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Part II: How To Get Students Excited About Learning

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Series: Closing the Achievement Gap | Take Our Survey

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Rapping Shakespeare? Origami in math class? Out-of-the box ideas to get students excited about learning. Our special series, “The Fifty Year Fight: Solutions for Closing the Achievement Gap.”


Pedro Noguera, founder of the Center for the Transformation of Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles. Distinguished Professor of Education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education. (@PedroANoguera)

Matthew Riggan, co-founder and executive director at the Workshop School. (@RigganMatthew)

Keene Walker, social studies teacher at South Atlanta High School. (@keenewalker)

Interview Highlights

On what “deep learning” looks like

Pedro Noguera: “Deep learning really is simply about tapping into the higher-order thinking skills of a child: the ability to process information, to think critically, to analyze information, to apply concepts in other settings. It goes well beyond memorization. And when you think about it, all children, regardless of their backgrounds, are naturally curious. They come to the world asking questions about why the world works the way it does. And ‘why?’ is the most common question you ever hear from a 3-year-old. When you feed that curiosity, kids become independently motivated learners. And deeper learning is what channels that. It channels curiosity, and curiosity leads to kids who are intrinsically motivated. And that’s what we should be after in school. Kids who are not just interested in taking a test — or getting good grades — but who are willing to continue learning, even after the test is over.”

Examples of experiential and experimental learning that take students outside the parameters of normal lesson plans

Noguera: “I was in a first grade classroom in Baltimore, and the teacher brings in a hermit crab, and the kids are all very interested. And she’s asked them, ‘Tell me your questions — what questions do you have about the crab?’ The kids have lots of questions. They want to know, where are the eyes? They want to know, what does it eat? Is it a boy or girl? How can you tell? They have lots of questions, and after asking questions, then she says, ‘I want you to sit down. I want you to draw a picture of the crab, and I want you to write a story about the crab.’

“And for two hours, the kids, they are totally engaged. They’re coming up looking at the crab. They are talking to each other about the crab, and they’re hard at work. And I ask the teacher later, I said, ‘Why did you bring him the crab? She says, ‘It’s like magic. It’s not the same as just showing a picture.’ ”

“I’m visiting a high school in the Bronx. One of the coldest days of the year, and the kids are bundling up to go outside. I say, ‘Where are you guys going? It’s freezing out.’ They said, ‘We’re going to collect samples from the Bronx River.’ I said, ‘Why are you collecting samples from the Bronx River? It’s polluted.’ They said, ‘That’s why we’re going. We’re tracking the pollutants in the river. We’re looking at the plant and animal life that survived in the river.’ And they’re doing that in their chemistry class.

“And I asked the chemistry teacher, ‘Why are you studying the Bronx River in chemistry?’ They said, ‘Because I want my kids to see themselves as scientists. I want many of them to pursue careers in science. And I know that if they’re doing science, as opposed to simply learning it from a textbook, they’re more likely to see its relevance.”

Listener Betsy from Baltimore: “I wanted to tell you about a school that my son attended. He’s a senior in high school, but this was his elementary/middle school. His school was theme-based, and they did three themes per school year. And at the end of each theme, there was this thing called ‘the theme event,’ in which the entire school participated in and put on, it was like a three-hour event, and all the parents were invited, so it was like a huge big deal, a lot of fun. And, I mean, these kids learned. I mean, my son learned how to write write a paper.”

On whether a focus on achievement actually leads to a larger achievement gap

Noguera: “We’ve gotten locked into some, I think, false choices [of] whether we test, or not test. But, you have to assess students to see whether or not they are learning. The question is, how do you use the test, and whether or not the test is being used to inform teaching and learning? And, I would say, right now, we use testing to rank kids, not to figure out what do kids need more of. And how do we adjust our teaching to respond to the needs of our kids? The analogy I would make is, if you wanted to lose weight, you wouldn’t focus on getting the best scale possible. You would focus on your diet and your exercise. Well, the equivalent in school is to get better results from kids. We’ve got to focus. How do we get them more deeply engaged? How do we get kids to read on their own? How do we get kids to be good problem-solvers? Those are the kinds of skills — what we call deep learning — that result in higher achievement.”

