Oct 21 2019

Deeper Learning Networks: Taking Student-Centered Learning and Equity to Scale

A hallmark of deeper learning is students’ ability to apply their knowledge to new situations and complex problems like those they will experience outside school. Enacted through project-based learning, work-based learning, and performance assessments, these deeper learning approaches help students learn to think critically, collaborate, and communicate within and across disciplines, while they “learn how to learn” and develop mindsets that increase perseverance and productive learning behaviors.

Classrooms and schools that use the student-centered learning practices that support deeper learning typically deviate from the norms associated with transmission teaching and therefore confront multiple obstacles when trying to implement and expand deeper learning models and practices.

This study investigated several networks of schools that have successfully instantiated, sustained, and spread deeper learning practices in ways that advance equity and result in greater success for traditionally marginalized students. Researchers considered the systems and structures that practitioners employed to overcome the challenges associated with changing teaching and learning. Three networks are the focus of this study:

  • Big Picture Learning, which provides interest-based learning grounded in personalized, interdisciplinary courses of study and in experiential, workplace learning (usually through internships).
  • The Internationals Network for Public Schools, which serves newcomers who are English language learners and have had widely variable levels of education, providing an “activity-based” pedagogical model featuring collaborative, inquiry-based learning.
  • New Tech Network, which has a whole school model characterized by interdisciplinary project-based learning anchored to multidimensional student learning outcomes, supported by software that facilitated collaborative learning.

Findings

This study examines how these networks have instantiated and re-created their models across the country. It finds that Big Picture Learning, Internationals, and New Tech Network share commons systems that have helped them successfully instantiate their deeper learning school models in new settings.

1. The networks design schools and secure the necessary structures that allow deeper learning to flourish in network-affiliated schools in local districts.

All the networks intentionally design schools for deeper learning and rethink the structures surrounding teachers’ work, the use of time in schools, and the ways students demonstrate their progress. That includes creating schools that allow for interdisciplinary learning and teacher looping, and flexible schedules that provide ample time for teachers and students to engage in collaborative and applied learning. Networks also find ways to allow students to earn credits for engaging in real-world tasks and performance assessments. The schools are also designed to attend to students’ social, emotional, and academic needs, surrounding them with systems of support that enable their learning and well-being.

2. The networks collaborate with local stakeholders to establish and sustain their deeper learning models, thus building collective investment in the model and enhancing school capacity.

Each network collaborates with district leaders, site-based educators, and community members to ensure its model helps meet student and district needs and is a welcomed transformation. Once the models are established, network and school leaders continue to build relationships with districts, communities, and external partners to increase community investment in the model and extend the school’s capacity to support students’ deeper learning.

3. The networks build and maintain multifaceted systems of professional learning that ensure that educators are continuously supported in enacting deeper learning.

All three networks have built professional learning systems that provide opportunities for practitioners to learn and experience deeper learning in ways that build and reinforce their knowledge. Each also holds network-wide gatherings to introduce teachers to the foundational features of its approach and organizes visits for educators to network schools so they can learn how to enact the network model and see it in action. The networks also provide teachers with ongoing supports, including coaches and resource repositories that include curriculum and assessment models.

4. The networks invest in leadership development to support site leaders in designing and sustaining schools for deeper learning.

Each network invests in leadership development before a principal assumes their duties at a network school. That development includes intra-network visits and coaching sessions. Ongoing learning for principals includes continued access to coaches, professional development, and participation in informal communities of practice.

5. The networks and their affiliated schools are learning organizations that continually improve their design to ensure quality and equity.

As the networks have grown, they have encountered challenges related to meeting the learning demands of a growing workforce and a diverse student population. They have used these challenges to develop formal and informal opportunities for reflection and improvement.

Implications

Using these systems and structures, Big Picture Learning, Internationals, and New Tech Network have spread and replicated their models in ways sensitive to local contexts, which allows them to grow and sustain their organizations in partnership with local communities. Among the insights about why they have succeeded derived from this study are:

School design and pedagogy are intimately linked: Deeper learning pedagogies require reorganizing time and relationships within schools to enable long-term relationships between teachers and students, longer blocks of time for project-based learning, internships, teachers working collaboratively in teams, authentic assessments, and additional academic and social-emotional supports students need to succeed.

Every member of the school community must learn deeply about the new approaches and why they matter to make decisions and contributions that sustain these approaches: In addition to teachers and school leaders, central office leaders, school board members, teachers unions, parent and community groups, and local businesses need to understand what new models of practice are intended to accomplish and how.

Developing the sophisticated pedagogies needed to teach for deeper learning with equity requires new approaches to professional learning: Strategies includes cross-school conferences and scaffolded coaching for teachers and leaders; observations of schools and classrooms; residencies; and curriculum supports.

School leaders much have significant knowledge of learning and successful experience in the new model to be able to redesign the school and help enable the innovative practices it requires: If leaders do not understand the pedagogies and system supports needed, they will struggle to create the environment teachers need to provide deeper learning and the supports students need to learn in new ways.


Deeper Learning Networks: Taking Student-Centered Learning and Equity to Scale​ by Laura E. Hernández, Linda Darling-Hammond, Julie Adams, and Kathryn Bradley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is also provided by the Sandler Foundation and the Ford Foundation. 

Photo provided with permission by Big Picture Learning.

Network Case Studies
Deeper Learning Networks: Taking Student-Centered Learning and Equity to Scale is a cross-case analysis of three individual case studies of networks of schools. Those case studies are available below.

Big Picture Learning: Spreading Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor One Student at a Time
Kathryn Bradley and Laura E. Hernández

Internationals Network for Public Schools: A Deeper Learning Approach to Supporting English Learners
Martens Roc, Peter Ross, and Laura E. Hernández

New Tech Network: Driving Systems Change and Equity Through Project-Based Learning in Public Schools
Julie Adams and DeAnna Duncan Grand