The quest to take deeper learning to scale

“Each [person] delights in the work that suits [them] best.” 

― Homer, The Odyssey

In 1994 I was in the final semester of my senior year in high school and it was going nothing like the vision of beer-and-reefer-addled senioritis my generation had been sold by the decadent American high school comedy flicks of the 70s and 80’s.  Most mornings, instead of lazing through classes I no longer cared about, I would wake up at 7AM, dress up in an oversized suit I’d borrowed from my dad, and commute an hour by train from my small, mostly white suburban town to an internship with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — an historic Jewish non-profit dedicated to fighting anti-semitism and hate — in the heart of Manhattan, NYC.   

When I wasn’t making photocopies and fetching coffee for my mentor, I would spend days way outside my comfort zone as a co-facilitator of the ADL’s A World of Difference workshop curriculum — focused on confronting harmful bias and discrimination.  Compounding the challenge for me, the groups I was training were typically (very) diverse groups of NYC public school students very close to my own age, many of whose sense of ethnic or racial identity ran much deeper than mine, and whose perspectives challenged me to confront my own rather limited world view.

 The school’s C.H.O.O.S.E. program made advisor-guided internships and capstone projects the daily stuff of second semester for all seniors in good academic standing.  I had pursued the ADL placement because some evidence of racism in my hometown’s police force had convinced me I needed to get on the front lines and pick up the unfinished business of delivering on MLK Jr’s dream.  I wanted to learn more about how to disrupt racism and hate.

Despite my passion, increasingly I found my “colorblind” instincts for confronting racism upended by the conversations I was having at the ADL.  My faculty advisor urged me to read a variety of multicultural theorists on the left, and for balance, some writers from the American Conservative movement.  As my reading progressed, the salad bowl versus the melting pot war of metaphors pulled me headlong into the civic debate over American national identity, our history of racism, and the role of cultural assimilation.  I was forced to become more nuanced in my thinking. When the semester concluded, I had written a paper on the challenges and promises of the American multicultural experiment, showcased at an hour-long defense to a panel of teachers where I presented (using overhead projector transparencies!) in front of the school principal, my peers, and community members. 

 Looking back, I can’t imagine a better way to have prepared for the transition to undergrad and beyond.  I have no doubt this experience is what led me to take on a Philosophy BA despite my love of Physics, and then later to become a STEM educator and a school leader serving NYC public school students.  This challenge taught me some of the empathy I needed to become a brave and (at least semi-effective) participant in important public conversations around race, class, identity, immigration, and educational access — topics that have informed my contributions as a citizen, and my work as a teacher and school leader in urban communities.

How was I lucky enough to land such a life-changing capstone experience?  In retrospect, the secret ingredient was that my educators — “the adults”  — were engaged with a community of educational practice committed to special flavor of school reform.  In 1991, my school district had signed on to something called the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) —  a (sadly, now defunct) network of school superintendents and educators organized by the late Brown University education department chair, Ted Sizer.  

In my sophomore year, my small public high school joined the New York State Performance Standards Consortium and lobbied to win exemption from some of the NY state exam requirements, rebuilding their diploma around what they argued was a more powerful and engaging approach student assessment. They redesigned the schedule of classes to allow for longer blocks more conducive to socratic debate, inquiry projects, and extended writing.  And they engaged with each other as teaching professionals, reading a shared literature, and experimenting with classroom and curriculum design practices designed to disrupt the factory-model high school model — or “shopping-mall high school,” as Sizer called it — and to foster deeper learning for all students.

There have been many such communities of educator practice committed to the goal of deeper learning throughout the history of US public education — examples include CES, Understanding by Design, Project Based Learning, Expeditionary Learning, International Baccalaureate, Montessori, and others — most of which continue to this day.  All of them, despite their subtle differences in nomenclature and methodology, tend to share a lineage with the progressive tradition, where education is understood as a vital organ for sustaining democracy, science, and industry.  School should be experience-based, and focus on the formation of core “habits of mind” — skills we now often bucket into labels like Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Creativity — that are most likely to lead students to continue learning throughout their lives, and to become leaders and innovators in the workplace and active participants in a just, evidence-based, and democratic society.

