Beyond Knowing Facts, How Do We Get to a Deeper Level of Learning? Part 1


By Katrina Schwartz

As educators across the country continue to examine the best ways of teaching and learning, a new lexicon is beginning to emerge that describes one particular approach — deeper learning.

The phrase implies a rich learning experience for students that allows them to really dig into a subject and understand it in a way that requires more than just memorizing facts.

The elements that make up this approach are not necessarily new — great teachers have been employing these tactics for years. But now there’s a movement to codify the different pieces that define the deeper learning approach, and to spread the knowledge from teacher to teacher, school to school in the form of a Deeper Learning MOOC (massive open online course), organized by a group of schools, non-profits, and sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation.

So what defines deeper learning? This group has identified six competencies: mastering content, critical thinking, effective written and oral communication, collaboration, learning how to learn, and developing academic mindsets.

To help put these concepts in perspective, consider the example of a High Tech High sophomore class in San Diego that worked together in groups on a project combining humanities and physics through the lens of the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. Students were responsible for creating a mechanism to explain their theory about why those civilizations failed, drawing on what they’d learned about gears through the course of the project.

“What you want to have is a sense of imagination, intuition and inspiration, and those don’t miss-predict based on socio-economic status, race, gender or language ability.”

“My individual mechanism didn’t work on exhibition day, when the whole school was watching,” said Maya Ervin, a sophomore at High Tech High during the first online panel of the MOOC. The malfunction didn’t affect her entire grade because her teacher had been watching her collaborate and communicate with her group on the project for weeks and had many data points to assess her understanding of the material.

“The great project for education everywhere is to reach all students and to discover that all students are capable of deeper learning,” said Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High in describing the goal of the Deeper Learning MOOC. “The question then becomes, how do we find ways to offer access to all learners and in ways that all can shine.” That means letting students get their hands on materials to build things, giving them a real question or problem that’s worth pursuing and making them feel that they are engaged in authentic, valuable work.

“What you want to have is a sense of imagination, intuition and inspiration, and those don’t miss-predict based on socio-economic status, race, gender or language ability,” said Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High’s other founder. “Those are natural elements and talents that are all within us, but they’re not drawn upon in schools.” When schools try to draw out these innate human qualities, the social differences between students no longer matter for their achievement. But to achieve that vision of equitable learning, educators must recognize the varied strengths of students, some of which might not be strictly related to academic content.


Educators often discuss the difficulty of teaching students who don’t seem to want to learn. Without internal motivation and curiosity, school can feel like a chore to many students. But there are concrete ways to help students develop motivation and other positive academic mindsets.“The key is that we can develop in students that inner drive, that motivation for them to make the most out of those learning experiences,” said Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a non-profit started by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck based on her research.

To develop a positive academic mindset, these are four key beliefs students must hold:

  • I can change my intelligence and abilities through effort
  • I can succeed
  • I belong in this learning community
  • This work has value and purpose for me

When those beliefs are present and paired with learning strategies to help with effective self-management, any student can be successful. “We have to be deliberate about creating environments that foster those beliefs and strategies in students so they take ownership of learning,” Briceno said. “There is not one way to create deeper learning, different schools can design themselves in different ways to create deeper learning experiences and outcomes for their students.” Source

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