Louie Montoya

Pulling the Lever: How Teachers are Deepening Student Learning

Let’s be honest, there are plenty of education buzzwords flying around: deeper learning might just be one you’ve heard. Regardless of whether you use the term “deeper learning” or not, skills like critical thinking, being a good communicator and being able to work effectively on a team are all concepts that you consider important for students to have.  

If you’re an educator, you know that group projects, and student exhibitions can be amazing ways to engage students not just recipients of knowledge, but as active participants in their learning.  That being said, the intention of this article is to get beyond the buzz; to explore what deeper learning is, it’s importance, and to provide some insight as to how teachers are preparing their students for a world outside of school.

Students Utilizing Deeper Learning Techniques

(Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Deeper Learning, as defined by the Hewlett Foundation, is a set of six competencies that focus on academic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills that we believe students need to have to prepare them as life-long learnings, and good citizens.  

These competencies are:

  • Mastery of academic content
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Having a perseverance mindset
  • Self-directed learning

Even if a teacher hasn’t heard the term deeper learning, they are at the least familiar with these skills, or rather competencies.

Deeper Learning

If you were curious as to what deeper learning looked like in practice, you might find all these competencies at play at one of the official deeper learning schools, such as High Tech High in San Diego California, or the Big Picture Learning school Network.  Many deeper learning advocates have pointed to these schools as exemplary models for what happens when educators collectively drive to deepen student learning.  It comes as little surprise that when a school is given the opportunity to establish a mission around deeper learning, space for experimentation, and financial support, you will see deeper learning happening at multiple levels.

However, there has been less of an understanding as to what is going on in our nation’s public schools, many of which are more traditional in their approach to education.  More problematically, an “us vs them” mentality has developed in terms of who is doing deeper learning, and who isn’t-- creating more challenges in helping schools do more deeper learning. Our time spent in public high schools had revealed that most, if not all teachers, we're doing some deeper learning work. It might not be happening every day with all 6 competencies, but we know teachers were looking to build out these skills (often times in between test prep, and coursework they just “needed to get through”). So to shine some light on the experience of public school educators with deeper learning, we went out and spoke to educators.

We interviewed educators from public schools in urban, suburban, and rural districts.  We spoke with over 20 teachers, school leaders, and administrators. Our questions focused on pulling out teachers experiences as they implemented deeper learning competencies. We had educators speak to the enabling elements in their school or practice that allowed them to deepen student learning, as well as the barriers that restricted them from doing more or implementing all competencies more consistently. The interviews provided us with a plethora of stories that we were able to bring back to our Student Experience Lab where we dissected and analyzed our findings.  After identifying patterns and trends, we were able to identify a model of the six most common barriers and enabler that would hold our findings together.  We called this model LEVERS, which is an acronym for the six most common barriers and enablers educators’ faced when deepening student learning.  

LEVERS to Learn

The LEVERS indicate that realities of school leadership, student equity, teacher versatility and experience, and school or education structure, could act as both barriers or enablers. For example, a school with a high turnover of school leadership often inhibits deeper learning in a school, whereas a school leader who supports her teachers and advocates for experimentation will have a profound impact the frequency and effectiveness of deeper learning. We published our findings and high-quality videos of our educator interviews on a web report.  You can find it all at levers2learn.com. We encourage you to visit the report, and watch the videos, and share them.  

 From our initial research, we went back to the educators we had initially interviewed to present the LEVERS to see what resonated, and what could be improved.  We also brainstormed what we might do, moving forward, to help push a school to do more deeper learning, more often. We established the Deeper Learning Academy, a cohort of teacher teams from 4 different high schools that would use a design-thinking methodology to help spread deeper learning in their school. Teams met up and came up with some compelling solutions. Some of these projects addressed teachers’ personal commitment to do more deeper learning in their practice, and others would be implemented across the school. Staying true to our methodology, we encouraged teachers to start small, prototype quickly, and build upon their learnings. 

 
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So what can you do with the LEVERS?  As educators, we know that there is power in knowledge.  The LEVERS model can be used and a school-wide self-assessment tool.  

Deeper Learning occurs in various settings, though it may take different forms depending on the context of a given school. Understanding this context is half the battle. When teachers and school leaders have a grasp of their school’s Deeper Learning landscape, they have the power to act with intentionality. They can focus their energy on classroom and school-wide initiatives that are feasible within their context, while still having a potential impact on the students. Ultimately, the Levers2Learn framework can help educators and school leaders understand the landscape for potential deeper learning at their schools.

Deeper Learning in a given school is affected by where the school falls along the spectrums of all six Levers. Depending on where schools are, different opportunities and challenges may present themselves. Educators can utilize the LEVERS to form strategies to implement more Deeper Learning that can lead to school-wide change. Likewise, school leaders can use the LEVERS to find opportunities to leverage the ones that are currently helping the school implement Deeper Learning initiatives. In addition, both educators and school leaders can use the LEVERS to create strategies that can address any Levers that may be potential barriers towards Deeper Learning.  

Teacher and Student Learning Together

(Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Although we do not feel like all LEVERS must be turned to the “on” position for a school to do deeper learning, having an understanding of what might presenting challenges to educators provides a great opportunity to work to break down some of the barriers. For example, we found that in one school many educators did not feel comfortable experimenting with new techniques and methods (limited versatility). The group of teachers we were working with decided that providing a low-stakes, safe ways for teachers to try out deeper learning projects was a great way to help them feel included.  Further, encouraging those teachers to look for the deeper learning they were already doing helped alleviate some of the “us vs them” mentality as to who was doing deeper learning and who was not.  

So where do we go from here? Having gotten to work with the teacher teams has provided us with some great insight for how the LEVERS can be used, as well as how teachers can take a proactive approach towards the spread of deeper learning in their school.  In the coming school year, we will be providing additional videos to the levers2learn website to help ground the conversation in how teachers are taking action.  The videos, along with our analysis of the teacher teams’ experiences working towards implementing more deeper learning in their classrooms and schools, can be found at leverstolearn.com.


 

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