Designing a Culture of Deeper Learning

“The achievement of students is governed to a large degree by their family culture, their neighborhood culture, and their school culture. Students may have different potentials, but, in general, the attitudes and achievements of students are shaped by the culture around them: Students adjust their attitudes and efforts in order to fit into the culture. If the peer culture ridicules academic effort and achievement — it isn’t cool to raise your hand in class, to do homework, to care openly about school — this is a powerful force. If the peer culture celebrates investment in school — it’s cool to care — this is just as powerful. Schools need to consciously shape their cultures to be places where it’s safe to care.” — Ron Berger An Ethic of Excellence


When the IA began in August of 2013, we were convinced that if we designed relevant, challenging projects, students would automatically be more engaged in what they were learning. We were convinced that having students create real products for real audiences would motivate them to craft high-quality work. We were wrong.

The culture of “school” was so ingrained in the students, that PBL was not the great elixir that we hoped it would be. While it was no surprise that our high-achieving students continued to excel with more hands-on work and autonomy, it was surprising — and frustrating — to initially see such little change in students who had struggled in the past.

We quickly realized that it wasn't about PBL; it was about the culture.

As Ron Berger points out in An Ethic of Excellence, the roots of culture run deep, and in the last three years, we’ve learned a great deal about how to design a culture of deeper learning, especially in a private high school in Latin America. What we’ve learned — and been forced to unlearn— has come largely through the experiences we’ve had and from the books below.


It bears repeating that creating a culture is contextual, and the things we’ve learned might not be relevant for other schools. But, you never know, so here are the nine areas we focus on in the IA that help us design a culture of deeper learning.

    Our purpose in the IA is to help students find theirs. On the macro level, we have designed time into the program for students to explore a variety of possible interests. Through things like internships and independent projects, we challenge students to find areas they might want to pursue long term. But a culture of purpose is even more about making sure that all of the learning we design is relevant and has meaning beyond the classroom. We always start with the WHY when introducing a project or assignment, because we know how much purpose drives engagement. Whether it's our seniors creating actual businesses on campus, our juniors producing documentaries, or our sophomores holding photo exhibitions, we're constantly reminding ourselves to be more purposeful in what we do.
    How do we naturally learn? What does the most recent research say about stress and learning, about play, how we pay attention, and how we remember? We ask ourselves these questions to in order to make sure we’re designing learning experiences that cater to how adolescents authentically explore the world. John Medina’s book Brain Rules and Peter Gray's Free to Learn guide us better than any other resources. Here's a taste from both texts: 
    “We have forgotten that children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration, and so, more and more, we deprive them of freedom to learn, subjecting them instead to the tedious and painfully slow learning methods devised by those who run the schools.”— Peter Gray, Free to Learn
    “Our senses evolved to work together, which means we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once. "— John Medina, Brain Rules
    Students at Colorado College and Cornell College in the US take one course at a time. They focus intensely for three and a half weeks on one subject before moving on to the next course. The belief is that the less scattered students are, the more deeply they’ll be able to learn. We think so too, which is why we work on one project at a time that combines three separate disciplines. We’re also lean in terms of the number of students and teachers we have in the IA, how many sections we create, and the content we cover. Our goal is to remain as lean as possible in order to be adaptable and flexible in case we need to pivot at any point. (Here’s a great resource on the virtues of being lean and how to do it.)
    As teachers, we know how important it is to establish relationships with our students, to know what their hobbies are, and to know what their strengths and weaknesses are as learners. However, if you have 90 to 120 students per year, that’s a daunting task. But what if you only had 18? How deeply would you know your students then? How deeply would they know each other? With our collapsed schedule and small cohorts, we are able to personalize learning because of how well we know each and every student. They are constantly learning from each other as well because students feel comfortable asking their peers for help and challenging each other to be better. It’s a culture of genuine, ongoing collaboration.
    Most of us would agree that when students graduate from our high schools, we want them to be more autonomous and more independent. We want them to be self-aware, to think logically before acting, to know how to plan long-term on their own, to have an inner gadfly that questions them on their thinking and their actions. Unfortunately for schools, students don't learn to be autonomous from being lectured at or following an overly prescribed curriculum. Yes, providing learners with autonomy is messy at times, because they will struggle and make mistakes. But this is how we naturally learn to be independent, so we need to design an environment where students are given a great deal of responsibility and autonomy over the things they do. In the IA, students have independent projects designed entirely by them, they choose their topics within the class projects, they frequently leave campus to do field work for the IA, and they even do internships. All of these are designed to give students more autonomy, and to understand that with autonomy comes a great deal of accountability.
    Last year one of the IA seniors, Daniela Delgado, shared an anecdote with the class that still makes me laugh. One of her friends had created a video for her DP class and asked Daniela for feedback. So she gave it. Daniela began to point out different elements that could be better in order to improve the next cut of the film. Unfortunately, the friend wasn't too happy. What Daniela hadn't realized was that the friend didn't actually want feedback, she wanted praise. As it turned out, the friend never had any intention of creating another draft of the video, because it was due the next day. This story highlights how important it is to create a culture of feedback in our classes. It isn’t a one-time event towards the middle of the project, and it isn't something we do at the end to praise students. Feedback starts from day one when students are brainstorming different ideas for their projects, and it continues all the way until the end with multiple check-ins. The purpose of feedback is simple: it should provide learners with a clear picture of what they're doing well and where they need to make improvements. The challenge though, is learning how to embed it into everything we do so that it's ongoing and effective. If you want to see how this looks in action, take a look at Bill Cotter's Medium post. He leads the junior section of the IA.
    Benjamin Franklin said, “Experience is the best teacher, but a fool will learn from no other.” We were fools in the beginning of the IA. As I mentioned above, we bet all of our cards on project-based learning. Today, PBL is still a central part of our culture, because it enables students to put their learning into practice, but we also rely heavily on seminars and quizzes and even essays at times. While we were wedded to PBL at the start of the IA, we quickly learned that we didn’t want a divisive culture of PBL or content; we wanted a culture of both. Last year, when we did the 12th grade entrepreneurship project for the first time, most of our focus was on creating and running the business. We read "Lean Startup" as well, but at the end of the unit, it felt like we were still missing large chunks of important knowledge. For this year's unit, we've been far more purposeful about including a range of business theory that we've taken from the IB Diploma, we've brought in experts from Procter & Gamble, and we even added Jim Collins' book "Good to Great." Comparing the two units, the one this year has been far more dynamic and has led to much deeper learning because we were able to find a sweet spot between theory and practice. (Here’s the most comprehensive resource on project-based learning that we’ve found: An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger.)
    Real learning is rarely a linear, tightly organized process, so we challenge students — and ourselves — to be adaptable and flexible. We have an overall framework for our curriculum, and we spend a great deal of time designing the projects we do, but we’re constantly tweaking and iterating along the way. We encourage students to pivot too when necessary. We want them to see how important it is to admit when something isn't working out the way they had envisioned, and to have the courage to head down a new path.
    Finally, we encourage our students to steal as much inspiration from others as they can — because we certainly do as teachers. There's a great documentary called Everything's a Remix that shows the extent to which artists borrow from and build off of each other's work. We want to instill this same ethos into the culture of the IA. Ideas for projects and for deeper learning experiences come from everywhere, and we are unabashed about the borrowing we do. We have taken ideas from Babson and Stanford, from High Tech High, from the Common Core and the IB Diploma, and then we modify their ideas to fit them into the context of our own culture. As Henry Ford admitted long ago, "“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work … progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable.”

In the end, our biggest hope is that you'll find something worth stealing from us too.

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