By Stacy Yuen
A sledgehammer hangs from the ceiling of Bob McIntosh’s classroom. The tool has practical implications for student learning, but also serves as a symbol of the concept of Deeper Learning.
“We don’t learn about things, we interact with them,” explains McIntosh, Mid-Pacific’s STEAM/International Baccalaureate (IB) Technology teacher, who has been committed to technology-rich project-based learning environments for more than four decades. “In the old days, we dropped eggs from buildings, now we smack them with a sledgehammer and look at how much energy is absorbed. It’s a great way to study forces and kinetic energy.”
McIntosh delights in providing an endless supply of resources, reference materials and tools – hand tools … power saws … in his approach to Deeper Learning.
Smacking eggs and other objects is just one of many examples of the application of Deeper Learning on campus.
A Commitment to Deeper Learning
Mid-Pacific embarked on its journey into Deeper Learning in 2009 when the Hawaiʻi Association of Independent Schools and the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation partnered to offer the Schools of the Future (SOTF) grant. The SOTF grant was a multi-year grant to help schools create change from within, focusing on educational innovations that would evolve teaching and learning from a traditional 20th century approach to a progressive 21st century focus.
Today, Mid-Pacific is a leader in Deeper Learning, offering inquiry-based and project-based approaches to learning across the curriculum from pre-school to 12th grade.
Deeper Learning is based on six competencies:
- Content mastery
- Effective communication
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Self-directed learning
- Development of academic mindsets
“Our program was built to be a phenomenal stage upon which our students can showcase their learning, seek help from teachers, connect with the community and challenge themselves both in the areas in which they are naturally fluent and curious and those that will test and push their mental, academic and physical boundaries,” says Mid- Pacific’s Vice President of Academic Affairs Leigh Fitzgerald.
Mid-Pacific President Paul Turnbull says Deeper Learning is the approach that students need most in a world currently in upheaval.
“It celebrates collaboration and creativity alongside academic mastery, because complex issues demand complex solutions that aren’t possible from memorizing and regurgitating facts.”
Application of Knowledge
You won’t find memorization and regurgitation of facts in McIntosh’s class. Students have delved deep into sustainability, radiation, visible light, motion and momentum. They’ve turned a science lab into a culinary kitchen through the study of the thermodynamics of heat, water, liquid and steam. McIntosh works along with his cohort Mid-Pacific eXploratory (MPX) teacher John Cheever who ties in the humanities aspect.
“Thermodynamics in the kitchen leads to the study of the origin of spices and food preservation,” explains McIntosh. “We put together a cookbook for the class based on their family recipes, talking about cultural traditions and how food brings us together.”
He says the end result is students make connections and learn how to learn.
“As a facilitator, I want them to realize that Deeper Learning is a mindset. It’s how we get them to think about how they learn best and how they can participate in the process of finding meaning and connections.”
MPX 10th grade Humanities teacher Chris Falk says the application of knowledge is the goal.
“Deeper Learning is applying skills across content areas in order to produce something of use,” he explains. “It’s seeing the connections between disciplines, how they support each other, looking at the big question and using skills and knowledge to do something with it.”
Falk says it’s fostering in students that they are responsible for finding information and figuring things out and the teacher is there to help.
Collaborating with Biology Teacher Gregg Kaneko, Falks says it all starts with a question.
“This year, we’re asking, ‘what is an estuary?’” he explains. “We don’t know where that will take us, but students know they’ll have to learn something new. Sometimes it means I have to learn something new.”
The question has led students to design lures to target invasive species at Windward Oʻahu’s Heʻeia Fishpond. Their learning journey has uncovered topics such as history, governance and working with government and private sectors.
“It’s a very dynamic process. It’s not about memorizing the multiplication table, but applying it to figure out how many pieces of wood you’ll need so you can put the drywall in,” Falk explains. “It’s about critical thinking and that’s where the teacher goes from being ‘the sage on the stage’ to ‘the guide on the side.’”
Building Empathy and Empowerment
Jennifer Manuel, 1st/2nd grade multiage teacher, describes her role as ‘the guide on the side’ or facilitator for her 1st and 2nd grade student-driven discussions.
“We are engaged together. Their voices are being heard and what they say has value and meaning,” she explains. “It’s empowering for them to see the value of learning, collaborating, sharing ideas and just knowing that they can make connections with the world around them. It creates the thinkers that we want and need in our society today.”
This year, the topic is “movement” – a big conceptual idea for students ranging in age from six to eight years old.
“They realized that movement connects us all and we categorized the different types of movements,” says Manuel. “We spent about a month and a half studying water in Hawaiʻi from aquifers to water sheds. That got us to the movement of water which naturally led us to the Red Hill water issue.”
