At the Hewlett Foundation, our communications team spent a great deal of time working with the foundation’s Education Program. It’s amazing what you can learn when you spend a lot of time with very smart people.
As President Obama prepares to reauthorize the federal Education bill, I thought back to what may be one of the most interesting conferences I’ve ever attended, which taught me a lot about education, conferences, and lobsters, and not necessarily in that order.
I also learned a lot about how we can and must do a better job of teaching our children.
Let me explain: the conference was funded by Hewlett’s education program in collaboration with the Raikes Foundation, and it was organized by one of Hewlett’s grantees, a public charter school in San Diego called High Tech High. It brought together teachers, administrators, and students from around the U.S. and elsewhere to exchange ideas about “deeper learning”—which is an entirely different way to educate our kids. Rather than list the various characteristics of deeper learning, let me explain how I spent my day at this deeper learning conference, in a session devoted almost entirely to learning about lobsters, and why that was a great thing. Then you’ll know what deeper learning is and why it’s so important that every child receives this kind of education.
The session, which lasted seven hours (yes, you read that right), took place in a classroom at High Tech High. There were thirty or so participants in the session, called “A Deep Dive into the World of Lobsters.” Other sessions included, among many others, “Parkitecture: Using Design and Technology to Support Deeper Learning”, and “Thinking BIG With Kids Who Are Small: A Deep Dive into Engineering and Literacy for All Ages”. Our session on lobsters was led by Ron Berger and Steven Levy of Expeditionary Learning, an organization that partners with public district and charter schools across the country. Seven hours seemed like a rather long time for a conference session. Having been in many one-hour conference sessions that felt like seven, I was nervous. I shouldn’t have been.
The chairs in the room were arranged in groups of five or six. We were invited over to a tank of lobsters, and asked to get with our partners and select a live lobster, which we placed in a small plastic container filled with cold water on our desk.
Ron then asked the group to conduct a set of scientific measurements. We had to measure the length and width of the lobster’s crusher and cutter claws, measure the length of the carapace, and then weigh the creature. Unsurprisingly, this raised a bunch of questions. What’s a carapace? Which claw is the crusher and which is the cutter? To what decimal place should we record the weight? Should we use ounces or grams? Millimeters or centimeters? And so on. Some of the answers were found in the set of materials we received; others required agreement among the entire class. Agreement was necessary, though, if we were going to be able to compare our data with other groups.
After a certain amount of negotiating, once we agreed on our standards, we recorded our measurements and added them to a large sheet of paper at the front of the class. With the data from all seven lobsters collected and shared, we were then asked to analyze one pair of data.
Our group chose to see if there was a correlation between the width of the two claws. We also found out that lobsters can be lefties or righties—some lobsters’ crushers are on the left, but most are on the right. We then graphed our results on large posters. Ron pointed out how often students working together in the classroom come up with questions that even the experts miss. Even better, these classes are occasionally even tasked with conducting some of the research!
Then we were given pencils, paper, markers, and watercolors and asked to do what Ron called a “scientific” drawing of our lobster. I consider myself a truly wretched artist, so this was particularly tough for me. After spending more time erasing than drawing, I finally produced something that was at least recognizably a lobster. This exercise required me to examine our lobster very carefully and I learned a lot about lobsters just by looking closely. I also learned that if I stuck with it, I could achieve more than I thought. This is part of what educators call an “academic mindset,” which also includes a student’s sense that they belong in an academic community, can succeed at a given task, and that the work has value for them. How much do we miss out on when we just give up because we don’t consider ourselves good at drawing—or math or science? Lots, I’m sure.