In search of deeper learning: The quest to remake the American high school

by Jal Mehta, Sarah Fine

Overview of the research

Researchers Jal Mehta and Sara Fine began with the intention to investigate the teaching and learning in innovative American high schools.

They rapidly discovered that much of the learning looked traditional: teacher talk, rote-learning, worksheets. But, in every school, there were also pockets of what they call “powerful learning”.

They took a close look at these to see how the moments of powerful learning might build towards “deep learning”.

Powerful learning

Powerful learning is learning that is meaningful. It happens:

  • when experienced teachers are able to connect students to relevant discipline knowledge
  • in the moment.

When these moments accumulate in a regular and planned way, they can lead to deep learning.

Deep learning

Deep learning has three key components: mastery, identity, and creativity.

  • Mastery is about knowing, and doing things with what you know.
  • Identity is about learning that is connected to who students are and what they want to become; being able to move from ‘I do Science’ to ‘I am a scientist’.
  • Creativity is about students applying their knowledge to something new with an authentic audience, and making a contribution.

The researchers particularly noted these aspects of deep learning when students were engaged with co- and extra-curricula activities.

  • These activities are strongly associated with agency, and apprenticeship learning models.
  • The learning is highly connected to real world activities, for example, a school production.

Reflective questions

  • Mastery: as a school leader, how might you think about your school curriculum to allow time for depth rather than width?
  • Identity: as a school leader, how might you support teachers to listen deeply to their students in order to better connect their discipline knowledge with students’ interests?
  • Creativity: as a school leader, how might you connect your school with its community to offer learning that is relevant, meaningful, and has an authentic audience?

Further reading

Tomlinson, C.A. Sousa, D.A. (2020). The sciences of teaching. Educational Leadership magazine, 77:8. 


Anderson, J. (2019). Harvard Edcast: In search of deeper learning. Harvard University

Flanagan, L. (2019). Going for depth: How schools and teachers can foster meaningful learning experiences. KQED website

Hawkins, B. (2019). The 74 Interview: Authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine on what the best HS classrooms have in common – Mastery, identity and creativity. The 74 website

Shaw, J. (2019). Rethinking the American high school. Harvard Magazine, May-June.

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