What you need to know about ‘deeper learning’

By: | December 22, 2014

“Deeper learning” is an education buzzword taking hold in education circles, and could be another term for “21st century learning” and “personalized learning” in a list of trendy ideas to improve U.S. schools. But given new research claiming the method raises achievement and graduation rates, should administrators pay attention?

“Deeper learning” is an education buzzword taking hold in education circles, and could be another term for “21st century learning” and “personalized learning” in a list of trendy ideas to improve U.S. schools.

But given new research claiming the method raises achievement and graduation rates, should administrators pay attention?

Deeper learning is another name for the shift in emphasis away from teacher-led, rote learning to critical thinking, problem solving, working collaboratively in groups, and oral and written communication. Schools with a deeper learning focus are more likely than traditional schools to offer project-based learning and group work, internship opportunities, and longer-term cumulative assessments, such as portfolios.

“We think deeper learning builds on the earlier 21st century skills concept, and recognizes that students today need preparation that goes beyond memorization of content and principles,” says Lydia Dobyns, CEO and president of the nonprofit New Tech Network, which was founded in 1996 and works with districts to design deeper learning schools.

It also overlaps with Common Core goals of focusing on applying knowledge to prepare students for college and career, she adds.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funds some deeper learning networks (including the New Tech Network), which are organizations that design schools based on this approach. Ten networks exist with a total of 500 deeper learning schools nationwide, representing a mix of public and charter schools. Each network operates under its own principles, so there is no single approach to deeper learning concepts.

Research proves what?

In September, the American Institutes for Research released the study “Evidence of Deeper Learning Outcomes,” which was funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Researchers compared 20 deeper learning schools—primarily in California and New York—to 13 traditional public high schools nationwide.

It remains unclear just how the different style is impacting students. Students attending a deeper learning network school scored, on average, between the 54th and 55th percentile on the Program for International Student Assessment-Based Test for Schools (PISA). Compared to non-network students, who scored at the 50th percentile, the difference is not huge, says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.

Both groups enrolled in college at similar rates, at about 50 percent each. But the graduation rate for students in deeper learning schools was 65 percent, compared to 56 percent at traditional schools.

Deeper learning remains an emerging concept that is defined differently by different groups, Dobyns says.

“The most obvious response I hear from people is, ‘Who wouldn’t want that if the choice implies another option is shallow learning?’ ” she says. “It gives us a chance to try to name what we mean by reimagined or innovative education that is more grounded in the world students are going to face in their lifetime.”