The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 208 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

GONZALEZ: Ask most adults if they remember anything they learned in high school, and what you’re likely to hear is a lot of different versions of no. Ask most high school kids if they remember what they learned last year, and you’ll probably get the same answer. Although exceptions certainly exist, it’s not a stretch to say that a lot of what happens in schools doesn’t really qualify as deep learning. In a lot of cases, what happens in schools today doesn’t look much different than it did decades ago: seat work, memorization, and regurgitation of a discrete body of knowledge and skills. Students who are successful are the ones who have learned how to play the game, while everyone else falls short in one way or another. 

As educators, we’ve been able to describe this problem for a long time, and many teachers and schools have attempted to change it by implementing new strategies, changing curriculum, sometimes building whole schools designed to create more opportunities for rich, authentic, relevant learning.

So what’s working? Which of these approaches are getting results? What are they actually doing in the places where students are engaged in deep learning?

These were the questions today’s guest asked over ten years ago. Sarah Fine was a graduate student at Harvard Graduate School of education, where she and Jal Mehta, an assistant professor, decided to go on a sort of quest, a nationwide search for schools that had created environments where deep learning was happening. While they were surprised and disappointed by what they found, they were still able to extract the “secret sauce” — a kind of formula for cultivating deep learning in any classroom. They shared their findings in their 2019 book, In Search of Deeper Learning. And in this episode,  Sarah Fine sits down to talk to me about what teachers and school leaders can do to bring more of that secret sauce into their learning spaces.

Before we get started I’d like to thank EVERFI for sponsoring this episode. Everyone remembers THAT teacher. The study hall teacher who walked you through your first college application. The social studies teacher who taught you what taxes were AND how to file them. The math teacher who used student loans to show you how interest worked. YOU can be that teacher — and EVERFI wants to help you make that kind of impact with FREE digital lessons for K-12 students. From budgets and banking to credit and savings, you’ll find a financial literacy topic that’s right for your classroom. And especially during April, Financial Literacy Month, there’s no better time to equip students with smart decision-making around finances. Learn how you can share these FREE resources with students and give them a financial foundation that lasts a lifetime. Just go to

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Now here’s my conversation with Sarah Fine about deeper learning.

GONZALEZ: Sarah Fine, welcome to the podcast. 

FINE: Thank you so much for having me. 

GONZALEZ: So we, just before we started recording, I was telling you that I started reading the book that you and Jal Mehta wrote a couple of years ago called “In Search of Deeper Learning.” And I was really fascinated by it, and then COVID hit, and I just got completely derailed like everybody else did. So I think that what you all uncovered in the writing of that book was really valuable and I would like to just share it. And so ultimately, we’re going to talk about that, but since it’s now been a couple of years, you know, I’m also going to ask you, have things changed? Have they evolved since then? So let’s just start with a quick introduction. What are you currently doing now in education, and then take us back a couple years to what you were doing at the time you all wrote this book. 

FINE: Yeah. That sounds great. I’m sitting in my office in San Diego, California, right now at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. So for the last six years, I’ve been working here. The project of that six years has been building and designing and then running the San Diego Teacher Residency, which is a deeper learning focus teacher preparation program out of this graduate school. So that program is my baby. It very much reflects my attempt to put into practice the learning from that book as well as other learnings I’ve encountered in my career as an educator. So yeah, so I work with baby teachers all day long. We call them baby teachers. They’re not all babies, but, you know, the new generation of folks who are going to classrooms and who are really interested in trying to disrupt school as we know it and are excited to do that work from Day 0 of their careers. 

GONZALEZ: What is, give us a quick overview. Just what is High Tech High? You’re at the graduate, the teacher graduate school, so that’s a separate entity. 

FINE: Yes. 

GONZALEZ: But it’s part of it? 

FINE: Yeah, it’s related. The High Tech High school network is a network of K-12 charter schools around San Diego County. They began in the year 2000 as a project-based learning model, open to all. And they have spent the last 23 years building out that model for students all around this region and also trying to be sort of an incubator and an inspiration to educators who are doing similar work in other places. And the graduate school, we were the first, I guess scholars out there call us these NGSEs, new graduate schools of education that have popped up around the country that are not associated with big R1 universities but instead have grown out of practice and out of folks who are just learning a lot about the work of teaching and learning and are ready to try to formalize at the graduate level. So High Tech High Graduate School began in the year 2007, and we received full accreditation several years after that. It took a while because we were, we’re an unusual institution. So we now are a fully accredited GCS. We have multiple master’s programs. We have a number of grant funded initiatives, most of which are doing what I said before, which is trying to help other educators incubate new school models, new ways of teaching, new ways of thinking., that are not necessarily the same as high tech but are after some of the same goals. So we have the privilege of working with folks from all around the country and all around the world, in some cases, who are trying to really change how schooling is done and rethink what we want to happen inside of the walls of the school. 

