Powerful Learning at the Periphery
Can we make students as excited for school before the final bell as they are for what comes after?
BY JAL D. MEHTA/School Administrator, June 2020

Jal Mehta is a professor at
Harvard Graduate School of
When my colleague Sarah Fine and I set out to study deep or powerful learning in the American high school, we started with core classes — math, English, history, science. But despite the fact that the 30 public schools we chose came highly recommended, much of what we saw was disappointing.

Lots of worksheets. Most tasks residing in the bottom half of Bloom’s taxonomy, with classroom assignments directing students to recall or apply but only rarely to analyze, synthesize or create. When we asked students why they were doing what they were doing, the answers were often dispiritingly similar: “I dunno,” “For college, I guess” and, in one memorable instance, “Ask that girl over there; she’s the one who knows what’s going on in this class.”

We also had opportunities to talk privately with superintendents and other administrators about the education of their own children. And here, in unvarnished moments, speaking as parents rather than professionals, they express remarkably similar sentiments. They worry their kids are doing too many worksheets. They fear their kids see school as something to be endured rather than en-joyed. As one told us, “I just want my daughter to want to go to school.”

Students as Producers

At the same time, in these same schools, we did see a model of powerful learning — in extracurricular programs and elective courses. In extracurricular spaces that ranged from theater to debate to newspaper to arts and athletics, we saw a much more potent approach to learning.

These spaces were places where students saw a clear purpose to their efforts and where teachers functioned more as coaches than as instructors. Students described these spaces as filled with community and feeling “like family.” Students were teachers as well as learners, as younger students apprenticed to older ones.

Students experienced high levels of agency in these spaces. They had chosen to be there. They were expected to be producers rather than passive recipients of information, and they were often leading the efforts with adults guiding from the side.

They also were examples of what my Harvard colleague David Perkins calls “the whole game at the junior level.” Perkins’ point is that when you learn something like baseball, you don’t spend a year throwing, a year catching, a year batting, and then play an actual baseball game when you get to graduate school. Rather you do it all from the start, mistakes and all, which keeps excitement alive, gives you a sense of the whole, and instills the need to keep working on the parts.

We did find some academic classes, frequently in electives but also occasionally in core subjects, that were similarly compelling. The teachers in these spaces did many of the things that we saw in the extracurriculars. They slowed down, moving away from a race to cover content to, instead, creating space for students’ questions, ideas, and in-depth investigations in their arenas. They motivated students with real purposes — things to be made and exhibited beyond the classroom walls or essential questions that connected to deep queries of the students. They wove more basic content through these deeper tasks. Much as a baseball game can motivate a student to take 100 groundballs in practice, they embedded grammar lessons in letters students were writing to the city council.

And, finally, the best teachers we found were themselves intellectually alive, professionally participating in their domains and constantly wondering about the subjects they taught and the ways in which they might connect to their students. Writing teachers were still writing. Theater directors were active in regional theater. One English teacher told us he saw “everything as text” — that every book, movie, podcast or even advertisement he consumed was an opportunity to deconstruct meaning and to think about which might be generative for his students.

Emerging Patterns

How can we make these exceptions the rule? How can we make the core more like the periphery? How can we make it so that when our own kids come home from school, they are eager to tell us what they learned, to show us what they were doing and making? How can we do so equitably and for all students?

We have been investigating these questions in a community of practice of a dozen superintendents (known as the Deeper Learning Dozen) across the United States and British Columbia. We also have been influenced by the work of several school districts that are collaborating with Ed Leader 21 and Next Generation Learning Challenges, some of whom have been at this work for a decade or more.

Many lessons are coming out of this work. No district has a solution entirely figured out, but some interesting patterns are emerging.

The first thing to recognize is that you, and the systems you have inherited, are a big part of the problem. When I give this talk at the school level, the first question that teachers ask is whether I’ve given this talk to their boss. Teachers consistently reported that state tests, teacher evaluation systems and district pacing guides are the three biggest obstacles to deepening learning in their classrooms.

