Our current model of education is based on an industrial model designed to serve the “average student,” No student is average, though, and Deeper Learning provides a more personal and engaging student experience.

As educators, our responsibility is to help students develop a well-rounded and broad body of knowledge that enables them to understand the complexities of a rapidly changing world. However, America’s system of educating our young people has been nearly unchanged since it was developed to prepare students for the industrial revolution more than a century ago. Teachers are still firmly ensconced at the front of the class, acting as keepers of all knowledge.

To create an education system that truly serves students today and into the future, we must imagine a model of learning that will prepare them with the information and skills they will need, and the ability to integrate the knowledge and skills we help them develop. We need to not only prepare our students with the skills to be successful, but more importantly to prepare our students to be the designers of their own future. This is critical, as we have not kept up our end of the deal by leaving future generations a world that is better off than the one we inherited. This model should prioritize the relationship-building and human-centered element of education—what we at Ulster call social-emotional learning—and should begin with love and support for both students and teachers. This core principle prepares students to build on what they know and what they feel passionate about to find answers to the challenges they see in the world around them.

For more than a decade, Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) has been evolving towards this model by adopting the competencies, or learning dispositions, of Deeper Learning. The original Deeper Learning network was established in 2010 by the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation to serve as a source of innovation. The 10-school network spans a mix of charter and traditional public schools across 41 states and serves more than 200,000 students, with a shared purpose to promote better educational outcomes for young people. Each school has a unique approach to using Deeper Learning to create profound experiences that tap into each learner’s uniqueness and are rooted in connection, relationship, and creativity.

Here are eight tips to help you create Deeper Learning in your own district.

1. Ensure your budget and schedule reflect your values.

Embracing Deeper Learning poses the same challenges inherent in any school transformation. How will you prepare students for state assessments? Where will you find time to reach out to and collaborate with community partners? What if you don’t do a particular activity that’s tied to an evaluation?

A school or district’s values are expressed most explicitly in its schedule and budget. If you have eight periods in a day and decide students need six academic subjects, a lunch, and a period of physical education, does that mean you need shorter periods to add one to the day? Does it mean that you train your teachers to offer relationship and human-centered education one day a week, or ask teachers of academic subjects to spend a certain amount of time on it each week? These solutions each have costs, but if relationships are important to you, you’ll find a way to include building them within your schedule and your budget. Human-centered education includes your teachers, too. If supporting them is one of your values, they need time in their schedules to engage in their own deeper learning, and they need the resources to experiment with their practice.

After the onset of COVID-19, district leaders realized that students needed human-centered education more now than ever and found creative ways to squeeze it into their existing schedule. In time, many found ways to scale and incorporate it more fully and naturally into their schedule and budget.

And so it is with Deeper Learning. Something as critical as school transformation can’t happen overnight, but every school and district has entry points where they can begin to do this work in ways that make sense for your students, your teachers, and your communities.

2. Find partner districts with similar goals.

Ulster BOCES began working toward Deeper Learning with our partners at High Tech High (HTH) a decade ago. We were focused on learning how to create an environment to support the kinds of relationships we wanted to help build between teachers and students. That’s where the magic happens. In the school environment, teachers have the greatest and most direct impact on students.

3. Ask how leadership must change.

The role of leadership is important as well, and over time the leadership team at Ulster BOCES began to think about the conditions that allow for excitement, experimentation, failure, and revision to occur. Those conditions and the disposition behind them are the same for high school students as they are for adult learners. Our leadership team started asking ourselves:

● What are the leadership moves we need to make so that our teachers feel confident and prepared to design these kinds of experiences?

● Are we modeling for our teachers the way we’d like to see our students learning?

● Are we asking our teachers to engage in the same process we would like to see them create in the classroom?

4. Include the entire school community.

In the fall of 2023, we held a superintendent’s conference where, for the first time, we invited all of Ulster BOCES’ staff members, including custodial, food service, and clerical, to begin thinking together about the protocols, structures, and equity-based dispositions that drive toward Deeper Learning. The main theme of the day was connection: revitalization of old connections and the forging of new ones. It was an opportunity to think about who we are as an organization and where we want to go next. It included acknowledging that we want to do things differently, while highlighting all the amazing things we do in our district that we want to continue.

Supporting your team is critical to Deeper Learning, and that begins with listening to them.

5. Be on the lookout for isolated cultural changes.

Once we made the commitment to Deeper Learning, micro-moments of change began happening all around the district as individual teachers learned and jumped in. That is often the case with institutional innovation—change occurs in tiny pockets. Innovation can be a lonely place; it is our role as district leaders to stitch those pockets together into a quilt that everyone can share.

6. Experience deeper learning yourself.

Sometimes the entry point for transformation is as simple as shifting your professional development opportunities to allow your teachers to learn the way you want their students to learn.

In the specific case of Deeper Learning, I recommend experiencing it in action. Deeper Learning presents a number of events around the country. This summer, Ulster BOCES will be hosting Deeper Learning New York 2024 (#DLNY24), a conference designed to help school and district administrators explore this work, find entry points within their organization, and begin planning next steps. As participants engage in interactive workshops, immerse themselves in deep dives, and attend dynamic den talks, they’ll have the opportunity to experience Deeper Learning from the student’s point of view.

7. Center student voices in the transformation process.

Student voices should also inform the shape that transformation takes. Bring them together to talk about what they would like to see before you begin, and continue the dialogue about their experiences as you begin to make changes. Ask them what is different in their experiences, how their opportunities have changed, and what new possibilities they imagine going forward. At Ulster BOCES we use CREW to leverage and activate both staff and student voice. Additionally, student-led conferencing and celebrations of learning are ways in which we work on making student learning & voice visible and public.

8. Look for models in other districts.

HTH has many resources and examples of how powerful Deeper Learning can be. No two school districts are exactly the same, and your entry points—and the new models you’ll come up with as a result—will vary accordingly. HTH is a leader in this work, but there are many other districts and schools across the country undergoing similar transformations. If HTH’s approach to Deeper Learning won’t fit in the context of your district, seek out administrators at districts that are more similar to yours and who share your interest in adopting a forward-thinking approach to education.

Districts across the country are addressing the transition from the industrial model to one that better prepares students for the future that is ahead of them. Some districts may be further along than others, but through collaboration and relationship-building, we can continuously move toward a more engaging and equitable form of teaching and learning rooted in our students’ own lives, experiences, and passions. First, administrators and teachers have to come together and figure out what’s possible.

About the author

Dr. Jonah Schenker is the superintendent of Ulster BOCES. He received his doctorate in education leadership from the Esteves School of Education at The Sage Colleges in 2015. Dr. Schenker began his formal education career as a classroom teacher in both inner-city urban settings and rural school districts. His focus on building non-traditional, sustainable schools and relevant teacher and student learning communities that prepare schools for the future was instrumental in his school being recognized as a White House Next Generation High School in 2016. Dr. Schenker received a Global Leaders Scholarship in 2016, which gave him the opportunity to explore systems around the world that are at the forefront of educational reform. It is through this lens that he developed a true understanding that in order to lead a group, institution, or company it is crucial to have the ability to inspire passion and leverage the strengths of individuals. He can be reached at Jschenker@UlsterBOCES.org.