Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: May 2019
Reflections of a teaching high school principal on learning strategies, student engagement and leadership within the context of knowledge, deep learning and how best to navigate the redesigned curriculum.
By Paul Hembling
My interest in Deeper Learning began early in my teaching career. In 2001 when I wrote my Masters Thesis, we referred to it as “Meaningful Learning,” based on the work of B Watson, R Konicek, JD Novak, JJ Mintzes, JH Wandersee, AL Odom and their contemporaries. I recognized the difference between students who could memorize well and regurgitate facts on a test, and those who could make meaningful (or deep) connections among concepts and successfully apply that knowledge to novel scenarios or problems when presented with them. As a young teacher working to hone my craft, I was passionate about finding classroom strategies to facilitate this meaningful, deep learning with my students.
Deeper Learning has become a goal of school reform efforts globally as we come to realize that systemically our current efforts to teach are falling short of what students need to learn.
“As the nation’s only truly ‘common’ institution, public schools play a critical role in helping students to build the capacities that will allow them to thrive as adults. Unfortunately, however, a large body of evidence suggests that the current system falls short of preparing most (or even many) students for the realities [of the future]” (Mehta & Fine, 2018, p. 11). Last year I took two of my teacher-leaders to the Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High in San Diego, California. Over the course of the three-day conference, we saw many strategies designed to engage students in their learning, to allow students to pursue their passions, and to challenge students to think critically, collaborate, solve problems, innovate… the list goes on. Is this Deeper Learning? Probably these are strategies that can lead to Deeper Learning, but the actual learning that happens with students doesn’t necessarily align with any one particular set of approaches. “There is no consensus on exactly how best to define deeper learning. According to one prominent definition, for example, deeper learning refers to the mastery of core academic content, as well as critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, communication, self-directed learning, and the development of an academic mindset” (Mehta & Fine, 2017, p. 14). There is no one model, therefore, that we can point to as the definitive exemplar.
Being a principal in a rural school offers me the opportunity to stay connected to the classroom. In rural schools in my district, there is an expectation that Vice Principals teach half-time (two blocks each semester). Rather than assign this teaching load to my VP, we split the four blocks between the two of us so that each of us teaches one class per semester.
Being back in the classroom this year after having not had a regular teaching assignment for the previous 5 years (I had no VP last year, and was an Elementary principal for the previous 4 years) has been a grounding and enlightening experience for me. Since the last time I had a regular classroom teaching assignment, much has changed: the advent of the BC EdPlan, the ensuing implementation of the redesigned curriculum, and the introduction of Personalized Learning strategies in our schools. As a school principal throughout that time, I have been the champion of numerous “personalizing” teaching strategies and school-wide initiatives designed to better engage learners in content and to allow them to pursue their passions in a substantive way within and across subject areas. Prior to this school year, however, I have not had the opportunity to walk the leadership talk I have been immersed in with my staffs. This year has been an awesome opportunity for me to reconnect my pedagogical rubber with the road.
In my teaching role, I have revisited both the redesigned curriculum and my pedagogical
strategies. Although I have been teaching senior courses this year (grades 11 & 12) for which the redesigned curriculum has not yet been implemented, I have been trying many new strategies with my students and opening up the curriculum to allow students more voice, choice, and flexibility in terms of the projects they choose, the people they work with, and the modes through which they demonstrate their learning. In many ways it feels like putting on an old, favourite shoe from the back of the closet: I am reminded of how many great strategies I had years ago are still relevant and effective today; my own knowledge of the content (and the likely pitfalls my students will face) is still valid, and it truly feels good to be back in the classroom working directly with students.
