Shifting Into Deeper Learning
A focus on belonging, creativity, and metacognition is helping one school lead students away from superficial learning.
Our school is revamping the way we approach learning. We are in the painful—and slow—but necessary process of unlearning superficial, compliance-based instructional patterns in order to rework how we present students with opportunities to deeply learn the most transferable and enduring concepts. To shift into this deeper learning, we have focused on the leverage points of identity, creativity, and mastery.
In order to learn deeply, we must activate students’ memory. And to do that, we must invoke their identities. It is not new or surprising that students do not learn unless they feel safe to do so. My years of teaching, emerging research about mental health, and recent professional development have led me to expand this notion to: Students do not learn unless they belong wholly. Such a notion pushes me to explicitly ask students what are their barriers to belonging in my class, on our campus, and in their lives… and then, to do something about it.
What this requires of me is a constant elicitation of and response to feedback and check-ins from students. The bottom line is: If you want to know whether your students feel a sense of belonging and wholeness, ask them. This might be the most important learning that happens all year in a classroom.
Deep learning requires not just the intake of information but also the creation of information. This is why creation is at the top of Bloom’s revised taxonomy. I have often questioned how my classroom can be both standards-based and creative. But I am happy to say that I now know that the answer lies in student choice.
One strategy for fostering creativity is offering students chances to explore content and demonstrate knowledge in a variety of different ways. Students can choose the kind of product they create: visual, auditory, and/or written. I create playlists of texts for students to explore freely rather than assigning only one selection. I regularly survey students and use their results to plan classes. When requiring responses, I offer students the chance to write or share an audio file.
For this current unit I am teaching about social justice, students design their own unique projects that authentically advocate for something that matters to them. There are only two goals—synthesized thinking and clear communication—and how they demonstrate their proficiency in those goals is completely in their hands. Students’ creations have impressed me in both their variety and quality: from board games to websites to petitions to pamphlets.
I recognize that with this creativity comes a bit more chaos. I have to let go of my dated concepts of management and instead embrace the idea that deep learning is individualized and messy.
This ultimately is how I have most changed in my pedagogy.
For much of my teaching career, I have valued scaffolding and—its unfortunate but common companion—compliance. My job as a teacher has been to break down skills into digestible chunks so that students can achieve. But what I realize is that in making learning more accessible to students, I have also made it more shallow and superficial. Too easily in my classroom, students can get by with a plug-and-play model—rather than problem-solving, tenacious thinking, and independent inquiry. But these skills are exactly what they need in order to thrive once they graduate.
In my efforts to move away from compliance toward mastery, one area I’m focusing on is the way I approach writing instruction. My lessons used to be full of graphic organizers that were so literally spelled out, all students needed to do was fill in the blanks. While there are benefits to this—especially for students with support plans—more often than not, this approach did not create writers; it created mindless mini-mes. I want to create writers!
So, instead of just repeating the five [insert structure style here] paragraph analytical essay over and over, how can I allow students space to write in their own styles? The key is metacognition: getting students to think about their writing. Every step of the way. All the time. Here’s how I’m experimenting with this new approach:
1. Strength-based feedback. Instead of viewing students as having gaps that I need to address, I am noticing and naming what students are doing well, then using that as a launching point for next steps.
2. Constant reflection. I no longer provide scores to students until they have reflected on narrative feedback.
3. Modeling. I explicitly point out various kinds of writing with varying purposes, audiences, and contexts. I think aloud about my own writing process. We look at a range of writing samples to deduce what works and what doesn’t. We look at writing as something living: How does the content and method of communication change accordingly?
4. Co-construction. I let my students set goals and use that to drive the year’s writing workshops. I do not start with graphic organizers; rather, I incorporate them only as needed, where needed.
5. Growth mindset. I am changing my language—and asking my students to do the same—about summatives and scores so that our class is mastery-based rather than numbers-driven.
6. Unveiling the brain’s inner workings. I answer questions with questions. We name the thinking processes that come with all the stages of writing. I honor the confusion and frustration as a necessary part of mastery.
Encouraging their unique voices and approaches to writing—rather than my prescriptive and limiting expectations—is an important part of letting students have ownership of their learning, as there is no deep learning without ownership.