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In Search of Deeper Learning

By Director of Curriculum and Innovation Peter Hatala
As part of their work developing and honing curriculum aligned with our Academic Program Pillars, Emma Willard faculty spent a day in dialogue and planning with Dr. Jal Mehta, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.
Over the course of the day, faculty met in multidisciplinary teams to receive feedback from Dr. Mehta on ideas for projects, to discuss curriculum development, and to work through big questions about the purpose and nature of schooling in the 21st century.

Before their work with Dr. Mehta, nineteen members of our faculty had already engaged with the principles of “deeper learning” in the creation of detailed course maps for their proposed Advanced Studies courses, providing a firm foundation for them to push deeper into familiar ideas and approaches. Additionally, all faculty had the opportunity to read his book and to watch his brief TEDx talk, “Less Schooling, More Learning: A Better Approach Is Hidden in Plain Sight,” in preparation for the day’s work. 

Drawing directly on Dr. Mehta’s expertise is just one of the recent ways faculty have continued the work they began three years ago when they embarked on a journey to ask and answer what had emerged for our community as a series of pressing questions: How are today’s students different from just a few years ago? How can we build on our already-excellent curriculum and programming so we better meet the needs of our students? What do our students need most in order to creatively meet the world’s challenges head-on and to live meaningful, joy-filled lives? 

Months of discussing, dreaming, planning, creating, and revising led us to the adoption in 2019 of our
Academic Program Pillars: Intellectual Flexibility, Purpose & Community, and Equity & Justice. The subsequent challenges of the pandemic, the uncertainty it foisted upon the world, and the necessity of creatively pivoting again and again to meet new demands with grace and compassion, confirmed for us that our pillars were, in fact, the right ones. 

Emma Willard faculty have been working diligently to bring these pillars to life, and the day with Dr. Mehta propelled that work forward. In alignment with our pillars and the principles of “deeper learning,” we’ve incorporated experiential forms of learning into all grade 9-10 classes and will continue to strengthen this approach to teaching and learning across our curriculum. We’ve created grade 9-10 history seminars focused on dialogue across difference, viewpoint diversity, the meaning of justice, and the role race, class, and gender have played in shaping our world. We’ve incorporated rich reflection practices in every class, ensuring students are considering their own ways of thinking, generating new ideas, and deepening understanding. Over the course of the day, faculty were able to discuss refining these and other curricular developments with Dr. Mehta and their expert colleagues.  

Perhaps most notably, faculty pursue deeper learning aligned with our mission and pillars through
the creation of our own Advanced Studies courses that allow us to go fully beyond our Advanced Placement offerings over the next year and a half. Faculty have already designed fourteen Advanced Studies courses that are slated to run in the 2022-2023 school year—courses that rethink rigor to place greater emphasis on “deeper learning” which, according to Dr. Mehta, “emerges at the intersection of three elements: mastery, identity, and creativity.” 

Mastery points to substantial and complex knowledge of content and the ability to transfer this knowledge to new situations; identity is the way a student relates to that content, its relevance to the student, and the way in which a class cultivates intrinsic motivation for learning; a focus on creativity centers authentic, creative acts in these classes, as opposed to simply receiving and recalling knowledge. These characteristics of deeper learning, Dr. Mehta noted, are entirely in sync with and and are supported by our Academic Program Pillars and work teachers have been doing at Emma Willard for many years. 

Faculty plan to continue developing courses with these pedagogical principles front and center. In the coming months, teachers will refine their Advanced Studies course maps and will have an opportunity to spend a week in June dedicated to digging even deeper into this work in collaboration with their colleagues. In early June, faculty and staff will spend a day working with Dr. Irshad Manji, author of
Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times and founder of Moral Courage ED. A dozen faculty have already participated in the Moral Courage ED course “Diversity Without Division,” which “shows school communities how they can teach young people to communicate productively across divides.” 

Effective and open communication across difference and division are necessary for the development of our Academic Program Pillars and for solving complex problems. The much-anticipated work with Dr. Manji will provide the Emma Willard community with more tools to better ensure we’re creating an inclusive community that honors the diversity of perspectives necessary to truly foster the habits of an intellectual life.
    • Director of Curriculum and Innovation Peter Hatala

    • The purpose of the work with Dr. Manji is to provide more tools that will directly impact the classroom


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Honoring its founder’s vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.
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