Deeper Learning

John is currently attempting to raise money to complete a documentary film about the rise of the charter school in New Orleans. If you’d like to help him with this goal, please visit this site.

In a blog posted on Edutopia in 2011, George Lucas, the filmmaker and education activist, wrote: “Recently on, we published observations from 8th graders about what they believe creates an engaging learning experience. Their answers were straightforward and definitive: project-based learning, technology, and an enthusiastic teacher. I couldn’t agree more.”

That’s the big three: project-based learning, technology and enthusiastic teachers. To put it another way, that’s the Holy Grail of education that all good teachers (including Indiana Jones) aspire to.

What I find fascinating about that accurate observation is that, if push came to shove, the magic could happen with just one of the three elements in the classroom: the technology. The enthusiastic teacher could be somewhere else, connected to the students through technology. That’s certainly not ideal, but it’s certainly possible.

Let me go farther out on the limb and assert that at least some of the other participants in the project-based learning could and should be scattered across the globe. Now that we have technology that does not respect walls or require face-to-face contact, we would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

And that’s my fear — namely, that adults will create some stupid requirement that all three elements — enthusiastic teacher, project participants and technology — must be contained within and limited to one classroom.

When the goal is deeper learning, having those three elements is pretty close to being essential. Right now we are looking for outstanding examples of deeper learning, stories we can tell our PBS NewsHour audience that will make them wish they could be kids in school again.

Please share your suggestions here. Or write me directly if you want your story to be a secret (which makes no sense, of course, because you’re telling me and you know that I have never been able to keep a secret!)

Thanks. We look forward to hearing your ideas.

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18 thoughts on “Deeper Learning

  1. Hi, John,

    I just had my blog published on “Why I Teach”- I think what is happening in my husband’s classes and at our school in general would be a great story for the Newshour. Our school is in a traditionally black area of DeLand called Spring Hill. It has a rich history and an enduring legacy. We have an awesome principal and a dedicated faculty and staff that make learning happen deeply every day. Florida is a hotbed of education discussion, and our school recently received a grade of “C” from the state, but we have been an “A” school several years running and our faculty and staff are committed to educating our students at an “A” level, even if the vicissitudes of Florida’s system don’t recognize that effort. Our district strives to be progressive often without input or buy-in from the teachers. This is somewhat of a microcosm for the Common Core initiatives and positive public schooling that is a huge issue currently. Thank you for your efforts and for your consistently wonderful reporting. The Influence of Teachers is a much needed book.
    Hope to hear from you!


  2. When I was teaching 5th grade (twenty years ago) I had much more freedom to teach in ways meaningful to my kids. When Halley’s comet was coming my students created a time capsule to be dug up when the comet returns. The students decided what artifacts (toys, books etc.) best represented what it was like to be 10 years old, wrote letters to the future and speeches for the dedication ceremony. They then wrote letters to company’s asking for the artifacts and other materials to be donated. Their letters were successful – everything (artifacts, capsule, granite stone marking the site) was donated. Students also wrote letters about who they expected to be when the comet returned (we tied this to Mark Twain whose birth and death date aligned with the comet). The whole school camped out the night the comet came.

    When I tell this story to current and future teachers, they say “that’s great – but there’s no way to do it now.” It is harder now, but as I tell my students preparing to be teachers, “the more restrictive the policies and curriculum, the more creative the teacher must be.” One example – in an elementary methods block university students prepared lessons to be taught to students at a school where they were doing a practicum. The school was on Yellow House Canyon, so the university students did research and then we all walked with the students to the canyon. The elementary students got a chance to study the history, look at the wildlife, take and test water samples. We all learned a lot. This is important for future teachers who themselves may not have experienced field trips. It’s important to help them realize there’s more to life than bubbling.


    • This is inspiring, and I hope a lot of teachers and others read it. “More to Life than Bubbling” is also a pretty good bumper sticker!