In other ways, returning to the classroom has required significant growth and adaptation on my part as I am no longer teaching to a government exam. For example, this is my first experience teaching Biology 12 without a provincial exam for which to prepare students, and I am realizing first-hand the amount of time required to truly open up the curriculum and allow student interest to guide our studies in the course. I was simultaneously horrified and pleased when at the end of the first semester this past January we finished the “course” a full two units behind in Biology 12 (Ack!… er… I mean, yay?). I now know first-hand that there is truly no possible way to go both “broadly” and “deeply” in a content-rich subject; breadth and depth are mutually exclusive in a time-restricted learning framework. Still, if Deeper Learning is truly the goal, I do feel that I achieved a “depth of learning” with my students that was greater than what they have demonstrated in the past. Students were engaged, interested in their learning, and had many options for how they showed me what they knew. I inserted student projects/presentations into several units where groups of students chose to research a curricular sub-topic then presented their learning to the class using their format of choice (thankfully they were not all PowerPoints). We co-developed the rubric in advance, and the level of engagement and participation, both by the students presenting and the students learning from their presentations, was palpable. It was both exhausting and satisfying at the same time – for me and for them.
We actually hit a point where several students asked for a break from projects in favour of a more traditional “stand and deliver” model for one of our units. Admittedly this did feel oddly satisfying. Following this experience of falling short of what I would have previously considered “course completion”, however, there continues to be cognitive dissonance around the benefit of depth versus breadth for me as an educator. My students did well on the units we completed, and my perception is that they enjoyed the opportunity to go deeper. As for the missing units that were the casualty of this depth, I would like to hear from the students who go on in Biology what the impact was on their University studies. Did they feel disadvantaged by this, or did the added depth bring a comparable benefit that was a fair, or even beneficial, trade?
Following the release of Dylan Wiliam’sbook, “Creating the Schools Our Children Need”, Wiliam talks with Anthony McKay about “why what we’re doing now won’t help much” from the perspective of system and pedagogical design (Wiliam, 2019). I found this interview and a following audio-conference with Tony MacKay himself (MacKay, 2019) really interesting from the perspective of instruction, assessment, and the economics of key drivers in education. Being back in the classroom this year, I found Wiliam’s description of the importance of content, and what it truly means to be “knowledgeable”, fascinating in light of current professional discourse regarding the relative importance of competencies over content with the redesigned curriculum. Teachers have felt the shift in focus away from the “what” of content knowledge in recent years with the advent of personalized learning in favour of the “how” and “why”. Some have truly embraced this change, while others continue to come to terms with the adjustment.
Mehta & Fine describe knowledge in their 2017 article like this:
People who are widely seen as experts, studies have shown, tend to notice details that are not apparent to non-experts because they have developed cognitive schemas that help them understand the domain. That is, they have become familiar with the field’s individual parts and the ways in which those parts connect to a larger whole, which also allows them to zero in on these pieces that don’t fit. (Mehta & Fine, 2017, p. 15)
Wiliam digs even deeper into what it means to have “knowledge” in a content area:
What we need to understand, as many cognitive scientists have said, is that really, what distinguishes experts from novices in most disciplines is the amount of knowledge they have and the rich connections between that knowledge. We need to put knowledge back into the curriculum. The reason that people are good at what they do is that they have lots of knowledge, well organized, and they are actually able to bring it up at a moment’s notice because it is relevant to that particular issue… what we see is that the more people know about a particular area, the more effective they are. (Wiliam, 2019)
This statement reinforces the idea that we must design learning activities to focus students; making of meaningful connections among the various concepts within a field of study, including application of those understandings to novel situations when they encounter them. Facilitating student engagement in curriculum, through various personalization and cross-curricular/competency strategies, is key to achieving deep or meaningful learning in any subject area. It isn’t a case of core competencies versus curricular competencies – it is truly a case of both being important and achieving one through the mechanism of the other. One of my colleagues made a comment during our audio conference discussion with MacKay that struck a chord with me and which I will paraphrase here: “I work in a large high school… I wonder if you could drill down to the school and classroom level for this answer… for teachers who like to teach siloed content and would use the Dylan William video to say “the curriculum has swung back to knowledge”…. what would you suggest?”
