A Bottom-Up Approach to Deeper Learning

Districts and schools across the country are working to promote deeper learning among students, which in many places requires a fundamental rethinking of school design. Making this shift can seem overwhelming, but several resources, including an example set by San Jose Unified School District, offer a solid place to start.

What is “deeper learning”?

Deeper learning, a term coined by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, means teaching students to use their knowledge and skills in a way that prepares them for real life by mastering core academic content. Students learn to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves. The six deeper learning competencies are: Master Core Academic Content; Think Critically and Solve Complex Problems; Work Collaboratively; Communicate Effectively; Learn How to Learn; and Develop an Academic Mindset.

Taken together, these competencies result in students’ ability to use and apply what they have learned. They also align with the skills and competencies around which other efforts—21st century skills, the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, College and Career Readiness and others—are based.

How are schools designing programs to promote deeper learning?

Last year, the Hewlett Foundation and the Silicon Valley Foundation supported Cross & Joftus, in partnership with the Enterprise Development Group and The Institute for the Future, to help school leaders and teachers in San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) re-envision and redesign their schools to prepare students for the 21st century. Schools designed programs that would change the very core of teaching. Their approaches use technology to personalize learning; activate learning through a model of inquiry or student-centered teaching strategies; and institute group work in which students help each other learn.

When I reviewed the various plans, I was struck by how consistent the proposed strategies and practices were with the strategies most common across the SJUSD school redesign proposals I examined and profiled in my book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century (2014). These practices include empowering students as learners; contextualizing knowledge so it is coherent; connecting learning to real-world experiences; extending learning beyond the school; inspiring students by customizing learning experiences; and purposefully incorporating technology to enhance, rather than automate, learning.

How can every school develop and implement a redesign plan that enables teachers to focus on and develop the six deeper learning competencies? 

From a national perspective, one of the greatest challenges is bringing deeper learning policies and practices to underserved communities. While all students can benefit from deeper learning opportunities, students in underserved communities are less likely to have these opportunities. One program that is working to expand access to deeper learning is the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows, a cohort-based leadership program working to provide equitable access to deeper learning.

At the school level, one resource designed to help school leaders and teachers create an environment in which teachers can design learning experiences around deeper learning competencies is The Planning Guide. The Guide is grounded in the theory that the first step toward this goal is to develop a school-wide culture that promotes students’ learning and collective responsibility for the school.

Collective responsibility doesn’t happen by accident; a culture of collective responsibility must be purposefully established for students and teachers alike. For students, this can mean developing community through advisories, peer-to-peer mentorships, group work, and community-wide events. For teachers, collective responsibility is established through opportunities to function as professionals with a high level of autonomy, to share in the leadership of the school, to direct and design their own professional development, and to work together collaboratively.

Districts’ role in Redesigning Schools for the 21st Century

While creating a culture that lays the foundation for school redesign seems to fall on school leaders and teachers, districts also have a role to play. SJUSD has modeled this well. The district set a vision for 21st century schools grounded in the six deeper learning competencies and incentivized schools to reorient towards those competencies. Through philanthropic and district funds, the district ran a funding competition for schools to establish a proof of concept to transform teaching in 2015 and created a clear path for broader implementation in the 2016-17 school year. The district provided each funded team with an experienced advisor to push the school’s thinking, provided access to networks and expertise, and provided project management and change management coaching.

SJUSD is a shining example of how a district can tap into the passion of school leaders and teachers and provide support without the use of top-down mandates. The district showed that school transformation is truly an iterative process that can be catalyzed and accelerated when there is district-wide support for a culture of innovation and when school leaders are committed to establishing a strong school culture focused on learning and collective responsibility.

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Author(s): Monica Martinez
Tags: Education, Education Reform, School Redesign, School Reform
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