GONZALEZ: That sounds like such incredible and satisfying work. Take us back now to when you and Dr. Mehta first formulated this idea for “In Search of Deeper Learning.” What were you hoping to do? And then what did that research look like? 

FINE: I’m going to take us back to 2009, which is when Jal and I first met. I was fresh out of five-year teaching at an urban public school in the District of Columbia. And he was a junior professor interested in educational policy. And the thing that really sparked the work that became our book was both of us feeling like the focus of that, the past decade there, so the first decade of the new millennium, which of course was No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, that this sort of rise of the test-based accountability movement, the standards movement. Both of us felt like while that era had brought some important new focus to the work of equity, in particular really forcing educators to think about achievement gaps by subgroup, that also there was something that had gone really wrong. 


FINE: Where there was just such a myopic focus on test scores and foundational skills and literacy and numeracy measured in these very narrow ways. And I had experienced that as a teacher working in a poor urban public school with lots of brown kids whose achievement was very low based on those metrics, and so we basically spent all of our time trying to help them pass the tests. And Jal had seen that from a policy and sociological perspective, thinking about the ways that the pendulum tends to swing back and forth over time between sort of more aspirational, progressive aspirations for schools and sort of tighter, more top-down foundational skills-focused reforms. And both of us were like look, you know, there’s been some stuff that’s useful to come out of this era, but also, we’ve lost sight of what matters, which is that kids go to school and really thrive and feel supported as whole humans and feel like there’s not a ceiling to what they’re being asked to do, and, and there’s lots of different ways to do it. And both of us really were reacting, I think, to the NCLB era when we started the project. And so what we decided to do was to go out and find some schools that were not as fully in the throes of standardized testing obsession and try to figure out in the pockets where schools were trying to pursue more ambitious goals with kids and really think about thriving more holistically, what does that look like? What does it take? What are the challenges? So that was the beginning of our project. We were coming from really different backgrounds but with a very similar sort of conclusion about what had been happening. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. So, and you looked at a couple of different sort of archetypes, I guess, of schools that fit certain models. You gave them pseudonyms so there’s no one, nobody knows who they are, but they definitely fit particular models. And ultimately, and all of these schools in some way sort of sold themselves as “We are doing things differently here.” 

FINE: Yeah, yes. In our book, it looks very neat and clean. Like, oh, we went, and we found four different types of schools. The actual work of of finding schools that we found to be rich, productive places to learn from was messier than that. We sort of went out thinking, oh, well, we just need to find the places that are doing this kind of work well, and in particular for kids who are not from high socioeconomic status backgrounds. And we’ll just embed ourselves and learn from them and write up these case studies and share them with the world in hopes that, you know, the conversation might begin to change. And what actually happened was the first couple of years was a lot of disappointment for us, frankly. I think we went out thinking that, and we continue to think that, we could learn a lot from practice. And that didn’t change. But the things that did change was we thought there must be whole schools, maybe even whole districts or systems of schools that are really pursuing lofty goals and making a lot of headway. And, you know, if they’re innovative enough and disruptive enough in their models, then we’re going to see something really different in classrooms than what we know often happens. 


FINE: So we spent a bunch of time getting names of schools and places that were known for doing that kind of work and we bought plane tickets, and we, you know, spent time away from our families. And as it happened, it was a lot more complicated than just, oh, these places have the answers and we can capture them. The places we went had really profound learning and teaching happening in some pockets and also we were subject to the same patterns of, like, low-level tasks and kids who were bored and kids who were sort of treated as, like, brains on sticks, as one educator talked to us rather than whole humans. We found that everywhere, even in the most quote/unquote innovative spaces, even at places, you know, that we were really excited to go to because they were doing things different. So that just opened up a whole new set of questions for us and also over time shifted the way that we were going about the work. Which was, rather than being like, if there are great models, we’ll find them, we’ll write about them. It was more like, under what conditions, in what pockets of these places is there promising work and what can, what can be learned from those pockets? So that’s, that’s where we landed. 

GONZALEZ: I, when I got to that part of the book where you all were sort of talking about the disappointments, I, I really admired that that was the direction you took with the writing of the book as opposed to just being like, well, let’s scrap this or let’s just pretend that our original goal was something else. I loved that you were completely transparent about it because that’s science, really. This is what we set out to find, and this is what the actual reality was, so here it is. And you just ended up shifting what you ended up delivering, which was sort of an extraction of what are the conditions and practices that actually make for deeper learning. And maybe it would make sense for us to also sort of pause and, and define what, how did you all decide what you call deeper learning? Because we’ve sort of danced around it a little bit. 

