Deeper Learning Dozen: A Longing for Relationships

No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.

James Comer

This fall my school district embarked on a journey. With support from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Jal Mehta’s lab, the Kootenay Lake School joined eleven other school districts from British Columbia, Massachusetts, and California as a part of the Deeper Learning Dozen action research group.

After reading the initial whitepaper titled Transforming School Districts to Support Deeper Learning for All: A Hypothesis I reflected on my personal and professional beliefs about education, leadership, and pedagogy.

Three goals as outlined by the Harvard team for The Deeper Dozen project are:

  1. An overall increase in the number of deeper learning experiences for both students and adults;
  2. Increased equity of access to deeper learning experiences and outcomes of education;
  3. Supportive changes in the processes, structures, and cultures of the school district and their school.

Flavour of the Week?

My cynical side spoke first. Is this another well-intentioned “pet project” by a new school district leader that wants to transform education for its students? Perhaps. The three-year commitment, however, required by the school district demonstrates that abandoning the program after twelve (or even twenty-four) months is not an option. We’re in it for the long haul. I appreciate and respect that notion. And this project appears to be more about supporting “leadership that is oriented to listening” and “notices what is emerging, names it, protects those pioneering emergent innovation.” (p.15)

Am I prepared to suspend my judgments before our participation in the three-year program is complete?

At the moment, yes.

Trusting or Being Trustworthy

What often gets forgotten (or ignored) is that in spite of nearly two decades of underfunding, a history of animosity between the former government and the teacher’s union, and evidence of poor leadership at all levels of educational oversight, British Columbia still has one of, if not the best, public education systems in the world based on mathematics and reading metrics.

So…working under my fifth superintendent (!) in 18 years you might suspect that I’m a little skeptical about where this thing is going.

I recognize that the numerous deeper learning opportunities for our learning community come from the ways that we are connected to each other. Innovation, and perhaps this project, will push trust to the forefront. The kind of trust that senior and school administrations place in their people. So much so that we as educators, collaborators, leaders, and learners, in fact, become trustworthy.

It’s important to remember that implementation plans are not for the planners; they are for the implementers.

Michael Fullan

Emergence as a Highlight

As I read the whitepaper from Mehta et. al, one highlight that gave me some assurance of sorts was the reference to educational theorist, Adrienne Marie Brown’s Principles of Emergence (more on these in a future post):

  1. Small is good; small is all.
  2. Change is constant.
  3. There is always enough time for the right work.
  4. There is a conversation in the room that only the people at this moment can have. Find it.
  5. Never a failure. Always a lesson.
  6. Trust the people. (If you trust the people they become trustworthy.)
  7. Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass. Build resilience by building the relationships. In my experience, many innovative ideas within our school district have flattened and not reached critical mass was because we tried to reach a critical mass.
  8. Less prep, more presence. Defines my entire work for this school year.
  9. What you pay attention to grows.

Symmetry in Learning

Mehta’s use of symmetry (p.8) as part of the Deeper Dozen project strikes me as a no-brainer, and indeed, an elemental component to reaching Goal #3. The team writes that symmetry is a “parallelism between the work of adults in the system and the work we hope that teachers will do with students”. I am already hopeful that the work that I do to improve my professional and personal growth parallels the work my students do. I continue to challenge them to think deeper, to ask questions, to explore, to write and share, to develop a reliable growth mindset, to respectfully challenge their own thinking and that of others, to check in with their values, to work towards developing the important skill set required for today’s workplace. Oh, and this is all done through an empathetic and compassionate-based approach.

As I have written before I am VERY grateful for opportunities to work in my current school; to have the freedom to organize and guide my students; to reorient relationships, relevance, and rigor–in that order. And I see much potential for our school to act as what Mehta et. al. refer to as a ‘nested’ community.

Our School As A Nested Community

I also envision a large investment that senior leadership and the school board members must confront to promote and leverage symmetry among its educators. At our school, Fridays are educator-centred and collaborative-driven. Our teachers connect every week in the circle to share their story, journey, and to seek either an open ear, guidance and/or both. We challenge each other’s way of looking at a past incident or how to work tying things together towards a project. Our Friday collaborative sessions are undistracted and razor-focused. It is here that we can safely share the outside pressures that we as teachers are expected to repress (like familial challenges), put on the brave face, and be there to support our students (a one-sided relationship at best).

I try to leave out the parts that skip people.

Richard Elmore

The work required towards a shared vision of deeper learning is not a new concept. Far from it. It’s been going on for decades in many of our public schools in British Columbia. I’m hopeful that this project moves the collective ball forward. In fact, I hope that the essence of deeper learning becomes a shared mantra of all shareholders in our school district. Time will tell.

At any rate, I’m game.

I’m in.


NOTE: Mehta, J., Peterson, A., and Watkins, J. 2018. Transforming School Districts to Support Deeper Learning for All: A Hypothesis. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Unpublished article.








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