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The Radical Act of Leading for Deeper Learning

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This post is by Meg Riordan, Director of External Research and Project Director for EL Education's Teacher Potential Project

On a Friday afternoon in May, when many schools across the country are engaged in preparing students for state assessments, the eighth-grade students from Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS), a Grades 6-12 school in Queens, NY, are instead hosting a book launch. Rather than pencils poised to take practice exams, students hold pens and prepare to sign the book that they have written. The library is filled with family members, experts (local authors, historians, community members), other MELS students, and teachers--all joining to celebrate and learn from the students' research and their process for creating this nonfiction book of oral histories.

Riordan-717.jpgThe book, Queens Migration, emerged as the final product of a 12-week long learning expedition, a deep project that investigated the origins of people: who someone is and who someone wants to be. As one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world, where approximately 50 percent of the residents are foreign-born, Queens proved an ideal location for MELS students to explore questions of origins, migration, and belonging. Students read relevant texts about the struggles of immigration, transformation, and how individuals develop identity. They interviewed immigrants to create transcripts and develop narratives that were then peer-critiqued, revised, polished, and compiled into a book.

Why is this so remarkable?  Because it is a different approach--one that values deeper learning over limited learning guided by state assessments. The shift to this kind of instruction requires different leadership strategies, too. A focus on deeper learning demands leaders who trust and support teachers to create rich curriculum and to engage students as whole beings rather than simply as data points.

Let's explore four critical leadership strategies that school leaders at MELS used to accelerate deeper learning for all students:

Identify a bold vision for deeper learning and communicate it clearly

When planning to open MELS in 2008, co-directors Pat Finley and Damon McCord partnered with NYC Outward Bound Schools, an NYC-based organization that operates EL Education schools in the city. From the beginning, they committed to project-based learning expeditions. McCord explains:

In 2008 when we opened, it was a [challenging] time, with a focus on evaluation and standardized tests. We wanted to engage kids and do things differently. We wanted curriculum connected to the real world and interactions in the community. At a basic level, we wanted to show that you can have a creative, innovative, public school that still followed the contract and had amazing, dedicated, hard-working teachers doing innovative things with kids. It doesn't sound like a bold move, but it was.

This bold move of putting students' deeper learning at the center is a touchstone against which leaders make decisions and check their priorities.

Hire smart and hire for heart

If, as Malcolm Gladwell's recent podcast asserts, "Educational equality is a function of who holds the power in the classroom," then a critical strategy to accelerate deeper learning is to hire teachers who not only understand their content and embrace pedagogy that promotes equity, but who also care deeply about all learners.

MELS' former EL Education school coach, Becca Tatistcheff, shared that the school "hires the person and trains the teacher." This doesn't mean leaders overlook skills or content knowledge, but that they "hire staff who are learners." This radical act--hiring teacher-learners--means that, as McCord describes:

In hiring, we look for evidence of someone who pushes themselves outside of their  comfort zone. We're looking for people who challenge themselves to take risks and apply their growth mindset. We also look for indicators of teachers who are ready to engage in this messy work with kids; it's a totally different skill set operating within the affective domain.

Teachers' willingness to learn and abilities to connect with students promotes relational trust in classrooms, where engaging learners in questions that explore real issues of social justice, race, class, and religion require a savvy skill set beyond content area knowledge. As McCord remarks, "It takes a lot of bravery, trust, and understanding of what kids can do." 

Prioritize teachers as learners

Margaret J. Wheatley writes, "I think a major act of leadership right now, call it a radical act, is to create the places and processes so people can actually learn together." Creating spaces and processes for teachers to learn and collaborate is a radical and imperative act. MELS' leadership team provides structures to support teachers as learners such as inquiry groups, grade team meetings, 1-1 coaching for all teachers, department meetings, and an instructional leadership team that plans for strategic teacher professional learning.

Hillary Mills, MELS' Academic Dean and teacher coach, says, "The role of instructional coaching for us is a leverage point. It's a challenge because it's really personal. We have to be learners and un-learners of some ways of thinking and doing, and not just producers. We're influencing [teachers] about how they prepare for students to learn in this space--about deeper learning and collaboration." 

MELS teachers dig into questions of practice together, take risks in exploring possible answers, and develop ownership of their learning. When school leaders prioritize teacher learning, teachers understand that inquiry and growth are simply the ways of engaging in this work. By experiencing the processes themselves, teachers transfer their own deeper learning to classroom practices to support all students.

Model learning

Research often points to the principal as lead learner, and McCord emphasizes how important it is for him and his team to model learning, even in the face of time constraints:

Often we face the challenge of "not enough time" and as an instructional leadership team we're asking our own questions about classroom practices and we're learning, but we don't always have a solid next step. The slowness and messiness of the process creates some discomfort, but our teams see us in the thick of learning and experimenting right alongside them.

Leaders learning alongside teachers, and teachers learning alongside students, underscores the nature of deeper learning. But MELS' leadership strategies ensure that the learning process is supported. A bold vision, hiring for heart (and head), prioritizing learning for everyone in the community, and modeling learning keeps the whole school focused on continuous growth, reflection, and innovation. McCord sums it up this way: "Deeper learning isn't what you achieve, it's always striving for more critical thinking."

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