From Simple to Deep Learning
Elementary students in the Clermont Northeastern Local Schools are accustomed to reading text and answering questions: When was the Gold Rush? Can you name the ancient civilizations? Who fought in the Revolutionary War? While important facts, those answers can easily be found in a textbook or through a quick Google search. To boost achievement, educators wanted students to delve deeper into and think more critically about subjects they study.
SPARK transforms learning from “Find the one right answer” to “What does this mean to me?”
“We recognized that our students weren’t given opportunities to research and take on deep thinking projects,” says Amy Bain, curriculum consultant and the former gifted coordinator for the small, rural district in southwestern Ohio, explaining the impetus for a project they call SPARK. The effort was introduced in 2017-18 in grades 3-8 with support from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation. A second grant has extended the program’s benefits into the high school.
SPARK transforms learning from “Find the one right answer” to “What does this mean to me?” explains Ms. Bain. The deeper learning process challenges students to generate individual ideas after reading text selections and to make personal connections to what the author is conveying and what they think.
Students practice this strategy through weekly mini research projects. After reading selected texts or examining photographs, charts or graphs, they ask themselves: “What more do I want to know?” They expand on their knowledge by acquiring new information related to the subject. Through the process, they learn how to ask good, thought-provoking questions about what they are studying – ones that require more than one-word or one-sentence responses.
In addition to the mini-research assignments, SPARK further challenges students in all grade levels to take on long-term, individual research projects. First, they must devise an Essential Question of their own choosing, which they investigate over the course of several weeks. Rather than answer Can you name several ancient civilizations? a student might research How did ancient civilizations impact the cosmetic industry today? Students complete a written paper and then present their research at a community-wide Academic Showcase in the spring.
“It’s changed the way I ask questions in class. I’m always wondering how can I incorporate all those levels of thinking into everyday content to get kids thinking more, instead of just opening up the textbook and looking for the answer.”
“This assignment involves student choice; it is not teacher driven, and I think that’s important,” says Rachel Wood, 4th grade ELA teacher, who acknowledges that the deeper learning strategies she now implements in her classroom are unlike anything she has practiced in her 19 years of teaching. “The children create their own essential questions on topics of interest to them. I tell them, ‘If you can find the answer on Google, then it’s not a deep question.’”
To prepare teachers to implement SPARK, the district offered a four-day professional development institute during each of the past two summers. Ms. Bain arranged for a variety of presenters to speak to the different needs of all teachers in the district. “There were opportunities for every teacher to participate in something that was gong to directly affect them and their teaching,” comments Ms. Wood.
“I use the deep learning strategies in my classroom every day,” comments Ms. Stahl, who has found ways to implement them with her special needs students. “Personally, it’s changed the dynamics of my teaching. It’s changed the way I ask questions in class. I’m always wondering how can I incorporate all those levels of thinking into everyday content to get kids thinking more, instead of just opening up the textbook and looking for the answer.”