Making the Transition: No Teacher is an Island

James Bellanca


“Deeper Learning? All kids thinking critically and creatively? Collaborating? Applying digital literacy? “It would never happen in my school with the kids we get.” “I’m lucky to get them to finish my daily reading worksheet.” “ Half of my thirty-three students speak almost no English.” Those words are just another dream that some college professor writes books and makes speeches about. Get real.”


These words are not a common commentary, but it’s a tone I hear often. We understand that it’s especially difficult for a teacher in a school environment where too many students speak too little English and other problems overwhelm the best of teachers. I also have heard, even in schools with a minimum of such issues.


It takes extraordinary effort for a teacher to make the transition from shallow learning with its emphasis on memorizing information, test preparation, and scores, scores, scores. Certainly there are teachers who manage this on their own. Mostly, however, it occurs when a whole school, lead by a strong principal, ends the practice of each teacher locked in her own classroom, her own island. “No man is an island” wrote the poet John Donne. Teachers shouldn’t have to be either.


An All Together Transition


Let’s examine a primary school example. We consider Katherine Smith Elementary in Evergreen School District, San Jose, to be the best elementary school I have visited.


I could describe any of this schools K-6 classrooms, the many outside of classroom events, the faculty, the school leaders, the parent program, or the many faculty meetings that occur to illustrate why this underfunded school tops my list. With its most poor Hispanic students starting from scratch to learn English, it defies the common low expectation that these youngsters can handle anything more than rote learning.  


What makes the difference? It is the one hundred percent commitment to deeper learning outcomes for each and every student. Commitment encourages each teacher and school leader to come out of typical classroom islands and work together . This commitment is announced on the school’s home page and is visible every day.


Deeper Learning: Looks Like, Sounds Like


In the 2nd grade classroom, students live deeper learning as they engage in daily project-based units. On my visit, I caught them focusing on the whale they found on their city’s beach. One group was wondering about the whale’s heart. How big was it? Is it as big as ours? How does it work? After reading, watching videos and discussing the blue whale, they later elected to make a replica, paper-mache whale’s heart.


This multi-discipline study immersed students into standards-aligned content.


  • Reading: Ask and answer questions to find details about the blue whale’s heart.
  • Writing: Organize information in sentences.
  • Math:  Measure and find ratios to build the model heart.
  • Science: Name the parts and their functions of the whale’s heart.
  • Art: Know what paints and materials to sketch and build the model.
  • Technology: Search information about the blue whale’s hearts and how to use an app to sketch the heart.                                           


To help “master the core content” and more importantly to develop their deeper learning competencies, the teacher had identified and aligned each outcome.


  • Critical Thinking: In each part of their work plans, students had to comprehend, analyze, apply, synthesize, and evaluate how details fit the model.
  • Collaborating: Students had to work together in order to combine what each learned about the whale and present their team’s ideas to a public audience.    
  • Communicating: During their research and the model construction, teammates had to share ideas with each other. They also had to prepare an email to their parents and make a formal presentation speaking to an audience.
  • Creative Problem Solving: Although they had images of the whale’s heart, they had to make sketches and build a model of their own design. There were many “how do we do this?” Questions as they created the whale heart.
  • Respecting Cultural Differences: Students from different backgrounds had to show respect for each other’s views in how to create the heart. As the teams worked, the members enriched their belonging mindset by collaborating.
  • Transferring: After reading stories and articles about the whale, viewing images of the heart and showing they knew what parts to include, the students transferred their knowledge into their model. The teacher used a rubric to assess what they learned about teamwork and how they would improve the insights into future teamwork
  • Student Agency: Students made the decisions about what and how they would make their “products”. Products ranged from the giant heart, to a giant floor sketch with scaled mathematical measurements of the whole whale.


It is Possible


A Project Based Deeper Learning unit like this whale unit requires daunting effort. When the classroom is geared to similar projects with deeper learning outcomes every day all year, the challenge increases. Yes, I do know one or two teachers who have tried this alone. For the most part, this challenge is best managed in quality and quantity when teachers, such as those in this school, are enabled to work together week in and week out to plan, implement, and assess their innovative units.


