The 74 Interview: Authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine on What the Best HS Classrooms Have in Common — Mastery, Identity & Creativity

See previous 74 Interviews: Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries on the politics of education policy, former Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy on his effort to reform juvenile prisons, and former education secretary John King on school discipline. The full archive is here.

Inhabit the halls of enough schools and you’ll likely end up wondering: Why aren’t these classes better? Efforts to remake the American high school go back decades. So why, even in supposedly innovative schools, is so much of what has been described as the grammar of school — teachers talking, students listening, or not — still on display? Why aren’t students motivated to dig further into the topics at hand? Where’s the passion?

After visiting 30 schools and observing hundreds of classes, authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine have some answers. In a new book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, they drill down on what’s happening in classes and activities where students are intrinsically engaged. Deeper learning, they conclude, isn’t the product of a type of high school or a curricular model, but something that flourishes when students and teachers are connected to subject material in meaningful ways.

Mehta is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose celebrated work has focused on efforts to move U.S. schools from the Industrial Era model to one in which students and teachers together engage in inquiry, analysis and other so-called 21st century skills. Fine is a faculty member at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, a brand-new effort to train teachers in the project-based learning methods in use at San Diego’s much-studied High Tech High.

In In Search of Deeper Learning, the two authors take readers on deep dives inside four high schools assigned pseudonyms that signal their school model: IB (International Baccalaureate) High, No Excuses High, Dewey High (which looks an awful lot like High Tech High) and Attainment High, a traditional comprehensive high school. In each, they find trade-offs, pockets of brilliance and a disproportionate share of student engagement in electives and extracurricular activities rather than in the classroom.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: This isn’t the book that you set out to write. Can you walk us through how this work came to be?

Mehta: When we started in 2010, the project was titled Good Schools Beyond Test Scores. Not that test scores aren’t important, but there must be more to a good school than simply how one does on the test. We set out to study some innovative schools that were either trying to do learning that looked more like 21st century skills or were trying to do more rigorous forms of traditional learning.

A lot of the places we went to, we were pretty disappointed. A lot of low-level worksheets, rote tasks, students that weren’t sure why they were there or what the purpose was of what they were doing. I asked a girl what was happening in a particular class, and she said, “Go ask that boy over there. He’s the one who knows what’s happening in this class.”

For the first year or so of our study, we were not very fun people to talk to. I would go to meetings and someone would be proposing X or Y. I would be like, “You have no idea what things are really like out there in the world. Change is a lot harder than you think it is.”

We gradually came to see that there were a lot of good things going on within schools — they just weren’t necessarily happening wall-to-wall. Often on the first day of our research, each of us might pick a student who is in a different track and just shadow them. Usually over the course of a day, there would be one or sometimes two classes that were intellectually lively, allowed students to use some higher-order thinking and also just had a kind of ethos of student agency.

As we went on with the study, we took that subgroup and we turned them into their own data set. We tried to understand: What are these teachers doing? How is what they’re doing different, and what can we learn from them?

The other thing was, we started with just the core classes. Then, as we spread our eye to include electives, clubs and extracurriculars, we found a lot more examples of powerful learning. Learning where students were engaged by the task, where there were opportunities for feedback, practice, revision, apprenticeship and other qualities.

When we went to write the book, because the stringent critique of American schools has been done many times over, we decided we would put the disappointing data in the first chapter and then focus the rest of the book on the exceptions. Particular schools, classrooms, extracurriculars, electives, where promising things were going on — we wanted to figure out what made those places tick.

What definition of deeper learning did you use?

Fine: What we came up with eventually was that we think deeper learning combines elements of three dimensions. There’s an element of mastery, which in some ways is the most traditional of the pieces. Kids need to have real consequential ability to draw on knowledge within a domain, and to use that knowledge in a way which is compatible with the way that experts in that field might think. They need to know stuff. They need to be able to do stuff that reflects what people in the field do. That’s mastery.

Then there is a really important element of identity. What we mean by that is that kids who are learning deeply are gradually coming to see themselves as producers in the field that they’re working. They’re beginning to see themselves as connected to that field in some way. The shift from saying “I am somebody who does science” to “I am a scientist.” That’s identity.

The last piece is creativity. We lay this out in the book in greater length, but we’re not thinking of creativity just as doing something interesting. More that students are moving from receiving knowledge in a given domain to producing knowledge — even if it’s not mind-breaking, edge-of-the-field-type knowledge — but actually trying to use what they know in ways that allow them to create something new.

For example, you’re reading novels, and you’re studying the novel, and you’re thinking about narrative form and structure, but then you’re also trying to write stories. This is a traditional example.

The best spaces we saw had all three of those elements working.

And you found that teachers who were engaged in deeper teaching had had similar formative experiences?

Fine: Absolutely. The identity part is particularly salient there. If you go to college, you study mathematics, you get your teaching credential in your fifth year, then you go and teach math, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a terrible teacher. But a lot of the promising teachers we saw really saw themselves as mathematicians, which often meant they had worked in their fields in some meaningful way or that they were engaged in doing the work of their field outside of just teaching about it.

