Podcast: Jal Mehta on Provoking Deeper Learning in High School

Jal Mehta (@jal_mehta) grew up in Baltimore the son of a school administrator and college professor. Now as an Assistant Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Mehta is a leading advocate for deeper learning.

In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School

Mehta observed that his mentor Richard Elmore was always the most knowledgeable person in the room in large part because he spent time in schools every week. Mehta followed suit and visited the best high schools in the country and co-authored a new book about his tours, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.

In his frequent school visits, Mehta often finds a lack of powerful learning in the core curriculum. He observes that many of the structures of school work against deeper, more powerful engagement in core classes–the blocks are short and rushed, inauthentic and not relevant–and as a result, there is little critical thinking in most classrooms even in schools that come recommended.

Mehta often finds the most powerful learning outside the core–in world languages, choir, theatre and extracurriculars. There, he frequently finds aligned, purposeful learning with a clear arch driven by performance feedback.

A sociologist by training, Mehta said, “The best part of visiting schools and meeting with students is our opportunity to be anthropological observers.”

When Mehta and his co-author Sarah Fine from High Tech High GSE visit a school, they request the opportunity to follow two students, one upper track learner and one lower track learner. (He regrets that those exist but because they do, they want to get the full picture). After polite chit chat and a few classes, Mehta said the tour guides open up about the school and begin to gain a real sense of what’s happening.

Rather than seeing disassociated parts, Mehta looks for points of integration, where students are doing real work, what David Perkins calls whole game learning (e.g., we don’t just let little kids play catch to learn baseball, we engage them in T-ball, a junior version of the game). Rather than just reading poetry, a school could ask students to join the world of poets by hosting a poetry salon.

In primary grades, he appreciates seeing some agency and choice being exercised. He appreciates seeing expanded optionality in the middle grades while simultaneously expanding their horizons.

In most high schools, students recreate science experiments with predictable outcomes. However, because science is the study of the unknown, Mehta appreciates schools that ask students to take on problems without easy answers.

Mehta’s undergraduate degree was interdisciplinary. He appreciates seeing youth take on extended and integrated challenges but he also sees value in the exploration of disciplines.

To make room for more co-constructed exploration, he urges schools to pare back on the “need to know” list and create more opportunity to go deep. “In life, you mostly need skills to do things,” argues Mehta and that often comes from a hard sprint to a public product.

While a fan of project-based learning he advises educators not to conflate deeper learning with PBL because not all of it is high quality (see HQPBL.org).

With so much opportunity to create powerful learning experiences, Mehta’s school visits left him with a bias towards action–he’d like to see more experimentation aiming at deeper learning. But he doesn’t expect a single model to emerge. As he observed in his last book, Allure of Order, “Not every form will solve every problem.”

About your own search for deeper learning, Mehta urges, “Think of your students as apprentices,” try more whole-game learning. Make room for depth over breadth. And, give up some control.

Key Takeaways:

[1:08] About Mehta’s upbringing and early education.
[4:06] Dr. Mehta speaks about his mentor, Richard Elmore, and what led him to spend time in other schools.
[9:09] What powerful deeper learning looks like in primary grades.
[12:15] What powerful deeper learning looks like in middle school.
[14:18] What powerful deeper learning looks like in high school. Dr. Mehta also gives some of his favorite examples he has seen.
[18:11] Should we have discipline-based courses? Is that still the best way to organize high school?
[25:48] Is Dr. Mehta optimistic about the new exercises being built around what graduates should know and be able to do (AKA a ‘portrait of a graduate’)?
[28:00] Tom gives his take on the ‘portrait of a graduate’ processes.
[28:56] Tom and Dr. Mehta discuss how communities need to choose the way in which they work together with other people to build new learning experiences and new learning organizations.
[32:57] Dr. Mehta gives his advice on visiting schools; how to pick them and how to learn as much as you can when you visit them.
[37:00] Did Dr. Mehta leave this anthropological project of his optimistic about the direction of the American high school?

Mentioned in this Episode:

In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, by Jal Mehta
and Sarah Fine
Better Together: How to Leverage School Networks For Smarter Personalized and Project Based Learning, by Tom Vander Ark and Lydia Dobyns
No Child Left Behind Act
4.0 Schools
The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling, by Jal Mehta

For more see:

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Jenny Finn

Thank you for this. I really appreciate this conversation. At Springhouse Community School where we are reimagining the purpose and practice of education and very much are experimenting with everything you mention in this podcast. We are doing, and experimenting with, what you are talking about what is needed here in education. We have Fields of Study, are phenomena-based and not siloing subjects, have students at every level of leadership (including creating curricular and pedagogical structure), and more. The question you asked about what do we want a graduate to know/be when they graduate, we ask this for every learner in the community- the portrait of a learner- and develop what we do based on that. That is an organic, emergent process and requires a lot of imagination, failure, and resiliency. If you are interested in learning more about what we are finding, please contact me.

Jenny Finn

Also, as I am listening to you talk about visiting- this happens all the time at Springhouse- we would love to have one of our students be your tour guide- this is what we normally do and it's awesome! We were even named a must-see school by Education Reimagined!

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