Deeper Learning Student Work

Looking at student work

I’d like to share three pieces of student work, each of which shows unique applications of deeper learning.


The first is a Grade 2 ‘landforms’ project. The task was to build and paint an island with landforms. The example shows a few examples of deeper geographical understanding, especially that the river is carved into the land, rather than simply painted on, and that it flows from the hills to the ocean.
However, it would have been better to provide greater opportunities to practice with the clay and paint in a creative way. The student’s reflection, ‘I could to better’, is very revealing of the fact that this little project utilized too many different, new skills. I should have planned a stand-alone art unit using these tools before applying them in this Geography activity.

It’s a great example of how thoughtful planning should authentically scaffold deeper learning, so that when the real tasks of the inquiry present themselves, students have access to a broad range of skills and knowledge.

Additionally, it was connected to a service-learning project focused on access to clean, fresh water, so the students had opportunities to transfer this learning to authentic situations outside of the school.

Fruit and Seeds

Next, also in Grade 2, in an activity to investigate, observe, and compare the seeds of various fruit, a parent volunteer and I sliced twelve different fruits and arranged centers with each around the room. Students used a graphic organizer to explore, draw, compare and discuss.
Is it deeper learning? I can say for certain that the students enjoyed the activity. This example is from a student who generally struggled to complete work, yet he managed to excel in this case. Referring to the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of Deeper Learning, I believe that this is an artifact of deeper learning for a seven-year-old, primarily due to the social, investigative, and integrated arts nature of the activity.
Perhaps it would have been deeper if there were a connection to a significant global issue, had been extended through an exploratory field trip, or led to an urban garden project.

Flying cars?

This final example comes from Grade 6 and our current unit of inquiry into the evolution of scientific understanding and its effects on people’s lives.
After a modeled inquiry into 3D Printing, students were tasked with researching an emerging technology and publish a blog post about it.

This student’s post shows application of a range of research, thinking, and communication skills. In particular, the student demonstrates growing awareness for digital publishing techniques by way of the embedded videos and text organization.

Finally, it is public and invites the reader to participate in the inquiry, which I think is a hallmark feature of deeper learning.


Looking at student work, I think it’s important to notice that elements of deeper learning occur in almost every experience. The responsibility lies with, in the case of school, the teacher whose task is to design a learning environment that supports the various elements of deeper learning with balance and flexibility to be relevant to each individual learner.

Plum Blossom

First plum blossom by Bart Miller, Tokyo 2014
Japan’s most famous blossom is, of course, the cherry. But I think most people have a soft spot for the lovely pink plums that bloom about a month earlier.
The cherry blossoms celebrate the arrival of Spring. The plum blossoms are the invitation.
Here’s a photo I shot at our neighborhood park while playing with my son of the first plum blossom I’ve seen this year.

Teacher as Learning Documentarian

Looking at student work

‘Looking at student work’, the focus in the Deeper Learning MOOC this week, has me reminded of a project I have been working on this school year.

I teach in an inquiry learning elementary school  (PYP), an environment which facilitates and empowers deeper learning very effectively. As I have explored inquiry in the classroom, I have noticed that I do far less teaching and far more documentation.

Students engaged in authentic learning shouldn’t be bothered by standards or specific learning outcomes, yet they constantly accomplish them. As a teacher, I see myself more as a learning documentarian seeking out evidence of their learning as they inquire into their interests and curiosities.

Google Doc experiment

In order to document learning according to an established continuum, I devised a shared google document which allows teachers to document learning individually for each student and can be used by any stake holder to review like a portfolio. It’s still experimental, but I can already see how it is helping to maintain a balance between student-driven learning and traditional learning outcomes or standards.

How it works

Our learning continua are organized by phases, so I color coded each. When a student demonstrates a particular learning outcome, I indicate the date and hyperlink it to a digital version of the artifact. Examples so far have included scanned writing assessments, photographs, Evernote entries, videos, and blog posts. When an artifact is recorded, the shade of the box for that learning outcome is made lighter. A white box indicates a mastered learning outcome.
The example I provided in this post is for a sixth grader, so I took it for granted that the first three phases were mastered. Please have a look at phases four and five and follow the links to get a sense of how this type of document can work. If it were used from a young age and accompanied the student through elementary school, it would serve as an authentic representation of their learning.
This is still an experiment, and your comments and suggestions are highly welcomed. I would certainly appreciate collaborators on this project to develop an efficient system to document deeper learning!

My Greatest Weakness

Anticipation for the Visual Literacy Course in the COETAIL program has been both eager and anxious for me. Visual literacy, graphic design, and the language and tools that they use are arguably my weakest skills.

