XQ Design Principle: Meaningful, Engaged Learning

Transforming high school is hard work. The task can feel overwhelming and it can be hard…

By Mary Ryerse

Transforming high school is hard work. The task can feel overwhelming and it can be hard to figure out exactly where or how to start. For XQ schools, the journey to a new paradigm starts with a set of six design principles. These guide everything from school culture to how students and teachers use technology to the kinds of relationships among staff and with students at the school. Taken together, these principles are the foundation of the transformed high school experience that students need to thrive in school and beyond. 

Central to the principles is a commitment to meaningful, engaged learning—which encompasses curriculum, assessment, student agency, and even the structure of the school day. When applied with fidelity, meaningful, engaged learning helps students make connections between disciplines, solve real problems, and grow as learners and people. 

Let’s dive into meaningful, engaged learning.

What is meaningful, engaged learning?

When students work together on a documentary addressing gun violence in their community, like this one created by students at Iowa Big in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that’s meaningful, engaged, learning. When educators incorporate real-world, interdisciplinary learning experiences to their practice, they enable students to develop and apply deep content knowledge and complex skills. 


Principles in Practice: Start making change today with the XQ Design Principles rubric.


XQ schools across the country approach transforming a traditional “factory model” high school education into something that students can drive themselves differently—yet all XQ schools are still grounded by rigorous academic standards and expectations. Creating a sense of belonging is a necessary step in making students feel motivated, welcomed, and valued. A strong sense of community can encourage students to participate in class, determine their level of engagement, and even predict their learning outcomes. By asking students to lead their own learning and make decisions relating to the material they study, how projects are run, and so on, research shows we can boost their engagement and spark their motivation. 

Despite what many thought in the past, high school is not too late. New research shows that the human brain continues to develop significantly during the adolescent years. Teenage brains are primed to learn, so let’s make sure high schools are a place where young people can grow into original thinkers, generous collaborators, and learners for life.

Students today need to become learners for life—engaged and practiced as curious, self-directed learners. Research tells us that young people learn through the combination of  what they encounter as learners, through curriculum, relationships, and challenges and supports; what they do as learners, through the active commitment of themselves in producing and persevering;  and, importantly, how they make  meaning of those experiences.  Designing learning experiences that connect to student interests powers these elements, builds motivation, and deepens learning and skills for success in life. 

“We want students to take what they’re learning in the classroom and see the real-world possibilities. We want them to expand their sense of what they’re capable of accomplishing.”

Lillian Hsu, Founding Principal, Latitude High School

Meaningful, engaged learning design includes these features: 

  • Instruction is flexible & interdisciplinary: These learning experiences ask students to combine knowledge and concepts from different disciplines to create deeper understanding and solve real problems collaboratively.
  • Learning experiences are rigorous: Meaningful, engaged learning is built on strong curriculum and pedagogical understanding. Teachers work closely with students to ensure they are gaining foundational knowledge and skills with deep understanding  through these experiences. 
  • School is structured for deeper learning: Teachers apply instructional techniques to ensure that students experience the sustained, challenging learning, or cognitive lift, required for lasting learning. 
  • Student progress is regularly monitored: Students and teachers alike have regular access to real-time data on student progress from formal and informal assessments. They use this information to make modifications to ensure that students are challenged and supported. 
  • Students learn about themselves as learners: Adults in the learning environment,  whether in the classroom or beyond school walls, support students in developing metacognitive skills such as positive self-concept and realistic self-appraisal, and in fostering positive relationships necessary for learning. Students regularly reflect on their academic and social-emotional learning.

What are the types of meaningful, engaged learning?

“Students have been involved at almost every step of the design process. We learned early on that if you make decisions without the voice of your students, you might as well stop where you are.”

Sunny Dawn Summers, School Leader, New Harmony High

There are myriad approaches that can help create the conditions for meaningful, engaged learning. Here are a some examples: 

  • Student-centered learning works by connecting students’ interests with the things they learn in school. At its core, student-centered learning shows what high schoolers can do when they feel fully vested and engaged in their education.
  • Project-based learning helps students tackle complex academic content while building real-world skills like critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, and project management. Working on projects is how we function in the real world—in both our personal and professional lives—and that’s why project-based learning is becoming increasingly popular in education. 
  • Inquiry-based learning taps into the curiosity of students by using the scientific method to help students learn while developing critical thinking skills. Inquiry-based learning promotes engagement and experimentation. 
  • Interdisciplinary teaching & learning integrates different aspects of more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question, or topic. Interdisciplinary learning empowers students to explore different perspectives and views. 

