Justin Wells: Transforming Schools

Jun 6, 2015 by

Justin Wells

Justin Wells

An Interview with Justin Wells: Transforming Schools

Michael F. Shaughnessy

 1) First of all, tell us about your education and experience and training and background.

I taught English for ten years at the high school and middle school level in both public and independent schools. I was a founding faculty member of Envision Schools, a small group of charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area rooted in project-based learning, where I led teacher teams in the design and implementation of semester-long, multi-disciplinary projects that drew recognition, media coverage, and research attention from ABC News, KQED, Stanford University, the Oracle Education Foundation, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. For two years, I served as the associate research director for performance assessment at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), where, among other projects, I designed prototype performance tasks for Common Core–aligned tests. Now I am back with Envision, a consultant for Envision Learning Partners, helping non-Envision schools and districts implement deeper learning for their students.

I serve on the board of directors for the Buck Institute of Education. I earned my bachelor’s at Dartmouth and my master’s in education from UC Berkeley.

2)   Now, a question that I find myself asking so called “education experts” more and more—and that is—how many years have you actually taught-? How long have you actually been in the classroom?

So far, 10 years of teaching English in the classroom: 7 in high school, 3 in middle school.

3)    How does deeper learning work when a student is not willing to participate?

One of deeper learning’s raisons d’être is to get more students to participate in their education, which is why deeper learning insists on making learning engaging and building strong relationship with students. As a teacher, I have been able to reach far more of my students through pedagogies associated with deeper learning—including PBL and portfolio-based assessment—than I could through a stand-and-deliver, one-size-fits-all curriculum.

Do I reach all my students through deeper learning? Sadly, no. How does deeper learning work for them? It doesn’t. But even for these students, deeper learning can sows seeds that germinate years later. In the book, we tell the story of Kyle Zunino, a student who didn’t engage and ultimately dropped out of an Envision school. Yet on Facebook, Kyle emerged as one of Envision’s most impassioned fans. He says that the things deeper learning gave him in high school—chief among them, respect—were vital to his later intellectual awakening, an inspiring story that recently climaxed with Kyle’s graduation from UC Berkeley.

4)     How do teachers involved in deeper learning classrooms differentiate for students with special needs?

Many of the techniques we associate with deeper learning—for example, inquiry-based learning and portfolio-based assessment—exemplify what should be everybody’s definition of differentiation: that is, allowing learners options in how they demonstrate what they know and can do. Regrettably, what passes for differentiation for too many special needs students is either extra support outside of class and/or a tacit lowering of standards. Deeper learning tries not only to live up to the true meaning of differentiation but also to expand its mandate to all students, not just those with special needs.

5)     How can the idea of deeper learning curriculum be transferred to public schools with larger class sizes and teachers who do not know or understand how to use it in their classrooms?

Currently, my job at Envision Learning Partners (ELP) is to help schools, mostly public district schools, transform themselves into places of deeper learning. I have worked with schools in Los Angeles, Sacramento, the Bay Area, Hawaii, and Detroit, a range wide enough that I know for sure that deeper learning, as practiced by Envision and described in our book, is transferable to schools everywhere.

Based on this experience, I would say that deeper learning’s main challenge is not class size but school size. The bigger the school, the harder it is to make the cultural and structural changes that we discuss in our book. Some large schools have dealt with this by dividing into smaller learning communities.

A fundamental tenet of deeper learning is that teachers must collaborate, regularly and authentically. While not minimizing the challenge of this, we believe that collaboration is the most effective way to build teachers’ capacity. I learned how to teach high-quality PBL, for example, because my first principal, Bob Lenz, required and enabled my colleagues and me to collaborate on designing and implementing projects.

6)      The book mentions that content is important only because it is a means to an end for understanding.  Does the deeper learning curriculum have specific content that must be learned?  How can there be deeper learning without specific, high-quality content?

Take out the word “only,” and we have a sentence that better expresses our view: “Content is important because it is a means to an end for understanding.” Which then answers your last question: There cannot be deeper learning without specific, high quality content.

What specific content? That question is generally answered by the relevant standards, whether Common Core, or Next Gen Science, or the National Standards for Foreign Language Education, etc. Significantly, standards in every field are being rewritten or replaced, listing fewer facts to know and elaborating on what skills to master. We are not the only ones challenging the traditional notion of content.

7)     The graduate profile is an important part of your plan to transform schools.  What kind of college experience should students be ready for? Different schools (Ivy League vs. Community College) have very different expectations. Where are students headed?  Does this model meet the college readiness needs of all students?

