The Deeper Learning Mindset

This post is part of a series written by Kyaiera and Christina during their experience at High Tech High’s Summer Institute

Student work covers  the walls of High Tech High buildings.

Student work covers the walls of High Tech High buildings.

The Deeper Learning Mindset— a seminar from High Tech High’s Summer Institute

Some people might ask, “What exactly is deeper learning?”  Simply put, according to Will Haase, a Calculus teacher at High Tech High International, deeper learning is learning that really leads to success.  In order to achieve this type of learning, we have to be willing to change some of our frames of reference, or mindsets.  One of these mindsets includes focusing not on the shortcomings of the charges that we teach but on their unbound potential.  As teachers we know that kids can do amazing things, if given the opportunity to find and to explore their own genius.  They are the next generation, after all; they are open to change, and willing to take risks.

There are plenty of examples of this in history.  (Think Joan of Arc, people.)  More recently in 2012, a fifteen year old boy, Jean Andraka, was able to invent a “dip stick” test for pancreatic cancer that is 26,000 times cheaper than the test used in hospitals across the country!   Thinking like this needs freedom.

Deeper learning means that we do not standardize or homogenize, but diversify and personalize.  Deeper learning strives to create innovators.  Haase is excited about our future in education, and so am I.  He views deeper learning as a wonderful opportunity for educators to humanize education.  There is no longer a one size fits all model; relationships and collaboration are now as important as the products that students create.  A young boy, however bright, cannot create a cancer test on his own; he needs mentors and teachers to guide him, he needs parents who tell him his theories are not crazy, and he needs peers to bounce ideas off of.

According to Haase, the framework of deeper learning is based on four tenets: content, problem solving/problem identification, working collaboratively, and creating academic mindsets.  His focus at this seminar was on the last of these.  You see, even the students have to change their mindsets if deeper learning is truly to occur.

The first of these mindsets deals with identity.  So much of an identity is wrought out of stereotypes, of what others perceive us to be.  In Claude Steele‘s book Whistling Vivaldi, he recounts how a young African American writer for the New York Times combated the “cloud” of a negative stereotype–that Black young men are prone to violence.  There were countless times when walking down city streets that Caucasian pedestrians would choose to walk around him in fear of being confronted by a Black male.  What would happen, though, if he whistled Vivaldi’s music while walking?  Would this transparent sign of his education and upbringing be enough to change a stranger’s perception of his identity?  The answer was… yes!  The negative perception people associated with being a Black male was counteracted by the positive perception associated with a person who loved Vivaldi’s music.

What does this tell us as educators?  We can trump negative stereotypes that might get in the way of educating youth!  One way is by establishing close relationships with students.  If we can vouch for a student’s worth, this not only raises his self esteem but helps him in the larger community.  This is why internships provide a wonderful opportunity for students to have a doorway into the world after formal education.  Not all students, because of poverty or background, have the same advantage of social networking.  A mentor, a teacher, or a community leader can be the link a student might need to get ahead.  Another way is to find another sphere where a student can find success.  If a student is an accomplished wrestler or violinist, she may be more likely to accept the fact that she might be good at Calculus as well.  This is why community building in schools is essential.  According to Will Haase, their students are successful because they have formed a positive identity associated with their larger community.  A student in his school will think, “I am part of High Tech High so I can succeed,” because that is the message delivered time and again by staff.  Visiting colleges and finding peer mentors might be another way that students can learn to shake negative stereotypes that might be standing in their way of success.

Another mindset worth mentioning is the growth mindset.  According to Haase, this is essential if students are truly going to achieve deeper learning.   Fixed mindsets lead to stagnation.  He cites a study done by Carol Dweck where children who were praised for their “intelligence” did worse on exams and took less risks than students who were praised for their efforts.  This seems like such a small thing.  Yet it made a huge difference for the students.  Those who saw their success as based on something fixed–in this case, intelligence–were less successful than those who believed their success was derived from something fluid like effort.  Notice that it made no difference that the teacher’s comment–“you are so smart”–was a positive one.  The outcome was still negative.  As educators we need to remind students that deeper learning stems not from talent but from hard work.

Beyond all of this educational jargon, we must also be reminded of the obvious:  just because kids are checked out on a particular day does not mean they are “bad” or “stupid.”  Haase asks us to remember that kids could be dealing with so many other issues that stand in the way of learning.  Even the period of the day could make it more difficult for a student to learn.  We need to be sensitive to these realities.

In addition, students are more likely to engage in work that they find relevant and meaningful.  It may pertain directly to their lives, or to the world around them.  More on this later.

Also, we must remember that those who work together tend to do better.  After all, there is a natural feedback mechanism associated with studying with peers.  (Why do they all know this when I do not?)  And more brains are always better than one.  This goes for teachers as well as students.  You are not to go it alone.  No one can single-handedly come up with the perfect assignment or the perfect project.  Teachers and students need each other to create deeper learning.

Finally, perseverance is more important than anything we teach students.  This “grit”, according to Angela Duckworth, trumps most other mindsets in education.  Those who believe they CAN succeed, tend to have more grit.  This is just another reminder that forging a positive identity is essential in creating deeper learning.

This entry was posted in Outside GHS, What is PBL?. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Deeper Learning Mindset

  1. John Santoro says:

    Very exciting, Christina!

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