What does meaningful, engaged Learning look like in action?

“Círculos is not your typical high school. We get to take dual-enrollment classes. They get difficult, but I like challenging myself. A lot of the partnerships help us to know we have other people out there in the community who are willing to support us or guide us.”

Andres Medina, 12th grader, Círculos

XQ schools make meaningful, engaged learning a reality through different approaches. Here are just a few samples.

Rivers and trees and bacteria aren’t just textbook chapters in Nikki Wallace’s environmental science class at Crosstown High. Her students explore local parks and rivers and even their own backyards, taking the lessons they’ve learned in the (virtual) classroom and applying them to the real-world outside their windows. Learn more about her project-based learning lessons that reach far beyond the classroom and find out what students thought about this approach.

Brooklyn LAB student Tiara runs her own modeling agency, where she helps young and aspiring models book assignments with brands like Ultra Mobile and trending Instagram boutiques. In 2021, she applied her skills—and learned new ones—through LAB’s internship program, “Diversified Occupations.” For her internship at a Brooklyn-based digital marketing agency, she created TikTok videos and developed a social media strategy to help the agency attract more Gen Z consumers. Learn more about internships as an approach to meaningful, engaged learning at Brooklyn LAB. Internships like these are a great approach to student-centered learning that leads with student interests! 

New Harmony High 11th graders worked with 826 New Orleans on an interdisciplinary storytelling project, with podcasts centered around a memorable time in students’ lives as part of 826 New Orleans’ “Me in This Moment” project. Check out how young writers at New Harmony also used storytelling to explore climate change.

11th graders at Círculos (Santa Ana, CA) created TedTalks highlighting stories of resilience and activism during the COVID-19 pandemic. eEngaginge with Chuck Ware of the UCLA Landscape Architecture program, Circulos students also got the opportunity to learn about the field of landscape architecture and how social justice, equity, public health, community, and mobility can be enhanced through great design. Now that’s interdisciplinary learning in action! In fact, this is just one of the many ways project-based learning powers engagement at Círculos.

Latitude High School 9th grader Ava co-produced a story for KQED’s Youth Takeover about “period poverty” (lack of access to menstrual products). She was originally connected to the local NPR affiliate, KQED, through projects in humanities class, and this year, she will continue working with KQED as a member of their Youth Advisory Board. It’s hard for learning not to be meaningful and engaging when the whole city is your classroom and learning is truly student-centered.


How can educators get started with meaningful, engaged learning?

“Working at Furr High School has made me more aware of environmental justice versus environmental injustice. It’s made me want to be more involved in my own personal community and the school community because of where we are located and how we can help our students be more aware of their own environmental impact.”

Sarah Taylor, Science Department Chair, Furr High School 

Creating an environment where meaningful, engaged learning happens every day takes intention and planning. Check out how teachers at XQ Schools around the country have embraced this challenge.

As you get started, keep these tips in mind: 

  1. Check your mindset. Are you setting up students to be learners for life? Are you fostering and modeling a growth mindset in your school community?
  2. Pursue understanding. Think of your students as people in pursuit of information and understanding, and center your teaching experiences around that pursuit. Give them permission to question the world, encourage them to lead change, and help them find their voice. 
  3. Align milestones and assessments. Ensure rigor by using college and career readiness standards to ground the work your students do. Line up project milestones and assessment opportunities to the standards to give students a holistic view of their progress. Make sure students have opportunities to reflect on their learning and growth.
  4. Infuse interdisciplinary opportunities. Meaningful, Engaged Learning asks students to see how disciplines intersect. Look for ways to partner with other educators and organizations in your community to bring learning to life, in all its complexity. 

Rethink Your High School Today

We created the XQ Design Principles Rubric to support the long-term, iterative work of continuous improvement. Developed in partnership with XQ schools and the improvement experts at Springpoint, the rubric helps ambitious high schools understand where they are on the journey to excellence—and how to take practical steps to achieve their goals. 

Inside the rubric, teams can review a detailed set of “dimensions of practice” indicators designed to help them place their schools on a developmental scale (from emerging to sustained), picture what success could look like for their school, and chart a path to get there.

Currently a work in progress, the XQ Design Principles Rubric will be further developed in 2022 before being translated into a fully digital format. 

Learn more. 

Explore the other XQ Design Principles.

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