Beyond a streamlined core of content mastery (a.k.a. “less coverage in favor or more depth and critical thinking”), most communities of deeper learning practice believe in the priority of authentic assessment.  Deeper learning stresses the importance of looking beyond standardized test scores and seat time for assessment, and instead uses learning artifacts, reflection, and experience as evidence of student mastery. 

Assessment tasks should be designed FOR, rather than simply a measure OF learning.

In this pedagogy, learning design should create experiences that draw students into relationships, conversations, and sense-making through a real-world purpose.  

Student work products should arise from the need to reach an audience, to achieve a meaningful goal, and to collaborate with others in a real world context.  Regular student reflection around their own growth and life goals should be embedded into the rituals and the culture of schooling. Transitions and graduations should signify something of greater importance than an institutional stamp of approval based on student compliance.  School should not just be about preparing for life — school should lead students to experiment with actual life pathways in which they produce value within their communities, leveraging their unique interests and talents in the service of others; it should be an apprenticeship in what it takes to be a successful, resilient, and self-actualized person.

“…school should lead students to experiment with actual life pathways in which they produce value within their communities, leveraging their unique interests and talents in the service of others; it should be an apprenticeship in what it takes to be a successful, resilient, and self-actualized person.”

With the rapid advance of low cost computing and web-based authoring tools in classrooms over the last decade, and with the disruptive impacts these same technologies are having on the life prospects of our students, many of the same goals of deeper learning are now referred to as 21st-century learning

In this reframing, our political leaders and the business community can perhaps more easily understand how their interests are in the mix.  As a practical matter, students must be prepared for a world where most career pathways have not yet been invented, and where non-routine creative and analytical work is the increasing share of well paying, automation and AI-proof jobs.  As workers, our students will need to upskill multiple times in their lives to keep pace with technological change. As citizens, they will find the collective challenges we face as a democracy more globally interconnected and complex than ever.  

In a globalized information economy, the shortcomings of the old operating systems that perpetuate a 19th-century model of education have only come into starker relief.  Too many students are still spending most of their time in school in a state of boredom and industrial factory worker style compliance. Most are having school experiences in which they are not engaged in the creation of value that is believable to them or connected to the tools, information channels, and future careers that define the world in which they find themselves.  While there are many bright spots offering hope that broader change is possible, in too many schools the development of authentic and economically relevant skills for all students is stunted by assessment systems, tools, and an institutional culture whose dogged purpose is to sort the universe into those who are “good at school,” and those who aren’t. Why are these old models so resistant to change?  The reasons are many, but I’ve concluded that one significant factor is the stubborn systems and tools through which the work of schooling gets organized. 

Over a decade in the 2000s I worked as a science and math teacher, and later an assistant principal, in four very different middle and high schools of NYC. Most of the schools were a part of a city-wide high school redesign initiative implemented under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg.  In these small high schools — several of them also affiliated with the NY State Performance Standards Consortium — I worked alongside a healthy range of idealists and somewhat more resigned, career “survivors.” Among other things, I came to realize that most educators are people who were “good at school” themselves, and for whom the easiest pathway would be for them to teach the way they were taught. 

That said, most of the professionals I met started their careers with a real desire to try on the more ambitious teaching and curriculum development models they learned about in their pedagogy coursework.   A key challenge was that the limitations of time, energy, and teacher isolation, coupled with the drag of bad tools and organizational operating systems, too often made these practices difficult to sustain. I came to believe that the failure of authentic assessment practices to take root outside of the bright spots was tied to broader systems challenges.  In most public school environments, doing the work of deeper learning with all students is just too hard given the systems folks are working within.  

These chronic lags in systems innovation impede us from finding or acting our best selves as educators, and can contribute to a (somewhat justified) background level of cynicism and resistance in the rank-and-file, as school district leaders can easily be seen to be exhorting teachers to change their practice, but don’t (and often can’t) mobilize the more foundational work needed to reform the tools, workflows, and assessment scoreboards through which teachers and students are asked to perform the actual work.  In unionized environments, where the teaching force bargains with a collective voice that too often bends toward the least common denominator, district reform conversations can become shallow and inauthentic at best and downright polarizing at worst. Once I became aware of this reform churn in the profession, the unsexy infrastructure and political problems that undercut deeper school change work began to attract my attention, and would soon lead me to reach for the cloud(s) for a less controversial antidote.