Although school principal Alan Brengard provided the initial vision when he arrived at Katherine Smith five years earlier, it was clear that his emphasis on collaboratively developed deeper learning outcomes and units of study vetted among the faculty was the water that would drive  the school’s mill wheel. At this point, it was the principal’s job to facilitate teacher team time and provide the resources for the teams to succeed.


Seeing is Believing


During my multi-day visit, I saw the evidence of serious collaboration in every nook and cranny of the school. In every classroom,  I saw variations of Project Based Deeper Learning (PBDL) in action. Guided by a 4th grade “Genius”, I not only watched teachers facilitate PBDL units, I saw models and samples of completed projects, observed a grade level team work as “Critical Friends” to review a proposed project, met with the team leaders to plan and conduct an all faculty session which would develop “looks-like/sounds-like” rubrics for essential learning-to-learn skills, and gave feedback on the faculty’s plan to heighten parent engagement. I sat with a grade level team introducing the school’s new STEM lab teacher to PBDL and joined the all faculty Friday Night celebration at a local restaurant.


At Katherine Smith, no teacher, no student is an island. What kids and teachers say and do is not fake news nor an academic’s pipedream.


What’s Necessary? Deeper Outcomes for a Lifetime

Common definitions and descriptions of deeper learning have highlighted methods and programs which may facilitate deeper learning experiences. These may be nice for a school to say it is readying students for their 21st Century college and career challenges. However, few are necessary when it comes to producing what is essential–deeper learning outcomes for all students.

Necessary vs. Nice

The comparison of what is most likely to produce these outcomes, as opposed to those most commonly given priority, is stark.




What REALLY matters?

The necessary vs. nice distinctions won’t make vendors happy. Fast talking sales folks love to hit end-of-year budgets with one-time, nice solutions claimed to “do it all”. Fake claims! What these sales “do” do is clean out the budget with a fast expenditure built on “promises, promises” for quick fixes….and they fatten commissions and bottom lines.

In the current school accountability climate, when all is said and done, don’t we all wish to know how well our children are learning? Isn’t that the main concern we hear from parents, teachers, board members, college admissions officers, real estate agents, and taxpayers as they ask: ”What are _____’s standardized test scores?”

The shallow learning reported by traditional school report cards, even when reported on gussied up electronic forms, drive the continuing commitments to shallow 20th Century definitions of learners. We can interpret the traditional scales as good news or bad. If good, we smile and may even get a chance to put a “My Child is An Honor Student” sticker on the family SUV or have the Board proclaim the school’s placement in the US News’ “best in state” ranks.

With limited looks at shallow numbers and letters, we are guaranteed to see more than than a fuzzy snapshot of what students have recalled and little about their development of deeper learning skills. The shallow learning reported by traditional report cards and data-full spread sheets, communicates the barest hints of how students are developing the characteristics which will count the most in the next decades.

By going beyond test scores and report card grades to descriptions of deeper learning outcomes, schools can move their responses from snapshots to detail rich videos. Such outcomes enable parents, school boards, colleges and others to see what deeper learning looks and sounds like. This shows its added benefits for a student’s future and an understanding of how they are developing the talents and skills they will need to succeed in their futures.


The “What if’s?”

What if your school defined the characteristics of a deeper learner as your school’s desired outcomes for all? How would these outcomes change what happens each day in the classroom? How would it shift each teacher’s focus from handing out worksheets, lecturing, and checking answers from textbook homework and grading facts recalled? How would it change students from being sponges absorbing information to makers of new understandings and solvers of real world problems? Ultimately, how would these deeper learner characteristics switch the emphasis on changing schools from what might be nice to what is essential for helping all students develop the much desired deeper learner characteristics.



