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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.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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.