High School Seniors Talk Turkey about Deeper Learning

November 29, 2011
Lydia Dobyns

Lydia Dobyns

Deeper Learning delivers the skills and knowledge students will need to succeed in a world that is changing at an unprecedented pace. Earlier this month, the Deeper Learning Community of Practice gathered to answer the question: “What do Deeper Learning teachers know and do?”

Deeper Learning teachers prepare students to:

• Master core academic content
• Think critically and solve complex problems
• Work collaboratively
• Communicate effectively
• Learn how to learn (e.g., self-directed learning)

The time spent with colleagues was invaluable, exchanging ideas and sharing classroom experiences. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the convening was the time spent hearing what students thought about Deeper Learning, and how it had affected their academic lives.

Sam Warren is a senior at Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis. Sam was both a tour guide prior to the Summit and a guest panelist at the event. I asked Sam about his experiences at Da Vinci.

“The environment at Da Vinci is collaborative in nature,” said Sam. “It’s not necessarily all about group projects in the literal sense, but a place where people are looking to learn from each other, rather than compete with each other all the time. It is a very intellectually involved, warm and welcoming community.”

I asked Sam to give me an example of a collaborative project of which he is very proud. Without hesitation, he explained that his recent project on World War I, where he collaborated with a student who has significant expertise in video making, enabled him to meld his deep interest in history and narrative with his colleague’s multimedia capabilities. The result was a pictorial essay on the War that both students consider a significant academic achievement.

At the Deeper Learning Summit, Sam participated in working groups that examined exemplary student work intended to provide evidence of Deeper Learning. This led me to ask him what he gained from having teachers that all use Project-Based Learning (PBL). “Based on what was discussed at the conference,” explained Sam, “I learned that Deeper Learning teachers have a really good balance of structure in their assignments — to guide students in the right direction and give them a good framework so they can have high achievements with their work. These teachers also provide enough flexibility for the student to pursue learning in areas where they have interest. Students have the right to bend the rules with the help of the teacher for the sake of their learning.”

Sam pointed to an example of student work that was of particular interest. It was a 9th grade project that assessed the energy usage of schools in their city, and then, based on that assessment, recommended changes to the mayor. The changes were adopted and saved energy over a period of years.

So what was it like for Sam to participate in the working group? According to Sam, “Being there at the conference was a Deeper Learning experience in itself. We were discussing issues that were of real importance. I also found it fascinating to watch the process by which the teacher and administrator participants discussed their thoughts about each example of work that was presented in the panel. They respectfully expressed disagreement with their colleagues as well as tried to synthesize their ideas with their tablemates. Having attendees who come from a Deeper Learning culture created a very productive atmosphere at the conference.”

Sam believes that these Deeper Learning teachers really “walk the walk”. They employ what they learn through Deeper Learning every day, not just at conferences. “After the conference, I attended the weekly teacher collaboration meeting at Da Vinci,” he said. “I saw in this meeting that the teachers were having really important discussions. They have a collaborative mindset and know how to work in groups – much as they are teaching us students to do.”

How does Sam feel he will benefit long term from having attended Da Vinci? “I’m much better at communicating with all sorts of people in many different ways,” he said. “I’ve been taught to properly communicate with peers, teachers and community members. And I’ve learned how to prepare and give presentations, which is tremendously helpful as I make my way through high school and into college.”

I asked Sam if he thought Da Vinci helped him figure out what he wanted from a college experience. “Attending Da Vinci made me aware of the options I had,” said Sam. “I always knew I wanted to study the classics. I figured I’d complete high school, attend a large public university and become a classics professor. For someone interested in the classics, that was a somewhat conventional life plan. But attending Da Vinci broadened my outlook. Learning through PBL and having the technological resources to explore the world through the Internet showed me there were many other options open to me besides attending a big university and becoming a professor. That’s not to say I won’t choose that career path. But I now know there are other possibilities.”

“My first choice for college is Haverford College, outside of Philadelphia. I am applying for early admission. My reasons for selecting Haverford are similar to why I’ve so enjoyed my experience at Da Vinci. The teachers are very involved with the students. Haverford is a very welcoming community with a culture that encourages collaboration. And students are expected to work together and learn from each other. That is the same philosophy I am experiencing at Da Vinci.”
So much is said about standardized testing and whether it is a reliable assessment. It seemed appropriate to find out what Sam thought.

“I’m very skeptical of the ACT and SAT as a reliable method of assessment,” said Sam. “But of course that’s easy for me to say because I am not proposing an alternative. I believe some people who are very intelligent do not perform well on these tests. From what I’ve seen and read, low performance on these standardized tests does not mean these students will be unsuccessful in college. I also see a great deal of time and money spent on test preparation – classes and tutors. Students pay to take test prep classes that are designed to raise your scores without improving your learning. The student spends so much time in these classes rather than using that time to do something of interest or of benefit long term. The same goes for the writing section of the exam. When you think about it, there is probably no other time in your life when you need to sit down for 25 minutes and write an essay about a random topic. I don’t believe this writing assignment says anything meaningful about candidates for college admission that is particularly relevant. And it could penalize good writers. A test that emphasizes Deeper Learning is potentially a better option.”

Sam’s definition of Deeper Learning is very comprehensive. “Deeper learners engage with content to such an extent that they develop high level analytical and critical thinking skills that they can apply to other things, rather than just memorizing facts or ways of thinking and then just using these facts in very specific situations. This is the bottom line of Deeper Learning for the student.” What is a Deeper Learning education? “It’s the constant reinforcement of the idea that we are stronger if we work together,” said Sam.

Sam is a remarkable young man, who seems ready for college. The power of Deeper Learning is that we have discovered that Sam is not the exception, but rather affirmation that his high school experience is duplicated every day in hundreds of schools around the country. Students want to master core academic content. They want to work collaboratively, think critically, and communicate effectively. They want to learn how to learn. Now if only the adults could learn to work together to provide this type of learning everywhere.