On the Workshop School, a public high school in Philadelphia, where students spend their days working on interdisciplinary projects

Matthew Riggan: “I think there are two really important things to understand about our approach. One, is that when we think about the skills that students really need to be successful long term — and we are a high school, so we’re thinking about what productive, fulfilled adulthood looks like — most of the skills that we know are most critical to their success are things like solving ill-structured problems, collaboration, emotional intelligence, project management, sort-of long range planning and goal-setting.

“And, yet, if you look at what high school tends to expect of students, it focuses largely on a static body of content knowledge. And, so, one thing that we’re really trying to do is say, ‘What type of learning experiences will help our students cultivate this broader set of skills that are most essential to their long range success?’ And then the second thing is … what does it look like to do this work with students who have faced a tremendous amount of discrimination — [99 percent of students at the Workshop School are students of color] — [students] who have faced a tremendous amount of social and economic disadvantage, and who have often been through schools that are very, very focused on test preparation, with a very narrow and very remedial curriculum.”

On learning gaps at the Workshop School

Riggan: “To be really candid, our students don’t do especially well on state tests. There’s a couple of things that I would say about that. One, is that we have criterion-referenced exams, which means they set to a specific threshold, which is intended to indicate college readiness. On average, our students come into us — if we use the data that we test at baseline — our kids come in around a 5th-grade-level in reading and math. And, so, when they take those tests in 9th or 10th grade, they don’t tend to pass them. But, the flipside is that we have about 30 percent of our upperclassmen — that is to say our 11th and 12th graders — who are currently enrolled in credit-bearing college classes. And, our pass rates for those are very, very high, including for students who have not passed the state exams.

“Similarly, we have about two-thirds of our graduating class from last year, enrolled in college classes now, and are doing quite well. So, we have super high college acceptance rates. We seem to have pretty good persistence rates –we’re a new school, so that’s still an evolving picture. And, yet, we have lower test scores. And, so, the question is: which of those metrics is really most meaningful? Which one should we really be concentrating on? We argue for the set of outcomes we should be focusing on are actual life outcomes — not metrics that are not necessarily predictive of long-term success.”

On the Workshop School, and different ways to measure education success

Noguera: “I think it is important to look at a variety of ways in which to evaluate what we’re doing. [The Workshop School is] looking at college enrollment and persistence: How well do our kids do in college, do they stay in college? I would also say that you can do performance-based assessment, where you actually look at the work kids produce, and assess how strong that work is. Where are they making progress? Where are the errors? What do they tell us — both about the student’s needs — and about what the teacher should focus on? But, in addition, I would say that they should not ignore the state assessments. They should really ask, ‘Have we embedded all those standards our kids will need to know to do well on those state assessments?’ So, although they’re getting good results in terms of graduation rates, they should not settle for that.

“They [the Workshop School, and other interdisciplinary schools] should continue to look back, and ask those tough questions. What I really liked about what Matthew [Riggan] said is [that the Workshop School] start[s] by asking, ‘What do our kids need to know, and how do we make sure that we create learning experiences that teach them those very important skills?’ They have to continue to do that, and not settle for the fact that they are a good school by Philadelphia standards. They want to be a great school for those kids, and that’s why this work we do doesn’t allow us to just kind of rest on our laurels. We have to continue to reflect on what we’re doing, and ask, ‘Are we meeting the needs of our kids? Are we really preparing them?’ I would also say one more thing. Most of what kids learn in school, they forget. They only retain the things they continue to apply. The most important thing for kids to learn is how to learn — how to continue to learn. Long after the test is over, long after you graduate from high school or college, because we live in a world where things are changing constantly. And, if you’re not good at learning, you’re going to find yourself obsolete.”

Results From The ’50-Year Fight’ Survey

 From The Reading List

New York Times: “Opinion: High School Doesn’t Have to Be Boring” — “When you ask American teenagers to pick a single word to describe how they feel in school, the most common choice is ‘bored.’ The institutions where they spend many of their waking hours, they’ll tell you, are lacking in rigor, relevance, or both.

