Deeper Learning at Mid-Pacific - Mid-Pacific Institute

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Deeper Learning at Mid-Pacific

Posted on February 5, 2018 by Scot Allen


MIDDLE SCHOOL DESIGN THINKING TEACHER Leilani Sills has her pen in her hand. She's trying to explain the learning process to me. First, she draws what people want it to be--and what teachers used to try to make it into: a straight, flat, efficient line from point A to point B. Then she draws another Point A, and from there, her pen mark wanders all over the page, winding around, doubling back on itself again and again and creating a ferocious, almost three-dimensional tangle before straightening out, and with a few more wobbles, reaching Point B. "That's what it really looks like," she says.

The second pen line is a lot longer than the first. It looks more inefficient, more messy, more uncertain. It contains many more wrong turns. It also looks more interesting, more authentic, more individual, and more fun. Any adult can recognize the second line: it's what happens when you face a new problem, grapple with it, take risks, try different things, don't let go--and attain your destination. The second line depicts the process of discovery. And in contrast to the first, flat line--it's literally deeper. That recursive, messy process, which ends up not only with Point B achieved but with a toolbox of crucial skills acquired along the way and a sense of triumph, mastery, and ownership, is what Sills is aiming for in her design thinking class. ("You have to get through the dark period," she says. "I'm not giving them Point A to Point B in a straight line.") It's also a great illustration of the kind of education Mid-Pacific has embraced over the past decade as a school, one that's best described by the educational approach called Deeper Learning.

Deeper Learning, as described by the educational Hewlett Foundation in 2010, isn't a new concept. It's an umbrella term coined to unify many educational philosophies and approaches, some of them decades old, that seek to ensure that education doesn't end where it used to end: at the acquisition of content. "For the schools that were doing this work, there was a lot of different language used," says Mid-Pacific eXploratory (MPX) Director Mark Hines, "21st-century learning, project-based learning, experiential learning. But everyone realized that there were common tenets: students doing real work, a group vs. individual focus, subjects that are integrated not siloed, a process that's deep so students do authentic things." In the 19th century, the traditional, content-focused, "cover everything" model for modern-day education was born, designed "for the industrial revolution to create the best possible workers," says High School Principal Tom McManus. In a factory model of learning, the knowledge resides with authoritative sources of information (textbooks, and a teacher), students are told what information they need to learn, and are then tested on whether they have learned it from the sources provided. It was never the most engaging way of learning, but these days, says 6th grade Project Inquiry teacher Sumoha Min, the weaknesses of the traditional model are magnified because its strength, imparting a lot of content quickly, is becoming obsolete. "Information is so easily available now," says Min. "You can always find the content you need. The important thing is finding out which content is relevant and reliable. Do you know whether that's a reliable source? It's all about metacognition: 'How do I know what I know?'"

"We can teach 'stuff,' as I sometimes say, but it's skills that are enduring," says Middle School Principal Dr. Dwayne Priester. "We grew up in a world where knowledge was king. That's not the case anymore. Looking at a problem and being able to address that problem: that's a skill. It's being in disparate situations and being able to apply a core set of skills to solve them. Regardless of the environment (students) find themselves in, they know that based on their ability to think, to process, to look at different pieces, they can navigate their way through the world. When you have skills, you're nimble. And it's a much deeper process." "The world as we know it is shifting," agrees Mid-Pacific President Dr. Paul Turnbull. "The old world of 'what you know' as currency is slowly dying out. Now, it has to be a multi-level conversation: What you know, how you ask questions to gain more knowledge, and then how you apply the information you gathered from asking the right questions about the right subject in a way that benefits your community and your local environment."

