Why do I need to learn THIS?

by Jeff Camp | October 21, 2014 | 2 Comments
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Can "deeper learning" get our kids more excited about school?

As we think about ways to improve our schools, the idea of helping kids see the importance of their school work often comes up. Turns out there are a lot of people working on ways to not only get kids to ask the question "why am I learning this?" but to help them to answer it.

This effort is sometimes called "deeper learning." The people supporting the effort think schools can and should give all students more meaningful learning experiences. They think students should be discovering for themselves why what they learn in school is important and how they can use it to solve problems they care about.

That’s why a number of national philanthropies and education organizations say that schools need to organize classroom instruction differently. They want to see children get first-hand experience applying what they learn to actual tasks in and out of school.

Those organizations, particularly the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Alliance for Excellent Education, are pushing for educators, parents, and students to enrich what schools teach and students learn. They believe that traditional classrooms just aren't set up to effectively motivate today's kids (see Ed100 Lesson 2.6) or prepare them for our hyper-connected, information-driven society. This video explains their point of view. You can also get additional perspective on this topic on Ed100 (see Lessons 1.3 and 1.8).

So what is deeper learning?

The catchphrase deeper learning is short hand (like most education jargon) for a set of learning goals that the Hewlett Foundation and others have organized into three domains: cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal learning. (Yes, I just jumped into the jargon, but bear with me for a moment. I promise it will help you see how going "deeper" might look.)

We are talking about a way to think about learning that's different than academic standards per se. It is more focused on the skill side of the ledger than the knowledge side. That said, proponents of deeper learning emphasize that the Common Core State Standards that California schools are implementing represent important progress toward making deeper learning a reality. (For more about the Common Core see Ed100 Lessons 6.1, 6.3 and 6.4.)

The “cognitive domain” is about cultivating in students a deeper understanding about what they are learning and how they can use it. These deep cognitive skills include learning:

    • how the content kids learn at school relates to the real world; • how to find and use information (think the internet, primary sources, data, etc.); • how to solve problems and think critically; • how to differentiate fact from fiction; and • how to reason about and analyze an issue.

The cognitive domain also includes a dimension called student directed learning. The idea is that students have the chance to think of solutions to practical problems on their own. A familiar example is when students pick a topic they find compelling, plan and complete their own research, and then prepare a presentation or write a paper about it. In the deeper learning context the topic often involves a real world problem that requires genuine research and the student may present what he or she has learned to someone working to address the same problem.

The “interpersonal domain” is about developing students’ ability to work with others, collaborating around a set of goals just as adults do in their work lives and in community projects.

The other aspect of this domain is having students develop their ability to clearly communicate what they know both orally and in writing. For example, they need to learn how to tailor a message for a specific audience—a skill that a lot of adults struggle with, frankly. Further, students need to:

  • develop their ability to communicate about complex topics, including presenting data in ways that are useful and have meaning;
  • both listen to feedback from others, incorporating it into their work, and provide feedback to others in ways that are appropriate and constructive; and
  • create high quality communications by using revisions and going through multiple drafts.

The “intrapersonal domain” is about preparing young people to pursue learning on their own, to develop their self-motivation in school and ultimately in their adult lives. The labels the deeper learning advocates have put on this are “learning to learn” and having an “academic mindset.”

The idea of deeper learning is that liking school shouldn't be just a happy accident for some kids...

Students who are learning to learn pay attention to their own learning process: setting goals, tracking their progress, being aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and recognizing when they need help are just some examples. The goal is to also have students develop positive behaviors around learning such as seeking out information on their own, staying focused, caring about the quality of their work, and looking for ways to learn material they at first find challenging.

When the experts talk about students having an academic mindset they are largely talking about the characteristics you find in kids who “like school.” They feel they belong in a community of learners, they trust their own capacity to learn, they’re motivated to put in the necessary time and effort, and they see a value in what they’re learning. The idea of deeper learning is that liking school shouldn't be just a happy accident for some kids but an objective for all kids and one that schools can actively pursue.

Can this really be done?

As you were reading through the description of all the things that deeper learning means, were you also thinking “This is a pipe dream. What school could possibly accomplish all this for all kids?”

Admittedly it’s ambitious, but in my view it is a worthwhile vision. What I find exciting is that there are schools that are reorganizing themselves based on that ambition. A new report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) documents their progress.

The AIR report outlines how some high schools are changing in order to provide students and teachers more opportunities to develop these deeper learning competencies. They are giving students more opportunities to participate in project-based learning, internships, collaborative group work, and cumulative assignments. I know, I know – more jargon. Here are some quick definitions. Project-based learning integrates knowing and doing. Students learn the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve real problems and produce results that matter. At the high school level, internships generally give students work experience that is tied to what they are learning in class. Collaborative group work is about having students work in groups but also about teaching them how to collaborate well, as the title of this article implies: G-R-O-U-P-W-O-R-K Doesn't Spell Collaboration. Cumulative assignments involve having students complete a series of tasks that build toward a substantive finished product, with the student generally getting feedback (and perhaps grades) along the way.

You might also want to watch this Learning Matters video and as you do, see if you can identify how the various activities at this school map back to the deeper learning descriptions above and to these changes in the classroom.

If you want to see more of this kind of schooling in action, and learn about 10 networks of schools that have received funding to support this kind of change, check out the organizations that are part of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning initiative.

Feeling skeptical? Of course there are critiques of deeper learning, including this article by Tom Loveless, who is most concerned about whether students will get enough exposure to core knowledge. Or read this more recent EdWeek blog which questions how to balance the high ambitions of this approach with the hard realities in many schools and communities.

Join the Discussion

  • Share the videos above as a group. Then discuss the information they present and in what ways you agree or disagree with the advocates of deeper learning who produced them.
  • What similar changes, if any, are you seeing in the classrooms in your local schools and do you think they're effective?
  • Are educators or business leaders in your community talking about changing how instruction looks in the classroom? If so, what are they saying? If not, are these changes you think they should be considering?

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
gresimmo1 September 28, 2015 at 7:09 pm
My idea of deeper learning would consist of nine field trips throughout the school year, one per month. Schools would partner with various local industries and have students "work" for a day at each site. Why is real world, hands on experience not a greater part of today's classroom agenda?
user avatar
vpeterson_2001 April 28, 2015 at 7:59 pm
Be cautious of project based learning. It seems to be a hot topic now and as with every good idea, it's all in the execution. Remember BTSA? It was a good idea theoretically, I found mine to be just a trail of papers and deadlines when it could have been so helpful. Project based learning , if not done correctly and by truly invested people will fall to the wrath just like all the other good ideas.
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