In my experiences with teachers and school leaders in educational systems around the world, one frequently asked question stands out from the rest:

“How can I balance the demands of the system with the interests and needs of my learners?”

A lot is expected of teachers and school leaders, and those expectations don’t always align with all that you want for each one of your students. Add to that challenge the competing solutions offered in external initiatives, learning frameworks, and other varied improvement strategies, and it isn’t always easy to discern what’s actually right for your learners, and therefore most worthy of your time and attention. But one thing is certain: If you want to meet the needs of your learners, you have to start with the needs of your learners.

If you look back on your experiences in your school system, it’s likely that hasn’t always been the starting point for you, your school, or your district. So much is handed to educators, in the form of standards, guidelines, expectations, and demands, that the natural question becomes, “How can I make all this work for my students?” By changing the starting point – from standards to students – the questions change, too:

“Who are my students?”
“What do they need?”
“How can we get there?”

Start by getting to know your students as people. Who are they? What are their interests, passions, and hopes for the future? Then, determine what they need to grow and succeed as individuals. What does it take to truly succeed, not only in school but over the course of their lives? And finally, only after this foundation is firmly in place, think about what pieces will need to come together for each of your students to find real success. What structures and supports will work for my students?

Reframing the starting point in this way is the first step in (1) identifying the learning outcomes you want for your students and (2) putting together a comprehensive and compliant plan for making those outcomes a reality – a plan that places students’ outcomes (and, therefore, students) first and at the center of all your activity. From the beginning of your journey all the way through to desired student outcomes, Five Frames of Learning will guide you through the process of putting learners first in everything you do.

The first frame is Engagement. When trying to find out who your students are and what’s important for them, don’t go it alone. Talk to your students. They aren’t there to be taught, tested, and graded. They’re there to learn, teach, grow, and connect. They have a lot they can tell you about their interests and needs, and everyone’s experience of school will be better if they feel empowered to do it.

Students’ parents can tell you a whole lot, too, both about who their kids are and about what they want them to get out of school. Ask your students, their parents, and yourselves that question – “What’s important for students to get out of school?” – and the answers won’t stop at “academic proficiency.” In fact, in light of decades-long research on this very question and in school systems all over the world, the answers are encompassed by four learning outcomes: self-understanding, knowledge, competency, and connection. These are the four deeper learning outcomes, because they extend beyond the limits of traditional academic learning to account for all that we actually need to succeed. They help us contribute to others’ lives and to the world, and that gives us meaning and fulfillment. Why should schools aim for anything less?

Retrieved from Measuring Human Return: Understand and Assess What Really Matters for Deeper Learning. Joanne McEachen and Matthew Kane, 2018.

When we truly commit to this picture of learning in our school systems, deeper learning is the lens over everything we do. To make deeper learning a reality for your students, you have to “frame” that lens within your own context. That’s where the Five Frames of Learning kick in. When you work to engage your students, their parents, and members of your community in the life and activity of your school or school system, engage them around students’ self-understanding; knowledge; competency with regard to collaborating, communicating, and thinking critically and creatively; and connections with others and the world. The value they’ll add to your school or school system is proportional to your focus on the outcomes they value.

The second frame is Development. After identifying the outcomes you want for your students, place your focus on purposefully and intentionally developing those outcomes. Now’s a good time to look to the curriculum. The curriculum is important because knowledge is important – the curriculum lays out what your students need to know. How to develop that knowledge is left up to you. You can set knowledge up as the sole focus of learning since it’s all that the standards demand of your students, or you can position your students at the center of learning and help them develop all the outcomes that matter.

If the latter is your path of choice, you’re going to need navigational guidance. What’s already out there that’s clearly aligned with your efforts to improve students’ deeper learning outcomes? Whether it’s an international initiative intent on the development of deep learning competencies (see New Pedagogies for Deep Learning), measures of students’ self-understanding and connection (see Measuring Human Return), or any other tools, frameworks, or educational movements capable of adding value to your system’s change process, look to them and their learning to forward your own.