What does it look like? Deeper Learning has as many different manifestations as there are schools that implement its approach. At its heart, says McManus, Deeper Learning is about instilling agency in each student: "It's a shift in mindset from school being about knowing things to school being about students being able to do things." The school has undergone many changes in the past decade, but they have all been in service to a single goal: to equip students with not just the Lego blocks of information, but the ability to envision and create solutions from them: a cathedral, a speedboat, a solution to climate change. One recently adopted school-wide evolution has been in the Learner Profile (see sidebar), a vision statement generated by Mid-Pacific's faculty and administration for the skill sets and spiritual orientation Mid-Pacific wants to equip its students with. The Learner Profile guides decision making at every level of the school. Hines explains the Learner Profile's relationship to Deeper Learning like this: "Deeper learning is all the practices we do that get kids to the Learner Profile." Of the new Learner Profile, Hines says, "When you look at it, these are pretty bold statements. A decade ago, that would have been a challenge for us as an institution to do--to create kids who embrace change, collaboration, empathy. It's an audacious goal to move towards." But now, after a decade of mindful evolution, says Hines, "we are well on the journey."


Some places at Mid-Pacific have been practicing Deeper Learning since before it existed as a term, and the elementary school is one of them. "It's a catch-all term for things we've already been doing," laughs Elementary School Principal Dr. Edna Hussey, who has posted the new Learner Profile "in the kid-language version" on the wall of her office. "If you look at the essence of what we're doing," says Hussey, "it's about taking our time. It's about listening to questions and observations. And spending our time digging deep."

It begins in the Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool, where pedagogista (head teacher) Leslie Gleim and her team guide yearlong, whole-class inquiries into student-sparked questions and topics. One year the topic is treasures, another year it might be connections, or stories. But the point is to take time: to ask questions, explore avenues, have experiences, then "revisit, reflect, reinvent. They get well grounded in that foundation. Traditionally, you toss something out and move on to the next, thing versus spending time and going back," says Gleim. But in a Reggio Emilia school, and at Mid Pacific, "Rather than running along the surface, you sink deep roots into it, and through those deep roots we experience the learning processes."

That's when true engagement, which has been shown to be a key component of knowledge retention, happens. Hussey knows students are engaged "when we hear them say, 'No, we don't want to go to recess; we want to stay with this!' They don't care about the time, or that there's something else to do. They want to stick with it. It's not about perseverance; it's about being deeply immersed in the excitement of discovery." Hussey shows me a book written by the kindergarten students about the two empty mansions that will eventually become the site of an Institute for Global Learning. The kindergarten teachers used them as a spark for a year-long inquiry into concept of history, says Hussey: "How can we help children understand what happened before?" The students explored their own family histories, made art that represented objects found in the houses, imagined stories to go with them that drew on the histories of the past they had already explored, and eventually compiled the book in her hands, which presented a level of thought and concepts you wouldn't ordinarily associate with kindergarteners. "It's about who owns the learning," says Hussey. "In this scenario, the kids own the learning. And if they feel they own it, they can direct it, shape it. And they will remember it." By the time students are in fifth grade, they're ready for a capstone project, a Mid-Pacific tradition begun in 2013. It starts with questions selected by each student as meaningful: How do solar panels work? Should there be a rail system in Hawai'i? What's the history of women's suffrage? With teacher guidance, they embark on a broad research process that includes source evaluation, critique and feedback from peers, and an interview with an outside subject-matter expert the students find themselves. The end goal is a presentation that contains action, awareness, and advocacy, presented to friends, family, and the community.

The project-based learning broadens and deepens in Middle School, with all 6th graders taking a Project Inquiry class taught by Sumoha Min, who takes them through the problem-solving process of finding new solutions. Min sees it as her job, not to feed students answers, but to help them ask questions: "The quality of what you learn is based on the quality of the questions that you ask. One of the things I do--and it annoys them, but I do it because it's good for them--is to put it back on you. 'Is this good?' 'What do you think is good about it?' 'What should I do?' 'What do you think you should do? Do you want to go do that?' It's putting it back on them." Why not just give them the right answer? "As a teacher," replies Min, "I think about real life situations, and how I can help you be better prepared for that day when you have to figure this out on your own. Even if you're eleven. Because if you start now--" Min trails off, but her meaning is clear. If you start now, you'll have the skills when you need them.

