How do High School Students Learn

Promoting Deeper Learning in High School

When we give presentations about our new book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, audiences often ask us, an educator and an education professor, what teachers in regular high schools can do to deepen the learning that takes place in their classrooms. This is one of the questions that we are frequently asked. Given the limits of short class periods, high student loads, instructor seclusion, and the pressure to prepare kids for standardised tests, is it even possible for children to have powerful learning experiences?

When we answer, the first thing that we offer is the unfortunate news that the majority of high schools in the United States are not designed to facilitate effective learning. The next piece of positive information is that we discovered pockets of such learning in almost all of the traditional and alternative schools that we went to, including the ones that had the fewest resources available. The preceding instances provide evidence that individual educators are capable of a great deal.


Understand the
What kinds of things do people who work in the field that you teach do during the day? What kinds of actions are involved in the organisation of their work? What exactly are they looking to make or generate with their efforts?

These questions, in our opinion, should serve as the jumping off point for your thinking when it comes to organising the educational experiences that students will have. Teachers, far too frequently, report feeling forced to teach what they call the “school version” of science, mathematics, or English. This is a version of these fields that has very little in do with the actual work that is done in the field.

Scientists, for instance, do not waste their time conducting experiments for which they already know the results; rather, they attempt to comprehend phenomena for which there is not yet an adequate explanation. Mathematicians do not only commit algorithms to memory and apply them; rather, they take on problems that have not yet been solved in an effort to contribute new information to their discipline. Instead of writing standard five-paragraph essays in which the thesis statement is presented in the introduction, literature experts choose to experiment with a variety of other formats and concepts in their writing.

The cognitive scientist David Perkins, who played a pivotal role in the creation of Harvard’s Project Zero, has a helpful metaphor: He contends that children do not learn how to play sports like baseball by devoting one year each to the skills of throwing, catching, and hitting over the course of three years. They opt to “play the whole game at the junior level” from the very beginning of the competition. In addition, children can and should practise the game’s separate components, but they also need to be aware of how those components are interconnected to form the game as a whole. If this is not present, then the entire endeavour will feel pointless.

What exactly does it mean to give kids in high school the opportunity to participate in all aspects of the academic disciplines? We listened in as an English teacher in an urban public school with a high percentage of students living in poverty dissected a recent piece written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. After having students annotate and summarise the essay, debating its argument, and then examining its form, which was dramatically different from the traditional five-paragraph essay, he had them complete all of these tasks in quick succession. In the final step of the process, students prepared and refined essays in which they not only took a position on Coates’s thesis but also made strategic choices regarding the style of their argument.

The instructor was, in essence, encouraging the students to participate in the realm of column writing by encouraging them to investigate argumentative journalism as it is produced outside the gates of the school. Students writing original argumentation articles on themes that are relevant to their communities and then submitting those columns to be published in local newspapers represents a promising next step that could be taken.


Using the Powerful Learning Experiences You Have Had.

What do you consider to be the single most influential learning experience you’ve ever had? What qualities did it possess that enabled it to be so effective? In what ways did you as a learner have your path through the event guided? Who did you study with and how did they teach you? What exactly was the objective, and why did you place such a high priority on accomplishing it? How did the learning that you did throughout time help you to become more proficient in the domain as a whole?

We do this together on a regular basis, sitting down with different groups of teachers and asking them these questions. The activity is similar to a magic trick in that no matter how diverse the examples may be, participants will always arrive at the same list of qualities that define powerful learning. This holds true regardless of how many different instances are presented to them. At the risk of giving away the surprise, some of the characteristics that come up frequently are purpose (there’s a real reason I want to do this), choice (I have chosen to take this on), community (I’m part of a community that cares about me and is supporting this work), apprenticeship (I’m being coached rather than taught toward developing a skill), peer learning (I’m learning from fellow participants in the field), and learning by doing (I’m learning from trying, gettingtin’ it wrong

How may some of these characteristics be incorporated into the learning environment of a classroom? Asking yourself what it is that kids are going to achieve or make that will make them proud is a good place to start. This can happen in traditional schools as well, for example, if a fourth grader is authoring, revising, and performing a spoken word poem. In this case, the student is participating in all aspects of the game. Working in a project-based environment makes this much simpler.

Ask yourself whether there are methods to give kids some choice while still establishing the key skills that you want to hold common when moving on to the next step. Students are more likely to involve themselves in any activity, from reading in elementary school to doing experiments in middle school science to writing history papers in high school, if they are allowed to determine the topic of what they are doing.

Embrace the idea that productive struggle is necessary for strong learning because it is highly unlikely that your transformative educational experience was presented to you in a linear fashion. Give your students a variety of roles to play, educate them on the norms and expectations of your industry, and encourage them to provide feedback to one another as they build their projects.

Last but not least, do not forget that your ultimate objective is to create a community, a team, or even a family: a group of individuals who care about one another and work together to assist one another in achieving their objectives.


When it comes to effective learning, having fewer resources at your disposal is actually preferable. If Socrates were tasked with teaching history for a year, covering everything from ancient Rome to the French Revolution, he would not be able to offer learning that is more in-depth. It takes some time to peel back all of the layers of a subject. You should make an effort to determine the key events, moments, ideas, books, and skills that you believe it is essential for students to understand, and then you should rigorously trim your unit plans in order to ensure that these items are given the time and space they merit.

For instance, throughout the course of our research, one of the educators encountered a situation in which students became very interested in the idea that some of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. The children were left wondering what this meant for the principles that our nation was founded on, including our Constitution. The instructor shared with us that previously in his teaching career, he would have evaded the question and continued on to the next topic. This time, though, he constructed a mini-unit around his pupils’ inquiry. This gave them the opportunity to investigate a variety of viewpoints and think about how the racial contradictions involved with the formation of the nation continue to echo into the present day.

If you find yourself feeling anxious about the thought of covering less material, remind yourself that students won’t recall all of the specifics of the content anyhow, even if you cover it all. They are significantly more likely to remember significant things that have come to the surface as a result of in-depth investigations. And despite the fact that it may appear as though you do not have the ability to make changes to your curriculum, if you create a fantastic unit, you will most likely gain support among students and parents, which will allow you to have more leeway the following time around.

It won’t be easy to create an environment in your classroom that fosters powerful and long-lasting learning, but the rewards will be well worth the effort. Begin with a baby step, and congratulate yourself after each success!