Our Actionable Routes to Deeper Learning

BY JASON E. GLASS/School Administrator, June 2020

Superintendent Jason Glass expects teachers to assign student tasks that contribute to deeper learning in the Jefferson County, Colo., Public Schools. PHOTO COURTESY OF WALKING MOUNTAINS SCIENCE CENTER, AVON, COLO.
How do we bring about deeper learning for all students in a system that is highly site autonomous and in a political environment that values high test scores?

For the past three years, that is the challenge Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado has tackled. Serving 85,000 students in 155 schools over much of the western portion of the Denver metro area, the district serves a diverse mixture of communities ranging from affluent suburbs to middle-class neighborhoods to urban areas to more remote mountain towns.

Our schools also are diverse in their instructional philosophies. Within the district’s neighborhood, charter and “option” school portfolio, approaches cover the gamut from more traditional models (Core Knowledge and classical academies) to constructivist models (International Baccalaureate, expeditionary learning) to specialized schools (STEM, career and technical education, and arts integration).

Targeting Tasks

Our district needed a way to focus the work of practitioners across the district on deeper learning that also could transcend different school models and instructional philosophies. We targeted the student “task” as that leverage point.

Regardless of the pedagogical approach, at some point every teacher assigns work to students. This serves as the task, and it presents the best opportunity for deeper learning.

Jeffco asks its teachers to “transform the task” as our central reform. This means large-scale shifts to problem- and project-based learning and sup-porting teachers in the design of opportunities for students to practice skills. These skills include collaboration, self-direction and personal responsibility, creative and complex problem solving, agility and adaptability, and civic and global engagement in their work.

A Central Role

The district continues to allow for considerable site-based autonomy. Yet we also are clearing the way for deeper learning by focusing staff professional learning on transformed student tasks and by connecting emerging best practices and innovations from teachers.

We recognize we must be accountable for results on state standardized measures and are taking steps to ensure high expectations and content knowledge are central to the student experience.

We also can’t have this work be “hands-on but minds-off.” We are using problem- and project-based approaches in the work our students are doing and demonstrating skills that prepare them for this fast-paced, globally interconnected and automated world. But tasks also need to be anchored in academic content standards.

Four-Step Model

The district also has implemented a four-step continuous improvement approach we call the “Jeffco Deeper Learning Model.” The steps include aligning student experiences to high expectations and academic content, creating learner-centered teaching practices that support all students to get to deeper learning, using both systemwide and classroom-based formative measures and performance criteria to evaluate student progress, and using data-driven processes to determine next steps for student mastery.

This structure is not novel or flashy by design. Our teachers are familiar with continuous improvement models. The difference comes with the intentional design of student tasks that, while rooted in content knowledge, give students by design the chance to practice a whole set of deeper learning skills that we believe will be essential to their future success.

JASON GLASS is superintendent and chief learner of Jefferson County Public Schools in Golden, Colo. Twitter: @COJasonGlass