In Search of Deeper Learning

By Marion Weeks, Community Outreach Coordinator
Harvard First Visit

Maren Oberman and Sarah Fine interview Sturgis West students

Sturgis is one of 30 high schools selected for a Harvard Graduate School of Education research project entitled In Search of Deeper Learning. The project is a contemporary study of schools, systems, and nations that are seeking to produce ambitious instruction. During November and December 2013, Harvard researchers Jal Mehta, Maren Oberman and Sarah Fine observed 43 classes at Sturgis East and West, conducted 25 interviews with faculty and administrators and moderated 4 student focus groups.

What did the research team learn about Sturgis “IB for All” ?

Eric Hieser invited the researchers to present their findings at a combined East/West faculty meeting on May 14. The team described how their multiple classroom visits, interviews and focus groups provided enough information “to get a sense of the culture, ethos, and dominant patterns of instruction at Sturgis, but it’s still a snapshot!”

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Maren Oberman interviews Sturgis East students

The following summary of their presentation provides information about the overall project and what they observed about Sturgis culture.

Deeper Learning is a “360-degree anthropological study looking across the landscape of 30 ambitious high schools.” The study includes a wide variety of school types and instructional models. The goal of the project is to “identify facilitating factors and tradeoffs in different approaches to enacting deeper learning.”

The researchers “focus in part on the cognitive rigor of the tasks that students are asked to do in classrooms… but also take into account a more holistic picture of what deeper learning means for the learner.” They study schools using an ecological perspective – how do the parts fit together?

A selection of quotations about Sturgis faculty and school culture:

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Jal Mehta presents findings at Sturgis Faculty Meeting

“Teachers and staff both bring an astonishing array of experiences to the table. The students love this!”

“Strong sense of willingness to “explore the gray”

“Deep repository of knowledge both about discipline-specific content and about the IB itself”

“Both campuses have a strong sense of warmth, engagement, and belonging. Given what we encounter in many other places, we don’t take this for granted.”

“The ethos is deeply rooted in inclusiveness and, above all, in reciprocal and relational trust.”

“Strong hiring leads to trust in faculty autonomy”

“Symmetry – The way that administrators relate to faculty mirrors the way faculty treat students”

“Based in positive expectations and trust”

A selection of quotations from Sturgis students:

“Students here feel safe, they’re going to be accepted for who they are and what they believe, they’re going to thrive, we promote a safe learning environment.”

“[The teachers and staff] treat you like peers and not like someone who’s beneath you.”

“Almost every one of them [the teachers] has gone international [[she mentions the diversity of their experiences and seems impressed]].”

“Theory of Knowledge (ToK) is where we open our minds and think about the world, but the teachers are already on that level anyway”

“[In classes] you had to do so much by yourself, it was kind of shocking; it was a new experience; you create everything.”

“I think the teacher needs to be there as a guide… I really believe in students discovering mathematics for themselves.”

“[[Class starts on time here. There’s no real formal beginning for most of the courses I’ve seen. Teachers walk in and it’s almost like they’re just picking up in the middle of a conversation.]]”

Harvard Presentation on Deeper Learning

To learn more about the research team’s findings and their recommendations for increasing deeper learning at Sturgis, see their PowerPoint here:

Harvard Presentation on Deeper Learning

Link to video of presentation filmed by videographer Leslie Milsted:

Harvard Presentation on Deeper Learning

Additional information about researchers Jal Mehta, Maren Oberman and Sarah Fine:

Jal Mehta is an Associate Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His primary research interest is in understanding what it would take to create high quality schooling at scale, with a particular interest in the professionalization of teaching. He is the co-editor of the recently released The Futures of School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2012), and the author of the forthcoming The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). He is currently working on two projects: The Chastened Dream, a history of the effort to link social science with social policy to achieve social progress; and In Search of Deeper Learning, a contemporary study of schools, systems, and nations that are seeking to produce ambitious instruction. Dr. Mehta received his Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Policy from Harvard University. Read more:

Maren Oberman began her education career in Boston, first as a Steppingstone Foundation fellow and sixth-grade teacher, then as a teacher and administrator at the Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR) charter school. At APR, she “advocated for students with special needs, for teachers whose voices were not being heard, and for enriching our academic program by threading literacy throughout the curriculum.” This experience inspired her work as a charter school renewal evaluator with Schoolworks, Inc. Most recently, as a member of the leadership team at the Chicago New Teacher Center (CNTC), Maren provided formative feedback to professional development providers, designed and implemented professional development for CNTC coaches and mentors, and coached new teachers. She aspires to return to the field as a system-level leader strongly equipped to address urban school districts’ “political, fiscal, and management complexities.” Read more:

Sarah Fine When Sarah Fine left the classroom in 2009, after four years as a teacher, department chair, and instructional coach at a Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., she saw herself becoming an education writer. She had always been drawn to narrative writing, especially after attending Middlebury College’s famed Bread Loaf School of English every summer while she was teaching. Fine also felt there weren’t enough education “insiders” writing about education issues for general-interest audiences. She started writing, getting her pieces on community schools, accountability, and students left behind published in influential publications like The Washington Post and Education Week. She also applied to the Ed School, where she jumped into an ethnographic project with Associate Professor Jal Mehta that would lead to the ultimate achievement for an education writer: her first book. Tentatively titled In Pursuit of Deeper Learning, Fine says the book-in-progress is an attempt “to map the landscape of approaches to engaging high school students in cognitively ambitious tasks.”  Read more:

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