And if specific supports are still lacking, partner within your own context to develop them. You and your colleagues, your students, their parents, and other members of your community hold the key to unlocking deeper learning for all. Whatever tools you may need to make this learning a reality are well within your grasp, because it’s well within your power to develop them. Remember to start with what your students need. From there, what you need to support them will make itself clear.

The third frame is Clarity. If your deeper learning lens ever seems out of focus, this is the frame that will bring it back in. The introduction of deeper learning will lead to the introduction of new tools and processes, and to new ways of working and learning in your school system. Take the time up front to lay a solid foundation – what is deeper learning? Why is it important? What will we be doing or using that’s different or new, and for what purposes?

When diving into deeper learning, you’ll need to put structures and supports in place so that teachers truly feel supported to make changes to their practice and pursue new learning goals. Start by reframing your professional learning. Every instructional or other professional improvement has to be clearly directed at the improvement of students’ outcomes. Make sure teachers see that connection, and that they feel they can share their questions, hesitations, and professional learning needs. If teachers perceive a space between what they have to do (standards) and what they want to do (deeper learning), work with them to bridge the gap. Show how it all comes together in a coherent way to work toward the full range of outcomes your learners really need.

Deeper learning is a language. The quickest way to bring its outcomes to life is to spread its language throughout your school community. The more that’s it’s spoken by students, teachers, parents, and others, the sharper its focus in classrooms and beyond. Clarity comes with a cultural commitment to contributing back to humanity.

The fourth frame is Inquiry. Inquiry is the continuous process of learning assessment, design, implementation, measurement, and reflection and change. It’s the teaching, learning, and improvement process that brings deeper learning to life.

Retrieved from Measuring Human Return: Understand and Assess What Really Matters for Deeper Learning. Joanne McEachen and Matthew Kane, 2018.

Think about the assessments you currently design for your students. They’re designed to assess your students’ knowledge development as outlined in the curriculum. Looking back on some of these assessments (homework assignments, projects, quizzes, tests, etc.), where do they also provide opportunities to assess your students’ development of other outcomes? It’s likely the body of assessments already has a good deal of potential for providing information on students’ self-understanding; their collaboration, communication, creativity, and other competencies; and their sense of connection with others and the world. There’s also likely room for growth. That growth – the purposeful design of learning experiences that assess the range of deeper learning outcomes – is a product of the process of inquiry, and of one of its elements in particular: measurement.

If you think of an assessment as a vehicle for capturing evidence or information about a student’s level of learning, measurement is the process of synthesizing information from a wealth of assessments to determine overall levels of learning or development. Measurement is important because (1) it’s the only way to know whether what you’re doing is working, and (2) what’s measured is what’s focused on. If you haven’t intentionally focused on outcomes like self-understanding or connection in the past, it’s been for good reason: you haven’t been measuring them. Once you do, the game changes.

As alluded to above, there are tools for measuring students’ competency, connection, and self-understanding, and their use is extending across school systems and even countries. They give you the language you need to talk about deeper learning, and the focus you need to make its outcomes a reality.

The fifth and final frame is Depth. No matter what you do or how long you’ve been doing it, how can you do it more deeply (i.e., better with regard to the deeper learning outcomes)? Fit the deeper learning lens in this frame when your vision’s not fully in tune with reality. Where are we falling short of our vision for a deeper learning classroom, school, or school system? Once you’ve identified what needs to change, you have all the frames for the job.

When constructing your vision for deeper learning in your context, keep this in mind: depth is the intersection of learning and contribution. What started as a single foundational question – “What’s important for students to get out of school?” – through its answer gives way to a wealth of possibility – “How can school help our students give back to the world?”

The whole world awaits your response.

For more, see Measuring Human Return: Understand and Assess What Really Matters for Deeper Learning, out now through Corwin Press.