Students should be ready for a baccalaureate program at their state university, and a high school’s graduate profile should align accordingly. Sadly, the evidence is overwhelming that community college is a dead end rather than a road to opportunity, particularly for students from low-income families who are the first in their families to go to college (the students we serve at Envision).

Of course, the choice of what to do after high school belongs to the student. But without an acceptance to a 4-year college, we believe that student is not getting to choose.

8)     How do you assess the whole educational organization- self, classroom, school, district, community – to ensure it is “holonomous”, or consistent throughout?

It begins by knowing what needs to be assessed. We advocate that the educational organization develop a graduate or learner profile, distilling the organization’s purpose and practice into a measurable set of desired outcomes. The graduate profile should then guide the design of the organization at every level, not just for learners, but also for those who serve the learners. If, for example, the graduate profile says that it is important for students to know how to collaborate, then it is equally important for teachers and staff members to collaborate. In the book, we explain why school leaders are uniquely positioned to monitor their organization’s “holonomy.” They must create structures that require and support regular reflection and self-assessment and that keep the graduate profile in focus at every level of the organization. Such leadership requires both vision and courage.

9)     You mention that coaching a sports team is much like teaching in PBL. How do we get teachers to understand that students (special education and regular education) need perseverance to be successful?

The best way to get teachers to understand the power of perseverance is for them to see it firsthand. At Envision, it’s our portfolio-defense system where this happens. In order to graduate, as well as to pass into 11th grade, our students must assemble and present evidence of their readiness through a Ph.D.-style defense. If they do not pass this rigorous challenge, they must make revisions and resubmit, and keep resubmitting until they meet the standard. Over 30% of our students “fail” their first attempt.

Much is made of the transformative effect that portfolio-defense has on the students. Underestimated is the powerful effect it has on the culture of teaching. Our teachers have come to agree that the students who don’t pass on their first attempt are in fact the fortunate ones; what they learn by persisting and maturing through the failure pays off down the line. And because this reframing of failure is modeled so publicly and systemically by the portfolio defenses, our teachers, convinced of its power, tend to recreate similar cycles of failure and redemption back in the day-to-day of their classrooms, where school culture lives. I’ve seen this both at our schools and at the district public schools where I consult.

10)     Many teachers are not “highly qualified” in the public school setting and may not have the knowledge about different theories or even about the subject they are teaching. How are districts supposed to implement project based learning when teachers may not have the background knowledge that other teachers have?

To develop the capacity of teachers to do PBL, districts must invest in professional development for PBL. And as with any desired learning outcome, success depends on focus and stick-to-itiveness. If it’s an isolated PD day, crowded among other district initiatives, nothing will come of it. If it’s a district priority, a multi-year commitment, with sustained expectations for school-wide project exhibitions and other evidence that PBL is happening, then PBL will happen.

The fact that teachers vary in their skill and knowledge of subject matter is no more of a challenge to PBL than to any other pedagogy, including lecture-based instruction. If anything, PBL can mitigate unevenness in teaching quality, because of PBL’s tendency toward collaborative, multi-disciplinary projects where teachers are designing, implementing, and learning with each other. My best professional development as a young teacher was working at a PBL school that required me to collaborate with more experienced teachers.

11)     Is there any research to suggest that project based learning works where there were practical significant outcomes and gains, outside of the Envision school?

There has been interesting work in recent years on developing project-based curriculum for preparing students for AP tests, which allows comparing scores with control groups that did not prepare with PBL. Early results are promising; students have scored as well and often better on the A.P. exams compared with classmates in the experiment’s control schools that use a lecture-heavy approach. Lucas Education Research will be expanding the work:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00220272.2011.584561

12)  Are you a supporter of only using performance-based assessment in schools? If so, how would we indicate if someone is “ready” for life after high school? If not, how can we use assessment in a meaningful way to further understand how a child is doing in academics and how they might do in life?

I would have no problem with using only performance-based assessment in schools, because the right performance assessments can tell us everything we need to know about our learners. But I also see no reason to be dogmatic about it. Non-performance assessment measures certain things accurately and efficiently. A blend of both is almost always common sense. The process for earning a driver’s license is an oft-cited example: A multiple-choice test works fine for measuring one’s knowledge of traffic laws; a performance assessment is necessary for evaluating the driver’s skill.

