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The Importance of Critical Optimism

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This post was written by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine

In 2010, when we started our study of what was, at the time, "good schools beyond test scores," we thought that we would buck the myopic focus on basic math and reading scores and instead profile a few good schools which might serve as the basis for better policy and practice. We reached out to everyone we knew, and people gave us a long list of recommended schools across America (all public, all high schools, both charter and traditional public, varying socio-economic levels, varying pedagogies, large and small), and we started to visit.

If you had asked us what we were finding during that first year of the study, we would have painted you a very bleak picture. In most classrooms, teachers were doing most of the talking, and students (by their own accounts) were taking in very little. In general our first question to students was "What's going on here?" and the most common response was "I don't know; ask the teacher." These patterns were consistent with recent national survey evidence; the largest ever videotaped study of classrooms (the 2012 Measures of Effective Teaching study) found that 60 percent of classrooms were competently managed but only 20 percent engaged in what they called "ambitious instruction." A national study of student engagement found that 70 percent of high school students were bored daily; other data suggests that the longer students were in school, the less engaged they became. Much of what we saw left us frustrated, despairing, and, most of all, angry on behalf of the students, who, when we met with them, consistently shed the bored indifference we saw in class and told us with vivacity and wit how to make sense of their schools.

As we read more, we began to understand what we were seeing. An excellent essay by David Cohen pointed out that the "teaching as telling" model was centuries old, and that, given that most teachers taught the way they themselves were taught, it would take a long time for more teachers to break away from these conventional patterns. There were also few external incentives for deeper learning - teachers were mostly evaluated on the basis of either students' test scores on low level state tests, or on how they prepared students for college, whose requirements also emphasized coverage at the expense of depth. Even in the schools that were trying to break the mold, teachers often had three preps and more than 100 students, making it difficult to assign work that would require serious feedback from the teacher, a point that Ted Sizer raised three decades ago. Not helping were our cultural attitudes towards adolescence--most schools tended to see them as too old to play and explore, but too young to do serious academic work, which would come in college and beyond.

The result was lots of classrooms where students were shown what other people had learned--science, in particular, seemed to feature lots of "experiments" where both the steps and the conclusions were predetermined--but few opportunities for students to actually do the investigative work that deeper learning entails.

As I said, when we talked about the study that first year, we only emphasized the difficulties inherent in creating deeper learning. Don't you understand, we would say to policymakers or foundations that wanted to pursue policy X or reform Y, how difficult it is going to be to penetrate actual classroom practice? But, we discovered over time that this was not the right tack. Not just because we were always the wet blanket in the room, but more because we were failing to honor all of the good work that is going on in American schooling. I (Jal) vividly remember giving a keynote at a Hewlett conference, in which I emphasized the 1 in 5 classrooms feature ambitious instruction statistic, and then an audience member replying, "You know, if 1 in 5 classrooms in American do deeper learning, that's 700,000 teachers who are potential assets in building more deeper learning across the sector!" He was right--how could I have missed that? And, since no classroom can enact deeper learning for all students at every moment, and we all have good days and bad, it's likely that many more classrooms support deeper learning at least some of the time. Belatedly, I began to recognize the wisdom of my colleague and community organizer friend Marshall Ganz, who says that social change is about urgency plus hope; in our field, we are long on urgency, but frequently too short on hope.

With this more constructive hat on, we began to reorient our study. We searched out thoughtful teachers and administrators in each school we visited, trying to understand what they knew, how they had come to know it, and how they might convey what they had learned to others. We talked to students about their most powerful learning experiences, and tried to understand the conditions that had made those possible. And, with a better sense of what we were looking for, we did finally begin to find some good schools - not necessarily with deeper learning in every classroom every minute of the day, but places where developing meaningful and rigorous tasks for students was a primary goal, and, just as importantly, where both students and faculty were respected as the capable thinkers and actors they are. We didn't lose our skepticism about the magnitude of the challenge, but we tied it to an effort to build on the best of what is out there, a stance we call critical optimism.

By this past fall we were teaching a course on deeper learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and we had begun to find our voice. Jal announced on the preview day of the course that this was going to be an optimistic course about a pessimistic topic; we would spend one week learning about all of the reasons why deeper learning was so difficult to accomplish in American schools, and the other twelve trying to figure out how to design for deeper learning across the sector. We argued that in a decentralized system like ours, Arne Duncan couldn't, if he wanted to, wave a magic wand and create more deeper learning--rather that it was something that would need to grow, classroom by classroom, school by school, teacher preparation program by teacher preparation program, and thus it was something we could all work on from our respective perches in the educational sector.

And, given the opportunity, boy did the students deliver. Their final projects proposed everything from new deeper learning schools in India, to ways of rethinking homework for deeper learning, to policy proposals for new approaches to teacher induction, to a practitioner guide for deeper learning. When freed of the imperative to produce an end-of-the-term-essay and enabled instead to design a project that mattered to them, they showed us what deeper learning at its best could look like.

In teaching the course, we learned one more thing: that the best way to get more people to teach or lead for deeper learning was for them to experience deeper learning themselves. Once you had experienced learning that was sustained, hard, motivating, connected to your identity, and more about creating new knowledge than receiving accumulated wisdom, there was no way to go back to a world in which learning was copying out of a textbook, doing problems on a worksheet, or even just analyzing what others had discovered. Conversely, if you hadn't had such experiences, no amount of proselytizing was likely to persuade you.

If you accept that point, then the way that deeper learning is likely to spread is less by fiat than by diffusion. It could be like a game of Othello, with pieces, slowly or quickly, turning over as they are touched by other pieces of a different color. This blog is one effort among many to try to accelerate that process. By bringing together a variety of people who know something about deeper learning, we hope that we can begin to expand the community of people who are working to create more rigorous and meaningful learning experiences for all of our students.

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