“They aren’t wrong. Studies of American public schools from 1890 to the present suggest that most classrooms lack intellectual challenge. A 2015 Gallup Poll of nearly a million United States students revealed that while 75 percent of fifth-grade students feel engaged by school, only 32 percent of 11th graders feel similarly.

“What would it take to transform high schools into more humanizing and intellectually vital places? The answer is right in front of us, if only we knew where to look.

“When the two of us — a sociologist and a former English teacher — began our own investigation of this question several years ago, we made two assumptions. Both turned out to be wrong.”

Philadelphia Public Schools, The Notebook: “The evolving Philadelphia high school” — “With the sound of drills and nail guns in the background, two ninth-grade boys tried to solve a math problem.

“‘How many 2-by-4, 8-foot planks am I going to have to buy when I go to Home Depot this afternoon?,’ asked Jared Lauterbach, the students’ teacher, ‘and how many 6-foot planks?’

“This is what studying Shakespeare looks like at the Workshop School, one of seven (soon to be eight) schools in the District’s Innovation Network. They are part of a growing national movement to reinvent the high school experience by re-aligning learning with skills students actually need to lead successful and productive lives.

“Two 9th-grade classes at Workshop, which grew out of West Philadelphia High School’s Automotive Academy, had spent the prior several weeks reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Together, they wrote their own version of the play, set in West Philly in 2017. Called The Summer That Changed Everything, it featured teenage love triangles, betrayal, misunderstandings, and a psychiatrist who hypnotizes people with classical music. The antidote to the trance is a dose of R&B. Big themes include class and family identity.

“To produce the play, the students divided into groups based on areas of interest. One group was in charge of the acting and direction, one handled ticket sales and publicity, and another designed the costumes, lighting, and sound.”

American RadioWorks: “Inside Expeditionary Learning at the Springfield Renaissance School” — “One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the Springfield Renaissance School is something written in big blue letters on the wall. It says: ‘To start a school is to proclaim what it means to be human.’

“It kind of startled me.

“I visit a lot of schools in my job as an education reporter. What I often see on the walls are test scores and college banners. The message seems to be: Tests scores are who we are, and college is where we’re going.

“But at the Springfield Renaissance School, the walls are not adorned with college banners or data sets. Getting kids to college and making sure they do well academically are absolutely essential, says Stephen Mahoney, the school’s founding principal. But those things should be seen as the results of a good education, not the definition of it, he says.

“‘How to be a responsible citizen, how to be a good human being, that’s as important a focus for a school as the Pythagorean Theorem, as supply and demand curve, as stoichiometry,’ says Mahoney. ‘Knowing academic things is really important, but academic knowledge is a ticket into the world. If you are not equipped to be a good, productive person in the world, then all that academic stuff is … academic.’ ”

Learning Policy Institute: “Deeper Learning: An Essential Component of Equity” — “Often, when people think about equity, they think about allocation of resources. Why is access to deeper learning also a critical equity issue?

“We’ve known for a long time, thanks to Jeannie Oakes and her work on the tracking of students, that kids who are seen as less able or “not college material” are often in classes that don’t challenge them. Because we assume that kids who are in need of remediation are not smart, these students are left doing low-level work that doesn’t tap into their higher order thinking skills. This is a false assumption that exacerbates the equity issue because what it often means is that these students aren’t being challenged and encouraged to think deeply, and they are not developing the skills they are going to need for college and for work. This is the primary equity issue. It is as important as whether or not they are in a school with adequate resources, because if they are in a classroom where they are not really learning much, it is going to impact their education and their long-term outcomes.

“How do we support schools and districts to build their capacity to support deeper learning?

“In part, we have to provide very clear models. We also have to challenge beliefs, which can be a huge obstacle. It is often helpful to give examples of places where deeper learning is happening, so you can show educators that it’s not just a theory that has been hatched in the university, but it actually is working in many places. And then you have to give guidance to the educators—the teachers and the people who lead the teachers—on what kinds of learning activities elicit deeper learning. It can’t be an abstract conversation. It has to be connected to the work that schools do. In many districts, professional development is ineffective because it isn’t connected to practice.”

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

Series: Closing the Achievement Gap | Take Our Survey

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