Problem is, our education system has long been relying on non-performance assessments to make claims about things that only performance assessment can measure. Take research skills, which all of us, not least of which the authors of the Common Core, agree are vital to success after high school. Multiple-choice can’t measure research skills. This is why the testing companies (kicking and screaming I might add) have had to add performance assessment components to the new Common Core–aligned standardized tests. (While at Stanford, I worked on the team that designed the performance assessments for Smarter Balanced.)

So, given what we want to know, performance assessment is absolutely necessary and, encouragingly, looks like it’s here to stay. What our book argues is that schools and districts must now design themselves around a coherent, school-wide set of performance assessments, a system that is more comprehensive, embedded, and rigorous than what the standardized tests offer. In attempting to measure “readiness” for life after school, such a system helps everyone, especially the student, understand what that readiness means and how to work toward it.

13)  How does project based learning enhance the ability for all students to be successful in college?

Recently, Nicole Smovzh, an Envision alum now attending UC Santa Barbara, joined Bob and me for a book event, to offer a student’s perspective on deeper learning in general and the Envision model in particular. According to Nicole, the success of her first year in college has hinged on her project management skills, her confidence in establishing relationships with professors, her collaboration with study groups, and her ability to make presentations, a frequent demand even in large survey courses. She says she learned these skills through her high school projects and her portfolio-defense experiences, noting proudly that she is a more confident public speaker than most of her middle class peers.

Nicole’s experience reminds us that college itself is a multi-year project, and one that is getting increasingly complex in our day and age. The perception that college is a place where you sit and take lecture notes is crumbling into myth.

And what comes after college these days? More projects. Leah Pyron, one of our twenty-something alums, observes that almost every job posting she comes across includes the term “project-based.”

14) Increasingly it seems that there are more and more students with special needs in the classroom–emotional needs, health needs, vision/hearing/speech, as well as attentional needs. Do teachers need additional training to work with kids with Learning Disabilties, attention Deficit Disorders and English Language Learners?

Yes, they do.

15) What have we neglected to ask?

What will happen to our students if our schools do not become places of deeper learning?

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Excellent interview. I look forward to reading his book. I particularly liked:
    “If anything, PBL can mitigate unevenness in teaching quality, because of PBL’s tendency toward collaborative, multi-disciplinary projects where teachers are designing, implementing, and learning with each other. My best professional development as a young teacher was working at a PBL school that required me to collaborate with more experienced teachers.”

    To double down on pursuing this path, high schools would be well served to look for alternatives to their traditional factory model design. The Fast Break program is a possible template. It features project-based learning yet requires teachers to collaborate in real time and not just after school. Deeper learning occurs through its whole brain approach that integrates emotional intelligence training and career planning with the development of basic skills. A student’s “portfolio defense” is his/her career speech, a visually-aided oral defense of the individual’s career plan. For further information, see

    http://www.educationviews.org/program-handle-crisis-competence/ – describes Fast Break from a student perspective

    http://www.educationviews.org/annual-march-madness-schools-learn/ – describes Fast Break’s team approach

    For analysis of why the factory model cannot do better than it has, particularly for at-risk youth from low-income backgrounds, and why community college is a “dead end” for many, see

    http://educationviews.org/why-college-developmental-education-is-failing-america/ same issues in high schools, adult literacy and workforce development programs

  2. Avatar

    Excellent interview. I look forward to reading his book. I particularly liked:
    “If anything, PBL can mitigate unevenness in teaching quality, because of PBL’s tendency toward collaborative, multi-disciplinary projects where teachers are designing, implementing, and learning with each other. My best professional development as a young teacher was working at a PBL school that required me to collaborate with more experienced teachers.”

    To double down on pursuing this path, high schools would be well served to look for alternatives to their traditional factory model design. The Fast Break program is a possible template. It features project-based learning (PBL)yet requires teachers to collaborate in real time and not just after school. Deeper learning occurs through its whole brain approach that integrates emotional intelligence training and career planning with the development of basic skills. A student’s “portfolio defense” is his/her career speech, a visually-aided oral defense of the individual’s career plan. For further information, see

    http://www.educationviews.org/program-handle-crisis-competence/ – describes Fast Break from a student perspective

    http://www.educationviews.org/annual-march-madness-schools-learn/- describes Fast Break’s team approach

    For analysis of why the factory model cannot do better than it has for at-risk youth from low-income backgrounds, and why community college is a “dead end” for many of these youth, see
    http://educationviews.org/why-college-developmental-education-is-failing-america/ same issues in high schools, adult literacy and workforce development programs

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