Insightfully, MacKay responded that the only way to tackle this is through leadership, which firmly plants responsibility on us, as school leaders, to be accountable:
Why are we still having this debate? The research that we can feel confident about would tell us that the knowledge vs. skills debate takes us to a place of very low return, where lack of knowledge is a barrier to their success. Yet we still latch onto this “false dichotomy”. As a profession, we need to be more “research informed”. You can’t be a professional if you don’t have a knowledge-base and evidence-base that you are constantly refreshing. You are constantly marrying this with your own professional practice and judgment. We want leadership (meaning teacher leadership) that’s about the kind of research responsibilities that we have. We should be constantly talking about our own action research. We should be constantly collaborating. There are three things that make up a profession:
- Knowledge-base. You can’t stop at a level of knowledge in a burgeoning field like learning in the first couple of years of your professional practice. You must be constantly inquiring. Knowing the “state of the field” requires constant mobilizing about current knowledge about the profession.
- You need to make professional judgments about what the balance is.
- You can’t do this without working with your peers – this is not a “silo job”. Collaboration does this; it requires us to be accountable to each other and to inform each other. Your job as a leader is to constantly incentivize these three things” (MacKay, 2019).
MacKay finished by asking,
What are you doing as a leader to support/facilitate these things? That’s the important question.
So I must look at my own leadership, as well as my classroom practice this year which is an act of leadership itself (no doubt, what the principal does in his own classroom has a significant effect on the learning culture of his school). I have invited my teaching and support staff colleagues into my classroom on a “no notice required” basis this year, and occasionally they take me up on it. They have seen me teach traditionally with lectures; they have seen me facilitate student project-work where they have trouble finding me in the classroom; and they have certainly seen me try things that haven’t gone according to plan. I wish I could claim that I didn’t feel self-conscious having teaching colleagues watch my failures. Trying new strategies takes courage, and that effect is magnified when you feel like another professional might have a judgment to apply. However, to improve the learning in classrooms requires teachers to constantly assess the effectiveness of their teaching strategies and to be willing to try new approaches. If we wait until they are polished to apply them we get in the way of our own potential improvement, and in the way of the gains we might achieve for our students and their learning. Despite my mistakes in trying new strategies and innovating in my own classroom this year, I am encouraged by the fact that am walking the talk when I encourage teachers to try new strategies and approaches that are less than perfect. The truth is that failure is a key mechanism in learning at any level! (Wiliam, 2019).
As leaders we need to grow a school-wide learning environment where we meaningfully collaborate on our teaching strategies, make changes to our practice and school structures based on the evidence provided to us by our students’ learning, and boldly try new strategies at which we fail the first few times. While I cannot claim to have the perfect recipe for how to achieve this culture, I am proud to have made many meaningful changes in my school over the last two years in collaboration with my staff in an effort to achieve meaningful changes to learning structures in order to maximize student learning. I will continue to do so in pursuit of the deep learning all our students deserve to experience.
This is an amazing time to be an educator in British Columbia. I feel truly fortunate to be able to lead and teach in an educational environment where we are supported by the system to innovate, get creative, take risks in order to truly engage our students in their learning and their lives, and hopefully the wide intersection between the two. I am excited to continue to hone my own skills as a teacher while supporting my teaching colleagues in their own continued reflection and improvement so that we might collectively increase the life-chances of our students.
Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2017) How We Got Here - The Imperative For Deeper Learning. Chapter 1 in Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work and Life. Eds. Heller, R., Wolfe, R., & Steinberg, A. pp. 11-35
MacKay, A. (2019, Jan 26). Personal interview with J. Halbert, L. Kaser and University of British Columbia TELP Cohort.
Novak, J. D. (1999). The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them, [HTML Document]. Available: http://cmap.coginst.uwf.edu/info/printer.html [2001, August 28, 2001].
Novak, J. D., & Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning how to learn. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Odom, A. L., & Kelly, P. V. (1998). Making learning meaningful. The Science Teacher, 65(4), 33-37.
Wandersee, J. H., Mintzes, J. J., & Novak, J. D. (1992). Research on alternative conceptions in science. In D. L. Gabel (Ed.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning (pp. 177-210). New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.
Watkins, J., Peterson, A. and Mehta, J. (October 2018). The Deeper Learning Dozen: Transforming School Districts to Support Deeper Learning for All: A Hypothesis. Harvard: Unpublished Paper.
Watson, B., & Konicek, R. (1990). Teaching for conceptual change: Confronting children's experience. Phi Delta Kappan (May), 680-685.
Wiliam, D. (2019, Jan). Personal interview with A. McKay.