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Finding a Common Language

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman, an independent journalist and educator who since 1989 has documented powerful teaching and learning around the U.S. Her summary of how youth learn appears in this six-minute "NEDTalk" from What Kids Can Do.

When schools or districts aspire to deeper learning for all students, they usually have some lofty goals in mind. Without thinking much about it, we can safely assume that "learning deeply" will produce the graduates we want to see: on the road to college and careers, equipped with 21st century skills.

But when we try to turn that rhetoric into day-to-day practice, questions inevitably arise:

  • What does deeper learning actually look like? What does it ask of our students, and of our teachers?
  • Does every teacher understand and work toward it?
  • Does every student get the chance to engage in it?
  • Does our larger community know what it means?
  • How will we assess our progress toward "going deep"?

Even when we've been at it for some time, these questions can give us pause. That's why, for the last several years, the school networks in Hewlett Foundation's Deeper Learning initiative have been meeting as a "community of practice" in which to share their answers and work toward a consensus.

Over years of creating and transforming schools, all of these networks have earned their laurels as exemplars. Each has its own language describing its learning goals for students. Each has developed its distinctive approach to curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. And, as I described in my last post, all share a number of important educational perspectives that brought them into the Deeper Learning tent.

But to influence a large-scale national audience, that was not enough. To frame deeper learning as both important and actionable, they also needed answers to that stubborn list of questions.

So these very experienced educators took up that task. In meeting after meeting, they hammered out a common language for the competencies of deeper learning, as well as common descriptors of the work itself. At their next meeting in late October, they will finalize a common rubric by which to assess the depth of learning.

It's worth thinking about how schools and districts can use that work.

The competencies, for example, can provide a summary of key skills (such as communication, collaboration, problem solving, and "learning how to learn") that help students "go deep."

The descriptors can help us visualize how those competencies play out in the learning environment. Watching classroom video often helps us do that, as in this Teaching Channel series. Equally powerful is to analyze the tasks that teachers assign and to study the resulting student work, as in the remarkable Center for Student Work, a collaboration between Harvard University and the Expeditionary Learning network of schools. When these practices become a routine part of school-based professional learning, educators everywhere can begin to reflect on how their lessons might push learning deeper.

Finally, an overarching rubric based on these competencies could help educators assess any number of processes, products, or performances with both depth and equity in mind. For example, they could assess:

  • A lesson plan, curriculum plan, teaching strategy, or assessment practice
  • The work process of students (in various contexts)
  • Student work products or performances (in various contexts)
  • Whether professional development builds capacity to teach for deeper learning.

Even more important, such a rubric would make a key point about equity in a national push toward through deeper learning. In my next post, I will say more about how that could happen, and why it is important.

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