Education Opinion

Welcome to Learning Deeply

By Robert Rothman — February 26, 2014 4 min read
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This post is by Robert Rothman and Jal Mehta

Welcome! This blog will begin a conversation about “deeper learning.” We want to conduct a broad-ranging discussion on what knowledge and skills all students should develop, what developing these abilities looks like in classrooms, what policies enable or inhibit the development of those abilities, and what challenges educators and policy makers face in changing schools to reflect these abilities.

What is deeper learning? For one of us (Rothman), deeper learning means that students are able to use the knowledge and skills they gain in each academic subject in order to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct one’s own learning, and have an academic mindset that allows one to explore and learn on their own.

For the other of us (Mehta), defining deeper learning is something that will emerge in the weeks and months to come. It’s clear what’s not deeper learning - lessons that only ask students to remember and minimally apply what they’ve learned. But exactly what deeper learning is, whether it simply means classroom tasks that are at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy or implies more, whether it is one thing or whether it varies by subject, whether it is more likely to emerge in groups or by working alone, whether it is more likely to occur within disciplines or across them, whether it is more related to how one thinks or who one is, or whether it entails reinventing schooling or embracing the best of traditional schooling, are all open questions. I am probably most comfortable with the common sense read of the words themselves - deep learning is learning which moves beyond the superficial and seeks an ever “deeper” exploration of the underlying layers of a topic, a definition which would connect the goals of an English seminar to the aspirations of a classical painter, notions of mathematical understanding to the aims of a sophisticated cabinetmaker.

While “shallow” learning remains the norm, there are many schools and classroom across the country that are already engaged in developing deeper learning among their students, and federal and state policymakers are considering policies, such as better assessments and stronger teacher preparation, which could spread these learning outcomes to more schools. The Common Core State Standards, now being implemented in forty-five states and the District of Columbia, are viewed by their proponents as calling for the development of deeper learning competencies--a claim which a number of our participants will debate in the time to come.

While deeper learning is not new -- the University of Chicago lab school was once described as “21st century skills since the 19th century” - there is no doubt that the growing interest in, and popularity of, the idea stems from changes in the economy. In the same way strong backs and sturdy legs built the economy in the past, today’s employers increasingly demand their workforce to have the kind of deeper learning skills that crack the code to prosperity in a twenty-first-century world economy. A 2012 study by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce finds that two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require at least some postsecondary education by 2018, compared to only half in 1992 and one-third in 1973. This is one of the most profound times of transformation in employment in history. And, in the longer run, schools build the foundation not only for our economy but also for our civic and intellectual life, and thus the potential impact of expanded deeper learning is critical for helping us to become the kind of nation we aspire to be.

But the goal of this blog is not to argue the case for deeper learning. Rather, it is to discuss what it looks like at the practice and policy levels and to challenge one another’s thinking about instructional change. We fully expect the participants in the blog--who will include students (yes, students!), teachers, leaders of school networks, researchers, district and state officials, and representatives of policy organizations--to disagree from time to time, both by virtue of where they sit and because of their experience and understanding of research on student learning and school organization. We hope that bringing together these voices from varied perspectives will enable the kind of discussion across levels and roles that is missing from many discussions in education today. And we sincerely hope that readers will add their voices and perspectives as well.

Who are we? Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and a longtime education writer (and a former reporter and editor for Education Week). I have been looking closely at the policy environment at the federal, national, and state levels, and will explore in these pixels how policies can foster or inhibit deeper learning on a large scale. Jal Mehta is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. With my doctoral student colleague Sarah Fine, I have visited 30 American high schools over the past three years in our search for deeper learning. You will hear some of my and Sarah’s thoughts from those visits in this blog, and, even better, you will also hear directly from some of the teachers, administrators, and students that we have met along our journey.

We plan to post two to three entries a week. We look forward to your suggestions about topics to address and perspectives to consider. Let’s get the conversation started!

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.