In November 2021, a fuel leak at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility contaminated drinking water for thousands of households on or near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam resulting in community outrage.
The topic led to “what is a social movement?”
“That’s a big concept to grasp, but we began talking about what it takes to bring change, having a voice and media influences,” says Kelly Quiban, 1st/2nd grade multiage teacher. “Students, no matter their age, come with personal experiences. Some know a lot about certain things that others don’t. We make observations together and they learn from one another.”
As part of understanding the concept of social justice movements, students interviewed Nimitz Elementary School students affected by the Red Hill Water crisis. They subsequently wrote letters to President Joe Biden about why they believed everyone has the right to fresh water.
“In this case, (the) inquiry (process) built empathy and empowered our children to understand that community movements are of value,” says Manuel.
Critical Thinking and Making Deeper Connections
Eighth-grader Makenna Leong came to Mid-Pacific in the 3rd grade after living abroad with her family in Hong Kong and Singapore.
“My mom (Darcie Iki ’88) is an alumna and I applied to many different schools, but I’ve developed a liking to the way we learn through Deeper Learning,” explains Leong. “It challenges us to work harder and make deeper connections and not just forgetting what you memorized after you take a test. You’re forced to think critically and these skills can later apply to college or a job.”
In a recent project facilitated by Social Studies Teacher Cyrus Oh Young and Language Arts Teacher Carly Ibara, Leong says she studied discrimination against Japanese-American soldiers in World War II.
“The final assignment was to write a letter from the perspective of someone involved. I chose to write a letter from a 442nd soldier to Congress about how Japanese-Americans were mistreated. It was a testimony to show how people were overlooking this traumatic experience,” she explains. “We later got together with another class that was studying women’s suffrage and discrimination against plantation workers and we were tasked to find commonalities in injustices that happened for all. We shared what we learned through presentations and summaries.”
Ibara says by the time students reach the 8th grade, and the study of Humanities is in full swing, students’ critical thinking skills are rapidly developing.
“We’re studying civil rights and focusing on persuasive writing,” she explains. “They start asking good questions that I encourage them to answer on their own. We’re talking about issues such as LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter and segregation.”
Fostering critical thinking skills leads to problem solving.
Eighth-grader Leilani Williamson says she particularly enjoys her Design Thinking class taught by Technology Teacher Jana Kaopuiki because of the opportunities to craft solutions.
“We are given a task to come up with a solution to a problem, for instance, the problem being a drought affecting an African village,” explains Williamson. “In this instance, villagers were retrieving buckets of water from a lake about a mile away from their village. We work together and share ideas for potential solutions and discuss whether our solutions might work or potentially create additional problems. In the end, it’s not about the solution, but thinking critically and working through the process of problem solving.”
According to High School Social Studies Teacher Kaile Berlenbach, that process doesn’t just happen.
Berlenbach, who teaches Global Politics as part of Mid-Pacific’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, was introduced to project-based learning, the predecessor to Deeper Learning, while pursuing a master’s degree in Secondary Education at Hawaiʻi Pacific University.
“The shift toward project-based learning was happening at the time and it was an ‘a-ha!’ moment that resonated with me,” she recalls. “I think back to college and high school where I questioned the legitimacy of everything. I was memorizing things and felt like a fraud. I would forget everything as soon as the exam was over.”
Berlenbach says coming to teach at Mid-Pacific in 2016 was a dream-come-true.
“It was an interesting time. Social Studies was going through a shift in curriculum from traditional survey to inquiry-based classes. I was part of a team of department members who had the opportunity to design our new U.S. history curriculum. It was progressive, moving and evolving.”
Today, Berlenbach is a strong proponent of the socratic seminar method in her classroom which uses formal discussion in which the facilitator asks open-ended questions.
“I pose a question and students use a resource, whether it’s a document or article to start talking about the issue,” she explains. “It’s heavily discussion-oriented and I see them making connections in real time. I see their passion in these discussions.”
Berlenbach says students begin to request to discuss certain topics, most recently the events involving Russia and Ukraine. Last year, discussions revolved around the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Political issues are all around us – from school lunches to sex education in schools,” she says. “As a teacher, my favorite days are watching them prepare, come in with knowledge, and build off of each other’s ideas, collaborating and hearing them empower each other, saying, ‘yes, yes, you got this.’”
High School Human Anatomy and Biology Teacher Michael Valentine, says Deeper Learning keeps students engaged when facing times where their motivation may be challenged.
While weaving in stories of his personal struggles as a student and what he learned from those struggles, Valentine sees Deeper Learning as empowerment.
