Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


Trailer: The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast
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086: Take Action for Deeper Learning, with Sarah Fine

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What makes students excited about learning? What makes them shunt Snapchat to the side in favor of a book, build a website when they could be bingeing Netflix, or talk to their friends about what just happened in class instead of what just happened out in the hall?

These are questions that matter deeply.

A few years ago, Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta, researchers from Harvard, criss-crossed the country looking for schools and classrooms where learning was happening on the deepest levels, then documented their findings in a book called In Search of Deeper Learning.

A great book + My favorite breakfast 

This book feels like a hill where I want to plant my flag. I wish everyone in education could read it. I nodded along so much I might just have whiplash. The research bears out so many things that I have always intuited as a teacher who cares about creativity, and it gives us all specific language and evidence we can use as we push for progression in our schools.

(That’s probably why I held a virtual book club about it this year in my Facebook group, Creative High School English. You can still go join the conversation in there under the hashtag #deeperlearningbookclub).

Today, I’m talking to Sarah about deeper learning and how teachers can achieve it, starting immediately. We’re going to be talking about what she and Jal learned from the most engaging spaces and programs in the thirty schools they visited, what it means to “play the whole game at the junior level,” a concept they learned from a colleague at Harvard and saw born out as a vital part of deep learning, what it means to build a community of learners that are interdependent rather than promoting a culture of lockstep learning, how to build publication or performance into units to create the authentic purpose that matters so much to students, and more.

My sketchnotes version of the book (one notebook page couldn’t contain it this time, I had to go foam board)

In the show notes today, I’ll be sharing highlights from our conversation alongside related action steps to help you think about how you might put these deeper learning concepts to work in your English classroom and your school.

You can listen to our conversation on the podcast player below or on Apple PodcastsBlubrry, Spotify, or Stitcher. And/or, you can read on for the highlights and action guide.

Setting the Scene

Sarah began her teaching career in D.C. during the No Child Left Behind Era in a Title I school, and her initial years in the classroom were dominated by testing. She felt uncomfortable with the incentives and goals being given to her and the other teachers, especially with the intense concentration on test prep and test results.

So, in her words, she “ran away to grad school.”

There she met Jal Mehta, her eventual co-author, and they realized they both felt like the era of accountability and testing had done some good in getting people to focus on kids not being served well by the system, but importantly, it had also narrowed the focus of the national conversation on education to what they call “the floor.” In other words, instead of considering where learning could take students and how it could happen at the deepest and most inspiring levels (“the ceiling”), everyone was trying to make sure kids achieved an absolutely basic level of learning.

So Sarah and Jal made a plan to visit a few innovative schools, schools that were focused on the ceiling. They scraped together a tiny research grant for a few visits, hoping to write about the wonderful secrets they would discover and help promote more thinking about the ceiling.

Instead, they spent a year feeling puzzled and disappointed, flying to schools with a big reputation for innovation, and discovering a lot of traditional and not-particularly-inspired learning happening there. Sure, there was also some exciting learning going on, but mostly there was plenty of traditional learning, like memorizing the periodic table and racing through Hamlet. These schools were far from providing all the answers Sarah and Jal had hoped for.

In the end, they spent six years and visited thirty schools, exploring the constraints and traditions that make it so difficult to have consistently deep instruction as well as the places where deep learning was truly happening.

The Manifesto

It’s not easy to boil a 400+ page book down to a manifesto, but Sarah tried to do it for me so we could start with the big picture. Here’s what she had to say.

“Learners in K-12 schools and in particular adolescents… are incredibly curious, and capable, and creative… under the right conditions they are eager and interested in engaging in authentic rich learning. They have a huge amount of capacity in terms of what they can do, when they see reason to engage,” said Sarah. The problem, as she and Jal discovered, is not that students lack ability or enthusiasm, but that schools are not set up to capitalize on those capacities. “There’s something profoundly misaligned,” she said, “about the way that we as a society have thought about schooling and structured schooling and what powerful learning actually requires and looks like at its best.”

Schools are bound by many historical structures and mindsets that don’t facilitate powerful learning.

The bad news is that there’s a mismatch between the institutions and the goals. The good news is that there were places in all the schools they visited where kids WERE learning in powerful ways and experiencing authentic work and growth.

