How can American high schools move away from rote learning and testing and help students become critical thinkers ready to take on the challenges of modern life?

Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) professor Jal Mehta, Ph.D. ’06, and educator and scholar Sarah Fine, Ed.D. ’17, spent six years researching the issue at 30 U.S. high schools for ideas set forth in their book, “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.”

For their breakthrough research, the pair was awarded the 2020 Grawemeyer Award in Education.

Powerful learning occurs when learners are trying to do something consequential and when they see purpose in what they’re doing,” Mehta and Fine argue in their book. “The core problem is that the way American society organizes schooling does not align very well with what we know about learning.”

To learn most effectively, the research concluded, students must have regular opportunities to gain meaningful knowledge and skills, connect to their learning on a personal level and use it to produce something original.

Mehta and Fine, who observed classrooms for hundreds of hours and interviewed more than 300 students, parents, teachers, and school administrators, also found extracurricular activities and elective classes can offer additional ways for students to experience deep learning.

“High schools often become different places after the final bell,” they said. “We saw students who are passive learners in core classes show real purpose in taking non-required classes, becoming involved in school clubs and pursuing student leadership opportunities.”

Schools should start by slowing down, giving students more choice over what they learn and empowering them to work in subjects that interest them.

The Grawemeyer Awards, based at the University of Louisville, pay tribute to the power of creative ideas, emphasizing the impact that a single idea can have on the world. Five awards are given annually — in music composition, world order, psychology, education, and religion — and each includes a prize of $100,000. The 2020 winners will visit Louisville in April to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

“Mehta and Fine have provided a fresh, in-depth view of learning environments that offers hope for those seeking to create deeper learning in academic settings,” said award director Marion Hambrick.