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I became an early evangelist / fanboy for G Suite (then called Google Apps) because I saw its cloud-based, real-time collaborative document model as a politics-free way to gain efficiencies and to accelerate student feedback, boost collaboration, and create visibility and real-world audience around student writing.  Beyond mere writing, Google Drive could host an expanding universe of rich digital, world-facing work products like MP3s, MP4s, coding projects, Google Sites and more. I became convinced that G Suite offered a big step up in delivering the rich tasks, long-arc projects, feedback, authentic audience, and student revision that our better educator selves all want in our daily practice, but usually cannot sustain as mere mortals.  G Suite could also be a key lever to reducing some of the most painful workflow barriers, super-charging the professional collaborations and student experiences needed to take deeper learning to scale. What if a platform with Google’s flat, collaborative, fast-innovating culture built into its DNA could drive meaningful school reform with tangible systems changes and a whole lot less preaching to the choir? G Suite was finally a toolkit that could make teachers’ insanely difficult jobs easier while drawing them into deeper learning modalities with students and each other.

After a decade of service, and about five years of experience using (what was then called) Google Apps with kids, in 2013 I left the classroom and the assistant principal’s office to pursue a role as a digital learning coach for a network of 80 small NYC high schools, many of them committed to fostering deeper learning practices.  I set to work trying to get more teachers and school leaders to hear the “Good News of G Suite,” but as I pushed folks to adopt it in their daily workflows with students, it became increasingly clear that we were still not quite ready for prime time in education. Google Drive was amazing in concept, but to the non-believer it became a rat’s nest to manage at the scale of 30 to 120 individual student Google Docs per assignment.   

Spotting the potential to make a big impact in this fast-growing ecosystem, like a model 21st-century learner I persisted over many months (and many late nights) to upskill myself as a software developer, learning Google Apps Script, a Javascript-based automation framework for G Suite.  Eventually I became skilled enough to produce teacher workflow tools such as Doctopus, Goobric, autoCrat, formMule and others, published to the world in Google’s document editor Add-ons gallery. These tools provided roster-based document management and assessment features that allowed teachers to efficiently organize rich, collaborative, and personalized experiences using Google Docs and Drive.   Adoption blew up like wildfire, with hundreds of thousands of teacher users in a matter of a few years, a decentralized army of educator-evangelists leading teacher workshops around the world, and many other edu-coders jumping into the mix with their own solutions, remixes, and mashups.

Since then, Google-created tools like Classroom have (thankfully) exceeded most of these hairy, early-days creations with a more elegant, user-friendly, and scalable approach to many of the same workflow challenges. As of January 2019, 40 million teachers and students were using Google Classroom to manage cloud-based document authoring, collaboration, feedback, revision, and assessment with students.  With rubrics and LMS / e-gradebook writeback arriving in Google Classroom this Fall, G Suite and Classroom have become a very viable and radically low cost toolkit for enabling deeper learning practices at scale. 

As compelling and “simple” as it is, for school district IT departments who have embraced Google’s software and device ecosystem, getting the most instructional value out of the G Suite platform, it’s thousands of administrative settings, and the Chrome management model can require a bit of assistance.  For 8 years, Amplified IT has built a strong word-of-mouth reputation as Google’s leading technical services and training providers for IT administrators in K-12 schools in the US and Canada, helping over 4000 districts root out suboptimal Google admin management practices and set their technical roadmaps to ensure they can achieve their instructional vision with Google tools.  To support this goal, Amplified IT has built a robust community to support innovative school IT practice — our North American Google for Education Technical Collaborative — and a suite of services, including a domain settings audit and technical support, that help schools root out the barriers to effective G Suite adoption and boost the “learning return” on their Google technology investments.

