July 13, 2024

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Education, What Else?

What Is the Secret Sauce for Deeper Learning?

10 min read
What Is the Secret Sauce for Deeper Learning?

Listen to the interview with Sarah Fine (transcript):

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Ask most adults if they remember anything they learned in high school, and what you’re likely to hear is a lot of different versions of no. Ask most high school kids if they remember what they learned last year, and you’ll probably get the same answer. Although exceptions certainly exist, it’s not a stretch to say that a lot of what happens in schools doesn’t really qualify as deep learning. In too many cases, what happens in schools today doesn’t look much different than it did decades ago: seat work, memorization, and regurgitation of a discrete body of knowledge and skills. Students who are successful are the ones who have learned how to play the game, while everyone else falls short in one way or another. 

As educators, we’ve been able to describe this problem for a long time, and many teachers and schools have attempted to change it by implementing new strategies, changing curriculum, sometimes building whole schools designed to create more opportunities for rich, authentic, relevant learning.

So what’s working? Which of these approaches are getting results? What are they actually doing in the places where students are engaged in deep learning?

These were the questions Sarah Fine asked over ten years ago. Sarah was a graduate student at Harvard Graduate School of education, where she and Jal Mehta, an assistant professor, decided to go on a sort of quest, a nationwide search for schools that had created environments where deep learning was happening. The plan was to observe these schools and extract some general principles that others could follow.

While they were surprised (and disappointed) by what they found, they did find deep learning in some classrooms. From these, they were able to extract the “secret sauce” — a kind of formula for cultivating deep learning in any classroom. They shared their findings in their 2019 book, In Search of Deeper Learning.

On the podcast, Sarah Fine talked with me about what teachers and school leaders can do to bring more of that secret sauce into their learning spaces. The episode and full transcript are above; here is a summary of our conversation.

What is Deeper Learning?

To understand Fine and Mehta’s project, it helps to get a clear definition of what “deep learning” means to them; as Fine acknowledges, “We are far from the only ones who have thought about that.” So what exactly is deep learning in their terms?

“In the book,” she explains, “we ended up distilling deep learning to three domains that when interconnected in the experience of learners tend to produce really powerful, rich, enduring learning.” Those interconnected domains are identity, mastery, and creativity. When all three of these are present, it’s likely that deeper learning is happening.

Domain 1: Identity

“When kids see what is happening in school as connected to who they are, what they know, and maybe what they want to become,” Fine says, “there’s something very important that happens there. If you have to start somewhere, start with figuring out what kids want to know, what they care about, what they already do know and wonder about the world, who they might want to become, and see if you can use that as a launching point.”

Domain 2: Mastery

Fine describes mastery as “developing really rich conceptual knowledge and ability to execute something in some domain. Actually being able to do the work of a discipline, to think in the ways of that field or discipline…getting how something works, not just knowing a bunch of disconnected stuff. So, for example, understanding the role of the human heart in the body is not just about being able to label where the human heart is on a diagram or being able to spit out a definition. It’s actually systems knowledge that’s connected to other pieces of knowledge.”

Domain 3: Creativity

“We think about creativity as not just receiving knowledge but being able to…produce something novel or something that has utility to the world, or meaning, or beauty, or something that hasn’t been done or made before,” Fine says. “So it’s not just creativity in the sense of like the arts, but it’s more like, okay, you know something about the human heart. Try to design an artificial heart based on what you know about what the heart needs to do. And too often we don’t see that in classrooms. But when we do, it’s just incredible what happens for kids.”

Fine points out that these three elements are interconnected. “So the more you know about something, the more you might start to see yourself as somebody who has a relationship to that thing, and creating something in a domain similarly might change your sense of self. Like, oh, I’m not just somebody who can solve a math problem on paper. I’m somebody who can use math in the world to solve an engineering problem.”

Where is Deeper Learning Happening?

When Fine and Mehta set off to find examples of deeper learning, they assumed they would find it in places that had been ostensibly set up for that purpose, innovative schools built on a foundation of project-based learning, exclusive schools that were known for strong academic programs, and charters that had reported remarkable academic gains.

To their surprise, they found that none of these places offered deeper learning across the board; in fact, in some of them, they were hard-pressed to find much deep learning at all. What they did find, however, were pockets of excellent, deep learning in nearly every school they visited, individual teachers who designed and delivered rich, engaging learning experiences for their students in public schools, private schools, schools with excellent resources, and those without.

