your field, and have them give feedback to each other as they’re developing their work.
Finally, remember that ultimately you’re trying to build a community, a team, or even a family: a group of people who care about each other and work to help each other accomplish their goals.
Find Ways to Slow Down
When it comes to powerful learning, less really is more. Socrates himself couldn’t create deeper learning if he were charged with covering history from ancient Rome to the French Revolution in a year. It takes time to unfold the layers of a topic. Try to identify the core events, moments, ideas, books, and skills that you think are really important for students to learn, and prune your unit plans relentlessly to give those things the time and space they deserve.
For example, one teacher in our study had a moment where students got really interested in the fact that some of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders. What, the students wondered, does that mean for our Constitution and the foundations of our nation? The teacher told us that earlier in his teaching career he would have deflected the question and moved on. This time, however, he developed a mini-unit around his students’ question, allowing them to probe a range of perspectives and consider how the racial contradictions associated with the nation’s founding continue to reverberate into the present.
If you find yourself getting nervous about the prospect of covering less material, remind yourself that students won’t remember all the details of the content anyway. They’re much more likely to remember salient things that have surfaced via in-depth explorations. And while it may not seem as if you have the flexibility to shift your curriculum, if you develop a great unit you likely will build support among students and parents that can buy you more leeway the next time.
Creating powerful and lasting learning in your classroom won’t be easy—but the rewards are well worth the effort. Start small and celebrate every victory!