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Candid Perspectives on Teacher Change: Two New Papers on Deeper Learning

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This post is by Rafael Heller, Principal Policy Analyst at Jobs for the Future.

As the historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out many years ago, American education suffers from a bad case of what the late baseball legend Yogi Berra called "déjà vu all over again." School reformers don't really come up with new ideas so much as they recycle old ones, forever moving back and forth between calls for Deweyan progressivism and "the basics"; student-centered instruction and teacher-centered classrooms; site-based management and top-down leadership; and so on.

And all the while, note Tyack and Cuban, classroom instruction goes on as usual. Whatever the school reform du jour, most teachers continue to teach in mostly didactic ways. From one decade to the next, policy talk may swing back and forth among competing ideals, movements, and initiatives, but instructional practices change at their own pace (which is to say, very slowly). Thus, we see "so much reform" but "so little change," the sociologist Charles Payne observes. Or, as David K. Cohen puts it, "Teaching practice: Plus que ca change..."   The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For fans of deeper learning, this can and should be a little disconcerting, pushing us to ask ourselves: Do we have something genuinely new and different to say about education, or have we just re-packaged the same old Deweyan ideals?

Actually, that's a complicated question, and it deserves the sort of nuanced answer that Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine give it in their report The why, what, where, and how of deeper learning in American secondary schools, recently published as part of Jobs for the Future's Deeper Learning Research Series (and, like all of our reports, free to download from our Web site). In some ways, they argue, this "movement" follows a well-worn groove, retreading the same path taken by earlier generations of progressive school reformers. But it also draws upon some truly groundbreaking research into adolescent development, motivation, agency, and other topics. And, even more important, it responds to a truly unique historical moment: Never before have the nation's schools faced anything like today's economic and societal demands for all children to receive the sort of education that used to be reserved for the elite.

That doesn't mean that the schools can easily respond to those demands, Mehta and Fine caution, or that school leaders know how to jump-start the slow process of teacher change. Having observed hundreds of classrooms in schools renowned for their commitment to deeper learning, they report that traditional teaching practices predominate even there. The good news is that they saw evidence of high-quality, deeper teaching and learning in every school they visited. The troubling news is that no school offered such instruction a majority of the time. 

Which brings us to another new release in our series, a paper by Magdalene Lampert titled Deeper teaching.

It is one thing for educators to embrace the goals of deeper learning, but it is something very different to enact them in the classroom. Precisely what does it look like, Lampert asks, to teach in a way that helps students grasp academic content at a high level, while also teaching them to collaborate, communicate effectively, monitor their own learning, build stronger academic mindsets, and engage in a productive struggle with the material? In order to move students toward such ambitious outcomes, what must teachers know and be able to do. 

Much like Mehta and Fine, Lampert takes a hard look at what deeper learning actually entails, and just how much more challenging it is to teach deeply than to teach in more conventional ways. Specifically, she compares two different approaches to teaching a familiar piece of academic content--the algebraic concept of slope--offering a detailed, moment-by-moment account of the choices that each teacher makes, and the consequences they have for student learning.

Both papers are engaging reads, but they also ask difficult questions about what it will take for the deeper learning movement to gain real traction in the nation's schools and, more important, in the majority of classrooms. In short, the papers are tough but timely, offering a clear-eyed look at the challenges that lie ahead for those of us working to provide all children with meaningful opportunities to learn deeply.

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