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School leaders should aim for deeper learning to enable a more engaging, personal, and equitable means of teaching and learning.

Moving from industrial education to deeper learning

A superintendent shares his district’s multi-year journey to make school more engaging, personal, and equitable

Key points:

Today’s students need to develop a broad and well-rounded body of knowledge. When this is compartmentalized into different areas of expertise, however, they may not develop the tools to integrate information and skills from disparate areas when they begin working at jobs that we can’t even imagine today. If we can move beyond the industrial model and engage in place-based education that connects to the community outside the school, teachers can still be experts, but they can also be facilitators who open the door to a world of potential partners with their own areas of expertise.

The industrial model has also put us out of touch with the human side of education. There has been some effort to bring the human touch back with the increased focus on social-emotional learning (SEL), but educators need to put that work at the core of what they’re doing.

Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) is addressing these issues by adopting the competencies, or learning dispositions, of deeper Learning. The original Deeper Learning Network was established in 2010 by the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation to serve as a source of innovation. The network of 10 school networks spans a mix of charter and traditional public schools across 41 states and serves more than 200,000 students. Each school network has a unique approach to delivering deeper learning with a shared purpose to promote better educational outcomes for young people. Deeper learning creates profound experiences that tap into each learner’s uniqueness and that are rooted in connection, relationship, and creativity.

Here’s how this approach is transforming our teaching and learning, along with some advice on finding entry points to this kind of work in your own district.

Overcoming the challenges of school transformation

Embracing deeper learning poses the same challenges inherent in any school transformation. How will we prepare students for state assessments? Where will we find time to reach out to and collaborate with community partners? What if we don’t do a particular activity that’s tied to an evaluation?

A school or district’s values are expressed most explicitly in its schedule and budget. If we have eight periods in a day and decide students need six academic subjects, a lunch, and a period of physical education, what is the value statement here? Does that mean we need shorter periods to add one to the day? Does it mean that we train our teachers to offer relationship and human-centric education one day a week, or ask teachers of academic subjects to spend a certain amount of time on it each week? These solutions each have costs, but if relationships are important to us, we’ll find a way to include building them into our schedule and within our budget.

After the onset of COVID-19, district leaders realized that students needed SEL more now than ever and found creative ways to squeeze it into their existing schedule–and, in time, many found ways to scale and incorporate it more fully and naturally into their schedule and budget.

And so it is with deeper learning. Something as critical as school transformation can’t happen overnight, but every school and district has entry points to begin to do this work in ways that make sense for students, teachers, and communities.

Moving toward deeper learning in our own district

Ulster BOCES began working toward deeper learning with our partners at High Tech High a decade ago. We were focused on learning how to create an environment to support the kinds of relationships we wanted to help build between teachers and students. That’s where the magic happens. In the school environment, teachers have the greatest and most direct impact on students.

The role of leadership is important as well, and over time we began to think about the conditions that allow for excitement, experimentation, failure, and revision to occur. Those conditions and the disposition behind them are the same for high school students as they are for adult learners. Our leadership team started asking its members:

  • What are the leadership moves we need to make so that our teachers feel good about stepping into this role and feel ready to be designers of these kinds of experiences?
  • Are we leading in a way that models for our teachers how we’d like to see our students learning?
  • Are we asking teachers to engage in the same process we would like to see them create in the classroom?

In the fall of 2023, we held a superintendent conference where, for the first time, we invited all of Ulster BOCES’ staff members, including custodial, food service, and clerical, to begin thinking together about the protocols, structures, and equity-based dispositions that drive toward deeper learning. The main theme of the day was connection: revitalization of old connections and the forging of new ones. It was an opportunity to think about who we are as an organization and where we want to go next. It included acknowledging that we want to do things differently, while highlighting all the amazing things we do in our district that we want to continue.

Once we made the commitment to deeper learning, micro-moments of change began happening all around the district as individual teachers learned and jumped in. That is often the case with institutional innovation–change occurs in tiny pockets. Innovation can be a lonely place; it is our role as district leaders to stitch those pockets together into a quilt that all can share.

Identifying your district’s entry points

Sometimes the entry point for transformation is as simple as shifting your professional development opportunities to allow your teachers to learn the way you want their students to learn.

In the specific case of deeper learning, I recommend experiencing it in action. This summer, Ulster BOCES will be hosting Deeper Learning New York 2024 (#DLNY24), a conference designed to help school and district administrators explore entry points for this work and begin planning next steps. As participants engage in interactive workshops, immerse themselves in deep dives, and attend dynamic den talks, they’ll have the opportunity to experience deeper learning from the student’s point of view.

Student voices should also inform the shape that transformation takes. Bring them together to talk about what they would like to see before you begin and continue the dialogue about their experiences as you begin to make changes. Ask them what is different in their experiences, how their opportunities have changed, and what new possibilities they imagine going forward.

Along the way, take a peek beyond the industrial education system as it exists. High Tech High (HTH) has many resources and examples of how powerful deeper learning can be. No two school districts are exactly the same, and our entry points to this work–and the new models we’ll come up with as a result–will vary accordingly. HTH is a leader in this work, but there are many other districts and schools across the country undergoing similar transformations. If the HTH approach to deeper learning won’t fit within the context of your district, find administrators interested in transformation at districts that are more similar to yours.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The point is continuous improvement toward a more engaging, personal, and equitable means of teaching and learning. Along the way, don’t be afraid to explore. Some districts are further ahead in certain areas than others, but we’re all trying to solve the same problems. Together, we are going to build a boundary-free network to have these conversations. If you have an appetite for change, let’s figure out together what’s possible.

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