JL reading book

 

“If we cannot shift from a world where learning deeply is the exception rather than the rule, more is in jeopardy than our schools. Nothing less than our society is at stake.”

Those are the last lines of Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s powerful book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School (Harvard University Press, 2019). I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the future of education—and in Project Based Learning, which gets a lot of thoughtful attention. It’s the best book I’ve read on the state of the American high school since Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise back in the late 80s—and, sadly, the authors found that things have remained much the same in mainstream education today. In almost all of the high school classrooms they observed, they saw mostly shallow learning that emphasized compliance and factual recall, and definitely did not engage students in meaningful ways.

The authors did their homework. They visited 30 schools between 2012 and 2018, and “spent more than 750 hours observing classrooms and other learning spaces, and interviewed more than 300 students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders.” In looking for examples of deeper learning, Jal and Sarah admit, “This is not the book we set out to write. We were seeking inspiration; we found complexity.”

They decided to focus a chapter each on instructional practices in four high schools that are considered to be effective examples of their type: a PBL school, a KIPP-style "no excuses" school, an International Baccalaureate school, and a traditional comprehensive public suburban high school. Jal and Sarah found evidence of deeper learning in each setting--although in the traditional school it was mainly in elective courses and extracurricular activities, which they analyze in detail. (Side note: I appreciated their critique of A.P. courses--and also the lengthy, granular section about how a drama production exemplifies deeper learning, having been an actor in those when I was in high school.) They also discuss equity issues in each model.

An Honest Look at PBL

The authors take an honest look at Project Based Learning, including its challenges, as it is practiced at “Dewey High School”. I can’t go into all the details here, but this partial list of section sub-heads will give you an idea of what’s discussed:

  • School as workshop, school as startup
  • Creating products of lasting value
  • Embracing different views of knowledge
  • Trusting the time
  • Normalizing failure
  • Cultivating playfulness and joy

I loved this quote from a student that reinforces what we at PBLWorks have long been harping on, that projects are the unit, not the “dessert” students get at the end of a unit:

"There are some projects where you learn content for a long time and then you do a project to present it, and there are some where you learn by doing the project…. (which is when) the learning is way deeper.”

The authors explore a key issue that resonates for all of us who promote PBL, based on their interviews with a long-time leader at the school:

“… Only later, as the Dewey High network began to expand, opening elementary schools, and more explicitly focusing on equity, did he begin to realize that his stance (against the use of test score data) had given rise to unintended consequences: a culture that sometimes drew a false dichotomy between designing authentic, engaging, student-centered projects and deploying careful pedagogy to support foundational skill-building for all.”

The chapter concludes with a discussion of how “Dewey High” is addressing—and still wrestling with—this issue.

Deeper Teaching

The chapter on “Deeper Teaching” examines the practice of six standout teachers at fairly traditional high schools. I was happy to see that most of what the authors observed aligns with the Project Based Teaching Practices in our model for Gold Standard PBL. For example, in a nice two-column chart they differentiate traditional teachers from "deeper" teachers on eight stances they take, such as "Educational goal - Cover the material vs. Do the work of the field" and "View of students - Extrinsically motivated vs. Creative, curious, and capable" and "Role of teacher - Dispenser of knowledge vs. Facilitator of learning."

Here's another example of what "deeper teachers" do that reminds me of PBL teachers, especially those who are pioneers in their school or district:

Initially … the ways they were teaching felt incongruent with their own views of their fields, and while they were meeting external expectations for their students (for instance, by keeping up with pacing guides), their own assessment of what their students were learning fell short of their expectations. Over time … they had come to realize that less really was more—that more important than what was covered was developing students’ abilities to think and to take ownership of the tools of their field or discipline.

Also in this chapter I ran across a pithy comment that connected to PBL, from one of my favorite education writers:

Parker Palmer argues that the best classrooms are dominated neither by teachers nor students, but rather by a “Great Thing,” which is the subject that demands attention.

Or, to say it in our terms, by the project.

The Equity Argument

This book contains the best arguments I’ve seen in writing, drawing evidence from research and the authors’ observations, for a claim we make at PBLWorks: that PBL can help address educational inequity, and can even be transformational for disadvantaged students. Here are a few nuggets.

Jal and Sarah noted that, among the best teachers they observed:

“In math, science, English, and social studies or history, we found fundamentally similar approaches ... in their elite and their highly disadvantaged settings. All of these teachers constructed powerful learning environments with clear purpose, and supported students as producers, depth over breadth, disciplines as open-ended rather than closed, and students playing the whole game at the junior level. In settings where students had weaker reading or math skills, teachers slowed down, focused on shorter pieces of text, and included more scaffolds, but the fundamental approach was the same... Thus while Lisa Delpit's well-known work has been seen as arguing that different and more-structured learning environments are appropriate for disadvantaged students and students of color, our research suggests that it is precisely these students who would benefit most from an approach that integrates mastery, identity, and creativity. To put it another way, these are often the students for whom traditional school has worked least well, who are most disengaged from school, and whose interests and racial identities have been largely denied by traditional school priorities."

The authors go on to cite Milbrey McLaughlin, who studied 120 effective youth-based organizations in 34 cities and described them in the same terms we use in our model for Gold Standard PBL:

“These are places where youth feel known and supported, where they have opportunities to take responsibility and ownership over their learning, and where they create products and engage in public performances that they see as meaningful.”

Also cited is Robert Halpern, whose research jibes with our thinking about how PBL can be a force for equity. He reinforces the importance of authenticity in PBL, such as when students connect with experts from outside the classroom or local community organizations:

“Opportunities to work alongside adults are particularly important for youth who have had hard upbringings, because they need opportunities to connect with well-meaning adults, to experience success, and to achieve some public recognition.”

How High Schools Need to Change

The final chapter of the book, “Mastery, Identity, Creativity, and the Future of Schooling” sums up the authors’ arguments and accurately identifies the systemic changes that will be needed to reach their vision for deeper learning. They find examples of schools that are “reimagining the grammar of schooling” (use of time & space, learning modality, teacher roles, etc.) and districts that are creating new assessment systems and visions of an “ideal graduate” that can only be reached through deeper instructional practices like PBL.

Jal and Sarah also make a trenchant observation about our world today and issue a call to action that I hope will be heard: “we are struck by the incongruence between our own interest in “deep learning” and the values of a large segment of the American polity… anti-Enlightenment values—nativism, xenophobia, distrust of reason and evidence—have come to the forefront.... If the changes that we have described here are to transpire, we see no alternative but for public school leaders--governors, mayors, superintendents, principals, teachers, and even students--to make a loud, sustained, and convincing case for deeper learning."

 

Need I say more? Buy this book:  In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School (Harvard University Press, 2019).

 

John Larmer, Editor in Chief
John is editor in chief at PBLWorks, where he has helped create professional development workshops and PBL curriculum materials. He writes for and edits the PBL Blog, and is the co-author of several books on PBL.