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Volume 30, Number 4
July/August 2014

The Elusive Quest for Deeper Learning


How can schools consistently generate deeper learning for all of their students? This, we believe, is the central question that the American public education system must address if it is to thrive in the 21st century. It is also the question that we set out to investigate when we undertook the Deeper Learning project in the spring of 2010. At the time, we assumed that if we consulted the right people and looked in the right places, we could find a number of schools with clear-cut solutions.

Four years later, after spending thousands of hours in 30 high schools around the country, we have indeed emerged—but not with the answers we expected. Many of the schools we visited were struggling to realize any commitments consistently; they lacked mechanisms to counter widespread variations in the quality of instruction across classrooms. Even among the more successful schools we did not find any single nonelite, four-walled institution that consistently realized deeper learning for all of its students.

What do we mean by deeper learning? The cognitive science literature describes deeper learning as learning that enables not only retention but also transfer of knowledge. The pedagogical literature emphasizes that deeper learning involves processes that sit at the top of the traditional learning taxonomies: analysis, synthesis, and creation, as opposed to recall and application. Jerome Bruner famously suggested that deeper learning requires understanding not just the content but also the structure of how disciplines work.

Our research thickens these views in several ways. First, the “cool” cognitive dimensions described above need to be married to “warm” affective dimensions; deeper learning environments are often passionate places that tap the identities and motivations of the learners. Second, deeper learning often emerges in spaces that feature open-ended play, exploration, and experimentation. Third, deeper learning is often a product of apprentice-style relationships in which knowledgeable practitioners facilitate students’ ever-deeper participation in professional and disciplinary fields.

Here we focus on one key recurring dilemma: How can schools consistently build basic knowledge and skills (which is the beginning of any journey toward deeper learning) and foster the kind of open-ended problem solving and creative thinking that is the hallmark of powerful learning at its best? We saw schools and classrooms that had made headway toward each of these things, but rarely did we see places where they were fused together.

In particular, we saw a divide between schools that are tight in their pedagogy and consistent in the knowledge and skills that they support students in developing and schools that foster more open-ended and exploratory work but at the cost of significant variation in what their students know and can do. The former meet the equity imperative of the modern era—literally leaving no child behind with respect to basic knowledge and skills. But, at the same time, the micromanaged pedagogy that these schools employ to achieve such results illuminates a core paradox associated with recent reforms—namely, the methods used to ensure consistent baseline achievement can preclude opportunities for more powerful learning. The challenge for the next generation of reform, then, is to find a way to integrate these two impulses: to maintain the commitment to leaving no child behind with respect to basic knowledge and skills, but in a way that opens up opportunities for the messiness and uncertainty that intellectual growth requires and that modern life so often entails.

Establishing Floors

Despite decades of school reform, the problem of inequality in what students know and can do persists. Against this backdrop a number of schools have begun addressing the problem of inconsistency by becoming increasingly granular in their work. At one such school that we studied, Downtown Collegiate (names of all schools are pseudonyms), every student is formatively assessed on each set of targeted skills and then retested at short intervals to track their progress. Aided by timers, the school breaks blocks into microsegments, with each devoted to one part of a larger skein of knowledge. When students struggle with a particular task, they repeat it with gradually diminishing support until they can demonstrate proficiency. Teachers are assessed on their students’ mastery and receive feedback on each dimension of their practice.

Tasks at Downtown Collegiate tend to be analytic but tightly controlled. Students may be given a statement such as, “The period from 1790 to 1880 in the United States was one that favored the private interest and from 1880 to 1930 was one that favored the public interest: Is this true or not true?” They are then given a graphic organizer that requires them to divide the question into categories (e.g., economy, society, politics) for each period. Only then are they asked to discuss the truth of the initial premise.

The precision of this method produces real results for students who stick with it: 100 percent of Downtown Collegiate’s students—almost all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—pass state exams in reading and math, and many go on to attend four-year colleges. The school has thus created a floor—a requirement that each and every student will demonstrate proficiency with respect to each and every piece of content the school has identified as important. This floor is an important potential entry point into deeper learning; students are consistently learning the fundamentals of how to analyze texts, how to balance chemistry equations, and so forth.

However, in the absence of opportunities for students to extend what they’ve learned, there are also significant limitations to this model. After all, the world that Downtown Collegiate’s students will enter after graduation is not one in which their tasks will be carefully prespecified. In civic contexts, they will be asked to choose among competing interpretations or to produce their own. In personal contexts, they will face complicated ethical questions. In professional contexts (at least those offering a middle-class wage), they will need to identify the salient features of complex environments and to make arguments for what matters and why. In none of these domains will there be a constant gauge of mastery. And in all of them there will be false starts and missteps—an inevitable part of working under conditions of uncertainty.

