Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education

Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath promise a book of inspiring stories about Deeper Learning, and that’s exactly what they deliver with Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century. They feature eight public schools (including one magnet school and three charter schools) with minority populations 30% and above, and  free and reduced-price lunch eligible student populations ranging from 32% to 100%. The schools are all slightly smaller than the national average, with fewer than 600 students each. “Nonetheless, as we intend to show, most if not all of their effective strategies could be adopted in larger schools,” the authors write.

“Our purpose here is to show that the rich experiences and the foundation for success offered through Deeper Learning can and should be afforded to all students.”

Martinez and McGrath briefly outline the case for Deeper learning; namely, that most public schools in America are 20th century schools trying to cope with 21st century students and that we are failing to give our students the high quality, individualized educations they each deserve. The solution, they argue, is instruction that offers “Deeper Learning”a term they chose to encompass “educational goals that, taken together, constitute the foundation for developing the single most important ability students should possess: the capacity for learning how to learn.” The book walks the reader through chapters arranged into broad themes that characterize Deeper Learning:

  • Connecting as a community of learners: Research shows that when students feel positively about their teachers, other students, and their mission (learning), students learn better; they also benefit from “observing and imitating influential models.” Teachers also benefit from the connection to their colleagues as well as to students. The keys are “trust, ties, and mentors.”
  • Empowering students to lead their own learning: Students learn by doing, especially by doing things that are important, interesting, and relevant to them personally. Project-based learning can be part of the solution, as well as letting students guide their own learningand letting them learning to fail.
  • Contextualizing learning and relating it to students’ lives: Memories that are connected and personally meaningful are more easily retained; teachers can help by connecting material to real-world events and problems.
  • Reaching beyond school walls with partnerships and real world experiences: Partnerships not only help schools provide resources and experiences to students, but help students build important real world skills and networkssocial capitalthat is especially important for students who would otherwise not be well-connected.
  • Inspiring and motivating students with customized learning: Find what lights a spark in a student, personalize their learning around that spark, and leverage partnerships to help you do it.
  • Making good use of technology: Technology should be incorporated carefully and thoughtfully for specific goals; it’s a means, not an end.
  • Investing in deeper learning: Deeper Learning is not a formula to be applied whole or piecemeal to a school; it’s an approach to education that requires commitment, creativity, and dedication from staff and students alike.

Each chapter features success stories and model approaches from the different schools and ends with take-home points. The advice of Deeper Learning is deceptively simple and obvious: spend time with students, treat them as individuals, invest in their success, and let them grow into their own responsibilities, interests, and maturity. Yet this is almost the opposite of what many schools do and changing that traditional model can be incredibly difficult. Never mind the team-building kayak tripshow many teachers feel like they just don’t have the time to spend mentoring students individually? But, like the teachers, administrators, and students it features, Deeper Learning adopts a can-do attitude, noting that Deeper Learning is not going to look exactly the same at every school. Indeed, one major theme of the book is forging beneficial partnerships and using available resources, so a team-building kayak trip might make sense for one school, while a partnership with a local GE factory makes sense for another.
References and other end notes sprinkled throughout provide support for data points (but not necessarily any “how-to” or trouble shooting advice). The book is a quick and lively read, with well-told anecdotes illustrating the authors’ points about what Deeper Learning in action looks like. The book delivers what it promises: inspiring stories that show you what is possible. It is not necessarily meant to persuade, and the lack of resources or more examples may be frustrating to some readers who finish the book feeling ready to take action but unsure where to start. I enjoyed Deeper Learning but wish the authors had included a recommended reading list. One place to start: Deeper Learning resources from the Hewlett Foundation. For more on Deeper Learning from, check out:


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Margaret Weigel

This sounds great, I'm looking forward to checking out the book (and thanks for the reading list!). I have my fingers crossed that these methods can indeed scale up to larger schools.

Debbie Howard

I just reviewed this book ( I loved how it got me focused on out-of-the-box thinking. It really reminded me of an earlier book I'd read, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future by Margaret Wheatley.
In that book, Wheatley writes, "We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are rewarded greatly. We rediscover we’re creative.”
Love that.

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