Deeper Learning: A Reflection on summer+ learning

As part of our summer+ learning at Mount Vernon for 2017, we were asked to read at least 5 chapters of Deeper Learning: Beyond 21st Century Skills (2015). Edited by James Bellanca and including pieces from over 20 educators/visionaries/provocateurs including Suzie Boss, Linda Darling-Hammond, Richard and Rebecca DuFour, Yong Zhao, and Rob Riordan, this book aims to challenge your thinking and assumptions about the way teaching and learning occurs.

I enjoyed the entire book, and I focused more carefully on a few chapters. These are my reflections and ponderings.

What Is Deeper Learning?

Many definitions exist, and gaining consensus on what we mean when we say deeper learning is important. One definition included here is the process by which one becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to a new context. This brings me back to my Project Zero training well over 15 years ago where they defined “understanding” as being able to think flexibly about an idea or concept. Flexible thinking implies a nimbleness in playing with an idea and considering its meaning or application in different settings.

The Hewlett Foundation offered a starter list of six key attributes of deeper learning, including 1) mastery of core academic content; 2) critical thinking and problem solving; 3) collaboration; 4) communication in writing and speaking; 5) self-directed learning; and 6) an academic mindset.

Learning deeply, hence, speaks beyond lower-level layers of understanding and challenges us as educators to design in such a way that respects specific content while, at the same time, illuminating the why and potential of learning that specific content. Learning deeply both starts and finishes with why.


Why Deeper Learning? How?

I gravitated toward the first part of the book which centered on how does deeper learning look and sound or what teachers do and say that promotes deeper learning. One of the most important ideas that gets glossed over too easily when talking about transforming education is the fact that deeper learning for students demands and yearns for deeper learning for teachers. The DuFours elaborate on the need for PLCs (professional learning communities). The three most salient ideas that spoke to me here are:

  1.  A PLC’s collective inquiry begins with the question of WHY before ever addressing the issue of HOW– I wonder if we as teachers and learners spend enough time on WHY.
  2. The sine qua non of any PLC is using evidence of student learning to inform and improve practice (this connects with a phrase used earlier– no involvement, no commitment). Think about the amount of time you spend digging deeply and getting involved in student work.
  3. (From Riordan and colleagues later in the book) We expect teachers to model and foster 21st century skills, but teachers don’t work in a 21st century work environment. HMW include this important concept in our work of transforming teaching and learning?

I’ve read Costa and Kallick’s work before reading this book. Dispositions have always interested me as I have viewed developing them as some of the most important work we do as teachers. I appreciate the connection here in viewing dispositions as the pathway to deeper learning. Without reviewing all 16 dispositions here, I found myself being constantly reminded of the Mount Vernon Mindsets that we view as critical results of our program. Interestingly, while thinking about the dispositions, I found myself combining our Mindsets with our School Norms in my head. Two key things stuck out to me:

  1. Self-assessment is AS significant as the assessment from others.
  2. Deeper learners are expansive learners. Habits are built upon a consistent pattern of behaviors.

Yong Zhao’s challenge to incorporate an entrepreneurial mindset into teaching and learning may seem provocative to some, but I appreciate the distinction, which he shares includes a mix of “success-oriented attitudes of initiative, intelligent risk-taking, collaboration, and opportunity recognition.” Upon second glance, what is so provocative about that? My favorite quote from this section and one on which I will continue to ponder:

“When students have a reason to learn, they will seek the basics, rather than have the basics imposed on them. If they are true basics, they are hard to avoid.” pg. 98

I loved the fact that many authors in later chapters placed the spotlight on assessment and the fact that deeper learning does not connect with our current focus in assessment. The idea of a continuum or spectrum of assessment was quite intriguing, and I look forward to concentrating a good amount of time in assessment work with teachers.

Bringing me back to my doctoral study days, I so loved reading the “next best thing” that Michael Fullan offers about change leadership. When discussing the vision we espouse, he asserts that this vision is not blueprinted but directional, due to the fact that details remain to be developed through deeper learning. Two ideas resonated: letting go to innovate and reining in to take stock. Boom! Combine this with Esparza’s description of successful change practice going through a continuum of implementation including preparing, envisioning, and enacting, and we as leaders have fodder to truly reflect on our plans in executing a transformational vision.

As usual, Mount Vernon’s summer+ learning takes me far beyond summer to continue to study and ponder on how we can improve teaching and learning for all learners.