Convinced by Amplified IT’s technology systems, scale of impact, and human-capacity-building approach to fostering instructional improvement in schools, in 2016 I joined them as Chief Product Officer, where I’ve been fortunate to work with a team of skilled engineers to launch our Amplified Labs division.  Amplified Labs validates and builds subscription software products that tackle the instructional and technical systems barriers to 21st-century learning in thousands of districts across the US and Canada. Our mission is to create tools and services that transform the way people work in schools.

In our first three years, Amplified Labs primarily focused on reducing the low-level barriers that too-often block scaled adoption of cloud-based student creativity tools in classrooms.  We’ve built a suite of popular, low-cost, modular, SAAS solutions that solve “unsexy” but critically important G Suite problems of practice like user account provisioning and management, Chromebook enrollment and management, data liberation and insight reporting, Google Classroom administration, and the synchronization of class rosters and guardian contact info with district student information systems.  

When we solve these backbone issues, it means that the tech becomes more readily available, less time-expensive to maintain, and more likely to “just work” when a teacher tries to use it with students.  Data insights become more available and actionable for folks who make key resourcing decisions, and the right scope of superpowers can be granted to the right people to make a big difference at the right times.  

While our tools have operated at a layer removed from the classroom, the instructional value proposition of this work has been pretty simple.   When user accounts are well-managed for students, Classroom rosters stay synchronized with the district’s systems of record, data can be visualized in ways that are actionable and meaningful, and Chromebooks function as expected, technology staff can focus more on supporting new instructional models, and teachers can focus more on integrating the teaching and learning upsides of G Suite, and less on the stress and time-suck of wrangling fickle tools and repetitive tasks.  

The availability of cloud authoring, feedback, and assignment management tools helps reduce many of the key frictions, but it doesn’t automatically translate into teachers designing more authentic instructional tasks unless we attend to some of the other technical and “people systems” barriers that hold schools back.  While I see the great potential of G Suite and Google Classroom in particular to power more ambitious instruction, there are clearly more layers of human and information systems change that need to be engaged before deeper learning experiences are likely to become the norm for all students.  

My sense — and I’d love to be proven wrong about this — is that despite all the gains we’ve made in reducing technical barriers, most of the great digitally-amplified teaching out there is still isolated to those bright spots where students have been pre-sorted by ability, or where conditions have allowed for an outsized focus on teacher professional capacity development.  The evidence I see from our schools suggests Google Classroom and Drive are very unevenly (and not-very-equitably) adopted by teachers, and when used they too often reproduce old teacher-centric models — serving as a cloud-based photocopier and tracker for homogenous, choiceless tasks that result in relatively limited student ownership, choice and engagement. We have not yet experienced the scaled change in teaching practice these cloud-based tools make possible.

Fortunately, some districts have decided to tackle this next layer of interlocking technical and adaptive reforms head on.  Last July (2018), the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) — a very large (101K students, 168 schools) district serving the Louisville metro area — approached Amplified IT and threw down a new gauntlet for our Labs team’s work in G Suite tool building.  Under a new district leadership team, the strategic planning process identified deeper learning as a core instructional and systems reform priority.  In a glorious shotgun wedding, we were soon to become their technical partner.

With a whole lot of leadership chutzpah and an artful public relations and communications strategy, JCPS had engaged their community around a vision for the rollout of a digital platform and district capacity-building strategy to enable deeper learning at scale.  The digital Backpack for Success Skills platform promised to put the practices of student artifact curation, reflection, and showcasing at the center of a district-wide, P-12 focus on five core competencies: Prepared & Resilient Learner,  Effective Communicator, Emerging Innovator, Globally and Culturally Competent Citizen, and Productive Collaborator.  

With an instructional team led by Dr. Carmen Coleman, a seasoned deeper learning change leader and Chief Academic Officer, backed by the street cred and passionate commitment of former star high school principal and Superintendent Dr. Marty Pollio, the district had distilled their graduate competencies through a community stakeholder engagement and strategic planning process most commonly known as the Portrait of a Graduate.  

