December 2, 2019

Getting Started with Deeper Learning

Part 1 of the Deeper Learning Series

This is the first post in a new 4-part EdTechTeacher series focused on Deeper Learning. 

How might educators and school leaders design experiences that spark and sustain deeper student learning?  As an unprecedented emphasis on deeper learning has developed across the nation, we are tackling this complex challenge with a new level of urgency.  Fortunately, new research, frameworks, design resources and practical examples have emerged that can help all of us chart new paths in our own contexts.  In this four part series, we will explore the highest quality research and practical resources out there to help educators design for deeper learning.  

Deeper Learning Competencies and Frameworks

Essential skills and competencies considered part of “deeper learning” typically include critical thinking, creativity, communication, and complex problem solving. Proponents of deeper learning make the case that all learning environments, regardless of the specific innovation or approach, should help build these student competencies so that they are prepared for our rapidly changing world. 

Several organizations have existing frameworks promoting this type of learning, such as the Hewlett Foundation and New Pedagogies for Deeper Learning. For years, educational researchers and authors have also been promoting these skills and dispositions (for example: Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson and Scott McLeod) and most school districts across the nation address these in their vision statements and strategic planning documents. Many schools have also developed “Graduate Profiles” that often include deeper student learning.  Examples of these include the JCPS Backpack of Success Skills and Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Learner Profile.  More information about this can also be found in the free EdX course Envisioning the Graduate of the Future

Why Deeper Learning?

There are several key reasons why deeper learning is emerging as a core theme in schools across the country.  Although not an exhaustive list, below are some of the central reasons why we should focus on fostering deeper learning experiences for all of our students. 

Longstanding Aspirations

As described in Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s comprehensive study “In Search of Deeper Learning,” there have been long standing aspirations for deeper learning.  Some examples include John Dewey’s advocacy for experiential education, Paulo Freire’s opposition to the “banking model,” and modern scholars’ research on “ambitious instruction” that focuses on student reasoning and application of underlying concepts. The theory behind education that leads to deeper learning is not new, but has arguably been sidelined the past few decades for various reasons (which are beyond the scope of this series, but important nonetheless). This resurgence in focus on deeper learning is as much an opportunity to revisit theorists who advocated for this in the past as much as it is a chance to chart a new course in our schools.  

Economic Shifts

Another driver of deeper learning involves the rapidly changing economic realities that our students will soon enter and begin to shape.  The top skills sought by employers in 1970 may have been reading, writing and arithmetic, but that economic reality is long past. The top skills sought by today’s employers are complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. (Source: In Search of Deeper Learning)  How much of our current school system is designed to prepare students for 1970 as opposed to the modern knowledge economy?  This question often leads to uncomfortable discussions about the reality of modern schooling and what changes are needed to make the shift to deeper student learning. 

Studies back up this claim that economic skill sets and demands are shifting.  Research by Levy and Murnane concludes that there is a significant gap growing between demand for routine manual and cognitive tasks (declining rapidly) and those that involve working with new information and solving unstructured problems (increasing rapidly).  Their research points to the following as critical skills for the knowledge economy: 

  • Problem-solving in unique situations
  • Completing non-routine cognitive tasks
  • Acquiring, synthesizing, and communicating new information
  • Collaborating across distance and time

The XQ SuperSchool project helps us visualize this shift through a graphic that highlights the “Old Paradigm” vs. new “Knowledge Economy.”  Their research concludes that agility, diversity, and learning to learn are more important than ever. (Source: XQ Knowledge Module 1)

Relevance and Engagement Gap

In Scott McLeod’s “Different Schools for a Different World,” he challenges the hyperfocus that many education leaders have on the perceived achievement gap. Instead of focusing on which students are not achieving “x” based on a particular high stakes assessment, we should instead be thinking hard about whether “x” is going to actually matter to the lives that learners will live.  He coins this the “relevance gap,” and it is important to consider. Recall from the discussion above about the different skills students will need in the knowledge economy (ex. Creativity, complex communication skills). Are the high-stakes assessments that point to achievement gaps actually measuring these skills? A corollary argument is that if the learning is not relevant to the student experience or lives they will soon live, engagement drops significantly.  It is therefore difficult to achieve deeper learning in any particular area when students are tuned out and lack engagement. (In future posts in this series, we will return to the key role that relevance and authenticity plays in designing deeper learning experiences.) 

The Civic Argument

Another argument laid out by Mehta and Fine is that students now face increasingly complex global problems. (Ex. economic inequality, climate change) They are also coming of age during  technological changes characterized by a “chaotic proliferation of sources of opinion, fact, myth, paranoia, and disinformation.” How will students navigate this rapidly evolving reality of civic life? How can they lead our democratic societies through these complex times?  (Learn more about this theme at moderncivicsproject.org) Engaging in deeper learning, particularly related to these issues, is imperative to prepare citizens for our modern democratic society.  

Designing for Deeper Learning

Now that we’ve explored deeper learning skills and competencies (the “What”) and the reasoning behind a focus on deeper learning (the “Why”), we have a stronger foundation upon which to turn our attention to the “How.”  In our next post in the Deeper Learning series, we will explore several practical and research-based ways to design deeper learning experiences in the classroom. Stay tuned!…

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You can join Tom in California this January for his Deeper Learning Strand at the upcoming EdTeachTeacher Innovation in EDU Event.  Learn more here! EdTechTeacher.org/california2020