FINE: Yeah. 

GONZALEZ: But is there a definition in the book? 

FINE: There is, yeah, and there is, you know, we also spent many, many pages that are, it’s probably better to read them in summary, trying to draw in the many different traditions that influence the way we think about deep learning because we are far from the only ones who have thought about that. In the book, we kind of ended up distilling deep learning to three domains that when interconnected in the experience of learners tend to produce really powerful, rich, enduring learning. So one of them is the domain of identity. So when learning experiences, when kids see what is happening in school as connected to who they are, what they know, and maybe what they want to become, there’s something very important that happens there. So it’s, we, we talk about the difference between, you know, “I am somebody who goes to chorus at 10 a.m. On Tuesday,” to like “I am a Glee Club member, I am a musician, I am a singer.” So there’s something about the process of over time as you do something, it becomes more and more core to your sense of self in some way. The shift from math class to “I’m a mathematician” or “I’m a mathematical thinker.” 


FINE: So there’s that piece, and I would argue that piece actually is foundational. Like, if you have to start somewhere, start with identity, start with figuring out what kids want to know, what they care about, what they already do know and wonder about the world, who they might want to become, and, and see if you can use that as a, as a launching point. So that’s identity. We also think about deep learning as involving some amount of, we call it mastery. I also think there’s other ways that we could describe that, but the idea is, like, really rich, developing really rich conceptual knowledge and ability to execute something in some domain. So skills as well are part of mastery. But actually being able to do the work of a discipline, to think in the ways of that field or discipline, requires having some foundational knowledge that is, can be seen together to think in the ways of that, of that tradition. So you have to know some stuff and learn some stuff and gain some skills. It’s not, it’s not just about accessing motivation and so forth. And, and we really connect our notion of mastery to traditions of scholarship that are about rich understanding and conceptual understanding, like getting how something works, not just knowing a bunch of disconnected stuff. So, for example, understanding the role of the human heart in the body is not just about being able to label where the human heart is on a diagram or being able to spit out a definition. It’s actually systems knowledge that’s connected to other pieces of knowledge. So, so mastery is really important and, and we saw a lot of instances where mastery was an incredibly important part of a kid’s process of learning. And then finally creativity. And we think about creativity as not just receiving knowledge but being able to produce knowledge and act on the world in some way that is doing something. So it’s not just creativity in the sense of like the arts, but it’s more like, okay, you know something about the human heart. Try to design an artificial heart based on what you know about what the heart needs to do. Or, you know, just the idea that kids can do a lot and they are, they really wake up to the, their own possibilities when we give them opportunities to actually use their knowledge and use their knowledge to produce something novel or something that has utility to the world or meaning or beauty or something that hasn’t been done or made before. And too often we don’t see that in classrooms. But when we do, it’s just incredible what happens for kids. And finally, those three domains, so creativity, mastery and identity. We see them as interconnected, right? So the more you know about something, the more you might start to see yourself as somebody who has a relationship to that thing and creating something in a domain similarly might change your sense of self. Like, oh, I’m not just somebody who can solve a math problem on paper. I’m somebody who can use math in the world to solve an engineering problem, and I did, in fact, and here’s what I did, you know. 


FINE: They’re not separate from each other. There’s a kind of, like, interconnected nature where they’re all engaged in some way. 

GONZALEZ: So those three domains would sort of help us to define what, what deeper learning looks like? And then what you found, unfortunately, not whole schools and whole systems that were nurturing this and making it happen on a regular basis, but you did find it in pockets, you found it in individual classrooms. It sounded like you especially found it in what you called the periphery in elective classes, in extracurricular activities. And so from all of these observations, you were able to sort of pull out characteristics in the, in the ways that those classes were taught that made it more possible to pursue the deeper learning. So what were some of those things? So what we’re thinking about now is a teacher listening, thinking, “How can I make that happen?” What were those teachers doing that made that deeper learning possible? 

