Defining Deeper Learning: An Ambitious Attempt

Chris Jackson
I was at a conference last week, attending a keynote session, where Susan Cain, author of New York Times bestseller Quiet, used the term “ambivert.” Many in our educational circles may be familiar with this term having read or heard Daniel Pink expounding on the topic, but the word was new to me, even though an online quiz suggests I may be one! But Cain quickly moved the topic along. She gets some slack… speakers only have so much time to make their larger point. But in this setting, and on other recent occasions, it occurred to me how regularly we as educators use terminology within our respective circles that’s often absent in widespread understanding or acceptance of what the words we choose actually mean. Consider conversations you may have had with others. Whether they be inside or outside of your school, your district, even your network, on progressive practices, education reform efforts, problem-based learning, 21st century skills, or—gulp—grit.
Each month we at the CWRA host a monthly Twitter chat with surrounding topics related to critical thinking and college readiness. This upcoming Monday (December 15 at 8:00 PM ET) we’ll tackle defining one of the newer terms to hit the scene: Deeper Learning. In advance of that discussion, which you may access by following the #cwrachat hashtag I’ve asked our panelists to discuss what deeper learning means to them. Their answers:

Process and Outcomes

marc-chunDr. Marc Chun (@hfmarcchun), serves as a Program Officer in The Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program. The program supports several networks all pointed toward instilling important life-long learning skills in their students, classrooms, and schools. Marc has been a vocal proponent of deeper learning practice via Twitter, articles, and even Ted Talks.

In many conversations, we focus on the process aspect of education: are students working on projects or problems, is the classroom flipped so students watch videotaped lectures at home, or perhaps blended in how technology is used in the classroom.

The other half of that conversation is of course to consider the outcomes aspects of education: what are students learning? The National Research Council defined deeper learning as the “process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations.” This is called “transfer.”  The NRC organized the types of 21st century competencies required to do so into three clusters: cognitive (e.g., content, critical thinking and problem solving), interpersonal (collaboration and communication), and intrapersonal (learning how to learn, maintaining academic mindsets).

Ultimately, the goal is to make sure that ALL students – not just those in the honors program – develop these core deeper learning competencies that are required for success in college, career, civic and everyday life.

More on how Hewlett defines these essential deeper learning competencies is available here.

Creating Conditions for Mastery

ColleenColleen Broderick (@collleenbroderic) is ReSchool Colorado’s Chief Learning Designer. ReSchool is an ambitious project—supported by the Donnell-Kay Foundation – designed to re-imagine what a public school education is and what it could look like if one were to design it with the learner and their needs firmly in the center. This project, birthed through a belief that we cannot dramatically improve the current system through incremental changes or added mandates, is well under way for a starting a new statewide system from scratch.

I love how Steven Levy, a school designer with Expeditionary Learning, frames deeper learning by beginning with what it is not: “Deeper Learning is not an exotic new curricular approach that requires big projects.” Instead, he contends, “It is a frame of mind about how to approach all the aspects of school – even the little aspects – in a deeper way.”

At its best, deeper learning is the manifestation of the skills and content mastery that empowers each learner to pursue their own learning pathway and reach their aspirations. The more we learn about how to best support kids, the greater the challenge to retrofit these ideas into the current paradigm. As Jal Mehta points out: “If we want significant improvement, we will need to do at least one of the following: Create new institutions to replace the function of the current ones, expand the boundaries of the work beyond schools, and create an entirely new educational infrastructure around the principles of student-agency and open access to knowledge.”

At Donnell-Kay, we’re wondering why the dialogue surrounding deeper learning resides only at the school or classroom level. We’re looking to shift this conversation to a system level and to cultivate the conditions so every learner has the opportunity to know themselves well – their strengths, needs and personal interests – in an effort to prepare them to intentionally choose from a menu of learning experiences that can unlock options that lead to authentic engagement in work that matters.

We recognize that in order to reach this vision, we need to undertake more fundamental changes to engage all students in productive learning. For us, this begins with a competency-based system, an expanded ecosystem of learning experiences and new forms of assessment and credentialing that honor the many ways in which people learn and document mastery.

Innovations and Deeper Learning

carri-75x75Carri Schneider (@carrischneider) serves as Getting Smart’s Director of Policy and Research and discusses how deeper learning is integral to their education advocacy efforts. Arguably, no other online publication has done more than Getting Smart to shine a spotlight on schools, networks, and leaders that have implemented deeper learning and other progressive practices. As an example, it’s worth checking out their year-end list of  623 Smart People Doing Innovative Work.  

At its core, Getting Smart is an education advocacy organization that is passionate about educational innovation. Our primary interest centers around innovations in teaching and learning that hold promise for improving opportunities for all students. Getting Smart has been interested in how the concept of deeper learning connects to education trends such as personalized learning, blended learning, project-based learning, and competency-based learning.

Tom Vander Ark and I have published four papers and infographics highlighting how these concepts overlap and work together. How Digital Learning Contributes to Deeper Learning identifies ways that digital learning promotes personalized skill building. Deeper Learning For Every Student, Every Day profiles 20 schools that illustrate that deeper learning can happen anywhere. Assessing Deeper Learning outlines key features of performance-based assessment systems needed in deeper learning environments. Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning (developed in collaboration with Karen Cator of Digital Promise) outlines how the role of teachers is changing amid broader shifts to personalized, blended, and deeper learning environment.

We are just kicking off a new project called ‘Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning’ that will explore how these same principles can be applied to Educational Leadership preparation and professional development. We’d love to hear from folks who have something to say on this topic and welcome guest blog contributions about leading in Deeper Learning environments.

Whether deeper learning is just another descriptor for what has been referred to elsewhere as “higher-order thinking,” “21st-century skills” or “skills for success” (a term coming into vogue via the New America Foundation’s recent research), or whether it’s a term that demands to stand on its own bears further discussion. Indeed, many terms we use in education bear further discussion, lest we take for granted that everyone, and perhaps most importantly those immediately outside of our respective education circles, implicitly understands what we’re talking about. We at the CWRA recognize that the practices associated with the definitions of deeper learning described above, those which are often implemented by the types of school with which we partner, often lead toward the development of lifelong learning skills that we know students increasingly need to succeed in the classroom, in college, in their careers, and as citizens. What is “life-long learning,” you ask? Sheesh, we’ll leave that one for another day.
Whether you agree or disagree with these definitions of deeper learning (or even whether or not you think these things need to be defined at all), we welcome your participation in the conversation. Please join me and the profiled panelists for a discussion of deeper learning on Twitter, Monday evening, at 8:00 PM ET. Dive in by following the #cwrachat hashtag.
For more on deeper learning, check out:

Chris Jackson is the Director of the College & Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA). Chris is on twitter at @cjacksonj13.

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Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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