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10 Ways to Deepen the Learning

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman, a journalist and educator who co-founded the nonprofit What Kids Can Do. She is author most recently of The Motivation Equation, a free multimedia e-book featuring the voices of students, teachers, and learning scientists.

This post is by Kathleen Cushman, a journalist and educator who co-founded the nonprofit What Kids Can Do. She is author most recently of The Motivation Equation, a free multimedia e-book featuring the voices of students, teachers, and learning scientists.

 

I've spent much of my career getting young people and adults to share with me their most powerful learning experiences. What brought about those moments? How did they alter the ways that people thought or acted? What kinds of organizational changes accompanied them, on the part of individuals, teams, or institutions?

I was thinking back on that recently, speaking with students in Jal Mehta's Deeper Learning course at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. For their final projects, teams were proposing innovations that they hoped would push learning deeper in today's contested educational territories. And as they asked for feedback, I kept remembering past instances in which I've seen curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and structural changes have such effects on students, teachers, and school leaders.

This week I will list ten (five in this post, and five in the next) that surfaced from my years of observing innovative work in schools. They vary in their emphasis, but--according to the learners involved--these bold moves were worth every bit of disruption that they caused.

1. Make every course an elective with a theme. I've seen math teachers, for example, focus courses on social justice or building bicycles, while addressing the same core learning targets. Taking account of distribution requirements, students prioritize course preferences, college-style--and the choice invests them more deeply in the challenge. (Tip: When two teachers collaborate on the course design, everyone benefits.)

2. Have students assign their mid-semester grades. Once learning targets are clear, I've known teachers who had students assess their own progress and gather evidence for their own mid-semester grade. In the conference that ensues, both teacher and student gain insight and ideas for pushing learning deeper by the end of the term. (Note: End-of-course grading can follow a similar pattern but to allow for revision, timing is key.)

3. Put two teachers in the classroom. I've often seen two teachers join their classes into a larger group, doubling their time with students and via cross-disciplinary essential questions, readings, and projects. Having two adults facilitates collaborative planning, differentiated instruction, skills-based breakout groups, and performance assessments. Many content areas--arts, engineering, world languages, math, and more--lend themselves to this approach. (Extra credit: If a whole school does this, the number of students that teachers are responsible for goes way down, and their relationships deepen.)

4. Require every learner to teach. We don't really know something until we can teach it. I've seen many teachers ask students to demonstrate their understanding by explaining a concept or procedural skill to another person or group--a class a few years below them, a community group, their own families, even the school board. Questions and answers are part of the process, and it's important to agree beforehand on what indicates success. (One possibility: Have the student's audience take a little test.)

5. Connect each student with learning outside school. Invariably students tell me that their learning in the "real world" matters more to them than passive time in classrooms. When schools delegate staff resources to coordinate such opportunities for students, everybody's learning deepens. Out-of-school connections help students contextualize the content and skills their courses emphasize. And careful scheduling of learning outside school affords teachers dedicated time for collaborative professional growth.

In my next post later this week, I'll offer five more examples. In the meantime, send in your own! Pop quiz: What do these innovations have in common? 

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