To deepen learning, the Middle School has also transformed the way students and teachers structure their time. Last year, says Priester, the length of a Middle School class periods was 45 minutes. It meant that every student had every class every day, and it was great for digesting small chunks of information. It wasn't
great for going deep. "We needed to give kids time to process information, to practice, to give teachers opportunities to give kids feedback and go through that process again. Learning is cyclical, and you have to have the time to complete that cycle. The Middle School debuted a trial-run of 60- and 80-minute class periods for two weeks. The positive results were immediate: students presented Priester with a petition, asking to keep the 80-minute class block for the rest of the year. Teachers loved the longer period, too; it meant they also had time to create the multi-week, cross-disciplinary projects that help students make the connections between disparate topics that increase engagement and ownership. Of the 80-minute block, says Priester, "We kept it. It's about our kids."

The 80-minute cycle allows students to learn how to "fail forward," says Priester, because it gives them time to reflect, regroup, and iterate. "We've been conditioned that failure is a bad thing, but we've started to move away from that concept. Now it's, 'I tried something, it didn't work. But I don't just focus on the failure, I want to think about what we can do differently next time.' Whenever you see any major invention, chances are (previous versions) probably failed hundreds of times. But because of that perseverance - another thing we teach - students have the ability to say, 'I tried it, it didn't work, but I'm not going to give up."

"The final part of the arc" of deeper learning, says Turnbull, is high school, where opportunities multiply to go deeply into fields of interest while still acquiring core skills and subject mastery. Certificate programs include International Baccalaureate (IB), Mid-Pacific eXploratory (MPX), Mid-Pacific School for the Arts (MPSA), or a certificate in Global Studies, Hawaiian Cultural Studies, Technology or the new Entrepreneurs' Lab. "In each case, it allows students to fulfill their passion by digging deeper into something," says Turnbull.

"As the student gets older, you put the responsibility and the ownership of learning increasingly into their hands." Core high school subjects are also being re-envisioned, with
both science (see sidebar) and mathematics moving toward an integrated approach that lends itself to real-world applications. McManus describes the traditional math track that leads to calculus but excludes applied mathematics like statistics, leaving many adults without any exposure. "People are going to need a whole lot more statistics than calculus," he says. Another thing that has transformed in the last decade is the way students' progress is described. Around 2010, says Priester, the faculty came together as a school to talk about the ways a competitive grading culture was working against the kind of learner the school wanted to encourage. McManus explains it as a "evaluation" vs. "assessment" approach - rather than seeing education as a product, a grade, seeing it as a continuous progress in which grades or other means of assessment focused on what the "next step" might be for both teacher and student. Mid-Pacific is in year three of a revamped assessment model that encourages the values and skills it wants to instill in students. What that looks like varies from class to class and grade to grade, but all classes build deeper learning skills into evaluations, and the focus is not on summations of value but on finding opportunities for continual improvement. "The assessment method we use says we're going to work with you at every stage of learning, and personalize your learning process," says Turnbull. McManus agrees: "Assessment feeds a deeper learning mindset."

For the past decade, every change at Mid-Pacific has helped build a deeper learning education that runs from preschool through grade 12, whose values align and whose momentum is continuous. Roots that were put down in preschool and elementary allows students to blossom in high school, whether students gravitate to math and science, the humanities, or the arts. With every class, Jose Silva, who teaches dance in the School for the Arts, has his students practice the reflection and forward movement begun in the elementary school. "At the end of class, I have the students reflect on what we did. I'll have them ask themselves, what were the joyous moments in class? Was it the turn you did perfect? Or the song you heard that just felt really good? And where were those moments that didn't work out, what happened? Did you not ask the question? Were you talking? Did you just not sleep enough? They're laying there, and I can hear their brains ticking away. Then I say, 'Now, next time...fix it.' All it takes is thirty seconds, that moment of reflection." Back in the preschool, Leslie Gleim shows me projects classes have completed over the years, some as large as a mural, some as small as a book. Each tells a unique, year-long story of exploration and a shared, deepening understanding.

"Pure academics, memorizing, those are easy," says Gleim. "We can get children to do that. But 'How do you think'--that's harder. The world wants people who can think on their own, and collaborate together. If we don't nurture it now, in school, you can't just walk into the world like that. We're setting that mindset."