FINE: You’re so good at talking about our work. We should, we should hire you. I often lead with what you just said, which was that one of our sort of false assumptions at the beginning was that to find deeper learning in schools, we should just look at academic classes. And instead, like you just named, over time it dawned on us that actually a lot of the most powerful learning that had those three qualities that I just described were at the periphery, were places like elective courses, extracurriculars, things that happen that are happening, you know, within school spaces or are, you know, within a school’s purview but in fact are often not paid attention to by policymakers, by parents, by funding streams. Nobody talks very much about what’s going on in those spaces, and yet, they were the places where we saw the richest learning happening. Not every single one, but on the whole. So yeah. So we, over time, started to try to understand, what is the secret sauce here that governs these spaces, that’s making them so much more promising as places for identity development, and the development of mastery, and the producing of, of novel work? And the way we have written about it and talked about it in some places is that there’s just a different set of underlying assumptions and structures that are, undergird spaces, like elective courses and like extracurriculars. And we, we talk about it as like the grammar of those spaces, that we’re drawing on work from David Tyack and Cuban who talked about the grammar of schooling, which includes things like lockers and 35-minute periods and seven-period days and, you know, separation of disciplines. All the sort of assumptions and structures that are common in secondary schools. So this, this other domain has a really different grammar. So if you think about places, for example, we wrote a chapter about an after-school theater production. And, you know, I would invite anybody listening to substitute a school newspaper, a school orchestra, a sports team, an elective course because we found these same qualities in different places like those as well as in this theater production. But first of all, there’s choice. There’s, like, kids are voting with their feet, and I think there’s a powerful, important connection to identity there. Kids who are choosing to do theater either already think of themselves as kids who are good at or interested in theater or it’s kind of trying on a new identity. Like, oh, this is something that might call to me in some way. I’m not sure yet, but I want that. So there’s meaningful choice. There are opportunities for real apprenticeship learning in those spaces. So kids are learning from each other. There are leadership roles that are distributed, kids who are more experienced or older are often in charge of supporting kids who are less experienced or younger. We saw this in the theater production where there’s a lot of kids coaching other kids, kids who have done other theater productions helping the newbies to find their feet and so forth. Lots of kids giving critique to each other in productive ways. So there’s a kind of de-centering of adults as the only ones who can carry knowledge and expertise. There is also a sense that roles are interconnected. So in a normal academic class, usually it’s like, you know, every kid is doing the same thing at the same pace, you know, for the same purposes with the same test at the end of the week. Whereas in a place like theater, different kids have different domains of expertise. There are kids who are good at the lights, kids who are good at the staging, kids who are painting the set, kids who are doing the acting, kids who are helping pull it all together, make sure those things are coordinated. So there’s room for kids to get good at different things and to lean into their strengths and not have to be good at everything. But also, they all have to work together to produce something that not any one of them could do on their own, and that’s true, you know, if you think about a school newspaper or a debate team. This is true of a lot of these places. It’s like it’s not everybody —

GONZALEZ: The football team even, yeah. 

FINE: — yeah, exactly. 


FINE: Not everybody’s going to be, you know, not everybody’s going to be the quarterback. 


FINE: But you need a really good quarterback, and then you need other kids who are good at doing other things to help pull it all together. And so there’s something where rather than this kind of independent, meritocratic, individualistic way of approaching learning, it’s actually, no, we’re trying to produce something important and new and, and big, and none of us can do it alone. And we can’t do it if we’re all doing the same thing at the same time. We actually have to rely on each other’s brilliance and skills, and we need to find a way to coordinate those things in order to mount this production. And that’s just a really different way of structuring a learning community than what core academic classes do. And I would argue it actually runs against a lot of the cultural norms we have in our country in a very exciting way. It’s like, no, we don’t want cookie cutter people who all have the exact same skill set and can all score the same thing on the same test. We need a lot of different people who know a lot of different things working together productively to solve problems or produce things that are bigger than any one person can do on their own. So that was present. And then finally, there was an authentic audience for the work. Like, the kids are doing something that is not just going to be turned in to their teacher at the end of the day, right, if you’re — having an authentic audience doesn’t just raise the stakes for the kids. It also means that the standards of quality come in part from the response of the audience to what you’re doing. So like, if you, you know, if you work for three months to make sure that the parts of the theater production that are supposed to be funny are funny, and then the audience doesn’t laugh, well, you have some feedback in real-time right there about the, in this case, the lack of efficacy of your choices but also vice versa. Like, if the audience laughs when you expected and planned for them to laugh, you’re getting feedback that, that you’re having the desired impact on your audience, that you’re, you know, whatever, the production, the vision you have for the production is successful. So I think the authentic audience is really important for two reasons. One, it’s because it just, the stakes are higher. It feels more real, it feels more authentic. But then also, it means that there’s some feedback that is coming not just from a teacher or from a score or a Scantron. It’s actually feedback that’s tied to the, like, standards of the field. 


FINE: Again, you don’t have that as often as we would like in, in core academic classes. 

GONZALEZ: So, but you did, you did see some deep learning in the core academic — because as I’m listening, I’m thinking, if I am a U.S. history teacher, a lot of the characteristics that you described, I’m thinking, how do I do that in my class? But did you see deep learning in, like, a history class? 

FINE: Yes. 

GONZALEZ: And what did it look like there? 

