The one thing deeper learning demands

What’s critical to ensuring that students have deeper learning opportunities? 

Deeper learning isn’t a 21st-century invention.

More than 100 years ago, American educator and philosopher John Dewey called for students to be taught in ways that helped them take charge of their own learning. But the idea of learning by doing has never really “stuck” in the United States.

Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine explain why not: “The qualities associated with deep learning— critical thinking, grappling with nuance and complexity, questioning authority, and embracing intellectual questions— are not ones that (have been) widely embraced by the American people.”

Yes, that is right. Anti-intellectualism in the United States has been well documented. (Remember Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book?)

But deeper learning has taken on a new urgency, Mehta and Fine point out. At the end of World War II, knowledge was doubling every 25 years—now it is doing so every 12 months. Meanwhile, today’s students are likely to hold a dozen or more jobs over their careers. And more and more of these opportunities will require them to work through complex problems rather than applying simple formulas to routine tasks.

In response, many venture capital and philanthropic investors are placing big bets on blended learning in which digital tools help students get the customized support necessary to engage them.

New media platforms, including multi-player games and virtual worlds, create opportunities for students to drive their own learning and participatory pedagogy. There is no shortage of best apps for teaching and learning—like Vroom, designed for parents and educators to receive just-in-time information on how to best support “brain building moments” for their young children. And new organizations like Getting Smart and The Learning Accelerator are promoting scalable technological solutions to the barriers of blended learning and are supporting charters and school districts to transform how and when students learn.

That said, deeper learning is not “about” technology—although digital tools can provide teachers and students with powerful assists.

After all, as education historian Larry Cuban has noted, student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction envisioned by education technology advocates remains the exception to the rule—in large measure because of the lack of time teachers have to learn from each other. A 2015 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, examining use of technology and student learning across the world, reached the same conclusion.

If any single factor is central to deeper learning, it is not the integration of technology but the involvement of teachers who have both pedagogical expertise and a thorough understanding of students, families, and communities.

Even in the most technologically rich environments, deeper learning can only achieve its aims—and do so for all students—when it is grounded in relationships. Parents will continue to seek schools as safe and moral places for their children to learn, and where teachers know them well.

We can point to many schools—including many enriched with technology—where students are experiencing deeper learning today, where leaders are prioritizing teaching quality and getting it right.

But here’s the kicker: deeper learning will do precious little for our economy and democracy unless it is accessible to every student. We cannot continue to cultivate the curiosity and competency of the elite while leaving low-income students to make do on pedagogical scraps. This commitment requires our schools and school systems to look very different, bringing about significant changes in the roles of those who teach.

In my next post, I’ll take you to a school where this shift has already begun.

  • Ron Abate

    Educational Technology

    The advent of cloud computing has resulted in a substantial decrease in the cost of computers. Laptops running on Google's Chrome OS cost about $150 to $300. Districts can now afford one computer per student. This should be an incentive for the propagation of blended learning.

  • rmpurington


    Their comment is dead on:

    Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine explain why not: "The qualities associated with deep learning— critical thinking, grappling with nuance and complexity, questioning authority, and embracing intellectual questions— are not ones that (have been) widely embraced by the American people."

    And, if anything, it has gotten worse, or certainly is not getting better.  Our social diversity acceptance has NOT engendered a more contemplative society, rather, more polarization.  Our "macho" culture of sports, glamour and guns does not promote deep or even clear thinking.  I disagree with some of the political statements.  It would be desirable to promote deep thinking for all, but not all people WANT to think deeply.  It creates an intellectual insecurity, and emotional jar or vertigo, which most people avoid.  I don't see how to change it.

    • WendiPillars

      Just wondering…

      It’s obvious that you have passion and disagree with some of the political statements. What I’m wondering is what you do find solid enough to agree with (there must be something!), and how you can craft those disparate pieces into a more workable “whole”? Your last sentence really threw me for a disappointing loop, with such a definitive polarizing stance that demonstrates what Mehta and Fine explain is missing: 

      critical thinking, grappling with nuance and complexity, questioning authority, and embracing intellectual questions

      I wonder how you grapple with nuances, the non-examples of social dysfunction, or those who may be uninformed to make solid or creative decisions…what are some ways you could reframe your position(s) –as a purely mental exercise? For example, which aspects of “macho” culture can be considered positive, even in some small way? Doing this type of thinking requires empathy and seeking information through multiple lenses, which is a demanding critical thinking process. Of course not all people want to think deeply, because it requires intentional effort, a desire to be open-minded, and courage to be vulnerable when your ideas might come under attack–that emotional jolt or jar that you refer to. Which then necessitates understanding reaction, effects, and how to embrace those resultant changes within ourselves and the way in which we view the world. 

      I want to push back because I believe deeply that we, even as individuals, can effect change, in small ways, if we show up daily and do the work needed. We, too, need to question more, question more deeply, and sometimes question outrageously just to get out of a thought rut. Questioning and observing are key, things every one of us can do, even if –especially if — we are not the supposed expert.

      Deep learning is critical, and yes, it’s hard, but it’s something we do on a daily basis if we are observing and questioning in our lives. Many of us, myself included, need to be much more aware of how to reframe the many amazing things that are happening in our increasingly diverse world. That starts with us. 

  • Joe Nathan

    Unwise to blame parents and the broader public

    Are you quite sure that the single reason "learning by doing" hasn't "stuck is because of American's anti-intellectualism? I agree that some Americans are not eager to have schools teach students to question or challenge.  However, aren't there other contributing factors – such as, for example

    * some teacher education professors who have not embraced progressive options.  An example – when the k-12 ST. Paul Open School was created, the University of Minnesota refused to allow prospective student teacher to teach at the school.  Alternative school educators met for decades – but rarely were able to convince teacher educators to join them and learn from them.

    * Some educators want to keep things much the way they are

    * Some educators resist and resent educators who try to make changes (Al Shanker once wrote that educators who try to make changes such as schools within schools are treated "like traitors or outlaws for daring to move outside the lock step."

    * Lack of assessment tools that are widely accepted which can measure the impact of project based learning.

    Here's a link to an essay  from a North Carolina Teacher of the Year who encourages us not to "Blame Parents." 


    • BarnettBerry



      I do not blame anyone, especially parents, for the lack of focus on deeper learning for all students here in America. Yes, anti-intellectualism in America, as noted by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, may very well be part of the problem. BUT, this essay is a reminder that technology can create opportunities to personalize learning for students and the teachers who teach them—but it is no silver bullet. We need to invest in teachers as leaders who lead their own learning if we are to ensure all students are empowered to do the same. Watch for my report on the future of teacher leadership, commissioned by the Ford Foundation, to be released in early in March, where I dig more into the evidentiary base of how teachers learn to lead to advance an excellent and equitable public education system.