The teachers as well were identifying with being producers in their domains. Working artists who are teaching art, English teachers who are committed creative writers outside of their lives as teachers, who are then incorporating creative writing into their traditional English classes. We saw a lot of that, for sure.

Why did you find more of this taking place on the periphery?

Mehta: The connection between the work in schools and the work in the field was much tighter on the periphery. If you’re in a theater club or you’re in debate or you’re in sports, what you’re doing is essentially what Dave Perkins [professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education] calls “the junior version of the whole game.” You’re not on Broadway, but you are putting on a show with roughly the same elements that you would be if you were putting on a show in New York. Whereas in [core classes], it seems like there’s the school version of the subject.

I think science is the best example. You do a lot of labs, and the purpose of those labs is to show yourself principles that somebody else has already previously established. No scientist would ever do that unless they were replicating an experiment. Even then, there would be some uncertainty as to whether or not the original experiment was right, which is why they would choose to replicate it. The best science classes we saw were scientific — really taught kids the process of engaging in scientific inquiry, which involved exploring the unknown rather than confirming to yourself the known.

Beyond that, in high schools, a lot of the structures work against deeper, more powerful engagement in core classes. I mean, blocks are short. The pace is rushed. We say in the book, “The Crusades got a week. The Cold War got two days.” Think about that. If you compared the two days of Cold War that happened during a core history class with an elective on the Cold War where students are watching films, reading literature, looking at history, developing interpretations, doing interviews with parents or other people who were alive during the Cold War, think of which of those is going to be a richer experience.

In a way, we found that to be a hopeful story because it showed that the same teachers, given better circumstances, could do a lot more with their students — even in the absence of additional training. We wouldn’t need to be Finland. The guy who’s teaching the really powerful Cold War class at 2:00 might be teaching the really deadly history class at 10:00. And it’s really just the constraints of the box in which he’s being asked to teach.

Now, one question which always comes up when we talk about extracurriculars and electives and clubs is that those things are chosen. But we do think that the really good teachers that we saw in the core disciplines found ways to create choice. There might be a historical essay, but you could pick the topic. You’re doing a science experiment, but you can choose what you’re doing the experiment on.

I wonder if relevance isn’t a part of that too. You have an incredibly powerful passage where you describe a masterful teacher teaching a very controversial Ta-Nehisi Coates essay.

Mehta: We had an English teacher who was teaching in a traditional, high-poverty school, not a charter school, not a magnet school. He was teaching an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was published in The New York Times in 2013. The essay is about whether or not it should always be prohibited to use the N-word. The essay argues that it’s complicated. It depends on the situation, the context, the relationships among the speakers, the race of the speakers and so forth.

To 11th-grade students of color, this is an issue that is of interest, so there clearly was a good starting place. On the first day, they annotated the essay and they really tried to just pull out the meaning. On the second day, they debated the thesis. And then on the third day, they looked at the form.

In school, you’re taught that an essay has five paragraphs and it starts with a thesis statement, which comes at the end of the first paragraph. They looked at the Coates essay and they discovered that it didn’t have a stated thesis. It wasn’t there at the end of the first paragraph.

The teacher said, “What about that? This guy’s an essayist. It was published in The New York Times. It’s a real essay.” He was introducing to the kids the question of what’s the form of an essay, and how might you use the form? Then they had to produce their own essay and they had to think about the form of their essays. There’s a way to move back and forth between content that’s really relevant and building skills. Probably, most 11th-grade students don’t wake up in the morning thinking they want to learn about the form of an essay, but once they see it in the context of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the decisions he made, then it becomes a more interesting topic.

Sarah, you teach in High Tech High’s Graduate School of Education. As I was reading, I was having a very hard time imagining how we could support enough teachers to the level of mastery you describe in the classrooms where the deepest teaching was taking place. I wonder if you see a path forward for creating that teacher corps.

Fine: I think my answer is yes with an asterisk. High Tech High, just for context, is a network of project-based schools in San Diego. They’re socioeconomically, linguistically, culturally diverse schools by design. Like all schools, there’s a range of quality in terms of the teaching. But on the whole, what teachers are trying to do looks like what we describe in the Dewey High chapter of the book. They’re really supported in trying to harness what kids are doing to authentic purposes and authentic audiences, and to organize all the work that they’re doing in their core classes around projects which are long-term, have a lot of choice inside of them and culminate in some kind of public exhibition or public screening that allows kids to show what they’ve produced to people who would care about what they’re doing.

The best work at High Tech High is just stunningly deep. Not all projects work very deeply for all kids, but there’s generally a sense that they know what they’re doing, and why, and what they’re working toward, what they’re trying to produce, and what skills are part of the learning that they’re going to have to do in order to produce that thing.

