Thanks to my time as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow I came across a book written by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School. You can find an interview with the authors on an episode of the Harvard EdCast podcast. I spent about three plane trips reading the book and tagging pages with tiny ripped up post-it notes. I tagged pages that resonated with me about how efforts in various schools were either succeeding or falling short in their deeper learning efforts.
Before I go on, it's necessary and useful to describe what we mean by deeper learning. In a 2015 report for the Deeper Learning Research Series, the Mehta and Fine say:
"There is no consensus on exactly how to define deeper learning. One prominent definition argues that deeper learning results when learners are able to develop significant understanding of core academic content, exhibit critical thinking and problem-solving, collaborate, communicate, direct their own learning, and possess an academic mindset (Hewlett Foundation n.d.). Our research has led us to emphasize a related approach that suggests that deeper learning often emerges at the intersection of mastery, identity, and creativity."
TLDR: "Deeper learning is the understanding of not just the surface features of a subject or discipline, but the underlying structures or ideas."
(Harvard Gazette Interview with Jal Mehta in August of 2019.)
Mehta and Fine visited dozens of American high schools and observed and interviewed students and teachers in each. In their book they take a deep dive into the workings of four representative high schools which they dub:
- Dewey High - an all project based learning "progressive" school
- No Excuses High - a charter school with an emphasis on college prep and AP
- IB High - An all International Baccalaureate program (incld. exc. ed. kiddos)
- Comprehensive High - a traditional comprehensive high school
Their observations and interviews both in classroom settings and after school co-curricular programs led them to the following list of common conditions present where they observed deeper learning:
- students are active producers rather than passive participants
- learning by doing rather than by transmission
- clear purposes & external audiences rather than simply working to please the teacher
- multi-age grouping rather than age-graded classrooms
- integration of students with different skill levels rather than tracking
- learning through apprenticeship rather than didactic instruction
Great! Now how do I design my courses so those conditions are present? The last section of the book on Deeper Teaching doesn't give specifics but does give goals and options. The authors state that there are multiple valid strategies to foster deeper learning both in and out of the classroom. As I read this section however I was struck by a quote from a math teacher they called Mr. Martin: "Our purpose is not to get them into college; our purpose is to give students power. The idea is to help students become mathematicians, which means they have to do what real mathematicians do - discover, innovate, and meet a real intellectual need." Mr. Martin emphasized building mathematical identities rather than covering mathematical content. You can replace math and mathematical in his quote with whatever other field you like and get an idea of a goal of deeper learning.
I've been investigating Physics Modeling Instruction over the past few months as well and I see so much in common with what Mehta, Fine, and Mr. Martin are arguing for. After reading In Search of Deeper Learning, it seemed to me that at least a few of the teachers they interviewed and quoted were science modelers and I was even more determined to take a class from the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA). In January this year I began the online course, Introduction to Modeling Teaching which runs through April--more on that in a future post. I am really looking forward to returning to teaching in August and working with students (hopefully face-to-face) to build their physics identities and empowering them to thrive.