So it starts with setting a different direction. Some districts have used a process known as “Portrait of a Graduate,” which asks a variety of stakeholders to think together about the qualities they hope their students will possess when they graduate. Stakeholders include teachers, parents, community members and, vitally, students. The focus always is on big personal capabilities — critical thinking, collaboration, empathy, ethical decision making, character, citizenship — and never on the kind of detailed and sometimes arcane knowledge toward which today’s schools are oriented.

A next step is to translate this big picture vision into something specific and concrete. One of our districts, Jefferson County, Colo., has set as their North Star a concept they call “Transform the Task,” which sets as a goal that every task in every classroom be challenging, engaging and relevant. The district is highlighting model tasks developed by teachers, providing rubrics, and creating opportunities for horizontal sharing among teachers, steps which are building considerable momentum for a new pedagogical agenda. (See related article.)

An aligned step is to prune the standards. The province of British Columbia has zeroed in on three to six “big ideas” (organizing ideas) and five to 10 curricular competencies (skills) that educators want students to address for each grade and subject. It ensures students will investigate key areas of content that policymakers and the public think are important, but it also creates enough time and flexibility for teachers to explore those topics in some depth.

Teachers as Pros

Professional learning among teachers is perhaps the most needed shift. Teachers are being asked to re-envision their roles, to see themselves less as deliverers of knowledge and more as expert guides who lead investigations into different fields and their attendant possibilities.

To this end, we need to relate to and treat teachers as intellectual beings, professionals whose ideas and passions need to be respected, not as widgets in a machine. This means that teachers need more control and agency over their learning (much as students need control and agency over their learning) and that the most valuable form of learning for them will likely come from sustained interactions with master teachers in their fields, not from consultants or one-off workshops.

Think boldly when acting on these ambitions. One school district, in Cowichan, British Columbia, started a new school that the superintendent hoped would pioneer a different vision of learning. When the teachers arrived at the school, they found it had no furniture. Well, said the superintendent, define your vision of learning and think about how you want to achieve it — then tell me what kind of furniture would be most useful, and I will order it!

School districts also have found they need a different change process to achieve different ends. You can’t mandate powerful learning. The more you try, the more resistance you will face. Instead, after galvanizing a vision for a new direction, you want to invite people into the change process.

Ask teachers about their most powerful learning experiences. Then ask them what they could do — and what you would need to change to make space for them — to create such experiences for their students. Start with the willing adopters, but make sure there is an on-ramp for the next circle out — those who are intrigued but aren’t the first to volunteer. If you can win over this middle group — ignore the out-and-out resistors — you have a fighting chance of significant and sustainable change.

Owning Their Decisions

While the scale of desired change is significant, you don’t need to have it all figured out in advance. Much existing advice on change processes is still rooted in the Newtonian mechanics we are trying to escape. It assumes you are the one who decides the key goals and maps all of the actions that will bring those goals into being.

What we’re learning from our districts is an alternative and higher-capacity change strategy: Galvanize a common purpose, yes, but then distribute leadership and allow many groups to work in different ways toward those ends. You might have one group working on how to make the curriculum more anti-racist. There might be a high school studying how to remake the schedule to create longer blocks. There might be a space committee thinking about how to construct a new school in a way that enables more cross-disciplinary collaboration. And a professional learning team figuring out how to onboard new teachers in ways consistent with your overall instructional vision.

Exactly what these groups decide matters less than that they will own the decisions that they make. And, whenever possible, each of these groups should include students, as ultimately they are the ones the system is seeking to serve.

Powerful learning experiences already exist in our schools. We know what they look and feel like. But much of the grammar of our schools works against them, which is why some of the most engaged learning today is taking place at the periphery rather than at the core. We have the power to change this. We just need to change that grammar so that students are as excited for school before the final bell as they are for what comes after. 

JAL MEHTA is professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. He is co-author with Sarah Fine of In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School (Harvard University Press, 2019). Twitter: @jal_mehta