“The question is, can you believe you’re capable enough to think of something that no one has thought of before?” queries Valentine. “We make our own anatomy books. They pick an area of interest, come up with a mechanical idea to aid someone with some sort of ailment. Their hypothetical idea doesn’t have to work but they need to show an understanding of the topic in order to come up with a possible solution.”
Valentine’s students have envisioned solutions including ideas to combine an intrauterine device with an EpiPen to help someone with fatal allergic reactions, to a 3D model designed to help a paraplegic by reestablishing the neural network. A neurologist got wind of the latter and came to talk to the student about his idea.
“It’s all about the idea, not about putting it into effect,” explains Valentine. “In my class, it’s OK to not do OK. Failure is the ultimate way to learn. I tell them, ‘let’s grow from this.’”
One of Valentine’s students, Elias Heshiki ʻ23, a junior, says he’s learning a lot about himself in the process.
“I found it fascinating when we dissected pigs and rats,” explains Heshiki. “We were able to see the lungs, liver and other organs and how they connect. To be able to see what’s inside helped me to understand my own body. For instance, what helps you heal when you have a cut and how you digest your food. Hands-on learning has helped me to better understand how things work.”
Junior Raiden Nakagawa ʻ23 says Mid-Pacific’s Deeper Learning philosophy is a good fit for him.
“I’m a more visual learner and Deeper Learning seems to cater to different learning styles,” says Nakagawa, who came to Mid-Pacific in the 7th grade from another private school. “I’m more engaged here, I’m learning to think and I feel like I’m preparing for life beyond high school.”
Application to the Arts
Mid-Pacific is a school with a reputation as Hawaiʻi’s leader in the arts with a faculty of professional performers to back up that claim.
Dance Teacher Charlaine Katsuyoshi, who performed professionally prior to coming to Mid-Pacific, says ballet training always starts with the plié, the familiar bending of the knees and an old and codified method based on tradition.
But there’s a Deeper Learning aspect to art beyond the training of a dancer’s muscles.
“You take the skills, technique, strength and apply it to give students opportunities to find their voices as artists,” she explains. “You provide opportunities to perform and create – taking the steps and using them to get their voices heard.”
As an example, Katsuyoshi shares that her higher level classes are learning a piece of choreography that she learned as a professional dancer.
“This piece called Echad Mi Yodea was choreographed in 1990 by Israeli artist, Ohad Naharin. It met controversy in 2018 when choreographers were accused of plagiarizing Naharin’s work at the Country Music Awards,” she explains. “I brought that conversation into the classroom for a discussion on plagiarism and what constitutes an original piece. While teaching them the piece, I asked them to research Ohad Naharin as well as discuss why they feel this piece might be controversial not only because of the plagiarism issue, but why it might be controversial in the country of Israel.”
Katsuyoshi says making connections to other things in the world expands their scope.
“It helps them as dancers to understand these connections when interpreting a piece,” she says. “We try to open up the world for them.”
Making a Difference
Mid-Pacific’s commitment to Deeper Learning reaches far beyond Wailele, the grounds that Mid-Pacific sits on, and is personified by Kupu Hou Academy.
The namesake of Kupu Hou Academy is inspired by the indigenous Hawaiian kupukupu fern, a plant so resilient that it is often the first life to sprout on barren lava fields. Kupu hou means “to sprout anew.” The name captures the spirit and mission of the academy, which empowers teachers through the development of training opportunities for Deeper Learning.
Kupu Hou Academy Director Mark Hines says Mid-Pacific is committed to understanding and sharing this understanding of how Deeper Learning works.
“Schools will see the impact that Deeper Learning has on all children and the ability to see into their future. As more schools realize the goal of education is not a series of checked boxes and separate curricula that’s not attached to real learning, education will be more equitable across socio-economic, racial and gender backgrounds. It will empower all learners.”
Hines says it’s ultimately about “making good people.”
“That’s often lost in education. What’s the use of being smart without empathy or seeking to do good in the world?” asks Hines. When we do Deeper Learning work, students develop the term ‘agency.’ It’s about knowing they have what it takes to make a difference in the world.”
Turnbull says Mid-Pacific is committed to giving every student the skills necessary to create their own path in the new economy, because anything less would be insufficient.
“Try to reflect on the speed of change in the last five years. Then imagine the changes that will occur when our current class of kindergarteners graduate in the year 2035,” ponders Turnbull. “If you transfer yourself 13 years into the future, would you want to work beside someone who was trained using traditional educational methods, or someone who grew up in a Deeper Learning environment and graduated ‘world-ready?’”