The reason I work in this residency-like teacher preparation program that we just launched — this is our pilot year — is because, number one, our teacher candidates who don’t yet have their teaching credentials spend a whole year embedded at High Tech High schools. And I have the luxury of handpicking the cooperating teachers that they spend their year learning from.

My teacher candidates have the luxury of spending a whole year in a classroom, which is really modeling, in its best moments, what is it that they might be able to craft in their own classrooms eventually. There’s really nothing more powerful than being part of it, right? You can talk about it, you can write about it in a book, but living with it and participating in it is a pretty powerful way to begin your career as a teacher.

What I really need is, like, five years with them. We need that first year, and then we need a gradual release as they engage in their first years as teachers — where we could continue to offer them support, a professional community, a space to continue to think consciously about what it is they’re trying to do that’s different from traditional education and the surface forces that may be calling them back toward more traditional work.

How would you ensure equity in deeper-learning classrooms?

Mehta: When you’re talking about more constructivist or inquiry-oriented approaches to teaching, sometimes people say something along the lines of, “Well, that’s all fine and good for the affluent kids whose parents give them dominant cultural capital and can prepare them in doing those foundational skills at home. If we did that for kids who don’t get those sorts of things at home, we would really penalize them in school.”

And I see why people say that, but I think that the reality is fairly close to the opposite. I think that the schools we have now work well enough for upper-middle-class students and affluent students, many of whom are white. Research suggests that a lot of those students are bored and disengaged a fair amount of the time, so there’s this huge waste of potential there. But even still, it works well enough to get people to college and to jobs beyond.

But for students who are disaffected, who are turned off from school, who don’t see themselves in the curriculum, those same structures are really devastating and lead to a similar disengagement, but that disengagement manifests itself in the form of students dropping out of school and otherwise disengaging in harmful ways.

I’m not talking about spending six months studying butterflies and assuming that that will teach you literacy. I am talking about very carefully threading the building of skills through tasks and projects that seem relevant and authentic to students. To do that would require more rethinking for students of color and higher-poverty students because traditionally the curriculum hasn’t served those students very well. If we took that as our approach, more students would feel engaged in school, they would feel like they belonged in the classroom — the identity piece that Sarah talked about earlier.

On that note, did you turn up some examples of schools where students were simultaneously engaged in deeper learning and catching up on years of missed core skills?

Mehta: There’s no magic answer to that question. If kids are reading at a sixth-grade level, you’re not going to magically do [something in] a 10th-grade course and they’ll be reading at a 10th-grade level.

What we will say, though, is that the skilled teachers we saw took a stance toward students that focused more on what they could do than on what they couldn’t do. In the example I gave before about Coates, students whose writing skills are weaker can often think at much more sophisticated levels than they can write.

One person might say, OK, let’s give them lots of remedial writing for years and years and years. Another approach might be, these kids are ready to think about this complex question that Coates poses, let’s engage them in thinking about that. And through the process of writing about it, gradually build their writing skills. It’s that second approach that we’re saying seems to work better than the first.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Fine: I’d double down on what y’all just said about taking an asset stance toward kids. Adolescents are nearly fully formed adults, right? Obviously, their executive function is still developing, for example, but they are capable of an enormous amount. Here we are telling them that they have to ask in order to walk down the hall to use the bathroom. We control and we micromanage and we set them up to fail because we’re not really orienting around how much they have to offer.

And they respond the way you might expect. We’re dehumanizing them. All the teachers we saw that were doing the best work — they had different skill sets, different examples to draw on, but most important was the fact that they just saw kids differently. They were willing to set up their learning environments in ways that really gave kids real opportunities to do work that was consequential.

Mehta: One thing that we could fix from the outside is, we could ask high school teachers to cover fewer things in more depth. British Columbia has just come through a process where essentially they’ve tried to define core knowledge and skills, generally no more than five big pieces of knowledge and five skills that you want students to attain during a particular grade and subject year.

That is a sensible compromise. It enables you to say there are some important things that students should leave our schools knowing, but that there needs to be enough flexibility to go into much more depth than is currently permitted. If we limited ourselves to asking students to learn fewer things, and then gave teachers more room to go into those things in more depth, I think that would make a big difference.

You have a terrific example of that, the idea of teaching the collapse of civilizations rather than all the civilizations that collapsed.

Mehta: Yes. Mainstream history in a lot of places still goes from ancient Mesopotamia to the French Revolution with an empire or dynasty a week. Socrates himself would have trouble thinking that interesting just because of the pace. But we might pose the essential question, “What makes civilizations rise and fall?” And you might study five civilizations over the course of the year.

That would still give you some ability to look across history. It would give students a chance to really analyze: What does it take for a civilization to succeed? Why do civilizations crumble?

And then the year might end with a consideration of the United States or the world right now. Where are we in this trajectory? Do these factors from the past predict where we are now? You’re still covering a lot of the same content, but by shrinking it some and raising the analytic questions and making those common, you’re really deepening the learning.

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