Highlights from Deeper Learning 2018 – and why you should attend in 2019!

Loretta Goodwin, AYPF Deputy Director

It’s my mantra – San Diego is my ‘home away from home!’ More specifically, I love spending time at High Tech High (HTH). I am fortunate enough to visit the school each March, to participate in the Deeper Learning gathering – a time to commune with colleagues, learn from students, and return, rejuvenated and inspired by everything about this gathering. What’s so special about it, and why should you consider attending? Here are just a few highlights:

A Concerted and Unrelenting Focus on Equity

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin, American novelist and social critic

It is challenging and difficult work to provide ALL students with opportunities to engage in learning that hones skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication, and learning how to learn. Yet this equity imperative is exactly what educators at HTH and meeting attendees grapple with openly and honestly, through keynote addresses, day-long workshops called Deep Dives, small group conversations, and social hours. As the meeting began, Marc Chun, of the Hewlett Foundation, reminded us that “deeper learning is not a finished product. We need to keep pushing on this and learning.” This year’s keynote featured four inspiring leaders from the world of Deeper Learning: Lindsay Hill (Raikes Foundation), Ron Berger (EL Education); Gia Truong (Envision Schools) and Carlos Moreno (Big Picture Learning).

Lindsay recounted being the great-granddaughter of slaves and emphasized the need to talk about the history of education in the U.S. as well as the history of oppression. “We need to openly acknowledge and challenge our biases,” she urged, as well think about culturally-sensitive teaching, treating all students with fairness and respect. Ron reminded us that students can do extraordinary things – like the students at Casco Bay High School who supported a fellow student who experienced racial slurs by conducting a solidarity walk. This is one way the school exemplifies having social justice at the core of the curriculum.

Gia informed us that she came to the U.S. as a refugee, experienced poverty, and felt foreign and different. She reminded us that it’s important to create conditions where students can show up and have their identity affirmed. Carlos closed out the remarks with “We must know our students’ stories and believe in their greatness before we can get to deeper learning.”   Most importantly, he stressed that our students’ demography does not equal their destiny. Following the keynote, we had an opportunity, in small groups, to discuss something we’d heard that motivated us, that challenged us, and a message we would want to share. We were thus invited to not only listen to motivating speeches, but to make meaning for ourselves of the information being shared.

Opportunities to Learn from Students – In and out of classrooms Whether in workshops or shopping at student-run businesses, there were plenty of chances to interact with High Tech High students, ranging from elementary to senior levels.  Here I share about just one of the workshops I attended that included student voice and some information about the EdCorps Farmers Market, which featured local student-run businesses from around the San Diego area.

One of the most thought-provoking workshops was “Students are the new PLC (Professional Learning Community) – Empathizing and Learning from Students to Design Classroom Experiences that Matter.” One of the presenters noted: “We often think we know what’s best for kids.” Hearing this, I was struck by how true this statement was – and how much we can learn from inviting students to be far more involved in structuring their learning.

At the workshop at HTH, we had an opportunity to hear from a group of teachers from Fern Creek High School in Louisville, KY about their creation of schoolstartup.org, which they called an ‘education accelerator.’ Started by eight teachers at the school, this group meets twice a month to talk about what is going on in the classroom and how to use design thinking to improve their practice. They grapple with issues such as how to put more power into students’ hands, so that teachers can be facilitators of learning. They also wanted to encourage student thinking about real world issues, and have them conduct research to explore how they know certain things are true.

But, before they embarked on any changes to the classroom, these teachers participated in a student shadowing experience, spending a day learning about the school from the student vantage point. (Much of what was shared reminded me of my Shadow a Student Challenge experience at a school in Arlington, VA.) The insights gained from these experiences then informed the changes they undertook. To provide workshop participants the opportunity to experience student input, several HTH Chula Vista students joined us. Before interviewing them about their school experience, we wrote some conversation starters, helpful for any conversation with students:

  • I wish in school we’d do more of ….. and less of …..
  • Do you feel a sense of community with the other students in your class? Why? Why not?
  • How do you feel, in general, about your classes?
  • What makes your favorite class stand out from others?
  • How do you feel about your teachers?

The student who joined us talked about the many opportunities he had to engage in deeper learning. As he worked on the California Innocence Project, for example, he was dealing with real court cases, honing skills such as presentation, computer skills, learning to dissect various cases, writing, and constantly seeking critique on his projects. He talked about a culture at the school of students knowing the norms and respecting one another’s ideas. He wished he could have more rigorous Math classes, noting that Calculus was only taught in senior year. And he acknowledged, in response to the question whether all learning should be fun, that “it should be fun, but that doesn’t mean it has to be easy. You have to struggle until you learn.”

The session closed with Fern Creek presenters sharing some changes they made to their classrooms, inspired by student feedback. Responding to some students feeling disconnected from what was being taught, teachers strove to use students’ love of music to integrate music videos into lessons, thus meeting students where they were. In Art, the teacher moved from traditional structured projects to incorporating more passion-inspired projects, driven by what students wanted to learn about. Presenters concluded with these challenging remarks: “Student input is the great first step; then you have to engage them in what you’re doing.” And after engagement, they noted, comes student leadership.

Wandering through the Farmers Market at the end of a busy day, I saw lots of student leadership in action. Students not only sold products, but informed buyers about the issues they were passionate about. Products ranged from deodorizers for sports equipment to cupcakes and brownies; from bottle openers to various flavors of kombucha; from cactus gardens to items to help save the habitats of monarch butterflies. Students eagerly shared how they developed their products and the business plans behind their enterprises. What was evident were their entrepreneurial skills as well as very effective communication and sales talk!

Dive Deep!

One of the most compelling aspects of the annual gathering is the chance to spend an entire day learning about a particular issue and then creating a product to showcase in a final exhibition at day’s end. I spent my day immersed in the “Escape Bus Deep Dive,” gaining a whole new appreciation for the complexity of escape rooms and how these engaging and interactive learning spaces can be created to service deeper learning. It’s not easy, folks! These are experiences that demand perseverance, working together, thinking critically, employing a good mindset, and communicating effectively. We spent the day experiencing the Deeper Learning Puzzle Bus, deconstructing our experience in solving the puzzle, and then discussing how teachers could integrate their content into this kind of learning opportunity.  What was most thought-provoking were participants’ discussions about how various students (introverts, emerging bilinguals, males, females) would best be served by this kind of structure. To make this learning real, we were then divided into groups to create a puzzle room, so that the teachers among us could return to their classrooms having had a hands-on experience. This particular deep dive stimulated lots of conversation about ways to increase student motivation and collaboration, to spark their curiosity and creativity, and to keep them keen on learning. In so doing, it also ignited adult creativity and engagement, reminding us that deeper learning is not just about making learning exciting and interesting for students, but also for those facilitating their learning.

Recognizing reality, I know that not everyone will be able to attend this conference. Hopefully, all the links above will provide many avenues to pursue the work of deeper learning advocates. But, if you’re able to attend in the future, know that this is one learning opportunity that is definitely worth adding to your professional development bucket list!

Additional Resources:

Alliance for Excellent Education Deeper Learning Digest – read about more DL2018 Conference highlights here.

Upcoming Learning Opportunity at High Tech High – Assessment 2.0 at the HSE Spring Institute


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.