Sarah Fine

One place that was a consistent source of deep learning was what Fine and Mehta referred to as “the periphery,” elective classes like art and robotics and extracurriculars like debate and athletics that are outside of what we consider to be the core academic classes. “Nobody talks very much about what’s going on in those spaces,” Fine says, “and yet they were the places where we saw the richest learning happening.” In these spaces, much of what they call the “grammar” of school is different: Students are there by choice, they have opportunities for apprenticeship and leadership, they can specialize in a subdomain of the field, and there’s usually a real product being produced for an authentic audience.

In the book, the authors used a school theater program as an example of this kind of learning at the periphery.

“In a place like theater, different kids have different domains of expertise. There are kids who are good at the lights, kids who are good at the staging, kids who are painting the set, kids who are doing the acting, kids who are helping pull it all together, making sure those things are coordinated. So there’s room for kids to get good at different things and to lean into their strengths and not have to be good at everything. But also, they all have to work together to produce something that not any one of them could do on their own. Rather than this kind of independent, meritocratic, individualistic way of approaching learning, it’s actually, no, we’re trying to produce something important and new and, and big, and none of us can do it alone. And we can’t do it if we’re all doing the same thing at the same time. We actually have to rely on each other’s brilliance and skills, and we need to find a way to coordinate those things in order to mount this production. And that’s just a really different way of structuring a learning community than what core academic classes do.”

What Classroom Elements are Needed to Nurture Deeper Learning?

In every class where Fine and Mehta observed deeper learning, certain elements were present in the instructional design. Teachers who want to add more depth to the learning in their classrooms should start with these.

Depth over Breadth

Rather than rush through the curriculum with shallow coverage of as many topics as possible, go deeper on a smaller number of ideas.

“Marching through a curriculum just to cover it,” Fine says, “I don’t think there are many teachers out there who actually enjoy or believe in doing that. There’s a lot of teachers who feel bound to do it and they feel constrained. But we talked to so many teachers who had a high level of hunger to do things differently. They just didn’t feel either able to imagine what it would look like or supported to try it. I think a lot of teachers have at least a little bit of wiggle room to try to be like, okay, we’re just going to do less, but what we do do, we’re going to go deeper and I’m going to allow for more choice, and I’m going to, you know, think about how kids can really build deep conceptual understandings of something rather than, you know, making it to the end of the chapter.”

Student Choice

Even if students don’t have a choice about whether to take a class that’s required, the teacher of a core academic subject can still offer some choice within that course. Fine suggests that teachers help students identify what aspects of the course are most compelling to them, and then have them go deep on those strands.

“If you’re in a history classroom where you’re studying revolutions and trying to come up with some theory about why revolutions happen,” she says, “you have different kids who might for different reasons that could tie to their identities and their curiosity and their background, pick different revolutions to study.” So rather than learning about a series of revolutions over a long span of time, students go deep on one that interests them the most, and then they present their learning to their peers, which spreads more of the content throughout the group.

Authentic Audience

“The difference between turning something in to your teacher and then getting a grade and performing or sharing that learning with an audience that is not just your teacher is really profound,” Fine says.

The audience doesn’t have to be anything big; it can be people right inside the building. “At the very least, have kids share their work with each other. That’s the starting point. Have them share their work with other members of the school community, other grade levels, maybe at an all-school assembly. Have older kids write storybooks to teach younger kids.”

At a more ambitious level, you can start looking toward a wider audience. “Invite community members in who have a stake in the questions you are exploring and who might be experts on the thing that you’re working on,” Fine suggests. “Maybe you’re working on a policy dilemma, trying to understand it that’s relevant to policymakers or community members or just voters. Bring those folks in to share your work with, or mount a performance, a theater performance or a music performance or something. Or put it up on the web for the world to see. There are all kinds of ways to think about audience, but I think the moment that you start thinking about the work that kids are doing being seen by others, you open up an opportunity for more motivation.”

Start by Going Down the Hall

One of the big takeaways from Mehta and Fine’s book is that you don’t have to be in a special school to design deeper learning experiences for your students; in fact, those experiences are probably already happening right down the hall. So if you’re thinking your classroom could use a deeper learning upgrade, start by looking into your colleagues’ classrooms.

And you might want to prioritize the periphery. “If you’re a core academic teacher, go to an art class,” Fine says. “Go to a music class. Go to an elective. And rather than thinking, I have a textbook and they don’t, so I can’t do that, I think the mentality should be, What is the logic and the stance here? And how can I bring that into my room, given the constraints I work within?

“If you’re a teacher working in a 2,000-kid building,” she says, “there are bound to be a lot of colleagues who have figured some stuff out. If you can just get out of your room and get into some other classrooms and just start to absorb some of what you see, that’s a really powerful starting place.”


Sarah Fine, Ed.D., is the Director of the San Diego Teacher Residency at High Tech High Graduate School of Education. You can find her on Twitter at @sarahmfine.


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