So the question, of course, is how do we learn from and expand on the work of those places?

The Periphery

The magic happening in what Sarah and Jal refer to as “the periphery” turned out to be one of the most unexpected findings of their research.

Originally, they assumed that the deepest learning would be most prevalent in core academic classes. They began by asking kids when time flew by in class, when did they carry their class conversations out into the hallway, where they were doing work they were most proud of. Surprisingly, students always talked about work outside the core – their green engineering elective, the school newspaper, the play, etc.

So Sarah and Gal dove into the periphery – theater, debate, electives, etc. And what they found surprised them.

There was more deep learning, with more consistency, happening in the periphery than in the core.

But why? What are the conditions that enable deeper learning outside the main academic classes of math, science, language, history and English?

Well, choice matters for sure. It’s easy to think it’s mainly choice. Kids in theater have chosen to try out. Kids in green engineering are already interested in green engineering. But that’s not all there is to the story.


#1 An Authentic Product or Production

“More importantly,” explained Sarah, “first of all there is often an authentic product or production being created… they are actually making something… there’s a piece around creativity, literally, that you are making something that did not exist before.” The periphery is about creating. Compare a musical production or a published school newspaper edition with the final product of, say a conventional math test, in which the same unit test has been reused for the last ten years, and gives the students no agency whatsoever.

#2 A Community of Practice

In these spaces of the periphery, real community builds. For example, students involved in school theater will often identify themselves as “the theater kids,” viewing their own identities partially through their community of practice. Their involvement in these spaces becomes a core part of how they see themselves and identify who their people are. The fact that they are creating something together brings them together.

#3 Interrelated Roles instead of Lockstep Learning

Another key element of the periphery is that much more like the real world, not every kid is required to contribute the same thing. The roles are interrelated, mutually supportive. As Sarah puts it, “there’s not the same element of lockstep learning.”

For example, in a school play, one student might be working on the lights, another fitting costumes, another designing the program, others working on roles and sets. The kids actually need each other; there’s room to be good at some things and not other things. This is how work in the real world actually gets done, and it creates a sense of collectivism often missing in the core classes. As one Spanish teacher explained and Sarah paraphrased, “If Billy’s gone from my second period Spanish class, it doesn’t really matter… if Billy’s gone from our rehearsal two days before the performance and Billy’s in charge of the lights, it’s all sunk.”

Kids know the difference between work where they matter and work where they don’t. The learning of the periphery, then, is often more compelling, feels more aligned to the real world and requires more individual contribution that actually matters to whatever the group is working toward.

Ask yourself: 
  • How can you create community in your room?
  • How can you honor the different kinds of contributions different kids with different talents and passions are capable of making? How can you adapt your grading so learning doesn’t have to be in lockstep?
  • How can you build a unit around an authentic product, production, or publication? Could students make an ebook, start a Youtube channel, publish a blog, produce a podcast, perform a play, launch a reading festival, host a one-pagers fair, start a writing contest, make grammar tutorials for other students, publish infographics to a real audience, give a TedX talk, try to convince their community of something, start a social media campaign, host a spoken word event in town, exhibit work at a museum or coffee shop, help change the way the school library or learning lab functions for the better, start a writing center, provide literacy activities for younger kids after school, or… ? 

“The Whole Game at the Junior Level” -Dave Perkins

So how do we begin to put the lessons of the periphery to work in the core?

Dave Perkins, another researcher at Harvard, has a helpful concept Sarah and Jal often cite in their book. He talks about what happens when students are playing “the whole game at the junior level.”

Think about a little league baseball team. The way kids learn to play baseball is by playing it – badly, yes – but they are in fact doing a junior level version of what it looks like in the professional world. The kids have a sense of the whole game, how the parts fit together, and they know the reason why they might want to practice the parts – practice is framed by their knowledge of the whole game.

“You don’t spend five years doing drills before you get to play the game again,” says Sarah. “There’s a back and forth, continuously, between skill building and going deep on one element of the game and actually playing the game.”

Now compare that to the way high school courses are often structured. Kids usually don’t know what the whole game is. As they work in the classroom, they really have no idea what the discipline looks like in a professional domain, and sometimes, through no fault of their own, their teachers don’t really know either.

