What is "Deeper Learning"?

Okay, so what is deeper learning? And are we not helping our students learn deeply in our schools already? 

As more and more of my educational conversations involve the discussion of deeper learning for students, I must admit these questions were at the forefront of my thinking. So as a lifelong learner, I decided to conduct some of my own research to learn about this concept and try to find common ground for school leaders, educators, and community members. What I found were connections to critically important personal attributes and skills that many educational systems embed as part of their Mission, Vision, and Goals, as well as their Graduate Profiles.

Our world is rapidly changing and our students will need to navigate this world through 21st century workplaces, ever evolving communities and societal shifts nationally and globally. Our students need to be continual problem solvers utilizing critical thinking skills in every aspect of their lives. As educators, this becomes an academic confluence of standards-based content and practices, college and career readiness skills, 21st century skills and social and emotional competencies. Seriously!?!? We are responsible for all that…..and the list goes on and on...

As I continued my learning journey, I found more and more connections to student behaviors, learning opportunities, and instructional strategies that I was already familiar with and had used in my work for some time. This made me feel better, but I wanted to go deeper, just as the title suggests. My research led me to the American Institute for Research (AIR) and a study on Does Deeper Learning Improve Student Outcomes. (Based on this study the answer was yes, but I was not ready to read more into it at that time). This study shared with me that this idea was developed by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. 

This initiative promotes six dimensions of deeper learning including:

  • Mastery of Core Academic Content;
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving;
  • Effective Communication;
  • Ability to Work Collaboratively;
  • Learning How to Learn; and
  • Academic Mindsets.

Okay, so on the surface I am feeling pretty comfortable with the first four dimensions. But the last two dimensions, I am feeling as though I need to dig a little deeper. The AIR study shared a definition from the National Research Council that stated, “the process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations.”  This definition aligns well with the vision of transfer goals brought forth by Jay McTighe. He states that “transfer goals highlight the effective uses of understanding, knowledge, and skill that we seek in the long run; i.e., what we want students to be able to do when they confront new challenges – both in and outside of school”. 

Working with Steve Barkley on an instructional coaching initiative, he focused all of our conversations on student learning behaviors and the importance of observing these behaviors to drive instruction, and most importantly, student learning. This collaborative work with my colleagues reinforced the value of supporting students and helping them identify their own conscious learning behaviors. These behaviors are closely connected with social and emotional competencies helping students practice these behaviors through their learning in school. When students encounter difficulty, they must create a plan of action and select appropriate strategies to continue toward their learning goal. 

This idea is important for students and their behaviors when working alone, but can be just as, if not more important, when working as part of a group or a team. In 2015, OECD and PISA defined collaborative problem solving as “the capacity of an individual to effectively engage in a process whereby two or more agents attempt to solve a problem by sharing the understanding and effort required to come to a solution and pooling their knowledge, skills, and efforts to reach that solution”. I have previously written a blog related to this idea as it is an important global attribute for students around the world. 

So now that I have been able to connect my experiences and learning to this important initiative, I want to consider the instructional strategies that can help to successfully implement these ideas, both in the classroom and in the school system. As academic standards drive curriculum development through the scope and sequence of academic content, the Mission, Vision, and Graduate Profile should drive the instructional strategies used to help achieve these student attributes, behaviors and competencies across the school system. 

This is for another day and another post.

About the Author:

Dr. David L. Reese serves as Chief Academic Officer for Defined Learning. During the past twenty years, Dr. Reese has served K-12 students as a science teacher, Curriculum Specialist, and Central Office Administrator. He has taught Masters and Doctoral courses in all areas of curriculum and professional development leadership. His work focuses on providing students with engaging, relevant learning opportunities designed to encourage students to apply content from a local, national and international perspective.


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