What is Deeper Learning?

What is deeper learning, a look at its brief history and how it works…

In this blog, we take a look at deeper learning, what it stands for and how it is beneficial for students

Five sections that explain the benefits of deeper learning

Dec 09, 2021    By Team YoungWonks *

What is deeper learning? The term may be used mainly in the pedagogical context (especially in the US), but its application is very much prevalent today. If anything, recent years have seen it become more popular than earlier. In this blog, we shall look at the reasons behind this even as we get an understanding of what deeper learning is.



What is Deeper Learning?

In the context of US education, deeper learning refers to a set of student educational outcomes that are not limited to mere academic achievement; they vary from grasping a good understanding of core academic content to developing higher-order thinking skills and healthier learning dispositions. Deeper learning derives from the argument that the nature of work, civic, and everyday life is fluid and thus mandates our kids to be equipped with an education that covers mastering skills such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, complex problem solving and teamwork. Moreover, deeper learning is associated with a growing movement in US education that focuses on applying knowledge to real-world situations and thus solving problems. Today, several schools in the US schools swear by incorporating deeper learning into their instructional approach as they truly believe in its power to aid the student's professional development in the future.


Brief History of Deeper Learning 

As a practice, deeper learning has been around for a long time and has won support from many quarters. One of the earliest advocates is American philosopher, psychologist and 19th century educational reformer John Dewey who stressed on the role of education as not just one of offering students a way to gain knowledge, but also teaching them practical know-how about real life. A proponent of adaptive learning, he wanted student outcomes where they learnt by actually experiencing and interacting with their curriculum, and also encouraged individual learning, even as he wanted to see students go beyond rote learning. 

In the 1990s, skills-based education - which forms the foundation of deep learning - gained momentum even as the 21st Century Skills movement won more followers.  In 2012, the National Research Council of the United States published a report called Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skill in the 21st Century, which revisited their importance and backed it with research outcomes.


How Deeper Learning Works 

Deeper Learning works when the following learning strategies are implemented:


1. Building a community of learners

Creating strong school communities is key to seeing students move on from playing passive roles in their education to actively taking part in real-life learning experiences. What is needed is a well-bound, collaborative school environment where there is genuine support and trust along with a collective learning responsibility and strong communication skills. This can be achieved by inspiring students to be invested in each other’s success; letting students know the value of self-directed learning through several school activities, communication channels and traditions. Roping in older students as mentors and guides, setting up channels for constructive learning feedback and reflection, and designing an environment promoting openness and collaboration are also quite useful in achieving the above.


2. Getting students to steer their own learning experiences

Active and meaningful learning experiences are imperative when it comes to helping students achieve their deeper learning goals. Enquiry-based learning and proactive participation from students and that too in groups is absolutely needed to work on projects including those involving building of products or solving problems together. This project could be anything from designing an app or even producing electricity by building wind turbines. Such project-based learning means that instructors will be not just teaching the set curriculum but actually customizing it for students. You can read more about project-based learning here: https://www.youngwonks.com/blog/What-is-Project-based-Learning-and-how-does-it-help-students. 


3. Contextualizing to enable students to relate to situations better

There is enough evidence indicating that student learning is more meaningful when the curriculum resonates with them; this happens only when the study material is actually relevant to them on a personal level. Thus, take should be taken to ensure that subjects are not taught in isolation and the material is linked to larger concepts transcending several subjects just like in the real-world. For instance, subjects like psychology and AI can be clubbed together as they go hand in hand in real life.


4. Building a network beyond the school

The learning experience should not be limited to the four walls of their classroom. Real learning goes far beyond in order to prepare students with a more holistic experience. In deeper learning, teachers need to be on the lookout for interesting learning opportunities for their students even as they tap local resources such as art galleries, museums, parks and even public offices. The idea is to expose students to these experiences and help them find/ enhance their interests and help them pick their own projects that they can work on in collaboration with those outside the classroom environment. This in turn will prepare them to explore potential career paths through internships or mentorships.


5. Personalized learning experiences

Forcing students to just learn what forms their curriculum may work in the short term, but it can backfire in the long term. Thus it is crucial for teachers to help students find that spark that will keep them going; that subject, idea, or project that a student is actually looking forward to working on. And customizing learning to meet each students’ educational needs and aspirations will help hone their unique tendencies making them full-rounded individuals.


6. Making technology the tool

Technology can be used as an effective tool for learning skills and it should be used so. Teachers can use programs and applications that build students’ research and critical thinking skills and equip them with digital ways to communicate with each other and work on projects, both within and outside even as they connect with several experts.


Harvard education scholars Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine state that as part of deeper learning, teachers get students to go beyond basic comprehension and algorithmic procedures and engage in skills such as analysis, synthesis, and creation. Indeed, it entails practitioners coming up with instructional reform methods that cover more than just mastering the content knowledge.


To sum up, deeper learning is characterized by teachers using various representations of concepts and tasks; using formative assessment; encouraging curiosity through questioning; self-explanation and engaging students in challenging tasks, even as they are provided with guidance and feedback that includes actual use cases.


Deeper Learning Networks in US schools 

Today, there are many educational reform school networks across the US. And while their focus lies in developing deeper learning competencies, their instructional models and approaches to school design do differ considerably. Asia Society International Studies Schools Network, EdVisions Schools and Envision Education are some of the notable networks. And without a doubt, it’s the public school districts that find it the toughest to incorporate the deeper learning process into their schools, mainly thanks to limits imposed by state and federal laws.


It is important to note here the role of Partnership for 21st Century Learning or P21. This Washington DC-based national organization was founded in 2001 and since then it has acted as a catalyst in the 21st Century Education movement. In fact, it works with different stakeholders - be it businesspeople, educators, parents or government officials to help school students be better prepared for the rigorous demands of college education.


*Contributors: Written by Vidya Prabhu; Lead image by: Abhishek Aggarwal

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