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6 Rules to Break for Better, Deeper-Learning Outcomes

Monica Martinez

Author, Education Strategist, Presidential Appointee, Speaker, Deeper Learning, . Hopeful we can reimagine teaching and learning.
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As educators, we know when students tune in -- and we know when they tune out. The more elusive question is why. There is emerging consensus that the 20th-century approach to education, which favors methods such as lectures and rote learning, is standing in the way of making school relevant to more students.

Fortunately, research is catching up with our intuition and validating the practices that we know work in the classroom. One vision in particular, about what students should be able to do and know, is picking up steam. It's called deeper learning.

The Benefits

Deeper learning is a set of learning outcomes for students that include:

  • Mastery of core academic content
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Productive collaboration
  • Effective communication
  • An ability to direct their own learning and exhibit a strong academic mindset.

And the practices that support these outcomes are not only necessary for engaging students, but they're also effective -- with all students.

You don't have to take my word for it. A recent rigorous and quantitative study by the American Institutes of Research (AIR) demonstrates the effectiveness of schools that are designed to develop these outcomes.

The study found that deeper learning public high schools graduate students with better test scores and on-time graduation rates nine percent higher than other schools, a win for teachers and students alike. Graduates of the deeper learning schools were more likely to enroll in four-year colleges, attend selective schools, and report higher levels of academic engagement and motivation to learn. Perhaps most importantly, deeper learning benefits students regardless of their background or incoming achievement levels.

The Rules

So how can educators achieve these 21st-century outcomes and turn the proverbial apple cart upset down? Let's start by breaking the rules of the 20th century's all-expansive curriculum where students "sit and get."

While the AIR study gives a glimpse of these practices, I’ve come up with six rules teachers can help students break, adapted from my book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the 21st Century:

1. Don't learn from just me.

Teachers are only one source of knowledge. Students at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota learn filming from a local nonprofit in the area, and students at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia learn from scientists and researchers at the Franklin Institute through mini-courses.

2. Learn what you want to learn.

Encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning by pursuing their interests. A first-generation Guatemalan student at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio had a love for math. By sophomore year, he had mastered all of his high school classes and decided to take math courses at Cleveland State University. He ended up taking several advanced engineering classes there, including engineering design, programming with math lab, statistics, multivariate calculus, differential equations for engineering, and physics.

3. Use social media in school, too.

Blogging, Twitter, and Facebook aren't just for selfies! Students can use social media for multiple purposes. Students at King Middle School in Portland, Maine are Skyping with authors of the books they read in English or history classes, and students in the technology education class learn about the design process through a YouTube video of engineers from IDEO who spent a week redesigning a shopping cart. Students in an English class at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia use Wikispaces to give and receive feedback on each other's poetry.

4. Don't quietly wait to be told what to do.

Provide opportunities for students to turn their interests into learning endeavors as projects. For his senior project, a Casco Bay High School (CBHS) student in Portland, Maine developed and led a literacy project that involved other Casco Bay students in designing original comic books to help Nicaraguan elementary students learn English. After using the comic books to teach those children, the CBHS student engaged them in designing comic books to help students in his own school learn Spanish.

5. Learn outside of school.

Help students identify resources beyond what the school can provide as a way to enhance their learning. Students from Rochester High School, located in a rural area two hours north of Indianapolis, earn up to 30 college credits by taking courses online from Tri-County College. Juniors from High Tech High in San Diego, California chose from over 600 possible internship placements in which they have to complete the full 140 hours to receive credit toward graduation.

6. Fail, then try, try, and try again.

Failure is a process for real learning and achievement. Freshmen in Phil Bucard’s engineering class at MC2 learn about failure through the use of the engineering process. After the freshmen spent weeks learning about design principles used to build bridges, they built their own model bridge and tested it on a shaker table at NASA. If or when the bridge collapsed, the teacher and engineers used the failure as an opportunity to talk to students about the need to constantly "prototype" or test their work and improve upon it.

Relevant Learning

There is an evolving research base that continues to validate what happens in the classroom when we reimagine teaching and learning to be more active and relevant. So go ahead and break rules, particularly those 20th-century rules that stop us from moving to a place where students not only tune in, but are empowered to self-direct their learning.

The aforementioned rules are just the start. Tell me what rules you think we need to break to bring teaching and learning into the 21st century?

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Monica Martinez

Author, Education Strategist, Presidential Appointee, Speaker, Deeper Learning, . Hopeful we can reimagine teaching and learning.

