Kyle Wagner School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

By Brooke Burns, Communications Manager 

Kyle Wagner joined the faculty community to address a key part of our school's strategic plan: how we can best, as a whole school, develop children's capacities to solve real-world problems and work productively with others, as we shift from over-emphasis on achievement, to a balanced emphasis on the growth of the whole child. This invigorating and inspiring professional development opportunity for our TAS faculty was made possible by a gift made to the annual giving program from an anonymous donor.

Building active citizens through deep, authentic learning experiences at TAS


The session kicked off with sharing individual views on 'deep learning' and what this phrase means for us as individuals, as educators, and as community members.  

Kyle shared an anecdote from his childhood in California: his family was moving to a new, smaller home, and he was allowed to take one box of his items with him. Of all the things he could have chosen to take, one such item was a report he did in Grade 7 science, “All About Polymers.” He was inspired by his science teacher to explore ways to mitigate the impact of drought in the region. This led him to visit local nurseries and ultimately learn about polymers, which support plants in taking in as much water as possible, leading to the conservation of both key flora and natural resources. Kyle produced a detailed report, which had stayed with him for all these years, and that he shared with the TAS faculty gathered on Zoom.  

For Kyle, this project exemplified deep learning: authentic, personalized, and with real-world application driven by an intrinsic motivation to learn about the world. 

Deeper learning at TAS

The session was focused on how TAS educators can develop our students as active citizens through deeper learning experiences.  

Early in the session, faculty members met in smaller departmental breakout rooms to discuss and answer one deceptively simple question as a team: "What are common characteristics of DEEP learning experiences?"  

In these breakout rooms, faculty shared their most memorable deep learning experience, and looked for common threads between the diverse stories in order to articulate what deep learning means at TAS.  

Deep learning experience characteristics

Faculty members shared memories from Grade 4 interdisciplinary humanities classes, service learning in Senegal, years spent playing basketball, and bilingual immersion programs. They shared collaborative and independent projects. They shared experimental projects where teachers from different age groups and disciplines worked to explore projects together that were intentionally left open-ended for the students. Some reflected on student trips and time spent learning from different teachers, while others reflected on personal learning experiences they had with their parents or grandparents. 

These conversations allowed each breakout room to create a giant word cloud based on three words from each group that described deep learning.  

TAS deep learning word cloud

After assembling a word cloud based on the TAS faculty members' memories, Wagner invited Dr. Leanne Rainbow, TAS Associate Director of IT and Director of Educational Technology, to share her own example of deep learning already occurring at TAS. She helped to create a project called "Medical Mysteries" in the Lower School, which involved student-directed learning on real medical case files. Another lower school faculty member, Pana Asavavatana, shared an example she called "Communities around the World," which was a cross-curricular lower school unit involving science, STEAM, and social studies. Students researched and collected data on different fabrics, culminating in a hands-on sewing project that would make sense for different communities and cultures around the world. 

Ultimately, Wagner and the other speakers suggested to our faculty that deep learning should be about engaging and empowering learners, getting them to do personally meaningful work, and engaging them at a higher level as a result. 
"Meaningful experience drives learning and is not simply left for the end [of the learning process]," Kyle affirmed. "As we seek to engage and empower learners, we need to help them to do deep, meaningful work." Creating these experiences is an important part of achieving our strategic plan goals to develop children's different learning capacities and to shift the focus of learning from achievement to growth within the classroom and wider community. 

Strategic plan goals

This was met with unanimous agreement by the faculty, who clearly stand ready to go even deeper into the process of creating meaningful experiences for every child on our campus. 

Kyle then shared several examples from around the world about how educators and students alike created incredible projects to drive home learning across all subjects, including creating a class website, developing tools for healing from trauma as part of a psychology project, and creating a project to re-define the American Dream while learning about The Great Gatsby. Beyond curricular events, some examples even included hosting a 'Probability Night,' a game night where students and families came to school to play games designed by the students to teach different probability concepts.  

"Experience," he said, "in all of these cases, guides the learning, not the other way around."  

Students and educators must begin with a meaningful, driving question, that leads them through experiences that deepen their learning.  

But how does one develop and design these deep learning experiences?  

Kyle walked the TAS faculty through the three fundamental steps to create a deep learning experience in the classroom. 

First, educators must develop a deep question.  

Instead of a subject specific concept, Kyle encouraged faculty to see that deep learning begins with a driving or essential question. These questions can develop from a number of places, whether this is a real community need, the curriculum, a problem observed in the world, or students' and teachers' interests. Most often, a deep learning experience is based on a question that merges more than one kind of generation point. 

Next, educators designing a deep learning experience must develop an authentic product or presentation that students will create to answer the driving question.  

Finally, instead of focusing on isolated content or skills, educators must draw on cross-disciplinary subjects to define the 'need to know’ content and skills that will enable them to create authentic products that answer the deep question.  

Faculty split again into breakout rooms to brainstorm how they would design different kinds of deep learning experience and to share their ideas by division and department. Ideas readily flowed between groups, with our faculty imagining the kinds of questions that are engaging to our students, and the kinds of experiences that will create both lifelong memories and lasting educational impacts for our students.  

Deep learning experience ideas at TAS

TAS will continue to work on empowering both students and teachers to deepen their learning and teaching respectively this year. In addition to resuming professional development work with Kyle Wagner as a whole faculty throughout this year, 15 faculty from across disciplines and divisions will work in small group sessions with Kyle over the next two years; they will explore more ways that TAS can bring deep learning experiences to our students, and share their what they have found, tried, and tested with the full faculty in the spring of 2024.  

The depth of this work would not be possible without the support of an anonymous donor through the annual giving program. We thank them for their support of the TAS faculty as our world-class educators seek to deliver memorable and deep learning experiences to our students.  

Please stay tuned for additional information on future deep learning events with this and other speakers at TAS!