To date, I’ve done literally nothing to spruce up the appearance of Dal Segno al Coda. My own blog of teaching and learning, Symphony of Ideas, is not a terrible eyesore only due to the generosity, patience, and talent of my wife, Yuka. Thank goodness Tumblr has decent default designs! Finally, I have procrastinated purchasing my own domain and establishing a landing site for myself for a myriad of reasons which are really probably just excuses because, after all, I think I’m just afraid to design it.

Time to face the music

Fact is, I need to grow. I’m a composer, or as Aaron Copland would say, an ‘inventor of music’. Need counterpoint for a bebop melody? I’m on it. Want to reharmonize that pop song? No problem! Horn backgrounds for a power ballad? I’ll rock it. String Quartet? Working on it. I’m comfortable creating with sounds.

I am illiterate

Unfortunately, according to one of my heroes, George Lucas, in an interview with James Daly for Edutopia, Life on the Screen: Visual Literacy in Education, I am illiterate! This is a multimedia era, but I am a monomedia creator.

In this course on Visual Literacy, I’ll be bumbling along an unfamiliar road. Coincidentally, an early topic in the Deeper Learning MOOC is academic mindsets, and one mindset in particular is staring me in the face, daring me to act.

My first official published photo (2013)

Growth Mindset

What I have lacked is agency. Just like a student who thrives in literature-oriented activities but recoils when mathematics enter the picture, I have simply been avoiding learning something new and (as I perceive it) difficult. As Eduardo Briceño describes in Mindsets and Student Agency, this is an ‘essential opportunity’ for me to explore and build my Growth Mindset.

Play, Passion, Purpose‘, a model from Tony Wagner that I use to frame independent inquiry in my classroom, will be useful for me in my own inquiry.


Develop visual literacy. Specifically, I need to increase confidence interpreting and creating visual media. Over the years, I’ve experimented with Adobe Photoshop. Recently, I hacked the Deeper Learning MOOC logo to create one for our Deeper Learning in the PYP Google+ community, but that’s about it. I’ve created and shared a Laziness Map, and even a photo Learning Walk and Autumn Leaves ‘photoblitz’. But I need to do more. As an Edcamp Tokyo organizer, I need to contribute to the design of our promotional materials. My blogs and class websites need more personality. I’d like to take better family photos. I should be producing videos! The more I think about how I wish to apply visual media skills, the more imperative this inquiry becomes.
[tl;dr] Learn more tools and take more risks to communicate visually.


Play visual communications with the Walk My World community.


I can envision a future in which I create multimedia experiences integrating original audio and video. However, I don’t yet feel passion for it, and I think it’s because it seems unbelievable that I would master these new tools and literacies. With such a fixed mindset, I can conjure countless reasons and excuses not to try, even though I know I can.

With a growth mindset, it’s my choice to rise to the challenge.

No Sleep November

I hereby dub this month “No Sleep November” because there are so many fantastic learning opportunities for teachers and I don’t want to miss any.

First, I’m participating in the COETAIL (Certificate of Educational Technology and Information Literacy) program and working toward a Master’s Degree. Course 1 was an enjoyable survey and blogscussion of Connectivist Learning Theory and Course 2 promises to address issues related to technology.
Next, the Deeper Learning MOOC preview. This is exactly the kind of exploration I’ve been looking forward to and will mercifully commence in January. The preview is this week, and will focus on Academic Mindsets.
To further inform and develop my Independent Inquiry project, a philosophy and framework for connecting learning in and out of school, I enrolled in the Make/Hack/Play Together MOOC. I’m planning to participate along with my students, so hopefully a good portion of the assignments will be completed during class time.
Finally, I’m hoping to catch up on everything I missed in the K-12 Online Conference. I made a note of this awesome event months ago and checked in on the last day only to be blown away by all that I had missed! 
Did I mention I’m writing a novel? I’ve put down about fifty-thousand words, although haven’t worked on it for a few months. Thanks to the folks at Educator Innovator for reminding me that November is National Novel Writing Month! How convenient. I don’t expect to finish mine this month, but I shouldn’t let it slide for too long.
How can I possibly expect to do all of this? It can’t be ignored that I have a rambunctious two-year-old son at home and a school-wide musical to organize, rehearse, and produce!
The solution, of course, is to forgo sleep. Rather than burning midnight oil, I’m considering a regimen of coffee-fueled early morning work sessions. Even just five hours per week should be enough to stay on top of these projects and lead to wrapping up 2013 with a thunderous bang.

Here’s musical score for ‘No Sleep November’, my own composition for jazz orchestra, Insomnia.