Deeper Learning Demands Deeper Leading—and Technology Can Help

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Deeper Learning Demands Deeper Leading—and Technology Can Help

By Barnett Berry     Mar 26, 2016

Deeper Learning Demands Deeper Leading—and Technology Can Help

Knowledgeable. Versatile. Creative. Engaged.

Being college- and career-ready is no simple task. It’s time for all American students to take part in deeper learning.

Limitations of current reforms

Recent investments in education are not yielding adequate results, as dismal test scores and other indicators reveal. High-stakes accountability systems (or, as Andy Calkins puts it, “the policy equivalent of… ‘Shock and Awe’ tactics”) aren’t doing the trick. Neither are efforts to “disrupt” education with charter schools or opening up the marketplace so anyone can teach.

And technology is no panacea. Digital tools offer powerful assists. But even in technologically rich environments, deeper learning can only achieve its aims—and do so for all students—when grounded in relationships.

What’s more, as education historian Larry Cuban has noted, the student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction envisioned by education technology advocates remains the exception to the rule. Why? He points to the lack of time for teachers to “learn, experiment, and overhaul their practices in collaboration with each other." A 2015 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, examining use of technology and student learning across the world, reached the same conclusion.

A recent Gallup poll hints at what else is amiss, reporting that only 30 percent of America’s teachers are “actively engaged” in their jobs. While a vast majority of teachers say they see teaching as their life’s calling, the Gallup survey showed that teachers “scored dead last” among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work.

Teachers feel disconnected from decisions relevant to their jobs, and their working conditions do not encourage ongoing professional growth. How can we then expect them to exercise energy and enthusiasm as they engage students in deeper learning?It is time for policymakers and practitioners to create an effective system of teacher learning and leadership.

The promise of deeper learning

Promising new school designs are beginning to deploy teachers as leaders who engage students deeply, often using blended learning approaches. (See, for example, the Ford Foundation’s More and Better Learning Time work, Big Picture Learning, Deeper Learning Network, Digital Youth Network, Generation Schools Network, Institute of Play, Remake Learning, and Summit Public Schools).

Yet these innovations have limited reach. For decades, as Richard Elmore has noted, ambitious American reforms have flopped because of the lack of “intentional processes for [the] reproduction of successes.”

For deeper learning to spread, teachers must be able to evaluate the impact of new practices on student learning and broaden their own reach. To borrow Elmore’s terms, growing numbers of teachers will need to “go public” with their practices and expand their “web” of influence, no longer thinking of themselves as “solo practitioners.” And schools will need to take new organizational approaches that develop teachers as leaders and create the conditions that allow (and encourage) their expertise to be tapped and spread.

We can advance this work by leveraging three promising shifts:

  1. Next-generation accountability approaches can make American teachers’ expertise—and the evidence of their impact—more visible.
  2. Meanwhile, policymakers and administrators are learning more about innovative organizational designs (including practices of top-performing nations and leadership trends beyond education) that can spread teaching expertise.
  3. And teachers are tapping online tools and networks to support one another’s learning and leadership growth in resourceful, impactful ways.

Online networking boom

This third development promises to increase the pace of change among teachers, as emerging networks break down the bureaucratic barriers that isolate individual practitioners. Nearly six in ten teachers are now using technology to work with teaching colleagues they “would not otherwise know”—whether via social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.) or other online communities. (In addition to CTQ’s Collaboratory, see Bloomboard,LearnZillion, Literacy Design Collaborative, National Writing Project,Teacher’s Guild, and Teaching Channel, just to name a few.)

Meanwhile, a recent national survey shows that while teachers are not satisfied with their formal professional development opportunities, almost 3 in 4 classroom practitioners are pursuing informal learning (including participation in new networks and online communities) that does satisfy their quest to improve.

The next step: take advantage of this increased connectivity to spread and document teachers’ expertise. Enter the micro-credentialing movement, which presents teachers with opportunities to document their learning—whether formal or informal—and maximize their engagement in online communities.

Scaling up educational change is no simple feat. But by making the most of the three shifts above to fuel teacher learning and leadership, we can create the excellent and equitable public education system all students deserve.

This post is an excerpt from a new paper commissioned by the Ford Foundation. Visit to read more.

Barnett Berry (@BarnettCTQ) is founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality (@teachingquality), a national nonprofit that advances a high-quality public education system for all students, driven by the bold ideas and expert practices of teachers. Barnett is an investor in EdSurge.

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