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Monica Martinez's picture
Monica Martinez
Author, Education Strategist, Presidential Appointee, Speaker, Deeper Learning, . Hopeful we can reimagine teaching and learning.

I love Hillaryhill40's comments. Hillary, you remind e of a student at Avalon Charter School in St Paul that is in my book - Holly. Like Holly, students are able to have a lot of flexibility by learning through independent projects that are aligned to standards but leverage their interests, or topics like you. It is the game changer when it comes to turning students, well, all of us, unto learning vs schooling. Thank you for sharing. MM

Monica Martinez's picture
Monica Martinez
Author, Education Strategist, Presidential Appointee, Speaker, Deeper Learning, . Hopeful we can reimagine teaching and learning.

Hi Diana,
like the other person who responded, i feel students are able to break the rules in elementary if not encouraged to do so. but when they get to high school, students are asked to be followers and compliant to specific rules focused on order and control. There is, in fact, a lot of research that shows the longer children stay in school, the more disengaged they become with learning. We have to figure out how schools that provide flexibility, are adaptable, can customize learning based on students interests all in an effort to engage our students. Expeditionary Learning has numerous elementary schools that are engaged in learning for deeper learning, look them up,

KYHP's picture

In a middle school, most of the students I teach have Instagram. Instagram is a social meeting site that is pictures only. It is extremely popular amongst 11-14 year olds. I use Instagram in my classroom as a communication tool. I post pictures of the homework board, study tips, interesting facts, as well as fun events that happen in our class and in the school.
The students love that they are reminded of their homework when scrolling through their Instagram newsfeed. It is a great tool to use in a Middle School setting.

Diana Kennedy's picture
Diana Kennedy
Educational Therapist from San Anselmo, CA

Thanks. It looks very interesting. It is amazing how much of schooling revolves around the idea of control. It is like there are two ways to view children--as fundamentally good and in need of nurturance to develop the good, or as fundamentally bad/little ids in need of punishment or discipline to be broken of their badness and turned into good adults. Of course, there is a spectrum of all the range in between, and very few people outright state the latter view, but it often colors teaching practices, especially in the realm of discipline.

Monica Martinez's picture
Monica Martinez
Author, Education Strategist, Presidential Appointee, Speaker, Deeper Learning, . Hopeful we can reimagine teaching and learning.

Hillaryhill40 - thanks for sharing your experience. Your story sounds very similar to many students at met, but in particularly, students at Avalon Charter School in St Paul, MN (in the book) and the Met in Providence, RI, a great school part of the DL Network. They believe for students to learn, you must first help them find their passion and then they can direct their own learning. Your ideas are very feasible if we can figure out, like what Avalon has done, how traveling can be turned into an independent project aligned to the state standards. Thanks for sharing! MM

Kimberly Holt's picture

This is excellent advice! It is inspiring to hear this from another educator. Although I did not write the words , you have copied my thoughts exactly! Failing is often so overlooked as something that doesn't need to be taught. I am an art teacher and have literally taken the erasers away from all of my students the last few years! I had started to notice they absolutely panicked if they 'made a mistake'. I started to realize they were coming from (home ? school? standardized tests culture?) a place of FEARING FAILURE instead of realizing the growth and potential to be made through the process of failing. I have worked hard over the last few years changing this thought process (as I get my students from KG-5th grades) and have seen dramatic results both in their mindsets and drawing capabilities. Great writing!

Nancy Vinson Patterson's picture

We are experiencing a steep uphill climb in education; however, it is exhilarating. Experienced teachers should not fear these components of deeper learning as loss of control. Instead, experienced teachers who commit to deeper learning will find themselves spending much more time in planning and reflection than they ever spent in traditional academic work. Even more interesting to me is to think about the changes in me as an educator and professional. The changes do not take place just within the classroom or in the students' learning habits. I am growing because I committed to deeper learning a few years ago. These can be called The Six Rules That Teachers Can Help Other Teachers Break!

Kirsten Haugen's picture

Monica, I love The Rules you present here, but I have read and re-read it and when you write, "While the AIR study gives a glimpse of these practices, I've come up with six rules teachers can help students break...," the rules you've laid out are actually ones we should be encouraging students to follow. In other words, if I encourage my students to break the rule, "Don't just learn from me," I'd in fact be suggesting they ONLY learn from me. I very much doubt that's what you meant. What am I missing here?

juliesusser's picture

Can you please cite the AIR study to which you refer in your article? Poor form to refer to a study/source without citing. I am interested in that study for my research. Thank you.

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