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Deeper Learning for Four Decades

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This post is by Megan Olivia Hall, who teaches life science, biology, AP Biology, and AP Environmental Science at Open World Learning Community. She is the 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

Open World Learning Community's (OWL's) tagline, "Nurturing self-directed learners since 1971," is more than just a catch phrase. OWL is a public district school in St. Paul, Minnesota, serving grades 6 - 12 with a distinctive program. Over the decades, through myriad innovations, revisions, and reforms, our school has always kept students at the center of our work. The kids run the school--with curiosity, joy, and creativity. In our science classrooms, student voice resounds within our approaches to deeper learning, including place-based expeditions and student-led lessons.

All of OWL's learning expeditions (long-term interdisciplinary investigations) incorporate place-based learning, and the focus on local knowledge is greatest in the eighth grade river expedition. In the eighth grade, OWL students explore the human and geologic histories of the Mississippi River. Through a partnership with the National Park Service, students examine water quality, go ice fishing, and study the wildlife that lives on, in, and near the river. Students also learn the Dakota history of the Mississippi.

Place-based expeditions like the river expedition allow for multiple points of entry into learning, honoring expertise from diverse learners. For example, several of OWL's Hmong-American students have outstanding fishing skills. Some students developed these skills while living as refugees in the mountains of Laos; here in St. Paul, many Hmong-American families regularly catch fish for dinner. During the fishing fieldwork, students with fishing expertise guide and tutor their peers who have less knowledge of the craft. Fieldwork deepens students' place-based expertise. Knowing the fish species that swim in a lake and the water conditions that those fish require allows students to become experts on highly relevant and applicable topics. Student engagement skyrockets.

On any given day, a visitor walking into an OWL science classroom might have to look hard to find a teacher. We're there, but most of the time, we're not at the front of the class. We scaffold student leadership of learning so that by high school, students lead multiple-day lessons. For example, biology students studying the human body prepare mini-lectures and labs in small groups; each group instructs the class in one body system. For example, a cooperative group of three students might take several days to develop a mini-presentation on the cardiovascular system, designing an accompanying notecatcher diagramming the flow of blood through the heart, lungs, brain, and body. These students would select an engaging inquiry activity for their peers, such as examining the effects of exercise, anxiety, or listening to music on heart rate.  Teachers help plan and organize student-led lessons, facilitate discussions, and offer constant feedback. But when the students' presentation day comes, they are at the front of the class, explicating the cardiovascular diagram and guiding their peers through the heart rate lab.

When students own their learning, they hone their leadership skills, go deeper into the content, and retain knowledge longer. Best of all, student-led lessons can be ridiculously fun--exactly how learning should be.

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