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.