      • “Unschooling” – the Best Kept Secret in American Education
        by Linda Sechrist

        In 2008, the best-kept secret in American education was exposed to the public in a Psychology Today article, “Children Educate Themselves: Lessons from Sudbury Valley.” The author, Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor of psychology at Boston College, and a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology, introduced readers to the Sudbury School model of education, even more progressive than other versions of traditional schooling such as Montessori or Waldorf.
        A Sudbury education is an entirely different learning process, occasionally referred to as unschooling—a word that Jeri Quirk, Ph.D. sometimes uses to describe the results of what happens to children at the Jersey Shore Free School, a Sudbury school she co-founded in Marlboro. According to Quirk, whose doctorate is in Educational Leadership and Mental Health Counseling, unschooling is the result of removing a child to a supportive, free environment, where they find their innate curiosity and true joy of discovery as well as their personal interests and passions—the illusive things that many adults attempt to determine so that they can create more happiness, contentment and success.
        The Jersey Free School is based on a model first developed in 1921 at Summerhill School in Suffolk, England, by Scottish progressive educator Alexander Sutherland Neill, and later in the U.S. at the highly successful Sudbury Valley School outside Boston as well as the Albany Free School in Albany, New York. In a true participatory democratic manner, the school allows children and teens to pursue their own interests unhindered by others. They are free to explore—all day and everyday—life and learning in their own way and at their own pace. Interestingly, most Sudbury graduates get into their first choice of college.
        “The importance of this model can’t be underestimated because is based on trust and belief in the ability of children and teens to find and follow their inner guidance and passions,” says Quirk, who in 1997 co-founded the Spring Valley School, another Sudbury school, in Palm Harbor, Florida.
        Gray’s firsthand experience with the Sudbury philosophy came as a result of being a father of a student who attended The Sudbury Valley School. Excited and encouraged by his observations from the perspective of an academician using the school as a resource to study play and self-directed learning, today he writes regularly for Psychology Today and speaks at universities throughout the United States to clearly articulate what he considers the most remarkable facts about the approximate 33 schools which offer a Sudbury education.
        A Sudbury school operates as a participatory democracy. Its primary administrative body is the School Meeting, which consists of all students and staff members. In one-person-one-vote fashion, the School Meeting meets twice a week, creates all of the school’s rules, makes decisions about school purchases, establishes committees to oversee the school’s day-to-day operation, and hires and fires staff members, who have no tenure. Four-year-olds at the school have the same vote as do older students and adult staff members. All School Meeting members follow the same rules.
        A rich environment for play, exploration, and learning, the school doesn’t interfere with students’ activities and gives no tests. As in life, learning is the constant, yet largely incidental to students following their interests and passions. The “alive,” harmonious, responsible environment of the school is the most frequent issue commented upon by visitors.
        An important resource at the school for most students is other students of mixed ages that manifest a wide range of interests and abilities that they are happy to share. Because of the free-age mixing, students are exposed regularly to the activities and ideas of others who are older and younger than themselves. A recent Sudbury graduate describes several of her college classmates as “flat” compared to the interesting group of students at her Sudbury school.
        “Some children gravitate to kids their own age but the majority like the integration of different ages. For instance, one teenage student, who is a talented musician, brings his guitar and ukulele to school. Since he started with us, two others, ages 4 and 8, now bring their guitars to play, too,” advises Quirk.
        According to Quirk’s many years of experience, when an environment supports freedom in learning and trusts young people to make their own decisions, they flourish: they learn with relative ease in a shorter period of time and enjoy every day. They also exude happiness and self-confidence and come to know and respect their special giftedness and that of others. In addition, they stay connected to themselves and listen within for self-direction. They pursue the development of mind, body and spirit and value direct democracy because they live it. Children who are self-directed and learn through self-initiated activities become fully responsible for themselves and for choosing their life path. A desire to learn everything they need to achieve their dreams naturally leads to wanting to contribute to the community.
        “There’s no better music to my ears than when parents tell me that their children don’t like weekends and vacations because they want to be in school. Parents are always asking when we are going to offer a summer school,” advises Quirk, who loves her work and being at such an exciting and happy place as much as the children do.
        For more information on the Jersey Shore Free School, call 732-216-5359 or visit


