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Deeper Learning: Highlighting Student Work

Ron Berger

Chief Academic Officer, EL Education
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A student self-portrait from Ron Berger's student work portfolio

I travel with a heavy suitcase. Over my 35-year career as a public school teacher and educator at Expeditionary Learning, I have been obsessed with collecting student work of remarkable quality and value. I bring this work with me whenever I visit schools or present at conferences and workshops, because otherwise no one would believe me when I describe it.

The student work in my giant black suitcase is exemplary -- beautiful and accurate, representative of strong content knowledge and critical thinking skills -- but it's not from "exceptional" students. It does not come from gifted and talented classrooms or from high-powered private schools. It's the work of regular students in typical schools around the country. The difference is that these students' teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.


Student self-portrait

Photo credit: Ron Berger


When I work with educators around the country and pull this work out of my suitcase, it changes the vision of what is possible when students are allowed, compelled and supported to do great things. The quality of the work itself is a game-changer. The fact that most of it comes from urban schools in low-income neighborhoods leaves most audiences astonished.

Every time I present this work and discuss it with teachers and school leaders, I reminded that the choices we make about how to use time in school are often the enemy of quality or value. Our patterns in leading classrooms are so ingrained that we do not even realize when we are making poor choices. Consider my own experience.

Seeking Value

In all of my years sitting in classrooms as a student, in public schools that were highly regarded, I never once produced anything that resembled authentic work or had value beyond addressing a class requirement. My time was spent on an academic treadmill of turning in short assignments completed individually as final drafts -- worksheets, papers, math problem sets, lab reports -- none of which meant much to anyone and none of which resembled the work I have done in the real world. Although I received good grades, I have no work saved from my days in school, because nothing I created was particularly original, important or beautiful.

Yet when we finish school and enter the world of work, we are asked to create work of value -- scientific reports, business plans, websites, books, architectural blueprints, graphic artwork, investment proposals, medical devices and software applications. This work is created over weeks or months with team consultation, collaboration and critique, and it goes through multiple revisions. The research, analysis, and production involve multiple disciplines, such as reading, writing, mathematics, science, engineering and design.

Student-designed Greenprint

Photo credit: Ron Berger

When will students develop the skills to do this kind of work if not in school? It's not just the reading and math skills; it's also the planning, problem solving and working collaboratively. When do we believe students will develop the dispositions to persevere over time with a challenging project and hold themselves to high standards of quality? These skills and mindsets -- collectively known as Deeper Learning -- can only be built through long-term practice in classrooms where students work together on significant projects.

With the help of my friend Steve Seidel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and my colleagues at EL, I curated my collection of exemplary student work. You can see some of it in this post. If you find yourself hungry for more, they are available now as an open resource at the Center for Student Work.

Austin's Butterfly

Perhaps the most memorable piece of work I have collected in my career is a surprisingly small one: a drawing of a butterfly by a first grade boy named Austin from ANSER Charter School in Boise, Idaho. This scientific illustration for a notecard fundraising project is significant because Austin's growth between drafts is remarkable -- thoughtful instruction led Austin through a progression from a primitive sketch to a scientifically accurate and stunning final illustration. The progression of quality itself is arresting, but even more important is its message: we often settle for low-quality work when, with perseverance and careful critique, we are capable of excellence.

Critique and Feedback: The Story of Austin's Butterfly from Expeditionary Learning .

The Greenprint

When people ask how urban high schools in our EL network manage to get every single graduate into college, there is no quick answer. Building school cultures where every student is well known, supported and compelled to create work of value is a big part of it. Students at the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Mass. were trained by city engineers to do scientific energy audits of city buildings. Not only did these students produce a professional quality report -- a "Greenprint" for the city -- but the mayor also took their recommendations seriously, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate city buildings that immediately resulted in substantial savings of energy and funds. Doing this kind of professional and authentic work changed these students' outlook in a fundamental way. Though most came from families in which no one had attended college, they came to view college as a realistic and achievable goal, and developed the self-directed mindset they'll need to succeed there.

