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December is a harried time in schools. There is a constant rush to finish all the ‘one last’ things before the end of the semester. For many, this is coupled with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. The weather turns colder; we all get tired. And, there is the ever-large shadow of final exams on the horizon.

But, just for a moment, I’d like you to take a moment and think of something you really know, something you feel you deeply understand. It can be as complex as finding the mass of a black hole, or as simple as folding the best paper airplane. Once you’ve thought of it, ask yourself two questions:

How did you come to that deep understanding?

And how did you know when you had arrived at it?

I was most recently asked these questions in a presentation by Dr. Kevin Mattingley, a Professor of Education in the Klingenstein Center of the Teachers College of Columbia University. My answer? The thing of which I thought I had a deep understanding?

Playing the trumpet.

Regardless of how different your answer is from mine, Mattingley asserts that all our experiences of deep understanding will have six traits in common.

One. Our learning will have come from spaced practice over time, meaning we most likely didn’t pick this up in a day or two, or by cramming at the last minute. For me, this was practicing at home, and then at college, over and over again until I got something right.

Two. We were motivated to pursue this learning. We had a purpose or an interest or a need. Many students at University can tell you that I am very proud of being a ‘band geek.’ Band was where I found most of my friends throughout school. It’s where I had fun, and that shared camaraderie and enjoyment propelled me to learn more.

Three. We received feedback on our learning that was actionable and timely. When my mother would drive me to trumpet lessons in middle school, I’d sit for an hour with my instructor. I’d play a few measures, he’d comment on my tone or missed accidentals, and I’d be asked to play again. The cycle was iterative and the feedback instanteous.

Four. We sought out models of success and perfection. I would listen to the music of great trumpet players and try to imitate them. In this way, I was internalizing my instructor’s feedback. I could begin to self-assess when I played a wrong note or when my tone didn’t fit with the music.

Five. We were assessed on our performance. It wasn’t enough that I could read the notes or tell you the fingerings; I had to be able to create the sound. I had to play. That’s what my evaluation was based on.

Six. We struggled. There was challenge at the edge of our competency, and there likely still is. I had to work at playing the trumpet, and I still do. But I know how to struggle with it. I know what to listen for and how to judge what I am doing. That’s how I know I really understand it.

These traits of deep understanding can also apply to how a student achieves mastery of a lesson or subject in school. And if we know that this level of deep understanding is the ultimate goal for all students in our classes, what University High School can focus on is making space for these six traits across the curriculum.

What that means for our curriculum and our school structure is yet to be seen, as our work surrounding teaching and learning, funded by the E.E. Ford Fellows Program, continues. We can be sure, however, that as we chart a course forward for our school, helping our students achieve deep understanding is the idea that will guide us.