  3. NAIS is committed to helping all schools become “schools of the future.” Towards that end we share the following, “Notes on Innovative Schools: 21st. C. Skills & Values”

    Schools of the Future: Overview
    1. Resources on the NAIS Website (

    • Search for The Five C’s Plus One: Skills and Values for the 21st C.: Also see separate blogs on each of the C’s: Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication; Character; Cosmopolitanism (Cross-cultural Competency). (Search for Bassett Blog on Creativity; Bassett Blog on Character; etc.)

    • Search for Bassett Tedx Talk on Schools of the Future: The Big Shifts (27 minutes)

    • Search for Independent School Fall 2009 magazine article on “Demonstrations of Learning for 21st. C Schools”: Note the six skills I wrote about at the beginning of that article have subsequently morphed into the 5 “C’s” + One)

    • Search for “Schools of the Future” for resources and profiled innovative schools and programs.

    2. Related Resources
    • See Grant Lichtman’s American tour of 60 independent schools reputed to be among the vanguard of the “schools of the future,” and blogging about each of them: See

    • Project-Based Learning & Interdisciplinary Collaboration:
    o Search for Edutopia’s website and its Introduction to Project-Based Learning
    o Search for IMSA (IL Math and Science Academy) Center for Project-Based Learning
    o Search for The Center for Technology and School Change (Columbia Teachers College)
    o Search for The Buck Institute for Education, specializing in Professional Development in support of Project Based Learning


  4. I am an advisor d(teacher) at Avalon School, where our students engage every day in deeper learning through project based learning. In our high school, students work within multi-age advisories where they design and launch projects around their interests and passions, which help them meet state graduations standards. Students identify their goals, their method, and most importantly, their ‘deliverables’ that will prove they have learned something!

    During their senior year, students at Avalon undertake amazing 300+ hour senior projects. Each senior has a committee for support consisting of parents/guardians, two advisors (teachers), a community expert, and a younger Avalon student. Topics range from building a cello to undertaking school reform.

    Here is the recap in numbers of one of our seniors from 2012. In the course of her project on school reform she: drove 9000 miles (mostly to and from the state capitol), spent 800 hours working on the project, cited 262 sources in her 45 page research paper, attended 32 legislative committee meetings, lobbied 27 politicians, wrote 5 reports, visited 5 other schools, gave testimony 4 times, and changed one law and got one statute instated! And what type of reform did she find needs to happen? Learning needs to be individualized, project-based, and done with the support of engaged, excited teachers.

    None of this was assigned to her. We just assigned her to undertake a senior project that would have meaning to her and provide a challenge.

    This is just one of many examples of deeper learning happening at Avalon all the time!


    • I just wanted to add to Gretchen’s post. I also work at Avalon. The senior project she mentioned was one of the best ones at our school, and what I would add to her comment is that how we help students do amazing work is by building a strong school community. Through our advisory model, each advisor works with 21 students and checks in with them each day. We support their learning through independent projects, but we also support the development of their interpersonal skills as they learn to work with and understand the other students that they share a space (and an advisor) with. Because of a daily check in with a talking piece in which all students contribute to the conversation and listen to each other, our students feel the support and have the confidence to explore their own learning.

      For example, one boy in my advisory was so anxious last year at his previous school that he struggled with attendance problems. When he arrived at Avalon and connected with the advisory, he missed only one day for the rest of the year and now with the support of other staff is exploring music as a way to both manage his anxiety and express his creativity.

      We are proud of the work we do and would love to have a visitor!