Seeking Ceilings

It is these realities that inform the work of a number of other high schools that we studied, schools that are deliberately seeking to align their instructional models with the complexities of modern life. The trade-offs that inhere in such efforts are most apparent in project-based instruction, which shares an ethos with the worlds of invention and design. At schools like Technology High in California, assignments frequently mirror the world described above: tasks are lengthy rather than short and open-ended rather than closed. The socioeconomically diverse students at Technology High have developed a field guide to a local watershed, an illustrated economics textbook (said to have been praised by President Clinton), and “paranoid-style documentaries” that link the study of McCarthyism to contemporary social issues. In the course of completing such projects, students learn not only the particular content but also the process of engaging in open-ended work. Taking a cue from Silicon Valley, the school intentionally normalizes failure. Much as industrial designers talk about “failing faster” in order to learn what works, the school expects that over the course of many projects students will sometimes fall short, learning meaningful lessons about the difficulty of producing artifacts of real value.

The strengths and drawbacks of this paradigm are in many ways the inverse of those at schools like Downtown Collegiate. Technology High’s students possess a joyfulness about their learning that is not present in most American high schools. At the same time, while the sky is the limit when it comes to excellent work, there is no consistent floor; there is no assurance that all students meet a minimum standard. While the school has pockets of more traditional instruction, much of the learning is “part to whole”; students learn what they need in order to complete specific projects, as opposed to learning a corpus of disciplinary knowledge. This choice is deliberate: In the work world, many things are problem-centered, cutting across fields, and Technology High is similarly oriented. Technology High’s leaders also believe that students at most schools quickly forget much of what they ostensibly “learn” and that a better strategy is to prioritize learning fewer things and develop the right dispositions toward learning. But there is also not the same kind of intensity as at Downtown Collegiate about ensuring that each student learns to a standard, which means that the levels of knowledge and skill of graduating seniors at Technology High are more variable than those of seniors at Downtown Collegiate.

“Playing the Whole Game”

A second challenge to the micropedagogy approach comes from schools that have a deeper vision of what it means to learn traditional disciplinary content. In most high schools, students are presented with knowledge in the disciplines as if it dropped like manna from heaven—this is Newton’s third law; this is how to solve that type of equation; these are the causes of the Civil War. But to know such things without experiencing firsthand the process that goes into their making is to construe the academic subjects as more certain than they actually are.

This contrast is nicely captured in a study by Sara Delamont and Paul Atkinson on students in the natural sciences transitioning from college to graduate school. The authors find that undergraduate science majors view scientific knowledge as objective and fixed, emerging cleanly out of the five-step method laid out in their textbooks. When these students undertake significant lab work in graduate school, however, they realize that making science is in fact a messy and highly provisional process. This transition is initially disheartening for students but ultimately helps them to develop a more mature and realistic vision of the scientific method and, over time, to contribute new knowledge to the field.

A number of schools and classrooms we have seen suggest that teachers need not wait until graduate school to expose students to the messiness of deep learning. At Magnet Science and Math Academy (MSMA), a statewide magnet school for students interested in STEM fields, each 10th-grade student learns the scientific process by spending a whole semester designing, carrying out, revising, writing up, and presenting an original experiment. In a regular-level chemistry class at a high-poverty urban high school, students participate in a similar process, learning the fundamentals of the discipline while they simultaneously undertake a yearlong research inquiry that they present at the school’s much-acclaimed science fair. In both contexts, students are doing what researcher David Perkins calls “playing the whole game at the junior level”—making science in a situation of reduced complexity. Students report that these experiences, which inevitably include dead ends and disappointments alongside triumphs, help them to understand what real work in the sciences entails.

The Next Level of Work

When we discussed these models with teachers and staff at Downtown Collegiate, they were deeply ambivalent. While many of their own powerful educational experiences mirrored the kind of open-ended learning described above, they reported concern about the impact of uncertainty on students who didn’t have a safety net. “These students need to learn these skills if they are going to be able to compete,” one teacher told us. “We don’t have time for them to fail,” said another. It became clear that teachers worried that more open-ended assignments would create the possibility of wasted time and false starts—experiences their students could not afford.

While this is an understandable impulse, the way it is enacted in the classroom can shortchange students when it comes to deeper learning. If we think less about what students are learning and more about what they are being taught about learning, then the equation looks different: Downtown Collegiate’s students are being taught to appreciate knowledge that others have derived, while Technology High’s and MSMA’s students are being invited into the process of knowledge production. This perspective draws on what author Lisa Delpit calls the “culture of power”: If we truly want to empower disadvantaged students, we need to bring them into this process.

The critical task for the next round of reformers is to bring together the consistency that is the hallmark of Downtown Collegiate with the kind of open-ended intellectual exploration we saw at Technology High and MSMA. Achieving this fusion will not be easy because it will require unlearning as well as learning for everyone involved; structures that have worked may need to be revised or scrapped in order to create new structures that will more consistently support ambitious instruction. Designing such schools will require the same kind of deeper learning that we want to create for our students. We hope that we are collectively up to the task.

Jal Mehta is an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sarah Fine is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    S. Delamont and P. Atkinson. “Doctoring Uncertainty: Mastering Craft Knowledge.” Social Studies of Science 31, no. 1 (2001): 87–107.

    S. M. Fine. “‘A Slow Revolution’: Toward a Theory of Intellectual Playfulness in High School Classrooms.” Harvard Educational Review 84, no. 1 (2014): 1–23.

    T. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

    J. Mehta and S. Fine. “Teaching Differently . . . Learning Deeply.” Phi Delta Kappan 94, no. 2 (2012): 31–35.

    D. Perkins. Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.