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In Search of Deeper Learning? Visit Iowa

July 01, 2019

Summer provides time to catch up on reading. My mid-season standout is In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine. I was eager to read this book as Jal was a primary professor in my doctoral program and Sarah was a classmate in a parallel program.

In Search of Deeper Learning is insightful and thought-provoking, notable for the extensive qualitative research (six years, 30 schools, 750 hours of observation, and over 300 interviews), which results in a rich portrait of the American high school experience. While most of the schools they visited were in coastal cities, their observations aligned with my school visits here in Iowa. Jal and Sarah also issue a challenge that I believe Iowa educators are ready to accept.

The authors begin by defining deeper learning as “an umbrella term evoking a range of ambitions that extends beyond rote learning” (p. 6). They enhance this definition with their own vision for deeper learning, which they say emerges at the intersection of three virtues: mastery, identity, and creativity: “In the spaces that teachers, students, and our own observations identified as the most compelling, students had opportunities to develop knowledge and skill (mastery), they came to see their core selves as vitally connected to what they were learning and doing (identity), and they had opportunities to enact their learning by producing something rather than simply receiving knowledge (creativity)” (p. 6).

In their search for deeper learning, Jal and Sarah uncover two pressing challenges facing American high schools: a lack of student engagement and a low level of intellectual rigor.

They share a startling statistic from a 2015 Gallup student poll: 75 percent of fifth graders feel engaged by school, but only 32 percent of eleventh graders feel similarly. This statistic comes to life in their observations: “At school after school, as we shadowed students through their days, we found gaps between aspirations and realities. Most classrooms were spaces to sit passively and listen. Most academic work instructed students to recall, or minimally apply, what they had been told.” (p. 4). This, unfortunately, was too often a characteristic of my own classroom as a high school history teacher and is a scene I’ve witnessed many times in classrooms across Iowa.

In their exploration of cognitive rigor, Jal and Sarah encounter, in classroom after classroom, students who “were not being challenged to think” (p. 24). They also add, though, that “The classrooms that we visited were often friendly if not intellectually rigorous places…” (p. 32). This resonated with me as I thought about our state’s “Iowa nice” culture, which often creates warm environments but can unintentionally erect barriers to deep, challenging learning.

In comparing the current state of engagement and rigor to future potential, two ideas resonated with me: the impact of “the periphery” on learning and the concept of “deeper teaching.”

In defining the periphery, Jal and Sarah state, “In many of the high schools we visited, much of the most powerful learning seemed to occur not in core classes, but rather at the school’s ‘periphery’ – in electives, clubs, and extracurriculars.” (p. 5). They observed that elective classes and extracurricular activities had a level of depth, creativity, passion and sense of purpose often missing in core classes. This perspective rang true with my observations of increased engagement in the many extracurricular activities, elective classes and sporting events I’ve attended over the past five years.

In their study, “deeper teaching” was exemplified by teachers who found the sweet spot of both cognitive challenge and student engagement. They analyzed the practices of seven “deeper teachers” and uncovered five common characteristics:

  • Significant and substantive knowledge of their disciplines or fields;
  • A view of these disciplines or fields as open-ended rather than closed;
  • High levels of pedagogical knowledge in their preferred approach to teaching;
  • A stance toward teaching as an act of igniting interest rather than as an act of transmission;
  • One or more “seminal learning experiences” in their pasts that caused them to view their domains, their students, and their purpose, in this fashion (p. 370).

In my own classroom visits in more than 500 schools, I’m encouraged by the many examples of deeper teaching I’ve observed. This deeper teaching fostered outcomes such as students building and selling a house, conducting applied research in fish hatcheries, producing a Veterans Day program for their community, and creating a web streaming service for the school’s sporting events.

In the final section of the book, Jal and Sarah succinctly describe the challenge ahead in the search for deeper learning: “An enormous amount depends on whether or not we can summon the courage to make this shift” (p. 400).

In Iowa, I am increasingly confident that we have the courage needed to ensure deeper learning in every classroom. The Competency-Based Education initiative has evolved into the deep, transformative work happening with implementation of the Iowa Core and the work of The Center.

In addition, Iowa’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation system has created capacity within schools to expand deeper teaching and learning by tapping the expertise of teachers who have developed and honed this skill over time.

And, this month, we are excited to launch more than 100 projects in the Work-Based Learning Clearinghouse, which will build upon the work of STEM BEST and Iowa’s Work-Based Learning Intermediary Network to provide greater equity in access to high quality, real-world projects that link to rigorous classroom instruction.

While Iowa certainly shares the challenges Jal and Sarah describe, I’m confident we have the courage and the commitment necessary to strengthen instruction and increase engagement in all of our schools.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on October 20, 2021 at 5:42pm.