      — Kevin Ward, Avalon School


  5. I am Alysia Krafel, one of the founders of Chrysalis Charter School in Palo Cedro California. We are one of the schools studied in the Trusting Teachers book.
    What if you do a show on very few schools in our nation that Trust the Teachers? What if you do a show about the spark? About the magic? About how freedom liberates everything. You will see engaged, enthusiastic teachers, technology, projects and excited, engaged students and families and the rich amazing connection between them. What if you challenge the notion that the very opposite of any prescriptions is what is really needed to improve our schools. This is America. We already know what freedom can do. Why do we not trust it?
    More detail. The most important factor deep learning is an engaged, enthusiastic learner who is seen as an individual being who is able to connect to a teacher who is allowed to respond to the excitement, questions, gifts and psychological needs, of the learner before her/him. The magic happens in the space in between the souls of a learner and teacher (who can be anyone, any where); the spark is nourished by bringing in whatever resources, projects or experiences the student needs to feed the delight in that moment in time. What is needed will vary by age, ability, inclination and a host of things that cannot be listed because deep learning/opportunistic learning is unique to every situation. It is essentially human and therefore complicated. This is why Trusting Teachers is critical. Teaching is an art, a gift, an empathy that guides the knowing of what is needed in the moment for each child – every day!. It might be a project, or access to technology, or a host of other things. What enthusiastic teachers provide to students is experience, rich contact with the world so that their curiosity about what is possible is excited. What is provided by technology is access to all the amazing stuff and people out there. Information, projects, field trips, experience in nature, experiments…… real stuff of the world is the fuel. The spark is what starts the fire and you just never really know when or where it will happen. I can tell you what great, engaged teachers do best, we blow on that tiny flame and feed it where ever it shows up. That is what makes teaching really, really fun. Which is why we do it for so little money, even when we are being abused. We live for the magic. That is the story that needs to be told. That is what will be killed if we stay on our present course and what will grow like a forest fire if teachers are trusted, if kids are trusted, if our very nature as human beings is trusted.
    You are right to worry about adults trying to create prescriptions because no matter how good something is, if you give it to everyone in the same package, at the same time, in the same context, it will hardly ever be right on for most of the people at any one time. Our system resists trusting people to do the right thing and tries to standardize everything – from above. This will never work in nourishing deep learning.
    Chrysalis Charter School in California is one of the most teacher-led/autonomous schools in the country. Our mission statement is to encourage the light shine brighter in every student. Teachers are charged with creating an exciting, engaging, safe and loving environment where deep learning can thrive. Kids love to come to school. Teachers like their jobs (even though they are highly underpaid). You can read our website to learn about how we teach math for understanding, get kids out in nature regularly, go on lots of field trips etc. But what makes us really important is Trusting Teachers.


    • When we decided to make a follow-up film to AUGUST TO JUNE, it was to show how meaningful teaching can look in an urban school. The comments above are exactly what we ended up finding to be vital: supporting teachers, keeping their fires alive, nurturing their growth and giving them the freedom they need to address the actual children they are teaching, not some composite imagined by a text book company. There are two projects coming out of this that we hope you will keep your eye out for: A Year At Mission Hill is a ten part internet series that will be on many websites starting at the end of January (short list: IDEA, Edweek, Edutopia, WKCD, Ashoka…) A separate hour long film is in the works for the fall, called Good Morning Mission Hill. Both are based on Mission Hill School in Boston, where teachers deserve and have the trust they need to teach well.


  6. I am also an advisor (teacher) at Avalon School. Like Chrysalis Charter School, Avalon School was also featured in the book Trusting Teachers because of our teacher led model. This morning with my advisory, I asked my students which community organizations support their independent projects. Surveying 15 students, I found students volunteer with the following organizations; Driftwood art gallery, Open Book, the Walker Art Center, the History Center, Independent Film Project, KFAI radio station, the Children’s Hospital of Minneapolis, 360 Journalism, the Children’s Home Society, Leonardo’s Basement, St. Paul Parks-Canvass, and an organization that trains service dogs. This list only scratches the surface of the vast community connections and community experts we use as a school to support student learning. Avalon School truly embraces the vision that enthusiastic teachers, project based learning, and technology is not contained in a single classroom.