FINE: Absolutely. We saw, I think the, the bad news was we didn’t see deep learning as consistently as we would like in the kind of shining star cases we originally picked. But the good news is we actually saw learning that, that had many of those qualities everywhere, and not just in schools that were, you know, fancy, design-based, project-based schools. So I just want to put a point on that, that like the things I’m going to describe happen everywhere every day, and teachers have found their way to figuring out how to make this happen. Which is, there’s a lot of assets we have in our system that I think we could be leveraging. So yes, we saw, you know, as it happened, we saw a lot of core academic classes that were — the most powerful ones had very similar qualities to the ones I just described. So, for example, in a humanities classroom, I’ll use as an example, we saw teachers, No. 1, who were able to allow students meaningful choices even though they weren’t ultimately choosing to be in the class the way they were choosing to go to a theater production. So a lot of agency on the part of students to decide where to go deep, what to, in the context of project-based learning, what topics they might tackle. A lot of sort of decisions about, like, well, what are you most curious about and why? And how can we jigsaw the learning in this space so that different kids are responsible for different segments of learning? So, for example, if you’re in a history classroom where you’re studying revolutions and trying to come up with some theory about why revolutions happen, you know, you have different kids, who might for different reasons that could tie to their identities and their curiosity and their background, pick different revolutions to study. That’s, that’s and I think no choice is too big or too small to be consequential to kids. 

GONZALEZ: What you just said though, that sounds already so different from I think the way, starting by saying, “We’re teaching about revolutions, which spans over centuries,” versus, “We’re going to cover the American revolution.”

FINE: Yes. 

GONZALEZ: You know? And so that’s a very essential question way of approaching it versus a covering-of-the-content way of approaching it. 

FINE: That’s exactly right, and I think all of the classes that we saw, regardless of context, academic classes where there was real richness and depth had, teachers had found ways to make that shift, you know. Asking good questions that could be explored in a variety of ways rather than their orientation being like, we need to march through this curriculum in lockstep. 

GONZALEZ: Right. Yeah. And, and did they, if we stay with this revolution example, I’m thinking, is this a teacher who had to buck up against their system and say, “No, I’m not going to teach history the way you all have insisted.” Or I’ve heard of some teachers who say, “I’m going to do it my way, and we’re going to figure out a way to squeeze in all the other requirements somehow so that on paper we’ve at least done the bare minimum of what it said.” Like, is it more like that? Or were they able to get systemic change to happen in their curriculum? 

FINE: I think it’s both. I think the teachers in the U.S. work under a pretty broad range of constraints. Some teachers work under very heavy constraints. You’re alluding to that, right. It’s like pacing guide, PowerPoints, on Day 72 you need to be on this page of the textbook. 


FINE: And of course if you’re working in a system that is that constrained, your ability to be creative is, it’s there, but it’s more limited. But there’s this huge range. There’s many, many, many teachers who work in systems that are much more loosely regulated than that. They may have a textbook that they’re supposed to be working from and some sort of, you know, district assessment that happens periodically. But to your point, there’s actually a lot of wiggle room, more wiggle room than a lot of people might think, to kind of play within it, to choose to go deeper in some places and, and shallower in others. And I think you’re absolutely right. We saw teachers who are being very creative about making that space in their classrooms without, you know, without totally going off script from what, what was expected of them. And of course there’s teachers who work in systems that are, that are almost unconstrained, right? There’s, there are systems where, you know, yeah, it’s the end of the year. Kids need to show that they’ve done something that’s related to U.S. history, but it’s really up to you to get there. So I think, you know, and that has its own challenges because some teachers don’t know where to start but also has a huge amount of opportunity in it. So, so absolutely. I was going to say also that — just to stick with the revolutions example — I think that there’s also an orientation that some of these deeper teachers had around connecting past to present in ways that activate kids’ identity. So, you know, we did in fact see a social science, humanities project on revolutions where one of the questions was, like, are we on the brink of a revolution now? Right? Let’s understand, let’s use the past to understand the present and make sense of our lives around us, the world around us. It’s a compelling question. It’s an important question. It’s one that real people, real adults are asking themselves. So, you know, how can we go, go deep not just to go deep but also to make sense of something meaningful for ourselves beyond school, you know, just as citizens in the year 2023. It’s an important question. 


FINE: So I, I think that that is tied, it’s tied to mastery, right. Like, you need to learn something and know something about the structures and patterns that have characterized certain historical moments, but also, it’s tied to identity. Like, what am I living through right now? 


FINE: How do I make sense of what’s happening? Where do I want to? What’s my agency? Should we be having a revolution? If we wanted to start a revolution, what would it look like? What would we do? 


FINE: What role do young people play? Like, there’s just so many ways that are not about, you know, getting a grade, getting a score on a test, you know, getting the GPA, checking off the fact that we finished that chapter of the textbook. You know, there’s, there’s just a totally different way of thinking about it. 