Deeper Learning: An Outcomes Definition

When I was a boy, I spent several weeks each summer on my relative’s farm. Chores were included. One summer, my uncle declared, “This summer we’re digging a new well. You’re welcome to join in!” We dug and dug through rock, stone and sand. At last, we found mud and water 26 feet below the surface. “Now, doesn’t this water make all that deep digging worthwhile?” my uncle asked. “That water is going to make out life a whole lot better in many ways,” he smiled. “And, don’t forget what you learned about digging deep in hot weather.”

Deeper Learning Descriptions

Digging a well is like digging for deeper understanding in the classroom. When you Google “deeper learning”, you will find a variety of explanations for what it is and how to do it. The Hewlett Foundation comes closest to a definition with its description of Deeper Learning attributes. You will also find a list of 10 national networks with a mix of 500 public and charter schools committed to deeper learning practices. Other organizations highlight programs and materials which help with the dig or research.

An Outcomes Definition

Unlike others who highlight theory, practices, and programs, we start and end our definition with outcomes. In the outcome light, we add attributes which separate deeper learning from surface learning. As on the farm where a good topsoil has its value, digging deeper for water gets us to the life-sustaining water needed for the farm to prosper.

“Deeper learning is an outcome which results from the intentional development of students’ learning how to transfer the essential learning-to-learn skill sets of critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, communication, cultural respect, agency, and digital deciding to further deepen the understanding of core content knowledge.”

The completed transfer of the five essential skill sets for constructing deeper understandings is the heart and soul of 21st Century teaching and learning for deeper outcomes. The on-going, intentional development of these competencies leading to the deeper learning outcomes provide the keys to each student’s readiness for making life-long decisions as a successful deeper learner. In a century when torrents of data threaten to drown all, it is essential to spotlight these outcomes as the priority in any curriculum.

As students develop the competencies (the small circles) through instruction meant to facilitate deeper outcomes, teachers help students become knowledgeable and effective problem solvers, finding answers to serious problems faced by all in their everyday lives. The final proof of the deeper learning’s worth is found in the assessment of its outcomes. These must not only show what students know, but also what they can do with their ever-deepening knowledge and ability to solve new, tougher problems as they transfer that “how to” knowledge.

Deeper Learning: What It’s Not!

Understanding what deeper learning is not helps us understand what it is. The “is not” list is easy to see or hear in any traditional classroom. grade. Remember these examples.

  • Grade 1: The Alphabet
  • Grade 4: The Multiplication Table
  • Grade 6: Read “Casey at the Bat” aloud
  • Grade 7: Name 5 Egyptian Monuments
  • Grade 9: Name parts of a cell
  • Grade 11: Recite “To Be or Not to Be”
  • Grade 12: Match each trig definition

In addition, maybe you can also remember some of the “how-to-remember tricks”. You might have picked up in your pursuit to do well in school.

  • Outlining
  • Highlighting
  • Repeating a list aloud
  • Homework practice
  • Note taking and recopying
  • Underlining key words
  • Mnemonics
  • Memory Trees
  • Sequence Charts
  • Cheat sheets
  • Daily worksheets followed by review worksheets
  • Repeat the whole grade.

All of these practices promote shallow or surface learning. They never get to the aquifer running deep below the topsoil. The best memorizers in a classroom can recall the important facts and procedures in a lesson. They get the best grades. Good memories. Fast speed. Practice hard. Good grades. Best class ranks.

Assessment Drives Instruction

In today’s classrooms, assessment drives instruction. Thus, it is important for us to start and end with deeper learning outcomes in any lesson or unit plan we teach. With ‘deeper’, we shine the light on the competencies which enable students to better understand the real-world problems they choose to address. In this way we are asserting the pre-eminence of life-long learning competencies.

Our students don’t need to recall facts as the be all and end of all of their short time in school. There are more than enough facts in our heads and in the cloud to solve 99% of the world’s problems. If we want to highlight what is most important to learn in today’s information tsunami, we have little choice but to follow the evidence and spotlight deeper learning outcomes.