  7. I am the parent of a current Avalon senior. My son has been a student since 7th grade when we pulled him out of the school he was attending (due to our concerns over his performance) and enrolled him at Avalon. He was resistant at first, but after just one day was clearly more enthusiastic about the school structure and environment.
    My son has always been a self-learner, from a very young age. He would learn absolutely everything there was to know about any subject that interested him. He is clearly very gifted and creative, but the traditional school model was leaving him behind. He was not engaged. He did not have teachers who were invested in making sure that he was succeeding or in finding ways for him to succeed. At Avalon, those teachers–Advisors–are with him daily helping him to find his own best practices and to take responsibility for making them work.
    He has flourished at Avalon and has embodied the project learning model, creating amazing projects on everything from career development (a detailed, unique deliverable on criminal psychology), to the history of comedy (an exhaustive timeline of comedy from Greek comedies to current comediens and theiry styles), to an interpretive dance for his drug use awareness for a health standard. In all of these projects and others he learned far more about the subject and about putting information together than he would have listening to a lecture or reading a chapter in a textbook. This is learning–learning that will last far past the chapter or semester exam.


  8. At Envision Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, our students work on project-based assignments that challenge them to gain the 21st Century skills of thinking critically, solving problems resourcefully, and collaborating productively. We know that students need these skills in order to be successful in college and in life. At the end of the year, 10th and 12th grade students must “show what they know.” Students assemble a portfolio of their best work, which they must “defend,” dissertation-style, in front of an audience of educators, peers, and community members. Students must present a defense of their work at the end of 10th grade, and, for seniors, passing the college success portfolio defense is a requirement to graduate from an Envision School. The defenses must include evidence of subject matter knowledge, leadership skills, and a discussion of what they learned through a required workplace learning experience with a local business. Many of our kids come in to the schools below grade level, and to see at the end of the year how well they can explain their work, answer tough questions, and reflect on how they have grown is truly inspiring.


  9. “When the goal is deeper learning….”. Hi John,
    You rightly point out the essence of your post and the essence of education, so to say. Technology is all around us. Enthusiastic teachers may be in some other part of the world. So how do we bring them together to teach a class? We use platforms like WiziQ, that offer virtual classrooms and white board teaching, along with content sharing, projects and course-based teaching. There are other platforms too but WiZiQ brings together synchronous and asynchronous learning/teaching. There are so many success stories related to e-learning through WiZiQ if you visit this page :
    You will find that this kind of approach not only gets an overwhelming response from the students but also from the teachers, who find technology far easier and more effective as a teaching tool.


  10. What about a show which examines wonks versus “seasoned experts” when it comes to “good teachers.”

    The Nate Silver story is a self taught amateur, armed with numbers, beats the professional pundits who’ve spend a lifetime in politics.

    The Moneyball narrative is the same.

    And the hidden “wow” finding of the Gates MET study was along these lines.

    Some interesting narratives here I can imagine….


  11. I am an advisor (teacher) at EdVisions Off Campus (EOC). EOC is an online charter school in Minnesota that combines the “big three” you have listed. We are a project based school and we work through video conferencing software with our students on a daily basis. Using technology, we rely on building relationships with our students while stressing the concept of finding your passions and learning through hands-on work and individual learning. Each student in grades 7-12 has an individual learning plan which includes basic skills, life skills (also known as 21st century skills in some circles), and future plans. Students are required to meet the Minnesota State standards, but by working closely with students, advisor support their students in learning through their interests and experts in various fields. All standards are met through project work. By the time our students have graduated they have faced their challenges and completed a 300-500 hour senior project.

    Students work from their homes, public libraries, and other locations that they have access to the internet. Our students come from many different types of backgrounds and rely on the technology provided to access help from adviosors as well as resources for their project work. Technology is a very important part of their education.

    Teachers (called Advisors) are more than “the figure at the front of the room,” they are counselors, advisors and support for students. Teachers work together to help students and to run the school. EOC runs in a shared leadership model through the use of teams for decision making from the year round calendar, to the seminars offered each school year, the annual budget, and every thing in between. EOC was also included in the book “Trusting Teachers” mentioned by Avalon and Chrysalis.


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