GONZALEZ: Right. Did you, so I’m thinking about maybe another subject area, like in math. What would constitute sort of creating something for an authentic audience? Did you see any of that in math classes where it was really, they got buy-in from the kids? 

FINE: Math was hard. I’m not going to, to be totally transparent, math was sort of the final frontier in some ways. So the answer is yes, and I’ll get to that. But I do want to name that it took us a long time to see math, to find math classrooms that had that sort of identity, creativity, mastery, combination that we were looking for. 


FINE: And I think, I think that the traditions and the supports for the teaching and learning of mathematics are like even more, like the status quo is even more powerful, and the lack of imagination about doing something different is even more extreme than in some other subjects. So we didn’t see a ton of conceptual or creative or student-centered mathematics. In a lot of places it was generally, like, very algorithmic math. I’m going to show you how to solve this type of problem. Now you try to solve this type of problem. Now go home and do some for homework and, you know, so forth. And so we actually ended up going to see a couple of schools that did math via the Harkness method. Harkness is this sort of Socratic seminar style way of thinking about sort of discourse. 


FINE: In the Harkness method basically it’s all about discourse, it’s all about verbal conversation and deeply unpacking things. So we went to a school that had Harkness math tables. And basically, big seminar table in the middle of a room and whiteboards on each corner and the teachers would just pose a question, a mathematical question, often that could be answered through a variety of different mathematical disciplines, geometrically, algebraically, and so forth. And, you know, kids, because they’ve been in the system for a while, knew that their job was to explore first. So it wasn’t the teacher saying, “Here’s how you do this problem. Now do it.” It was, “Here is this problem. What are some different ways you might approach it?” So it started with kids just grappling with a lot of open-ended support for like, you know, can you draw the way you think about this? Can you write it out in numbers? Can you come up with words? What are some different ways we might think about it? What’s important in this problem? And just a lot of verbal conversation and sense-making around mathematical questions. And eventually there might be some mathematical modeling of like a, you know, standard algorithm or like something that. But it was, first of all, there was just much richer discourse. You don’t usually hear kids talking much in math class. 


FINE: About math, at least. 


FINE: And it was much, rather than the kind of I do, we do, you do gradual release model that so many teachers have been trained on, it started with a, like, “Y’all try it and see what happens.”


FINE: And now, let’s have a discourse. Let’s, let’s share our different strategies and ways of thinking about this problem together. And now the teacher might infuse a little bit of expert knowledge, but not in a way that would shut down the conversation, just in a way that could move it forward. And now let’s try a similar problem and see where this has all landed us. And so it was very much more conceptual, less focused on, you know, learning algorithms and applying them. Much more about the sense behind the math. And then we did see some project-based math classrooms where mathematics was done in the ways I was describing but also connected to consequential questions that kids were exploring about, you know, a problem in the world. Maybe they were working on statistical modeling of a social science dilemma or, you know, writing data stories that were connected to something they were working on in their community’s classroom. So I do, there’s definitely examples out there of math being taught and learned in ways that are more powerful and more conceptual and more connected. They were very hard to find. I just want to come back to that. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So as you, as you sort of wrapped up your research and, and pulled these ideas, what did you ultimately recommend to individual teachers and schools that get the message. And they’re looking at their own teaching and saying, I need to make a change. What would be some place where people can start to make the learning deeper in their classrooms? 

FINE: Yeah. We always get asked that. I have so many, so many thoughts about that. It’s hard to know where to start. I have two, we tend to have two places we, we would advise folks start to start and where we’ve seen examples of really powerful teachers saying, “This is how I began the process of transforming my practice.” 


FINE: So one is around having an authentic audience for whatever work the kids are going to be produced. Like, starting at the very end of a unit or a project or, you know, whatever arc of curriculum you might imagine. The difference between turning something into your teacher and then getting a grade and performing or sharing that learning with an audience that is not just your teacher is really profound. And there’s a, you know, some work on hierarchy of audience, right. So at very least, having kids share their work with each other. That’s the starting point. But more than that, have them share their work with other members of the school community, other grade levels, maybe at an all-school assembly, right. Have older kids write storybooks to teach younger kids, and then they go and do it or, you know, you can leverage what’s already inside of the school. You can also, if you want to go further, leverage like an external audience, right. So invite community members in who have a stake in the questions you are exploring and who might be experts on the thing that you’re working on. Maybe you’re working on a policy dilemma, trying to understand it that’s relevant to policymakers or community members or just voters. Bring those folks in to share your work with, or you know, mount a performance, a theater performance or a music performance or something, you know. Or put it up on the web for the world to see. There’s all kinds of ways to think about audience, but I think the moment that you start thinking about the work that kids are doing being seen by others, you open up an opportunity for more motivation. 


