Building a District Culture of Deeper Learning

Cultivating higher order thinking at a district level
By: | Issue: October, 2017 | Web Seminar Digest
August 31, 2017

Indicative of a rich curriculum, deeper learning occurs when a district successfully empowers students to synthesize and creatively apply knowledge through critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. While essential to preparing today’s students for colleges and careers, building a culture of deeper learning can be challenging to accomplish at a district level.

This web seminar explored the importance of deeper learning and how to cultivate higher order thinking across subjects and grade levels. Two administrators from Delaware’s Colonial School District discussed how they are building a culture of deeper learning through innovative curriculum strategies and digital resources, and outlined some best practices for doing the same in any district.


Pete Leida

Director of Schools

Colonial School District (Del.)

Sherrie Clark

Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Colonial School District

Jason Bedford

Chief Customer Officer

eSpark Learning

Jason Bedford: I’d like to start with a definition of deeper learning as provided by the Alliance for Excellent Education: “Deeper learning is simply what highly effective educators have always provided—the delivery of rich core content to students in innovative ways that allow them to learn and then apply what they have learned.”

Researchers agree that there are six key components of deeper learning: mastering content, critical thinking, effective written and oral communication, collaboration, learning how to learn, and developing academic mindsets.

Numerous studies have shown that students exposed to deeper learning are more likely to graduate from high school on time, attend college, achieve higher levels of academic engagement and motivation, and overcome the achievement gap.

Deeper learning prepares students to thrive after graduation, giving them the ability to apply what they learn in school to solve real-world problems. If students have the opportunity take part in a learning community and realize that their academic growth matters, they’re more likely to go on to be lifelong learners.

Deeper learning is the answer to building the next generation of creators. We live in a world where you can Google an answer to anything and information is instantaneous. If they’re to solve the problems of tomorrow, students must be empowered to come up with their own unique ideas and creatively share their thinking with others.

Sherrie Clark: Deeper learning engages students of all skill levels. Authentic activities and real-world applications of academic skills allow students, regardless of their math or reading levels, to take part in authentic problem-solving.

Deeper learning also strengthens the classroom community. When students are given the opportunity to collaborate and discuss, they discover new ways of thinking and different points of view.

Pete Leida: Deeper learning helps educators narrow the achievement gap. It allows students, regardless of their socioeconomic or racial status to contextualize academic standards in topics that are meaningful to their experience. When given agency over their learning journey, students see higher rates of engagement and motivation.

Sherrie Clark: The world has changed, and it continues to change at a rapid pace. We need a system that prepares our students with skills that will allow them to flourish in an unknown world 10, 15 or 20 years from now. Deeper learning is a part of that vision. Our district’s mission puts an emphasis on personalizing learning and preparing students to flourish in a global society. These are important components of deeper learning.

Pete Leida: The primary challenge all districts face is planning and time. The second challenge we’ve had in our district is building a classroom and school culture that prioritizes the six components of deeper learning. We need to support our teachers in understanding that all students can achieve at a high level—especially students who come from poverty. The last challenge we face on a pretty regular basis is accessing high-quality academic resources.

Sherrie Clark: As we work to build a district culture of deeper learning, we frequently engage in classroom walk-throughs and observation. A few years ago we made the shift from looking at what the teacher is doing to what the students are doing. Now we look for things like persistence and what kind of discourse students are having. When students start working with their peers and engaging in metacognition, they’re on the path to deeper learning.

Pete Leida: Having partnerships with a number of different tech companies has been essential to our district goals. You need to have those partnerships where you’re working together to develop a curriculum and tools that truly meet the needs of all of your students.

We often think about how we can use technology in a way that differentiates and personalizes learning while freeing up teachers to engage students in deeper conversations, both in small groups and in individual coaching sessions. Technology has allowed us to achieve these goals at scale. Investing in tools that support deeper learning has increased our graduation rates and advanced placement scores. Students are more engaged, and teachers are empowered to do their best work.

Jason Bedford: While it’s great for streamlining differentiation and targeted intervention, instructional tech has historically failed to support higher-order thinking and the application of knowledge. At eSpark Learning, we set out to rectify this gap. Frontier, our inquiry-based solution, supports districts in empowering effective teachers, incorporating deeper learning opportunities into core instruction, and building stronger writers and readers.

We have found that providing teachers with the framework and multimedia content they need to lead engaging, effective lessons goes a long way toward achieving deeper learning at a district level.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to