This toolkit of resources and a community of practice supported by the 21st-century learning network called EdLeader21, part of the national school reform non-profit Battelle for Kids, has become a driver of innovative post-NCLB district accountability reform around the US.  With over 200 innovative school district members, and backing from the powerhouse national school improvement non-profit Battelle for Kids, EdLeader21 is the premiere network for educators implementing locally-defined competencies like the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) into their systems.  JCPS is a member district of EdLeader21, and the team at Amplified Labs would soon find ourselves in a natural strategic partnership with this powerful community of practice.

Beyond identifying their graduate outcomes, the JCPS strategic planning team sought to change district-wide assessment systems to foster greater student agency in the school and post-graduate-transition experience, and to augment (not replace) MAP test score data and course grades with a holistic view of each student’s learning artifacts and reflections around their growth.  The digital backpack would need to become the “new normal,” so that it could serve as a common infrastructure for lifting, shifting, aligning, and spurring the innovation of instruction across a HUGE district. In its first year, the platform would need to support more than 20,000 5th, 8th, and 12th grade students in preparing and delivering their transition-year “defense of learning” presentations, which would include a showcase of rich digital artifacts aligned to the district’s portrait of a graduate.

Furthermore, JCPS conducted district surveys which showed that an overwhelming majority of students and teachers favored using Google Drive and Docs as the technical backbone for the digital backpack.  Young and old agreed: G Suite tools were seamless, straightforward to use, and their collaboration and cloud-based storage model made them ideal for curating, storing, and publishing artifacts across a student’s career.  The catch was… the district’s seasoned technology leadership understood too well that using Google’s tools in their native form — e.g. manually getting Google Drive and Google Sites to scale — would require too little human error to ever sustain itself in reality.   

This pessimism was well founded to those with experience.  Student folders need to be created, maintained, and transitioned from year to year, artifacts shared and organized, student Sites managed and tweaked, and a structured approach to documenting, reflecting on, and presenting work enforced.  Beyond making the initiative difficult to scale, folks understood that these factors would conspire with the high mobility of the district’s highest-needs population — students moving from school to school mid-school-year, often due to financial, family, and housing insecurity — to violate the district’s staunch commitment to equity in service delivery.  

There was simply too much friction to achieve liftoff with the manual approach to student portfolios.  What we understood was that, in much the way Google Classroom had provided an automated and transparent “skin” on the Google Drive workflows needed to manage teacher-assigned work, for a Google-based Backpack for Success Skills to actually succeed at scale, a new web application — still yet to be invented by someone — would be needed to seamlessly handle all the gymnastics of student artifact curation, shares with teachers, and the publishing of showcases to the appropriate audiences.

The Amplified Labs team set to work building Backpack for Google Drive using an agile approach, starting with a very minimal set of features, in part because the timeline for delivery was pretty aggressive.   Before the ink had even dried on the unanimously-board-approved contract, school was already starting in just a few weeks, and we had to get a “minimally-viable product” in place that would allow this widely-publicised initiative to launch for a wee 101,000 students.   

backpack for google drive logo

Our first iteration, launched in mid-August of 2018, was a web application that simply maintained a set of nested, color-coded folders in Google Drive for each student, with a colored tile for each skill that allowed students to click through to their artifact “skill folders.”  Teachers could auto-create rosters connected to Google Classroom, which would give them access to Backpack folders for each of their students.

Then, in ongoing weekly design meetings with a collaborative team of instructional and IT leadership, conducted remotely via Google Meet,  and using feedback submitted via a form within the app, we identified both the “quick wins” and the major design opportunities, and organized these into epics and sprints throughout the year.  By February 2019, we had deployed 5 new releases, with major upgrades including:

  • Interactive slide-out panels for viewing student artifacts.

  • A student activity feed to help assess engagement with the platform.

  • The ability for students to reflect on and align their artifacts.

  • The addition of the Showcase feature.   Showcases are student-curated collections of artifacts and reflections that students present live to an in-person panel of teachers, community members, and family. 