FINE: But also you start to, I think for teachers, it starts to raise the stakes. Like, oh, it’s not just me who’s going to see their writing. Like, they are writing for the local newspaper. That’s a reflection of my teaching and not just on them. 


FINE: So I think that that is a really, really powerful way to start and actually, in my own early years teaching when a colleague and I decided together to have our students perform some of the poetry they were working on at an all-school assembly, which is, you know, it’s not that hard to do. It’s not as hard as, like, mounting a theater performance at a local community theater or something. It changed everything for me as a teacher as well as for my students. It was like, no, no. There’s going to be other eyes and ears on this. You know, how you do is a little bit of a reflection of how we do as a whole group and so forth. So I, I have a little bit of firsthand experience with that. There’s some shifting of the lens that happens just with that audience change. 

GONZALEZ: Right, right. 

FINE: And then the other piece is like, as much as you possibly can, try to find opportunities for depth over breadth. Like, marching through a curriculum just to cover it, I don’t think there’s many teachers out there who actually enjoy or believe in doing that. There’s a lot of teachers who feel bound to do it and they feel constrained. But we, Jal and I talked to so many teachers who had a really, like, high level of hunger to do things differently. They just didn’t feel either able to imagine what it would look like or supported to try it. So I think teachers have a lot more, a lot of teachers have at least a little bit of wiggle room to try to be like, okay, we’re just going to do less, but what we do do, we’re going to go deeper and I’m going to allow for more choice, and I’m going to, you know, think about how kids can really master, I don’t love the word “master,” they can really build deep conceptual understandings of something rather than, you know, making it to the end of the chapter or whatever it is. 

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

FINE: So I think that, like, slowing down piece, I’m hopeful that there’s more and more school administrators who are making it safe for teachers to make that decision as well. I think that’s something administrators could do is to message to educators like, “It’s okay to slow down and go deeper. Like, I will sanction it. I will support it. I will defend you if there’s criticism.” 


FINE: I think that that as well just opens up a lot of new lines for, for good work. 

GONZALEZ: You, you just said something about a minute ago that I think is a really key piece of this, which is that they want to do it, but they don’t know what it would look like. And I think that is such an important part of getting more people. There is models of, “Here’s a teacher who’s already doing it. This is what it looks like. This is what a semester looks like in their class. This is what a week looks like.” And actually seeing it, because then people go, oh, okay. I get, I can do that same thing. 

FINE: Yeah. 

GONZALEZ: Instead of having to just start from zero and figure it out. Where would people even go to find that kind of modeling? I mean, I know this is what I try to do on my site is put a light on people that are already doing it. 

FINE: I’m so glad you said that, because I think, like, sometimes people talk about the absence of deeper learning as like a, you know, policy problem or a pedagogy problem. And all of that is true, but I think you’re right. I think it’s an imagination problem at its root, that we have a system that has failed to provide a lot of examples that help people imagine something different and see what it might look and sound like and experience it themselves. So, well, I think that — I mean I’m surrounded here at High Tech High, and we are far from the only folks out in the world doing good work. But by people who are doing really interesting work and they, there’s a site on batch learning that I will not ashamedly promote because I think there’s examples of really powerful student and teacher work there in the, in the realm of project-based learning but also beyond it that just start to, I think, inspire some sense of what’s possible in schools. I think that it’s various organizations that have popped up recently that I was thinking about, like, what schools can be, what kids can do. I mean, there are I think as an emerging coalition of folks who are not just calling for deeper learning but actually trying to like surface and elevate —


FINE: — and make visible examples that are already out there. And then I think the really hopeful thing that Jal and I found was even in the most traditional, generic sort of non-specialty schools, there were teachers who had made a lot of headway towards doing powerful work with kids. And so I think that norms of isolation in schools are a problem in [inaudible] I think if teachers could get into each other’s classrooms more often, I think if you do that enough, you’re almost, like, bound to encounter some, some practices and some examples of, of the type of teaching and learning you yourself might want to be doing. So, you know, I think it’s nice for people to, like, fly across the country to High Tech High, and big picture learning, and all these schools that are designed differently. And I think there’s a place and time for that, but I also think, you know, if you’re a teacher working in a 2,000-kid building, like, there are bound to be a lot of colleagues who have figured some stuff out. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, I agree.

FINE: Then you yourself are trying to figure out. And if you can just get out of your room, and I know it’s, it’s easier said than done, and get into some other classrooms and just start to, like, absorb some of what you see, I think that that’s a really powerful starting place as well. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, I agree, especially if you see some of the same kids that you teach interacting and behaving and engaging in such a different way in someone else’s room. 

FINE: Yeah. 

GONZALEZ: It’s like, oh. Maybe it’s the methodology and not necessarily the kid who’s disengaged. 

