Teaching Opinion

No One Has a Monopoly on Deeper Learning

By Jal Mehta — April 18, 2014 6 min read
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By Jal Mehta

When Sarah Fine and I started the research for our deeper learning book a few years ago, I think we had a picture in our head that a certain group of schools - progressive, project-based, using performance assessments - were “deeper” and that more traditional schools, especially the famed “no excuses” schools with their emphasis on behavioral control, were “shallower” in their learning.

As we’ve learned more, I’ve come to think that this is not the right way to see the landscape of deeper learning. There are two reasons for this. The first is that most schools, as currently constituted, do not have that powerful ways of creating consistency across classrooms. That means that even in schools which shouted “deeper learning” from the rooftops had classrooms which featured quite unambitious instruction. Conversely, it also meant that in schools which were not aiming to do deeper learning, there were classrooms in which teachers were structuring challenging cognitive tasks and otherwise pushing their students towards work that resides at the top of the traditional learning taxonomies. So, the bad news is that places which set out to do deeper learning are inconsistent in their abilities to realize their goals across classrooms, but the good news is that there is at least some deeper learning going on in almost every school!

The second point ties to the definition we have developed of deeper learning. In our view, deeper learning emerges when the following three elements come together--identity (it matters to me), mastery (I’ve developed significant knowledge and skill in the domain), and creativity (I’m not only receiving but creating knowledge). Identity provides the motivation which fuels the commitment to the subject, building mastery is what differentiates learning that is fun from learning that reflects real understanding, and creativity is what separates remembering others’ ideas from developing your own.

That definition has the advantage of linking together deeper learning in and out of school; in fact, with and without formal supervision. When I poll adults (question, “describe a powerful learning experience”), roughly half choose examples that happened outside of school entirely, and, many of the school examples relate to extracurricular activities (photography, model U.N, ceramics) rather than to core disciplinary classes. Thus, I think it is worth casting our eye much more widely in thinking about deeper learning - if we want to study it, we should look at dance academies, yeshivas, theaters, photography studios, athletic fields, and the many other domains of human activity in which people are actively working towards mastery.

We also should remember that, as my colleague David Cohen has said of college, “there is often a lot of learning without much teaching.” By that he means, I think, that despite the fact that most college teaching hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages, many students learn quite a bit, because they become interested in their subjects, and thus find ways to learn from people who know their subjects if not their pedagogy. Similarly, if you ask adults to reflect on things which they know deeply (ranging from academic subjects to knowledge of film to ability to cook), they frequently describe much learning that took place outside of formal settings. Here, spurred by their interest and passion for the domain, they read, wrote, played, practiced, largely on their own or with small groups of interested others to develop their knowledge and skills in the subject or domain.

So what does this mean for schools? I see at least three implications. First, if our interpretation is correct, it means that at many schools there is more deeper learning going on in the “periphery” (extracurriculars and electives) than the “core” (core disciplinary classes). This is presumably because these extracurricular and elective domains draw on a method of teaching that looks more like apprenticeship and induction. Students in those fields (take theater as an example) have models taken from adult world for what they are shooting for, adults act as facilitators in helping students to achieve the standards of the field, repeated practice and feedback allow for the building of skill in the domain, and, finally the making of the production gives students an opportunity to try their own interpretation, to create rather than simply receive knowledge. These domains also have the advantage that students are playing what Dave Perkins calls the “whole game at a junior level”--meaning that rather than doing the disconnected pieces (say, reading a scene, or painting a backdrop for a set), students get to see how a whole production is put together, which gives them a sense of both how the domain works and why it is worth participating.

Second, it means that the challenge for core disciplinary classes is to develop this kind of relationship of apprenticeship and induction into an academic discipline. We saw this kind of work sometimes - students figuring out how to weigh evidence in developing their own historical arguments; students working with or in college labs on real science experiments; students being asked to develop proofs that required them to display significant mathematical thinking. And we saw really skilled teachers who could build in more basic skills - here’s how to write an introductory paragraph; here’s how to use a vivid verb or adjective - and embed them into these more complex investigations (more on this in a later post). But while we did see examples, we also thought that on the whole, many disciplinary classes still sat more in a mode of transmission than induction--passing on the knowledge of past generations in relatively rote ways, rather than inviting students to become part of the disciplines about which they were learning.

Finally, it also implies that no set of schools has a monopoly on deeper learning. On close examination, it appears that both project-based and more “no excuses” type schools have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to deeper learning; they are just mirror images of one another. The progressive and project-based schools that we visited were strong on the first and third parts of our definition - they were places where students were invested in their learning, and where they had ample opportunity to create. But these schools only really achieved their mission when this was coupled with real opportunities to develop core knowledge and skills, which was not always a given. Conversely, the no excuses schools in our sample were relentless in building students knowledge and skills, which included fairly sophisticated analysis within the bounds of assignments set by the teachers. But there were few opportunities for students to work on things that mattered to them, or for students to create or discover beyond the bounds of what had been pre-prescribed. Part of the challenge for both sets of schools is that achieving what the other is good at would require undoing some of what has made them successful, and thus in a way, their success precludes them from achieving a richer vision of deeper learning.


This post was written by Jal Mehta, but reflects ideas developed through collaborative research and thinking with Sarah Fine.

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.