So often, instead of flip-flopping between the parts and the big picture, we endlessly practice the parts. Sarah remembers working with her high-schoolers on finding the main idea, and repeating that one thing over and over and over.  And while she would argue that yes, skill practice is important, doing it in a de-contextualized way with no sense of an end that is authentic or interesting to students is pretty problematic. It doesn’t recognize the whole game.

Beyond that, in the core there is often an incredibly individualistic way of structuring the learning, where it’s really every kid for themselves. Though a bit of group work fits in here and there, the final assessment is almost always every kid doing something alone and being judged on their solo performance. Students aren’t really building something together, creating something that requires differentiated roles.

So how might we change that?

Consider, as you design your units:
  • What does writing look like within ELA-related professions? Can you teach kids to pitch a guest blog post? Craft a contributing article for a magazine? Write a good business email? Build narrative into a beautiful Instagram caption? Examine how writing is used in marketing? Might you work on writing scripts for videos or podcasts together? How else can you diverge from the five paragraph essay when it comes to writing? 
  • Who could you bring in to speak in your classroom that has experience of ELA in the world? Could you invite a guest theater artist to lead theater warm-ups before you act out Shakespeare scenes? Could you do a Google Hangout with an author you connect with on Instagram? Is someone’s mom’s brother a copywriter who writes for a large company and could come in to share about that?
  • Can you mix design and/or media elements with your writing assignments, reflecting how communications often works beyond school? 
  • Can you create projects in which students can make different, equally important, contributions? 

Authentic Purpose

One of the core ideas that came out of the research was that authentic purpose is a huge motivator for deeper learning. When students are designing/publishing/producing something that is going to be seen/heard/used/read out there in the world, it makes a huge difference to the nature of the classroom work.

There are many, many examples of the importance of authentic purpose in the book, but Sarah chose to share a story about her son’s project-based learning kindergarten in our conversation.

A large part of his school’s play area was going unused, so the kindergarten teachers collaborated to design a major project revolving around revolutionizing that section for more fruitful play.

The kindergarteners visited play spaces around the city, surveyed other students in their school about what they liked to play with, mapped out where the sun would be at different times of day so they knew where there would be light and shade in their play area, and then began work. They started to map out ideas in groups, then went through the process of figuring out how to combine different prototypes and ideas. They even went through rounds of critique with kids in the school, parents, and administrators.

Eventually, they had a concept as a class, which included an outdoor kitchen area, an instrument wall,  and a water play area.  They actually began to build what they had designed with the help and support of parents and teachers. They helped gather materials, even considered what would weather well over time.

Their project had authentic use value – they themselves wanted to play at it, and they are still playing at it today. It also had lots of content snuck in, as their teachers skillfully connected the work to math, literacy, and social-emotional learning. Their final product came from true collaboration. As Sarah put it, “none of this would have materialized if every kid had done the project independently and then come up with a design of what they wanted the playground to be.”


After hearing this story, I just had to ask, is PBL the most effective tool for the whole game? For authentic purpose?

According to Sarah, it’s a fairly promising platform for authentic deep learning. Projects are more interdisciplinary, they’re focused on a performance or final product, and there’s a lot of attention to audience that can get neglected in other spaces. BUT certainly it can be done poorly, which can be disastrous.

“Project-based learning, like a lot of pedagogies, is a container, inside of which there’s a lot of discretion to either capitalize on the assets it has or to not do that,” said Sarah. She’s seen classrooms that are not PBL that have incredible richness to them. But hey, she does work in a PBL system and sends her kids to PBL schools. She clearly sees a lot of value in the container.

Ask yourself, are your students contributing something to your community through their work in your class? If not, might you create a project or two that would allow you to experiment with this concept of authentic purpose?

If you are new to project-based learning, here are some access points for you:

The Most Effective Teachers

There were so many teachers Jal and Sarah wished they could feature in the book. Teachers maximizing deeper learning in their classrooms despite the traditions and constraints of the current system. You’re probably already one of the teachers making inroads with this at your school, and you can undoubtedly find more across disciplines if you begin to search and talk to your students about their classroom experiences outside your courses.

One particularly memorable, effective teacher that Sarah observed was teaching science at a large, urban, non-selective high school. Because she had been a bench chemist and worked in and out of the lab before moving into teaching, she had an unusual perspective on “the whole game at the junior level.”

