By Robert Rothman
Tom Loveless’s recent commentary on deeper learning confused me. What he described does not resemble any example of deeper learning I have seen, or the kind of learning the Alliance for Excellent Education has been advocating for all students.
Loveless asserts that deeper learning is hostile to content knowledge. He claims that it is an attempt to “dethrone the prominent role of knowledge in schools”; that it purports that “knowing about science is inferior to doing science.”
That is not my experience. Here’s the Alliance’s definition of deeper learning: “Deeper learning prepares students to:
- know and master core academic content;
- think critically and solve complex problems;
- work collaboratively;
- communicate effectively; and
- be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback.”
Notice what’s first on that list? “Know and master core academic content.”
Don’t just take our word for it. The National Research Council, in its 2012 report, Education for Life and Work, defines deeper learning as the ability to transfer knowledge to new situations. “Through deeper learning…,” the report states, “the individual develops expertise in a particular domain of knowledge and/or performance. The product of deeper learning is transferable knowledge, including content knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems” (emphasis added).
That is why the math curriculum Loveless cites emphasizes conceptual understanding—so that students will know how to apply the algorithms to new problems (the idea that using the standard algorithm would be marked wrong is surely a mistake on the teacher’s part—or a misinterpretation by the parent whom Loveless cites unquestioningly).
PISA, meanwhile, is not a test of the English (or French, or Russian) curriculum. It is an assessment of reading literacy, or the ability to draw meaning from texts. It uses a range of texts from different disciplines, just as the Common Core State Standards call for literacy in science, history, and technical subjects as well as English language arts. And the tests do include works of great literature, such as a story by Tolstoy and a play by Jean Anouilh.
Examples of deeper learning that develop deep content knowledge abound. Consider the project on energy that King Middle School students performed, as depicted in a recent piece on the PBS NewsHour. Those students learned science.
The larger question is what kind of education system the United States should strive for. The NRC report found that deeper learning is associated with positive adult outcomes in education, employment, and health. The deeper learning competencies are what business leaders say consistently the global economy demands—and what too many young people lack. One wonders what kind of education the critics of deeper learning would put in place in its stead.