Springfield Renaissance School students research their Greenprint project

Photo credit: Ron Berger


Second grade students at Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston created a professional quality children's book as part of their investigation of snakes. Inspired by Austin's Butterfly, they brought their writing and scientific illustration through many drafts to produce a dazzling final product. The music video that the students created to document their learning has created quite a sensation on YouTube -- a rousing tribute to Lady Gaga titled "Snakes are Born This Way."

Snake from 2nd grade project at Conservatory Lab Charter School

Photo credit: Ron Berger

Once a student creates work of value for an authentic audience beyond the classroom -- work that is sophisticated, accurate, important and beautiful -- that student is never the same. When you have done quality work, deeper work, you know you are always capable of doing more.

This blog series on Deeper Learning is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
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Erik Palmer's picture

What we haven't been obsessed with is teaching effective communication skills to showcase the projects well. "Planning, problem solving and working collaboratively" are certainly going to be valued but year after year verbal communication tops the list of the skill employers value the most. I watch the videos and believe that students are capable of doing much more as speakers. For more on this, read

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

Too often, schools withhold meaningful work -- work that would not only engage and interest students but allow them to genuinely impress peers and adults with what they can do -- from young people until they can show us they have mastered "basic skills." Instead, we could do as Berger advocates and weave basic skill acquisition into complex, open-ended projects that also engage students' sense of social, ethical, and aesthetic values. Given work that is worth doing, many students (not just the gifted ones) can create products that are worth seeing, sharing, and even archiving. Thanks for posting this, Edutopia.

Stephanie Hensley's picture

It is refreshing to hear that there are schools across the country that value authentic learning experiences over teaching to a test. This type of learning promotes critical thinking, problem solving, and inquiry. I was impressed by the student samples you shared in your post, along with the video clip and youtube link. I agree completely with the impact authentic learning has on all learners, including adults. The learning experiences described reflect 21st Century SKills that prepare students for the workforce.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I love that you can see the value in the work- both in what it represents about student learning AND what it says about the adults who facilitated the situations and environments in which that kind of work can be created. As you know, it's not just a matter of giving kids an assignment- it's about creating cultures in which kids (and adults) can take the kinds of risks that make these kinds of learning experiences possible. While I sometimes despair that no one wants to hear about constructivist methodologies anymore (let along learn to use them effectively), this gives me hope that maybe we're coming back to our senses in terms of what we know kids (and teachers) need.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I recently had a chat with the YA author Laurie Halse Anderson (author of Speak and the Impossible Knife of Memory) on Twitter and she said, "The way kids get tested on writing makes me CRAZY. The only test of writing skills is ability to improve from draft to draft." She went on to say that often she will write 8-10 drafts and doesn't begin showing people her writing until draft #5.
I mention this because it reinforces your point that in order for students to produce truly exceptional work, it need to be developed, edited, collaborated on, and reviewed numerous times. As Aristotle once said, "excellence is not a single act but a habit." And for a student to do great work time and time again, he or she needs the time to repeatedly hone that work.

learnerandmover's picture

This was authentic! We often want to keep the work of the students. Usually I display student at school on a regular basis and beg the students if I can keep their work when we do performance-base projects, writings, etc. This is the first time that I heard of an educator who actually "carries" the students' work on a regular basis. It gives me an idea! Thank you so much for sharing!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Just thinking of all the ways I can digitize and share...Pinterest? Photobucket? Flickr...

Decisions, decisions.

Norah's picture
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

It's wonderful to see the students working collaboratively on meaningful and authentic tasks. I really enjoyed watching the video story of Austin's butterfly. I wish I had thought to encourage students to critique each other's work in this way - to be specific but not mean. The development in the work is amazing. I'm certain Austin would have been very proud of his progress where most teachers would have been happen to accept his first drawing and not interfere with his artistic expression. That this was a scientific drawing provides the purpose for changes to be made.

Sean Cassady's picture

I also see the value of this. However, when and how are new teachers taught how to create the open-ended long-term projects? While the research demonstrates that this improves student achievement and develops an appreciation of life-long learning, it has yet to catch up in teacher preparation programs and professional development through districts and sites. Honestly, I struggle with trying to create meaningful authentic assignments for my content area.

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