Deeper Learning 101 with Robert Rothman

This post originally appeared at the Alliance for Excellent Education’s blog, High School Soup.

The following is a Q&A on deeper learning with Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Rothman is nationally known education writer, editor, and expert on the Common Core State Standards and deeper learning. Read more of his work on these topics on the blog for Harvard Education Publishing.

What is deeper learning?
Deeper learning is the set of competencies all students need to succeed in an increasingly complex world. These include a deep understanding of content, the ability to use that knowledge to think critically and solve problems, the ability to communicate effectively in a variety of media, the ability to collaborate with peers, the capacity to reflect on one’s learning, and appropriate mindsets that foster learning.

Schools have been teaching these abilities for centuries, and students have developed them—at least a handful of students, usually the elite. Now, all students need to develop these competencies, both for moral reasons—all students deserve a high-quality education—and economic reasons—jobs that require only basic skills are declining, while those requiring more complex skills are growing.

How can technology help students gain deeper learning skills?
Technology in classrooms can foster deeper learning in a number of ways. For example, the Internet vastly expands students’ capacity to conduct research, which can deepen their background knowledge and enable them to think critically about the sources they investigate. Technology can also enable students to collaborate with peers across the globe, as well as provide a wide range of communications tools.

What are the policy implications for deeper learning at the district, state, and federal levels?
Many schools hare already organized to enable students to develop deeper learning competencies, but policy changes are needed to bring about change on a larger scale. Districts, states, and the federal government need to eliminate or change policies that inhibit deeper learning, and create policies that can enable deeper learning approaches to proliferate.

Assessments are a key policy lever. Assessments that measure a broad range of knowledge and skills, rather than the narrow range measured by most current tests, are vital to determine whether students are attaining deeper learning competencies, as well as to create incentives for schools to address them. At the same time, policies to expand the availability of technology and broadband access are critical, as are policies that make the use of time for learning more flexible.

How does deeper learning relate to the Common Core State Standards?
The Common Core State Standards call for students to demonstrate deeper learning. For example, the English language arts standards place a strong emphasis on students’ ability to use evidence to support conclusions in writing. This is a clear call for critical thinking. Similarly, the mathematics standards ask students to justify their answers, and to communicate mathematically. By implementing the Common Core State Standards, schools, districts, and states will be helping develop deeper learning.

What should parents know about deeper learning?
The world is changing, and the expectations for students are higher than ever before. All students need to develop the abilities once reserved for a few.

Parents of students in classrooms that foster deeper learning should expect to see their children at work on a variety of projects that result in substantial products—anything from a book to a video game to a proposal for the city council. Classrooms might seem messy—teachers won’t always be in the front of the room lecturing to students or watching them as they fill out worksheets silently. There should be a lot of group work, with students exploring their understanding with their classmates and with the teacher.

What about educators?
Developing deeper learning requires students to take ownership of their own learning. That means teachers need to cede some control over classrooms to students, which can be a challenge. Planning a year’s work can also be challenging; teachers need to design a curriculum that results in students’ demonstrating deeper learning. But teachers in schools that do so are enthusiastic. They say this type of learning is why they got into teaching in the first place.

And policymakers?
Like parents, policymakers also need to understand that the world is changing and that the expectations are higher for all young people. They should recognize that tests should measure a broad range of knowledge and skills, even if those tests are more expensive than the exclusively multiple-choice tests currently in use. They need to provide opportunities for schools to innovate, to support them in those efforts, and to broaden accountability measures to include measures of what really counts—deeper learning. In the end, their communities will benefit.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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