When Seeing is Believing: How Deeper Learning Transforms Schools

This is Part 1 of the three-part blog series about AYPF’s recent study tour to South Carolina, “Advancing Equity through Deeper Learning in Rural Schools: The Journey of School Transformation.” Stay tuned for more!

Jenna Tomasello, Policy Associate

It’s one thing to read a report or policy brief, and it’s another thing to actually see the policy or practice in action. At the American Youth Policy Forum, we take policymakers and policy influencers on study tours to visit schools. These tours are essentially field trips for adults so they are able to see what education looks like today and the innovative teaching and learning happening around the country.

Recently, in partnership with the Innovation Lab Network (ILN), we took a group of state education leaders on a study tour to rural South Carolina to see deeper learning – a set of six interrelated student competencies – in action and its promise for transforming struggling schools.

We visited two high-poverty schools situated in what’s been deemed the “Corridor of Shame,” a region in South Carolina along Interstate 95 that’s home to persistently underfunded, traditionally low-performing school districts. On the trip, I saw firsthand how deeper learning can help transform schools.

Since 2013, following the award of an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to KnowledgeWorks, the Riley Institute, and the two schools, these schools have been working with the New Tech Network (NTN) – a leading design partner for comprehensive school transformation – to create a “Corridor of Innovation.” NTN outcomes include a 91 percent high school graduation rate, 70 percent college enrollment rate, and 83 percent college persistence rate.

However, the two schools are approaching the Corridor of Innovation transformation project differently: Cougar New Tech is a new small school within Colleton County High School (a large comprehensive high school) and Scott’s Branch High School (SBHS) is a whole school converted to the NTN model. Both schools graduate their first cohort of students in 2017.

What I saw on the trip was remarkable. Here are five ways these schools are cultivating students’ deeper learning competencies of mastering academic content, engaging in critical thinking and problem solving, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, directing one’s own learning, and possessing an ‘academic mindset.’

Strong School Culture

Hallway in Cougar New Tech

Each NTN school promotes a culture of trust, respect, and responsibility. For example, the schools we visited engage in a practice for providing thoughtful, constructive feedback called “Critical Friends.” When students and  teachers provide feedback to other students and  teachers on a presentation or assignment, the evaluator starts by focusing on what they liked and then gives suggestions for improvement using an “I wonder…” statement. In fact, this respectful and reflective culture is so inherent at these schools that following our classroom tours at Cougar New Tech, two students led a group debrief of the tour using the Critical Friends method. This practice fosters students’ ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and demonstrate ownership over their learning.

Project-based Learning

Two students leading debrief using the Critical Friends method.

Project-based learning is a cornerstone of NTN schools. At SBHS, students are working on a year-long project that involves developing an all-inclusive, comprehensive historical textbook of Clarendon County, the county where the school is located. The project integrates History, English, Art, and Computer Technology and requires students to work together to interview community experts, conduct research on the history of their community, gather artifacts and photograph landmarks, and write and edit the book chapters. Project-based learning promotes mastery of academic content, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and ability to effectively communicate and collaborate with others.


Integrated Classes

Chris Shearer talks with students at SBHS about their school-wide textbook project.

On the classroom tours, we saw integrated, inter-disciplinary team-taught classes that blended subjects such as Biology and Digital Technology, Algebra and Business, and English and Geography. Students benefit by not seeing subjects in isolation, which is typical in traditional classrooms. Instead, students are encouraged to think more broadly and make connections across subject areas. At Cougar New Tech, for example, while 9th-graders study The Odyssey in English, they are also learning about geography and how geographic landscape influences ways of life during different periods. Subject integration helps develop students’ mastery of academic content, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Access to Technology

Crystal Beshears from the University of Arkansas talks with students working in teams on their laptops.

All NTN schools have a one-to-one computer ratio, meaning each student has a laptop to use for projects and assignments both in and out of school. In every classroom we visited across both schools, teams of students sat huddled at a cluster of desks with their laptops open and working diligently. Students explained that they use their laptops for everything, and are connected through Echo, an online learning management system. On a daily basis, students, teachers, and parents use Echo to access course resources, exemplar projects, project plans, assignments, and gradebooks, as well as to communicate and collaborate in real time. Access to technology facilitates teamwork and clear communication, and empowers students to take ownership over their learning.

Emphasis on ‘Soft’ Skills

Poster in a hallway at SBHS.

At each school, the importance of developing ‘soft’ skills was repeatedly reinforced by school leaders, teachers, and students. One student commented that she’s most proud of the collaboration and communication skills she’s gaining because she sees those at important for her future career in real estate. Teachers also emphasized the importance of imagination, creativity, and teamwork because of their transferrable nature to all career fields. Even the principal of SBHS stressed that soft skills and character building are a part of the strong culture at the school, an attitude displayed on the walls of hallways and classrooms. Emphasizing soft skills promotes student’s ability to work well and communicate well with others.

When it comes to deeper learning and school transformation, sometimes seeing is believing. With the help of the NTN, SBHS and Cougar New Tech are clearly working hard to transform their school community and are doing so by incorporating a strong culture, project-based learning, integrated classes, technology, and soft skills development. If you don’t believe me, go see for yourself.

Jenna Tomasello is a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


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.