She took a fairly standard science course, “Methods of Scientific Inquiry,” and rewrote the priorities because she felt the way science was taught to high schoolers was misaligned to what science is actually like in the whole game. Scientific method is often taught as a linear series of five steps, and that’s not how at all how she had experienced it. She wanted her students to know that the level of uncertainty that accompanies scientific inquiry is very, very high.

After all, no one investigates what they already know.

So she created a course in which students learned chemistry through some direct instruction, but the through-line was that each kid came up with their own question that they could explore scientifically. The question had to be something they didn’t know how to answer.

From there, the kids did a literature review to find out what was already known that could help them (here they learned to navigate science journals and learned some related content), then had to find out how to create an experiment (requiring them to deal with financial constraints, logistical constraints – and questions of feasibility). Finally, they then would carry out their experiment, and often get null results. Hello, science.

Eventually the kids in this class wrote up their experiments and brought them to the local science fair, though this teacher was searching for an even more authentic audience for the kids. Because while a student competition is far better than just turning in their work to a teacher, there are even more authentic audiences out there for scientific research.

What made this teacher so effective was that the course was not only about learning science, but about learning to understand the domain of science. While their teacher helped them navigate to what they needed, the work was student-driven and student-led. The teacher was not just an intermediary between the knowledge and the kids’ brains.  Sure, they were learning key chemistry concepts along the way. They had direct instruction. But there was authentic purpose and “the whole game at the junior level” behind those things, important drivers in their deeper learning.

At this point, it’s more of the same. This effective teacher combined what we’ve already talked about – the lessons of the periphery, “the whole game at the junior level,” and authentic purpose to create a classroom where deeper learning prevails.

Can you find a way to bring the work of the English discipline beyond school more consistently and clearly into your lessons and projects? Could students blog or podcast for audiences they actually build via online platforms? Could they pitch guest blog posts? Host a TedX conference? Give a guest lecture somewhere? Be speakers at a conference? Perform in a theater festival? Can you further break down the barriers between school and “the real world”?

Begin to Create Change at your School

This one’s all action, my friend. While we’re all in this together, and every idea is worth considering, Sarah has two big picture high leverage action steps for you to help you begin to create movement toward deeper learning at your school.

#1 Exhibit Learning

Try to find ways to help students exhibit their learning to a more authentic audience. Even if you’re not in a PBL school or you don’t have a lot of support for change yet, there are fairly easy ways to do more than just have kids turn in an end-of-unit paper or test.

Let them feel the value of their work beyond your classroom

For example, while still under immense testing pressure early in her career, Sarah and her teaching partner in urban D.C. used a school community meeting to hold a poetry slam competition. Their students competed in class, and the finalists spoke to the whole school. While exhibiting to other students is not at the top of the authentic audience hierarchy (not quite as good as working in the community on behalf of an authentic client),  Sarah noticed that the event created a dramatic shift in the dynamics of class. Suddenly, the quality of the work didn’t just matter to students because of how they’d score on the rubric, it became about how people would or would not react to their messages depending on the quality of how they delivered their themes.

Whatever you can do to move beyond tacking good essays to your classroom wall, try it. Keep experimenting. (Many of the previous action steps link up here).

#2 Lobby to Cover Less

You may feel you have no power over the dynamics of learning at your school. But you probably have at least a little political capital, and maybe you have a lot.

Use it!

Use it to lobby to cover less but at a deeper level. The pacing guide should not reign supreme in the world of school. Class should be about the learning, right?  Not the need for speed. Slowing down creates opportunities to go much deeper, so if you can help influence policy within your department, your school, or your district, please do it. 

Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!




Connect with Sarah Fine

“I am an educator and scholar working at the intersection of practice and research. My work is grounded in the goal of transforming schools and classrooms into more humanizing places to teach and learn.

I began my career in 2005 as an English teacher and instructional coach at a high school in Washington, D.C.. In the spring of 2017, with the support of a Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education fellowship, I completed a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Currently, I direct a teacher preparation program at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, an accredited graduate institution associated with a network of racially and linguistically diverse charter schools in San Diego, California. I also teach several doctoral-level courses in educational leadership at the University of California, San Diego.” -From Sarah’s Website

Find Sarah on Twitter

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