FINE: Yeah. Well, and to circle back to what we were talking about earlier, I think, like, if you’re a core academic teacher, go to an art class. Go to a music class. Go to an elective. I mean, and rather than thinking, oh, well, you know, I have a textbook and they don’t, so I can’t do that. I think the mentality should be, “What is the logic and the stance here? And how can I bring that into my room, given the constraints I work within.” Because you’re absolutely right. Seeing your own students come to life just across the hall from your own classroom where you feel like you’re wrangling them all the time it’s just, I think may be disheartening, but I actually think if you flip the lens, it’s actually really exciting. It’s like, no, it’s not the kid. It’s the conditions. 


FINE: And I can try to change those conditions. 

GONZALEZ: Because I’m thinking, yeah, an art class could have a textbook that somebody decided, “We’re going to make sure you cover all of these artists, all of these periods, and that the kids just sit there. And, you know, it could be taught that way, but in most places, it was decided, no, we’re going to have them do stuff instead. 

FINE: Yeah. Right, right. 

GONZALEZ: So yeah. Since the book was published in 2019, we’ve obviously had massive changes in the world since then. Has your thinking evolved any? Have you, you know, in terms of what you all recommended? You know, has anything changed for you? 

FINE: Certainly. I’d say more subtly evolved than, you know, massive changes and revisions to what we did argue. I think that one thing the last number of years has really brought to mind, even more sharply, is, like, the importance of well-being and wellness in schools as a component of deeper, richer, powerful learning experiences. Jeff Duncan-Andrade has a new book out where he really pushes hard on this in a very powerful way. But, you know, schools that prioritize well-being defined very broadly I think are setting a foundation for kids to thrive intellectually as well as socially, emotionally, and physically. And schools that are not, schools that are still really thinking about, you know, well, when they go to math class, they’re brains but when they go to recess, they’re bodies, and you know when they go to advisory, they’re souls. So I think the pandemic, for, for, the pandemic has been awful in so many ways and I don’t want to sweep it away, but I do think that it has forced a lot of educators and school systems to think about well-being and kind of mental health, brain health as a component of what kids carry with them to school as well as trauma and so forth. And I’m cautiously hopeful that that lens is not going to disappear as the pandemic hopefully fades into the distance. But, you know, we all kind of had to reckon with how important a filter all of that is for kids’ learnings in a way that I don’t think we had before. So I’m, I’m hopeful that, that is going to get sort of built into the way that schools and systems work more fully than it used to. And if, you know, it’s important but it’s not just about, like, having more school psychologists on hand, which of course the pandemic has opened up funding for and so forth. But it’s about teachers, like academic teachers. Every person in the building thinking about, “How do I help these kids be well and be present and feel, you know, able to learn and feel connected?” And those had been important questions from the get-go, but I think the pandemic has sharpened, sharpened that. 

GONZALEZ: I agree, I agree. Where is the best place for people to find you online? 

FINE: I’m pretty active on Twitter. I think a couple months ago I was afraid Twitter might go under, and it’s my only social media. But it hasn’t yet, so until it does, I’m @sarahmfine on Twitter and I love connecting with other educators and folks who are just interested there. I’m always willing to engage. And then my workplace, High Tech High Graduate School of Education, we have upwards of 5,000 visitors a year coming through the system here. And I love just when folks show up, and I get a chance to learn from them and talk with them and show them what we have going on here and see what that sparks for them. Not because everything we have going on here is perfect, but I think it’s a good conversation starter. So we always welcome visitors. I love guests. 

GONZALEZ: And you’re in the middle of your annual conference right now. Why don’t you go ahead and pitch that too so that people know, if they’re really excited about this, they can even look at that. 

FINE: Yes. The Deeper Learning Conference. It’s a little late because it’s starting in an hour, but I’ll push Deeper Learning 2024. 

GONZALEZ: Next year. 

FINE: Yeah. It’s a great, it’s a three-day event put on by the High Tech High Graduate School, but we have about 1,500 folks from all over the world who are like-minded and who have a chance to teach as well as to learn here. It’s not us presenting. It’s lots of peers in the space running all kinds of really cool stuff. And it’s not, we’re trying really hard not to have it be a conference, capital C. Like, there’s music and there’s food and there’s dancing and singing and movement and people out in the world creating things and building things. And we’re trying to, so we’re trying to model the kind of experiences we want to happen in classrooms. So it’s not a sit and get. If you want a different kind of conference, I think it’s a great opportunity for folks. 

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. Sarah, thank you so much for giving me this almost hour, basically. We had some tech issues, so it actually has turned out to be an hour. 

FINE: Yeah, my pleasure. Oh it was so fun, Jenn. 

GONZALEZ: I appreciate it so much.

For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit, click Podcast, and choose episode 208. To get a bimonthly email about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.