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Classrooms at the Front Line of Reform

To meet the demands of today's innovation-driven global economy, education systems worldwide must promote deep learning in all students, argues the new report, A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Can Find Deep Learning, released in London today by the Pearson Corporation. "The goals of deep learning are that students will gain the competencies and dispositions that will prepare them to be creative, connected, and collaborative life-long problem solvers ... who not only contribute to but also create the common good in today's knowledge-based, creative, interdependent world." Deep learning is closely aligned with the development of global competencies which Asia Society and others have advocated as critical to success in an increasingly global economic and civic environment. Authored by Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy, the report is the first in a series commissioned by Pearson Chief Education Advisory Sir Michael Barber on new ideas and evidence on what works in education.

How can education systems promote this type of learning? Pedagogies  and conditions that foster their use include:

  • Establishing teachers and students as co-learners
  • Long-term, complex, cross-curricular tasks
  • Greater student control and choice, gradually building students capacity to manage their own learning process
  • Continuous feedback and formative assessments toward learning goals
  • Digital tools and resources to support deep learning tasks, to help students master the learning process, and to help teachers monitor student progress
  • School and district that foster a culture of innovation and support teachers' development of pedagogical skills.

The report argues that what's new about these new pedagogies is that they are not emerging from universities or think tanks, rather "at the frontline, in classrooms" around the world "in response to the crisis of boredom and frustration among students and career disillusionment among teachers."  What's also new is that in these settings, "we are at last become able to deploy technology in ways that will transform learning outcomes." That said, the report is rather thin on how technology can practically lead to such transformations.

A Rich Seam is nevertheless worth careful reading particularly for what it has to say about deep learning tasks as an essential structure for organizing teaching and learning. "These tasks ... engage students in practicing the process of deep learning through discovering and mastering existing knowledge and then creating and using new knowledge in the world."

Asia Society has within the International Studies Schools Network the Graduation Performance System (GPS), a process for developing, teaching, and assessing global deep learning tasks. In one such task, high school students take three weeks to examine the Eurozone economic crisis by conducting case studies within the European Union. The intent is to examine the causes of a particular country's crisis and explore social and economic consequences for its citizens, other Eurozone countries, and the global economy. Qualities of this task deemed essential for deep learning include:

  • Reframing students' learning in more challenging and engaging
    The Eurozone unit is intentionally organized around Common Core State Standards and standards for global competence as it explores essential questions such as, "how do we measure the health of an economy?" and "how did the Eurozone crisis affect the global economy?" Students engage in a range of leaning activities from analyzing a wide range of primary and secondary resources in order to strategize how policymakers can minimize debt and effectively regulate economic variations. 
  • Feedback and formative evaluation cycles
    Throughout the task, formative assessments on such issues as the causes of social unrest and the nature and interpretation of economic indicators are included to check-in on students' understanding of seminal concepts.
  • Authentic choice for students over how they execute their leaning
    Students select a real-world context they want to investigate. For instance, they can take the role of a historian, economist, governmental leader, sociologist, or recent college graduate from any country affected by the crisis.
  • Cross-discipline planning and practice
    Solving problems related to macroeconomics, like most global issues, require blended disciplines. In this unit, social studies come together with higher-order literacy skills, mathematical modeling, as well as arts and design to produce a finished project.
  • Technology as a tool
    Students use a wide range of real-world digital tools as part of this process. They access data and other information on the internet, use computational tools to test hypotheses, use modeling tools to express ideas, use communications tools to talk with experts or to collect data, and publishing tools to reach the world. How they use these tools is not prescriptive, but rather expressed as a challenge to design their own way to solve problems big and small.
  • Creating new knowledge in the world beyond the classroom
    The Eurozone task ultimately requires students in teams to create a video report that educates high school seniors and college students about the economic crisis in their chosen country. Students post the videos and important related findings online to make their research accessible and show the world what can be learned from this global crisis.

This type of teaching and learning is driven from within some schools, but a critical question that remains unanswered is how it can be achieved at scale.

Fullan and Langworthy argue that of the new pedagogies "the nature and kind of professional learning for teachers ... is an essential element for effective implementation." Lesson study, peer coaching, teacher meet-ups, professional learning communities, and action research are noted as great models for developing teachers' deep learning capacities. A Rich Seam highlights practices and policies drawn from around the world that bring a response to that question into clearer view. 

Follow Anthony Jackson and Asia Society on Twitter.

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