The district’s communication and coaching strategy was designed to utilize a “champion” model across their 168 campuses, where site-based Backpack Leaders (both a student and a teacher) would provide turnkey trainings to their local sites with support from a small team of district technology coaches.  YouTube shorts and webinar content, much of it narrated by JCPS student actors and produced by the district’s communications team, helped spread the messaging throughout the district.  Dr. Carmen Coleman, Chief Academic Officer, put herself out there with her own YouTube playlist, as the lead community spokesperson for the Backpack initiative.  Local news channels were regularly invited in to report on the initiative help carry the message to the broader community.

In the realm of professional development, a key support for the refinement of teacher and school leader practice was offered through coaching from Envision Learning Partners (ELP).  ELP offers training that makes it possible to change schools’ practices and results, and they partner closely with school and district leaders to transform the culture and school systems that support a higher level of college and career readiness.  They do this by working with school leaders to transform their cultures and practices to support a higher level of student learning that goes beyond the basics to the kinds of deeper learning skills that will equip them to earn college degrees, support families, contribute to their communities, and compete in the global economy.  

With the digital backpack providing a common reference point and elevating the visibility  and the importance of student-led reflection and assessment, ELP would collaborate with JCPS instructional leadership to help their teachers design project based units that would motivate rigorous content knowledge and while also providing opportunities for students to showcase their growth in the JCPS success skills.   They would also provide guidance around tightening up and making developmentally appropriate rubric descriptors to help students better reflect and align their growth. Finally, teachers needed support in norming around the format and assessment standards to be used when looking at student artifacts and showcases.

Last spring, we brought on multiple additional districts, also with their own, locally-developed set of graduate profile skills.  San Francisco Unified, Frederick County (VA), and Marion County (KY) would all pilot the platform with good-sized cohorts of students, providing us valuable feedback and allowing us to validate the potential for Backpack to be adapted to multiple environments.  Our team has taken Backpack for Google Drive from a one-off build to a “productized” subscription software that can accommodate any district’s branding and skills framework.   Beyond the portrait of a graduate community of practice, our still-expanding roster of Fall 2019 customers includes an Expeditionary Learning school, and we’ve also seen lots of strong interest from schools pursuing the International Baccaleureate and other student-centered frameworks like AVID.

While I’d never suggest that technology can substitute for the human capacity required to bring these various deeper learning models to scale, we’re optimistic that the rich authoring and assignment workflow tools of G Suite, extended through the intuitive, student-centered, Backpack for Google Drive user experience, can play a powerful enabling role for the interlocking systems and culture changes that are needed to shift instruction across a district.    

In JCPS and some of our pilot sites, we are beginning to witness a district change model that leverages the interdependence of technical innovation, strategic leadership planning, and professional supports to motivate the individual behaviors and cultural changes needed for deeper learning to become a reality for all students.  Our recently announced partnerships with EdLeader21, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, and Envision Learning Partners acknowledge the importance of these interdependent levers for change.  Each of builds and strengthens key communities of practice and fosters the human capacity development and systems change that Amplified IT ultimately seeks to support through our technology products and services.   

In the end, any quest to bring deeper learning to scale through G Suite must always remember an important principle of deeper learning practice — authentic and durable change comes from people (and organizations) in powerful and purposeful relationships, making meaning together.  The value of adding a tool design partner like Amplified Labs into this human-centered change strategy is that, by thoughtfully owning tool development in partnership with districts attempting to scale deeper learning, we have an opportunity to redesign the way we — students, teachers, leaders — relate to each other and ourselves as we engage the work of schooling.

  • Andrew Stillman photo

    Andrew Stillman
    Chief Product Officer

  • About the Author:

    Andrew lives in NYC and is best known for founding the CloudLab at the non-profit New Visions for Public Schools, where he led the technical development of Google-Apps-based data tools that were adopted in over 200 schools through NYC Department of Education school-reform initiatives.  Andrew taught a range of STEM subjects for ten years in the public school classrooms of NYC, and was co-founder and assistant principal of NYC’s Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering.  Andrew is a Google Certified Innovator and a Google Developer Expert.  When Andrew isn’t coding and designing products, he can be found experimenting in the kitchen, riding his bike, and working on maker projects with his kids.